By David Bain
Most of the college English classes I teach are introductory; in other words, I teach writing to non-writers, students who are looking to learn how to do an MLA works cited entry so they can get by in their other classes. In other words, I teach students who are generally only in the class because they have to be.
I try to instill a love for language and craft as well, but again, I’m not teaching people who are already in love or even remotely familiar with literature. As such, it can often be a challenge to help them understand the “show, don’t tell” rule.
But it can be done.
Take this week, for example. We read Malcolm X’s inspirational essay “Literacy Behind Bars.” In this essay, X discusses how incarceration gave him the opportunity to educate and better himself.
I let students come up with their own ideas for our initial first-person essay by free-associating in our class discussions – there’s no right or wrong idea, anything can be brought up.
Show and Tell
By Patti Larsen
I’ve been thinking about this post for a while, percolating it in my brain. Why? Because I don’t want to rehash what you already know. I’d like to go about this topic in a different way.
I could talk to you about sensory writing and getting in touch with your character’s feelings as they tie to actions. About dialogue and how it connects the reader to the character. But I’m feeling metaphorish. So bear with me.
Let’s instead put it into a real world situation, shall we? One all of us were familiar with many moons ago (okay, many moons for me) when, in grade school, we were asked to bring something to class for–you guessed it–show and tell.
Now, the best showers and tellers had killer items that you’d never seen before (like their dad’s vintage tie it turned out he actually still wore or the puzzle your grandmother gave you to keep you quiet on Sundays). But we need to break it down even further to see the heart of it.
I’m always working at showing and not telling. With the story in my head it is so easy to just want to pull up chair and have a good old fashioned story time chat, but then that wouldn’t make a good book—in fact, that would be a boring book. Readers want to live the characters experiences. I know this because as an avid reader that us how I feel every time I pick up a book and it’s what keeps me reading.
As a tactic to write more “showing” scenes, I try my best to go to some of the setting in my books. I’ve walked along the Galveston Seawall on the very steps where my heroine is caught up in a chase. I took in the surroundings, the smells, the people and every little tiny detail I could that could put the reader in her shoes. For the middle grade I’m writing, which takes place in a zoo, I took my family to the local zoo. We had fun spending the day and again I soaked up as much info I could.
However, sometimes all that “showing” description and trying to put the reader there can get carried away. And you don’t always have to leave your house or even your backyard for the answers. Here’s a funny story for you.
I wanted to paint the image of a tranquil, peaceful morning at the beginning of a chapter. Now, by saying just that would be “telling.” So, I said that my character woke, “to a symphony of chirping crickets.” I went on to describe the sunrise and how it felt on his arms. I read it. Edited it a little more and sent it off to my critique partner. She sent it back to me and pointed out that crickets chirp at night.