Show Don’t Tell #9

Show, don’t tell! Let’s dig through some examples to learn by experience. This time, I’m editing what is essentially the pitch for a story. A pitch is a small paragraph (sometimes just a sentence or two) that convinces someone they want to ready your story. We’ll also chat about sentence fluency, which is the variation of sentence length in a story. Sentence fluency relates directly to style, tone, pacing, and tension.


BEFORE

*Charlie had vague recollections of his brother.(1) His brother(2) died when Charlie was 18.(3) The police told him the details but not the conclusion of the investigation.(4) His brother was found twenty miles from home. The last time he was seen was two days before that. There was no proof whether the death was homicide, suicide, or accident.(5) Charlie always knew for himself what he believed. Now he seeks justice. (6)

1. This is a good place to give a couple short descriptors of the brother to give us a sense of the brother (who isn’t even named, so we have to be given something).

2. Already, the repetition of “his brother” is getting tiresome.

3. There is little to no emotion going on here

4. And is this a quote from that dry report? This sentence should evoke emotion in the reader, because we want to be in Charlie’s shoes here. But this sentence is very bland.

5. The previous three sentences are essentially list items, but they’re broken up and don’t build tension in any way.

6. I can almost sense the punch that this sentence is supposed to hold, but I can’t feel it. And it doesn’t actually tell the reader what Charlie thinks, and it doesn’t tell us what he’s seeking justice for. Which is kind of bad. We need to have an inkling of the tension here, and we don’t.

 

AFTER

Charlie’s memories of his brother, Kevin(1), were clear: choppy hair, scarred knuckles, skinny arms.(2) Kevin disappeared on April 13. Two days later, a detective gave Charlie the bad news. His brother: dead.(3) The body: twenty miles south on the riverbed.(4) The ME’s report: no signs of foul play, no signs of suicide, no signs of anything but a tragic, terrible accident.(5)

But Charlie knows what happened on that riverbed three years ago. His brother’s death wasn’t an accident. He knows the killer’s name.(6) Worse, he knows the killer’s game.(7)

1. I gave the brother a name here for the sake of clarity, and it’s smoother to be able to refer to a character by name rather than a +2 word title.

2. You can infer a lot from a character from just a few descriptors. First note: the law of 3. Three items in a list is naturally a pattern (one is an anomaly, two is a connection, three is a pattern). But the inherent contradiction of scarred knuckles (which we might assume is a youth eager to fight) and skinny arms (lack of muscle definition, so maybe not so eager) is enough to create the barest trace of mystery about this character.

3. Watch this pattern — Short.

4. Medium.

5. Longer.   — This pattern builds tension from smaller details to larger, and then ends with a bang.  We’ve talked once before about sentence fluency in #5. Sentence fluency is the variation of length in sentences. It’s what keeps a reader engaged in a story. Knowing when to build tension or pull up short with punchy sentences is key to developing pace and tone in your writing style. Sentence fluency is what lets you to build tension in the structure of the sentence itself. Isn’t that awesome? It’s not just what we say as writers, but how we say it. In the very nature of the sentence and the structure of the page, words take on a bigger influence.

6. Just like the last few numbers (3–5), the previous three sentences have the opposite pattern: long, medium, short.

7. This is where you make sure you’re ending on something really strong. And yes, these last two sentences rhyme. Which, of course, isn’t necessary, but it’s a bit of artistic flare in the sentence itself. One of the best pieces of advice I can give all aspiring writers is to read poetry. Not the poetry you hate, because that won’t help you. (Okay, it will, but you want to find poetry you enjoy before you try reading poetry you don’t like.) Poetry is a condensed form of storytelling that focuses on imagery, language, rhythm, and tension. I’m not saying you have to be a brilliant poet, but learning and observing how to fiddle with language on a focused level like in poetry will give you a lot more control over this complex thing we call language.


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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