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Show and Tell – One Writer’s Exercise

by on August 9, 2013

I’ve been trying to take a writing class each semester. Nothing so formal as enrolling in the local university, but a single class online or in person to learn different facets of writing. Recently, I finished a short story writing class and found it extremely helpful. The best part aside from the technical aspects was the interaction between me and the other students. I got to learn a lot about what they write and how. We were all very different. And that’s okay. Thanks to my professor for pointing that out.

This summer, there was just no time for a class. I did manage to work through a very interesting book – Showing & Telling: Learn How to Show & When to Tell for Powerful & Balanced Writing by Laurie Alberts. I loved it! During the five or six classes I’d taken over the last year and a half, “balance” has been the key word. Not this line that I’ve always heard – Show don’t tell.

There are things that should be told.

In one my favorite books of all time, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the reader lives a day in the life of a labor camp inmate in communist Russia. And I mean you feel like you lived it – the coldness, the hunger, the weight of each second creeping into the next. And in this novel where Time is meant to drag, the author has to tell us certain things. Ivan’s entire life isn’t shown, nor is every moment in his day. Transitions need to be made, a back story relayed, setting to be described. This novel uses telling to accomplish this.

Writers, when someone says that you’re telling and not showing, don’t automatically throw the paragraph or sentence away. Evaluate it with the notion that not everything should be shown. Is it necessary to move the plot forward? Is it something that can be shown through a character’s dialogue, action or internal thoughts?

Personally, I think Showing & Telling has made me a better critique partner. I have something more to say than – “Show don’t tell.” And I’m suddenly excited to begin rewrites for my WIP.

Take a look at something I used for one of the writing exercises. This assignment was to mix showing and telling within a scene:

Molly told me that I had imagined the scenario that was keeping me up at night. “The mind can be tricky especially in times of stress,” she had told me.

My wife was often right, somehow knowing that it would rain when the sun was full up in a cloudless sky or that the neighbor was cheating on his wife with the hostess at the Waffle House off of Sandler Road. However over the past few weeks, I had come to believe that I remembered my last visit to Lowe Academy correctly.

“Get out of the car, fool,” I told myself again.

I sat still.  By this point, my hands ached from the bite of my nails into my palms around the worn leather of my father’s old saddlebag. Still I sat, blinking away droplets of sweat, clutching the bag containing grant proposals and bequests to my chest and  just looked at it. The Lowe Mansion.

Shadows on the Teche PlantationHeralded as nothing short of a miracle by a national architectural magazine; the structure had celebrated its 155th anniversary with great fanfare last year. To this day it remained a shining example of an antebellum plantation home that had survived numerous storms including Hurricane Camille and Hurricane Katrina when everything within miles of it had fallen.

Everything else was gone. Except this perfectly white, sprawling house framed beneath a bow of oak trees.

Trees free from deformed limbs or bent trunks when the Magnolia in my front yard had been ripped from the very earth, century old roots and all, and had been planted into the sold Italian granite of my post-Katrina kitchen.

“Now!” I pushed against out into the steam curling up from the pavement with a grunt.

Ten years old and in good condition, the door of my Buick had never been so heavy at it was at that moment. One hundred and fifty –five years of rust creaked when that door groaned open.

Molly would tell me later that I’d imagined this as well.

I know what I think I told you. I know what I think I showed you. But does it work? What do you ladies and gents think?

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