Rules of Writing: Show, Don’t Tell

Art by Jeremy Grant (my talented husband): Detail of Loading with Obstruction that Threshold, 2015.

I like to read and write what memoirist Mary Karr calls “carnality”: the melting popsicle dripping onto the fingers, puddling on the sidewalk; the chalk coating the fingers in powder; the sharp, bitter bite of an onion as its chopped husk lies on the cutting board, ready for stewing, leaving your eyes and nose stinging; the surprise rumble of the garbage truck parading down the alley behind the house.

I want to taste, I want to smell, I want to see, I want to feel, I want to hear. A carnal writer takes you into the middle the scene, into the center of the action, where you can sweat alongside her character. Carnality makes the characters breathe on the page, and in every genre, it holds the reader’s attention. Carnality lends your narrative teeth.

One way to achieve carnality? Gift your verbs muscle. Throw out the passive ones (the “is”es and “am”s and “were”s) in favor of the active and vivid (relish, hasten, chortle, exhale): the more specific, the better.

Abstraction, on the other hand, sums up the lived experience: I felt scared, alone, confused, exhilarated. I learned to stand up for myself. I decided never to do that again.

Another way to talk about this is by calling these two categories “scene” vs. “summary.” In a scene, you have dialogue, you have action, you have characters living out their insides. Scenes mimic how we act as people in real life – just jotted down into two-dimensions. In summary, you TELL the reader who this person is, what all this means, and why it matters; in scene, you SHOW it. (Get it?)

Abstraction does have a place. But, in my opinion, abstraction should take up as little space as possible on the page. Perhaps in a writer’s narrative,  she should write only one, lonely declarative sentence. Abstraction should tell your readers something you can’t show them, that they couldn’t know without you saying it. Abstraction should shock.

When a writer leans on abstraction, she takes the readers out of the immediacy of the narrative, and when she does, she risks losing the readers’ attention and emotional engagement – and the readers’ attention is everything. (Have you ever been distracted by a typo or a wrong note played at a concert? If so, you’ve experienced this from the vantage point of a reader!).

In contrast, the more specific your carnality, the more vivid your scenes, the more engaged readers stay: they can live your experience and so they naturally compare it to their own. Your work evokes their own memories and it moves them, which I consider to be the goal of all literary writing. Emotional movement – positive or negative – is certainly what I hope to gain as a reader. If I don’t care about the writing, I won’t read it.

As a writer, make it your goal to strap your readers to a roller coaster, and let them feel the drops and twists with you. If you do it right, they should puke on cue.

About Liz Grant

Published author. Married to an artist. Two kids. Lives in a brick house in Denver, Colorado. Follower of Jesus. Find me on Instagram @elizcharlottegrant.

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