Thursday, May 15, 2008

Show, Don't Tell - Arends

Last month I was going back and forth with my editor regarding revisions on a column. Arguing in defense of keeping a particular story in the piece (despite word count overage issues), I explained that I felt the illustration was important because I was trying to “balance abstract ideas with concrete embodiments.”

“I agree we should ‘balance abstract ideas with concrete embodiments’,” he said patiently and, mercifully, only a little patronizingly. “Around here, we call that ‘Show, Don’t Tell’.”

Show, Don’t Tell. It’s the writer’s mantra and mandate. (“Actually,” my editor clarified, “it’s show AND tell. Just avoid all-tell.”) We want people to see and smell and hear and touch and taste the truth we convey. Beyond getting a reader to embrace a particular idea, we hope and pray the idea will jump off the page and embrace the reader. That’s no small thing to ask of some scribbles (or fonts) on paper.

The way to a reader’s heart, mind and soul is the imagination. In this media-saturated world, if we fail to engage a person at the imagination-level, we won’t keep her for long. Fortunately, there are Imagination Scientists who study the way the human imagination works. Whenever I teach songwriting at a local college, I reference the work of a writer and researcher named Chris Blake. His intriguing article, “The Imagination of the Listener” can be found in The Craft and Business of Songwriting by John Braheny (p.46-56).

Blake notes that when the imagination receives a new cue (for example, words in a song or on paper), it constructs an image to go with that cue based on a whole host of stored previous experiences. It turns out that the strongest cues (collections of words) are simple, concrete, action-oriented images that invite the imagination to engage. Abstractions (huge and important concepts like faith, hope, justice, anger, salvation, sin and restoration) don’t work in the imagination. They actually turn it away.

Blake has fun with the famous country song “The Gambler”. Remember that one?

You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.

You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table.
There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.

The song’s writer, Don Schlitz, outlines a whole philosophy of living in that song. But what if, Blake asks, Schlitz had just gone with abstractions rather than concrete images that represent them? You’d have something like:

It’s important to know when to persist in trying to achieve your goals and when to give up.
You have to know when to decide to give up what you’re doing gradually and to know when to give up quickly.
You should never make a judgment about how your life is going while it’s going on.
There’ll be plenty of time to look back to see how it all went after your life is over.

Try singing that one!

My students laugh when I give them that example. But the truth is, the vast majority of overtly spiritual music and prose takes just that approach:

I praise God for His mercy.
I am grateful for salvation.
Thank you for restoration.
God is a God of justice.

In our songwriting classes we go through our lyrics and try to replace every passive image with an active one, every general image with a specific, detailed one, and, most importantly, every abstract concept with a concrete representation of it. Lately, I’ve been trying to do the same with much of my prose. It’s hard! But I’ve come to believe that the great challenge and holy calling of those of us who aspire to convey spiritual truth with words is to show the truth we seek to tell whenever possible.

Our best teacher in this, of course, is Jesus. He showed us the tenacity of mercy in a prodigal’s horizon-scanning dad, the power of the gospel in seed and soil, and the mysteries of atonement in bread and wine. In taking this approach, He was taking after the Father who called Abraham outside on a clear night to show him his destiny in a thousand shining stars … the same Father who lets us see what His love looks like by showing us Jesus.

Carolyn Arends

now available: Wrestling With Angels
"Carolyn observes keenly, reflects deeply, and renders it all poetically. Wrestling With Angels is a book I can give to almost anyone with confidence it will speak truth in the inmost places." -- Mark Buchanan, author


MistiPearl said...

Thank you for sharing, you raise a very valid point! Can you comment on the use of pictures to draw the reader in? When is it most effective? Today's generation is, it would seem, captivated by an image and then the word. Being able to draw the reader in with a relevant, but not too revealing, picture seems to be a good strategy to entice the reader to read further and then their imagination is fueled by the words written.

Carolyn Arends said...

Thanks for your comment. You're right that we're an increasingly visual culture. I do believe that language on its own can draw a reader in, but I also think in many contexts visual art can be an amazing complement or even starting point. I think we'll see more and more multi-discipline approaches in the future.

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