Show Don’t Tell! That means I’m going to provide a bad writing example and show you how to fix it! (Otherwise known as: an absurd amount of notes on an absurdly short paragraph.) This time, let’s talk dialogue rules, context, and continuity errors.
THE BEFORE PARAGRAPH
“Don’t.” I put my hand on the barrel of the gun and she hesitates.(1)(2) Her hand shakes. “Why?” (3)
I close my eyes. “I’m just asking you to wait.” I stare at the door behind her, waiting and hoping and praying for it to open and for the hero to walk in.(4)(5) She glances between me and the gun in her hands.(6)
The door doesn’t open. It doesn’t even twitch.(7)
Her finger twitches(8) on the trigger, and I reach out and grab the barrel to twist it away.(9)
1: There’s a comma needed here just before “and she hesitates.” Quick summary on why: If there’s a conjunction “and, or, but,” etc., look at the part of the sentence before and after it. If both are independent sentences, a comma is required. This is called having an independent clause (whole sentence) on either side of a conjunction, so a comma is needed.
2: Maybe it’s the lack of context, but where is this gun pointing? At the main character? On a third party? Obviously they are physically close enough to have this interaction, but I don’t have a clear picture of what’s actually happening.
3: Dialogue from two different characters can’t be on the same line. Actions should be separated out as well. Be careful not to let the actions in between dialogue make the pacing feel stilted and interrupted. Sometimes, we need quick smooth dialogue, and sometimes you want those beats in between.
4: You can’t have a character close her eyes and then stare at a door in the same line. I’m not saying you have to show a character’s every minor physical action on the page, but if you’re going to call out something specific, don’t contradict it immediately. For editing, read these things out loud and picture it like a movie. Where does the camera zoom in and pan, when to we get a broader scope establishing shot, and when do we get some good b-roll that zooms in on the moment. Try thinking cinematically. When does the camera show us the shine of a weak incandescent light on the trembling barrel of the gun?
5: Also, this sentence makes me cringe. Waiting for a hero to barge in, eh? What are you, a 1950s damsel in distress? Gosh. Maybe this sentence is trying to set up a clever “our heroes can’t save us” bit, but it’s falling into a pile of melting cheese. There is a VERY fine line between a meaningful quote and a hokey line. That line is made of cheese. Don’t cross the line into cheese-land, if you can help it. Most times, you just have to re-read things critically to catch these things.
6: This is the third time we’ve been shown things just because the character is looking at them. This is a trap of third person narration. Sometimes we’re afraid that we can’t show what’s going on in the world if the main character isn’t paying attention to it. But that’s not true! You can’t show what’s going on in the next room, but you CAN show us the current room with out staging it behind a direct observation. The downside to using “she saw” as a way to show the reader something is that it makes that observation seem very significant. If you’re just trying to show window dressing of the scene, a trifling observation might accidentally feel like a clue the reader is supposed to pick up on. PLUS! We already know she’s holding the gun, so saying that it’s “in her hands” isn’t giving us any new detail.
7: Twitch is a weird and probably poor choice of a word. I’m not sure how to visualize a door twitching, and I’m not sure I should try. Nope. Too late. Twitching doors are going to haunt my dreams. Anyway, I would suggest either scrapping this or tackling a thesaurus.
8: This is the second twitch in as many sentences. Too much twitching. Cut it out.
9: At first, I was going to criticize the use of the phrase “grab the barrel to twist it away,” because it doesn’t actually show us what’s happening. If we pay very close attention to word choice, it’s telling us the intent of what’s supposed to happen. Character grabs the barrel in order to twist it away. But is it successful? Does the gun move? Does our MC pull off the move successfully? It’s not clear, and maybe that’s the point. Then again, maybe we can achieve the same effect with a bit of tighter language. Also, if the MC was already touching the gun, she shouldn’t have to reach out to grab it. Continuity errors are the demonic ghosts that haunt all writing, especially revisions.
THE AFTER PARAGRAPH
“Don’t do this.”(1)
Vivian’s tightens her grip on the gun pointed at my chest. “Why?”(2)
“I’m just asking you to wait.” I stare at the door behind her,(3) even though I know no one is going to walk through it. I’m on my own.(4)
She follows my gaze, and the gun in her hands moves two inches so that it’s pointing at my shoulder instead of my heart.(5) Her finger twitches on the trigger, but this is my only chance. I step forward, grab the cold barrel of the gun and twist.(6)(7)
The sound of the gunshot rings in my ears.(8)
1: The opening is a lot more brisk now, and quite brief. What it lacks in detail will hopefully be remedied in the next paragraph, as long as the pacing works out.
2: See how we get more detail in just a single sentence? We get the antagonist’s name and a bit more of the physical layout of the scene. Notice that I sacrificed the detail about our MC putting her hand on the gun. That’s okay, because I think that touching the gun would ruin the escalation that happens in the later lines.
3: Juxtaposing “asking you to wait” with “stare at the door” implies a direct relationship between them. The MC is asking Vivian to wait for something or someone who is supposed to come through that door.
4: And then we have the lines that the MC actually knows that no one is coming and that she is alone. It’s much more condensed and tense now. We know what the MC knows AND what she’s trying to convince Vivian of.
5: Now we’re showing small movements which have a big impact. A shoulder wound is a hero’s wound, while a heart wound is fatal. We get to see the situation and understand the benefit for the MC.
6: In this line, we get all three actions at once, so it’s more of a sudden and intense escalation. Sometimes a scene might call for more of a slow build, where the actions are separated out. In one paragraph, she may take a step forward. In the next, she’ll reach out. Then in the last moment, she’ll twist the gun away. It all depends on the length of the scene, the timing, and what sort of tension/reaction your trying to create. And notice how the sentence still successfully shows that the action is being taken, but doesn’t give away whether the action was successful or not? Now that we’ve removed unnecessary repetition, it gives us more space for meaningful descriptions.
7: Also, there should be a comma before the “and”, because this is a serial list of actions. I am a fan of using the serial commas in all instances where it adds clarity and especially a certain syncope when you read it.
8: Boom. Literally. Separating this onto its own line really give it strength. It gives it a punch. We can be left with the question of who got shot, who pulled the trigger, etc. But the impression and feeling your reader will get is dependent on how you phrase it, how you contextualize it, and the details you provided beforehand. In this paragraph, we see the gun drift from the heart to the shoulder, so we can hope that if our MC gets shot, tis a flesh wound. The line itself focuses on the auditory sensation of the sound of the bullet. This might imply that the MC doesn’t feel the pain yet or maybe didn’t even get shot. Imagine if this line said “A gunshot splits through the air, and a blossom of fire burns in my chest.” That would be both auditory AND tactile, and it spells a much darker fate for the MC. As always, every line is important and should be doing good work.
What do YOU think?
How would you tweak/change the Before paragraph differently? Are you a fan of putting a single one-punch line on its own paragraph, or are you a “paragraphs for days” type of writer?
Any thoughts on the changes to the After paragraph?
Check out the rest of the Show Don’t Tell series!