Write on, Wednesday: Show, Don’t Tell

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By Leslie Lindsay

One of my “big things” in writer’s group is, “Show, don’t tell.”  If you’re a writer, then I am sure you have heard this before.  Not-so into writing?  Well, then let me explain what this adage really means:  show us [the reader] what your character or scene is like.  Don’t just say, “She wore a pink dress.”  That would be telling.  Instead, spice it up a bit by saying something like, “Her dress sparkled in the sunshine, like a candy-coated pink gumball.”  See the difference?  What else might you be able to liken the color pink to?  A bunny’s nose?  A rose or carnation?  What feels like pink?  What smells like pink?  Go on…get creative.

But I am victim to the criticism of telling versus showing, too.  In fact, the other night at writer’s group, I was full as a tick with my “show me more!” comments on my fellow writer’s pages.  Alas, they had similar comments coming my way as well.    I took a look at what they were suggesting and cleaned up my own writing and I wonder if you might, too?

Where did this all come from?  What’s the big deal about showing versus telling?  I will start with my personal experience of late and then I will offer some resources for further study.

Being a relatively new dog owner, I have fallen in love with a floppy-eared hound named Sally.  I want to know more about how she ticks (sniffs, sleeps, and begs).  So, I bought this book, Inside a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, by Alexandra Horowitz.  It’s like social psychology meets the local veternarian.

I loved it.  A bit tedious at times with various studies, etc.  yet I still learned quite a bit. Product Details  (image retrieved 3.14.12 from Amazon.com)

Bear with me.  I am getting to how this relates to writing.  You see, dogs perceive the world first by smell.  Next, by taste, and then by hearing, and finally by sight (where touch fits in, I am not sure).  Whereas humans typically perceive the world through sight.  Right?! 

So, when we read a book, we see the words…yes?  However, to really understand and relate the the words, we need to see how they connect to our worldview.  Therefore, you almost always remember–or relate–to things that you can see and feel.  And sort of taste or hear or smell as you read…for example:

“The rich butter dripped down my hands as I bit into the tail of the freshly boiled lobster.  Its sweet, juicy meat an explosion in my mouth.  Good thing I was wearing one of those red-checked bibs, unattractive as they may be.”   (I don’t know….maybe add in something like, “the salty sea air hung like a blanket in this northeastern fishing village”) (–a Leslie orginal)

“Our gym wasn’t all that exciting.  The ripped rubber mats saturated in sweat, a cess-pool teaming with bacteria.  I took off my shoes, rolled my socks off my moist feet and hoped no one would notice the cheesy smell coming from my toes.”  (–a Leslie original)

“She took her hands off the wheel.  Just for a moment.  Reaching and straining for her phone lodged in the crevice between her seat and the gearshift.  Her eyes shifted to the phone and then BAM!  The pop and crunch of the car hitting the retaining wall was one she wouldn’t easily forget.”  (–a Leslie orginal)

I guess what I am saying is write like a dog!  Write on, Wednesday! 

Leslie Lindsay is the author of Speaking of Apraxia (Woodbine House, March 2012) in which she shares her experiences with her daughter who suffers from CAS (apraxia), along with insights from parents and professionals, and chock-full of resources and things to do at home to help with CAS.  She is working on her first novel.

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