Show verses tell. The golden rule of writing. “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Anton Chekhov said it best. There is no better way to explain the golden rule. Yet I take it one step further because it’s more than simple description. At least in my writing. This is where I struggle the most.
As writers, we rush through a description to get to the action. As in the novel I just began, Oasis, last night I described a woman from a man’s perspective. It’s a remembering, or flashback, of his wife when they were young and fell in love. I wrote it quick because I want to get to the heart of the story. I wrote about her legs and hair and the way she moved. Then, I moved on. A verbal description, if you will. A cop-out.
What makes it real for the reader isn’t the description, regardless of how you show it. It’s the scene. So, I’ll return to it in editing and make a mini-scene. Perhaps at school. Maybe the town fourth of July celebration. Readers relate to scenes, written shots of a movie panning into a certain aspect that the writer wants to illuminate. That’s how I see writing, after all. Creating a movie with words in a way that affects the reader. I was lucky enough to participate in the 48 hour film festival as an actress. I played henchman #1. I’m not the most convincing henchman.
But I learned a lot about writing from watching them set the scene. Focusing on on particular aspect at a time, one angle for a few shots. Then, another. That’s really how writing ought to be, especially considering current society when more movies are watched than books are read. To compete, books have to adjust to the movie goer’s mindset of scene.
What is the scene right now? I’m lounging in my son’s abandoned chair with my feet propped on the computer. The words stare large from the big screen TV. Sammi and Frankie sleep on the couch with their heads resting on the pillows with the empty popcorn bowl between them. My new canvas is propped against the shelves, drying in choppy copper strokes. The sky is overcast. I can see it through my windows, but the clouds don’t dampen the heat. I can hear birds enjoying summer. But I have to listen close to hear them. The neighbors are on the front porch. It’s the woman upstairs. She’s loud, always loud. Her new boyfriend is with her. They are a perfect, loud match. He’s yelling obscenities in a discussion about her ex-boyfriend, who lives across the street. She shouts louder so that he’ll hear her. Along with them is the domestic abuser from across the street. Smiling and laughing as if all were right with the world. Just last week, his girlfriend walked down the street bloody and sobbing. She wouldn’t press chargers. I suppose that’s why he’s able to laugh now. Thoughts of ice cream cross my mind, to distract me, but I don’t want to step outside my door. So I try to write about Freddie and his memories, but obscenities keep popping into my transcript. I can’t block them out. So, I close my eyes and will them away.
Setting the scene. It reads better than:
I’m trying to write, but the neighbors won’t shut up. They’re loud, always so loud. Today, they are shouting obscenities that keep popping into my transcript. I wish they’d just shut up.
Thus, the difference. I could describe them all day long, but until I put them in a scene, they won’t be real to the reader. Maybe this was obvious to other writers, but it’s still a struggle to me. That’s the lesson in writing for all of us. We aren’t perfect first time around. With a little grace and effort, that’s how great writers are made.