Somewhere in the chaos that is my writing space, I have little bags of green cards. These are writing exercises that I create for myself. When I’m reading, or writing, or editing and I come across something that could use a little more practice, I create a little prompt to help develop that skill, chose a target length of time for the prompt (5, 10, 15, or 20 minutes), then put them in the bags and carry on with my day.
Part B of this endeavor (which doesn’t happen nearly as often as it should) is that I choose a card randomly from the bags and complete the exercise. Now, given that these are all trouble-areas with me, many of the attempts are pretty unfortunate. The card goes back in the bag if I don’t think I’ve really accomplished the goal. But the exciting part is that when I scroll through the big document where I collect the exercises, I see improvement. Nothing (in the whole world, ever!) is better than seeing improvement.
Here’s one I did when I noticed a problem I had with the “show don’t tell” principle.
Show exactly how someone feels without saying it
( 10 mins )
He was sitting on a rock that didn’t look like it could possibly be comfortable. His arm looped around his knees as his eyes surveyed the battlefield. There was a stagnant quality in his usually vibrant green irises. There seemed to be a glassy coating over them, like someone had thrown a plastic sheet over the infected area to keep it from poisoning the rest of the environment.
The red stains were seeping deep into the ground by now, hiding their secrets beneath the earth. The men were in the process of removing the corpses from the field and burning them. Occasionally one would come to him and ask for orders. He had no orders to give, so he just put a soft hand on their shoulder and sent them away.
One or two of the braver or more naïve men came up to ask the captain if he was okay, to which he only lifted the corners of his mouth in the tiniest possible smile and nodded. He hadn’t moved in over an hour. His chin was lifted, back as straight as possible from his position on the rock. When he wasn’t trying to smile at the men, his mouth was held in an even, firm line.
His shoulders weren’t tensed anymore. He was no longer checking over his shoulder every other moment. Now, all of his energy was drawn forward to the scarred field and the men that were slowly dragging the memories of the battle away.
Not perfect, but it gave me the chance to really be conscious of only that one aspect of writing without needing to worry about building a full plot or characters.
I know “show, don’t tell” is pretty standard advice, but I’m still working on training it into my style so that it sounds more natural. This scene, I thought, seemed really disconnected from the character, because I was trying to hard to rely on his body language to show feelings. That would be fine if the story containing this scene was from another POV, but if the Captain is the main storyteller, I feel like it wouldn’t hit the right emotional level, you know?
I guess it’s hard for me to show emotions without relying solely on how the character looks externally. I want to be able to show things without distancing the reader from the character.
Am I missing something about ‘show, don’t tell’? All thoughts and insights are most welcome!
(Also, if anyone thought it might help them to try the writing prompt themselves, I’d love to know how it worked out for you!)