Wordsmith Wednesday–Cultivating Imagination

Children play

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Growing up when I did–a long, long time ago–I had abundant opportunities to cultivate my imagination. The games we played as children could not depend on media or even toys…with rare exceptions. Kitchen utensils and tin cans, my mom’s broom and a few cardboard boxes were all I needed to play house. I baked mud pies and used small swatches of material to make clothes for my doll. Sticks became arrows and we kicked a can. It was a wonderful childhood that provided plenty of exercise and ample opportunity for developing an active imagination.

Then along came adulthood. No more room for flights of fancy or escapes into other cultures…except perhaps in between the covers of a good book when there was time. Television took over relaxation and it was so easy to slip into modes of passive entertainment.

But for us, as writers, an active imagination is as important as pen and paper or a computer and keyboard. How often are you able to time travel to the Tudor era or the American West or hop a quick flight to Bangalore where your character may be following a lead on the tail of a criminal? Or, what if, you’re writing a scene in the middle of a blizzard while it’s 90 degrees Farenheit outside? We have to be able to mentally, emotionally, and physically transport ourselves to these times and places. We want to be able to think “outside the box.” Those of you who write Sci Fi even have to transcend dimensions.

So for this week’s post, I’m going to offer a few exercises to help flex your imagination muscles and then I want to ask you to either offer up an exercise of your own or share your response to one of the exercises that one of us posts. Or both. Go ahead and get in touch with that inner child and play!

Exercise I.
You are a small dog. How do you experience the world around you? Choose your own setting and characters.
Exercise II.
You are a reporter called upon to interview a great religious or political figure? Choose your own interviewee and describe one or two questions you would like to ask and their response to your question. Include setting and body language if you want.
Exercise III.
You live in (choose a country you have never visited). Describe the scents and tastes of the foods. This may take a bit of research.
Exercise IV.
You are dying and cannot speak. Who is with you and what is said?
Exercise V.
It is the opposite season of wherever you are now. Describe the scene you would see outside.

I’m anxious to see your response and I hope to use one of YOUR exercises to strengthen my own power of imagination. Now, go play.

Wordsmith Wednesday–Show or Tell?


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Perhaps you’ve heard the axiom, “Show, don’t tell.” When I first joined a writing critique group, that was advice that I heard often–either directed at me or one of the other writers. At first, of course, I went ahead and diligently tried to make the changes. The result was stilted narrative, sometimes full of purple prose and oh-so-rambling. It just didn’t work. Little-by-little, I began to modify the “showing” and inserted bits of summary to aid in transitioning from one scene to another or one time period to the next.

What’s the difference? Scenes usually involve action and rely heavily on dialogue. They focus on the characters external action and interaction or on their internal dialogue. Summaries are primarily dominated by comments from the narrator and serve to move the plot forward in time, to set the stage for the scene that follows, to make generalizations or to analyze. Both summary and scene are most effective when they take advantage of sensory description that enhances the readers experience.

The key, when making a choice between showing (scene) and telling (summary) is to evaluate which device will be most effective in keeping your reader’s attention and moving the plot forward. As I mentioned previously, overuse of scene may cause considerable lengthening of your manuscript. Irrelevant dialogue–How are you? I’m fine, thank you–will bore the reader and stall the story. On the other hand, too much summary causes the reader to drop out of the picture. He will feel like he’s on the outside of the story instead a part of it. Chances are, he will close the book and not pick it up again (that just happened to me this week).

Here’s an example of summary from my novel, Winter is Past:

The month of May crawled along like a semi going over Donner Summit. Each day lasted forty-eight hours, or so it seemed. Kathryn went to the outpatient center three times a week for treatment. When possible, I stayed with her, remembering boredom, chills and the helplessness of it all.

Now, contrast this with a scene from the same manuscript:

“I understand now, Claire. I get how you felt when I offered you a kidney. You freaked, remember? You were sure something would happen to me. God, girl, I lie awake at night thinking of that. I think about it while I’m having dialysis—it haunts me. I worry about Josh the way you did about me.”

“I can’t talk you out of that one,” I admitted.

“Are you afraid something will happen?”

“I can’t be. Today’s all we have, isn’t it?” As I spoke the words, I only wished I felt the strength that they implied.

I hope this will help you when you muddle your way through your novel or short story. Don’t be afraid to use a blend of scene and summary, showing and telling.