Friday, March 11, 2011

Written by Gracey T., a sonogram tech, has written at length about the field of forensic science.

If you know anything about the basic craft of creative writing, you’ve most certainly heard the oft repeated “show, don’t tell.” What many teachers might not offer are the different techniques you can use to show, instead of telling. Here are some of the best tools to have in your writer’s arsenal, to keep your prose active and exciting.

1. Dialogue

Dialogue is one of the most powerful ways you can flesh out a character, without getting boring or obvious.

Take this dialogue from The Great Gatsby; Daisy and Gatsby, long lost lovers, have just been reunited and their meeting is full of awkward happiness. Daisy appears to be crying for no reason, while looking at a stack of Gatsby’s clothes:

“They’re such beautiful shirts,” she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such — such beautiful shirts before.”

The narrator of the story could have said, “Daisy seemed simultaneously ecstatic and scared upon seeing Gatsby,” but these two sentences of dialogue, where Daisy makes excuses for her spontaneous crying, say it all in a much more nuanced way.

2. Specific Details

Generic details like the line, “he was angry” are a classic symptom of telling and not showing. Hone in on details that are specific to your characters and setting, not that anyone could experience at any place or time.

See how Huck Finn describes his Pap’s anger in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

“Then the old man got to cussing and cussed everything and everybody he could think of, and then cussed them all over again to make sure he hadn't skipped any, and after that he polished off with a kind of a general cuss all round…”

Huck's account of his Pap's anger lets the reader know that Pap is experiencing a very specific type of drunken anger. It's related to the situation and the person being described and is not a generic, interchangeable sentence that could be found in any book or essay.

3. Avoid Clichés

A paragraph can be proofread and well-written, but if it’s got a cliché in it, it becomes dull and laborious to read. Why? A cliché is a metaphor, gone stale; it no longer offers layers of meaning or description, because readers have heard it so much they don’t actually consider the comparison being made anymore.

Take this description of a black Mary statue from the popular bildungsroman The Secret Life of Bees:

“She was black as could be, twisted like driftwood from being out in the weather, her face a map of all the storms and journeys she’d been through.”

Do you think you would have the same exciting visual of this statue if the metaphor was “she was black as coal” or “ she was black as tar” ? Those tired clichés don’t even bring an image into your mind, but the excellent metaphor above certainly does.


  1. LM Preston said...
    Thanks for the list. Love the purple. Funny thing is you are told no telling just show is hard for newbie writers to decipher. There are times when you need to tell, but only a little and after you show.
    Anonymous said...
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