Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Show DON'T Tell

A skilled author paints pictures in her readers' minds.  Like an artist who chooses different brush strokes and colors to portray an image, a professional author needs her own palette of techniques.  Sensory language, strong verbs, slanted words, and concrete words are the author's equivalent to the artist's paint.

Sensory Language

Consider the following sentences:

A) Cheryl was really sad.
B) "I can't believe he's gone," Cheryl sobbed, tears streaking her reddened cheeks.

Which of these examples shows Cheryl's sadness and which one tells about it? 

There's a place for both of these sentences, but Sentence B is the obvious "showing" example.

We all know what the five senses are: sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste.  Some writers even refer to a sixth sense -- a protagonists' intuition.  A reader can only see what your protagonist is seeing or hear what she's hearing.  This is where sensory words come into play.  A word like reddened can be used to show (as in Sentence B) the color of another character's face.  Similarly, words like squeaky, rough, salty, etc. give us a sense to latch onto while we sketch the scene on our mental "movie screen."

This is basic knowledge, but young writers don't always understand it.  To help my students, I used to ask them to create a chart with a column for each of the five senses.  Next we watched a 30 to 60 second video clip from a popular movie, jotting notes about what the character was seeing and hearing.  On a second run-through, the students focused on touch, taste, and smell.  These notes could then be used to construct a written version that "showed" the scene.

One word of caution:  Beginning writers (even some not-so-beginning writers) think phrases like "he smelled pollution," "she heard the traffic," etc. are examples of quality sensory description.  It helps to ask, "What is one word that describes that odor or one word that describes that sound."

Strong Verbs

Perhaps even more powerful than a few well-placed sensory words is one carefully chosen strong verb.  A strong verb is an action word with a specific associated image.  Consider the differences in the following sentences:

A) Jim walked down the street.
B) Jim staggered down the street.
C) Jim limped down the street.
D) Jim strutted down the street.

Notice how weak the verb walk is compared to strong verbs like staggered, limped, and strutted.  Sentences B, C, and D create vividly specific images.

Slanted Words

In a motion picture, a director chooses different types of music to create atmosphere and mood.  "Slanted" words (Don't confuse these with italicized words!) are an author's equivalent to mood altering music.  A slanted word usually has a very dark or light feeling and will manipulate a reader's perception.  For example:

A) Raindrops pattered gently against the misty window pane.
B) Raindrops trickled like oozing blood down the cracked window pane.

Notice the contrast between the words pattered, gently, and misty versus oozing, blood, and cracked.  These words are powerful.  They persuade the reader to feel the emotions you, the author, wish to impose upon them.

As an exercise for your students (or yourself) try watching one of the happier, sunnier scenes from the motion picture The Sound of Music.  Next, contrast this scene with the tense climax in the Nonnberg Abbey.  What colors and lighting are used to create lighter versus darker moods?  What objects contribute to these feelings?  The same techniques -- in written form -- apply to novels and short stories.

Concrete Words

Concrete words add a sense of reality to a story.  The word car doesn't create the vivid mental picture of a more specific word like Porsche.  Often a concrete word will tell you something about a character's personality.  The college professor who lectures in Wellington boots is probably quite different from her colleague who shows up on campus in Birkenstock sandals and argyle socks.  

You might argue that your world is too unique or alien for this technique to be effective, but some of the best fantasy and science fiction writers use it to great effect.  If you need an example, try exploring the alien world created by author Anne McCaffrey in her Dragonriders of Pern series.  It doesn't hurt to create names for alien species of plants, animals, and foods.  If you use them in context, your savvy readers will quickly come to accept them as a real part of your created world.

A simple activity that helps young writers recognize concrete words is to assign them categories like "Breeds of Dogs," "Gemstones," or "Names of Flowers" then have them compete in groups to see who can come up with the most words in two or three minutes.  Don't forget to teach them that concrete words are most effective when used like salt or pepper.  The right amount, used sparingly, spices things up.  Too much ruins the meal.