“Show, Don’t Tell” Challenge

Shaping Your Story, Week Four: Show, Don’t Tell

When we read a well-written scene — whether fiction or nonfiction — we can envision it in our mind’s eye. As writers, that means being mindful of showing our readers what’s happening, rather than telling them. Some wise words from C.S. Lewis:

Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”

There’s a place for simple telling in writing, but most of us err on the side of too much. When you re-read your writing this week, look for opportunities to show rather than tell.

“Introduction Inspiration” Challenge

They say the best way to become a better writer is to read more — so let’s read a few classic opening lines, and see how they function.

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
— J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye

Salinger sets up the entire novel in this line; you may not know exactly what’s going to happen, but his mood and style are established with these 63 words. The crux of the intro, though, is the question: who is this kid, and what’s the bee in his bonnet?

Of course, a great opening doesn’t need 60 words. A tenth as many can do the job:

“All this happened, more or less.”
— Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

In six words, Vonnegut prepares you to dive into an off-kilter story and provokes a tantalizing question: how do I know what to believe?

“A Cup of Coffee” Challenge

No matter what type of blog you have, you’ll sometimes post updates, like project news or a personal messages about what’s going on in your life. One creative approach to an update post is a “virtual coffee date,” which is like catching up with an old friend over a cup of coffee.

Begin your sentence with If we were having coffee right now… and then adds a detail. You can repeat this sentence as you see fit. It’s a simple idea, but offers a bit more structure to your post — and is a lot more fun.

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“Play with Word Count” Challenge

Sometimes you can find inspiration by changing things up! Today, write a post that experiments with word count. Pay attention to the total length of your post: if you usually write posts under 500 words, aim for longer. Or if you tend to write a lot, be succinct.

To give yourself a little more structure, decide on your word count in advance. Try 1500 words for a long post (what we consider a “longread”), or under 300 for a short one.

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“Recreate a Single Day” Challenge

A calendar, notebook and a fountain pen…

Write a post that takes place during a single day.

How will you use 24 hours as your story’s canvas? Here are some examples:

  • Start at any point! The story can begin when you woke up, the middle of the day, or the end of the day.
  • Structure your post as a play-by-play (or hour-by-hour) account, complete with time markers.
  • Limit yourself even more: tell a story about one hour.
  • Talk about how one particular day changed your life.

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“Let the scene write itself” Challenge

A woman sitting peacefully on a bench in the desert…

So far, we’ve found inspiration from our own experiences, images, words, and more. Today, let’s quietly observe the world around us and write about what we see.

Find a spot where you can sit and observe for at least 20 minutes: a bench at a park, shopping mall, or museum; from inside your car in a parking lot; or even a place close to home, like your front porch. Ideally, it’s a location where you can watch action and interaction unfold (whether it involves people, wildlife, the weather, etc.).

You can write your post “on location,” on your laptop or your phone, so the details are fresh in your mind. Or, you can take notes, then draft the scene later.

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Visit the resource page for details and more inspiration.