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|Thought For The Week|
"Show, Don't Tell" - Advice frequently given to authors.
Authors are often reminded that instead of saying a character is mean they should be shown acting mean. That is much more convincing because it gets the reader involved and they reach their own conclusions. For example, in a Christmas Carole, Charles Dickens does not say Scrooge is stingy and greedy. He introduces Ebenezer Scrooge complaining about Bob Cratchet wasting coal trying to stay warm. When solicitors come asking for Christmas donations to help the poor, Scrooge's response is that if the poor houses are still operating there is no reason to give the poor any additional aid. When Bob wants time off to spend with his family on Christmas Day, Scrooge grudgingly grants him a half-day off with a half-day wages docked from his pay. Scrooge has become synonymous with greed which did not happen with other greedy characters simply described by their author.
"Show, don't tell" is also great advice for clowns and magicians.
I created a packet card trick this year where one at a time I display four cards with an identical picture of a snowman on the face. When I show the faces of the cards again, the snowman has started to melt. The next time the snowman has melted much further. The fourth time that I show the faces of the cards, the snowman has vanished completely. Finally, the snowman reappears on the cards. When I first began performing it, I said at the beginning, "All the children built a snowman in their yard, but when the sun came out the snowman began to melt." Then I revealed the pictures of the partially melted snowman. There was no surprise because I had told the audience what was going to happen.
In actual performances I discovered that the routine got much greater response if I didn't say anything. If I displayed the snowman, turned over the packet revealing a partially melted snowman, and paused, somebody in the audience would notice the change in the snowman and comment on it. Then I would react in surprise by the change in the snowman's appearance. I found that this presentation resulted in more laughter and it held the audience's attention better because they were curious about what was going to happen next. When you tell the audience what is happening, you intrude between them and the effect distancing them emotionally. When you let them make their own discoveries they become emotionally engaged.
When you show the audience and let them decide what is happening you make them your partner in telling the story. I was amazed how often, given the opportunity; a child would challenge me to make the snowman vanish after they had seen him melt twice. That is what I was planning to do, but now it became an interaction with the child because I was fulfilling their request. Often they would then challenge me to make the snowman return, and when I satisfied their desire twice in a row it seemed like I could do anything.
The "show, don't tell" concept is even more important if you are trying to prove something because people are naturally suspicious of a magician's words. If you say something is empty, audience members wonder why it was necessary for you to comment on it. It is even more convincing if the audience can see that something is empty when you are apparently doing something else. In my mismade flag routine I reach into my change bag and pull scarves out one at a time. After I have removed the scarves, I reach into the bag once again as if trying to get another scarf. I grab the bottom of the bag and pull as if it is another scarf. The bag turns inside out so the audience sees there aren't any other scarves and they conclude it is empty.
Do you tell your audience too much? How can you show them what you want them to know? How can you let them draw their own conclusions? How can you use surprise and the joy of discovery to involve your audience in what is happening? How can you reveal your character's personality through your actions?
Copyright 2008 by Bruce Johnson. All rights reserved.
I will be at the Mid Illinois Magic Conference in Peoria, Illinois on Saturday, April 25, 2009. I will be doing a comedy writing lecture in the morning and performing in the public show that evening. This lecture is one that will be unique to this conference. The conference will be held at the Scottish Rite Cathedral, 400 E. Perry Ave. Registration opens at 8 AM. The show begins at 7 PM. They will have a web site up soon with additional details.