To show and not to tell

Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.

Virginia Woolf

My novel begins with two quotes from two epic writers: this is the first.

I read Woolf’s On Fiction when I was in high school, and there was something about her writing, her message, that I took to heart. In this paper, she has two messages that I took with me.

  1. Life is not something that you can lay out, plan, and follow through on. It is like water, breaking through barriers, crushing, enveloping, dissolving. It does not follow rules. It has no need of them.
  2.  Woolf argues that fiction writers do not give the audience enough credit for their imagination. They give too many details, list the qualities of one’s demeanor without example and describe the hell out of things. In that, we alienate our reader.

Writing, like life, does not obey laws. The words may be subject to grammar, syntax, diction, but the message can be outrageous, controversial, deeply bound to your being. At the same time, we need to let the reader have freedom within the experience of reading. Allow them to paint the picture in their head without negating it later; as writers, we must bring out the richness of our world that we live in (I mean the one in your head, of course). Too often do writers feel the desire to tell how things feel, look, taste, without granting the reader the liberty to feel the design without looking at it first. A hallway’s walk is sometimes just that, but an excellent writer can make you feel the weight of the walls, their texture, their height, without incessant listing description.

The first message makes me remember how I wanted to plan my life. In college, I had this idea that I would graduate cum laude, get into a great grad school, maybe get married. But when I was writing my honors thesis, I didn’t have the time to apply to schools and so I thought I’d defer a year. When I applied, I was wait-listed. The next year, I didn’t get in (no wait-list to comfort me). The third time, I got in, but with a new husband and a new baby due at the end of my first semester, I knew that grad school would have to wait another year, at least. But the amazing thing is that if I went to school when I was scheduled to, when I planned to, I wouldn’t have written this book. I wouldn’t be where I am and I will not wish any of these things away to have a degree when I wanted it. Everything comes in due time. It’s possible to have anything you want, but its the sacrifice is what makes accomplishments worth the effort.


2 thoughts on “To show and not to tell

  1. We tend to describe the event rather than the character’s reaction to it. As a result, we have books with much description, and little emotion. I suppose if we close our eyes and let the journey take us, it will feel quite a bit more like life.

    • Love the way you think! I really like when the narrator gives us a reaction and THEN the impetus for it. I don’t believe it’s telling the reader how to feel, but evoking a response.

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