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Speak a foreign language badly? Then you can master ‘show-don’t-tell’

July 11, 2013

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We currently have a German exchange student staying with us. My son is studying the language and this is the return visit, following his trip to Stuttgart earlier this year. Much to my son’s dismay I have been relishing the prospect of our visitor’s arrival for some time, seeing as it would give me the opportunity to haul out my very rusty German and crank it up.

You see I studied German myself but haven’t spoken more than a few words in the last fifteen years, and I wasn’t fluent even in my hay day, so you can imagine how clunky are my efforts now.

So what does this have to do with the art of showing, not telling, your readers?

Well now, there I was yesterday evening explaining that our shower was broken and that, just for the first night, would he mind taking a bath instead. (If you’re even vaguely interested to know, yes I’m going to remedy that problem today with my equally rusty DIY skills). Anyway, the issue with our shower is that it works, but it leaks a little, and we don’t have a shower curtain because…well because we don’t use the shower. But for the life of me I couldn’t think of how to say ‘shower curtain’ auf Deutsch. I managed the rest of the explanation with aplomb – please don’t use the shower until tomorrow, please take a bath instead (oh and they do say ‘take’ not ‘have’ – little lesson there for me) but I had to hack my way through the foliage of cluttered vocabulary and long-forgotten words in order to forge a path through to some kind of an explanation. In the end I told him that there was nothing to shield the water and that if he took a shower the floor would get wet.

In return for my heroic efforts he reacquainted me with the German for curtain, but something dawned on me: by struggling around the actual words, I had been forced to create a picture. I couldn’t say: ‘We have no shower curtain.’ Instead I had to paint an image of a semi-flooded bathroom and drops of water hurling through the air, unchecked.

And, actually, it doesn’t take a great deal of extended thought to use this method in your writing. Think about it. Next time you find yourself typing: ‘I checked into a cheap motel but I couldn’t use the shower because it didn’t have a shower curtain’, imagine you have forgotten a key word, the object in fact. And before you know it, you’re taking that shower under cold water from rusty pipes, exposed to the draft seeping in through the crack in the wall as well as anyone choosing to walk in to the bathroom. You might need to cajole the image a little, but by leaving out the obvious bits, you can create a nice vivid picture.

So next time you’re trying to show-not-tell, try to forget a few basic words and feel your way around the scene…

Would love to hear anyone else’s tips on this subject!

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