The best way to learn is by example! You’ve all heard: “Show, don’t tell”, right? I want to give examples that illustrate the difference between showing and telling.
This is the first of a series of weekly examples that will show a BEFORE paragraph and an AFTER paragraph. The Before paragraph is telling us. The After paragraph is showing.
As the group of five people entered an area with a lot of smoke and low visibility, the building began to collapse around them. People were running in different directions, often finding dead ends and fire so that they could not escape like they thought they could. (1) They assumed there would always be a way out. In disasters like this, however, self-preservation is often overshadowed by fear. Faced with fire, they ran with no direction. (2) Suddenly, a wall exploded in one of the rooms, (3)making the roof shake and destabilizing the building. A sound filled with the incongruous striking of splintering and grinding filled the air. (4) Loud. Overwhelming. Disorienting. Frightening. (5)
1. Writing stressful/distressing scenes like this requires focus. We’re reading, gripping the pages, and we want to know what is happening. We don’t wany anything that takes away from the action and motion. This sentence is distracting from the vague “five people” mentioned in the first line.
2. This is way off track. We’ve moved from talking about people who are trying to escape a falling, on-fire building (who I presume are the main characters) to people who are vague and ancillary to philosophy. First, the tense is wrong (…self-preservation is often…). Secondly, it sounds like a bad attempt at sounding philosophical. Please, for the love of all things literary, do not try to insert philosophy into the middle of an action scene. It ruins the action and tension.
3. This jolts back into action without a proper transition (though we never should have left the action), and it also is both specific and vague at the same time.
4. I’m not sure after reading that what exactly I’m supposed to feel/understand. But I’m trying to parse out the sentence instead of reading onward to find out what happens next. What’s most important in a story is what happens, not how many mutlisyllabic words you can use to describe it. If your reader pauses to try to understand a complicated sentence, then they aren’t enjoying the story.
5. Ok, so this is sort of on the right track. Short bursts of emotion works really well in stress-scenes. What doesn’t work is listing emotions. You can’t tell someone to be sad. You tell them to imagine the moment they lost their childhood pet. People need concrete details to be able to connect with something. So while the sentence length is better here, it still isn’t doing to work because of the abstractness of the words. You can’t invoke emotions by simply listing them. Show us that disorientation, and maybe focus on a single emotion.
Dani and her friends crashed around a corner, stopped dead by a wall of smoke. Smoke, but no fire. Not yet.
Pictures rattled in their frames, a filing cabinet trembled and clanked as drawers slid open, and white dust rained down from the sub-ceiling. The building was collapsing.(1) Dani took a deep, aching breath of smoke and charged onward. The service exit was down this hall somewhere.
Footsteps echoed behind her,(2) and the smoke drifted as the building tilted farther and farther. For a moment, the smoke cleared and she could see the exit ahead. For a moment, she thought they’d make it. She was wrong. (3)
A wrenching screech filled the air as an entire section of wall blew up ahead of them. Dani tasted gravel and felt the brief touch of colder air before she was slammed into the wall. The world grew quiet. No more footsteps, no more grinding or sirens or screams, just the slow cackle of fire. (4)
1. Showing the visual cues (what’s happening) and THEN making the statement (giving us the conclusion) is a much better way to introduce us to a new scene.
2. This is the only other mention of other people (aside from the last mention of “no more footsteps”), because we really need to connect with whoever the main characters are. We need to stick with a single, linear chain of events that are easy to follow.
3. This is maybe a cheap device, the “she was wrong” bit. But for the purposes of this example, it works. You want to build and build, developing tension. It sets the stage for what happens next, and functions more efficiently as a transition than “suddenly.”
4. An oldie but a goodie, the five senses are extremely important in high-stress tense scenes. Giving us these senses (taste of gravel, touch of cold air) allows us to know what the character is feeling instead of being told that she’s feeling them.
Additional Notes: You’ll notice I’m a big fan of white space. That’s a bit of a personal preference, but it’s also important, especially in action scenes. New paragraphs is a brief pause, so it fits where there’s a change in 1) Character action/dialogue; 2) Location; 3) Focus; 4) Turn of events (see note 3).
What do YOU think? How would you tweak/change the Before paragraph in order to show us the scene’s emotions? What are your thoughts on what to add/take away to make it better?