Emotions are fine but actions are better. The writer of fiction must make the reader "see" what is going on because seeing is believing. What can writers learn from Neal Young and Crazy Horse?
I was working on this article and thinking about a song by Neal Young. I don’t remember the title of the song but the lyrics went, “Old man lying by the side of the road with the lorries rolling by. Blue moon sinking from the weight of the load as the buildings touch the sky.” If you remember the name of the song tell me in a comment. I would appreciate it.
Talk about visual lyrics. I remember the lyrics but not the title of the song. That’s how strong the impact of the lyrics were on me because I could “see” what he was singing about. He was using sense details to make me see. Cowgirl in the Sand and Down by the River are two more titles by Neal Young. They are both very visual titles.
You no doubt know the saying that “seeing is believing.” “Seeing is believing” is an excellent philosophy for the short story writer to live by. This is why every instructor of short story writing tries to impress upon student writers the importance of “show don’t tell.” But how exactly does a writer show and not tell? What words must a writer use to make a reader see what is going on?
Let me ask this? How do we, human beings, experience the world? We experience the world through our five senses. These senses are sight, touch, smell, hearing and taste.
When I was a teaching assistant at the University of Pittsburgh from 2003 to 2006 working on my MFA in fiction writing, I got the chance to teach one semester of short story writing. Of course, I was hot to teach my undergraduates all about flash fiction.
Young writers, especially young writers discovering short stories, are full of emotions. They want to write about love and hurt. They want to write about life and death. They want to write about the great emotions of triumph and lose. Their stories are full of how their characters are thinking and what they are feeling. The reader spends a lot of time inside the minds of the characters. This sort of writing is more satisfying to the writer than it is to the reader. That’s because the writer explains what is going on inside the characters. The reader is just listening. The reader is being spoon fed. The reader is not allowed to contribute anything to the creation of the story. The reader’s imagination is being repressed.
But if the writer does just a little explaining and a lot of writing about what the characters say and do the reader will figure out on his or her own what the characters are probably feeling and thinking. The reader is forced to fill in the blanks. In this way not only is the story tighter but the writer is also letting the reader experience the story through the way a view point character sees, touches, smells, hears and taste. And just like in real life sight is probably the most important sense. For a reader there is no doubt that what the view point character reports he or she sees happening is the most important thing of all if the reader is to live in the story.
Through “show don’t tell” the reader stops being an observer and actually becomes a participant. When the reader sees a character bite into a sweet apple, the reader will remember what biting into an apple felt and tasted like.
Compressionism: The Pittsburgh Stories (ebook) by Guy Hogan