Tuesday, January 18, 2011

I feel like I'm in Kindergarten again: Time for Show and Tell!

Long title, I know, but this subject is really important to writers -- especially ones that aren't published yet.

We are forever being told "Show, don't tell", but what exactly does this phrase mean?   I remember years ago when I had first discovered the writing forums at writersdigest.com, I had asked some of the members to critique my work.  And as I recall, one of the members said to me, "You have a lot of imagination, but you are telling us everything that's happening.  Why don't you show us instead?"

Sounds easy enough, doesn't it?  But I just couldn't understand the difference between showing and telling.  People tried to explain it to me.  They gave me examples of what they meant and how they thought my work could be improved upon -- and they were right! -- but I still couldn't understand it.  How do you "show" something when you only have words to work with?  And don't we consider ourselves storytellers?  Their examples helped, of course, and I watched my writing improve bit by bit, but I still didn't "get" it.

Then the other day I had an epiphany.  I was at the college I attend, preparing for classes that actually start today, and as I walked by the writing lab I paused to check out the announcement board.  There weren't many announcements yet, of course, but there was something else: a quotation from Anton Chekhov that says, "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass."

As you might imagine, I immediately fell in love with that quote.  After all, I find it just as intriguing as it is beautiful.  But believe it or not, when I first read it, I still couldn't understand it's full purpose.  And yet it was so intriguing that I kept thinking and thinking about it and... at long last... I finally understood.

It makes perfect sense...

The secret to showing instead of telling is...

*drum roll please*


You heard me right; I said painting.

Don't look at me that way; I'm not crazy.  (Well, maybe I am a little... but that's not the point!)

The point is that writers don't know how to explain showing vs. telling because we think about it in the wrong way.  Many writers that I know are masters with words, but only a few are also masters of the sketchbook or the canvas and brush.  Yet these two arts -- writing and painting -- go hand in hand.  You've heard the saying, "A picture's worth a thousand words," right?  Those are not idle words.  A picture is worth a thousand words because the artist is trying to tell a story without using words.  If a writer decided to explain the story behind the artist's creation, it may take a thousand words or more to do it correctly.

What we, as writers, need to do is paint a picture with our words.  We need to make the reader see the  grass swaying gently in the breeze, and the moonlight glinting off of broken glass.  To just say "the moon shone down" isn't enough.  We need to make the moon shine so beautifully and clearly in our readers' minds that they are transported into our world and find that they cannot drag themselves back out of it.  That's what true "showing" is.

Think of it this way:  You are painting a picture.  The moon is out, a silver orb hanging in the sky like a pearl drawn out of the sea.  The cobalt night shimmers with stars, and a purple and aqua aura dances on the northern horizon.  Below the moon, a sea of grass sways back and forth in a gentle breeze, moonlight capping the rolling hills... and there!  A shimmer of light.  You bend down to see where the light is coming from.  It is only a reflection, glimmering on the edge of a piece of broken glass.  You look up.  Before you, a window peers at you through the darkness, like an empty eye socket, dark and mysterious.  What lays beyond this window?  Dare you take a look?

My dad is a professional artist.  He's always told me since I was very young that if I could see the picture clearly in my mind, I could paint it.  This meant anything I could think up could be rendered with a brush on canvas.

I took those words to heart.  But what my dad never expected was that my canvas would be a word document and my paintbrush a keyboard.

It goes for all writers.  If you can see it in your mind, you can paint it... with words.  Be descriptive, be detailed, be creative... and show the reader what you mean, because writers are painters too.


T.D. said...

Oh, Nicole.... I love you. Thank you so, so much. I needed this post, really really bad.

It's not that I didn't know that "showing" is better than "telling," blah blah blah. But I had read The Art and Craft of Writing Christian Fiction, and the author has said to think of yourself as writer not as a storyteller around a campfire, but a filmmaker. For a reason I can't explain, using the metaphor of a filmmaker really didn't "gel" with me (being a filmmaker as well as a writer, you'd think that I would appreciate that metaphor... but I didn't like it... if you saw my post on showing and telling).

Something about that metaphor made me... oh, I don't know... rebellious and more resistant to showing. I tried NOT TO. (Can you believe it?)

And then I read your post.... and everything got better. Thanks for giving "showing-writing" a new metaphor. I had an "aha" moment. You made it acceptable and available to me. Thanks a million ;)

Love ya! <3

--Abby (aka The Director)

Galadriel said...

A very useful update. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.

Star-Dreamer said...

Galadriel: thanks. :) I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Abby: I've always been told the same thing: showing is better than telling and all that jazz. But like I said, a writer can't explain the process well because I believe they are looking at it in the wrong light. I read what Mr. Gerke wrote about showing and trying to write like you are making a movie. I just don't think he captured all of what showing really is. I mean, I often see my story in my head as a movie, but I also see important details that can be lost in a film, and on top of that, writing allows me to get into my characters' heads: it's really, really hard to do that in a film.

Now that I understand more of what it means, I see "showing" as a series of intricate and closely-knit paintings, rather than slides of a movie. The one thing a writer has that a painter doesn't are active verbs: painters have to paint a single scene, and showing action can be difficult if you don't know how to do it. A painter can "suggest" action, but they can't actually show action in motion. A writer can.

I did read your post on showing and telling. :) To a degree I agreed with you. After all, some of the masters at writing were actually masters at "telling", so no, I don't believe that telling is a dead style. However, the way it's used in today's writing world has changed, and using it well can be difficult... which is, of course, why we all practice our art until we feel there is nothing left to learn... and then practice some more! :D

I'm really glad you enjoyed the post. It was that quote that made it click with me. And then it was my dad's words that made me put it all together. For some reason I had the exact same reaction you did... to both Mr. Gerke's outlook on showing, and this new way of looking at it. It's encouraging to know I'm not alone! :D ;)


Jake said...

Whoot! :D Congrats! I have come to an epiphany (however tis spelt) but slowly. Jeff Gerke's book kicked it off. :)

Star-Dreamer said...

jake: lol! right. :D