Friday, July 20, 2012

How to Make Your Writing More Vivid by Putting the Reader in the Picture: Showing, Not Telling

A student in my class, Samantha, was writing a difficult passage in her memoir, recounting the effect of her father's death on her family. In a chapter deal­ing with the day after her father died, Sam described sitting in the kitchen with her aunt, watching breakfast cleanup, trying to   absorb the grief that had descended on everything.  

But the writ­ing wasn't delivering the emotional punch Sam felt it deserved.

"It's a really important moment in my story," Sam com­plained to me, "so why do I feel like I'm writing it from an­other room?"

When I read the draft, it did feel as if Sam was absent from the "room" of the scene. Rather than experiencing the moment with her readers, she was observing it from a pre-digested distance.

I asked Sam to write out a list of details about her aunt's appearance that morning. She wrote: messy hair, clothes didn't match, and she picked at her fingernails as we ate breakfast. She added these in, good details to describe an upsetting mo­ment in someone's life, specific and real. But Sam's passage was still not vibrant with the impact of grief. It wasn't a "felt" emotion, only a thought.

"Perhaps it's because you're telling us about her," I sug­gested, "and you need to show her to us."

Effect of Showing, versus Telling 
Showing and telling are familiar terms to most writers, but many have no idea how to put them into practice.

I asked Sam to close her eyes and put herself back into the moment at the kitchen table the morning after her father died. "Watch your aunt move around the room, cleaning up from breakfast," I said. "Pay attention to any particular de­tails you notice about the setting; note the tension, journey back into the intimacy of that moment. Be open to what might appear that was forgotten in the writing."

It took focus. It took some bravery--because this wasn't an easy event to remember. Eventually Sam jotted down four things:

1.  A rotten smell came from the garbage can.
2.  My aunt's lilac sweater was buttoned funny, odd because she was a good dresser, a fashion maven.
3.  Her hands shook-they were so unsteady, she dropped a glass in the sink.
4.  She left the glass pieces in the sink.

When Sam wrote this last item, tears came into her eyes. She was now "in the room" of the scene, fully present with the emotion that had been eluding her.  

The glass pieces remained in the sink all morning--and sun from the window made them sparkle enough to catch the attention of anyone coming into the room--thoroughly demonstrating the emotional shattering the family felt.  

This bit of "shown" story released the memory and its potency for Sam. She wrote furiously that week, reworking the scene and expanding the image. She wrote about how it bewildered her, at eight years old, that no one cleaned up the glass. Finally, Sam recalled that she herself had found a small hand broom from under the sink and took on the task.

It became a powerful scene in her memoir because she allowed herself to feel the intimacy and vulnerability of real in-the-moment grief.

She successfully moved the memory from telling to showing.

Show Demonstrates, Tell Describes
Showing is a demonstration of emotion through spe­cific sensory details--sight, sound, smell, texture and tem­perature, taste. Anton Chekhov reminds us, "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." Telling backs away from such intensity; it summa­rizes the feelings from a distance. Showing places the reader squarely in it.  

Telling demands reflection, an almost-intellectual as­sessment of what happened. Showing dies with intellectual language. It relies instead on words revealing externally felt sensations from all five senses.

Telling is usually safer for the writer. It's not as raw. To show well, my student Sam had to be willing to travel fully into the moment and re-experience it. Sam said little about the meaning of the glass left in the sink. Because the "show­ing" was so accurate, a reader caught immediately why the glass was a strong sign of the family's grief.

Gateways to Emotion
Robert Olen Butler, author of many stories and novels, talks about this in his book From Where You Dream. Butler ad­vises us: To deliver emotion in its purest form, don't dilute it with even the tiniest bit of interpretation or lack of specificity.  

Butler proposes that emotion can be shown in five ways. Using these, I was amazed at how effectively they trans­formed my writing by revealing how to show, not tell.  

Here is a checklist for how I've used his terms and ideas in my own writing for an emotional punch.  

*   Details about sensations inside the body (goose­bumps on arm, itchy ear, tight throat)
*   Specific gestures or expressions seen in others (tearing a small paper napkin into bits, jiggling foot)
*   Specific memory from the past
*   Fear,anticipation,or a desire projected into the future
*   Sense selectivity (when all but one sense goes away during moments of extreme emotion)

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.

Sam used the third one--memory--and the specifics of the broken glass left in the sink.

Writing Prompts
When my linear brain is over-controlling my writing, it often comes out more "tell" than "show."  A great way to break the linear hold is through 10-15 minute freewriting sessions, using writing prompts.

The following exercise shares some of my favorites.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
Here are a few of my favorite prompts, adapted from ideas in a wonderful book called Everyday Writing by Midge Raymond.  Choose one, set a timer for 10-15 minutes, and go.

You can use these from your own point of view, a character's point of view, or your imaginary reader's.  Try to incorporate showing as much as possible, through use of the senses of sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound.

1.  Write about what you're wearing on your feet right now (or not wearing) and why.
2.  Write about a time you cheated or lied and what happened.
3.  Describe yourself at five years old.
4.  Write about an awkward moment.
5.  Pick two of these words and write about them, in a scene or memory:  hay, frost, lipstick, Jell-O, pipe.