Show, Don’t Tell

stories

I think I’m probably the only person in my writing group who doesn’t write fiction. It’s beginning to stress me out a little. Not a lot, just a skosh.

I’ve done some experimenting with dialogue. It might not sound natural to people who read it, but I have earnestly begun paying more attention to conversations, not just the ones I overhear but the ones I’m a part of too, just to pick up those little nuances, pauses, and fillers.

Well actually, I’m probably not going to include many fillers. Who wants to read “uh” and “you know” all the way through a passage? Should the words between people actually mean something? But then again, maybe a conversation filled with “uh” does really mean something. Maybe the person is inarticulate, anxious, or biding time until she knows what to say.

Plus, the fiction writers in my group frequently remind us to “show, don’t tell.” Even with dialogue, we’re not supposed to say “she shrieked” or “he muttered.” Just stick to “he said” and let your other words do the talking for you. Let the scene show just how angry she was or how disconsolate he was. I can’t do that…yet. I’m going to read about how other people do it and then practice, practice, practice.

Beginning with Crossing the Bridge, I’ve been experimenting with creative nonfiction. Instead of page after page after page of some didactic diatribe about college success, I interspersed the instructional data with actual scenes and dialogue. It might not sound natural to some people who read it, but I can attest that it’s pretty much word for word. Hmm. Well, there is that one little area where a student used what I refer to as the “a word,” and I told him I’d have to clean up his lingo a little bit before including it. He still gives me a hard time about it.

When discussing my desire to write fiction and my anxiety and lack of confidence about it, two of my writing friends pointed out the dialogue writing in Crossing the Bridge and said that if I could do that, then I could write fiction. First, I have to think of a story. Does it have to be a “made-up” one, or can I use something from my own life? I have a lot of little vignettes I’ve been thinking about, but how to get them in story form?

For you fiction writers out there, what did you do? Do you use stories from your own life? Do you get your ideas from the newspaper, the internet, or your imagination? Do you piece together snippets that you’ve already written until voilà, there’s a story?

About jayne bowers

*married with children, stepchildren, grandchildren, in-laws, ex-laws, and a host of other family members and fabulous friends *semi-retired psychology instructor at two community colleges *writer
This entry was posted in books, college students, eBooks, reading, stories, writing, writing groups, writing tips and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Show, Don’t Tell

  1. My ideas come form real life experience, current affairs and imagination! I jot down every idea, and even if it is not relevant to the current book I am writing, I know it may come in useful in the future. Put your ideas into a basic plot and then just start writing! You will find that once you start writing, the story will find a life if its own. Good luck!

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  2. JM Kelley says:

    I use nothing and everything in my stories. Such a non-helpful response, right? My novel, Daddy’s Girl, is what I wrote to come to terms with my father’s death. Joe, the father in the story, is absolutely my dad. But he’s not really like my dad at all. I suppose my best response is all my stories are so colored by my experiences, but only on the purest level of inspiration. Each event, each person has this little spark of something I recognize, but nobody on the outside will ever catch.

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    • jayne bowers says:

      I think this is a wonderful and helpful response. I always have a little notebook or pad with me to jot down sights, thoughts, and impressions, and most of the time I remember to record them on the computer later. Sometimes I’ll use a writing app on my phone or iPad, but that just isn’t as handy. Anyway, this method has helped me with my nonfiction books and articles, but I just haven’t quite figured out how to make it work in fiction. By the way, I especially like your last sentence. I wonder if knowing that would make your friends and family nervous…or maybe excited.

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      • JM Kelley says:

        They’ve realized they are safe, finally. I’ve noticed that if I try to inject too much of a real person into a character, the character simply falls apart. Those imaginary people just don’t like to share personalities, it turns out!

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      • jayne bowers says:

        I like your upbeat attitude. Isn’t it funny how those imaginary characters come to life? One day I’m going to actually create some of my own.

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  3. trilbyplants says:

    Here’s the advice I give in my classes: just write the story as you would tell it and worry about the craft later. Start with some basic idea like: I remember, When I was __ years old….You might look through a photo album for the setting, the people, etc. I love using images to kick start an idea. Writing this comment, I remembered going down in the root cellar with my grandpa when I was six or so. I can smell it and feel the dampness. He gave me a taste of dandelion wine. It was awful. But when I had some as an adult, I was back there and tasting summer. Maybe a story?

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    • jayne bowers says:

      Thanks Tibby–for the advice and for the root cellar scene. Last week I wrote my version of my daughter-in-law and two children being trapped in their van on an interstate in Atlanta. My son got on Marta and stayed on it until he neared an exit where his little family was. He then walked “a bit” (his description) until he found them. This was after they had been in the car for over five hours, and the little ones were about to go crazy, strapped in their seats and hungry and tired. Anyway, I embellished that scene quite a bit, and after reading your tip, I’ll find a way to use it one day.

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  4. Hi Jayne: Good replies, all of the above…sounds like you feel the need for more ‘parameters.’ Coming from non-fic I can see how that might be a factor (tho not necessarily so!)…so how about a self-imposed parameter? Perhaps choose a particular genre to write in? The genre itself could help you choose subject matter and story line…just a thought.
    peace

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    • jayne bowers says:

      Thanks for the advice, Laura. Last night I started reading a book of short stories by Carson McCullers upon the advice of a young colleague of mine. I’m reading the book because she’s such a good writer, but I’m doing more than reading it. I’m actually studying exactly how she manages to describe scenes and put sentences together. Her writing makes me realize that I have much work to do, and although I’ll never be the writer that she was, there’s a thin slice of pie out there for me (for all writers) too.

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  5. Ash is what familiar people shorten my name to (from Ashia). Prince is derived from my surname of Mirza. Anyone with the name Mirza can claim to be a descendent of the “Princes” of India. (It’s an in-house joke within the family that we are all “princes” and “princesses” – my kids used to love bragging about this at school when they were younger!) Amazingly, there is an entry in Wikipedia under “Mirza”.
    “Writer” is only added on because there are already people named Ash Prince! I look forward to reading your next post.

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    • jayne bowers says:

      Thanks for answering. Although some people might not think that much about names, I think they’re quite important in someone’s identity. In my writing group, I’ve heard fiction writers agonize over names. Stella or Janice? Lola or Marilyn? John or Daniel or Ramon?

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