Show Don’t Tell: A Golden Rule of Writing for Aspiring Authors

Show Don’t Tell: A Golden Rule of Writing for Aspiring Authors

One of the trickier ‘golden rules of great writing’ that can be difficult to understand and execute is the ‘show don’t tell’ rule.

Anton Chekhov wrote, ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’

What does it mean to show not tell?

It’s the technique of painting a picture for the reader rather than spelling out what a character is sensing or feeling.

When should we use the ‘show don’t tell’ rule?

Generally, when we’re writing about emotions and senses, showing works well. However, we need a balance of showing and telling in a text. Telling is more effective when we’re summarizing backstory or describing action.

Why should we use it?

When we show, we paint an image for the reader (like in movies) so the reader gets to interpret and feel his or her own emotional response. This is how we create rich, vivid text that is open to interpretation. It makes writing inviting, not didactic.

E.g. She was grief struck (telling) versus ‘Something cold flickered inside her, memories of her mother moved like minnows beneath a dark surface.’(showing)

When we ‘show’ we leave spaces for the reader to fill in with his or her imagination.

The movie director, David Mamet talks about ‘telling the story in cuts…through a juxtaposition of images that are basically uninflected…a shot of a teacup. A shot of a spoon. A shot of a fork. A shot of a door. Let the cut tell the story. Because otherwise you have not got dramatic action, you have narration. If you slip into narration, you are saying, ‘you’ll never guess why what I just told you is important to the story.’ It’s unimportant that the audience should guess why it’s important to the story. It’s important simply to tell the story. Let the audience be surprised.’

Telling robs the reader of his or her own emotional take on the situation. It flattens instead of expands the text.

‘She is lonely’ versus ‘She looks for a kind face but never sees one.’

When we ‘show’ we’re letting the reader in, we’re writing for the reader. Showing opens rather than closes the text.

‘He felt hot’ versus ‘Large half moons of sweat grew at his armpits.’

The writer Adam Robinson’s exercise for showing not telling is: drop an adjective into a sentence like this ‘He was so….. that he once.’ Or ‘the day was so cold that…’ Then delete the first half of the sentence.

Have fun experimenting.

Keep writing – the sentences you don’t write keep you where you are. The ones you do, take you places.

PS: Show Don’t Tell is just one key element of writing. For more tips and exercises to strengthen your craft, sign up for my 7 Day Free Writing Challenge.

Join the 7 Day FREE Writing Challenge

 

This writing journey over one week will serve those who are new to writing and don’t know where to begin or what to write about. As well as seasoned writers, we all need to reignite an old flame with words to see if there’s any chemistry.

Join me for my next 7 Day Free Writing Challenge and learn simple but profound writing tricks.

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Nobody Can Do This, But Me

When I was younger, I believed I needed rescuing.

One day, sitting at an airport, I realised I didn’t want to be that person. I was homeward bound, after galivanting with no purpose, when I suddenly recognised that I could take responsibility for myself, and that I didn’t need to sit around waiting for someone to do it for me. That was the day I began to grow. I took charge of me. I decided to hold myself accountable for the unfolding of my life.  And since that moment, I have grown and evolved into the person I am today. Once I was a lost, lonely girl waiting to be saved.  But now when I look into my past, and see the me I have become, I am in awe of what I have achieved, especially because back then I didn’t know I could.

I run my own Pilates studio now.  And at the beginning of last year I realized I was at another crossroads. I was tired. Tired of being beholden to ideas and thoughts that were not my own, of trying to make everybody happy, and of not sticking to my boundaries. I took a month sabbatical, and the time away helped me see things from a different vantage point. I became clear on what I liked about my profession (and what I liked about myself), why I wanted to teach, and what my boundaries were. I asked myself, ‘What did I want to impart’, ‘Who was I willing to work with (and who was I not)’, and ‘What was important to me?’ I worked on channelling my energy from ‘have to do’s’ to ‘want to do’s.’ I rediscovered my joy of teaching. I remembered what I wanted people to feel when they were in my communal space, and what I wanted to give back to those who trusted me to move them.

I began to see who I was again. I had never been one to put down roots, for years being a restless wanderer, but over the years this changed. I brought my energy, my trust, my process of belonging in my own body – of falling into my skin – to others who needed a safe place to learn to do the same. My sabbatical happened to coincide with an imminent house and studio move, and I realised I would be able to create a studio space to encompass these insights.

About  Robyn

Robyn Spacey is a born and bred Capetonian. Though she hasn’t travelled extensively,  with a mountain, beach and city on her doorstep, she believes she lives in one of the most beautiful places in the world. Robyn is an avid reader, a movement teacher, andmother to a young girl. In her work, she uses words to impart ideas to clients to visualise the unseen spaces under their skins. This trusting of words to bodies has translated into the belief in the power of her own story, the confidence to pen them onto the page, and a deepening into the process of writing her book. She is, has always been, and will continue to be a writer.

Get more of Robyn at www.movementsanctuary.co.za or www.thebookclubblog.co.za

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I did it. I made it happen because I am no longer waiting for someone to save me. I realized a dream because I believed in myself, and in taking that next step.

For me, 2018 was the year of change, and so while all of this was happening (renovating takes time), I was also writing the first draft of my book. And I realised writing is a lot like rebranding. It is a vision only I can see. A dream only I can feel.

My book lives only inside of me. Inside my soul. There are characters who slowly reveal themselves to me as I begin to trust my vision, my words. But this book requires tenacity, effort and persistence. Bravery. It requires that I put in the work. It demands belief in myself and what I have to say. It needs rescuing from the very heart of me, by me.

No one else is going to do the work. Only I can let the words out, one after another, to trap them onto the pages of reality, to become tangible. To be a reflection of what I can achieve, of who else I am becoming. It takes time and trust. Belief, even in my darkest moments of doubt. It takes re-writing as many times as I need to. It takes asking the right questions, visualising, stretching the mind, and confidence in the transformation so eventually, with a little help from my mentor, I will manifest my book into reality.

One word at a time.

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The Write Time

When is the right time to write? Or do anything for that matter?

There are proverbs, quotes, and metaphors galore, to justify time management – be it an excuse to procrastinate, or a drive to be productive.

To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven. – Ecclesiastes 3.1

The trouble is, you think you have time. – Buddha

Almost everything will work again if you unplug for a few minutes. Including you. – Anne Lamott

Let’s start by taking a smallish nap or two. – Winnie the Pooh

Sometimes it’s perfectly okay, and absolutely necessary, to shut down, kick back, and do nothing. – Lori Deschene

(In the interests of complete transparency, I spent three hours procrastinating by searching for quotes on procrastination.)

I used to talk endlessly about exercise. I thought about it often. But my kids were young, I was working, and I had a house to run, so there wasn’t enough time. Consequently, I didn’t have a healthy body or a healthy relationship with the hill outside my house. One morning I put my walking shoes on in the hope I might exercise later that day. While they were on, I figured I’d walk to the letterbox and back – after all, every little bit counts. Once I got to the letterbox, I kept going. I walked for an hour – including up the hill outside my house, and a whole pile of other inclines and declines of various degrees. All it required was the decision to start, and I was rewarded with the smell of the eucalyptus along the cliffs, and the salty wind in my hair and on my cheeks as I walked along the beach.

There’s no right time for most things – there’s only now. It’s easy to find a reason to procrastinate – I can name ten things I’m procrastinating on right now (including getting out of bed and having a shower).

Procrastination means something else has prioritised our time.

We all have the same number of hours in the day, but if writing is important enough, I’ll procrastinate on something else (having a shower) and attack the keyboard instead. If it’s not important enough, I’ll have my shower, drink a cup of tea, walk up the hill, and vacuum the floor. Sure, I’ll have a nice clean floor, but is that all I want to achieve in my day?

.

About Simone

Crazy hair, solitude seeker, at peace in the natural world, Simone Yemm dedicated over three decades as a professional flautist and teacher. In 2008 she completed a Master’s in Journalism, specialising in editing, and continues to hone her skills as a writer. After a series of crises led to an emotional breakdown, Simone developed a passionate interest in mental health and shares her story to educate and support the wider community. With 25 years of marriage under her belt, she successfully raised three and a half young men and a chocolate-brown Burmese cat. A mean feat never to be underestimated.

www.simonelisa.com

Penning words is an incredibly important part of my life. When I write, I feel a sense of purpose and accomplishment, my mind feels clearer and more peaceful, and ironically, I become more productive with other aspects of my life (like showering and walking up hills). When I let the habit slip, my mental health declines, I procrastinate on everything else anyway, and I feel a sense of guilt for not having done the one thing I want to do.

I don’t need to write a book every day – every little bit of writing counts. I just need to make the decision to sit at the keyboard and start.

The right time to write is the same as the right time to do anything important or valuable in life – right now.

Whenever possible. I can’t wait until the perfect allotted time frame arrives – because that never happens. Maybe I only have fifteen minutes. Perhaps there are distractions everywhere. It could be there are twenty things I should be doing, and I have to choose. There is never a perfect time to exercise, eat well, have babies, start a business, or write a book. There is simply a choice about how to use the time we have. If the only available time in the day is early mornings, so be it. Or late at night? Okay.

Exercise was important to me, so I created time and space. For six years I’ve exercised regularly, and my body is grateful. 

Writing is important to me, so I create time and space for it. I sometimes lose the habit, but when I do get my thoughts on paper, my heart, mind and soul are all incredibly grateful.

And the more often I do it, the more writing becomes a part of my daily routine and a true priority.

To quote the wisdom of Gandalf the Grey, “All we have to decide, is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

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I was so disquieted by this side of myself that I quickly began turning inward. I started to question why I had applied for the residency and whether I deserved it. Who was I to represent an entire movement, shaking free from the societal norms of silence regarding infertility? What was I doing masquerading as a writer with ideas and skills to pass onto others? How could I have thought that my proposed programs would even appeal to the public, let alone connect them in any meaningful way to their own writing? Where had I found the audacity to even apply?

I spiraled. I sunk rapidly into self-doubt, and the inner critic I have spent the last year learning to dismiss crept up behind me, sunk her fingers into the flesh of my upper arms, and held on, hissing countless shortcomings against the back of my neck.

I spent the next three weeks flip-flopping. Some days I found myself grateful and looking forward to the residency. Other times, I couldn’t find reprieve from tension headaches and aching shoulders. I carefully programmed and diligently carried out preparations. I interrogated my motives and challenged my integrity.

The one thing I didn’t do was write.

.

About Jennifer

Jennifer wrote her first poem at the age of six, and she has been involved in the world of words as an editor, a blogger, and an article writer.  She is published in and shortlisted for a growing number of local, national, and international electronic and print publications, regularly reads at literary events, co-runs a writing group, and actively pursues educational opportunities to further develop her craft.  Most recently she had an essay, titled Bairnlorn, appear in the Globe & Mail, placed first in the My City, My Words poetry contest, and wrote and handcrafted two board books for her son.

You can follow Jennifer on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and/or Pinterest.

I had allowed the denigrator inside to stay my hand – to leave my pen capped upon the table, my laptop still beneath a pile of disheveled papers. I was disappointed in my paralyzed state and worried of what it could mean for my forthcoming residency. So when a friend pointed out an opportunity to craft a story for a contest with a quickly approaching deadline, I chose to dismiss the snicker within and to embrace my competency and creativity.

I wrote. I edited. I reworked and polished. By the time I was done, I was proud of the piece I submitted, and – more importantly – I had reconnected to my belief in myself and in what I know I can accomplish as a writer. More to the point, I had gotten out of my own way.

There is a danger in too much analysis. Being someone who has elected to pursue a passion founded in looking and thinking deeply, I recognize the irony in these words. But if all we do is examine, prod and second-guess, we will never get to the work. Silencing the voices – be they unabashedly prideful or shriveling in their timidity – allows us to get what we must onto the page.

I know the cacophony of conflicting thoughts will return. Again and again, I will have to face the introspective noise of my mind. It is inevitable. However, I chose how finely I tune into the din and how I counter its effect. This time, I was able to prevail because of a deadline. Now and then, it takes breaking down my goals. It could involve the skills of a good listener or the bend in a familiar forest path. It may require the soft, arching back of a cat beneath my hand, the scent of Nag Champa as I meditate, or the sweetened bitterness of a caramel latte. The key could be space or perspective or focus.

Mostly, it is simply about getting myself into the chair, in front of my screen or notebook, fingers poised.

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Catching Up to the Stories Inside

Catching Up to the Stories Inside

I recently went to see A Star is Born at the movies: the remake with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. Bradley Cooper directs and also plays the lead male character, Jackson Maine – a singer/songwriter and alcoholic.

The morning after seeing the film, I read a New York Times article about Cooper and the movie. Here’s an extract from the article:

“In 2011 Clint Eastwood talked to Cooper about the role of Jackson Maine. But Cooper was hesitant. He was 36; he didn’t think he could play someone that weathered. ‘I knew I would be acting my balls off to try to be what that character was, because I was just too – I just hadn’t lived enough, I just knew it,’ he said.”

Later that year, Cooper went home to take care of his father, who was dying from lung cancer… Cooper held his father in his arms when he took his last breath. In that moment, everything changed for the actor.

By 2015, he felt ready to play the role (of Jackson Maine) in A Star is Born. Now he looked in the mirror and saw it. “Honestly,” Cooper said. “I could see it on my face. I just felt it.”

A few weeks ago, I was trawling through notes to help me start writing a chapter in my book, and I came across a questionnaire Joanne Fedler had asked me to fill out before she started mentoring me – way back in July 2013. The first question on the form was ‘What are you writing or what would you like to write about?’ And right in front of me was a one-liner I’d written which summarises EXACTLY the book I’m writing now. Not the one I started a year ago, but the one I started in October, because the first one wasn’t working.

.

About Elana

 

Elana Benjamin is a writer, qualified lawyer and mother of two. Her work has been published in Good Weekend, The Sydney Morning Herald, Sunday Life, Essential Kids, Debrief Daily (now Mamamia), SBS Life and the Jewish Book Council blog. She’s also the author of the memoir/history My Mother’s Spice Cupboard: A Journey from Baghdad to Bombay to Bondi (Hybrid Publishers, 2012).

And it struck me that like Bradley Cooper, who wasn’t ready to play the part of Jackson Maine in A Star is Born until 2015, I wasn’t ready to write my story back when I filled out that form. Five years ago, I just couldn’t have written that book. I had to learn the craft of writing. I needed time to process my experiences, get some distance from them, and make sense of them on a deeper level. I had to live more. And I had to write more.

I’m not suggesting that anyone else needs five years before they write their books. But I would compare it to being sure that you want to be a mother, or a doctor, when you’re just 10 years old. You have to live many years before you can begin to realise such visions. And in the meantime, you have to be patient and never lose sight of your dreams.

I haven’t been doing nothing in the intervening years (and nor did Cooper – he acted in other movies and a stage play after 2012). All along, I’ve been reading and writing and taking notes and listening to podcasts and working and raising my kids and living my life.

Now I am ready to write my story, the one I knew I wanted to write back in 2013. I can, as Bradley Cooper says, “just feel it.”

Sometimes, our lives have to catch up with the stories that are deep inside us, that we somehow know we must tell but perhaps aren’t ready to yet – because we are scared, or don’t have the tools or the hindsight we need. In the meantime, we just need to keep living and writing.

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