J. Grace Pennington

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Yes, But Why?

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Show, don’t tell.

It’s been hammered into our brains through every English class, creative writing course, and book for aspiring novelists. Always they tell us “show, don’t tell” until we can’t unhear or forget the words. Until they become mere sounds and we discount them due to familiarity. Like when someone says “eat healthy” or “Jesus loves you.” Sometimes we hear things so much they no longer really register.

Show, don’t tell, we hear. And sometimes we just have to stop and say, “Yes… but why?”

I’ve been delving into this as I work on edits for the fourth book in my series, Firmament: Reversal Zone. So many times I catch myself merely saying, “He looked angry” instead of describing the tilt of his eyebrows, the veins in his neck, or the slight clench of his fists. Or I realize that instead of explaining that there was a slight shift in the vibrations under Andi’s feet as she stands on the deck and watches the stars come into focus as pinpoints of light rather than long, indistinguishable spears, I say that “the ship stopped.”

But why is the more detailed approach better? Of course, there are situations where telling is acceptable. For instance, the reader is probably fine hearing that Andi ran down the hall, they probably don’t need to know what the floor felt like, what doors she passed, and how many meters she ran. At least, not usually. Because usually, it doesn’t make any difference to the story. But when it comes to emotions and to placing the reader in the scene, in the world, with the characters–I have to keep reminding myself not to skimp on the sensory input descriptions.

Again, though… why? Situational judgment calls aside, showing is better than telling because telling (he was angry) produces, at best, a very generic image in the reader’s mind. Whereas showing (his fists slowly clenched, the motion mimicking the downward tilt of his eyebrows and the gradual bulge of the veins in his neck) gives the reader a clear mental image. You’ve given them the movie in their mind, all they have to do is push play.

That’s what it comes down to. Giving the reader exactly what you want them to see. Don’t leave them hanging, don’t say “there was a look of sadness on her face.” A look of sadness is not something we can visualize… a single tear rolling down a flushed cheek is. A vacancy behind her eyes is. A head tilted down as she refuses to make eye contact is. What are you trying to communicate? Show us. Don’t tell us.

That’s why.

Remind Me Later

I type happily away on my computer, writing my current novel, engrossed in a scene of drama, betrayal, fear, doubt, and growing tension — all ready to swallow my character up in a maw of darkness, or give way in a moment of light. The climax approaches — the stakes are beyond the stratosphere — he’s giving in — he’s — he’s —

Then suddenly the vision is lost, and my eyes are filled with a large gray box with blue borders reading, “Your computer may be in danger! An update is ready for McDonald anti-virus protection. Would you like to receive updates now?”

Underneath are three options:

Receive Updates!

Remind Me Later

Never Remind Me

I don’t want to receive updates! For one thing, it will take seven hours and twenty-three minutes for the thing to download, and then it will have to restart my computer, and then I will constantly be receiving notifications about DANGEROUS sites and programs that I already trust completely. For another thing, my internet is turned off right now, so I couldn’t receive them even if I wanted to.

I really would rather not be reminded later either. I don’t want the updates, and the box always manages to pop up at the most inopportune times. Why do they think it’s a good idea to remind me later anyway? “Oh, right! Updates! Thank goodness you reminded me, I had forgotten all about that!”

In a bold moment, I allow my cursor to hover over the Never Remind Me button. This cycle has been going on for months! Every week, the box pops up at me! It’s time to end my misery with one courageous click! Time to step out in the faith that I will NEVER want to receive updates, and breathe the free, sweet air unfettered by weekly reminders that I neither want nor need — I must end my bondage!

But in the moment of decision, I shrink yet again, hating myself for my cowardice. It’s just this: that word “never.” If it said “Don’t remind me for a really long time” or “Give me a break from reminders for about three months” I would do it in a heartbeat. But “never”? Um…. that’s an awfully long time. What if I want updates someday? How will I ever remember that my computer might be in DANGER without being reminded? Will the fatal click doom me to a future of a computer so laced with viruses that I cry in agony, “Why didn’t I receive updates when I had the chance? Curse the day in which I determined to never be reminded!”

This vision, be it prophetic or pathetic, stops me every time. Never… that’s just not wise. After all you never can tell when you might decide you do need those updates.

Cowed into submission once again, I meekly click the safest option, just as I have done week after week after week after week.

Remind Me Later.

Image by xkcd comics. This post was published on The Pennington Point several years ago, but I thought I’d recycle it here.

It’s Not Easy

About half the time I’m driving–to work, to church, traveling, or just running errands–I like to listen to podcasts, lectures, sermons, audiobooks, etc. I like to feel I’m being productive, to not just drive but also to try to improve my mind. The other half of the time, I need to unwind and I like to play music. Usually Pandora over my bluetooth speaker. Which usually means one of three channels–Tenth Avenue North, my default Christian channel; Wicked, my default Broadway channel; or Owl City, my default alternative/pop channel.

I’ve listened to these three so much over the years that they are pretty much tailored to all the songs I like. One particular song that comes up frequently on the latter station is a favorite of mine (not an especially meaningful category, since I have hundreds of favorite songs, but anyway). It’s called “Superman” and is by a band called Five for Fighting.

I’m not a Superman fan. Superheroes isn’t my favorite genre in the first place, but where I do like a superhero, it’s almost guaranteed to be Marvel, not DC. I like Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, but I’ve yet to come across any other DC comics heroes that I really can enjoy watching. Least of all Superman.

In my mind, Superman is the essence of everything wrong with superheroes in general and DC in particular. Too unrelatable. Too much power. Too little weakness. Sure they give him his token Kryptonite, but really, it’s not like there’s Kryptonite at every corner Mini-Mart. Superman is basically a god. And gods don’t make very compelling protagonists.

Or can they?

I’m more than a bird,
I’m more than a plane,
I’m more than some pretty face beside a train
and it’s not easy
to be me.

Maybe it’s the very lack of humanity that can make these characters human. It’s like an inverted fish out of water story–instead of a fish on the land with the beasts, it’s a wolf tossed into the water among all the fish. He may know he’s better, he may be able to walk and may have superior mental motor function, but he’ll always feels like he’s drowning.

It was always the appeal of the character Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. He could have been content with his superior status, his strength, intelligence, and relative immortality. He could have reveled in being impervious to disease and emotion and all the drama and weakness that humanity faces. Instead, he pursued humanity. He craved all that we take for granted, because in his perfection–he was lonely.

It reminds me also of another story of a god among men, of the one true image of perfection, who came so that He might better relate with us, to allow us to follow in His steps, but who would never walk with anyone who could truly relate with Him.

And I know it wasn’t easy to be Him.

Does this make me a Superman fan? I’ll admit, I still just can’t bring myself to care much for the character. But it does remind me that whenever I myself create superior characters, to remember that sometimes their humanity is found in the very thing that separates them from it.

And it also makes me feel a new empathy and compassion for those far above me in status of whom I might otherwise be envious.

Maybe in our own ways, it’s not easy to be any of us.

I Love, Therefore I Am

Those of you who know me well know that I dislike talking to people much of the time. Especially people I don’t know. I’m shy, I feel awkward, I get tongue-tied, and I’m much too easily embarrassed. I’m also a very private person (hence the enormous lack of personal posts on this blog). There are those things I’m perfectly comfortable sharing with the whole world, but in general, I like to keep to my own personal bubble.

Being this way, I always hate that moment at church on Sunday where they say, “Now stand up and say hello to someone near you/make a new friend/greet a newcomer.” And when I say hate, I do mean hate. I’d rather fake a miserable illness or a broken leg than get up and talk to strangers. Like I said, it’s awkward. And my hearing isn’t 100%, so that makes it worse. And I never know what to say.

So I was surprised when yesterday after the initial worship time, I turned around, saw a woman about my age sitting by herself in the next row, and not only introduced myself, but proceeded to carry on a natural conversation with her. Was this her first time here? How did she like it so far? How did she hear about the church? I listened to her story, which was unique and interesting, as every story is, and then as the service started, I welcomed her and sat back down.

As my dad would say, “Who are you, and what have you done with Grace?”

I didn’t exactly know in the moment. A rare instinct took over, prompting me to think of this lady and her awkwardness rather than myself and mine. I was less worried about my discomfort than hers, just for those few minutes. Was it prompted by the worship beforehand, taking my focus off of myself and onto my Savior? Or was it simply a matter of God working in me in that moment?

I don’t know. But the feeling was familiar, and it’s one that I’ve missed.

A few years ago, I was flooded with new understanding of the love of God, a realization of the beautiful way He sees each and every one of us. There was a brilliant epiphany, a sudden realization, and for a few months I saw the world through accurately rose-colored glasses. I saw in His children the heart of His son, and I saw in those who were not yet His beautiful creations made in His image, and I treated them accordingly–wanting nothing more than to spread His love to both. I was passionate about reaching out to others and showing them how they looked in His eyes.

Then came betrayal.

Betrayal brought depression.

Depression clouded my eyes to the love of God and the beauty of humanity again.

And ever since, I’ve been struggling to get that back.

I believe it’s my mission in life to share the love of God with everyone He puts in my life. But that’s hard to do in the midst of the day-to-day struggle. For awhile, I wondered whether I’d ever find that epiphany again. For awhile, I despaired. But in the past few months I’ve come to realize–perhaps it’s not so much about an epiphany this time. Epiphanies can be gifts, but sometimes it’s more a matter of a long, slow journey; one in which we sometimes take three steps forward and two steps back. But every step brings with it a glimpse of light. And every glimpse brings the peace of hope.

Like a moment in church, where for just a moment, a stranger becomes more important than myself.

Genesis

In the beginning was the Word.

That’s the opening of the biblical book of John in the New Testament. But it’s also the truth regarding one of my favorite forms of storytelling–filmmaking.

I recently attended the third annual Christian Worldview Film Festival in San Antonio, Texas. I’ve been attending Christian film festivals since 2007, and I’ve seen the world of independent Christian films grow in leaps and bounds. It’s become much more competitive. From the early days of flatly recited lines and grainy home-video-quality, we’ve reached an era where decent to professional-level actors inhabit well-lit HD worlds, complete with orchestral soundtracks and excellent sound quality. I didn’t see many of the films this year myself, since I got sick for the majority of the week and had to stay home. But the films I did see tended to have the same qualities over and over–they were beautifully shot, well acted, tightly edited, beautifully scores, mediocre stories. I’m not, of course, saying that all the stories there were mediocre. I might have missed many brilliantly-written films while I was home with a stomachache eating Saltines and drinking Sprite. I’m just saying that most of the best films that I saw were generally cheesy, preachy, or just kindof–fell flat.

And this has been a typical pattern every year I’ve attended. With some notable exceptions, I see dozens of beautifully made films with disappointing stories.

Like all of creations, for any film, in the beginning is the word.

On the other side of things, there have been a few films I’ve seen over the years where the lighting may have been less-than-stellar, the audio was fuzzy and low-quality, and the acting may even have been well on the amateur side. But the story–the story was enticing. It kept me glued to the edge of my seat, unable to take my eyes from the screen, and left me impacted when the credits began to roll.

In all honesty, I’d rather see the latter.

There are people who create stories, and there are people who create stories that have already been told. I think sometimes in Christian filmmaking, we have one type trying to be the other type. Not that they can never coincide, but in my experience they rarely do. The person who thinks in story-terms, who pulls ideas out of thin air and forms them into words, may not be a person who can look at those words and bring them to life with a camera, a microphone, and editing software. And vice versa. Those with a passion for bringing stories to life may not have what it takes to create those stories in the first place.

Filmmakers, before you begin your big project, consider working with a wordsmith–someone who understands and has studied plot, dialogue, story structure, timing, character motivation, et cetera. And once you have a story, consider having other story creators take a look at what’s been made and give their opinions on changes that might make it stronger, better, and more touching. Your film may depend on it.

Because the Genesis of every film, is the words.