Friday, March 29, 2013

Winter in Words: An Exercise in Showing, Not Telling

Smoky skies the color of mourning doves hover above calendar-quality vistas in all directions as far as I can see. Powdery snow like fairy dust swirls and dances across the lanes while cardinals, bright against the blanched ground, chase each other in and out the fencerows. Soft winds brush snow from low-hanging branches, dusting my dark wool coat. I am bound for the hearth of home.

What does the passage above suggest? What tone does it evoke?

It doesn’t declare the tone, does it? But there are plenty of clues for readers to draw reasonable conclusions.

Smoky and mourning, for example, call to mind somber, reflective moments. Dancing, swirling powdery snow like fairy dust, on the other hand, suggests magic and joy. Bright cardinals playing seem to match the magical, joyful details as do soft winds. So far, the predominant tone or mood of the passage is light-hearted, even enchanting.

But alas, how should we interpret the dark wool coat, dusted with snow? Is that another somber, reflective clue? No, it is not. The coat is merely practical and a sharp contrast to the bright white world surrounding, and it has been dusted with soft powdery snow, not dampened or spoiled or burdened--just dusted.

The final clue for tone is hearth of home, a timeless reference to warmth and comfort. Thus, key diction choices converge in a tone of admiration, pleasure, and comfort.

The author (me), through diction, showed us how to interpret the passage
and trusts her readers to draw the correct conclusion through close reading. Be aware, however, that two readers will likely select two different words to describe the tone of the passage. One may choose pleasure, another joy. And that’s just fine. Language is ambiguous--subject to more than one interpretation, but the difference between pleasure and joy is slight in this context.

Reading Challenge:

For an excellent example of polysyndeton and a delightful description of the writing process, savor this:

“Mostly, we authors must repeat ourselves - that's the truth. We have two or three great and moving experiences in our lives - experiences so great and moving that it doesn't seem at the time anyone else has been so caught up and so pounded and dazzled and astonished and beaten and broken and rescued and illuminated and rewarded and humbled in just that way ever before.

Then we learn our trade, well or less well, and we tell our two or three stories - each time in a new disguise - maybe ten times, maybe a hundred, as long as people will listen.” ― F. Scott Fitzgerald

Writing Challenge:

Tell one of your two or three stories on paper.