Show Me The Stuff

Here’s an interesting factoid for you: The cast of the original Star Trek were among the last actors that were trained by picture. Apparently, when they were learning to act, part of their training consisted of showing them pictures of people doing particular faces to represent various emotions. This is what a scared person looks like. This is what a happy person looks like. So on and so forth.

Better than his Spocked face.

In a way, it makes a certain kind of sense. As a TV actor, part of the job is making sure the audience understands what’s going on. If you make a particular face, everyone knows you’re shocked. Then we don’t have to expend additional energy trying to decide who’s shocked, who’s got ennui, and who’s blasé about about life; we can focus on the antics of Spock and Bones.

What does all this have to do with price of tea in China? Funny you should ask. But first, allow me to digress.

Back when I was still teaching Kenpo, I learned more teaching than I did learning. The reason was I had to not only be able to teach the techniques as I learned them, but be able to explain why the technique worked. It required an in-depth understanding to do it well.

Editing can change things.

Editing a book is kind of like teaching. It forces you to look at things differently. While I’m editing someone’s book, I’m also mentally editing my own works and noting what works and what doesn’t work when I’m reading it instead of writing it.

I’ve recently been editing a book for some folks. While it’s not a bad book, there are a few things in there that had me scratching my head and a few things that could really be expanded. In the writing world, we love to say “show, don’t tell.” The things that needed expanded fell into the “show, don’t tell” category. It wasn’t that they were bad lines, they just needed some expansion.

I’m not going to reproduce their lines here. Like I said, they’re not bad lines. But you see bad lines all the time. Little throw-away lines that would be easy to turn from bland to interesting.

Take this:

“I could tell she was upset.”

It’s a classic example of tell, not show. It’s also boring and feels half-assed. To make it interesting, look back to the way the original cast of Star Trek was trained and start asking question. How could I tell she was upset? Well, she looked upset. What does that look like? If you were to paint a picture of someone who was upset, what would it look like?

Steam always comes out of ears when people are upset. Seriously, watch a cartoon sometime.

That’s the essence of showing instead of telling.

An upset person can scowl, furrow their brow, snort, frown, grimace, narrow their eyes, glare, yell, blow steam out of their ears, and break things. Think about a person you’ve known and what he or she looked like when they were upset. Then write that.

Instead of “I could tell she was upset” how about:

“Her glare could peel the paint off a battleship. Those expressive brown eyes I love so much wouldn’t meet my gaze. She was completely focused on the bent spoon in her hand when she said, ‘I can’t believe you cheated at Street Fighter 2. I had that match and you know it’.”

Without ever saying “she’s upset” we know she’s upset. If in doubt, toss in a line about steam coming out of her ears.

Show it, don’t tell it.

Got any tips for showing instead of telling? Drop ’em in the comments and let the world see. In the interim, keep writing.

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One thought on “Show Me The Stuff

  1. Honestly, I think having steam literally come out of my ears would save an awful lot of misunderstanding.

    I never even thought about how actors were trained to show emotion . . . the picture thing makes sense, but I suppose I assumed everyone knew how to make the proper face for emotions they’ve all experienced. I learned something new today—though that explains a lot when it comes to Shatner’s acting.

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