Lisa A. Kramer

Author, Speaker, Theater Artist, Creativity Facilitator

Show Don't Tell, From Page to Stage Version

Each of my young students has a magic invisible box.  I gave it to them a couple of classes ago, after they did excellent jobs at whatever the activity of the day was.

These boxes can grow or shrink to hold anything imaginable in them. They come when called, or can be stored in a pocket. When they are opened, each student can pull out their dreams or their nightmares, things to make us laugh or things to make us squirm in disgust. There are no rules except that they are supposed to show the rest of the group what is in the box so that the group can guess.

One student made her box grow significantly and then dove in to bring out whatever was inside. She made a magnificent display of this action. But then, as she climbed out, she told us "I'm all wet. It's a squid."

I didn't correct her at that point because of her enacting the hunt in the box.

Two students later, a younger student opens the box, pulls something out and promptly says "It's an octopus."

"That's cool," I said realizing I should have corrected the other student, "But you need to show us, not tell us what is in the box. How can you show us an octopus?"

She turns her hand toward her face and says, "Aaauuuggh! It's got me!" (Which, I might add is a typical response for this girl. She loves screaming and acting horrified).

"Okay," I say, still wanting more showing, and less telling. "Everyone help her get the octopus legs off of her." The students rush to her aid, pulling legs off one at a time. By now there must be multiple octopuses, because I count many more than eight legs. But, at least my point was made, as revealed by the students who followed showing me a dog and a microphone without a single word.

"Show, don't tell." The axiom every writer knows and perhaps struggles with took on new meaning today, as it came to life beyond the page.

I've always known that my training in theater and improvisation has influenced me as a writer. It makes me more confident writing in first person and writing dialogue. I sometimes struggle more when writing in third person because of the narrative focus of that form, rather than the character focus.  This is a reality that I have come to accept about my writing, and I am working to deal with it.

But, as I began to settle down for the evening, the phrase "Show don't tell!" flashed into my head along with this vision from my class this morning. I am trying to get my students to enact the living version of show don't tell. Wow! Is this something that I can offer other writers?

A few years ago I wanted to offer an Extended Studies course that explored this concept; using improve and drama in the classroom techniques to motivate writing of all sorts, not just plays. I thought it would be a really interesting way to explore character and relationships or develop problems that then could be placed in a story. I've used improvisation and reenactments in lesson plans for young people to introduce a variety of topics.  My favorite has been creating a mysterious island retreat which they get to explore and uncover clues. They find books in the library of a creepy old house and each have time to read some of them. (All enacted in their imagination)  I then ask the students to write a page from the book and then share that writing. The results are always fascinating!

I never did get a chance to offer that class, but I think the time to explore that option has come again. Playwrights often use improvisational workshops to develop their plays, so why not fiction writers of all sorts? Or people who write poetry? Or memoir?

While writing is an individual act, it doesn't have to be a lonely one. I am learning that through the blogging community. Now, I think, the time has come to make my two passions come together in a new and interesting way.

Anyone care to join me?