Friday, September 12, 2008

Show and Tell

By nature, I’m a very verbal person (no, you don’t say!). Wonder how I’m feeling? I’ll tell you, sometimes in patience-exhausting detail. Want to know what I think? I’ll blurt it before you ask. Words are my primary form of communication, whether in spoken or written form. It’s why I’m a litigator. And a writer. They’re perfect vehicles for reasoned expression and absurd fantasy, and while the former stokes my inclination for bluntness (“I know that we’ve only just met, but I totally love you!”), the latter indulges my creative side (“But you’re a fairy god, and I’m a minotaur. How will this ever work?”). I’m endlessly fascinated by the things people say, the stories they tell, the jokes they make. And while I may forget an acquaintance’s name or even what she looks like, more likely than not, I’ll remember what she said.

So, it’s a bit of a challenge when I encounter people who aren't verbal creatures, when I have to deal with those whose predominant form of communication are body language and facial expressions and actions and other non-verbal cues. One of my college roommates was the perfect example of this. She was a lovely girl, kind and thoughtful, but verbose, she was not. If she was happy, she might walk a little faster, smile a little wider. If she was sad, she might shuffle and purse her lips. And if she was pissed off at me, she would slam a cabinet door while giving me a death stare before stomping into her bedroom. She wasn’t mute, of course, but only once in a blue moon would she tell me why she was feeling the way she was, or what I had done to irritate her so. In so many ways, her behavior was absolutely maddening. But it also attuned me to watch her reactions to gauge what she was thinking, to be more sensitive to her demeanor to understand the reasons for her emotions. She didn’t have to tell me what was going on with her. She showed me.

Which is better — conveying one’s thoughts through chatty stories or emoting through action? In real life, they’re both vital, and they’re both effective. They both have the power to delight and to overwhelm and to charm and to frustrate. But one is never purely one or the other. A person would be completely one-dimensional if she were.

Fiction, on the other hand (and by definition) is the opposite of real life. Or at least, the conveyance of it is. Everyone in the industry has heard the following at least a million times—“Don’t tell me, for God’s sake. Show me. Show me, show me, show me.” And every writer I know — including me — struggles with the nefarious “showing versus telling” dilemma. How much exposition can a reader take before she starts to skip pages? Or even worse, to throw the book into the trash? How much internal monologue can I set to paper before I exasperate her and lose her interest? In a huge sense, it’s a question of pacing, of delivering information through action and dialogue, of imparting a tone through the same. It’s a matter of describing the background environment so that we can see it, of moving the character toward her goal, of giving her speech that rings true to her character. Of creating verbal pictures instead of staid documents. It’s extraordinarily difficult, and it becomes even more difficult when I think about it too much. So instead, I try to remember how my college roommate’s face scrunched up and turned beet red, how she balled her fists into white knots, how her lithe body stiffened with outrage before slicing through the air toward me in slow motion. And with little difficulty, I recall her opening her Elmo-esque mouth and stating with surprisingly thunderous power, “Christine, when I came home last night, I totally bruised myself walking into the couch again. Would it be too much to ask that you not rearrange the living room furniture every damned day?”

Sometimes, I’m glad that she wasn’t so verbal.

1 comment:

karin said...

Enjoyed reading your blog today. I love words too, as opposed to numbers. It's a good thing we are all different and thereby greatly enhance each other's lives - that is - if we are welcomed. Still learning to express my opinion. Doesn't come easy. If someone is rude to me I can think of a fantastic retort 2-3 days later! That's why I love a quick wit and listening to someone who has the skills I lack.