Saturday, March 3, 2007

Show versus Tell, Take #3

Odds are the first critique a newbie writer receives suggests dropping the "to be" verbs and "show, don't tell."

Good enough, I suppose, although as Dave noted elsewhere on this blog, Papa Hemingway didn't mind relying on is and was occasionally.

"Perhaps he had been wrong. This was certainly the way to take it. You could most certainly not tell a damned thing about an American. He was all for Macomber again."

Active verbs can be excellent good tools, though, as Florence notes, and as Papa remembered as well as he wrote about The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.
"So they sat there in the shade where the camp was pitched under some wide-topped acacia trees with a boulder-strewn cliff behind them, and a stretch of grass that ran to the bank of a boulder-filled stream in front with a forest beyond it, and drank their just-cool lime drinks and avoided one another's eyes while the boys set the table for lunch."

I find I think most about showing rather than telling as I re-write and edit, primarily because that is the time I remember who, where, and what I want to write about, the time I remember what I truly want to say, the time I remember what I want the reader to see and think about and remember.

And that ramble through my memory or my imagination -- that film, those pictures in my head, those voices -- trigger sense memories.

And sense memories can generate superb perceptions -- bricks -- that become central to the architecture of the the story house I've set out to build.

Whenever we write, we deal with Scene or Action or Character, and, if we pause to think clearly about those elements, we will see each of them nearly always incorporates the five ways human beings perceive the world.
  • what's visible
  • what can be heard
  • what can be smelled
  • what can be touched
  • what can be tasted

Put the words show versus tell in writing in Google. That superb search tool generates more than seven million results. And the concept isn't a modern one. Here is a paragraph from Melville's Bartleby, The Scrivener clipped from the public domain archives of The Project Gutenberg.
"I have good reason to believe, however, that one individual who called upon him at my chambers, and who, with a grand air, he insisted was his client, was no other than a dun, and the alleged title-deed, a bill. But with all his failings, and the annoyances he caused me, Nippers, like his compatriot Turkey, was a very useful man to me; wrote a neat, swift hand; and, when he chose, was not deficient in a gentlemanly sort of deportment. Added to this, he always dressed in a gentlemanly sort of way; and so, incidentally, reflected credit upon my chambers. Whereas with respect to Turkey, I had much ado to keep him from being a reproach to me. His clothes were apt to look oily and smell of eating-houses. He wore his pantaloons very loose and baggy in summer. His coats were execrable; his hat not to be handled. But while the hat was a thing of indifference to me, inasmuch as his natural civility and deference, as a dependent Englishman, always led him to doff it the moment he entered the room, yet his coat was another matter. Concerning his coats, I reasoned with him; but with no effect. The truth was, I suppose, that a man of so small an income, could not afford to sport such a lustrous face and a lustrous coat at one and the same time. As Nippers once observed, Turkey's money went chiefly for red ink. One winter day I presented Turkey with a highly-respectable looking coat of my own, a padded gray coat, of a most comfortable warmth, and which buttoned straight up from the knee to the neck. I thought Turkey would appreciate the favor, and abate his rashness and obstreperousness of afternoons. But no. I verily believe that buttoning himself up in so downy and blanket-like a coat had a pernicious effect upon him; upon the same principle that too much oats are bad for horses. In fact, precisely as a rash, restive horse is said to feel his oats, so Turkey felt his coat. It made him insolent. He was a man whom prosperity harmed.

Almost all of the senses are evident in Melville's paragraph, and I doubt there is anyone who can read the segment without forming a picture of the man called Turkey.

Write. Write. Write. And then rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. That gives you six chances to employ the five senses to show your reader the things you want remembered.

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