Monday, February 14, 2011

Show Don't Tell

I know every writer out there has heard the invaluable adage of showing versus telling in your writing. And it's true.

I think I learned this the hard way: in my playwriting class. I had never taken playwriting before and let me tell you, it was hands down the toughest writing course I've ever taken. If you want to get out of your comfort zone, sign up for a class at your local writing center.

Playwriting is a completely different beast than writing short stories, novels, or even screenplays. Why? Because the play is a story of making the most out of everything. And I mean EVERYTHING.

Unlike a movie or a book, characters can't quickly change from scene to scene. There can't be all these extras walking around through the school hallway or office building. You have a limited space, a limited budget, a limited number of backdrops to work with, and a whole lot of dialogue!

Sure there are occasional plays where the main character may do some narration, talking to the audience, but for the most part it's all about dialogue and body language. Nuance, in short.

One class we did an exercise (which if you're really looking to flex your writing muscles I highly recommend) where we had to take two characters and without telling the audience their relationship the characters had to talk around a subject. The audience needed to understand what was going on but, true to human behavior, we often don't say what we mean, or we talk around issues that are uncomfortable. The characters, of course, know what's going on but will the audience by the end of the scene?

To test us further, we weren't allowed to read the scene aloud ourselves to the class as we know how it's "supposed" to sound but is our punctuation and direction being clear to the reader. Let me tell you, hearing someone else read your work aloud will tell you right away if you have dialogue pacing down right or altogether wrong.

The easiest way out, I assume, since so many students went this direction was to have the two characters talk about an affair. The hints of "we shouldn't have," and "never again," were the sign posts to the audience about what was going on. But what of other subjects?

I encourage you to eavesdrop on those around you at the coffee shop or on your commute. Listen and take note of how people really speak to one another--and watch them too. What is their body language saying about their relationship with one another? Are they lovers but they had a fight? Are they friends but there's sexual tension? Are they long time friends or new acquaintances trying to impress one another?

And better yet, listen to the fights. Now you're really observing uncensored dialogue.

If you decide to do this as a writing exercise, pass it around to a few readers and ask them to write down what the characters are discussing at the end. This will tell you how well you've shown and not told what's going on. It's a tough exercise, one I know I still struggle with.

I know this because it took me several hours the other night to wrap up a scene and it may still need more editing. It was in essence this same exercise only in reverse. In short, I was trying to find the precarious balance where the reader understands where both characters are coming from even though the characters themselves don't understand one another and there's a complete misread/miscommunication on their parts.

What kind of writing do you think is the most difficult to achieve?

1 comment:

  1. Oh man. I was thinking about body language and nuances this morning. (We're destined to be friends.) Here's how my thought process went. I removed blue nail polish with which I was experimenting this weekend, and noting that my nails now have a blue tinge...which is gross. I thought how embarrassing it would be to have folks looking at my now frosty-tinged nails all the time, and how I'm grateful I don't intern at the National Assn of the Deaf anymore. The I was thinking of an episode of Law and Order I caught not too long ago about a poker player who reads people. And how 70% of ASL is facial expressions. The same sign means the complete opposite with a grimace, a head nod, or an eyebrow movement. I actually was thinking what good lie-detectors signers would make since they rely so much on ancillary communication cues. It's like your point: how to you write or digest or tell someone what non-words to pick up or give off in a conversation? Anyway, it's just funny we're drinking the same tea today, that's all I'm saying.