Sunday, June 07, 2009

Sometimes Telling

Yesterday I got a good impromtu lesson in storytelling when my guy took me out for brunch. To set this up, you have to understand how my love and I are when we're out in public -- 99% of the time he's friendly, outgoing and chatty, and strangers generally adore him; I think it's a combination of the voice and the personality. He's wonderfully likeable and his deep, beautiful voice is a pleasure to listen to. In contrast I'm quiet, pleasant but reserved, and I'm not as comfortable chatting up strangers (might be the squeaky voice.) As a result I usually get smiled at but mainly ignored.

Not so yesterday. Our waitress ignored my guy completely, giving him only the minimum amount of attention while lavishing me with her full focus. If the woman could have hand-fed me, I think she would have. It made me a little uneasy -- I don't like being the center of attention anywhere -- and puzzled. When our orders came, for example, she served me first, cautioned me about my plate being hot, checked to see if I wanted any special condiments, refilled my water and asked me twice if I needed anything else. She then turned, dropped my guy's plate in front of him with an audible thump, ignored his empty coffee cup, and strode off without another word.

"Uh, do you have an ex-wife I don't know about?" I asked my guy.

"No." He was confused, too. "I've never been here before now. I didn't harass her, did I?" When I shook my head, he sniffed the collar of his shirt. "I'm clean."

Through the rest of our meal the waitress checked on us frequently, although she continued to treat me like a princess and my guy like an ogre. I was almost afraid to leave him alone with her when I went to the ladies room. Then, while I was washing my hands, I looked into the mirror and realized the cause. It was my left eye, all swollen, purple and stitched up as it was. I've been wearing sunglasses in public so no one has to look at it, but once I was seated (I sat with my back to the other tables), I'd swapped them out for my regular glasses.

I knew what was wrong with my eye, of course, but the waitress didn't.

I went back to the table, sat down, and the waitress immediately hurried over to refresh my water glass. As she did, I became uncharacteristically chatty and told her how good the meal had been, and how nice it was not to have to cook after having surgery. As she stared at me, I gave her a brief synopsis of the procedure and how great the doctor had been to let me go home. Then I beamed at my guy and mentioned some of the many ways he'd been pampering me, driving me around and generally treating me like a princess.

Worked like a charm. From that point on the waitress relaxed and was (almost) as nice to my guy as she was to me. I left her a very nice tip, and once we were outside my guy said, "What was that all about?"

I chuckled. "She was mean to you because she thought you popped me one in the eye."

"What?" He was horrified, and rightly so. The man has never laid so much as a pinky on me in anger. "Why would she think that?"

"Me wearing sunglasses, sitting so no one could see my face, and me being quiet while you were all friendly and chatty," I told him. "It's a reasonable assumption."

"But how could it be, without her knowing us at all?"

And here was the crux of the matter. "Some man probably hit on her or someone she loves."

As writers, we're inundated with show-versus-tell advice. Show the reader the eye; don't tell them about it. I go along with this in part because I would rather show the reader anything than tell them about it. I'm not a fan of narrative; it puts me to sleep.

But while we're busy showing our readers the battered faces and black eyes in our stories, we also have to consider seeing it through their eyes. What we show them may invoke a memory or feeling that has nothing to do with us, our stories or the point we're trying to communicate. The reader is whisked off to a place we don't know about, and often it can be the exact opposite of the place where we wanted to take them.

I'm not a writer who puts it all up front for the reader to know first before the story gets rolling. I want to surprise the reader as the plot unfolds because I think that's more exciting. But this incident reminds me that sometimes you do have to tell a bit along with the show -- or your reader may get the wrong idea entirely.


  1. Anonymous6:52 AM

    This post is the perfect example of why you are such a great storyteller! You rock!

  2. Anonymous8:23 AM

    People create their knowledge from their own experiences all the time - it's why we still say the sun rises or sets, when we "know" the Earth is spinning.

    It's also why a book written in England will sometimes fall flat in the US.

    I also agree with showing, as opposed to telling, but yeah, sometimes it's better to tell, a little.

  3. Meleeta8:28 AM

    It really brings home the point that not everyone sees things the same way. I hadn't thought about what would happen in a situation like that before but realized I have gone through a few similar situations. People assume they know what something means without asking all the time. Like tattoos, a person gets one and it means something to them but a stranger sees it, and develops their on meaning about it.

  4. When I had my wisdom teeth taken out, they botched the procedure pretty bad so there was an amazing amount of bruising and swelling. My ex husband wouldn't go out in public with me until the swelling and bruising went away.

    When I asked why he said...they're going to think I hit you. It was something I'd never considered.

  5. Anonymous9:47 AM

    The post itself is an example of how to find a balance between show/tell. Fantastic post -- "show don't tell" has long been one of my least favorite pieces of writing advice.

    And your sweetie sounds like an awesome guy :)

  6. I really don't do a lot of narrative either. For a time, I thought that wasn't a good thing, that I needed narrative to 'tell' the story. But when I'd read through it, it just didn't read well, slowed the story.

    Maybe it was just me. I know though that I take my 'excess baggage' into the stories I read, we all do.

    If I were that waitress, I don't know what I'd have thought. But I'm the kind of person who would have asked about it. Gauging your reaction would have told me what I wanted to know.

  7. This is a great story, you weathered the situation well, and I like how you have transferred it into a lesson about writing. Nicely done!

  8. That really is a phenomenal example of how assumptions can have so much influence on someone, whether it be something heard or seen. Great Post!

  9. Poor hubby!

    We got the same reaction when an older gentleman heard me tell a friend I'd been punched in the stomach walking down the hall. He took DH outside for a chat and I had to go rescue my love and explain I'd been punched by the baby, not him.

    Good thinking on your part though. My first thought was the waitress was hitting on you...

  10. Oh, yikes. Glad you figured it out and saved your guy's rep. : O Balance of show vs. tell can be so difficult. Good reminder that it can go very wrong.

  11. Oh my, your story made me smile. I also stopped and thought about how a book can invoke a memory, and take a reader down a path the author had not intended, interesting viewpoint.
    I enjoyed my visit.

  12. What a great way to emphasize the difference between telling and showing. Even if you know it, sometimes you forget it. This lesson will stick with me for a long time. Thanks.

  13. great story, thanks for sharing!

  14. This is an incredible example of different perspectives. Thanks for sharing it with us.


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