“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” –Anton Chekhov
For the past year I have edited and revised my novel manuscript in order to prepare for a writer’s conference, and in doing so, I have come face to face with many issues and obstacles that confront a majority of writers.
One of these nasty little problems is what many call “Showing vs. Telling”.
Essentially, the writer should always aim to demonstrate a point, create a scene, or paint an image. Give your readers the tools necessary in imagining what is happening.
Simply put: don’t tell them, show them.
However, this is an issue I never thought I would really have to worry about. I had spent time in several classes during college exploring writing and makes good writing. I am no stranger to showing vs. telling.
So imagine my surprise when I noticed (thanks to the critiques of an amazing writer friend) that I had several cases when I should be showing instead of telling. It goes without saying that it was a humbling gut check. I had spent many hours studying writing, I had been working on this book for years, and just when I thought I had things right where I wanted them, reality proved to me otherwise. Doubt definitely crept in at that point.
As I contemplated drowning myself in pity and cookie dough ice cream, I was suddenly reminded of what inspired me to write in the first place. My first writing love, if you will; poetry.
Often we think of fiction and poetry as completely different animals, which for the most part is true. However, we fail to realize their relationship can be a symbiotic one. If understood properly, these seemingly opposite forces begin to draw from another, and perpetuate each other.
In my case, poetry saved me from days of wallowing (and, most likely, a sugar coma), and gave me the perfect tools to fix my problem. My fiction began drawing from my poetry tool belt, and I was able to strip away simplistic, unimaginative, and downright lazy sentences, and replace them with imagination-fueling, beautifully complicated, and thought-provoking sentences that not only presented feelings in a tangible way, but also created a more atmospheric feeling to my writing.
I know that many people believe poetry is the stage and arena where writers can bring out all of their abstract thoughts, emotional baggage, and obscure sentences. While there are some reputable poets who can do the following with class and elegance, that is not solely what poetry is about.
Poetry focuses on language and images. It is not only concerned with the technicalities of writing, but intrinsically centered around the feelings and emotions that images and language provokes. Unfortunately, many young poets do not realize the respect they must pay to the core elements of poetry, thus resulting in the misrepresentation of poetry and its function.
However, this is not a rant or lecture on poetry.
I was able to recall the years of study, and reapply those lessons learned in the late hours in a classroom. I immediately looked back on some of the sentences my friend had indicated were more telling than showing, and rewrote them using a poetic perspective. It’s important as writer to identify a goal; a direction, and mine was to not simply say something. I had to show it, I had to make the reader do more than read; they had to feel.
In their book, Self-editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King dedicated an entire chapter on exploring showing and telling, and when each one should be used. On the point of emotions, this quote stood out to me: “To write exposition at length…is to engage your readers’ intellects. What you want to do is to engage their emotions.”
With that goal in mind, I focused on the details that seemed unimportant, then I rewrote them with words that painted a picture and had a built-in connotation. Readers come to a book with built-in emotions, we just have to tap into it.
The opening quote is an excellent example of this. A reader shouldn’t simply know the moon is shining, they have to see it and it is our job, as writers, to make that happen.
Poetry provides the tools and knowledge to do this more seamlessly, and I honestly would suggest any writer to practice writing poetry. It doesn’t need to be complicated, necessarily, or even the best poem the world has ever seen, but you should always aim to paint an image.
My creative writing professor drove a single concept into our heads throughout the entire year studying under him: “Give me a scene.”
Browne and King also stressed the importance of a scene, “Since engagement is exactly what a fiction writer wants to accomplish, you’re well advised to rely heavily on immediate scenes to put your story across. You want to draw your readers into the world you’ve created, make them feel a part of it, make them forget where they are. And you can’t do this effectively if you tell your readers about your world secondhand. You have to take them there.”
Fiction has a clear goal that poetry has the tools to meet because the goal is a common one. An image. A scene.
So fellow writers, as you struggle the common struggle of showing vs. telling, look for help from an unlikely ally and learn the basics of poetry. It could be your secret weapon in a fight that keeps many writers from accomplishing their goals.
A book that was influential in my writing of poetry is The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo. In this book, he does an extraordinary job in explaining the power of images and where inspiration can come from. I believe Hugo hits the point I am trying to make rather well. “I suspect that the true or valid triggering subject is one in which physical characteristics or details correspond to attitudes the poet has toward the world and himself.”
I hope that this is helpful and I highly recommend reading both books. Let me know what your thoughts are on the showing vs. telling struggle, or even your thoughts on the role of poetry in fiction in the comment section below.
Thank you for reading, my friends, and, as always, good luck and godspeed.
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