Wednesday, June 22, 2011

more than words: playing the Taboo game

Back in my early teaching days, I had assigned my students to write an essay about the concept of Home. However, they were not to use the words home, house, warmth, comfort, familiar, etc. (I think we even played a couple rounds of the game Taboo.) Almost ten years later, I still remember some of those essays (and interestingly, so do they-- one of my former students recently told me that he saved that particular essay, citing it as one of his all-time favorites). The ones who really "got" it were the ones who mastered "showing" vs. "telling", capturing the meaning of the experience (or the experience itself) by using a completely different image or experience. They revealed a truth without explicitly telling it.

The other night I was on the phone with my twin brother. I was bragging about that day's word count (3200!), yet lamenting how disappointed I was with what I'd written.

"It's supposed to be a pivotal moment," I explained. "A breakthrough. It's emotional. Everyone's crying. But it's hard to write or describe people crying without it sounding like a bad soap opera. You know when you watch a TV show and the character's supposed to be so distraught, but the actor can't get him/herself to cry? That's what this scene feels like (and all my crying scenes/descriptions, really). Just so disingenuous. I don't know how to make it work."

My brother's advice floored me: "Play the Taboo game. Write it without using the words crying or tears and see what happens. Describe the physicality of what they're feeling rather than filming what they're doing."

Describe the physicality of what they're feeling... my God, that's brilliant!

I told him what a great idea that was, and couldn't wait to try it. "You know," I said. "That reminds me of an essay assignment I gave like ten years ago."

"Yeah, I think that might have been where I got the idea, actually."

Moral of the story: as writers, we need to remember that we're smarter than we think. And when it comes to description, conveying meaning, and showing vs. telling, we need to play the Taboo game every now and then, surrendering generic words and descriptions for unique ones. Revealing the truth without explicitly saying it. Try it in your own manuscript and see what happens. I will too.


Ava Jae said...

Taboo's a fun game, but I never thought of using it to improve my writing. Huh. Great idea! I'm definitely going to try that one out, thanks! :)

Fenny said...

You mean all your assignments are based on games? ;-)

Anonymous said...

Brilliant! Applies to screenwriting as well. Rule #1 "Show. Don't Tell." This is a perfect description of how to get there.

Elspeth Antonelli said...

Approach something sideways - it gives you a completely different angle! Thanks for this tip, Elisa, I'm going to remember it.

Elisa said...

Thanks all for your comments!

(Fenny, my motto has always been "If it's not fun, why do it?") ;)

Sarah said...

i think i remember that assignment. ;)

(or, at least, the essay in which we had to write about home and you told the class as you handed back our essays, "if i have to read the word 'home' one more time, i'm going to gag." as i recall, you said the best essay was one that didn't use the word at all. i remember because that night i re-wrote mine to only use the word once. because, yes, i am that person.)

Elisa said...

Did I say that??? Wow, I was rather blunt back in my early teaching days. :P

I do remember that I wound up amending the assignment as a result of that little problem -- what I call a "happy accident". Followed it up with that Donald Murray chapter too, if memory serves. Totally worth it.

And I think *I* saved your essay, btw... :)

Bruce said...

I still talk about that essay as well! It was a great assignment! I think it is so strange that something someone wrote some 10 years ago could still be memorable!It still resounds within... That was truly an awesome class! It allowed me to further develop my love of writing and sparked a flame that reading was not so bad either. Thanks for sparking the fire!

Elisa said...

You're awesome, Brucie! And it means so much to me to know I made a difference (teachers are not supposed to have favorites, but I think you know you were one of my faves!).