Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Show, Don't Tell--What Does That Really Mean?

Imagine trying to describe the image to the left. Lights swirling all over a black background? Winter wheat in a field, caught by the last sun?
What could possibly convey the movement and delicacy of this photograph to someone who hasn't seen it? That's basically what we writers are up against. We're trying to convey the emotional truth of a moment to readers who've never been there.

Some writers do this by telling about the moment. "She was depressed after he died." "He never felt so excited." But this telling doesn't really put us, the reader, in that moment. We're still observing from a distance. When you translate telling into showing, the reader comes into the same room with the story.

"She was depressed after he died" becomes "One day Mollie drew the curtains on the daylight and did not ever draw them back again" (William Trevor, "At Olivehill" from Cheating at Canasta). "He never felt so excited" becomes "His skin was now flushed, his eyes sparking. He leaned into the provocation" (Vivian Gornick, "At the University" from Approaching Eye Level).

See the difference? It's great writing, but why? Because it places us there, with the people in the story, not telling but showing.

This week find a passage, a sentence, a phrase where you backed off, out of the room of your story. Bring yourself and your reader back. Translate the telling into showing.

PS Go out and find the two books mentioned above. Fabulous writing, great winter reading.