The art of showing not telling – more posts on NaNo

by Catherine

Ok, now im really getting ready. I know one of my weaknesses in creative writing is being able to show, not tell. I think this problem is rooted from my years of academic writing, where you don’t necessarily want to leave the reader questioning what you mean. Obviously you want your reader to think and question beyond your paper, but each sentence should be concise and convey exactly what you mean.

So I was off to search for some articles to fuel my drive.

I came across one on the website LitReactor. Here is an excerpt of the article “The Devil is in the Details” by Craig Clevenger. He takes us through the ways to transform a sentence that tells to one that shows.

Even after we create a subset of contrasting details which conveys depth and evokes images from the reader’s own imagination, the syntax is still often a list of “tells.” My solution is to restructure your descriptions from noun lists with modifiers to active subject-verb sentences. If I’m describing a short order cook in the middle of a lunch rush, I might say something like:

Lou flung the burgers into their baskets, slapped the bell and shouted, “Order up!”

Pretty straightforward. A compound-complex sentence where Lou is the subject and flungslapped andshouted are the verbs. Everything appears to be in order, as the sentence subject is performing the sentence verb, so it’s in the active voice; the verbs are most definitely transitive action verbs, acting upon their respective objects. But what does Lou look like?

He wore a dull, white apron and crisp white hat, and grease-stained checked trousers.

Okay, all valid descriptors. I’ve still got Lou (He) as the subject with wore as the verb (a transitive verb, but weaker than flung or slapped); apronhat and trousers are the objects with the respective modifiers dull andwhitecrisp and white (forgive the repetition) and grease-stained. Nonetheless, the scant narrative goes from the frenzy of Lou sending out an order to a screeching halt, all because of the catalogue description. Let’s take a cue from the first sentence and model the subsequent descriptive sentence after it. Instead of Lou being the subject, let’s make his apron the subject:

His dull white apron…

Did what? How do I assign a verb to an inanimate object?

… draped from the curve of his massive belly.

Apron is the subject this time, with the action verb draped acting on Lou’s belly, the object. A well-crafted description is as much about your sentence structure as it is your choice of adjectives and adverbs. Instead of telling the reader that Lou is wearing a white apron, I’m showing the reader the white apron covering Lou. We can also turn up the heat a notch or two and make the descriptors the subjects, giving them verbs. Instead of using trousers as the subject, modified by grease-stained, let’s make the stains the subject:

Ancient grease stains covered his checked trousers.

In this case, we’ve changed the sentence structure from telling the reader he wore grease-stained trousers to showing grease stains covering his trousers (yeah, I threw in another modifier, so sue me).

Before:

Lou flung the burgers into their baskets, slapped the bell and shouted, “Order up!” He wore a dull, white apron and crisp white hat, and grease stained checked trousers.

After:

Lou flung the burgers into their baskets, slapped the bell and shouted, “Order up!” His dull white apron draped from the curve of his massive belly and ancient grease stains covered his checked trousers.

And one more spit polish:

Lou’s dull apron hung from the curve of his massive belly, barely concealing the ancient grease stains mottling his checked trousers. He flung the burgers into their baskets, slapped the bell and shouted, “Order up!”

I took this article and began an exercise of my own – following his structure. I think my NaNo project will be about mermaids, so I did a descriptive sentence which started as a basic showing –

The violet haired mermaid swam past a group of sea lions, hiding herself from their view behind a school of fish.

Next I tried his technique of changing the subject of the sentence and the focus. I focuses on her fins first. And then gave the sea lions a descriptive adjective.

Her deep green fins flicked past the pack of hungry sea lions.

Then I described the school of fish and her hair color using both objects to compliment and oppose one another.

A shimmering school of fish concealed her from their sight. Her hair swayed with their flow – its violet sheen bouncing off their scales.

So now I have…

Her deep green fins flicked past the pack of hungry sea lions. A shimmering school of fish concealed her from their sight. Her hair swayed with their flow – its violet sheen bouncing off their scales.

Now I’ll try my hand at polishing…

Her deep green fins flicked softly past the pack of hungry sea lions. A school of shimmering silver fish concealed her from their sight. Only noticeable was her hair, swaying with the flow of the fish – its violet sheen bouncing off their scales.

And there you have it, what do you think? I think Clevenger’s article was great and I’ll be remembering Lou the short-order cook during NaNo. Definitely a good fun exercise and I recommend taking the time to read this article!

Credits to: http://litreactor.com/essays/craig-clevenger/the-devil-in-the-details

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