Reading Isn’t Enough.
Nothing scares a creative writer (and if you’re reading this, that’s probably you) more than a lesson that looks like this:
I know, shocking. Lectures that drone on and on don’t keep eager learners interested. Yes, I said eager learners – that’s how ineffective rambling is.
In fact, undergraduate students in classes with traditional stand-and-deliver lectures are 1.5 times more likely to fail. That’s crazy! So crazy that educators at Harvard University like Eric Mazur believe it’s “almost unethical to be lecturing if you have the data…it’s outmoded, outdated, and inefficient.” Learners who don’t like to read might say the same goes for long-winded books (Twilight anyone?).
Thank the Word Lord us writers are blessed with a love for quiet places and worn bindings!
And yet – in many cases – reading isn’t enough…
Hold up! You’re telling me that if I read a bunch of books, I won’t become a better writer?
Heck no! Literature is the foundation of every great writer!
But that doesn’t mean I’ll get everything I can out of a good book – maybe even a life-changing book – if I don’t discuss what I think makes it so freak-funkifying-fantastic….
The Importance of Reading & Discussion
As a creative writing teacher (and writer in the works myself), I deeply believe in the importance of reading with a purpose.
It’s the same reason I require my creative writing students to dig up one book from four important categories (for writers) each semester.
What are they?
- Competitive Books
- Informative Books
- Contemporary Books
These books, I emphasize, will force writers to think new thoughts, learn new words, and harness the inspiration needed to keep going.
And yet, for us writers, reading isn’t enough. We need to communicate and comprehend what we’re reading.
In a 2013 lecture, bestselling author Neil Gaiman lectured on how our future relies on libraries, reading, and daydreaming. He stressed how people who do not understand each other cannot exchange ideas or communicate. He went on to discuss how in a time where noise continues to build across media, “words are more important than they ever were.”
I’d like to take this one step further.
Yes, reading is crucial to humanity’s wellbeing – a people’s intellectual and commutative survival.
But without discussion of what we read, we cannot communicate or comprehend the words for everything they’re worth.
Our goal as authors is to soil ideas that blossom into full-blown conversations. It’s a giant reason why we love reading so much!
So why don’t writers discuss what we read more?
In fact, why don’t we discuss right now.
Lesson 1: Jurassic Park – How Crichton’s Descriptions Shows v. Tells
Oh boy – you just received that rejection letter from that agency and it’s a big hunking PASS. Maybe it doesn’t quite “resonate with us”. Maybe the agent isn’t “enthusiastic enough about this piece right now”. Bummer rama.
Don’t get down!
There’s a good chance that you have talent but need a little work on your voice and style. Perhaps you have an editor who keeps advising you to show more than tell.
Ah, the famous show don’t tell recommendation.
We’ve all heard it before. Likely, you possess a bookshelf filled with advice on writing skills to avoid just this…
But how many of us identify how bestselling authors show in their writing?
Have no fear! Right not, I’ve designed a quick five-minute (max) lesson to help you analyze how Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park) shows in his writing! If you participate, maybe (just maybe) we can create a virtual discussion that will not only strengthen your writing skills, but your ability to read with a purpose!
If not, you still get to read a pretty scary-sick passage about velociraptors. That’s a win in my book! What about you?
Great! Then keep reading…and let’s discuss!
Analyze how Michael Crichton introduces the Velociraptors with description that shows vs. tells. Then, write your own passage that continues to show these dinosaurs in action!
Resources: Excerpt from Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (130)
Assignment: Read the selected passage from page 130 in Jurassic Park. Identify one sentence that shows me something about the velociraptor instead of tells about her. Then, identify two words that create texture (or touch) in the description.
Don’t forget to share what you find in the comments section! The more people we can get to chat, the more we can all learn!
Passage (Page 130):
Amid the ferns, Grant saw the head of an animal, it was motionless, partially hidden in the fronds, the two large dark eyes watching coldly.
The head was two feet long. From a pointed snout, a long row of teeth ran back to the hole of the auditory meatus, which served as an ear. The head reminded him of a large lizard, or perhaps a crocodile. They did not blink, and the animal did not move. Its skin was leathery, with a pebbled texture, and basically the same coloration as the infant’s yellow-brown with darker reddish markings, like the stripes of a tiger.
As Grant watched, a single forelimb reached up very slowly to part the ferns beside the animal’s face. The limb, Grant saw, was strongly muscled. The hand had three grasping fingers, each ending in curved claws. The hand, gently, slowly, pushed aside the ferns.
Grant felt a chill and thought, He’s hunting us.
For a mammal like man, there was something indescribably alien about the way reptiles hunted their prey. No wonder men hated reptiles. The stillness, the coldness, the pace was all wrong. To be among alligators or other large reptiles was to be reminded of a different kind of life, a different kind of world, now vanished from the earth. Of course, this animal didn’t realize that he had been spotted, that he –
Discussion (What I Found):
How can I break up description of a character with action to develop a character or advance a plot?
When coaching my creative writing students, several stumble over the same question:
Mrs. Perry, they’ll say, how can I show more about my character without describing their physical aspects?
The truth is, you do need to describe your character’s physical aspects, but physical appearance isn’t the peanut butter and jelly in the PBJ of your description. You need to break it up with action!
Notice Crichton goes into physical appearance of the raptors, how the raptor Grant sees is “two feet long” with a “pointed snout” and “row of teeth.” Great, super intimidating. Scary indeed – or is this scarier because I’ve seen the raptors in action in Spielberg’s masterpiece? (Who wasn’t scared by the raptors?!)
Reading for Thought…
Yes, it’s great to provide an initial description of a character so the reader can dig out the bread for the character’s sandwich, maybe cut off the crust. But that’s not the delicious goo of what they’ll take away from the character when they finish the chapter, which is exactly why we need action in the description.
1.Notice how right before we hear Grant’s internal dialogue “He’s hunting us” we see the raptor’s hand “gently, slowly” push “aside the ferns.” Keeping its giant body in camouflage, while moving with such slow, eerie confidence is a testament to not only this predator’s intimidating intelligence, but Crichton’s brilliant display of showing v. telling in his introduction of antagonist numero uno – the terrifying Velociraptors!
2. In addition, Crichton seasons his physical description (a telling method to describe the raptors) with textures. For instance, words like “Grant felt a chill” add texture to the description that is much more effective than stating his internal dialogue (“He’s hunting us”) alone. It creates an icy realization that effectively shows how Grant feels (and if Grant feels it, you feel it!).
This same method of “showing” (description that uses texture) explains why Crichton describes the raptor’s skin as “pebbled” instead of eliminating the texture of the raptor’s skin completely. The bumpiness of the scales sparks Grant’s comparison of dinosaurs to crocodiles, and how reptiles in particular frighten men with their “stillness, their coldness, their pace” – how it’s “all wrong.” All of this creates tension, builds fright in the reader, for what is about to happen next…
Use sight, smell, sound, taste, and/or touch in your description of a raptor attack that could follow this passage!
Don’t forget to share your paragraph in the comments below, and comment on someone else’s work so we can make this a Discussion!
Did you find different texture diction than I did? How do you think this passage developed the Velociraptors (or Grant) or advanced the plot? Share your answers with the class – I’d love to hear from you! Use the hashtag #LetsDiscuss & #LessonJurassicPark