Show and tell. I remember getting so hyped in kindergarten to show off whatever pet rock I currently owned or my latest horrific drawing.
But let’s be real for a minute. In kindergarten you can barely string two sentences together without losing your entire audience. The glory of show and tell had nothing to do with the telling, it was all about the show.
When you read a book, a good book mind you, you’re often so engrossed in the story that you miss the fact that the author is describing to you the richness of their world. When you write a book, a good book mind you, it’s easy to get caught up in wanting the reader to know the story as fast as possible. You’re excited, it makes sense. Unfortunately, too much telling ends up looking a bit like word vomit.
But, that doesn’t mean we show off all our goodies too. There’s a balance, but yes, the scales do tip more toward the show side. Sorry friends, Lady Justice isn’t completely impartial.
So what does that mean for you?
It means that when you write and edit you need to look out for opportunities to give your story some flavor. Instead of giving your audience their usual mac and cheese (which they love), you might want to change things up with a new dish or two. Maybe some stir fry or a juicy burger.
How do you switch gears from telling to showing? Here are some simple ideas to get your brain in the right gear:
This is currently my favorite exercise in grad school right now. Choose a classic, any classic, and rewrite a scene. Focus on showing the story through action, thoughts, and emotions. Instead of writing “It was cold.” try “His skin prickled as the goosebumps trailed up his arms. He pulled his coat tighter against the chill.” It’s a little dramatic, but you get the picture. Go as big as you want, knowing you may have to tone it down when you get to the final draft.
From Script to Screen
Find a product you love around the house. Anything from your clothes to your couch to your favorite candle. If you had to advertise this product on TV, what would you want to show. For example, I have a White Barn scented candle lit next to me. It supposedly smells like Cactus Blossom, which unfortunately I can’t verify. But that doesn’t matter. How would I market this product? How would I show on screen that it smells delicious?
I could show someone relaxing in the tub with this candle lit nearby. I can show the flames reflecting off something personal, like a family photo to suggest it’s good for everyone. I can show someone freaking out about not finding a lighter, because using this candle is obviously life or death.
Try to think about objects and people (note: not the same thing) in terms you aren’t used to. When you think in ways you aren’t comfortable with you tend to stumble across gold.
From Stage to Script
Take straight dialogue and turn it into straight action. No spoken or thought words. None. Only action. It’s similar to the first exercise except that you’re using a play, which are notoriously dialogue heavy. How would you take a song from Cats and rewrite it into an alley scene between two strays? Or how would you take the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet (gag me) and show it without either of them speaking? Kinda fun, right?
Listen to my friend Anton Chekhov. He knows what’s good for you (and me). Take the time to flesh out the details of your writing, letting your reader experience the story with your characters. It will engage your audience and keep them coming back for more.
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