New writers are often advised to "Show, don't tell." Many have no idea what this means.
Mark Twin instructed: "don't report that the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream." More recently, bestseller Janet Evanovich wrote: "If your character walks out of his apartment, pulls up the collar of his coat, and goes searching through pockets for his gloves, you don't have to tell us it's freezing."
Both Twain and Evanovich are known primarily for their fiction. When it comes to nonfiction, though, while you don't want to list everything that happened to you from birth on, there are often compelling and necessary reason you should "tell" factual elements. Here's why you might need to show and tell when writing essays-and how to strike the perfect balance.
WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?
"Showing" can be described as painting a vivid picture of what's going on, using the kind of physical description, humor, pathos and dialogue that immediately brings readers into a scene in novels, short stores, poetry, nonfiction and on the screen.
"Telling" is when you report facts from an unemotional distance, the way you'd share resume highlights in a job interview. This kind of narrative summary gets a bad rap because it doesn't draw readers into the pages in the same way as "showing," but still, it's a significant part of the mix.
FIRST SHOW, THEN TELL
Even in a short personal essay, there's room to both efficiently "tell" information quickly and to "show" the important parts, as the brilliant essayist Phillip Lopate demonstrates in his book To Show and to Tell. Showing is often more effective at the onset of a piece of nonfiction when you only have one job: to lure the reader in. Or, as Hollywood director Billy Wilder suggested in his "Rules for Screenwriters" (Found in Conversations With Wilder by Cameron Crowe): "Grab 'em by the throat and never let 'em go."
STRIKING A BALANCE
Following these rules will ensure your essay is as completing and clear as it needs to be by helping you balance showing and telling.
1. Use past tense throughout. It's the most honest approach since the story you're writing has already happened. While in poetry, fiction and on-screen it's more common to use present tense, fewer newspapers or magazines will publish a present-tense nonfiction essay. Since it's an artsy conceit, often to make a piece feel more immediate, literary journals will sometimes publish creative nonfiction that plays with tenses. But you usually have to know the rules before you break them. For beginners, I suggest using the verb form that indicates that the action has already occurred. I also find it's easier to put everything in one tense. So instead of starting with past tense, then switching around to say, "I have always been the type to talk in my sleep," I would write, "I had always talked in my sleep." Just use past tense, which is easier to write, read and remember.
2. RECALL AS CLEARLY AS POSSIBLE. Nobody has a record of every word they spoke in the past. You don't have to say, "I remember that..." We know you remember it, that's why you're writing it. You can also cut the line, "I don't remember much, but..."Instead, add how you figured it out.
3. DON'T OVERDO DIALOGUE. Five or six lines of a conversation in a scene is sufficient for a 900-word personal essay. If you write an entire page of dialogue, that's a script.
4. DON'T START AT THE VERY BEGINNING. If I read the first line that goes, "I was born in Columbus, Ohio, the oldest of three children ..."I would stop reading.
5. BEGIN WITH BRAVADO. For example, "We met the day I replaced her." (Marie Claire) "I was married twice last summer." (The New York Times Magazine). Don't be afraid to be out there, crazy, brave, revealing and innovative. If you are using typical words that have been said many times, twist them differently. As the poet Emily Dickinson wrote, "Tell all the truth but tell it slant."
6. DON'T BOMBARD THE READER WITH FACTS. Don't overstuff the lede. In David Mamet's rules for drama, he says the audience only cares about three questions: 1) Who wants what from when? 2). What happens if they don't get it? 3) Why now? Everything else is irrelevant and can clunk up your first paragraph, rendering it boring or confusing.
7. DON'T REVEAL THE END TOO SOON. If you begin your essay, "After living through the worst divorce in the history of the world, I swore I'd never get married again, so walking down the aisle was a surprise, " you've given away too much information too fast. There's no reason to keep reading. Try something like this, "When I first saw the cute bearded man with glasses, I turned away, sure he wouldn't be interested in a 45-year old angry divorcee like me."
8. ANIMATE WITH HUMOR OR SELF-DEPRECATION.
9. COMMIT WHOLEHEARTEDLY TO ONE STORY. In the middle of reading a personal essay, I can't stand when a writer tosses in the cliche "But that's a whole other story..." or cuts to a tangent about another character or family. Push yourself into completing this essay, telling one story as if it's the last piece you'll ever write and publish, and it won't be.
To get your audience to read your essay from start to finish, make sure you balance show and tell throughout the entire piece. There's a lot that you need to tell your readers when crafting nonfiction and, if you show them why they should be interested, they'll be more than willto be told.
By Susan Shapiro