Writing is a collection of words that are born the day they are written and live for as long as the document that contains them is available. They become, “Jane says,” with no deceased date if they are preserved in print.
It is different when we speak; the words are short lived for that moment only and are often forgotten within minutes. Often spoken words are recalled incorrectly and then misinterpreted to twist the speaker’s meaning. Even when someone records them and quotes them correctly later they use terms like, “Jane said whatever she said.” They are for that moment in time.
Because words in print can endure long after we are gone and may be passed on for generations, it is important that we choose them carefully making sure that we require them to carry the meaning we intend.
What to write for the second lesson? Wow, not being a teacher by training and certainly without special expertise in English or Grammar, one may ask, “What can this guy share with me?” I am not sure either and I don’t have a detailed lesson plan. I just intend to provide a few hints of things that have helped me. I will get sidetracked from time-to-time and share a reason or two I feel about a particular lesson. Notice that I didn’t use the term, “I may get sidetracked.” I know I will so why pretend that I may not. I am just a person who loves to read something that is right, informative, entertaining, that moves me emotionally, and generally leaves me feeling a little bit better.
Lesson 2-Show Don’t Tell
This is one of my pet peeves and will cause me to put down what I am reading in an instant. This is one of the basic rules of writing. We want our reader to feel what we are writing about, to be able to go there with us, to see what it is we see, to hear what we hear, to recall specific tastes or smells. When the reader is in the scene with us, his connection to what we are writing is instant and gratifying.
Example from where I grew up:
Often on Sunday afternoons we stopped at the local ice cream store and then drove down Craft Highway where we passed a billboard with a cow that was always swinging its tail and sticking its tongue out. Mother always reminded us when we approached it to be sure us children didn’t miss it. We always got a kick out of seeing it.
The previous is a true and informative statement, kind of boring, and not really entertaining. Consider:
Sunday afternoon we stopped at Tom’s Dairy Freeze where daddy and mother always chose hard ice cream that had to be scooped, him black walnut and her lemon. Patsy and I would run to the window and stand peering in watching Tom’s lanky fingers holding the tender cone as he swirled a soft white mound of ice cream neatly on top of her cone and then doing the same for me, except in chocolate.
Patsy and I pressed our feet against the front seat to limit the rocking motion that threatened to knock our ice cream off our cones as daddy backed the Ford onto Wilson Avenue, bouncing us around as we stopped abruptly. The car let out a grinding sound underneath our feet as he pulled the gearshift lever down throwing us back against the seat as it lurched forward carrying us on to the next destination.
There was not much conversation for the next few minutes as we all licked our cold treats. By the time we had turned onto Craft Highway and passed the ice house, daddy and I had finished ours while Patsy and mother were just getting to the hard shell of their cones.
“Y’all look, Dixie Dairies is on the left,” mother said as daddy stopped the car at the red light. My cousin, Jimmy, was not working today, it was Sunday, and Milk could be pasteurized another day.
We were always happy when the light was red because we could gawk just a little longer at the faithful old cow, always there, ten feet tall, fifteen feet in the air, mechanically swatting flies with her tail and poking her tongue in and out at us. The car shivered forward as the light turned green and we all craned our necks to see a little longer as daddy pulled away continuing on our humble family adventure.
I hope you see the difference in the two versions of the same story and you understand the value of the latter. There are times to tell in a story if there is a need to move past some unimportant but relevant facts but more often it is preferable to let the reader feel what the writer feels.
A few ingredients required for showing the reader what is happening: 1) Use dialog, pleasant or emotional conversation clearly lets the reader know how the characters feel. 2) Include descriptions that we can relate to our five senses, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling. If the reader can smell the hickory flavor in the smoke that is burning his eyes, he relates to the scene better. 3) Include lots of good description, a lot more than the bare facts. 4) Be specific, no fuzzy descriptions here. Instead of the car, call it a Ford or call the ice cream shop Tom’s Dairy Freeze. Describe Tom’s lanky fingers gently holding the tender cone maybe your mouth watering in anticipation.
Think of how you remember your own father when you were a child. How did you feel when you crawled up in his lap, do you remember his ticklish facial stubble or the smell of his after shave, or maybe just the smell of his sweat? Tell how his huge but gentle arms surrounded you and provided a cocoon of protection from all would be attackers.
For more information, go to google.com and type “show don’t tell” and you will see many links to expand on what I say.
by Wayne Brady 7/22/2012