A quick update – I submitted the short story I was working on for Crossed Genres magazine. In all, I re-drafted it twice and ultimately trashed it and started completely over for a third and final version which looks nothing like the rough. My crit group was spot on with the problems and it ultimately led to a stronger piece. I’ll keep everyone posted, but even if I escape the slush, the story won’t print until February 2014. How do we handle all the waiting once we’ve submitted a piece? We write, of course!
In my crit group, everyone has their “go to” criticism. Something they like to repeatedly hammer into people’s heads. We’re sort of like storytelling superheroes and once we finish beating down a suspect, it emerges as passable literature. We’ve got Dialog Tagger, the Meta-tator, Comma Boy, and this new guy who needs a name for his Subject-Verb-Sentence hatred. Oh yeah, then there’s The Za. And Dan. Za can create awkward silences, anywhere. Dan? He’s just Dan.
Me? I’m the TELLINATOR. Telling annoys me. More than it probably should. I scribble SHOW DON’T TELL on people’s pages in handwriting that looks like someone in the midst of a seizure was trying to inscribe cuneiform. Or, I highlight areas that “tell” and write in big, bold letters, NECESSARY?
Often, my cryptic remarks need a bit of interpretation. Some good ‘ol fashioned telling to be precise. So, let me try and explain why I think showing is so important.
What’s the literary take on this?
Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
You’ve probably heard this quote before. Chekhov’s writing advice speckles the literary world like, well, broken glass. He’s also got one about a gun too, but unfortunately, that’s for another day.
His suggestion makes a striking picture, say, in a comic book panel. Shards of glass in a city street, their jagged edges dicing the moonlight into white streaks. Maybe mixed in with the glass, there’s a little yellow smiley face button adorned with a smear of blood…
Now imagine a different take on the shining moon. A full page panel with the Dark Willoughby crouching on a rooftop and bathed in the orange light of a harvest moon. A caption in the corner reads:
“The moon was shining.”
Seem a bit redundant? The artist did all this work to craft a picture which communicates the scene and the writer clutters the frame with a pointless text blurb. The writer “tells” us what’s in the scene.
Now, let’s take something we can’t show. Like, say, an invisible heroine (our crit group has one of those, too.) Once she activates her powers, how do you show her?
In the comic books, you can do it old-school with a bunch of dotted lines. A ghostly, translucent figure might work as well. (until she meets Ghost Girl and you can’t tell their powers apart). Transparent outlines or mid-power activation drawings are also popular. But in a story, you wouldn’t ever write about dotted lines that start marching around Invisible Girl or describe her as translucent when she activates her power. She’s not “Photoshop Girl” or “Tupperware Girl”. The artist’s tricks for a comic book don’t apply.
So how would do you write the invisible heroine?
Let’s not go the easy route either. No first person. No other deep perspective or completely omniscient POVs, either. Both would allow you to simply tell where she is. So let’s say her husband, Stretch, is the point of view character. The story would be boring if Stretch had a sixth sense about his wife and always knew where she was. (though as a super power, that’s marginally bad ass.) And if she’s always popping up out of nowhere, she starts to look more like a plot device than a character.
How do you let the reader know she’s there? You describe the things around her and how she interacts with them.
Things like: footprints materializing in the sand. the slow opening of a doorway behind the big bad guy, maybe the subtle rustle of carpet (don’t make her a soundless ninja), or a less than subtle collision with the coffee table as she tries to steal the remote during a UFC match.
You don’t ever simply tell the reader “Invisible Girl stands unseen by the door.” It robs her of her powers and bores your reader. Most readers feel more like an active participant when they are shown how things are and trusted to understand the situation.
Showing also forces you to make more interesting word choices. It helps you steer clear of too many adverbs and adjectives. Those often very specifically ‘tell’ as opposed to ‘show’.
Take the following sentence that aims for a dark mood in a scene:
The shadows moved hungrily across the street.
Creepy, right? But what about this:
The shadows devoured the street.
Bam. Oh, I mean, BAM! It gets right to the heart of the matter. ‘Moved’ was a weak or common verb. And hungrily has an -ly. Most of the time when you can weed out those -ly words, your writing will have more impact.
The “show don’t tell” rule goes for every part of a story. Character description, environments, even dialog and inner thoughts. No, ESPECIALLY dialog. Conversation that’s told is stale. In fact, anything involving human emotion is often best shown and not told.
“I like you,” said Wolvie. “But I’m afraid of what I might do.”
“I like you too,” said Jeanie. “But you should trim your nails.”
Could be this:
Wolvie bolted upright. Blood-lust dimmed his vision and his chest heaved in ragged gasps. The dark room revealed itself in an expanding aperture of clarity. Blood-stained concrete of his nightmare melted into wooden walls. The restraint-covered metal slab became a bed. White silken sheets clung to his naked skin and pooled around the slender body lying next to him. His claws hovered inches from her face.
She watched, wide-eyed, as he fought the adrenaline and inched his claws into his wrist.
“I’m…I’m sorry,” he said. He swung his feet off the bed and buried his face in his hands.
She lay frozen, staring where the three sharp points had been. Reaching out, she placed her palm on his back. “I know,” she whispered.
The second example never once flat out says “he is afraid” or “she is afraid”. Nor do they state they care for each other. But in showing their actions, painting a picture, all of those things are made obvious and the more ambiguous dialog adds tension and finally, a sense of resigned resolution. It makes for a more dynamic and interesting scene to read.
Is telling bad? Nope. In fact, my example is not completely bereft of “tells”. But it should be employed in moderation and never used to dull an otherwise interesting scene. If you’re passing on mundane information, fine, keep the wording mundane and tell. However, showing is what gives a story power and presence and more often than not should be your first choice.