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Anyone that’s been writing for any amount of time has probably heard the phrase show, don’t tell. I don’t know about the rest of you but for the longest time that statement was vexing. It took a fair amount of doing that incorrectly before I finally learned what it meant. If you are still struggling with that concept, here’s a perfectly wonderful example of how to do this.
Who knew that Captain Barbosa from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise could be such a fine literary example of this “showy” concept?!
Let me set the scene for you in case you are one of the 6 people worldwide who didn’t see this movie sometime in the last 13 years. In The Curse of the Black Pearl, our lovely damsel in distress Elizabeth Turner is interacting with the rough and tumble pirate captain.
Elizabeth: Captain Barbossa, I am here to negotiate the cessation of hostilities against Port Royal.
Barbossa: There are a lot of long words in there, Miss; we’re naught but humble pirates. What is it that you want?
In this first exchange, the viewer settles in with Miss Turner and leans toward underestimating the verbal prowess of Barbossa. She stands up to these super scary pirates and makes her demand.
Elizabeth: I want you to leave and never come back.[Barbossa’s men laugh.]
We see from this comment and the way she holds herself in the scene that she might not be the typical damsel trope. She’s got a bit of a backbone in her. Of course, that doesn’t stop the aggressive pirates and their mates from laughing at her.
But then in one line, Captain Barbossa disabuses us of the notion that he’s some sort of ignorant thug.
Barbossa: I’m disinclined to acquiesce to your request. Means “no”.
And Bam! Just like that, we realize he’s got a vocabulary and he’s not afraid to use it. We saw that detail unfold in front of our eyes. There wasn’t a conversation between a couple of characters saying, “Gee whiz, that captain is smarter than he looks”. That would be telling. Instead they showed us.
The moral of this story: don’t believe everything you’ve heard about pirates! And literary concepts often not as complicated as they sound.
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Auburn Seal is the author of eight books including historical fiction, cozy mystery, paranormal romance, and science fiction. She doesn't believe in dipping her toe in the water of experimentation, but rather jumping in and making the biggest splash possible. Her first book, Roanoke Vanishing, was published in 2013. Discover more about Auburn and her various projects at www.auburnseal.com