Friday, December 18, 2015

Show Not Tell Homework

A popular post from February 2010

by Annette Lyon

I'm stealing from myself today. I thought some of the material from the creative writing class I taught last week might be useful for Writing on the Wall readers.

We talked about the old adage, "Show not tell" and how to apply that in your writing.

What I didn't know early on in my writing journey is that there are lots of ways to show. Had someone explained it to me clearly, I could have been spared a lot of grief (and likely, rejections).

Showing Scenes
Sometimes we need a mini scene to see and learn that this character is a workaholic or this one is a computer genius or that one is a great chef. Put your characters into the moment and let us watch them do their thing.

Let us see that Phil is the only person in the company who can find and fix the bug in the program. We'll figure out that he's the smart computer dude.

Alternately, if someone has a personality trait, a scene revealing that trait is far more effective than just telling us the person is kind or loud or simply a jerk. In other words, give the reader a scene where the character is interacting with others and behaving in a kind way or being loud or treating others like a jerk.

In other words, give your reader the breadcrumbs (the clues) and assume they're smart enough to figure out that this behavior in this scene means that Ashley is a snob. But you never ever used the word, "snob."

This does a couple of things: your reader isn't talked down to (you're assuming they're smart) and you're making the story alive. You're breathing life into the characters.

In other words, you're showing, not telling.

I did an entire post some time ago about specificity. In short, it's a micro way of showing. In these cases, we don't need an entire scene or even a paragraph here. Sometimes all you'll do is replace a single word with one or two more specific ones.

A bird didn't fly overhead; a seagull did.

A car didn't drive pull into the driveway, but a yellow Jeep did.

Your character isn't enjoying a great meal; he can't get enough of the 3-cheese lasagna and garlic bread.

The more specific you are, the more your reader can be immersed in the story.

Sensory Details
Sensory details are another great way to show. They put the reader right in the same location with your POV character. The reader experiences the same thing vicariously because you made it so real.

Imagine a specific location: say parking garage, a hospital, or a cemetery.

What do you notice about it besides things you see?

Smell: The parking garage might smell of oil, the hospital of disinfectant, and the cemetery like freshly cut grass or flowers.

Sound: In the parking garage, you'll likely hear fans blowing out the exhaust fumes, car engines, squealing tires, the click-click of high heels on the concrete and maybe even voices echoing. Depending on the area of the hospital, you could hear beeps of machines, announcements over the intercom, elevator doors, beds squeaking along the halls, TVs in patient rooms, and more. And the cemetery could be silent save for the breeze in the oak over there (we're being specific, right? So it's not a tree) or maybe there's the hum of cars on the street in the distance or a single mourner crying next to a headstone.

Feeling: This one can go a couple directions, both toward emotions (what's the overall FEEL of the place?) as well as the actual sense of feeling or touch. The parking garage may be cold, with dim lighting, and feel claustrophobic. The hospital could feel sterile (in more ways than one). A writer could describe pushing open a heavy door to see a patient, the hard mattress, the thin blankets. And since a cemetery is outside, what you feel would depend largely on the season (summer versus winter, rain or hail, a breeze or sweltering heat, etc.).

Taste: A sense writers often forget about. It's a powerful one, so I don't recommend using it all the time, but it's one to remember because it can pack such a great punch. Think through the locations and what someone might taste in them: the parking garage (even the flavor of a person's gum might taste different with the fumes in there), the hospital (oy, the food . . .), and the cemetery.

General rule of thumb: Try to use at least one other sense besides sight on every page. And change up which sense you're using: don't always use sound, which comes in second behind sight. Be creative: try for taste and smell too, and don't forget touch.

A Challenge:
Here's the homework I gave to my class this week. It's a great exercise to learn how to show rather than tell.

Write THREE showing paragraphs:
1) An emotion. But you aren't allowed to say what it is. (For example, show fear without ever using "afraid" or "scared" or anything like them.)

2) A location or setting. Don't ever name the location; we should be able to figure out where you are by the fantastic showing description.

3) An act. Show a character doing something. We should be able to know what it is without the act being named. (Examples: baking cookies, changing oil in the car, putting on makeup, mowing the lawn.)


Kimberly said...

I'm just starting to get into the post-baby writing groove and this is so incredibly helpful Annette. Many thanks!

Stephanie Humphreys said...

Thanks for the great post. I've been using posts from this blog in my writing group and they have been so helpful.

Krista said...

Wonderful reminders. I think the greatest part of this exercise is that it can be fun, AND it helps the author know his characters and space better. Thanks.

L.T. Elliot said...

This is one of the best examples I've read on showing vs. telling. Especially the one's about bird/seagull.

Amber Lynae said...

Thank you for this helpful information.