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.

Advertisements

Layer Your Cakes

Lately, God has been speaking to me quite clearly. He keeps repeating the word “miracles”. As I am currently dealing with some tough life stuff, this word is especially meaningful. Obviously, God speaks to each person differently, and He reveals truth in many ways; although, His truth always remains the same. One way that God speaks to me is by repeating a particular word, idea, or theme. In this particular instance, the word “miracle” has come through several different people, one email, and the book of Matthew which I am currently reading through for my devotions.

images

As I read through new manuscripts, something that always makes me take another look is a tightly layered story. For example, let’s say that you are writing a story about a family provider. In what ways could you show that character as a provider? Perhaps you could give him/her the last name of “Baker”. You would definitely show that character actually providing for the family: buying groceries, cooking meals, earning money. You might highlight the antagonist doing something in direct opposition to your main character, so he or she, instead of providing, would take away: steal money, ruin a relationship, work as a tax collector (no offense to any tax collectors out there).

Beyond emphasizing a particular character, you also want to pay attention to the language that you use. Perhaps choose a word or two, or an idea, to repeat throughout your story. Trace that word/idea over the course of your story during significant moments that will move your manuscript forward.

Also, integrating key setting elements is important. You might focus in on a particular building, almost making it a character. Then, destruction could come to that building during the climax of your story. Or the building could undergo a transformation, again, highlighting the character of it.

And layering plot throughout story is important as well. Create scenes that build on each other and move the reader forward in exciting ways.

Finally, when you have done several revisions on your story, then the layering part becomes fun. Include your audience! If you are in a critique group, pay attention to their likes and dislikes: reference their favorite TV show, name a character after one of their children, reference something from their current WIP. Doing this last part really only speaks to one or two people, but I have always found it to be the most enjoyable part of story writing. Plus, it will make certain readers think that you are only writing for them which is one of the amazing wonders of story writing.

When you have worked through so many drafts, however, there comes a time when you must stop layering. Yes, it is fun to trace a theme throughout your novel, read it from start to finish, and come to the end and think, “Wow, I am good!” However, you don’t want to overemphasize a particular theme. Your readers are smart. Encourage them to dig for the themes within your story.

Layered cake tastes good as long as their is only so much frosting separating the layers. Don’t make it too sweet.

Question for you: What layers do you currently have in your WIP? Are there others that you could add?