Thursday, June 2, 2011

Writing Workshop: Show, Don't Tell

Turk tilted his chair against the kitchen wall, scratched his middle-aged paunch, and felt the warmth of the late summer sun on his gnarled and flaming knuckles. It had been a fine Saturday morning until this crazy woman he worked for announced another out and out war with Sam Lester. “It’s like spittin' in the man’s face,” he told Ruby. “He’ll have to spit back, and Sam has got breath like a double-seater."Son of a Gun by Marty Halverson
  How much do you learn about Turk from this paragraph?

Turk was my favorite character when I wrote Son of a Gun. He was going to be just a walk-on, Ruby's boss, but the more I wrote about him, the more he told me about himself. I saw him bake sourdough for the cowboys on a cattle drive, pick his teeth after dinner, develop a paternal crush on Ruby—he grew on me.

After listening to his tall-tales, lounging by a crackling fire, with the aroma of horses and steaming coffee nearby, I couldn't hurt his feelings by not including them. So I let him tell the stories to the little boys, and even my editor couldn't cut them out.

James N. Frey wrote, "If, after you have created your characters you do not see them in your mind's eye walking, talking, breathing, perspiring . . . put them on the couch and start asking them questions. By the time you've thoroughly interviewed your character he should have become like a dear friend or a hated enemy. Once you feel that close, you should be confident working with him."

Introducing a character and then allowing her to be observed is the best technique, whether you're creating an imaginary friend for a book, fleshing out a kindergarten teacher for a memoir, or discovering yourself for your blog. Instead of telling readers what to think ("he's sixty, overweight and has arthritis") show them ("Turk scratched his middle-aged paunch and felt the sun warm his gnarled and flaming knuckles.") Let them draw their own conclusions. Remember trying to convince your dad that your boyfriend was a hard worker? It wasn't as effective as the time he helped your dad move. Suddenly your dad was saying, "Hang onto him. He's a hard worker!" That's the difference between telling and showing.

Try it. List three of your own traits. Now use those traits to describe yourself, without using the actual words. "He lifted her chin, but she wouldn't look him in the eye after her outburst." Did you guess that she was short, stubborn and emotional

Show, Don't Tell assignment: 
 Leave your description in a comment. The next person guesses the three characteristics, and then writes a sentence about themselves.  

Come on—show us what a character you are!


Raejean said...

She sighed as she walked by the computer - again. The story buzzing in her head prodded her to let it flow. The pull to finish planning her daughter's birthday party was stronger, aided by the pile of laundry waiting to be folded and the bills with pending due dates. Feeling like Cinderella trying to get to the ball, she hoped the idea would still be there in a few hours.

Crystal said...

A mom who is too busy with daily tasks to be what she really yearns to - an author, hiding underneath it all - hopefully she will remember the story later :)

Smiling gently as she snipped the last pink threads and held up the frilly apron, she anticipated her daughter-in-law's reaction and promised herself that she wouldn't be sidetracked by piles of dishes or laundry any longer.

P.S. Thank you for this wonderful challenge! I've come over via Marta's blog :)

Anonymous said...

I'd say Crystal is feminine, takes joy from creating beauty, and feels guilty doing what she loves.

Now for me:
She quickly ground the last of the cake in the disposal as she munched her celery stick."I can't wait to get these levi's off," she thought.

I'm not a blogger but I couldn't resist this assignment!


BusyB said...

Anonymous desires comfort over style. She is trying to overcome temptation but finds the discipline lacking.

Maggie teetered on her high heels. She kept getting stuck in the grass chasing her brothers. Mama called,"Get over here and clean out the car." Why do they get to run and play?