Show don’t tell

“Show don’t tell” is advice writers come across all the time in books about writing, and it makes sense to a certain extent, but I’m starting to understand it’s not as clear cut as it first seems. This is the most interesting piece of advice about showing and telling when writing fiction that I’ve come across so far:

There are three primary paths to producing an emotional response in readers. the first is to report what characters are feeling so effectively that readers feel something too. This is inner mode, the telling of emotions…The second is to provoke in readers what characters may be feeling by implying their inner state through external action. This is outer mode, the showing of emotions…The third method is to cause readers to feel something that a story’s characters do not themselves feel.. This is other mode, an emotional dialogue between author and reader….All three paths to producing emotional responses in readers are valid, but all have pitfalls and can fail to work.”

Donald Maas (2016). The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to write the story beneath the surface.

Donald Maas goes on to illustrate these three modes later in the same chapter (chapter 2) of his compelling book, Here’s what he has to say about effective showing (the outer mode) in fiction:

Outer mode: Showing

Some types of fiction, such as romance, he says, rely on inner mode, whereas others, such as thrillers, “have no time to dwell on characters’ feelings.” The danger, though is that these outer moments “can feel self-consciously written”. Maass believes that “when showing works the thing we should look at is not why it works but when.” The secret ingredient behind effective showing is subtext, i.e. when readers feel we are not being told” about something, “but it is evident anyway”. A hilarious example of this is then given:

When I finally come out of the basement, I notice that all the pictures of Nikki and me have been removed from the walls and the mantel over the fireplace.

I ask my mother where these pictures went. She tells me our house was burglarized a few weeks before I cam home and the pictures were stolen. I ask why a burglar would want pictures of Nikki and me, and my mother says she puts all of her pictures in very expensive frames. “Why didn’t the burglar steal the rest of the family pictures?” I ask. Mom says the burglar stole all the expensive frames, but she had the negatives for the family portraits and had them replaced. “Why didn’t you replace the pictures of Nikki and me?” I ask. Mom says she didn’t have the negatives for the pictures of Nikki and me, especially because Nikki’s parents had paid for the wedding pictures and had only given my mother copies of the photos she liked.

Mathew Quick (2008). The Silver Linings Playbook.

The protagonist here is in denial that he isn’t going to get back together with his wife. The reader isn’t told this, but it becomes obvious from this farcical exchange with his mother.

Maas calls Hemingway was the ‘Grand Master of Showing’ and uses this example to illustrate:

That night we lay on the floor in the room and listened to the silk-worms eating. The silk-worms fed in racks of mulberry leaves and all night you could hear them eating and a dropping sound in the leaves. I myself did not want to sleep because I had been living for a long time with the knowledge that if I ever shut my eyes in the dark and let myself go, my soul would go out of my body. I had been that way for a long time, ever since I had been blown up at night and felt itgo out of me and go off and come back. I tried never to think about it, but it had started to go since, in the nights, just at the moment of going off to sleep, and I could only stop it by a very great effort. So while I am now fairly sure that it would not really have gone out, yet then, that summer, I was unwilling to make the experiment.

Ernest Hemingway (1925). Now I lay me.

Hemingway shows us the inner state of a man suffering from insomnia due to shell shock. We are not told how the man feels, and although the language is plain, the suffering and terror of a soldier haunted due to the after effects of war is apparent. as Maas states, “When showing has an impact it is becuase the action is freighted with feelings in the first place”.

Electronic devices and Uruguay’s magnetic field

It first happened when I moved to Uruguay. Three removable disk drives that were powered by electricity and which worked fine in Spain did not work when I got here. I wondered if something had happened to them on the journey. Or if it was something to do with the differences in electrical supply (220V and 5oHz compared to ), but I hadn’t had a problem in Argentina (also 220V and 5oHz) and it wasn’t very different to Spain (230V and 50Hz), where the drives were purchased. So what was it?

Could it be related to Uruguay being at the centre of a strange magnetic phenomenon? So, Uruguay has the weakest magnetic field around the world apparently (23,000 nT compared to the world average of 60,000 nT), a phenomenon that is referred to as the South Atlantic Magnetic Anomaly. This low magnetic field has been known to damage transformers and other electronic devices, and the BBC report that it can also affect radio communications and satellites. NASA has also reported problems with the space shuttle and laptops crashing when passing through this anomaly.

Rather than ditch the drives, I held onto them, and when back in the UK, I found they worked again, so it definitely seemed it has something to do with being in Uruguay. We have also had other incidences of electronic devices failing on us suddenly, including tablets, telephones and other gadgets. It seems to be part of a general weakening in the planet’s magnetic field, with some believing that this may lead to a reversing of the Earth’s magnetic field, although this is contested by others.


Writing half an hour a day, every day

– Writing about whatever I feel like, spending half an hour a day doing so –

I’ve taken this idea from Stephen Downes, who has a blog where he writes for half an hour a day about anything he wants to. I’ve long admired the idea, and have also enjoyed what Stephen has written over the years, thinking this was something I would like to do, but never got round to starting. Well, this is me taking the plunge. Let’s see if I can stick to it.

I love writing. It gives me great pleasure whenever I do it, and I have long told me that I need to spend more time doing it. I’ve written stuff all my life. When I was young, I remember putting together booklets on holiday in Cornwall, sharing it with my family, and being thrilled at the reaction. That was probably the seed for me wantging to write.

When I was a teenager, I developed the idea that I wanted to be a journalist, and actually spent a week doing work experience on a local newspaper, the Gateshead Post, which appears to have closed in 2003. Most of that week was spent in the office, and I was shown to a desk and given clerical jobs to do, such as filing newspaper cuttings, making tea, etc. It was very uninspiring, and clearly the staff didn’t want to spend their time babysitting me. However, on the last day, one of the reporters took me out with him, and I got a real taste of what being a journalist could be. We went to court, sitting in on a burglary case, so he could write it up, and then visited the wife of a man who had recently died (my memory is sketchy of what actually happened, though I think it was linked to the burglary case) for an interview. I was very impressed how the reporter was able to interview the woman and was able to get a recent photogrph from her, to publish alongside the story, while being sensitive to her feelings. This was fascinating, and I was hooked. I knew then that I wanted to be a journalist.

So, what happened? In my final year at university, I wasn’t so sure I could cut it as a journalist. I felt I didn’t have what it needed. I was shy and reserved, and felt this would inhibit me from being able to do the job, certainly the job as a reporter. I got to know that one of my fellow students at that time was already working as a freelance reporter for a national newspaper while at the university (I think he was writing for the Sun), and he was very different from me. Nevertheless, I volunteered in my final year to work on  London Student newspaper, feeling that this would give me an insight into the job and also some experience that would be useful should I decide to pursue the career. I was thrilled when my first report was published, a report on a sports game result which, although it was about 100 words long, was nonetheless, a start. At an editorial meeting, I took on the writing assignment of a more substantial article about grafitti in student toilets, along with another student (the nature of the article required a female and male to be able to compare grafitti in different bathrooms), and that’s where it ended. I’ll leave the details for another time, just to say I never went back to London Student.

A contact of one of my flatmates, a freelance journalist who was preparing to launch a free newspaper paid for by advertisements, led to a number of meetings as I was nearing graduation, and a job offer. He even paid me a small retainer after I graduated, unable to start the newspaper due to lack of funding. The project didn’t come to fruition, and I gave up on the ide of journalism, starting to temp to earn money, and being dragged in a very different direction.

I didn’t give up on writing, though. I decided that fiction was what I wanted to write. However, my time’s up, so I’ll leave that story for the next half-hour.