Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Writing Life: Show, Don't Tell

The Writing Life by JJ Murphy is a Regular Column in Writers in the Sky Newsletter.

This month's article is: Show, Don't Tell.

When you are engaged, transported into the writer's world, emotionally reacting to the characters and images in the world around you - that's when the writer is showing, not telling.

Here's an example:
A brisk, wintry wind whistled along the South Carolina coast. It rattled the ice-tipped yellowed spartina grass and rolled a thick, steely grayed fog in from the sea.

In two sentences writer Mary Alice Monroe has me shivering and looking Skyward (the title of this novel) in my mind's eye.

Monroe could have written: Winters in coastal South Carolina are characterized by brisk winds and grey ocean fog.

Here are a few tips to invite your reader into your world.

1. Give the reader a reason to care. Compare these two examples:
Principal Bob Smith really cares about his students at Pinecone Elementary school.

As students enter the building, Principal Bob Smith bends down to make eye contact with the first graders at Pinecone Elementary. His brown eyes sparkle with pride as Casey shares a new word.

In the second example, we are in school making eye contact, feeling the connection. In the first example, we are told about the principal, but we are not involved.

This is true for both fiction and nonfiction.

2. Use dialogue effectively
. Here's an example from THE BEAN TREES by Barbara Kingsolver:
"You from out of town?" he asked after a while, eyeing my car.
"No," I said, "I go to Kentucky every year to get my license plate."

Kingsolver didn't write: "No," I said sarcastically. She let her character speak. As a reader, I was there listening, not just hearing about it from someone else.

3. Use action verbs. Consider this example from Carl Hiaasen's SKINNY DIP:
Stranahan dragged the yellow kayak from the shed and pushed it into the water. He stripped off his shirt, kicked away his flip-flops and climbed in. He paddled through the light chop with short, hard strokes, ...

Notice how you or I could duplicate this action; in fact as readers we may be moving our bodies as we read this passage.

4. Use gestures and movements. Act out the scene, if necessary to capture details. Compare these two sentences:
Mary nibbled her fingernail, peeking out from under her eyelashes at the boy who stood next to her on line.

Mary was shy.

In the first sentence, Mary's movements tell readers about her feelings; in the second sentence we have no way to connect to Mary's feelings.

5. Make every word count.
Here's an example from Barbara Kingsolver's PIGS IN HEAVEN:
Taylor is never sure when to argue with Barbie, who behaves like a tourist from another solar system who only read a toy catalog before arriving here. You can't argue with someone like that about family values.

Thirty-five words reveals each character's values.

Show, Don't Tell invites understanding; I cannot find a better way to say this.

If you are as captivated by what you read the tenth time you read it as you were the first time, then the author has succeeded in Show, Don't Tell.


For a half-century, writer and passionate naturalist JJ Murphy, has been providing nature programs, original curricula, articles, product reviews, books and open discussion to children and eco-aware adults across the USA. She lives in Harriman, NY. Creative Content for Your Nature Endeavors

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