The Image: Part II “Show, Don’t tell” & Making the abstract concrete
Concrete, Significant Details Concrete: Means that the there is an image, something that can be seen, heard, smelled tasted or touched. Detail: Means that there is a degree of focus and specificity. Significant: meant that the specific image also suggests an abstraction, generalization or judgment.
Let’s Look at an example: The dog, sighing, roused himself and dropped off the bed to pad downstairs behind him. The floorboards were cool underfoot, the kitchen linoleum cooler still; there was a glow from the refrigerator as Macon poured himself a glass of milk. He went to the living room and turned on the TV. Generally some black-and-white movie was running—men in suits and felt hats, women with padded shoulders. He didn’t try to follow the plot. He took small, steady sips of milk, feeling the calcium traveling to his bones. Hadn’t he read that calcium cures insomnia? He absently stroked the cat, who had somehow crept into his lap. It was much too hot to have a cat in his lap, especially this one—a loose-strung, gray tweed female who seemed made of some unusually dense substance. And the dog, most often, would be lying on top of his feet. “It’s just you and me, old buddies, ”Maconwould tell them. The cat made a comma of sweat across his bare thighs. - Anne Tyler, The Accidental Tourist
“Show, Don’t Tell” Good writing tends to draw an image in the reader’s mind instead of just telling the reader what to think or believe. While “telling” can be useful, even necessary, most people don’t realize how vital “showing” is to an effective story, essay, or even a blog post. Showing allows the reader to follow the author into the moment, to see and feel and experience what the author has experienced. Using the proper balance of showing and telling will make your writing more interesting and effective.
Let's look at an example: Carey ate breakfast, then he took a shower and went to the store. At the store he met a girl and they talked for a long time. Carey liked her but she blew him off. Then he went home. Tells you a lot about Carey, huh? Okay -- so this example is really exaggerated, but it hits home the necessity of showing and not telling. What can we do to fix it? We need more detail, especially dialogue and action.
Isn’t this much better? Carey studied the frozen dinners. He'd had turkey and dressing for the last four days, so salisbury steak would be good for a change. But did he want the Big Man's or the regular? A scent teased his nose. Not the overwhelming smell of fish and frostbite, but a fresh smell, like the smell of skin just out of the shower. He glanced sideways and saw the most perfect arm he'd ever seen in his life. Long, slender, graceful, full of sinewy muscle and smooth skin. His eyes followed the arm to the shoulder and then the head. Her head. A head covered with long blond hair and containing a face that made his heart stop. "Hi," she said, her voice rich and melodious. Carey's mouth didn't work. He tried to return her greeting, but only a grunt came out. He tried to smile politely, but his face erupted with a grin as large and toothy and goofy as a cartoon character's . . .
How about these examples? Mary was a pretty girl, with blue eyes and blond hair. That is telling. Consider: Mary's blue eyes glistened with joy, her blond hair bouncing with each step. That is showing. Instead of saying Molly is a wonderful person, say Molly is always there when anyone needs her. She's the first to arrive with a casserole when someone is sick, the first to send a note of encouragement to those who are troubled, the first to offer a hug to anyone -- man, woman or child -- at anytime. Instead of saying Sam is a talented musician, let us hear the crowds cheer, let us feel his passion. Take us into his head as he strokes the piano keys: Consummation of the soul. That's what Sam called the gratification he received from music. When his passion became so intense it begged to be satisfied, pleaded to be released, and he was helpless to resist its urges. When his fingers assumed a life of their own, titillating the ivory keys with the complex music of Bach and Mozart and Beethoven, and he became one with the cadence, breathing with the crescendos, his fingers caressing the melody, until everything else faded, everything else disappeared, and only the music existed.
Let’s look at this a bit deeper "Five years ago, John Meadows married Linda Carrington. Although both had grown up in Brooklyn and didn't want to leave, John had accepted a job in Montana and moved his young family west. He found he liked the mountains and open sky, but Linda was frustrated and unhappy. This all became clear the night they attended a party at their neighbors' house."
That’s okay, but what about this? "I told you I didn't want to go to this," Linda said as she stood beside John on their neighbors' steps. "It's just going to be as lame as every other party we've been to since we got here." "You used to love parties," John said, avoiding eye contact. "Yeah, well, that was back in Brooklyn. But Montana isn't Brooklyn.“ "No." He looked at the mountains, colored flame by the setting sun, the sky he had come to love. Then he looked at Linda, glowering even before they went inside. In five years of marriage, she had changed so much. They both had. He pressed the doorbell."
To Sum Up: Showing dramatizes a scene in a story to help the reader forget he is reading, to help the reader get to know the characters, to make the writing more interesting. "It is the difference between actors acting out an event, and the lone playwright standing on a bare stage recounting the event to the audience."
Discussion Questions: Annotate & analyze the poem for the four main areas Then choose one question to answer with your group. Use textual evidence to back up your answer. 1. The poem describes a visit to the Vietnam War Memorial, but what is the “it” that Komunyakaa asks himself and us to face? When he writes at the poem’s beginning, "black face fades,/hiding inside the black granite," what is he hiding from? 2. In what ways do the poem’s line breaks suggest the speaker’s complicated and conflicting emotions in the poem? How does the poem’s form mirror the speaker’s experience of looking at the Wall? 3. How and where does the reflection confuse what’s literal and what’s metaphorical in the poem? What does this confusion say about the speaker’s memory of Vietnam? 4. The poem’s final image—“In the black mirror/a woman’s trying to erase names:/No, she's brushing a boy’s hair”—is especially powerful. How is it similar to previous images and how is it different? Why might Komunyakaa have chosen this particular description to end the poem?
Writing Assignment For Komunyakaa, looking at the Wall is a catalyst. Recall a moment in your own life in which seeing something concrete (like the Vietnam War Memorial) lead you to a deeper, psychological revelation. Write about that experience, describing in detail both what you saw and what you now know as a result of seeing it.