Show Me, Tell Me: The Writer’s Process

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“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

Anton Chekov was a brilliant Russian short story writer, of the late 19th century. His quote serves as my personal mantra, whenever the spirit directs me to write. The quote is not too terribly complex or profound. In fact, it’s actually the simplicity of it that stirs the challenge to write visually.

“Don’t tell me,” the mantra says. “Show me. My canvas is blank and you’re given only two colors to work with: black and white. Paint a rainbow using your limited colors. Show me what you’re made of wordsmith. Make the white-space change shades. Transform the black letters into radiant scenery. Dazzle me.”

Showing you (the reader) the scenes locked inside my mind is a daunting task, because I’m not that talented when it comes to communication. I’ve never been a comfortable public speaker. I stumble over words, speak quickly, and sweat sometimes while trying to explain my stance on an issue. Conveying my detailed thoughts onto a blank screen or paper is equally difficult.

I’ll tell you what, though, when a scene comes together on the screen, it’s like watching magic happen. Words placed in perfect succession create an atmosphere that transcends the two-dimensional plane of the laptop screen. If I do it right, you find yourself viewing surroundings from the perspective of the character. That’s the magic: being able to pull you directly into the story without you ever realizing you’ve left the comforts of your own little world. That’s showing you the glint of light on broken glass.

Let’s try a little experiment, to give you the feel of what I’m talking about. Here’s the setup: whenever I’m preparing to write, I usually perform a few simple tasks like clockwork. I set my laptop up in a quiet space, usually dimly lit and somewhat drab. I don’t want a lot of visual distraction going on while I’m trying to focus on the scenes in my mind. I set my iPod mood music (on low volume) to something instrumental; merely background music for my scene developement. I pull up a new Microsoft Word page, and stare into the bland white space until I begin to picture the scenes. So…walk with me for a minute.

Mid-day…

This writing itch has been with me all morning. It’s like a nagging mosquito bite between my shoulder blades, in that spot where my hands can’t reach. I’ve gotta hurry home to my computer. I don’t want to risk losing these ideas. I think I’m on to something.

Later…

Finally got my laptop set up in the little study. The dull white walls don’t offer much to look at, but the flat paint makes for the perfect mental canvas. I think I’ll light the vanilla scented candle, as soon as I can find the matches.  

Yeah. The atmosphere is coming together, now. Time to plug in the iPod; I’ve got my headphones ready for some music. What am I feeling tonight? I think this story is going to shape up to be a melodramatic tale of redemption so…I’m feeling like a little Mozart tonight. Hmm…maybe I’ll go with Daft Punk’s “Solar Sailer” on repeat, for a while. The bass line is smooth, deep; rich. The synthesizer chimes in perfectly with the cello and violins. I can already picture the opening scene, with this musical background. Better fire up the blank page.

I love the soft click of the laptop’s plastic keys, under my fingertips. ‘Word’ is up. One of these days, I have to teach myself to type; stop all this ridiculous chicken peck typing.

The horns in the background music are so relaxing. The story is unfolding, in my mind. Here we go. Once upon a time…

Can you see it? Are you there with me? You can see the writer’s been struggling with an urge to write, and find himself (or herself) eager to get home and get started. Everyone knows the feeling of an annoying bite, especially one in a hard to reach spot. I compare the writer’s itch to an annoyance my audience can identify with.

Flash forward. The walls of the little room are a dull white. Not too descriptive there, but that’s the point. You’re given just enough detail to get your own imagination started. My little room could be 4 feet by 7 feet, whereas your room could be 6 feet by 9 feet. The size really doesn’t matter. I want you to note that it’s a small room with flat white wall-paint.

Here’s another thing. Notice I didn’t mention a table, stand, chair or any other furniture. Some people like to use their laptops while sitting on the ground while others prefer a table and chair. Still, others may prefer a desk. The room setting is opened to the reader’s interpretation. The only stipulation noted, is that the laptop is set up. You’re given the urge to write, the surroundings, and the main tool. Now you’re into character.

In this day and age, I think it’s safe to assume that everyone has at least heard of an iPod, and possess a rudimentary knowledge on what it does. The writer’s planning to use headphones with the iPod. As the reader, you can visualize what style of iPod and headphones you’d feel most comfortable with. I visualize an 80G iPod, using Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro headphones. I’m kind of an general music aficionado and like to feel the heavy bass tones and high treble pitches.

The writer’s planning to write a sentimental piece. Hence, the musical choice: Mozart. These days, I really am listening to Daft Punk’s track “Solar Sailer”. It’s orchestral arrangement helps me focus, while its heavy electronic undertones keep my mental mettle up. As the reader, you may not know Daft Punk’s genre of music, but it was noted what type of story was planned. Again, you’re free to choose whatever music would bring you into a sense of calm, for writing. You’re still in character.

Next, our writer (ie. You, dear reader) has begun to tap away at the keys of the computer. As    mentioned before, there’s really no reason to go too heavy on the details of the laptop, because yours may look and feel completely different from my own. The stipulation only goes so far as to let the reader know that the writer had started typing on the laptop.

On a side note, our writer has not been formally trained in typing. His mind flashes this fact briefly as the blank Microsoft Word document appears onscreen.

In completing the introduction, the writer laments over the relaxing sounds of the music playing. The scenes for the story are evoked through the musical background. the story begins to take shape on the screen with the ever popular opening line, “Once upon a time”.

This whole process is a constantly evolving work in progress. The concept of “show, not tell” in writing is a difficult thing mastered only by the best of the best writers in the world. Someday I hope to get a good grasp on the concept. In the meantime, I’ll simply continue plodding along, stumbling my way through progress.

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