By David E. Sharp
My son and I were checking out at a Walgreens recently. The checker scanned my small selection of purchases in silence. Two cans of chicken noodle soup. One bottle of children's chewable Pepto-Bismal tablets. One bottle of blue Powerade. She offered me a frown and said, "Somebody's not feeling well."
Of course, she was right. We'd stopped into the Walgreens on our way home from school where I had just checked my son out of the nurse's office. But I hadn't said any of this to the sympathetic checker. She had deduced the story connecting all the everyday items we'd brought to her.
Being a writer, of course I saw a metaphor in this. This is what we do all the time. We are the droppers of bread crumbs. We place finger prints on murder weapons and stash them where they are sure to be found. We apply muddy boot prints with surgical precision to make them appear they were unintentional. We guide our readers to sinister plot twists, then act as surprised as they are when we spring our traps.
In short, we go to a lot of trouble to tell a story without telling it.
Why do we do this? Nobody really wants to be told a story. They want to discover it. They want to be present in a scene and connect all the dots themselves. There's no fun if we say everything outright.
"Yo, this greedy guy didn't like Christmas, so some ghosts came along and set him straight. Then he bought a turkey for some people."
It doesn't do justice to Dickens at all.
I suppose it goes back to the old adage, "Show don't tell." I guess I could just say that, but then I'd be telling, wouldn't I?
Dickens was much better than that. Not only did he constantly show in his writing, but his characters did too. The Christmas Spirits (not eggnog, I mean the other ones) didn't sit down and have a conversation to change Scrooge's ways. They had to show him.
The worked in visions. And so do we!
Want some practice? Tell a story using only the objects you might purchase through a checkout lane. Or pull a Hemingway and write a story about something you never actually mention. Maybe pick up a greeting card that speaks to you and use it as a medium. Write a plausible message that tells a larger story about the giver and the recipient.
And if you're daring, post it in the comments below.