SHOW DON’T TELL
Don’t write that the moon is shining.
Show the glint of light on broken glass. Anton Chekhov
Rather than tell the reader that a character is angry, sad, upset or grieving, SHOW IT.
Alice Pung in Unpolished Gem shows she is ashamed of her parents by writing that she insisted they drop her off a block away from her school.
Elizabeth Jolly in Miss Peabody’s Inheritance shows that Miss Thorn is angry. ‘She wanted to rip off both Edgley’s legs and twist her silly head off.
To SHOW don’t TELL applies particularly when writing a setting. Often what makes us really remember a book it is the picture the author paints of places in the story.
Think of the sunbaked, salty picture Tim Winton has given us of coastal Western Australia. An Open Swimmer (1982) Shallows (1984) That Eye, The Sky (1986) In the Winter Dark (1988) Cloudstreet (1991) The Riders (1994) Blueback (1998) Dirt Music (2001) Breath (2008) Lockie Leonard (1990-1997) Eyrie (2013
Or Emily Bronte’s foggy and dank evocation of the Moors in Wuthering Heights. Or narrow fetid back lanes of Ruth Park’s trilogy (The Harp in the South Trilogy/Penguin Books.) about depression-era inner-city Sydney and you can almost smell the ripe and rotting tropical humidity of Arundati Roy’s God of Small Things. The very mention of these titles conjures up the places they are set.
Here’s a favourite: The beginning of Michael Ondaatje’s Running In The Family set in tropical Asia.
Drought since December.
All across the city men roll carts with ice clothed in sawdust. Later on, during a fever, the drought still continuing, his nightmare is that the thorn trees in the garden send their hard roots underground towards the house climbing through windows so they can drink sweat off his body, steal the saliva off his tongue. He snaps on the electricity just before daybreak. For twenty-five years he has not lived in this country, though up to the age of eleven he slept in rooms like this—with no curtains, just delicate bars across the windows so no one could break in. And the floors of red cement polished smooth, cool against his feet. Dawn through a garden. Clarity leaves, fruit, the dark yellow of the King Coconut. This delicate light is allowed only a brief moment of the day. In ten minutes the garden will light in a blaze of heat, frantic with noise and butterflies.
There are so many images in these paragraphs which evoke the languid heat of tropical Asia and Ondaatje uses all the senses to bring them to life. The sight of men pushing carts of ice, barred windows, the cool feel of the red polished cement. The smell of the humid heat.
This is good writing. It appears effortless, but each detail helps transport us. We can see and feel and smell the Ceylon of Ondaatje’s childhood.
Exercise: Write about something very familiar—a very familiar house, school room, or workplace . Take your reader there, create a picture, draw it in words so your reader can see it, smell it, feel it.
If I am writing a fiction project and want to write about the house in my story I visualise it first. I Allow my mind’s eye to walk through the house. I start outside, approach up the front path, climb the steps, go through the front door, down the hall, from room to room. And I ask questions. What happened in each room? Who lived in each room? I try to find a telling image about the people in the house and the relationships between them. This can help the reader gain a sense of the house.
One of my favourite memories is when, every night after dinner, Dad went to the bush-house to water his orchids. He told everyone that he had given up smoking, but acrid cigarette smoke shrouded delicate blooms and a multitude of butts were embedded in the tanbark floor.
The idea is to make the house come alive for the reader. Think of the five senses—sight, smell, touch, hearing, taste. Think hard not only about how the house looked. Did it have a distinctive smell, or odd sounds? What did it feel like? Embossed wallpaper? Polished floorboards? Carpets? Laminex or wooden bench tops? Was it new and modern or old and musty?
There is no need for long passages of description, what tends to work better are pithy images of sensual information.
Examples: Cicadas buzzing in the big trees down by the park. Someone hammering, intermittent bored hammering. Sweat on her lip. Steamy air. Sun after rain. A fly buzzing, bashing into the windowpane. Palm fronds rustling. Sunlight patterns on the curtain, shifting with the light breeze. A mouse scrabbles in the wall. A car drones by
The point is to evoke in the reader a sense of a place that means a lot to you.
I may or may not end up using the writing in a finished piece. That doesn’t matter. The pay-off is that I will find that greater setting detail will find its way into all my writing, even my freewrites (when for 15 minutes I put pen to paper and write whatever comes to mind) and my ‘writer’s eye’ will become more attuned to things around me.
Remember: Freewriting is where you discover the unexpected, hidden parts of your story.
Rewriting is where you fix up the glitches and lumpy bits