Posts Tagged ‘basic writing’

Show Me a Smile…er…Simile!

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010
Use Simile to Show Not Tell

How To Show Simile?

I don’t recall what grade I was in when I first heard about simile or metaphor.  I’ll be honest, I’ve pretty much neglected—up until recently, that is—seeking a better understanding of metaphor, and perhaps, in part, because it’s always been easy to remember what a simile is.

I’ll get to metaphor some other day and, suffice it say [in my opinion], metaphor is very similar to simile, but instead of comparing by saying something is “like”, “as”, (or is similar too; you can also throw in “than”), we flat out say it IS [something it really isn't.]

But please be patient; I’ll get to some simple metaphors next time.

In school we were told, “Simile is a device in literature used to compare two things that aren’t alike, by using the words ‘like’ or ‘as.’”

Most of us can rattle off similes without much problem.

A few quick examples would be:

• She runs like a gazelle.
• He wiggles like a worm.
• He’s as sharp as a tack.
• Thoughts flowing like/as water.
• Bigger
than a bear.
• More powerful
than a locomotive [recognize that one?]

I say simile is the first real step to storyshowing [not a recognized word, by the way] we can readily teach to our children or students, because it’s easy to use the experience association inherent to simile.  What I mean is, we can’t compare something, using simile, if we haven’t made the observation ourselves, through experience, or at least had someone point out the similarities to us; kids will make their own associations and, when teaching “show don’t tell”, it’s best to build on those associations you know kids will have made rather than something an adult would.

Simile, in my estimation should be easy to teach to kids, because kids naturally use simile in their day-to-day speech, which they learn, of course, from mom and dad, friends, classmates, and teachers:

“You look like a princess!”
“Your house looks like a castle!”
“Eww! Your feet smell like rotten eggs!”
“You’re as smart as scientist!”
“She’s as pretty as a movie star.”

In truth, kids do pick up such expressions, mostly, from adults or other kids who picked them up from adults!  But sometimes, kids come up with their own, cute, quirky, and often humorous expressions of simile of their own:

“That man’s shoes are as big as a circus clown’s!”
“When Nastassja twirls, her pigtails look like whizzing helicopter blades!

Aren’t those more vivid than “The man had big feet”, and, “When she spins, her pigtails stick almost straight out!”?

And since it’s not necessarily hard to get kids to come up with examples of simile, it is important to get them thinking about WHY we make such comparisons and WHEN to use them in creative writing [or speaking].

And keep in mind: gaining these skills won’t only benefit your kids when they write or speak creatively while in school and such; having skills like these will greatly assist them throughout life, and achieving excellence in these will build confidence that will fuel all of your children’s life endeavors [hopefully, of course, only for good.]

So how do we teach kids how to effectively use simile in storyshowing?  Again, let’s not over think things, and just apply those same principles I covered in my previous posts on this subject.  But if you have yet to read those and don’t want to click away, here’s a brief synopsis:

• LOOK for “ The Secret Story.”
• ASK why things are the way they are.
• DECIDE on reasons for why things PROBABLY are the way they are.
• FIND words to explain how your decisions make sense.

Now…onto teaching kids how to use simile to “show instead of tell.”

In my other posts, my examples were still—admittedly, for the most part—examples an adult would be more likely to use than a child, so I’ll use one of the quirky “child” examples I used above [I actually thought them up, trying to think what a kid might say]; you can write down those you hear the children in your life say, and build on those, using these exercises.

So here goes:

“That man’s shoes are as big as a circus clown’s!”

Now, maybe, in real life, a man with such humongous shoes is also very tall and there’s probably no real “secret story” to discover, but in creating stories, it’s okay to imagine one.

Maybe this man had an emergency foot transplant, and the only feet available were from a clown who had been killed by an elephant that sat on him!  There…we’ve just covered LOOK, ASK, DECIDE, and we’ve begun to FIND words to explain how your child’s decisions are reasonable [again…for fiction; stories don’t have to always be truly reasonable].  So let’s take my peculiar scenario here and come up with a bit of vivid imagery.

The man’s feet looked like they had been taken from a clown whose feet had been run over by a steamroller.  The look on the man’s face, when he walked, made it obvious he was in pain, and as I noticed the bloody bandages around his ankles I wondered if he had had a foot transplant and ended up with giant clown feet instead of the right size for his body.

I admit my description, here, is pretty ridiculous, but that’s okay; you WANT to encourage zany, far-fetched thinking when teaching storyshowing!   Let’s embellish the next “kid” example:

When Nastassja twirls, her pigtails look like whizzing helicopter blades!

So what might be Nastassja’s secret story?  You might say Nastassja has had ballet lessons or figure skating experience.  Those are pretty good, but let’s really let our imaginations run wild.  Perhaps Nastassja is really the daughter of a once-famous, Russian, ballerina mother, and has been taught ballet since she could walk.

Notice how I’ve created a secret story for Nastassja that almost immediately takes care of LOOK, ASK, & DECIDE?  It appears that way because I have practiced LOOK, ASK, and DECIDE for many years, and I only recently identified these “steps” for the sake of these exercises; it’s not like I’m some sort of genius, here!  So let’s jazz up Nastassja’s story a bit more.

Nastassja looked like a ballerina or ice skater when she twirled.  Her swirling pigtails reminded us of a golden halo or helicopter blades that swished the air, and her face was almost as blurry as hummingbird wings.

Do you see how the use of simile here calls up more vivid imagery in your mind than the first sentence?  Of course, my description, here, deals only with Nastassja’s twirling and her pigtails.  If you were writing more about the girl, you could encourage your child or student to think more about Nastassja’s secret story: what does Nastassja’s voice sound like?  Does she have an accent?  Be careful encouraging kids to get TOO descriptive, though; experienced book publishers will tell you a few, choice phrases often do more to ignite readers’ imaginations, rather than giving SO much detail the reader’s mind has no fun in completing the mental picture!

Remember, when teaching kids the use of simile in storyshowing, to use comparisons that make sense, too.  For example, you wouldn’t say, “The man’s feet were as big as throw cushions.” People wouldn’t normally make such a comparison, would they?  Even kids tend to make comparisons that make sense [to their minds] because the comparisons that come to mind makes sense to them and remind them of something else.   Also keep in mind, when teaching children the use of simile in creative writing, to “borrow” from experiences of their own—it will make for much livelier storyshowing.

Next up: “What is Meta Phor?”

Show Don’t Tell: Finding the ‘Secret Story’

Friday, March 26th, 2010
What's The 'Secret Story'?

How Do We "Show" With Words?

The other day, I mentioned I would talk about what I like to call “The Secret Story.” I would prefer to call it the “Unknown Story”, as this is more accurate, but, for kids, “The Secret Story” is more exciting; more exciting means more memorable, and that means it’s more likely to stick in kids’ minds.

So…what IS “The Secret Story”?

“The Secret Story” is simply an idea I want kids to latch onto to get them thinking in a way that makes it possible for them to become skilled at storyshowing, and to eventually UN-learn story telling when they write.

Please follow my thoughts on this.

In creative writing, to discover what “The Secret Story” is, we should think of reasons WHY things might be the way they are, or the way they APPEAR [smell, feel, etc.]  You can ask your self, “What’s their [the character’s] secret story?” If you’re the one creating the story, then you [might] already know what those reasons are.  But your reader won’t.  So if you’re creating a story, and you haven’t decided or figured it out yet, then you should ask yourself, “Why would things, with my characters, or with my story, be the way they are?”

After you come up with some pretty good reasons to explain why things are the way they APPEAR, [tell kids they can] come to some conclusions, or make decisions that make sense.

Think of it this way: if a man is angry, it might be that someone has stolen his wallet, or perhaps someone has hurt someone in his family, or maybe put them in danger.  Maybe the man thinks someone has done something bad or wrong to him, and he didn’t like it.  There are all sorts of possibilities for reasons to explain, so there could be all sorts of “secret stories”, too!

In one of my previous examples, there was a skinny girl, in an old, torn dress, who was skipping.   Think to your self, if you saw someone like this, “Why is she so skinny? Does her old, torn dress mean she’s poor? Why is she skipping like she’s so happy? I wonder what the reasons are for her being so skinny, while being so apparently poor, yet so happy. I wonder what her ‘secret story’ is.”

Since I’ve started this series on “Show Don’t Tell,” I have thought a great deal about WHY it’s always been so difficult [and not just for kids, but even for adult writers as well] to effectively “show” in creative writing, and I finally came to a realization it’s because this thought of “The Secret—or Unknown—Story”, and because we learn about the world we live in based upon how we physically experience it.

Think about it.

We SEE how something looks.
We SMELL how something smells.
We HEAR how something sounds.
We TOUCH or FEEL how something feels.
We TASTE/SAVOR how something tastes.

These are all sensory experiences, and writing is a way of attempting to express something that is subjective/sensory in origin, to others.  If someone told you about an exotic dessert they ate, which you had never tasted, you would have to rely on their description—and comparisons to things they know you’d eaten before—to gain an understanding of how that dessert might taste…until you tasted it for yourself, right?  The truth is it’s not very easy to convey sensory experiences onto paper.  We use adjectives and adverbs to name and identify those physical experiences, relying on our readers to have experiences of their own to relate to.

The most we can hope for, if we want our readers to sympathize or empathize, is when we “show” using words that bring about feelings or opinions, we count on our readers having had similar experiences, or that they can relate in some way to make their reading of our words meaningful.

So when we “show” using words, we might write something like:

Matt looked like he just crawled out of a mud puddle.
She smelled like an ashtray mixed with a bag of burned popcorn.
Jason’s cries sounded like what a 300-pound baby must sound like.
The Texas summer wind felt like a blow dryer blowing in my face.

When we’re storyshowing, we’re trying to “put our readers” into the action.  When we do so using the same kinds of words or labels [i.e., adjectives and adverbs], we’re obliged to use descriptive wording that’s not really descriptive—at least not in the English Composition sense—but descriptive in the sense we draw comparisons and make inferences others can readily relate to.

So, before I over complicate matters, let’s just leave it at this when teaching kids how to show instead of tell:

LOOK for “ The Secret Story.”
ASK why things are the way they are.
DECIDE on reasons for why things PROBABLY are the way they are.
FIND words to explain how your decisions make sense [e.g., the little girl probably wore the old, torn dress, and was so skinny, because she was, most likely, very poor, and perhaps she was/is skipping so happily because she found a quarter or because she feels loved at home]

I don’t claim this post utterly solves the vexing task of learning how to “show”—and especially teaching kids how to effectively do so in their creative writing—but it should help with making sense of transforming “telling” ideas into prose that ignites readers’ imaginations.

“Show Me a Story, Mommy!”

Sunday, March 21st, 2010
Basic Writing: Show Don't Tell

We're Trained, Since Birth, to Tell, Not Show

When we were little kids, many of us would ask mom or dad, “Can you tell me a story?

Those times would, more than likely, occur just before bedtime, no doubt!  Such requests became less frequent as each of us got older.  Much of how we learned to talk was derived from the communications we got from our parents and, of course, our teachers at school.  When we reached 4th or 5th grade and began to learn effective writing skills, we probably heard our teachers say, Show me, don’t tell me,” in regards to descriptive writing or story telling.

But don’t you remember wondering, “How can I show something with words?”

I clearly remember thinking that.

From what I can tell, most of the teachers who tell kids, ‘Show me, don’t tell me’, don’t effectively show how to “show.”  Instead, they TELL kids not to tell without efficiently demonstrating (showing) how it’s done.   But is it any wonder?   Those sincere labors of well-meaning educators set about to—in effect—undo the very training most of us have undergone since birth: namely, how only to tell, without “showing”…only to be TOLD not to do it any longer!

Well, I’m going to endeavor to illustrate [show], through examples, on how to train kids to show instead of tell, when it comes to creative writing or description.   I’ll try to break these “lessons” up into to shorter posts, so they don’t take up so much of our time in the writing AND the reading!

Let me start by planting this thought in your heads:

“Showing” begins not with the use of overt adjectives—or adverbs—like, the black bear fought ferociously, the girl screamed loudly, the little dog jumped playfully, the colorful bird sang joyfully, etc. Of course, when our parents began teaching us, they did so using just these kinds of descriptions: words that say…describe…or…tell how something looks, is, or is done…causing our thoughts to merely wander, instead of speaking in a way that would have made them run wild!

I assert we should start out by teaching our children/students those [supposedly] sophisticated literary concepts saved for high school: the use of simile and metaphor to bring to our readers’, or listeners’, imaginations images that seem to live in their minds either like memories or fantasies.

It’s up to those of us who teach children to learn these techniques ourselves, and then use examples that make sense to kids’ minds.  Don’t worry; children are intelligent and have imaginations that are often Disney-like in their richness!

Next Lesson: How To Show Instead of Tell.

Piecing Together Stories

Friday, March 12th, 2010
Piecing Together a Story

YOU decide where to begin your story!

[[This piece I wrote, originally, on March 11, 2010, as a lesson for my daughter's 4th grade class, after I taught a writing camp at her school. I may very well turn this into a series, for kids, on how to become a more engaging writer.  Again...keep in mind this was originally written for 4th and 5th graders.]]

In school we’re told a story has a beginning, middle, and an end.  We’re also told when we tell a story that a story should start with the beginning, move to the middle, and then to the end.  We’ll get to how to “show” a story later!

A lot of times, when we tell stories, we DON’T tell them from beginning to end!  As a matter of fact, when we write or tell [or show] stories, it doesn’t matter what “order” they’re told.  You watch a lot of movies and TV shows that “show” the story “out of order.”  A lot of shows start out showing the end, or middle, first, and then they go back and show you how it all started, don’t they?

Think about it.

Pretend you have a dog, named Jake.  Imagine Jake ran away, you looked for him, found him and then brought him back home.  Now, imagine you tell your friends about it.   This is probably how it would go:

“Hey! Guess what? My dog, Jake, ran away. But we got him back!”

You just told the END of your story, FIRST, didn’t you?  You might go on to fill in the details of how it all started, how you searched for Jake, and how worried you were, but you’d probably wrap up your story quite nicely in a matter of minutes.

Stories are kind of like recipes for cookies or cheesecake: it doesn’t matter [much] what order you mix the ingredients, just so long as it tastes good, right?  Stories really aren’t much different!

Here’s a quick example of a story beginning at the end:

Max was dead. It was my fault, and there was nothing I could do to change it.

Pretty interesting, isn’t it?

It makes you want to know what happened, doesn’t it?  You want to know who Max was, and you want to know more about the person who feels responsible for Max’s death, too.

In this example, a story has begun at the end.  Or has it?  The great thing about starting a story this way, is you can “trick” the reader into believing what you want him or her to believe, and add details only you know, when you want to—just be careful not to make something up that won’t be believable to your reader; you don’t want your reader to get mad and feel like he or she has wasted his or her valuable time!

The point of this exercise is to remember a story is kind of like three, separate strips of paper: one labeled “middle”, another labeled “end” and another labeled “beginning.”  So long as you “tape them together” and the ends come together to form a circle, or even an “Infinity” loop [adding a “twist” to your story], keeping the details together to make sense, you’re likely to have quite a nice story to show others!

What’s Up With ‘That’?

Friday, October 2nd, 2009

What's Up With That?I am often amazed, while reading published, online or printed, [particularly non-fiction] works at the many pieces that pass for good, or acceptable, writing.  Now, to be fair, there is some excellent writing to be found, if you read long enough…whether it’s optimized web content, press releases, or journalism; you just have to be able to recognize it when you run across it.

That having been said, there is also a lot of slothful writing grabbing top ranks on Google—yes, even amidst the many articles of the major, online news sources. What’s most wearisome, for me, is the abundance of bad writing manifest through redundancy, poor structure, and just plain, [bad] style!  There’s more than enough insipidity to choke us all.  It’s doubtful the manna showered upon the Israelites became any less palpable than much of what meets the eyes of millions of readers seeking factually persuasive, much less stylistically enjoyable, content via their favorite search engines.

And although the writing of original, SEO content might not warrant—for many so-called journalists or bloggers—observance of basic Elements of Style sufficient to placate messieurs Strunk and White, you would think more self-proclaimed writers would at least own a copy of that indispensable, five-sixteenths-of-an-inch thick, writer’s resource!

Furthermore—should one dare to hope—it would be quite refreshing if said devotees of the craft would actually implement some of those jewels of wisdom and style found in that little book toward honing a more excellent technique and flair.

Of a truth, that rather thin, apparently unimposing reference (should) remain as ever-present in every writer’s work nook as…well…as a spare flash drive, or as pens and paper once were.   Even the greatest chess champion or the most skilled sniper regularly maintain their skills by revisiting “the basics” of what they do, or what they’re about.

This brings me to one of my pet peeves when it comes to (people not) observing basic guidelines of good writing is the annoyingly sophomoric (over) use of the word ‘that.’

If you’ve sat through more than a week of any English Composition class, you will surely have heard your professor say something, in reference to the almost hackneyed peppering of essays, term papers, or most basic of expositional writings with the word ‘that.’

This, what I like to call “crutch” word, is almost as prevalent in the writings of working professionals and authors as the word “like” is in the idiolect of your average, American teenager.   Bad speech habits due to immaturity and peer influences are understandable—even excusable, to a point.  However, poor writing style or ignorance of composition fundamentals, due to laziness or their simply being perpetuated by the public aren’t—or shouldn’t be—anymore than “text speak” should be tolerated in a term paper for a composition class!

I’m not saying this excessive insertion of the word is [necessarily] grammatically incorrect, but as far as writing style is concerned, the allowance, at least in my opinion, excludes those guilty of said “crime” from the ranks of true craftsmen…or craftswomen, if you must.

Quite frankly, it takes very little effort to excise “that” habit from one’s writing by simply observing examples [especially one’s own] of the offense, and then witnessing the improvement in readability. By so doing, reformed writers will also notice zero reduction in meaning but, in most cases, an actual boost in that “active voice” we all remember our English Comp teachers lecturing us about.

Below, I’ve included a couple of examples of what I‘m talking about.  A college student wrote the first example, if you can believe it.  I took it from a blog on the Internet.   I have made a few editorial changes in regards to revealing information, but the over-use of the relative pronoun, “that,” [with a strike-through in each case] has been left just the way this student wrote it originally.  Note the bad grammar, as well. I was tempted to insert commas and other punctuation as needed (it was driving me crazy) but I refrained.

“…I love [program name] love science and love anybody who made this site come true to any [one] out there I am a college student and my life was just described in the example above believe me if I had money I would have joined [program name] 100% anyway, I have figured something out and it has worked and [is] still working for me but I don’t know how much would it last and that’s killing me inside my main goal is to avoid [addictive behavior] whenever I feel the urge I convince myself that I am not myself now that [good!] I am kinda drugged or something and once I [distract myself] (without [indulging in behavior) I will be back and it worked for me... so whenever I get the feeling that I will fail and won’t be able to control myself….”

Try reading this example, out loud, to your self and see if the content [if you can actually call it content] doesn’t flow better without the (over) use ‘that’ word!  The original paragraph has several more unnecessary that’s.

So you might be saying to yourself, “So what’s the big deal? It’s a blog!  Who cares about grammar, punctuation, let alone style, in a blog?”

Well, that’s precisely my point: too many people are either ignorant to this basic element of good writing, or our culture of texting, emails, and blogging have [seemed to] make it permissible to be lackadaisical when it comes to writing well.

And the bad habit is being taught to students [children] even today.  Here is an example I took from one of my child’s homework assignments just the other evening [I’ve now got my kids catching onto excessive “that” offense]!

“…the principal of the school told the children that it is against school rules to wear baseball caps while at school.   He told the students that if he lets one student wear a baseball cap, then he would have to let kids who want to wear cowboy hats wear those, too.  He explained that only on special ‘free-dress’ days would the students be allowed to wear hats of any kind.   He told the students that the school rules are very important to help keep the students safe and happy.”

Did you see that?  YIKES!

Now…go back and re-read the paragraph, skipping over those crossed-out ‘that’s’ and see how much more smoothly it reads.  What’s more, the use of the word in every instance didn’t add any value to the message conveyed, nor did the removal of the words detract from the meaning of the content.  If anything, the presence of the word only served to weaken it!

I realize my writing, here, is hardly the epitome of perfection.  I have written a few passive sentences, along with a fragment or two, perhaps.   But maybe if I get a few people “out there”, online, thinking about it, I will have rendered some valuable service that someone could use in writing a press release, blog, email, or letter, and make his or her optimized content that much more persuasive.