Show, Don’t Tell

The month of September came to us in a blaze of glory. The weather was absolutely outstanding. Warm sunny days, and cool evenings, the kind you can sit outside in to shoot the breeze with friends over drinks. Then something changed and we now find ourselves in a cool spell with grey rainy days. My mood has changed significantly. I find it hard to be my usual gleeful self. Morbid is the word I would use today to describe mood.

Yesterday’s post reminded me of an english teacher I had in college. His last name was Walsh. I can still see his face and hear his voice. He was what I will call a dandy. His background before teaching was the US Military. How he survived twenty or thirty years with his effeminate manners and speech I cannot fathom. Nevertheless he was a great man. He must have liked me because he often used my writing as an example of what he liked in a piece. His likes, however, never got me more than a “C” grade.

One thing his encouragement did for me is to foster a notion that I could write, and tell a story. He never mentioned the current teachings of “show not tell” the story. When I read books today, I take particular note of how the author shows me what he is writing about. At first I didn’t understand what was meant by show. Now, I understand it, and recognize how it is done. Showing does make a story more readable, and more easily understood. Seeing a scene in your mind makes the story more compelling. Telling a story is often blah.

I rationalized that telling a story takes a bit of drama, but I didn’t understand that even when telling a story it is better if the listener converts what he hears into a picture in his mind. Seeing that picture makes things come alive for the listener. Of course the whole thing changes if one is writing non-fiction. In non-fiction the narrative is based on facts. I suppose it is possible to also include a show aspect to describing COVID-19 statistics in a dissertation on how the virus affects a body. It never hurts to spice up the numbers with gory scenes of internal mechanisms gone awry.

As an engineer I wrote many reports on experiments I conducted. Often I had to compare design A to design B. It was common to use third person in the narrative. Terms like “the sample was tested” or “the sample-A was conditioned.” My grammar checker always pointed out that using third person narrative was not as effective as using first person. That may be true when writing fiction, but I don’t think is is as effective when writing lab reports. First person narrative implies that you are in the act of doing something while third person describes what was done. It took several years for me to get out of the habit of writing in the third person narrative, and now I can’t write a very good lab report anymore, but I will never have to write another lone again so what does it matter?

. . . that’s all I have to say about that.

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