Friday, March 20, 2020

Show, Don't Tell (But Sometimes Tell)

One of the first exercises we are taught as writers is the art of description. We write about some simple noun like, for example, an orange blob, and describe it with all five senses as well as emotive responses This exercise is tedious but it gets us used to thinking in terms of description, so if a future orange blob makes some annoying sound, we are ready to write it down. More to the point, this leads us to our next step as writers - the infamous "Show, don't tell."

Describing the simple can be very difficult
In short, this is the art of describing the interplay of object and setting, not just the subject itself. If I were to tell you about the orange blob, I can still be fancy about it. For example: "the orange blob sat on the table, the jiggly, amorphous form looking no more interesting than a Jello mould dessert at a picnic that nobody touched. It sat quietly, unassumingly, not making one sound or radiating any aroma to attract attention. The orange blob liked it that way." Not too bad, but it is strictly the tell side. The most interesting part comes from relating it to the Jello mould example, but technically that isn't part of the story. However, that part is interesting because it shows us something.

It's often asked, if a tree falls and nobody's there to hear it, does it make a sound? Meditation aside, the same is true for anything we describe - if nobody is there to see the orange blob, why are we writing about it? Indeed, once we have someone experience the blob - even if it's the blob itself - then we allow for interaction, and we can create the imagery through the blob's participation in the world.

Let's pretend that blob is an orange Jello mould dessert on a table, and it is thinking about its situation. We can describe it through the blob's participation. "He knew he looked tasty but he wanted to go home intact without strangers having picked and poked at him, pulling out the sliced fruit within. As the hungry dessert seeker approached, he stood perfectly still, not one jiggle in his perfect orange form. He resisted his natural Jello urge to shimmer and shine, instead being as inconspicuous as possible. His faint Jello aroma would be easily overwhelmed by the banana creme pie on his left. Victory came when the person seeking dessert cut away a huge chunk of pie. It looked painful, but it wasn't him."

In that bit, we now know why the orange blob is there, what it's thinking, and our description engages the world he is in. That scene could exist without the description though it would be weaker, and the description would be boring without the scene around it.

Now, I promised sometimes it is better to tell. After you learn all about show, don't tell, you learn when to break the rules. Sometimes, we can use simple, even boring descriptions to create a scene that, without saying it, engages the reader on a different level. Here's a simple description. "With Brahms playing on the stereo, Laura laid still on the couch, a slight smile on her face. The table next to her was cleared of everything save for an almost-empty mug of coffee, a picture of her boyfriend, and an empty bottle of sleeping pills propping up a simple note."

The scene is quiet, peaceful, perhaps boring at first. It is not interactive, the interplay nonexistent. However, the items on the table, while truly nondescript, move the reader to put together a story that is being told by their presence, and hopefully call 9-1-1. This trick works when the reader is engaged with the story and participating in its activity. A peaceful scene becomes a jarring splash of cold reality.

Most of the time, interplay is priceless for the perfect description. However, don't be afraid to let some dramatic moments do some heavy lifting as well.

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