Friday, April 3, 2009

That old adage: Show, Don't Tell

Oh, c’mon. Don’t frown and groan yet. Granted, this topic is overdone in the writing world, but occasionally I stumble across examples which revitalize my faith in its truth. Magic happens when writers follow this simple (and yet elusive) advice.

Key Point: Your audience doesn’t want information; they want experiences. It’s our job as writers to offer that to the best of our ability.

How can we do this? By using what we have in our toolbox. Words, description, sentence structure, our own experiences and knowledge of the human condition, etc. For you blogaholics out there like me, Margie Lawson is guest blogging today at
Petit Fours and Hot Tamales. I attended a few of her brief presentations in Atlanta last year; she’s one of the best teachers on character emotion that I’ve encountered.

Keep in mind that for any technique, like flavorful seasonings, use in moderation. Description can be a wonderful tool, but it can also be like letting a full saltshaker loose on that prized soufflé. One author I was required to read in high school described a leaf for 5 pages. FIVE PAGES. A LEAF. It wasn’t even important to the story. All of us have things which we avoid. Stephen King hates the word “zestful” and has vowed to never use it in his books. I’m with him; my vow is to never describe a leaf. Ever.

Point being? A few well-placed words can go a long way. Below are some examples I’ve read recently. They restore my faith, because writers like the below not only offer a glimpse into whatever it is they are trying to communicate, but they let us share in those experiences with them. That takes talent, folks, and it’s something I am more determined than ever to remember as I continue writing.

My thanks, kudos, and deepest respect for all the artists below who were brave enough to share their talent with the world. All of you are my heroes and heroines, my inspiration.

The street door was still open, just a little, where the knife and the man who held it had slipped in, and wisps of nighttime mist slithered and twined into the house through the open door. His shoes were black leather, and they were polished to such a shine that they looked like dark mirrors: you could see the moon reflected in them, tiny and half full.
Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book

It’s 5 degrees. The street is dark and absolutely still. The cold has already made it through all three of my coats. Above me the obsidian sky is glittering with millions of stars. I take a breath. The whole night sky rushes into my throat, the stars tickling into my lungs like tiny fragments of ice.
Tom DiCillo, filmmaker, on the atmosphere at the Sundance Film Festival 09

Now imagine being frozen from the waist down in a lake of ice for eternity. Imagine that the slightest movement would freeze the tears on your face and the water surrounding you. God, according to Dante, was all about motion and energy, so the ultimate punishment for Lucifer is to not be able to move at all. At the very bottom of hell, there's no fire, no brimstone, just the utter inability to take action."
Jodi Picoult, The Tenth Circle

The following 2 examples are the first sentences of 2 Dennis Lehane books. His tone, his words automatically bring you into the story.

The first time I met Karen Nichols, she struck me as the kind of woman who ironed her socks.
Dennis Lehane, Prayers for Rain

A piece of advice: If you ever follow someone in my neighborhood, don't wear pink.
Dennis Lehane, Sacred


Marilyn Baron said...

Great post, Elaine. Thanks for all this information and for the examples.

Marilyn Baron

The Writers Canvas said...

Thanks for commenting, Marilyn! Glad you liked it. I enjoyed the Maggie Lawson info on y'alls blog today too.

Now to just heed the words of advice in my own blog...

See you at the Deb Dixon workshop!


Carol Burnside said...

Great examples, Elaine. My fav is the one by Dennis Lehane. Powerful!

Thanks for giving PFHT props, too! I've got you listed in my blogroll now. :)

The Writers Canvas said...

Thanks Carol! I appreciate the blogroll! I try to update this at least a few times per week. Daily is something I'm striving for.

I love Dennis Lehane's books. His opening 3-page prologue to "Gone Baby Gone" is absolutely incredible too, but I couldn't type 3 pages here! It's lyrical, though--I must have read it 50 times when I first bought the book.

Hope life up the coast is treating you well! Will you be at the Deb Dixon workshop? If not, I'll see you at M&M...


Martini Mayhem said...

Great examples! Very useful as I venture into writing.

The Writers Canvas said...

Thanks Martini! I appreciate the comment! There are so many examples out there; I tried gathering from my favorite resources where the info was already out there in web form, either via blog post or public excerpt.

Thanks again, good to hear from you.