Show, don’t tell

Sculpture by Hans-Peter Feldmann. Click on the image for more of his work.

“Show don’t tell” is an important rule in writing, but it can sometimes be hard to wrap your brain around.  I think this is why writers should study visual media.  Reading is, of course, vital to the craft. It trains writers how to put images into words.  But visual media stimulate the imagination to come up with those images that are dripping with meaning.  This is one of the reasons I disagree strongly with people who say all television is a waste of time for a writer.  I challenge anyone to come up with a better tutorial on narrative tension and imagery than episodes of the classic Twilight Zone.  

Painting and sculpture are even better at training the writer’s mind to distill an image.  Look at those shoes.  They are compelling exactly because they communicate a message without saying it straight out. The only cheat a sculptor has is the title; a good title complements the piece instead of explaining it.  But even when the sculptor cheats, the visual still enters our mind first, and we already have a working theory of what it means by the time we read the little placard posted next to it.

So, which is better?  “The standards of beauty tortured her,” or, “she chose the gold sandal heels with the brass tack insole?”

Write what you don’t know


There’s a certain amount of tension when writing a character that has a strong, defining experience that you yourself have not had.  One of my protagonists in the Haunted series is a woman who lost her father to suicide.  I have not experienced that tragedy firsthand.  Sometimes I wonder if I should even be writing about it.  How could I possibly do justice to that?

My friend and mentor Paul McComas (I’m constantly calling him that, I should make an acronym or something) likes to talk about a period he went through in college that his writing teacher called “The Earnest Young Man Stories.”  Told “write what you know,” he produced a series of stories about a sensitive college aged guy interacting with the world.  After a number of these stories, his teacher told him “You know…you know people other than yourself.”  Point being, when we write fiction, we don’t have to be, and shouldn’t be, limited to the strict area of our own personal experience.  Our personal experience informs our writing, but so does our relationships with other people.  So does the things that we read, the things we watch, the things we observe , the things we deduce.  

I do need to be careful, I think, because despite the fact that my work is fiction, it will still inform my readers’ understanding of that experience, the same way the things I read inform my own. (This, incidentally, is one of my issues with things like The DaVinci Code and 50 Shades of Grey. People base their views of theology or of how to properly go about BDSM on what they read in these books, and both are irresponsibly, and, in the case of 50 Shades, dangerously inaccurate.)  But that doesn’t mean I need to, or should, limit my exploration of the human experience based only on my tiny slice.