Show Don’t Tell #8

Show, don’t tell! Instead of just giving writing advice, let’s dig through some examples to learn by experience!


BEFORE

He didn’t want to go to the south coast, because it was often overrun by deserting sailors who would wield short swords. (1) He couldn’t go north to the mountains whose peaks were covered with deadly snow. (2) He had to go in the one direction he needed to and didn’t want to. (3) East toward the person he had wished to forget, but who would now save his life. (4)

 

1. This sentence feels very stilted. Very “this and this because this and this.” We want it to feel smooth, more like the way someone would talk as opposed to a written report. The reason we want that is because this sentence started with “he didn’t want”, which means we’re learning about what someone is thinking and why they’re thinking it. Because of that, we want it to sound the way someone’s thoughts would sound.

2. There’s a bit of a grammatical issue with assigning “whose” to “mountains” because a mountain is a what not a who. Aside from that, this sentence could do with a  bit of tightening.

3. Ahhh, we’re ending a sentence on “to,” which is just no fun at all. It makes the sentence feel tangled. Maybe adding some tactile information here is better.

4. I can sense the gravity of what this moment is supposed to feel like, but it feels like a letdown. Maybe after reworking the rest of the paragraph, it’ll feel stronger. But we might end up rewriting or condensing or expanding it depending on what the story needs.

 

AFTER

He couldn’t (1) go to the southern coast. It was overrun by sailors wielding short swords. To the north, the mountains were peaked with deadly snow. (2) Already, fires glowed in the west (3) as mobs of injurious (4) warriors fielded the dangerous craggy paths to hunt him. He only had one choice. East. (5) East toward the  tributary village where he spent his childhood running two steps behind Lily Penbook. Where she kissed his cheek, laughing, before jumping into the cold, rushing river. Where he had waited and waited for her to resurface. Where she never did. (6) He had to travel east, toward Lily’s mother–the woman who never forgave him. The only woman who could save him. (7)

1. It seems like a small change, but switching it to “couldn’t” instead of “didn’t want to” not only condenses the language but also strengthens his resolve. It also solidifies the fact that the place he really doesn’t want to go (east) is the direction he has to go.

2. We’ve eliminated repetitive verbiage and still made it clear to the reader that he can’t go north.

3. Added “west” just so that we’re literally narrowing the character’s options so that when we tell the reader the character is stuck going east, it’s clear and hard-hitting.

4. “Injurious” is sort of a fancy word, and it might not be a good fit here. But that’ll depend on your audience, the level of vocabulary employed through the remainder of the story, and if it flows.

5. And since we’ve spelled out the other terrible options, this truly does feel like the only choice. Now we can outline why that choice is also terrible–but in a more conflict way instead of a death-y way.

6. Now we get that sense of why he doesn’t want to go east, and what’s waiting for him… and why he needs to go there.

7. Language is a fun thing, guys. Honest. See how we get that rhyme with these last two sentences: “forgave him” “save him”? Then we’re left with the mystery of how can this woman save him, and is she willing to help him at all?


What do YOU think? How would you tweak/change the Before paragraph differently? What are your thoughts on what to add/take away to make it better? Any thoughts on the changes to the After paragraph?

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6 thoughts on “Show Don’t Tell #8

  1. I prefer stilted writing. Nothing will deter me from shameless and massive telling instead of showing.

    I want it in the likeness of a written report of an editorial omniscient narrator, and none of your statements will change my attitude.

    I particularly detest the imcomplete sentences in the after-version.

    Already neoclassic poet J. Dryden used “whose” to refer to things. There is absolutely no grammatical issue involved.

    Sentences ending in “to” already appear in classics greater than any of the drivel published nowadays.

    • To each their own! Showing and telling are both vital to communicating a story, I think. It’s why we gesture with our hands when we speak, and why we need to show a picture of “A, Apple” when teaching kids to read. But that balance of how much to show and how much to tell is certainly dealer’s choice! 🙂
      On your comment of using “whose” to refer to an object instead of a person/animal. I did a bit of research, and it turns out that there’s no hard and fast rule about whether it’s correct or not to use “whose” with inanimate objects. (http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/whose-for-inanimate-objects)

      On second read, I could totally get on board with using “whose” for objects. It’s poetic, in its own right, blurring that use of identity between objects and people. I think the bigger statement as to whether it’s wrong or right to use it in a particular context is that as long as the writer is aware that using “whose” could be a bit jarring for readers, it’s absolutely alright. Despite its validity, the end-user goal of writing is to provide something to be read. And that’s always a mix of creator-preference (author) and user-preference (reader). A careful writer is aware of what impact their language, style, etc. will have on a reader and make measured decisions in each direction. Too far in one direction, and you alienate readers and turn them away. Too far in the other, and you could end up losing the imaginative style that is unique to you. This is the same defense and argument for ending sentences in prepositions, I think. 🙂

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