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The Kidney Stone Principle

Recently at a critique group meeting we were discussing the difference between telling a story and showing it. From somewhere a piece of inspiration struck me senseless and I began babbling.

“Have you ever talked to someone who has had a kidney stone?” I asked. I received a round of quizzical expressions.

One gentleman admitted he didn’t listen to those stories. A comment on that in a moment. My rant continued.

When someone has a serious kidney stone attack, I explained, they usually experience a great deal of intense pain. The story goes something like this:

“I thought I was having a heart attack…I fell to the floor…We jumped in the car and hit all the dips and I was telling my wife, ‘Ow, Ow, Ow, NO, go faster, go faster’…Then the doctor pushed right here and asked, ‘Does that hurt?’”

The person will rarely remark, “Yes, I had a kidney stone and went to the doctor. She fixed it.” Instead, you will get a play-by-play description in gory detail.

You may ask why they do it. It’s because the story is important to a person who has experienced that kind of excruciating event. And you must know what they went through.

If a story is important enough to tell, it’s important enough to convey to the listener the emotion, the frustration, the relief when the crisis is over. It’s critical that the reader/listener/observer feel the pain, understand the struggle, celebrate the triumph over agony or injustice.

Oh, that thing about listening to kidney stone stories. Why shouldn’t we–aside from the issue of simple respect–just tune them out? As writers we strive to understand people. And we understand them in large measure by the stories they tell. When they share with us tales of kidney stones or children or times gone by they give us pieces of themselves. Those pieces, those insights are invaluable in our mission to become better writers–and better human beings.

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  1. June 27, 2008 at 5:34 pm

    Wonderful illustration of show versus tell. I’ve never had a kidney stone, but I’ve been told that the pain is worse than childbirth. Ouch!

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