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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » A practical application of “Show don’t Tell”

   
Author Topic: A practical application of “Show don’t Tell”
NewsBys
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I attended a workshop (job-related, not writing related) last week and the speaker made a comment that clicked on a light bulb for me.
He stated that people communicate in two basic ways: Non-verbal and Verbal.
Non-verbal = gestures, facial expressions, etc.
Verbal = spoken communication, including sounds like laughter, grunts, etc.
He also said that type of communication effects the “receiver” in different ways:
Non-verbal communicates emotions.
Verbal communicates logic (or in some people, lack thereof).
Also, he pointed out that non-verbal cues will always overpower verbal communication.
Non-verbal cues can be used to:
Accent the verbal communication
Repeat it
Reinforce it
Contradict it
Substitute for it
Complement it

I began to wonder if it is possible to apply these principles to better understand writing, especially the meaning of the saying, “Show don’t Tell.”

I got to thinking about a scene from a story I recently read. In the scene two characters, including the POV character, are confronting a third character guilty of a crime. During their questioning of the 3rd character, the 3rd character speaks as if perfectly composed. They almost believed she was not deranged at all, until the POV character notices that she is scratching at the arms of the chair so hard she is unwittingly shredding the silk upholstery with her fingernails.

So instead of just saying the 3rd character looked deranged or angry, the writer showed an action that could non-verbally communicate it to the POV character and the reader. Coupling the 3rd character’s rational sounding dialogue with the contradicting action of shredding the chair arms made the 3rd character seem even more deranged, then if she had just thrown a tantrum of some sort, or “started talking crazy”.

Just thought I’d share in case it helps anyone else. Any thoughts?


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Great insight and example, NewsBys.

Thanks for sharing.

(Any chance you'd let me reprint your post in the SF and Fantasy Workshop Newsletter sometime?)


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NewsBys
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Sure. If you think you need more info let me know.

Oh, and thanks for offering the opportunity.

[This message has been edited by NewsBys (edited February 08, 2005).]


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Newsbys, I'm going to take this discussion to email, and hope other people post here.

Later, I'll probably delete this post and the two above it because they distract from the discussion you tried to start.


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KatFeete
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Thanks for posting this. I've been struggling, for years it seems, to *explain* to people why "show, don't tell" is a good idea. I hate just parroting popular wisdom at folks without an explaination....

Usually I say that people believe in what they're shown and not necessarily in what they're told, which fits in nicely with your logic/emotion thing. That is, unless you're communicating logic, there's little point in telling people directly what you're talking about. To say "she was angry" is nothing. If you let them figure it out for themselves, on the other hand, they'll feel very clever and be actually convinced that the character's angry.

We're distrustful of what we're told, because we lie. But we do believe our own conclusions. The trick with writing is to tap into the latter.


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hoptoad
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I would be careful with it though.
A lot of people overlook non-verbal cues, give the speaker the benefit of the doubt. I put non-verbal cues in my stories a lot and am amazed how many people give priority to the dialogue instead. You often have to show the POV character noticing the non-verbal cue, and focussing on it more than usual, for the reader to pickup that they should notice it too.

This also relates to theories of learning strategies. (Work related too). There are visual learners and verbal learners but almost everyone learns most from practical application. How someone acts combines with what they say but is almost universally overpowered by what they actually do. For instance you can talk about basketball, you can watch a basketball game and each will give you a different perspective, however you learn most about playing from playing.

[This message has been edited by hoptoad (edited February 09, 2005).]


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Survivor
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Of course you have to have the POV characte notice the cues. Otherwise, why are they in your story at all?
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KatFeete
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I put non-verbal cues in my stories a lot and am amazed how many people give priority to the dialogue instead. You often have to show the POV character noticing the non-verbal cue, and focussing on it more than usual, for the reader to pickup that they should notice it too.

That's very interesting because I find exactly the opposite; people pick up on my non-verbal cues with remarkable speed, to the point that I have to rush to pull out any that don't say what I mean.

On the other hand, I write mostly dialogue, and I'm writing a mystery, so people are attentive to clues.

And I am also mostly writing non-verbal cues in conjugation with dialogue - in other words, instead of writing "No," she said angrily I'm writing "No," she said, slamming her hand down on the desk. In this case there's two kinds of cues - those that clarify or reinforce the dialogue, as above, and those that contradict the dialogue: "I'm sure," he said, swallowing hard.. People pick up on both pretty quick.

But I'm not sure these are the kind of verbal cues you mean.


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