Category Archives: The Little Black Book of Writers’ Wisdom

Writer Wednesday: 3 Masters Speak About Show, Don’t Tell

In search of inspiration for today’s Writer Wednesday post, I opened my “Little Black Book of Writers’ Wisdom” and don’t you know it opened to a page of quotes that artfully and succinctly address the matter at the heart of excellent writing.

Show, don’t tell.

I first heard the phrase at my first writer’s conference back in the summer of 2009. I admit that I hadn’t a clue what the phrase meant. And though I heard it repeatedly over the years, it seemed that people had a difficult time explaining what it meant.

Now that I’ve completed three novels and penned a fourth in draft, I’ve come to understand the phrase “show, don’t tell.” That’s not to say that I never slip into telling. It’s just less frequent now and on revision I *most of the time* catch it.

Showing not telling is such a vital requirement to writing a story well that I’ve chosen three quotes today to get the conversation going. First, from Anton Chekhov, a lovely example that explains the phrase perfectly:

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” – Anton Chekhov

Have you ever heard a more perfect example of show? The “glint of light on broken glass.” So many of us writers would have a tendency to say, “The moon was shining.” Flat, passive and a tell, not a show. A more adept writer may say, “The moon shone on the glass.” Better, but still fairly simple and uninteresting.

With attention to craft, a master such as Chekhov comes up with “the glint” on “broken glass.” In just a few words, he shows us so much. The choice of words matter. Showing matters. And it’s the difference between a novice and a master of craft. Do this in every sentence for an entire novel and you’ll writer a novel that readers are excited to read.

But wait, here’s another one to hit the point home.

“Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.” – Mark Twain

Sometimes we talk about “on camera” and “off camera.” Novice writers often “tell” us what happened “off camera” rather than bringing it “on camera” and showing the reader the action. I’m guilty of that. And it’s a writing style that can quickly bore the shit out of the reader rather than engage the reader.

Anyone call “tell” stories (even your Uncle Fred who rambles on and on at family get-togethers). Anyone cal tell, but it takes practice, failure, re-writing, writing, and more practice to learn how to “show” a story (and if everyone could do it, then even your Uncle Fred would be a best-selling author). If the action is worth mentioning, considering putting it “on camera” rather than telling the reader what happened off camera.

The last quote today (remember I promised your three) is from E.L. Doctorow:

“Good writing it supposed to evoke sensation in the reader – not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.” – E.L. Doctorow

Take a moment to let that sink in.

“. . . the feeling of being rained upon.”

What does it feel like to rained upon? And when he speaks of feeling, does he refer solely to the physical sensation of rain upon the body? Or is there an internal emotion that arises upon being rained upon? Take a moment to consider how you can show both a physical feeling and an emotional response of a character in reaction to an event.

Have you even read a poem or a part of a novel that made you feel as if you lived what the character(s) experienced? If you have, chances are that the writer did a great job of showing rather than telling. The writer made you feel the rain. Wasn’t it wonderful?

Have you found it difficult to see in your own writing when you tell rather than show? Do you think there are times when it’s okay to tell rather than show? Do you have a quote or example of show, don’t tell?

Writer Wednesday: Steering by the Stars

The Little Black Book of Writers’ Wisdom
Edited by Steven D. Price
I got a lovely gift from my sister for my birthday last year. It’s a small black book titled “The Little Black Book of Writers’ Wisdom,” edited by Steven D. Price, 2013.

For a few months it sat on my bedside table collecting dust. But one day, perhaps seeking inspiration to crank up the gears of my rusty writing, I opened the volume and began to read.

I love books like this. It’s made up of short quotes, all of them meaty and packed with resonance. I found myself reading a quote and then thinking on it for a time – about whether I found it true for me and how the idea may have played out in my writing life.

Then I got the brain burst to share them with you and ask you to comment on them as well. Thus was born the idea for a new segment for Writer Wednesday on my blog.

There are so many pearls of wisdom in this book that we can mine it for months. I pondered where to begin? I decided to let the fates choose. I opened the book, closed my eyes, and pointed my finger.

Here then is the quote that fate chose for us this week:

“There is no satisfactory explanation of style, no infallible guide to good writing, no assurance that a person who thinks clearly will be able to write clearly, no key that unlocks the door, no inflexible rules by which the young writer may steer his course. He will often find himself steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion.” – E.B. WHITE

I love that last bit – “disturbingly in motion.”

The more I write, the more I feel that this quote is true. When I first began writing, I approached it much the way I approached learning the law back in law school. I tracked down books about it, read blog posts and articles, and sought out writers with more experience than me to teach me the “rules” of the game.

To be sure, there are “rules” when it comes to writing. Pick up an unedited manuscript filled with spelling, grammar and punctuation errors and you quickly see why rules matter.

But grammarians rarely (if ever) make for good writers. And a child can win the national spelling bee but have nary a glimmer of creative genius.

Then there are the “you should never do this” rules and the “always do that” rules that, for me anyway, seem to beg me to break them. I see “rules” on writer blogs and hear them in workshops all the time. There are so many “rules” for how to write a first paragraph that if I began to worry over them I suspect I’d never writer another paragraph again.

The more I write, the more I find the stars in motion. The more I put pen to page, the less sure I am of the course I’m taking. In fact, I’m not sure I’m steering by stars at all. At times it feels more like I’m on a tiny raft in the middle of the ocean on a moonless night, the stars invisible behind a thick blanket of clouds.

Oh, and it’s storming.

What about you? Do you relate to this quote? Do you ever feel lost at sea in your writing? Or do you disagree with E.B. White? Do you think there are infallible rules that when followed, you produce writing worth reading?