Saturday, September 24, 2011

Show, Don't Tell: Using Scenework as an Alternative to Narration

"Show, don't tell." That statement is certainly good advice for every writer of fiction, but it is also good advice for every writer of descriptive and personal experience essays.

The key to the descriptive narrative is in the scenework: creating scenes using dialogue, description, and sensory details. It is not enough to narrate; you must engage your reader, must allow your reader to experience the pivotal moments of your essay as directly and powerfully as possible. On the other hand, when you use narration you create distance between the author and the reader.

Let's take a look at an example. The following paragraph is an example of narration, which merely tells the reader succinctly what is going on in the story:

My mother taught me to read when I was four, just a year before she died. She loved to read and passed that love of reading on to me. When I was a bit older, my father took me to the Carnegie library to check out books. I remember staring in awe at the towering stacks, and I was excited to learn I could check out as many as 12 books at once. Upon arriving home, I would crack the first book, only to return for more two weeks later.

Here's that same passage as scenework, which pulls the reader in through its brief exchange of dialogue, its description, and its sensory detail (note that nearly all the senses--sight, smell, hearing, and touch--are appealed to; only taste is left out because it wouldn't be reasonable to include here):

My mother taught me to read when I was four, just one year before she died. I can still see the faded olive cover of the graduated Winston Reader Primer I learned from, still feel the rough, knotty texture, still smell the musty fragrance of the book as she turned its yellowing pages. So began my love affair with books.

When I was six, my father took me to visit our Carnegie library. I stood, small frame bent beneath the weight of the heavy, echoing silence, and stared, awestruck, at the towering shelves overflowing with books. When I learned I could check out as many as 12 books at a time, I was elated. I staggered to the desk, arms loaded to my chin.

"That's an awful lot of books for such a small child," the librarian said, peering down at me with bespectacled eyes.

"I would check out more if I could."

She smiled at me, and my father ruffled my hair. Two weeks later, I returned the 12 books I had devoured, eagerly anticipating the next 12.

Both passages say essentially the same thing; however, the second passage is much more powerful. In this second passage, the author shows the reader what is happening, allowing the reader to visualize, smell, feel, and hear the scene, whereas in the first passage, the author is merely reporting to the reader what happened.

In order to write a more powerful essay, employ scenework; your reader will find reading your essay a much more rewarding experience.

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