In the Driver’s Seat

driver's seatTo be able to learn how to get some­where, I have to dri­ve the route myself. Rid­ing shot­gun doesn’t work if I’m try­ing to mem­o­rize the route; some­how the feel­ing of the nec­es­sary twists and turns has to seep up through the steer­ing wheel and into the pores of my hands for me to be able to reli­ably retain it. In oth­er words, I have to expe­ri­ence it as a dri­ver and not just as a passenger.

I think that’s essen­tial­ly what writ­ers mean when they offer the mys­te­ri­ous writ­ing advice: “Show, don’t tell.” They’re advis­ing stu­dent writ­ers to put the read­er in the driver’s seat, to offer the read­er a deep lev­el of engage­ment with the expe­ri­ence of the sto­ry, rather than just tak­ing them along for the ride.

Here’s an exam­ple. If in my sto­ry I write, “It was an ear­ly spring rain,” I am sim­ply “telling” you about the weath­er and the sea­son. Here, how­ev­er, are two very dif­fer­ent ways of “show­ing” you a spring rainfall:

Ver­sion one: “Plip. Plop. Ploop. Fat, wet drops tapped against the frozen brown cheeks of dor­mant Earth. Eas­ing itself awake, Earth let out a mighty yawn, scent­ing the air with a mem­o­ry of last autumn’s leaves.”

Ver­sion two: “Lulu shiv­ered as icy sliv­ers slashed her cheeks. It was time to push aside the mound of unmatched mit­tens and unearth the trusty umbrel­la that had shield­ed her from such attacks in the dis­tant past.”

Each ver­sion evokes a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent mood. Nei­ther men­tions “rain” or “ear­ly spring,” yet they are implic­it. Which leads to a fun game that can help young writ­ers learn how to write in a more “show­ing” way: ask them to describe a scene with­out using the obvi­ous cue words. Ask them to write about a char­ac­ter who is angry with­out say­ing the word “angry” or any of the obvi­ous syn­onyms. Have them set a scene at night with­out using the words “night” or “dark.” Encour­age them to put the read­er inside the expe­ri­ence in a sur­pris­ing and unex­pect­ed way, rather than rely­ing on the obvi­ous short-cuts. (If you hap­pen to have the game Taboo, I use the game cards as a way to play “Show, Don’t Tell” with my writ­ing students.)

Writ­ing that “shows” evokes the sens­es, uses active verbs, draws on metaphor­i­cal lan­guage, and asks read­ers to engage more deeply — to put them­selves in the driver’s seat, and to let the sto­ry seep up through the paper into their pores.

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