Sunday, May 25, 2008

Show don't tell

We were just discussing this when we were talking about the idea of writing about exotic locations.

I have noted that there are a ton of writers that apparently have never been to the location they are writing about. Instead, it is clear they spent the majority of their time working off of travel books and pictures they found on the internet. Sure the numbers and the data are accurate. But something is truly missing.

Let me give you an example.

The pictures here are of the Mercato Centrale in Florence, Italy. Now, there are several levels of these pictures that need to come across if you want to give it a three dimensional flavor (no pun intended there).

Obviously, you will want to discuss the colors and the layout of the picture, but if you have never been in a "real" outdoor market, and no I'm not talking about a local farmer's market, you are missing the much more. You have to deal with ALL of the senses.

There are the smells. Remember this is a market that sells everything - pasta, fruit, vegis, fish, bread, meat - and all of it is FRESH. You also have to add in the depth of smells from the people and the building itself.

It is also inside and I should note this picture was taken in August (I'll save that for another time). Think what heat does to smells, especially fruit.

Don't forget to add in the noise and the energy from the people in the market. In many countries, the market is much more than a place we go and shop. This is a place to gather and meet friends. You always go back and see the same people every time. You have your favorites and they know you. There are tourists here that don't get it, there are tourists here that do, there are people getting lunches... get the idea?

This is depth. Deal with all of the senses and truly understand the experience.

The funny part out of all this, is that many people are simply not that observant. Even after saying this, writers will go back and spend countless hours insuring that every description they have contains each of the senses, but you know, that is still not it. You are talking about something real. You are describing real people, not just an inanimate object.

By Hands of Men and Women

The streets bustle
In a constant stream
Of perople from different lands
Each rushes from
One church
To the next
Camera in hand
Map in the other.
They are seeing the city
That the books and the maps
Tell them is important
Do they really know?
Can they sense that
Their paths are crossing
Those of great minds?
These walls were not
Build by machines
Or computers
By hands of men and women
Who are no longer here?
It seems a shame
That these people gaze
Upon these amazing sights
They never really see them
For the love that built them
And the hands
that shaped them.

Reflections of a Common Man
Scott Eagan (2002)


  1. hey, I thought you were quoting a lit-poetry piece. That's very good btw, and no--not trying to suck up. :)

    I see what you mean, and yes--there's a depth that just doesn't translate. It's the whole immersion thing. It's the stench of blood from the butchers, and the rotting fruit smell, and sweat and energy, and women with underarm hair who don't use deodorant. I think...maybe because it's not something a lot of people have ever experienced. There's no baseline.

    Thanks for helping me to pinpoint what was wrong in my wip. I think my location was getting in the way.

  2. Jodi,

    Thanks... As I was writing this morning that comment just jumped into my head.

    Of course I was talking about Italy and I have been busy with prepping things for the Matera Conference so...

    Off to finish some more projects.

  3. "Show don't tell" was a HUGE obstacle in the beginning for me. It was hard for me to recognize it. I am a sloooow learner, but I eventually "got it".

    As for the "show don't tell" problem in an exotic setting, what do you think about using the correct vernacular in your dialog? Does that add to or take away from the story?

    :) Terri

  4. Terri,

    I think the whole vernacular thing is a tough one. In many cases, I see this more of a Sean Connery in Hunt For Red October thing. He's supposed to be Russian but that accent is far from it.

    There are some exceptions to the rule. As long as you can make the contextual definitions so the reader gets it, then you are fine. Take a look at Bronwyn Scott's online read at Harlequin (go to the READ section and look in the Harlequin Historicals)./ The other person would be Caridad Ferrer and Adios to My Old Life. Here are some great examples of blending cultural dialogue and vocabulary into a text to make it accessible to all.

  5. Sean Connery in The Hunt for Red October is hysterical to me, but I guess Hollywood figured it was Sean Connery, so who would care?

    I think the worst for me was Mel Gibson in Braveheart...YIKES!

    Having written historical, the vernacular has been one of the hardest to get right, and I've heard opinions from "agents HATE it when writers use a Scottish vernacular", to the other extreme of "agents won't even look at it if you don't".

    Just figured since you were a real live agent, you would have an opinion either way (yes, I know you don't care for Historical Romances taking place in Scotland, but it's what I write)!

    :) Terri

  6. Terri,

    You are so right about the vernacular thing. I have to say, the biggest issue I see with the manuscripts that cross my desk is again, a lack of knowledge of the language. Keep thinking on the acting thing. It's like watching someone who thinks that all "British" accents sound the same. There are distinct dialects for each area.

    I think the other issue is that many authors forget that we still need to be able to read the story. If the language is so authentic, especially for those unique locations, you will lose the readers.

    This is actually one of the reasons I struggle with many sci-fi and fantasy stories. I simply can't pronounce half of the words. This isn't to say the story is not good, but the schemantic noise is just too much.