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Tips for Show Don’t Tell: A Guide for Writing

by Matilda Butler on July 30, 2013

catnav-alchemy-activePost #74 – Memoir and Fiction, Writing Alchemy – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

Another Lesson Learned in Ashland

Lately I shared one of my lessons learned while attending plays in Ashland, Oregon. And while Shakespeare is a great teacher, I have to confess that one of my favorite performances was “My Fair Lady.” The Oregon Shakespeare Festival stages a number of plays each season — some new, some old, and some in-between. I am of the generation who loves a good musical and am completely swept away by the story and songs.

As you may know, it took a long time and a couple of deaths (George Bernard Shaw who wrote Pygmalion and Gabriel Pascal who had purchased from Shaw the right to produce Pygmalion) before Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe turned the play into a musical. But when they did, My Fair Lady became an instant success and has been revived a number of times over the years.

Thinking about turning the play experience into a blog post? No way. I was just enjoying it all. Later, I found myself humming (I can’t carry a tune so singing it was out of the question) one of the songs. In my head I was beautifully singing the words. Then all of a sudden, I realized how relevant “Show Me” is for a writer struggling with the concept of “How in the heck do I show don’t tell!”

I’ve included a few of the stanzas from the song Eliza sings. Read it and then think about your writing.

Upon hearing Freddy’s words of undying love for her, Eliza Doolittle sings:

Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!
I get words all day through;
First from him, now from you!
Is that all you blighters can do?

Don’t talk of stars
Burning above;
If you’re in love,
Show me!
Tell me no dreams
Filled with desire.
If you’re on fire,
Show me!

Here we are together in the middle of the night!
Don’t talk of spring! Just hold me tight!
Anyone who’s ever been in love’ll tell you that
This is no time for a chat!

Haven’t your lips
Longed for my touch?
Don’t say how much,
Show me! Show me!

Don’t talk of love lasting through time.
Make me no undying vow.
Show me now!

Sing me no song!
Read me no rhyme!
Don’t waste my time,
Show me!

Memoir Writing Tip

1. Look at a section of your memoir that you have been working on. Are you saying that you love the other person? Try giving the person a hug instead. Did you say you are angry? Try stomping your foot or storming out of the room instead. Is someone in the scene sad? Try having the person slump into a chair — shoulders hunched forward.

2. Or, start on a fresh vignette or section of your memoir. The best way to show a scene to your reader is to go deep into details. When and where are you in this scene? Who are the people in the scene and what do they look like? In what ways are their personalities coming out? What do your senses tell you during the scene. Share the best of these details with your readers. In other words, get close to your story.

3. “But I’m summarizing a number of times that my mother took me with her to shop.” That’s a common reason offered for not being specific, for not giving details. A memoir writer wants to summarize and so says she can’t show. She just wants to tell in general what these trips were like. Avoid the dull writing that excuse leads to. Remember one particular day and write with as many details as possible. The scene will come to life because you will be showing rather than telling about it. Too many details? Don’t worry. Write with as many as possible in your first draft. On a later edit, you’ll see which are the most powerful. Some can drop out. Although you’ll probably be surprised at how important the details are.

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