Wrestling with Show v. Tell

We love stories. Sit in any critique group for longer than 10 minutes and you’ll hear the phrase “Show, Don’t Tell.”  While it is true that all stories mix and balance showing and telling, the best yarns that keep us turning the page show characters acting, feeling, and responding. It’s not that you never tell. Sometimes, writers have to tell us that Jack climbed up the hill.

Telling has a place in storytelling. As readers, we don’t need to be told every tiny detail, particularly when it involves a mundane activity that doesn’t move the story forward, build tension, or impact the outcome of the story. Good writers use telling to share secondary information. For example, you can write “Jill drove to work.” You don’t want to spend sentences, let alone paragraphs, sharing every detail of Jill’s drive to work. That would be less gripping than watching outdoor paint dry on a rainy day. Save your details for revealing significant plot twists or scene descriptions. When you need to be clear and precise, tell.

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Showing builds intimacy between the reader and your characters. It helps us get in their head and peak inside their soul. Showing reveals a piece of your character’s heart. Showing builds tension and makes your reader curious to find out more. Done right, you’ll have your reader salivating like Pavlov’s dog.

A brief example of showing:

Mom sobbed as I stood at the edge of my father’s hospital bed. “Dad, do you know who I am?”

The man who I’d once considered invincible shot me a blank stare. “No. Who are you?” He glanced over at my mom, kneeling at his bedside. “Who is he?”

Deafening silence filled the room. I could hear my heart thump. In that moment, I realized that the anger I thought I’d let go still raged deep inside me. We had our share of disagreements, the old man and me. Now, I was the only one able to keep score.

“Dad, it’s me. Your son.”

Nothing but a glazed stare returned my plea.

Mom rose from the floor, pressed her hand on my shoulder, “He’ll remember you. You’ll see. He’ll get better. You can’t keep a good man down.”

My eyes welled up, my hands balled up in fists. Good man?  The man who’d once been my hero quit being a good man years ago.

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Good writing leans in favor of showing, sparing the telling for those things that can only be told. A great sentence doesn’t come easy. Writing riveting paragraphs demands effort. We only get better at writing by sitting down and hammering out words on our laptop’s keyboard. There are no shortcuts to becoming a good writer. What are you waiting for?

Get writing!

 

Are You Committed to Writing Everyday?

Our guest speaker at the monthly gathering of writers hosted by the Writers Guild of Texas (of which I’m a Board Member),  gave the crowd a number of fabulous ideas geared to helping individuals write every day. Nathan Brown, former writing instructor at the University of Oklahoma and Poet Laureate of Oklahoma, shared a number of insights and helpful tips to help writers write every day.

Writing everyday may seem like an ominous task. In several one-on-one conversations I had before the Monday night’s meeting, a number of people in attendance expressed their daunting sentiments concerning sitting down and putting words on paper daily. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that they don’t want to write. To the contrary, they claim to have the desire, but lack two things 1) time and 2) ideas.

Nathan Brown definitely helped give each of us a means to write when inspiration seems to be avoiding us. He suggested making lists, exploring our memories, and recalling our senses. Through listing, you’ll always have something to write about. Think about those great family stories that get told at every gathering or better yet–what about those stories that nobody talks about but everyone knows. For inspiration, try recalling memories of your annual vacation spots, where you spent your summers, or where you grew up and writing them down. What are some of your strongest sensory memories? Maybe for you, it’s the smell of the apple pie that Granny baked or the taste of that first kiss. Mr. Brown’s pointers certainly were solid and offer opportunities for each of us to put pen to paper–or in our modern 21st-century–fingers to the keypad on our laptop. His insights prove useful if you’re a fiction or non-fiction writer.

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Carving out time, I think, is a bigger challenge for many of us, myself included. I find if I don’t set aside time to write, then it won’t happen. I’ve also had to schedule out blog posts an editorial calendar as a way of keeping me on schedule and posting regularly. I have to set daily word goals and make a point of finding time to write consistently. For me, that’s usually before I head out the door. But, I find myself writing at different times throughout the day, not just first thing in the morning. There are numerous nights that you’ll find me burning the midnight oil, sitting in the glow of my laptop screen, punching out words. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts—a lot of my writing the past several months has been academic in nature as I finish up my graduate degree.

I’ve found, the more I write and the more I focus on actually sitting down and producing material, the more opportunities to write present themselves. Writing is not for the faint of heart. There are days–even weeks–where it can be a very discouraging pursuit. Perhaps that’s why so many great writers simply write for themselves first, rather than an audience. Writing is something you have to do because you love it–and dare I say it—enjoy. This may seem like a rather sadistic endeavor–because in many ways it is. But there’s really nothing much better than someone being encouraged or entertained by the words you’ve written or by the story you’ve told.

Keep writing. Lord knows the story won’t write itself.

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This Is What Happens When You Reminisce About Good Times Past

Thankfully, Sweet T and I are at the age where we can look back and joyfully recall our childhood memories while commenting about how much times have changed since way back when. So it’s not unusual for me to find myself reminiscing about good times past.

Sweet T and I dig kicking back and binging on Netflix and we love watching movies. We talk a lot about current events and what’s going on in the world. Thanks to my 6th grade teacher Mrs. Williams (shout out to J.H. Moore Elementary!), I’m a bit of a news junkie. She urged all of her students to make a habit of reading the paper and watching the evening news (which was way more limited than it is today). Thankfully, T appreciates my news habit and indulges my penchant for docu-dramas. (FYI, if you haven’t watched it yet, check out Cuba Gooding Jr. portraying O.J. Simpson in ‘The People vs. O.J. Simpson’).

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Growing up in the Ark-La-Tex, I remember that we only had three channels, not counting PBS. The national news came on at 5:30 p.m., followed by the local news at 6. Walter Cronkite and Harry Reasoner were among the nightly staples, along with the local news pros like Al Pierce, Liz Swaine,  Al Bolton, and Bob Griffin. And who can forget the legendary Bill Moyers? Credibility and accuracy in reporting seemed to be more valued back then. Getting it right mattered.

The pressure of today’s 24-7-365 competitive information jungle has elevated being first above getting it right. As one of my old RTV professors observed back in the 80s–“It’s about ratings.” Ratings drive advertising. Advertising drives revenues. Viewers drive both. If we don’t watch, ratings decline, advertisers bail. That’s the case even more today than back then. But regardless of the age you live in, truth and accuracy matter.

A Clip from Bill Moyers ‘Growing Up in Marshall, Texas’

As a kid, there were a number of shows that were mainstays like ‘The Andy Griffith Show’, ‘The Rifleman‘, and ‘Bonanza’. The stories were not only entertaining but also taught life lessons. In those days, the good guys still won and people understood the difference between right and wrong. I find the best stories entertain and edify us.

Conjunction Junction

If you’re anywhere near my age, you’ll remember ABC’s ‘Schoolhouse Rock.’ The animated short made learning reading, writing, arithmetic, and science fun. The program, on-air originally from 1973-1985 and revived in the 90s for a second tour of duty, celebrates the 45th anniversary of its debut this year. The toe-tapping, sing-a-long taught us civics, history and much more. I can’t help but think it’s definitely a show whose multi-faceted lessons we seem to be missing today.

Energy Blues

Along my journey, I’ve learned that faith and science are not mortal opposites, but complement each other. I can be a person of faith and reason simultaneously.  Learning math, science, and how to read and write is critical to living excellently. Growing in our understanding of the Word of God helps us maneuver the trials and trails of life. To me, it’s more of a both/and rather than either/or. The wonders of science cause me to marvel at the work of God, not question it.

Keeping up with what’s going in the world is important. At the same time, having faith—believing in something greater than ourselves— is critical. Without hope, we remain lost.

Over the centuries, storytelling has served our civilization well. Stories teach, explore, and illuminate the world around us—present, past, and future. Once upon a time, people relied on oral storytelling, verbally handing down history and sharing current events. In our modern 21st century, we have more means to communicate at our disposal than ever before in history. Yet, at times, we talk right past each other.

I hope we remember to use these tools to tell stories that are important and pass along valuable lessons as a new generation comes of age. Stories teach us about who we were, who we are, and who we can be. Good stories teach us while making us laugh, cheer, scream, and cry. It’s why God gave them to us. And God should know. After all, when it comes to crafting a story, no one is better than the Lord.

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What’s your story? Tell it.

You can catch more of episodes of ‘Schoolhouse Rock!’ here.