Saturday, September 18, 2004

Show, Don't Tell

When I started working on improving my writing, one of the first things I learned was a mantra: Show it, don't tell.

I translated this mantra into the Evangelical language and came up with: Witness, don't preach. If you go to church, the stories that people tell about what happened to them are generally more interesting than exhortations to do thus and so. If a guy comes up to you and tells you that you must receive the baptism of the Holy Ghost, you might not believe him. Or even understand what he's trying to say. But if someone tells you what his experience was, it's harder to refute and easier to understand.

What's a witness? In a court of law, he's a guy who recounts what he saw. In writing, I think I should recount the sensa of the point-of-view (POV) character. What is preaching? In church, it is the business of interpreting or digesting the meaning of the Scriptures being studied.

This business of separating observation and interpretation is important. In writing it is important to leave most of the interpretation for the reader to do for himself.

When writing, ask yourself what you're telling the reader (Bel was a beautiful woman.) then ask yourself what phenomena or what sensa led the POV character to that conclusion (She had hair the color of red maple leaves, high cheekbones, and green eyes like he’d once seen on a National Geographic cover.) and perhaps the reaction of the POV character to that sensa (The woman’s smile, that had been delightful, faded at the mention of his name.).

I'm telling you about writing, because I feel I've enough experience with it that I can speak as an authority. Authorities can preach only after they've earned credibility. I haven't done that yet. So, that gives you plenty of room to disagree. Had I posed the last two paragraphs as, "I've seen that my prose works better when ..." it would have more power, because you may deny my interpretation, but you can't deny my experience.

Of course, that last bit presumes that I've not perpetrated a fraud upon the reader. And if I'm a liar, I might lie to myself. And if I do so, how will I ever find out? Descartes started with doubt and reasoned to "cogito ergo sum." There's a need for doubt and self-doubt.

John Forbes Nash was told that he'd won a Nobel Prize whereupon he turned to a student and asked if the person who'd said that was real. That's the extreme of self-doubt, but Dr. Nash had a history of delusion. He found his own mind was a low-trust environment and had to find ways to double-check his own perceptions.

This recommendation to writers is my interpretation of what I've experienced while teaching myself to write. If you're a writer, check it against your own experience. Don't take my word for it. (Bring up google and you can generally verify my outrageous claims and observe that "John Nash Nobel" gets a "feeling lucky" link to his bio and find in the 2nd link that he's the Beautiful Mind guy.)

Show don't tell. Observe the phenomena around you and learn to put it into words as a warm-up before writing. When you write, put yourself into the POV character's head and write the sensa s/he perceives and what passions those sensa evoke within the character. You may have an idea where you're going in the scene, but don't forcefeed that to the reader. Interpreting the scene for the reader is like chewing his food for him. Ick. Trust the reader to figure out based upon her high cheek bones, large eyes, shimmering hair, and curvaceous profile that the girl is beautiful.

As a Bible Thumper® I'll close with Gen 40:8 "Do not interpretations belong to God?" When you're writing, treat your reader like God.

1 comment:

Rick Brady said...

Just writing to say hi. I like this post. I will read it again. Time is short so ta ta.

Rick Brady