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Why Are You Writing A Book If You’re Not Going To Use Words?

Rant time! Books are made up of words. That may sound self-evident, but it’s a deeper thought than you’re thinking it is. If you’re going to write books, you should use words like a good filmmaker uses a camera, music, […]
| Jan 12, 2011 | No comments |

Rant time!

Books are made up of words. That may sound self-evident, but it’s a deeper thought than you’re thinking it is. If you’re going to write books, you should use words like a good filmmaker uses a camera, music, and actors. Not just to tell a story, but to write.

This is where that old maxim “Show, don’t tell” comes from. It’s actually very hard to pin down what’s meant by that rule. It’s one way we say, “Look, don’t just tell us what happens to what characters. Don’t just tell us a story. Write us one.”

Words are capable of so much. They make poetry. They create sensation in an almost mystical way; they engage our imaginations. They sweep us into their rhythms, their subtext, their subtle beauty or harshness. They create emotion. They enable the craft of POV. If you really use them.

When I was cleaning out my books recently, I debated whether to get rid of Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Summer Tree. I had decided that I want the omnibus edition with all three books in the Fionavar Tapestry, so there wasn’t much point in keeping a used paperback copy of just one. But I pulled it off the shelf and flipped through it, and I could not get rid of it. You know why? Not because of the story. Because of the words. Because if I ever want a book to sing me to sleep one of these nights, it might just be that one.

(I was being figurative in that last sentence. The truth is, when I first read the aforementioned omnibus edition, which I’d gotten from the library, it kept me all night until sunrise. The words sing; so does the story; but they sing one incredibly riveting song.)

Last night I curled up on the couch with a couple of my cousins and read aloud from A.A. Milne’s old poetry books, Now We Are Six and When We Were Very Young. The poems make such wonderful use of words. Milne had that distinctly British command of the language that I fear is no longer easily found.

By contrast, I recently read a book for review (and I shall leave it nameless, for now), and while the story was fine and good, I wished it hadn’t been in a book. It would have been so much better told in pictures–moving ones, or perhaps in a comic book. The problem was, the author stuffed all these words between the pages, but she really didn’t use them. She kept everything on the surface and didn’t tap into the latent power and beauty of language at all.

End of rant. For their command of language, three of my favourite Christian spec-fic authors of the day are Jeffrey Overstreet, George Bryan Polivka, and Marc Schooley. Check them out if you haven’t yet. They are worth reading–every word.

E. Stephen Burnett is coauthor (with Ted Turnau and Jared Moore) of The Pop Culture Parent: Helping Kids Engage Their World for Christ, which will release in spring 2020 from New Growth Press. He also explores biblical truth and fantastic stories as editor in chief of Lorehaven Magazine and writer at Speculative Faith. He has also written for Christianity Today and Christ and Pop Culture. He and his wife, Lacy, live in the Austin area and serve as members of Southern Hills Baptist Church.

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Terri Main
Guest

In some ways I think our writers are too influenced by movies and TV. They take “Show, don’t tell” too literally. They seem to assume people have no imagination. I recently read something where the author said something like. “He lifted his shoulders a few inches, the tips of his shoulders brushing the edges of his ears and then lowered them in a second.”

Hello! Why not just say “He shrugged.”

That’s where having words and using words is different. You can fill a sentence with words, but that doesn’t mean you are using them to maximum effect. And, yes, much of today’s literature is written more like a movie script than a novel. Some narration is perfectly alright. And sometimes it is most appropriate to tell instead of show.

TErri

Rachel Starr Thomson
Member

I think you’re on to something. Trying to use words like a camera is a bit wrong-headed; we need to use them like words!

Laughing at your example :).

Michelle R. Wood
Guest

Patricia Wrede has a great series on words going on right now at her blog, called “The Lego Theory.” She compares words to legos, which authors should thoughtfully fit together to form great art.

Rachel Starr Thomson
Member

Thanks for the link! I just hopped over there and read a bit of the current post; LOVED it. In fact, I’m teaching a writing workshop next month and I think I might quote her.

Her book “Dealing With Dragons” was one of my childhood favourites. I didn’t even know she was blogging these days.

Stuart Stockton
Member

Yep I think the whole “show” part is more about conveying emotion and a sense of being rather than painting a word picture.

You can’t “show” something in a book by just focusing on the visual. The words picked have to have the weight of all the senses and all the emotion that are built up in the scene.

Like the example given above with the shrugging, if you give a clinical visual of a man shrugging it shows nothing more than if you said “he shrugged”.

Rachel Starr Thomson
Member

You can’t “show” something in a book by just focusing on the visual. The words picked have to have the weight of all the senses and all the emotion that are built up in the scene.

Exactly!

Morgan Busse
Member

There is just something about words 🙂 As a mother of 4 young children, I read a lot of children’s books and one of our favorite series is the one about Skippyjon Jones, a siamese cat who pretends to be a chihuahua down in old Mexico (I know, I know, weird lol). But the way Judy uses spanish and spanglish and the beat of the words, I find myself breaking into spanish and rhyming after putting the kids to bed lol.

Another favorite is Shel Silverstein (Where the Sidewalk Ends). Or the Fancy Nancy books that subtly introduce children to large words (love the illustrations too!) or…. I could go on and on 😛