12.02.2012

Show, Don't Tell

Writing has given me a lot of opportunity to observe and ruminate on human nature, something that is necessary, I think, to creating characters and situations that feel real and three-dimensional. When you're constantly thinking "What would this person do/think/feel" in any given situation or circumstance, naturally you start to apply it to real life. And I've discovered along the way that the better one gets at doing this, the harder on one's soul the writing becomes. Looking or thinking about real human nature too long is a bit like staring into the sun, and I think it's part of the reason why I've been taking such a long break after finishing my last book. The experience has been monumentally exhausting and yet valuable, and it's taught me a lot of important lessons about the craft and about life and the kind of writer and person I think I am, or at least aspire to be.

I've been pondering a lot in particular about that age-old writing rule, "Show, Don't Tell." It's designed help authors develop a story in such a way that it's more of an illustration for the reader's mind than a simple recounting of events.  The latter is boring and trite, artificial. The former is lush, textural, vibrant, exciting. Memorable. It's what gives a piece depth. It imbues the work with meaning and feeling. It's what separates good writing from something about as exciting as stereo instructions or a shopping list. Here's the thing, though: It doesn't just apply to writing or fictional characters. It applies to life and real people, too.

Show, don't tell. Don't tell me you're sorry if you've hurt me in some way. Show it. Don't tell me you're charitable and kind. Show it. Don't tell me that you're confident and wise. Show it. Don't tell me you love people or that you're compassionate or inspirational. Show it. Don't say you speak softly and carry a big stick. Actually do it. Live it. Be all of the things you say you are, and do it without actually saying anything else, without arrogance or a need for validation. Because if that's all you're after, you're not actually doing anything. You're an empty shell pretending to be an authentic person. Kind of like a flat character in a mediocre book.

Show, don't tell. It's not just a writing lesson. It's a life lesson too, and one I will keep relearning until the day I die.