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Please feel free to be unsparing in your critique as is this how-to article. I am seeking feedback.
GRAB THE READER
J. Austin Bennett
“Seeing a murder on television can help work off one's antagonisms. And if you haven't any antagonisms, the commercials will give you some.”
- Alfred Hitchcock, 1899 – 1980
What do you do when the mystery is interrupted at the most inopportune moment by a pitchman screaming about a “sale” on new Buicks or a chance-of-a-lifetime opportunity to buy life insurance? I usually find time to make a sandwich or go to the bathroom. The delivery technique is almost always the same. HAMMER! HAMMER! HAMMER!
Sadly, the same is true of many, if not most, of the articles I have reviewed. It’s not because the writer lacked a message. In most cases, he or she had a terrific topic. I like Buick automobiles (not too fond of life insurance), but if I am going to devote even sixty seconds of my time, I want to enjoy that moment. I laughed hysterically at the Budweiser commercial with the “magic wall” and those other beer commercials, “Men should act like men!” Remember the ads for Fox Sports Net a few years ago; “The Taliban Olympics?”
“Advice is sometimes transmitted more successfully through a joke than grave teaching.”
- Baltasar Gracian, 1601 – 1656
One fellow who employed the use of humor successfully was Samuel Langhorne Clemens. We know him as Mark Twain.
All stories begin as a scene in the writer’s mind, a sort of play or movie. The trick is to put that piece of film on a piece of paper and do it in a way that will allow the reader to replay that same film. There is one cardinal rule to this:
“SHOW THEM. DON’T TELL THEM!”
Let me give you an example. You want to describe a chance meeting in a restaurant between yourself and a former friend from school whom you have not seen in many years.
I’ll give you the Hammer first.
I had just finished the salad and felt the call of nature. I got up to go to the bathroom. When I rounded the corner in route to the men’s room, I spotted a familiar face seated at the bar. It was Jeff Reynolds, a classmate of mine from twenty years ago. He was drinking alone. I saw that he had had too much already. He looked terrible. His shoes were not shined. His clothes looked old as if he couldn’t afford a new suit. I sat down and asked him what he was doing. He told me he was unemployed. I have a good job and I wondered if I could help him. I asked him what had happened? He told me he had started drinking after he lost his job. He said his wife had divorced him. He had not found work in quite a while. Then he really began to drink in earnest. I was appalled at his condition. Jeff had become a total drunk without any apparent desire to change. He was in awful shape, not only physically but mentally too.
The restaurant wasn’t classy, but it was open at 2:00 A.M. After I finished, I noticed a vaguely familiar face at the bar. It was Jeff Reynolds. I hadn’t seen him in twenty years, but for Jeff, the time had not been kind. The bleary eyes and red nose coupled with scuffed shoes and a frayed collar told the story. “Jeff, Al Benton,” I introduced myself.
He poured another for himself from the half empty fifth on the table. “You want one?” he asked.
I demurred and asked him, “What happened, Jeff?”
With a rueful half smile, he held up his now empty glass and replied, “This happened.”
You can see the use of dialogue to paint the scene. Guess how many words are used in each example?
The hammer took 185 while the movie occupied only 108.
The first example, the hammer, was all about “ME”. It was me, me, me, all the way. I thought, I saw, I did, etc. The second produced a graphic image (I hope) of Jeff and his deplorable condition with economy of verbiage.
Have you submitted your writings for critiques? Aren’t those praises nice to read? After all, it’s a Christian website and Christians are nice people. At least we’re supposed to be! Did you ever receive a scathing review when you consistently violated that rule: “Show them. Don’t tell them!”
Well, just skip over that one and get to the syrup.
“No one wants advice - only corroboration.” John Steinbeck, 1902 – 1968
A bit of sarcasm is another powerful tool. So is the use of quotations. Irony coupled with humor, add a few quotes and forget what you thought, what you wanted, what you did. Make the reader think for himself. Painting a picture with words in which we might all find ourselves is the prescription for success as a wordsmith. And above all else, never, ever give up. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be worth the effort.
I’ll leave you with one more great quotation from a guy who definitely knew that.
Never let the odds keep you from pursuing what you know in your heart you were meant to do.
- Leroy "Satchel" Paige, 1906 – 1982
J. Austin Bennett Copyright © 2006 Use with credit.
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