Showing, an Example thru Short Story Writing

The following is an example of the previous exercise of building with details. Now we take some to see if a story shakes out of them.

To start, I scanned over the facial features list and picked a few and then picked a random context: in an elevator.

First scratch notes:

I was in a hurry to get to street level. The elevator was getting crowded. It stopped again at the 3rd floor. I inwardly groaned. A wave of cologne boarded before he did. I glanced up and was struck by those long curled eyelashes winking over some bloodshot but attractive hazel eyes on an angular tanned face. The senior lady from the 12th floor shuffled over to make room for him. I watched from the corner of my eye as he took his place and exchanged greetings and getting an update on the game with the senior couple. The matching set of laughter lines arched to either side of his Aquiline nose. I averted my eyes back to study that ever so fascinating scratch on the ad panel.

So far a scene has been set but nothing has really happened.

What genre or focus could be set now and fine tuned when there’s more to work with and more around to cut.

I could run with this at this point and see where it leads, could break it down into a poem settling, could brainstorm for directions of who these people are to each other, work out a dialogue, run down a character sketch of each and clarify why they are there, or clean up what I have so far…

For my purpose, I want to look at showing details and how to show better so I’ll rewrite at this point.

I was in a hurry to get to street level.
(How do I know? Pretty telly, not showy. Opportunity to set formality level and character/mood of POV, or clumsily inseert more telling of why the rush downstairs. )

I could feel the tension bandage of a headache being clipped into place. I tried not to fidget and settled for slight flexes of the knees, shifting my weight from left to right, my jaw set around holding in sighs unexpelled as I willed the elevator numbers to descend. My will was not strong enough evidently.

The elevator was getting crowded. It stopped again at the 3rd floor. I inwardly groaned.
(again telly. how crowded was it? how do I know? how does the POV feel about delays? what time frame do we have left on board the elevator? Too many details and it looks like a memory game. One has to indicate what is relevant and worth remembering and what’s just for mood. )

We lurched to a stop at the 6the floor; I groaned inwardly. A woman with a skirt as short as mine was long moved to the back with her pixie hair in her hairspray cloud. A man with shiny black shoes and business suit compacted himself behind me. A greyed lady from the 12th floor gave a tight-lipped smile of apology for stepping towards my airspace while her floormate automatically shifted closer to the aluminum wall to make room for the newcomer.

A wave of cologne boarded before he did. I glanced up and
(more detail of smell and textures around?)

A wave of sandalwood cologne boarded before he did. I glanced over at the latest arrival to our sardine tin

was struck by those long curled eyelashes winking over some bloodshot but attractive hazel eyes
(“struck by” is rather cliche and a fairly external description with POV fairly neutral ticking off features, 2 eyes, check. nose? 1. check )

and felt my breath catch on those curled eyelashes as they winked over bloodshot but attractive hot-roasted hazelnut peepers.

on an angular tanned face.
(fairly bland, take that up a notch?)

My heart sped over his long angular tanned jaw.

(move a line from original around)

The matching set of laughter lines deepened and arched to either side of his Aquiline nose as he took his place and exchanged greetings with the senior couple.

He was a back clapper sort of guy. Even in this confined space with someone’s briefcase pressing my lower back I could see he would be the sort of person who would throw a casual arm around someone’s back. He called 3 people in the elevator by name. He remembered details from Tom’s life of his son coming for a visit. Maybe he was in sales. A fresh transfer?

With a half-cocked ear, I explored the folds and rolls and plosives of his tongue, found a touch of a Houston accent mixed with an edge of what seemed Bulgarian. I checked out the pleat of his dress pants, the crisp of his collar, the glint of gold at his neck but not on his left hand. He was fully attentive to his conversation.

We were almost at fresh-air level when in the remaining milliseconds he dropped me a glance and smile. I indulged in a sip more of those latte-colored wonders before he strode off. Even seeing his back, I become conscious of my trickle of sweat. I stroked the coolness of the metal panel, pretending to rub off a bit of something, letting others exit ahead of me as my redness recedes.

Problem with the story is that at this rate, it may be paced more for novel length than short story. There is there is no point yet. It’s more of a vignette scene to introduce. And the nit that the POV is looking like a gaping excruciatingly shy stalker in the process of writing to bring forward ideas of reactions shown through features, body languages and environmental textures, there’s more to work out.

*But* for my purposes, it was useful. It exercises the thought process into a frame of structuring narrative towards picking out details plus I have fabricated something when I started out “with no idea of what to write about”, so in these senses, it’s in a right direction. It trains me to attend to all my senses while I live day to day.

Links of the Day: Pantser or Plotter? What’s the Method of writings?

Wikipedia’s entry on Short Story that literary thing which covers only one incident, has a single plot, a single setting, a limited number of characters, and covers a short period of time in a dramatic arc of setting, conflict, resolution.

Light Links:Tongue in Cheek Glossary of News Reporting or the world’s diversity in 7 pictures

Soundtrack: Meatloaf “I Said Nothing at All”

Word Association: Thrum, thrall, dethone, atone, tome-dome posture, pasture-ize the cows, the hows of houses, blouses and radar blips

Quote of the Day: When you see a man at the top of a mountain, he didn’t fall there.

Menu: homemade split pea soup, pakistani basmati rice and broccoli

31 May 2005, 4:47pm
Communication Creative Writing Poem Drafts
Comments Off on Editing to Show Not Tell

Editing to Show Not Tell

How to show versus tell is a matter of letting your mental image be acted out rather than sticking a quick adjective on it.

Instead of plot-driven whistle stop of judgement statements of what the writer has decided, go towards describing the journey as it is still happening in a more lively way, and let the reader play detective in small ways.

For (lousy but simple) example. She was short. She was fatigued and irritable. When she came in he was eating in the dark room. could be described instead as She went on her tiptoes, stretching to fumble for the pull chain on the fan to switch on the light. Her grunts turned to grrrs and swats at it until it hooked over the fan blade. She made a nearly subvocal harrumph. Behind her she heard an om nom, nom, nom and his smacking lips. She turned in the direction of the sound and demanded in a tight voice, “Why are you eating in the dark?!

Some creative people can be excited by hint of possibility and thrive on vague evocative suggestions of scenes. If shown a couple of stars they mentally sketch in not just Orion’s belt, but leap at the chance to picture a battle scene Orion’s engaged in, work up his psychological profile, everything from his life legend to a formative scene of his early childhood development.

Unpacking your assumptions in a compelling way that hooks the reader is another matter. For example,

“he walked in brooding in his typical air of misogynic conceit, glaring with barely concealed contempt at any object near his gaze, and objects, in his narrow view, included people.”

This sets the scene in a few punchy words, but tells the reader a summary in slanted language instead of showing clues that would lead the reader to draw conclusion as an observer. What’s the essential, and how do you see it?

How does the person move? What are the telltales? You don’t have to think for the reader, just observe and pass the perceptions along. Compare the last example to this:

“He swung into the room with chin raised, back stiff, shoulders squared, face and breathing tight. He rarely met an eye but when he did there was an intensity of the glance that made the receiver jump slightly and lower their face and stoop their shoulders while giving him a wide berth. He reserved his warning looks, with slight lift of sneer of nostril, for Judy. At least she used to think so until she realized the twitch of it, the tightness in his face and posture came whenever he was dealing with any women. He never spoke with them if he could. She wrote that off initially as a cover for shyness. A buffalo skin thick cover, but still, not the real him.

When he was in a chipper mood, he wore a vague aren’t-I-being-a-good-guy-for-indulging-this as an amused look that played over his eyebrows. Inattention and suppressed sighs came before formal dismissal. Today he was in no mood for as much patience and energy as that would take. He swept past, his jaw ticking with its clench. His middle-distance gaze looked thru the people and tables equally to a dark mental vision he was locked in on.”

Neither is stellar writing but a first pass at making the ideas richer. Can you see how in one case, we are informed of back story and in the other case we are shown some more visual information. The character’s behavior does more of the telling than the narrator. Dialogue, details and having a distinct point of view of another character makes it more immediate than an omniscient narrator as well.

It’s easy to tell what you think. Showing in writing takes more observation, more skill and dexterity. Doing either when “you have no ideas” can be helped with prompts. (See also my page on unblocking writer’s block)

Once you have a sneak peak at your character, you can pick a context for action. At this point it doesn’t matter which details are chosen. They can change later if they don’t fit in once things start to gel.

By this point of making decisions on a very particular person and their clothes and context, things may be well underway into a scene. At first, decisions can be made arbitrarily. Attributes can even be written out on cue cards and shuffled to see if any combination settles out. The refrain of “how do you know, how do you show” can take the basic story arc from telling to showing.

Added to this can be specific descriptors taken into component parts. This helps give a fleshed out detail. A story naturally sparks by putting concrete aspects side by side and zooming in to catch more details that could indicate the outer bit.As you build the story, you can keep scanning back to see if there’s a detail aspect you can cull to add vividness. It gets the writer to make explicit what they are picturing but may not have expressed.

a) smells?
b) tastes?
c) temperature?
d) touch, tactile?
e) background sounds?
e) voice excited? nervous? deep? accented?
f) moods? happy? sad? tense? relaxed? cheerful? contented? uncomfortable?
g) how’s the mood expressed physically?
h) gestural movement eg. wink, knee flex, stiff
i) clothes types eg. sarong, camisole, shiny dress shoes
j) where is this? indoors? which region or country?
k) when did it happen? yesterday? years ago? future?
l) what indicators show the setting?
m) alone? who else is there?
n) did anyone just leave the scene?
o) What happened before that moment? after that?

So, next time you have writer’s block, you could give this mechanical prompt a spin. Or if your writing piece is too flat, you could bump out the details with the checklist.

30 May 2005, 2:57pm
Communication Equity

Reacting to Diversity

“Life is 10 percent what you make it and 90 percent how you take it.” ~ Irving Berlin 1888-1989

I tend to be an idealist who thinks that if people are just pitched an idea right, we will all arrive at a place of mutual understanding and respect. After all, we all bleed red and have the same emotional equipment, more or less. One sun, one earth, just a little mix-up that could be resolved in a jiffy with just the right method. After all, we may be saying the same things using different words. We may be saying a different thing using the same words but if we hammer away at this construction of a world hanging between us in speech bubbles, we will eventually know each other completely.

Similarly, I wish/beleive/hope/act as though/ if we just educate on peace enough, if we just get an innoculation of conflict mediation lesson to each child as they enter the world we will recreate Eden. Finally the desire for war will have its raptor wing’s clipped.

Glitch: Some studies show that contact with diversity doesn’t correlate with acceptance but with a hardening of stereotypes. When things are taught explicitly, battle lines can be drawn, I suppose. *sigh* When the first person sticks a label on the chest, others may automatically pull a label for themselves out of their pockets too. Ironically it’s a social-glue tactic to mirror each other, building conscensus by responding in their corresponding role. It rather backfires more times than not. In that case, we are in danger of walking around as representatives, as rules not as free flexible individuals. We fall back to partisan lines and the chance for real communication group to group falters.

In her presentation on the Intercultural Classroom, Diane Watts explained that if we are to become “intercultural”, we get to a point of perceiving analytically the cause and outcomes of perceptions, not only of people who think differently, but of how we ourselves think. Instead of seeing ourselves as right and others as a conglomerate of strange behaviors, we can accept and enjoy differences and manage the dysfunctions of communication when they come. It requires interpreting ourselves and seeing our own bias. It is fine line place where one gathers information, assesses but lays no moral judgement on it in a sense.

When a statement or position on some aspect of life is markedly different from our own take or how we have self-taught ourselves to be the ways of most merit, it can be

  • an affront,
  • wonderfully quaint,
  • funny,
  • something to disregard because it “doesn’t make sense”
  • shrugged off as non-significant data or
  • fascinating and wonderful.

Partly, how we take it is our decision. Our mind opens or shuts for perceptual ghosts that move faster than our conscious perception can register.

How you react depends partially on how you’ve conditioned yourself to react, the decision in the moment of how you will react and depends on the proportions of sound-mixing you give to reactions from others, from present and past and what your inner voice says.

presumed het Watt’s co-presenter and professor, Robert Courchêne pointed out (in other words) if you frame yourself as the norm, by doing that everyone else, when they are different from you, are pushed outside the norm.

The realist in me is starting to comprehend the depth of what it means to accept Diversity. Diversity includes xenophobes, sadists, misogynic people and wonderful sweet intelligent people who want nothing to do with my frames of reference and whatever their strengths have no desire to play with certain groups for reasons I most likely could study until my retirement and still not grasp. Some people have no desire for peace as I conceive it. Some have no hunger for contemplations or significances. Living unanalyzed is enough. Implicit understanding is enough. Some would rather live without my brand of nonsense and have no need to be change them nor do I need to accept them as equally right. Could that lack of reconciliation be part of acceptable diversity? Or have I studied it too long and got it far wrong?

I still feel as I have since childhood that one needs exposure to opposing views because it moderates extreme hard line pride and smugness. One must be soft and humble to listen. At the same time, one needs to have membership in a group. Sometimes, to move along, it accelerates your development to seek out like-minded people so you don’t have to reinvent and question each step.

There’s a danger of closed loops of information if you surround yourself from like-minded thinkers. You are risking being in the position of Mao Zedong in famine as the people who wanted to help and support him staged live theatre of happy citizens all around his walkabout route. His yes-crew reportedly even fed some special people to prevent the chairman from knowing a famine was the the result of his economic plan and the weather.

Being aware and responsive can be stymied if you are looking in too much detail in one aspect. You could get key information filtered out and be prevented from making better decisions.

Links of the Day: The First Wednesday of June is National Day Against Homophobia and

Those Improv Everywhere comedians had another mass public action.

Harvard’s Implicit Assumptions test

Quote of the Day: How do you smell?

Wysocki’s team at the Monell Chemical Senses Center studied the response of 82 heterosexual and homosexual men and women to the odors of underarm sweat collected from 24 donors of varied gender and sexual orientation.

Gay men preferred odors from gay men, while odors from gay men were the least preferred by heterosexual men and women and by lesbian women in the study.

[Wysocki] said, finding [unconsciously perceptable] differences in body odors between gay and straight individuals indicates a physical difference. It’s hard to see how a simple choice to be gay or lesbian would influence the production of body odor, he said

Their findings, released Monday, are to be published in the journal Psychological Science in September. The Swedish research was funded by the Swedish Medical Research Council, the Karolinska Institute and the Magnus Bergvall Foundation. Wysocki’s research was supported by the Monell Center.

Poetry Link of the Day: To Hell with Rick Lupert a pdf chapbook by Rick Lupert

Word Association: concentrated, concerto, certo, certain, ascertain, retain, retention, water retention, tension, PMS, rest, rich as lychee pit’s glossy pupils.


I am set up out to take up MommaK on her idea of posting photos of the weekend (which has felt a week long in a good sense).

Would it be needless to say that I have a great deal of ideas to process after 3 days (10 to 14 hours long each) of ideas, people and experiences from a national conference on language teaching and language learning? Naturally I’m a little overstimulated and my engaged mind wants to do something with all this. I’m impatient to have it all integrated in (as of yesterday) but it will take processing time.

On Friday night, I saw Colores Andinos who performed to their usual standard of excellence, enjoying themselves as they made music for the hundreds of delegates from across Canada.
colores andinos band

I didn’t frame the image above with clear presence of mind. However, it is a better composition than I would have taken a number of years ago and it gives you some impression. It is what it is. And it is not all there is. There is also this:

(That’s a lovely quiet moment to stand in.)

I tend to rarely take pictures of myself, family or friends and post them here since these photos tend to be part of my private not public space, as well as not be useful to anyone but myself. My yahoo guestbook has a family group shot. (The whole family would be 200 or 300 people. Bit hard to frame, that is.)

On the other hand, provided that the picture is known to be taken and flattering, it is further in the public domain to post pictures of those who present themselves as public figures such as the musicians while performing, or these public thinkers below,

On May 27, 2005, I listened to David Mendelsohn and Elana Shohamy as both spoke at the TESL Canada National Conference.

David Mendelsohn received his TESL Canada Life Member Award for decades of bridging the gap between learning and teaching strategies and underlying theories and understandings of what’s going on. He quipped a question in his acceptance speech about his elegibility for another after a further 20 years work. :-) Glad to hear that good-natured enthusiasm to keep his fire burning.

Elana Shohamy gave a passionate plenary address on the politics and impact of choices made in language policy. Which languages get displayed? Which get spoken in public? Translated? Used? Which are the languages of entrance tests for citizenship or university and what implication do those have on people’s relationships towards their language(s)?

They were not the only highlights, but they were my best visuals so I’ll frame them here and now. It was wonderful stuff throughout. A lot to process, as I say tho’. Little by little. Life waits for no one but opportunities for more time have kept on coming so far. I’ll trust in tomorrow again.

Link of the Day: The Compleat Lexical Tutor will do word analysis of any text you put in, their word frequency profile, word count, etc in English or French. Great for authors too. It tell me that out of 500 words here, about 10% are either academic or out of the top 2000 most frequent words, 85% are in the top 1000 words. It also lists my words by categories and shows I used the content word “all” three times and “public” five times. A good tool for catching redundancies or stilted language.

Current Soundtracks: Paul Brandt: Greatest Hits, Handel, Claude Debussy and Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3.

Menu: curried lentils, mashed potatoes and artichoke heart salad (canned ones with fresh spinach, hard boiled eggs, no-fat caesar dressing and crumbled bacon), mino bocconcini, tomatoes and basil followed by lychee and pronatec organic swiss chocolate (the hazelnut was a little too sweet but smooth, rich with decent level of cocoa butter, cocoa liquor)

Currently Reading: Blink, The Nature of Prejudice, June issue of Ode, Sunday issue of the New York times, Un grand week-end a Paris (guidebook) and notes from the conference

Word Asssociation: conference, confer, defer, deference, difference, inferance, infer, refer, reefer, suffer, fir, furry, nefarious, ferrier, ferry, faerie, fay, Fay Ray, ray of sunshine day

Quote of the Day:

10. Dear God,
do you draw the lines around the countries?
If you don’t, who does?
Nathan ~ via Daniel Freedman

28 May 2005, 6:36pm
Communication Ponderings

Holding On and Knowing When to Let No Go

No one likes to say no, do they? We have to say no for so much. But giving ourselves permission to say no, gives us room to say yes to other things. How do you know when a “no” is due?

It’s good to be forebearing. Persevering through difficulty an element of discipline, essential to commitment. Trial is a gift that teaches how no other teaching can. You get flexible when you stretch and stronger when you have heavy loads.

On the other hand, there’s repetitive strain injuries and herniated discs physically or mentally, and just being silly putting up with nonsense unneccesarily.

Surely the different should be obvious of which is the case. It looks like a thick line but the line is yellow, dotted and flush to the pavement and it’s a quiet overcast night with no traffic to indicate what’s what and where. Can you say roadkill for my overextended analogy?

Knowing where you are and monitoring how far you are from your personal cut off valve is useful *because* we are so adept at adapting. We’re so creative and flexible that we put up with more than we need to, carrying around loads that we don’t need to because it doesn’t occur to look for other options that wouldn’t impinge on our energy levels as much.

When we want badly to say no, sometimes we don’t, only grit our teeth and say yes. Sometimes because we know its good for ourselves and others to extend ourselves when we’d rather not. Sometimes because of the fury and despair that flares and our fear that allowing that firey no to be said would give oxygen, risk a backdraft and explosion over nearly almost nothing. We need to stifle and control and modulate the flame until we can neutrally drop a simple, non-negotiatiable, completely resolved within ourselves, no. Sometimes in lieu of no, a noncomittal walk away is best, vague gesstures of well-meaningness but apologetic, “just can’t”. And it is nice lie. Of course we can. We could. We are perfectly capable. But we don’t want to commit ourselves to it, and won’t. To give that inch of concession that we could be let ourselves in for pressure to receive entreaties which is a waste of energies on both sides and therefore less polite than being truthful would be.

“I can’t” is incorrect, inaccurate, a lie really to say we can’t. We could remind ourselves that this isn’t a core meaning of can’t any more than “how are you?” has at it’s core meaning a wish to know how we actually are the way, “So, how’ve you been really?” engages the honest level of request. Dismiss it then and focus on what it is that we do want. Optimizing life can be a game of riding nearest to passion as much as we can. When things are mushy and vague and pointless in a conversation that is quickly dead-ending, we either reengage or make our excuses and let each other get on with a place and person that is in synch with passion, where there is ease. Why shouldn’t we do this within ourselves as well? When we are doing something that doesn’t light our fire, it’s time to relight ourselves or move on.

Rejig the unconscious list of what you will and won’t put up with and what burdens you are taking for granted. Can you get rid of them? Dressing up a skeleton in a suit won’t make it sing opera. Admit some burdens are just that, without any redeeming factors. Then look at all your blessings. You’ve been scratched by the thorn but smell the rose anyway. It still is beautiful. Not the thorns or bleeding dotted line itself. But the good stuff remains good. And that no becomes glorious freedom of self-imposed limits blown away. With each yes or no, mental or verbal, the world shifts its shape.

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