Monday, February 21, 2005
by Milton Trachtenburg
You sit down to write a story. The screen or paper in front of you is blank. You begin thinking of words you can use to kick-start your story. Nothing worthwhile comes to mind, or, what you write is dull, stiff . . . BORING! If I keep writing like this, you think, I can get a job editing telephone directories.
"Help!" you shout, and no one answers. You fear you are suffering from writer's block; your creativity is going into deep freeze.
After dozens of false starts, you find the words to begin telling your story. You create a wonderful protagonist and villain; the plot is as rich as grandmother's navy bean and beef soup. You think, my story is wonderful! Some of your friends, even those who don't owe you money, tell you, "Great story, I loved every word of it."
Encouraged by the praise you received, and driven by your hard work, you slip the manuscript into an indestructible “Tyvek” envelope and send it to an editor, remembering to send a SASE along with it. You are proud of your editing. You caught every spelling and grammatical mistake and corrected it.
You follow the guidelines you had requested from the publisher and make certain that the manuscript has proper margins and type face. You address it “care of” a particular editor so it won't end up as the last entry in a three-foot-deep slush pile.
You keep vigil beside the ubiquitous blue mail box until the postal worker in the jeep with the right-side drive comes along and sweeps your missive into her bag. You are tempted to follow her back to the post office, but good sense prevails over paranoia, and you turn slowly, making certain first that she is driving toward the destination of your package.
The next six weeks are interminable. Finally your SASE arrives. With shaking hands and an elevated heartbeat, you manage to tear open the envelope without turning its contents into confetti. You stare at the sheet of paper. It looks familiar. It is. It's your letter to the editor. Scribbled across the top is a brief, almost indecipherable note:
Good story/turgid writing/polish & resubmit, if you care to . . . , followed by a signature that resembles a pigeon dropping.
You want to throw up. Your light lunch feels like an anvil in your stomach. You want to curse the editor for her poor judgment. Instead, you rein in your frustration and accept that maybe there are still things you need to learn about writing. You join a writing group -- one where people knowledgeable in the ways of writing may help you understand why your "great story" is "turgid," and not ready for publication.
In your first session with the writing group, the members are throwing around a term that you hear, but don't fully understand: "Show, don't tell." It sounds so silly, you think. Do you "show" a story by drawing pictures in the margins? Your answer is closer than you think to what writers do to power-up their writing. Learning how to engage all of the reader's senses instead of just her intellect is a technique that raises writing from turgid to dramatic. You have been told that you are a natural writer and your work has merit. Now that you have finally had the courage to look up turgid in your dictionary, you begin to understand, though not agree with, the editors point.
You tell your story in words that describe wonderful characters, situations, places and conflict. "The reader understands what you are saying, but she can't feel the impact of your ideas," says a member of your writing group.
There are words and concepts in our vocabularies that cause readers to "paint pictures" of your story as well as to enjoy the verbal content. Writers have been using "show, don't tell" for centuries, particularly since the advent of cameras, motion pictures and television. I call the creation of powerful images in the mind of the reader, WORDPAINTING. The label helps writers communicate about it and incorporate it into their own way of thinking about writing. Think of WORDPAINTING in the same framework as shopping in a grocery store where the cans have one word labels. Without descriptions or pictures on the cans, you could end up with hot dogs and green beans. The same principle applies to developing writing techniques. If you can't label and describe what you do, you have a tool that can't be used effectively. Even the writer might have a difficult time describing what was in her mind looking back on the story a few years later. She might find that without appropriate labels to describe what she has accomplished, she would not be able to repeat the technique the next time she writes.
Powerful writing appeals to all the reader's senses. It has the impact of a great painting or sculpture. When I look at works by Michelangelo, Degas, Picasso, Chagall, Pizzaro, Wyeth or Van Gogh, to name a few of my favorites; their compositions talk to me -- they come alive. When you visit a work by Paul Gauguin, you can almost smell the lush tropics in his painting and the native girls seem to radiate a heat that is more than imagined. A painter speaks in a language without words. A writer can create images by painting words instead of pictures. I choose to call this ability, WORDPAINTING. Simple cartoons created by advertisers convey images far beyond what is portrayed in the picture. When you see "Mr. Kleen," on the label of that housecleaning liquid, you can smell ammonia and pine oil, and, unconsciously, you might even pull your head away from the noxious odor. You can choose written words that have similar, powerful effects upon your reader.
You need to make continuous choices as to how to present your story to a reader. If you use all the tools at your command, you question every word you choose. You ask: How will this word in this context affect my reader? A story is a magic carpet ride for the reader. To readers for whom life is a struggle, reading is a healthy escape from the mundane, the routine, the painful. A story carries your reader to a magic kingdom where there is a suspension of disbelief. Can you remember how the first stories you heard as a child affected you? "Once upon a time . . ." Four words trigger images of magical kingdoms, churlish villains, perfect heroes, flights to places that can be reached only through the imagination.
Many of your earliest memories may be pictures rather than words. You didn't think in words when you entered childhood and began to understand the language. Images were directly transferred from your eyes, ears, taste buds and nerve endings. Your writing can tap into the reader's memory bank and draw upon her stored experiences and use them to heighten your story. When you think of Sunday dinner at Grandmother's house, can you remember how her home, redolent with the aroma of fresh-baked breads and cakes and a melange of roasting meats and simmering vegetables brought a sense of excitement and expectation to you? If you can, so can your reader. To enhance the depth of your writing, you have the power to draw upon your experiences to enable the reader to draw upon hers. We all have common elements in our memory banks because we all have similar memories of early childhood. We all know fear, envy, pride, anger, sadness and a myriad of other feelings that we can recall when we focus upon our memories. We understand sensations -- the first time we are touched by a lover or the aroma of a freshly laundered towel. We can recall the silken feel of a rose petal or the rude jolt we get by touching a live wire.
Having the ability to lead our readers to experience her own senses through our writing -- I call WORDPAINTING. You may ask: How does the concept, WORDPAINTING, help me create stories that will overpower an editor and attract her interest? The answer is: WORDPAINTING
-- a tool that opens your mind to feeling, so you can use your memories to show the reader your story and allow her to experience it as well as hear the facts. Before you write, you WORDPAINT. You experience your own story with all your senses.
Powerful verbs, and for that matter, strong nouns, create images in the mind of your reader. WORDPAINTING opens the channels so you can experience words instead of thinking about them. When you think of WORDPAINTING, you are thinking in images rather than in vocabulary. After you experience your own images, you will attach the image to the most powerful descriptive words you can find to make the experience flow through your reader's senses.
Here is a simple example. You are going to write about a fast train coming toward you. Okay, I just said it and wrote it. I am going to overwrite this passage to enhance the point that it is possible to draw the reader into the experience. I’ll start by telling you a simple description of an action so that we can look at the difference between tell and show.
"A fast train is coming up the track toward me." What does that line do for you? If your answer is, "Nothing!" we are in agreement that telling is not a powerful writing tool. You picture the same scene. Think in images. What do you see, hear, feel, smell and/or taste? Picture your scene of a train approaching, passing you and disappearing into the distance. You may want to close your eyes to intensify your image. WORDPAINT your approaching train.
Here is my interpretation of the scene described in the previous paragraph: Not one word of the scene will be censored because this would constitute a first rough draft if I were writing it as part of a story. There would be many revisions before it is ready for an editor.
“You barely notice it at first. You feel a gentle foot massage. The throbbing beneath your feet grows more insistent as the power of several thousand tons of steel rumbles down the polished silver rails. You experience your own powerlessness throughout your body as the leviathan approaches. Some inner sense commands you to draw back from its awesome power, though you are yards from the tracks. As the train rushes past you, you feel the oxygen sucked from the air and experience yourself drawn inexorably into the vortex of the vacuum. It is as though the racing train commands the air to accompany it. You imagine yourself sucked under the train like a speck of dust in a swirling wind. The fixed tracks appear almost alive, rising and settling as the coaches rock upon them. The odor of ozone and heavy oil remain in the wake of the monster along with the faint aroma of broiled fish from the dining car.
“The faces in the windows of the day coaches become a single blur of menwomenchildren staring back at you, each for an instant. The lettering on the sides of the coaches becomes an indistinguishable vapor trail. Even as the dragon-like conveyance distances itself from you, you see the rear lights emitting a trail you can follow for miles. Just before it passes from sight, the train, longer than three football fields, appears smaller than a toy train set. You feel you are in a world detached from your earth-bound environment.”
After the passage has been written, the process of editing and revising begins. When you are WORDPAINTING, don't fall so in love with your words that you can't go back to prune and trim them of excess fat. One word too many and you have a bored reader. There's only one thing more fatal to a writer than a bored reader and that is a bored editor.
Turn on your inner-dolby; raise the sensitivity of each of your senses so you can experience motion, aromas, color. Sense approaching objects before you can see them. With your eyes closed, experience the tingle of the hairs on your arms when a person is standing six inches from you. Can you feel an appreciable change in air temperature? Can you feel a change in the surrounding air?
Imagine the sound of a blinking eye when you think the slightest sound you make will put you in danger? What is the smell of raw fear? How does each muscle in your legs feel after you have run up twelve flights of stairs to escape a predator? Write the experience.
What is the sound of hunger? What do you experience when you grind your teeth? What does a razor sound like when you shave? What do you feel in the pit of your stomach when the scalpel-sharp razor blade nicks your skin? Can you relate that feeling to someone who has been nicked by a knife-wielding perpetrator?
What does sweat taste like? Is it different under different circumstances?
When you use a frying pan, how do the splatters of hot oil feel when they hit your hands and face? Can you use that feeling to heighten the tension in the denouement scene from the movie, "House of Wax?"
How does a bathroom feel when a tub full of hot water fills it with steam? What does a soap bubble feel like when it bursts on your tongue? Can you use these wordpaintings the next time you write a love scene? I guarantee that it will be sexier than a tableaux of body parts and secretions.
What do your arms feel when you split a log? What do you feel in your back when you swing at a baseball and miss? What does your body experience when you lie down on fresh sheets? Can you use the essence of feelings and sensations to heighten your next story that involves work or sleep?
Without WORDPAINTING, you have experiences told by one person to another. I saw a train go by. I cut myself shaving. Boy, am I hungry! I took a hot bath. The reader understands what you are saying, but she is not partaking of the experience. Telling without showing is like going to a restaurant and being handed a menu, then, after half an hour, the waiter returns and hands you a check. "But . . ." you begin. The haughty waiter holds up his hand like a traffic cop and smiles a superior smile. "You have had every opportunity to experience our entire menu. What more could you want? Be reasonable, sir."
WORDPAINTING is a method you can use to make certain you serve hearty portions of reading fare with every "menu." As a writer, your "menu" is your outline detailing the dry bones of the story. WORDPAINTING puts the meat on the bones and the gravy on the meat. Fully employed, it also puts the maraschino cherry on top of the flambee you serve for dessert.
WORDPAINTING does not replace good writing, it can focus you on the tasks you need to perform to enhance it. You can employ WORDPAINTING to elevate your reader's experience to a five-star gustatory delight without charging a single penny more.
WORDPAINTING is a reminder to experience each scene, each character, each word of dialogue before you place it in a Tyvek envelope with an SASE. In your first rough draft, leave your censor in its cage. Let the words pour forth unexpurgated. You will have the opportunity to edit and arrange them before you submit your final draft. Speaking figuratively, WORDPAINT naked. If you choose to take this advice literally, be certain you draw the curtains before you draw the story.
Don't worry if the image your reader sees is not the one you think you have painted. Great reading is, after all, in the eyes, nose, ears, tongue and fingertips of the beholder. To paraphrase Charlie the Tuna, it isn't stories with good taste we are looking for, it is stories that taste good!
I appreciate reader feedback about your take on WORDPAINTING as a tool to empower your writing.
Copyright 1998 by Milton Trachtenburg