The Quiet Words: Week 6
Being a storyteller
By now, you will be in the flow of writing and I can't wait to read what you write. You'll notice that there's only one piece of course reading this week. I have done this deliberately to give you the space and the time you need to write. I hope you can still make time for this particular lesson, because it's an important and inspiring one that will make a difference to the way you approach your writing and may help you as you produce your writing project for me.
If you’ve read writing advice before, you’ll have no doubt heard of the “show don’t tell” principle. The idea is that you don’t simply tell your reader what has happened, you show your reader the way so they can figure the facts out for themselves. Showing, not telling, is how you become a storyteller, no matter what you’re writing about or for whom. But the concept of show don't tell doesn't always makes sense until you've seen it, read it or written it yourself.
I’m going to give you a very simple example. Here’s an introduction to a piece of prose that could be a short story or an article or a blog post:
“Anna moved to Paris to be with her boyfriend, Mark. Mark worked in finance; Anna didn’t have a job because she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, but she didn’t mind at all - she loved Paris and was happy to be there. But one day, Anna found out Mark had cheated on her. She was heartbroken and didn’t know what to do. All she knew was she wanted to leave.”
It’s not very good. It tells you a series of facts, but it’s fairly insubstantial and pretty dull. There’s nothing in this that reflects writing creatively.
But say this was the introduction instead:
“She opens her eyes and she leans her forehead against the window and she stands there for what feels like forever, watching the city of her dreams blur into a mess, like an unfocused photograph that is not worth keeping anyway.”
Maybe now you’re engaged. You wonder what has happened, to make this girl stand at the window for so long, to make her feel this way. You get a glimpse of the mood and you can feel that she’s been crying, even though it’s not been said - but the words “blurry” and “unfocused” make you think of looking through tears. There’s something about her that is desperately sad and you can feel her unhappiness in the “photograph that is not worth keeping anyway.” What could have happened to her to make her feel like her memories aren’t worth remembering?
What I have done here is that I am showing you her sadness, rather than telling you it bluntly or spelling it out for you. I’m drawing you into an intimate space, where you become an observer as much as me. You are a part of what is going on. You have witnessed a private moment. You are right there, with this girl.
Let’s try another example. Say you’re writing a personal blog post about a young child being happy (for example). Rather than simply write “He’s so happy” describe everything around him instead that comes together to create that happiness.
So instead of telling us that he’s smiling, show the way his eyes crinkle with joy. Instead of telling us that he’s laughing, show the sound of his laughter rising like bubbles scattering carelessly into the air and then popping. If he’s so happy he’s fidgeting and simply can’t stand still, show the way his fingers roll as if he’s doing a jazz dance. That’s showing, not telling. It’s such an expressive form of writing. It brings forth feelings first - it’s writing creatively. It’s being a storyteller.
You might not write like this day to day - but just try it, perhaps, in a social media caption, for example. Almost every caption you read will be telling you something, not showing you, because it’s not an everyday way of writing and, frankly, not everyone thinks of writing this way because not everyone wants to tell a story and - here's the thing - not everyone knows how to. Showing, not telling, makes you a story teller and will make your writing stand out.
When you show, not just tell, you’re enhancing everything. It’s like the final, ever so light flourish of edible gold dust on top of a birthday cake. It’s so subtle, just a half-teaspoon sprinkle or two, but without it, you’d keep wondering what was missing.
An easy trick to think of how to show and not tell is to visualise it. I do this myself a lot. Close your eyes and picture what you want to say as if it is a scene from a film; if you were watching, what detail would you focus on and what would remain blurry? What does the camera zoom in on? What does the light look like? What can you hear, what can you feel? Often, it’s all the tiny details you can visualise - a hand smoothing a crease in a dress, a downward gaze - that carry the most weight.
Of course you don’t always have to spend all your writing showing and not telling. The time to show is when you’re in that descriptive mode, when you want to bring your reader into that intimate space with you. Keep this intimacy in mind as you write. I can’t wait to see what you create when you send your pieces to me.
And my final tip to you as you write to my deadline? Be simple, be sparse. Less is always more.
Don’t forget to email your writing project to me by midday, Monday 11th November. Please email it to firstname.lastname@example.org with your name and “writing project” in the subject line. Thank you so much.