Show, Don’t Tell – Writing On The Right Side Of The Brain


negative_space.1There is a book entitled, ‘The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain’, which teaches you to see in a different way.

Where drawing is concerned we often draw what we think we see (left brain) rather than what we can actually see (right brain).

For example, one of the exercises asks you to draw the spaces around and between the object you want to draw (negative space) rather than trying to draw the thing itself.

By not drawing the object itself you end up with a drawing of the object by an indirect means, often a more accurate portrayal than by concentrating on the object.

I am advocating that this is not only possible in writing, but that it is already used in a powerful way.

Writing the Negative Spaces around the scene

Descriptive writing can immerse the reader in a scene so they can picture it more vividly than giving them static, factual information; showing what you want to describe can have more impact. It is the things that are not said that can be the most powerful and descriptive.

What do I mean by this? Let’s look at an example – always a good way of showing what is meant.

You are standing in a ruined building. It was once your home. You could describe it in two ways.

The back and side walls were almost gone. Only half of the front wall remained. Beyond ceiling level it had fallen down. There were no windows left in the building and the front door had gone. I could see scraps of carpet on the ground and the cream paint of the lounge still showed through the damp and mould.

Or you could write:

A pale blue sky filled the windows that once reflected it and framed the harsh silhouette of ruin. I stepped into the lounge by way of a gap in the wall. Warmth and children’s voices clothed the room like a ghost and I was startled to see scraps of carpet still on the floor. Here was where I laid out my train set and there stood the TV. My mother knitted the jumper I am wearing now as she sat in the chair over there. I knelt and began to pull weeds from the carpet that had given so many stitches to winds that now blew through once safe and cosy rooms.

By describing things that are no longer there, I am showing you the thing I want you to see. It is no longer just a ruined building, but a ruined home. Bringing the past into the present links the two in a discordant whole.

Using the sky as a focal point I can describe the tumble-down walls and missing windows by ‘drawing’ around the subject rather than describing the solidity of it.

I think the second description gives more atmosphere to the scene, whereas the first example is a flat description without emotion.

The same principle can be used when writing about people, feelings and atmosphere.

Try to leave out descriptions of emotion in favour of showing them through the dialogue and actions of the characters.

Use brief descriptions of what your characters are doing with their hands and bodies to show the feelings they might be experiencing. This will have more impact than explaining what is going on internally.

Show don’t tell

This is starting to link in with the Right Brain principle I was talking about at the beginning. I am building a picture of something not by telling you what is going on directly, but by telling you the things that will give you clues to what is happening in the scenes. You pick up the clues and fill in the gaps and understand what is happening to the characters in the story.

The clues can also help the reader build a visual picture of the scene so that they can experience the surroundings as well as the action. If you use the five senses (Sight, Smell, Sound, Touch, Taste) in your writing, you can put the reader right into the scene. Their own imagination will do the rest, taking some of the hard work away from you.

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