Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Helping writers to show, not tell

I always preach to my writers: Show, don't tell. The other day I was reading one of my reporter's stories and I came across this line:

John Piermatteo moved about his apartment in slow paces, taking an extra moment with each step. He kept a heavy grip on the banister as he walked up a handful of stairs that led to his dining area.

Do you think the writer is showing or telling? How could she have made the sentence better?

Here are some questions I asked her:
1. You say he moved about in slow paces. Show me the movement. Did it take him 20 seconds to complete one step? 10 seconds to lift his foot and 10 seconds to put it down? Did his eyes squint in concentration?
2. You say he kept a heavy grip. First, I think you mean "tight" and not "heavy." Second, show me that the grip was tight. Did his knuckles turn white? Did the bones in his hand pop through his skin?
2. I wondered if the banister was intricately carved mahogany or metal? The material might tell me a little bit about his apartment. Is it high-end? Low-end? I get a different mental picture if the man grabs a carved mahogany rail than if he grabs a metal one that wobbles.

3. I wondered exactly how many steps there were. She said several, but I think an actual number would be more powerful.
4. Were there any details about the dining area that stood out? Was it cluttered? Was the table piled high with newspapers? Was the table wooden or plastic?
5. Were there any particular smells? For example, was baked ziti in the oven?

Let's suppose that she answered my questions and we massaged this sentence accordingly.

It took John Piermatteo twenty seconds to take one step. His knuckles turned white as he grabbed the wrought iron banister. With all the concentration of a high-wire artist, he squinted as he scaled the four steps leading to his dining room. A single chair and a tan card table cluttered with medical forms awaited him.

See the difference? Always push yourself to show and not tell. My hope is that the more I talk about it, the more top of mind it will be so that when my writers are on assignment, it comes naturally.

You, too, should be going through your writing to make sure that you are showing and not telling. The more you do it the more automatic it will be.

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