Words: Show … Don’t Tell

sun-and-sky-and-cloudThe Jew, Max, was imprisoned in a basement, or so the plot in the movie The Book Thief goes. The setting was Germany. It was the beginning of the Second World War. As a woman who has only heard about World War II, I was fascinated as I sat on my couch and watched the story unfold.

But as a writer, I was mesmerized as I heard the words of a 12-year-old girl named Liesel who was Max’s connection to the outside world. She spoke living words that transposed me to a time and place long ago.

But isn’t that what writers should do? Write “living words”? Ones that when woven together do more than tell their readers facts and truths and stories.  Words that show.

How did the writer of The Book Thief, Markus Zusak, do this? I had to know. And so I purchased the book so I could read his words.

One scene showed an interaction between Liesel and Max when he was hiding in her home, confined like a trapped animal. Unable to see the light of day, he listened intently as the girl told him about making a soccer goal. (This scene begins on page 249 of the book.)

“You told me all about the goal, but I don’t know what sort of day it is up there. I don’t know if you scored it in the sun, or if the clouds have covered everything,” Max said. Then he asked Liesel to go outside and tell him what the weather looked like.

After she returned to the basement, she said: “The sky is blue today, Max, and there is a big long cloud, and it’s stretched out, like a rope. At the end of it, the sun is like a yellow hole …”

Knowing that only a child could have given him a weather report like that, Max used the basement wall as a canvas and “painted a long, tightly knotted rope with a dripping yellow sun at the end of it, as if you could drive right into it.”

Show three-dimensional lives

As a writer I wonder if I will ever tire of reading those “weather” descriptions over and over again. And I also ask myself a question: Could I ever write so vividly?

Liesel’s and Max’s words about the sun and sky remind me to show and not tell. To transpose readers into worlds with colors and sounds and smells. To introduce them to the souls of people (both fictional and real) and not leave these people as “cardboard” characters. To help readers experience three-dimensional lives that dream and struggle. That succeed and fail.

What happened to Max? you wonder? You’ll have to read The Book Thief for yourself, or watch the movie, or listen to the audio book (I’m doing that now). And if you love to write as I do, I think you, too, will be spellbound by Markus Zusak’s words.

Remembering favorite words

As I read books and articles and hear people speak, I try to jot down the words that I love the most. I do this on a little notebook that I tuck into my purse or as a “note” in my iPhone.

You might want to have a “word notebook” yourself – either paper or electronic. If you do this, then when the writing gets hard and the right words just won’t come, don’t give up. Instead turn to the masters. Go to your notebook. Read the words that once captivated your heart. Take a walk. Breathe the fresh air.

Then pick up your pen, or go back to your laptop, and try to get the rights words, again … and again.

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About Mary

Mary and her husband live near Little Rock, Ark. She loves anything to do with the great outdoors or with her growing family—just ask about her grandchildren. You can read her blog posts at www.legacyconnection.org where she writes about grandparenting, faith, and family. Mary is the co-author of The Grandparent Connection: 365 Ways to Connect With Your Grandchild's Heart. And her articles can be found in Hope & Help from FamilyLife and in many other publications. Visit her at www.legacyconnection.org.

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