Show Don’t Tell

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I spent last week back in England as a witness in a dispute over a right of way to the property I used to live in some thirty years ago. Given a choice between having a tooth pulled out and appearing as a witness I think, in future, I would opt for the visit to the dentist.

I had recently read “The Emotion Thesaurus” by Angela Ackerman and Becca Pulgisi  in an attempt to cure myself of the habit of infecting my writing with bland adjectives – of telling “he was angry”, rather than showing. So this experience provided me with an opportunity to observe and watch for cues – what poker players call “tells”, as to how each witness was feeling, all set within  the context of the courtroom.

The following are some of the notes I made on these lines during the proceedings. But first a brief description of the courtroom to give you some context.

Square room, bland cream and grey décor; wooden chairs set out with an aisle between them – protagonists  to the left, antagonists to the right. As we trooped into the courtroom, the court usher bent forward and quietly asked each of us “Appellant or Objector? Take your seat on the right/left.” I couldn’t help but think of the scene from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” – “Crucifixion, one cross each, on the right.”

One thing that could not be ignored in the room was the dais with the long bench behind which the judge sat in solitary splendour. Raised up above where we minions were seated it said, unequivocally to us – control, power, authority, I’m in charge.

Okay so on to the witnesses. I’ve given just three examples from my notes. They all relate to witnesses for the protagonists whom the counsel for the antagonists was cross-examining.

Witness One

Male, early fifties, the only male witness wearing a suit and tie. Took the oath in a steady, clear voice. Chose to stand rather than sit to give evidence; very upright, shoulders back. Listening to counsel’s questions he cocked his head slightly to one side, then straightened up again. Long, long pauses between question and his response.

My thoughts: calm, unruffled by situation. Did the “head cock” mean he was listening carefully? Perhaps he is slightly deaf? Did long pauses before responding mean he was choosing his words carefully; an unwillingness to answer; concocting a porky?

Witness Two

Female; early sixties; very chic. Strode to the witness stand; shoes squeaked on lino floor. Hands trembled a little as she held the paper on which the oath was printed; her voice quavered over a few words. Gave evidence standing up.  Voice steadied as she gave her testimony. When challenged hard by counsel a faint pink flush spread up her neck, voice trembled again. Played with a necklace she was wearing as she spoke.

My thoughts: nervous to start with but steadied herself. However, perhaps she was shivering and a bit cold? The necklace twisting – sign of nerves or fidgety and a tad impatient? The flush and wobbly voice – was she flustered; getting angry; embarrassed?

Witness Three

Female; late forties; smart/casual. Took a couple of visible deep breaths before reading oath. Gave evidence seated. Only witness to check, when asked, that the written statement previously provided was hers and that all the pages were present when given to her. When dealing with challenges by counsel  her voice dropped a tone and a Yorkshire brogue became more apparent. Sounded abrupt,  a little brusque but very definite about her evidence. Made good eye contact with judge rather than counsel when giving answers. Gestured with hands quite a bit.

My Thoughts: No-nonsense person. Meticulous? Confident?  Hostile towards counsel? Used the time to look through her written statement as a means of steadying herself?

So, as a writer what did I learn from all this?

  1. It reinforced something I’ve always known – that one swallow doesn’t make a summer. That is, to show emotions through body language we need to have a cluster of cues rather than just one and context is everything.
  2. It is possible to be sneaky and use a character’s body language to mask or mislead. I learned afterwards for example that Witness Two was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease which caused her hands/voice to tremble.
  3. The observation and interpretation of body language as an indicator of emotions is highly subjective.Would readers have the same interpretation?
  4. I would hate to be called for jury service!

 

So tell me, what would you have made of the three examples above?

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4 thoughts on “Show Don’t Tell

  1. What an interesting experience. I think I’d need to build a little more background. Were witnesses one and two related? I suspect witness three was on the opposing side. And I’m curious about the relationships, each character representing a different decade. You’ve set me more questions than I realised. Are you going to fictionalise this?

  2. Interesting but, despite most of the witnesses having no vested interest in the outcome, we were all nervous. Yes, there needs to be more background but for me, it was about enriching my writing. One and two witnesses were not related; all witnesses were called by the protagonists so could be said to have a bias towards them. In truth Cathum, I’ve set myself more questions than answers. Will I fictionalise it? I think I may invest some of my characters with some of the “tells” and yes, I think there’s a story buried in there somewhere…just got to dig it out! Thanks for reading.

  3. Fascinating … I’m so sorry, I’m rushing through a huge backlog but I just wanted to note that this is something I will re-read and digest more fully and probably comment on again in a few days when I am only preparing for Christmas in a rented cottage in England and I need to avoid making eye contact with a cooker I have no experience of!!!

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