Showing Versus Telling

Since education is designed to produce members of society who will function logically and efficiently, most of us graduate from years of schooling with a brain imbalance: our linear, analytical left brains have been developed at the expense of our intuitive, spatial right brains.

That’s why we often feel so awkward and lost when we first sit down to try creative writing. For though the creative process makes use of left-brain reasoning, the left brain’s talents for making stories are limited. It prefers to abstract from data, draw conclusions, summarize events, reduce them to outlines, boil them down to their conceptual essence—when it’s that very data, those messy, sprawling events, that comprise the substance of juicy narrative.

A story is so much more than a sequence of causally-connected plot points, and that more emerges from a vigorous right brain process, which conjures an entire dimensional world, colorful and exciting, by thinking in pictures, free-associating, trusting wild guesswork and what-if’s.

How can we get the left brain, accustomed to being in charge of everything, to let go of control, and invite the under-appreciated right brain to assert itself with confidence? In other words, how can we nudge our minds away from “telling” (talking about) and towards “showing” (picturing)?

–Try writing your zero draft in the present tense. This will close the distance between you and your story, force you to (re)live it, rather than record happenings as if looking down from a mountaintop, or looking back from a spot where the outcome is known. You can always shift into past tense in a later draft, once the up-close and personal approach has opened your perspective.

–Develop a nose for abstractions, words that name emotional reactions—cautious, disapproving, anxious, indecisive, joyful—or words that name ideas–order, chaos, resilience, corruption, compassion. Notice these words are all conclusions we draw based on data. Question their necessity. Instead of their tidy pronouncements, should you be providing the specific data, the sensory facts, the concrete examples, the body language, then let the reader draw the conclusion on her own?

–Beware of summarizing actions. Sometimes summary is appropriate, but most often it indicates a left-brain takeover. Tell the left brain to back off, then invite the right brain to indulge in imagining, stretching out time by investigating every little grain of sand (see Time Management).

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