Sparked by Words

Posts tagged ‘writing details’

Show Me How

 

 

If you love to write and have taken a creative writing class, (I sure hope you’ve taken a writing class or three) you’ve heard the adage that a writer must show, not tell, a story. If you don’t know exactly what it means, you’re not alone. Confusion reigns on this topic because what seems obvious is difficult to describe without citing your second grade short story efforts and flapping your arms like an ostrich straining for flight. None of us wrote well in second grade so our loopy efforts are always good for embarrassing examples. As for the ostrich – great feathers, never gonna fly.

Your writing teacher probably threw the maxim at you until it became a paper sword, “You’ll know it when you see it.” It meant reading the best literature written in English: Mark Twain, Harper Lee, Toni Morrison, D. H. Lawrence, Jane Austen, Wallace Stegner, and their ilk. Blessed with professors intent on introducing you to excellent writers, you learned to read, even to ride shotgun for younger readers and writers. You know good writing now, but you still might not know how to do it, because that requires two specific tasks: practicing the art of writing, and seeing examples of what doesn’t work in order to contrast it with what does.

Many people think dialogue is the yellow brick road to avoiding telling pitfalls, but it’s not only not a guarantee, as dialogue has its own arena of skill to master. It fails to cite other strategies to successful showing. I’m going to identify four other writing markers to help you understand how telling differs from showing. You’ll forgive me, please, for not being Hemingway, but I charge less. The examples are my own, and while less worthy of literary attention than Ernest, they’ll suffice for this purpose. The tell passage comes first. The second follows with its swagger of BMOC – yep, all show, that one.

Details reveal you know exactly what you’re writing about because no one wants their accountant to fix the car.

T: I was a rebellious kid at home. (Yeah, whadija do, kid?)

S: Walking the long route through woods garbed in brittle gold, I grabbed a whirligig seed dropped from a maple tree and stuck it to my nose, my new proboscis declaring my alien status, and strode into the house two hours late, defiant of mom’s rule to get straight home from school. (Hoo-whee, you’re in big trouble now, kid.)

Emotions make your reader sympathetic to your character’s plight, so make your reader cry, laugh, scream, fight for justice for the protagonist – or demand the death penalty for the evil anti-hero.

T: Kate’s husband made her so mad. (Um, hubbies are like that.)

S: Kate trudged into the house to see Tom slouched in his recliner, an open beer can on the table, an empty strewn on the floor, ripping the fringes off her favorite leather jacket and lobbing them into the fireplace. (I’d be out the door to hire a divorce lawyer before my spit could hit the floor if my hubby did that.)

Great writing exposes the whole of the universe in minute detail

(I’m going to break my formula here and quote a published sentence for the S. You’ll see why when you read it below.)

T: When she died, Daniel was heartbroken. (Doesn’t make me feel Daniel’s pain because it doesn’t remind me of my own.)

S: “When she was dead not a week later…Daniel learned that the dead take with them not only what we love in them but also what they love in us.” From The Marriage Artist by Andrew Winer, Henry Holt and Company, 2010. (The sentence melted me and compelled me to read late into the night. I wasn’t disappointed at the loss of sleep, as Winer’s story is consistently excellent.)

Write revealing information about your character so the reader really gets to know the stranger in her house.

T: Phil was extremely tall and wore his dark brown hair in a perfect cut. (So he’s good looking, but what kind of man is he?)

S: Phil leaned against the fence railing, elbows poking behind like lazy flags, and watched till the horse wore herself out, then sauntered over and stood near without looking her in the eye. She flicked her mane and pawed the dirt as if trying out new ballet shoes. He paced the edge of the fence, letting the mare follow at her own speed. She nuzzled his shoulder but he ignored her. He ambled along, barely scuffing up a dust trail, and finally dropped his hand backward, palm open. She nibbled his fingers as if tasting the salt, and whickered softly, an equine invitation to make friends. (Have no clue what Phil looks like, but I’d like to meet a man who can calm a skittish horse without hurting her.)

Telling sometimes works better – yeah, it might.

T: Jenny had made pancakes with her mom. (Make ‘em once, you know the drill, and please don’t use clumsy pluperfect tense.)

S: Jenny ransacked three shelves of canned pinto beans, tuna fish, strawberry jelly jars, Ritz cracker boxes, and bags of dried noodles stashed in the cupboard, but didn’t find the flour till she searched the back of the frig and spotted a half empty white paper bag rolled up against the side of last night’s hamburger casserole. Dragging it out meant shifting the open can of condensed milk that Gramps poured into his coffee every morning. She splattered a hefty dollop of it all over the shelf and grabbed the rag from the sink to mop up the mess. The flour still huddled at the back of the frig. She shoved two wrinkled apples out of the way and yanked a carton of sour milk laid on its side because at least a dozen wine bottles filled the tall shelves. (The kitchen’s such a mess, how’s she going to make anything to eat that won’t give ‘em all ptomaine poisoning?)

What’s wrong with the second paragraph? Nothing, except the lengthy description of trying to get the bag of flour to make pancakes, and I haven’t yet written about locating an empty bowl, scrubbing dried egg off the mixing spoon, or greasing the griddle. Making breakfast, however, is only the springboard to Jenny talking with Mom about the fact that the fifteen-year-old is pregnant. It would work if I wanted to show the anxious teen delaying the awful conversation as long as possible. This is where a writer must make a decision: bore the reader with infinite description of a mundane activity, or get to the damn point already and sink your writing chops into an event important to the story. (This time, choose tell but write it in simple past tense: Jenny made pancakes with her mom. Now get on with the rest.)

Telling provides information while showing makes the reader feel and relate. One is as useful as an almanac, the other as exciting as leaping over waterfalls. An almanac can hold your attention while waiting for dinner to heat in the microwave, but a waterfall will make you forget you were hungry. Now go practice writing.

 

Image courtesy: Google public domain image, a Cossack horse in a landscape

 

Advertisements

Charades

Charades is the game of finding the correct words to translate a silent pantomime. It’s a time filler when the party runs up the alcohol level and winds down the intelligence quotient.

imagesWriting is about finding the correct words to describe what’s going on in your book. Good writing sets the standard for intelligent expression and evokes authentic experience. We learn as young writers not to write, he was in despair, she was terrified, they felt horror run through their veins. What does any of that say? Is it the same despair you felt when you weren’t invited to the prom? Probably not if it’s the despair of a boy taken from his village to be turned into a soldier to fight an adult war. Is it the terror you experienced when your grades arrived in the mail and your parents got the envelope before you did? Not likely in comparison to the terror of a little girl snatched from her mother’s arms and pulled into a stranger’s van. Is it the horror you bore as your kid stuffed her dirty underwear down your toilet and flushed? Not quite like the horror of the child that stands at his mother’s bedside and sees the rise of her final breath, then wonders who will care for him.

Yet all we writers have is words. How I’d love the throb of a deep drum pounding out the steps of the boy as he is marched into the army. A volcano to erupt when the little girl is taken from her mother. A torrential downpour as the child stands beside his dead mother and doesn’t know where he’ll sleep that night. Those words – despair, terror, horror – have so many labyrinths of suggestion, depending on context. Context is everything. Writers must explain what we mean, how it really is.

Yet explain what you mean in too many disjointed words and your reader closes your book. “It was a jungle so dark that the leaves overhead blocked all the light, the way that a canvas tarp blocks out the sky when you go camping, but this was much more terrifying because they weren’t camping, they’d forgotten their compass and they were lost.” Your reader didn’t get that far – yawning with disorientation, he quit reading a description of a jungle the writer had never experienced.

This is the jungle of the 1959 Belgian Congo in the hands of Barbara Kingsolver from The Poisonwood Bible:

 

Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever.

crZO4d3VQ8Sg60XAOOC5K9LVuhqjAfmoAU2hqQ2AfH0xMGM3pk6nDFDLuUjgHFgg6phsroc=s113

Here is the Nigerian jungle from Little Bee by Chris Cleave when Little Bee walks into it with her big sister, Nkiruka:

 

When we reached the jungle it was silent and dark…We walked for a long time, and the path got narrower, and the leaves and the branches closed in on us tighter and tighter until we had to walk one behind the other. The branches began closing in on the path so that we had to crouch down. Soon we could not carry on at all…We carried on for a little way, weaving around the plants, but very soon we realized we had missed the path and we were lost.

 

In this excerpt, Ann Patchett describes Marina Singh’s first view of the Amazon jungle from State of Wonder:

 

At dusk the insects came down in a storm, the hard-shelled and soft-sided, the biting and stinging, the chirping and buzzing and droning, every last one unfolded its paper wings and flew with unimaginable velocity into the eyes and mouths and noses of the only three humans they could find. Easter slipped back inside his shirt while Dr. Swenson and Marina wrapped their heads like Bedouins in a storm.

 

Three views of the jungle with very different depictions, each authenticated by distinctive detail. We didn’t have to read the books with the dictionary on our other arm; the words are basic. Master writers use language with precise nuance and we get the image. Novice writers must learn to apply that kind of expertise and insight to their stories.

The convergence of characters and divergent life paths becomes our story. How we describe those characters and divulge that action becomes our voice. There is no voice without adequate words but much opportunity with them. Our point of view suggests the cultural focus of character choices and reactions, and the multitude of words provides the means of expression.

How to choose, what to choose, what words will do the job best? It might be the smallest words, those that let us see details that reveal the truth because other words are rife with ambivalence or too many definitions. When describing the process of marquetry in The Inlaid Table, I couldn’t write, “A complex machine forms an intricate shape.” I want the reader to look through the pin holes pierced by a thin needle so they can see the precision of placement for tiny shards of wood to create a sunburst pattern. It’s the same information but one take is broad and general, the other, specific and detailed. The first example hints at the finished product. The second allows the reader to sense the breadth and skill of the task, achieved with perfectly chosen words.

A book is as much charade as the party game. The audience/reader tries to figure it out by watching/reading the clues. The master paints a vigorous picture – ah, I know exactly what you mean. That’s the level I aim for.

Come with me into the jungle.

 

 

Mime courtesy Google public domain images, clipartlord.com

Jungle courtesy Google public domain images, commons.wikimedia.org