Let the Jury Decide

Fri Oct 20 2017

This is part 2 in my series on show, don't tell (SDT). Last week was all about converting scenes into summaries. This week's explanation is based in one observation:

Readers are skeptical.

As well they should be. After all, you're a writer, which--if you're lucky enough to make a living at it--is basically a lovely euphemism for "professional liar". Everything in your novel is made up, and so on some deep level, is untrustworthy.

And yet, at the same time, readers implicitly trust you not to lie within the suspended-disbelief of the story itself. It's an odd conjunction of belief states, yet makes perfect sense if you understand exactly which of your made-up facts readers are inclined to believe, and which they are not.

Fortunately, those two categories break on a very clean line: evidence vs. conclusions.

You are the prosecutor, readers are the jury

A courtroom is the perfect metaphor.

Imagine that you are the prosecutor, attempting to convince the jury that John Smith is guilty of murder, and your argument proceeds as follows:

"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, Mr. Smith is guilty of murder. Trust me, he's totally guilty. that's the guy. He did it, I swear. The prosecution rests."

Is the jury going to believe you? Are they going to convict poor Mr. Smith on that basis?

No way.

Nor should they, for you have given them no evidence to back up your claim. You gave them the conclusion you wish them to have, but haven't given them any reason to think you're not, well, acting in your capacity as a professional liar.

To get your conviction, you must supply sufficient and compelling evidence--observable facts--which support the desired conclusion. You have to show them the credit card trail putting Mr. Smith at the Ocean Bank motel on the night in question. You have to show them the security cam footage in which Mr. Smith walks into the room where the murder took place, at the victim's estimated time of death. You have to show them Mr. Smith's fingerprints in blood on the handle of the knife embedded in the victim's spleen and on the doorknob inside the room.

Mr. Smith, in this blog post, is apparently a very sloppy murderer.

Readers believe evidence, not conclusions.

A jury won't convict merely on the prosecutor's say-so, and readers are exactly the same way. They'll believe anything you want, and willingly so, if only you give them the evidence on which to do it.

Your job as writer is thus not to tell readers what you want them to believe. Your job is to know what you want them to believe, and figure out what evidence you need to give to make them believe it.

At which point, you no longer have to tell them what to believe at all.

The rules of evidence

It's worth asking what counts as evidence, since the rules in novels are not quite what they are in court.

Evidence is anything that the reader would be able to observe directly, through their five senses, if they were present to watch the scene.

Imagine your reader as the proverbial fly on the wall, able to observe what's going on, but not interact. They can hear what they characters say, see what they do, smell the bacon frying, and so forth.

If your point of view choice and/or narrative style includes inner monologue (direct presentation of the viewpoint character's thoughts), then your fly on the wall is also telepathic, so those thoughts count as evidence too.

And that's all.

The world of the observable, that's your evidence. "Just the facts, Ma'am," as the TV detective Joe Friday was purported to say.

Everything else--mental states, feelings, relationships, motives, debts, backstories, and so much more--cannot be directly observed. All that stuff counts as conclusions that must be inferred from the observable evidence.

The great irony of evidence and conclusions

Because they are not directly observable, all those conclusions are inherently un-trustworthy if you tell them to the reader.

That's just you saying "trust me, he totally did it."

And yet, all those conclusions constitute the most important elements of your story.

You want readers to believe--and believe deeply--in the feelings and relationships between your characters. You want them to believe that your characters have certain motivations for their actions, and all the rest.

But they won't believe you if you just tell them about those things flat-out. You can't tell readers the most important things about your story, because if you do they won't believe you. I find that highly ironic.

You must, as the courtroom saying goes, let the jury decide.

Convincing readers to convince themselves

Earlier, I said your job was to know what you want readers to believe, and figure out good evidence for it. Then put that in your story.

Let's take an example. Suppose we're writing a break-up-and-make-up romance. Charles and Lisa are on the outs after Charles--well, let's not even describe what he did on a family blog. A couple of months have passed. She has returned none of his texts or calls. Charles would like to apologize properly, but doesn't want to even try if she's still super-mad. Unfortunately for him, she is, though of course he can't know this since they haven't spoken in so long.

With that in mind, let's put Charles and Lisa at the same party some mutual friend is holding. Charles' goal, of course, is to figure out whether to attempt an apology. As the writer, we know it's too early because she's still really pissed at him.

If we were telling, we might write this:

Charles looked at Lisa from across the room. He could tell she was still furious with him. It was obvious.

But we're not going to write that because it won't resonate with readers. It's pure conclusion, supported by no evidence. As writers, we've done only half the job: to know what we want readers to believe. We want readers (and Charles) to believe that Lisa's still furious.

Now we have to do the other half and figure out what evidence would suppport that belief. Fortunately, all the important stuff that can't be observed directly always manifests itself in ways that are directly observable.

If Lisa's still pissed, how is she going to act? Her anger will reveal itself through her behavior. Show the behavior--which counts as directly observable evidence since the fly on the wall could see it just fine--and leave it to readers to decide what that means.

Charles looked at Lisa from across the room. She was chatting with some tall woman Charles didn't recognize. She laughed, though he could not hear her over the din of music and party chatter, her smile breaking wide and bright. A half-full glass of red dangled loosely in Lisa's right hand.

Charles procured his own drink and drifted through the room, angling himself to catch Lisa's eye.

He did. Her smile collapsed and her hand tightened on the stem of her glass. Her friend looked, too. Lisa turned away, breaking their gaze.

It was the look on her face that did it. The hardness in her eyes. The same look she'd given him when they split up. When she threw his apartment key back at him, and demanded hers back in exchange.

"Crap," he muttered. Charles knocked back his drink and left the party.

Consider the evidence shown here:

Is that evidence consistent with the belief we want readers to have? Is it convincing enough for readers to form that belief all on their own? I suspect it is--readers are smart and the evidence is not difficult to interpret--and thus our job is done.

We have, by showing rather than telling, successfully convinced readers to convince themselves of the unobservable, yet most important, facts in this scene.

Stay tuned for next week, when we'll look at how SDT affects character arcs, and how the key is to trust your readers.