Wednesday, 23 February 2011

A Rude Poem that Proves a Point

I recited this poem during my talk at the Get Writing Conference on Saturday:

Mary had a little bike,
She rode it on the grass.
And every time the wheels went round
A spoke went up her -

At which point I stopped, and the audience laughed (luckily - I'd have been scuppered if there had been silence). Why did they laugh? I asked them. The answer was because they knew what word was coming next - and in fact one lady helpfully mouthed it at me just in case I hadn't known. But the missing word isn't intrinsically funny, so why the laughter?

I'm sure there are lots of complicated psychological reasons why the omission of a mildly rude word can get such a reaction with a group of adults, but what I was using it for was to demonstrate that the audience was both willing to do some work - ie supply the missing word - and enjoyed the process. In fact, they enjoyed supplying the missing word far more than they would have done if I had said it.

When we're writing we can forget that the reader wants to work, and will enjoy their reading far more if they have to make an effort. That's the basis for show, not tell. We show the reader a situation, the reader does some work and deduces for themselves what's going on. It's much more effective than telling them exactly what's going on. Tell us that Evangeline was nervous, and we're bored. Show us Evangeline's sweaty palms or bitten fingernails and we're delighted to deduce that she's nervous.

Make the readers do some of the work, by showing and not telling, and you've got them hooked on your story.



5 comments:

liz fenwick said...

Brilliant :-)

lx

Christine said...

Well said. Nothing puts me off a book more than having everything spelled out to me. I've always believed that the reader is part of the creative process - the magic that happens when the mind of the writer meets the mind of the reader.

Jim Murdoch said...

The thing about jokes like this is that they’re suggestive – they neither show nor tell. We talk about adult humour and the thing about a lot of adult humour is that it isn’t in your face. In your example a kid would get the most pleasure out of someone saying the word, ‘arse’, whereas when, for example, Lost in Translation ended we as adults don’t need to know what Bob whispered to Charlotte. There’s not enough of that these days. We can learn a lot from jokes: A guy walked into a bar… What guy? What bar? Is that important? Isn't it enough to suggest and trust your reader to joint the dots?

Sarah Duncan said...

No, no, I DO want to know what Bob whispers to Charlotte, it's been bugging me forever. Childish, I know...

Pauline Barclay said...

As always thank you!Smiling, fingers posied to.....