Monday, April 23, 2012

The Words Become Flesh: Show, Don't Tell Week 2

First of all, what is "show" and "tell?"

It's easiest to explain by demonstrating in reverse.

Tell:  My sister is not a morning person.  She gets it from my father.

Show:  I clearly remember weekday mornings in high school.  5:30 AM.  My eyes squeezed shut a little tighter as our bunk bed slowly progressed from vibrate to a full-bed quake in response to the deafening bass throb of my sister's turbo-powered alarm clock which she kept in her bunk five inches from her head but which never seemed to bother her.  

I kicked the bottom of her bunk lightly.  Nothing.  I kicked again.  


I used both feet as I kicked the wooden bottom the third time.  This time I raised it two inches before it fell back to the slats.

"Five more minutes?" Or at least I thought that's what she said.  In reality, it sounded more like, "Fibe mo mints?"

"Never mind," I muttered.  Grumbling to myself, I lumbered down the hall to the bathroom shower.  I wondered, Would it be wrong of me to use up all of the hot water?

Do you see the difference?  In the first example, you have to trust me.  In the second example, you have the chance to decide for yourself--and the evidence is there.  Chances are that you believe my sister is not a morning person.

Secondly, can I tell you that I hate the phrase "show, don't tell?"  There are far too many people who use it non-specifically.  Some writers think that they are giving you good advice when they write "show, don't tell" next to your words.  It may be true that you need to expand, but, truthfully, we don't actually want or need to be shown everything.  We need to pick the moments and images that help us clarify what we want to say.  And sometimes the best way to do that is, in fact, to tell first (particularly when you are writing about something very close to you or something very emotional) and then think of your examples.

Don't want to take my word for it?

As Sharon Lippincott writes, "Anything you write is better than writing nothing. The only wrong way to write is to not write."   Getting it down is by far more important than getting it perfect.  Thomas Farber writes, "A writer is someone who finishes."

So how do you know when you need more?  Here are three thoughts.

  • Many Ly, an author of two young adult novels, one of which won the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association Award for Youth Literature for 2008, recently wrote on one of my chapters, "Where I have questions--show more."  And that is an example of how to know where to expand.
  • Find two or more paragraphs of reflection but no action.  I find that one paragraph of reflection can be okay.  Two or more is pushing it.  Look at the points you are trying to express in your paragraphs and see if you can't think of any scenes which will illustrate them.  I always find this harder in memoir than in fiction.  In fiction, I can look at what I need and make up an incident(s) to illustrate it.  In memoir, we are constrained to things that really happened.  Sometimes I need to take time to let it ruminate before I can pull out the incident I need.  You may too, and that's okay.  Write something else while you're thinking.  Show the original piece to a friend.  In one instance, my mom knew the perfect way to end a piece, but I had completely not connected the incident. 
  • Let the piece sit and come back later.  Writing some pieces, particularly those about joyful or painful experiences, can be very difficult.  Get it down, then give yourself some time before you revisit it.  I often find that, having faced the piece and the difficulty the first time, I am able to expand on it with each subsequent return.

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