Show, Don’t Tell: A Theme, Re-Visited

Janice wore a dark-blue skirt and white blouse. She had another meeting this afternoon. Friends of the Library, DAR–something like that.
    “There’s a missing person up at Jocassee,” I said, “so I might not be back for supper.”
    “That will be fine,” Janice said, not looking up from  the table. “I won’t be here anyway. Franny Anderson invited me to have dinner with her after the meeting.”
    I leaned over to kiss her.
    “Don’t,” she said. “You’ll smear my lipstick.”

In this small excerpt from one foot in eden, Ron Rash tells me a whole weight of things about the Sheriff’s marriage.  Rash does NOT have his narrator say that there is a vast, sad distance in this marriage, a distance that might not ever be bridged.  But I feel that looming gap.

And I get to know the clumsy, humble husband and his sadness.  I learn about the cold and angry wife who values her club meetings above her marriage.  The vignette makes me ache, even as I accept the scene and the loneliness and the inevitability of the relationship. Rash does a great job of showing and not telling.

It’s an oft-told dictum, and it’s one we’ve visited here before,  but it’s good to revisit from time to time: we need to SHOW our readers what we mean, not TELL them what they should be learning from our words.

And one of the best ways to do this is by writing conversation. It’s the words and the action in the conversation above that bring our pictures, our meanings, into such sharp perspective.

Consider this snippet from JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix:

    He had reached the top of the stairs, turned right, and almost walked into Ron, who was lurking behind a statue of Lachlan the Lanky, clutching his broomstick. He gave a great leap of surprise when he saw Harry and attempted to hide his new Cleansweep Eleven behind his back.
    “What are you doing?”
    “Er–nothing. What are YOU doing?”
    Harry frowned at him.
    “Come on, you can tell me! What are you hiding here for?”
    “I’m–I’m hiding from Fred and George, if you must know,” said Ron. “They just went past with a bunch of first years, I bet they’re testing stuff on them again, I mean they can’t do it in the common room now, can they, not with Hermione there.”
    He was talking in a fast, feverish way.
    “But what have you got your broom for, you haven’t been flying, have you?” Harry asked.
    “I–well–well, okay, I’ll tell you, but don’t laugh, all right?” Ron said defensively, turning redder every second. “I-I thought I’d try out for Gryffindor Keeper now that I’ve got a decent broom.  There. Go on. Laugh.”

Rowlings does not say:

–Harry is startled to find Ron there.
–Ron is nervous and embarrassed.
–Ron is really fearful of what his friend might say of his plan.

She doesn’t tell us those things because she doesn’t have to.  It’s all there in the stuttering tumble of Ron’s words.

Conversely, a BAD conversation–and I don’t have an example for you–can sound a flat gong, or put us to sleep.

How do we write the first and not the second?

I believe it’s a matter of listening and learning.

We need to hear when people are talking.  We need to write down the things we hear.  So we walk through a noisy disagreement downtown, navigating around a slender, tightly wound young woman who is shrilling at a young man.  She’s  dressed in the kind of clothes you’d wear to a highly professional office or an expensively retail job; he is broad and thick and rumpled– rumpled of hair and rumpled of clothes.

There is a long pause after she finishes and then finally the young man rumbles a brief, succinct answer.

Even without the words, the action gives us a feel for what’s going on.  The conversation, of course, brings the whole picture into sharp focus.

Maybe we see an interaction between parent and child in the busy supermarket. Surrounded by temptation, the child begs.  How does she do that?  Does she ask, straight out?  Does she wheedle?  What does the child do that shows me the difference between asking and begging behavior, between pleading and whining?

And how does the parent react?  Is there calm firmness, weak-willed negotiation, or loud protestation?

What we see and hear tells us how frazzled that parent is, and how spoiled the child. We can guess what scenario has played out, again and again, in the supermarket, by the tiny slice of life we observe today.

And we can write that down, thinking about how we share personality, emotion, situation with our readers.

Read this exchange between Katniss and Finnick in Suzanne Collins’ Catching Fire.  The snippet takes place in the Games, after they’ve encountered a searing fog that spots their skin with red, itching lumps, disfiguring and disabling them.

  “Poor Finnick. Is this the first time in your life your haven’t looked pretty?” I say.
    “It must be. The sensation’s completely new. How have you managed it all these years?” he asks.
    “Just avoid mirrors. You’ll forget about it,” I say.
    “Not if I keep looking at you,” he says.

I learn a lot about Katniss, the narrator, from that little exchange.  I have a clear, true picture, too, of what Finnick must look like and how he responds to the world.  And the fact that these two are talking and cracking wise while dealing with the burning red spots tells me something about both of them and their reactions to pain and trouble.

We might not see young wizards longing for a Quidditch match this week.  We might not see young rebels plotting to outsmart an evil government.  But we will see people talking–old and young people, kind and harsh people, people who are happy, relieved, agitated, and anxious.

We can observe–what do they DO?  What verbs can I use to bring their actions to light, and show another just what was going on?

We can listen.  What words did they use?  How did they use them?  Did we strain to hear the whisper or shudder away from a screech? Received, how did those words affect the one they were intended to reach?

And then we can go back and re-create the conversation in writing–not to expose or embarrass, but just for our stewpot of meaning, our practice work where we find and refine, and then refine our writing voices again.

So that, when we’re writing to share, to post, to publish, the act and habit of revealing through conversation is sharpened and honed.

So that our readers say, “Oh, man.  I know EXACTLY how she felt,” or, “Brrrr! I knew someone who was just like that!”

We observe and interpret, we translate into written word. And we connect, deep and true, because we have shown, not dictated.

Happy blogging, my friends!