Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Does Your Writing Show or Tell? Learn from Robert Olen Butler

Anton Chekhov wrote, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

Showing is a demonstration of emotion through specific details. Telling can bring in an almost intellectual assessment of what happened. Showing, the opposite, requires very little intellectual language. It relies instead on sensory detail (smells, sights, sounds).   While telling backs away from the moment, summarizing feelings from a distance, showing places the reader squarely in it. 

The key to showing is to demonstrate. This means not interpreting the things you are placing in front of us.

Robert Olen Butler, author of many wonderful stories and novels and instructor at this writing at Florida State University’s MFA program, talks about this in his book From Where You Dream (Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 2005). To deliver emotion in its purest form, don’t dilute it with interpretation. Butler observed that emotion can be delivered to a reader (shown, versus told) generally in five ways. Here is my translation of his terms:

• what I am feeling inside my body (goosebumps on my arm, itchy foot, tight throat)

• what I am observing in your gestures and movements (tearing a small paper napkin into bits, jiggling foot)

• specific memory

• fear, anticipation, desire (projections into future)

• sense selectivity (during moments of extreme emotion, all but one sense goes away)

During the developing stage of book writing, whenever I need to change a scene to more “showing,” I will go through Butler’s list and ask myself how I can bring in one of these.

This week, translate a passage that "tells" into one that "shows," using one of the above techniques.  What happened?