Show Don’t Tell! That means I’m going to provide a bad writing example and show you how to fix it!
THE BEFORE PARAGRAPH
A door swings open by aid of a gentle hand revealing dank, desolate hallway.(1) It appeared(2, 3) not to have seen the light of day in at least a century.(4)
The rhythmic sound of footsteps(5) faded in and out from above. With every other step, a shaft of dust filtered through the ceiling cracks and fell to the ground, settling in a thin layer across the floor. There is(6) a heart-wrenching wail from above, and it reverberates through the walls(7) and shakes the very air(8); you shirk back.(9, 10)
1. This is interesting phrasing here. Aside from a bit of comma help, it also is strangely arranged. It’s putting the hand (character) as a secondary object. That’s okay, I suppose. A bit flowery. But it’s also a bit jarring when really all that’s happening is a door is opening.
2. This is filtering language. Instead of just saying “the hallway hadn’t seen the light of day in a century,” we’re filtering it. Filtering language: We use filters all the time–it adds a bit of distance to the statement, makes it seem more like an experience than a fact. When you’re telling your roommate you sort of got distracted on the way to the store and ended up a little bit off track by that pretty cool house on the corner, and then you got the spooks and ran off, so you didn’t quite make it to the store today, you’re really filtering the message of: Dear Roommate, I didn’t go shopping today. We have no food. We’ll have to scavenge like raccoons. Filtering is fine when you’re trying to get out of trouble in real life, but it’s extra words and loose imagery that can be easily strengthened.
3. Also, this is an unnecessary tense change. “a door swings” = present tense. “It appeared” = past tense.
4. Golden opportunity to throw in some actual details. What does a century without light look like?
5. Times like this, there are ways to condense the language. Be aware of things like “the sound of” or “a feeling of“. These can be chopped down to say directly what you want to say. “A feeling of dread overtakes you” or “Dread overtakes you”?
6. Tense change #2.
7. Through the ceiling? Since it’s from upstairs?
8. Look for all your “verys”. Find them all. Now put them in a little box. And light them on fire. From the ashes, select any surviving verys, and give them nice homes where they can grow old safely. Most “verys” are NOT needed, ESPECIALLY in the “in the very air” types of ways. It just screams melodrama.
9. First: It should be “shrink” not “shirk.” Second: SEMICOLONS ARE EVIL. Okay, not evil evil, but pretty bad. Opinions on these creatures vary, but in my opinion, the only time you need them is when you really want to have a comma splice, so you throw in a semicolon as a way to stave off the finality of a period. In this context, using a semicolon detracts from the rhythm. We want this reaction to either be tied to the action it’s reacting to or separated if it’s more of a decision-type action. What does that mean? It means if the actions and reactions are happening at about the same time, include them in the same sentence. If it’s a reaction that is more of decision, consider having it be it’s own sentence.
10. Um, hello? This is second person? And it takes until the end of this section to learn this. Is this why that first sentence is so weird? Is the author trying to make the second person narration a surprise? My advice: don’t. In this case at least, it makes the reader confused, and we have to go back and re-read in a bad way. Like, “I’m lost where am I” sort of bad, not the good way of “wow, look at how the author wove in foreshadowing!”
THE AFTER PARAGRAPH
The(1) door swings open, revealing dank, desolate hallway. It hasn’t seen sunlight in so long, that everything seems stained with shadows.(2)
Footsteps thump on the floor above you(3), and with every other step, a shaft of dust filters through the ceiling cracks and falls to the ground, settling in a thin layer across the floor.(4) A heart-wrenching wail reverberates through the ceiling, the walls, even the air, making you shrink back.(5)
1. Articles (a, the, an) are tricky. Are we talking a specific door or one among many? Since we only see one door here, let’s go with the.
2. Not only do we avoid a bunch of mamby-pamby language and saying “century,” we get to invoke a bit of imagery. Plus, “stained with shadows” is a bit of lyrical fun! If language isn’t fun, what’s the point? (communication? historical record-keeping? Twitter?)
3. Now we’ve eliminated the directionally-vague “fade in and out from above”. I mean, are the footsteps dancing up there? BONUS: we get the second-person narrator sooner. I would maybe even move it up to the first line, because clarifying the narrator is pretty much priority uno, above setting and above drama.
4. This sentence is basically the same, but consider the pace here. Filtering, floating dust that settles in a thin layer is a slow movement. This is juxtaposed with the “heart-wrenching wail” in the next line. That’s a pretty big tonal shift. Maybe this is a good place for a paragraph break or a couple more sensory details before the shift? Also consider that the dust wouldn’t just be settling on the floor, but on the character’s head/face.
5. This sentence says the same thing as previously, but it’s condensed so that the verbs and nouns are playing nicely together.
6. A note I have for this passage in general: it’s an opening passage, and it’s trying to set a scene and mood, but it offers little in terms of motivation or purpose. I mean, I love a good jaunt through a creepy room as much as the next physically-absent-writer-who-doesn’t-actually-have-to-be-there, but I need to know why. Or even show the character experiencing this. This passage is pretty focused on the physicality of the scene, but doesn’t provide a lot of the character’s interpretation/experience of it. And beyond the character actions, we need the character’s thoughts/senses. The amount of access we have to a character’s thoughts is called psychic distance. And since this is in second person, we should expect A LOT of access to the character’s thoughts. Smaller psychic distance. And really, if you’re setting a creepy mood, we really need to see the scene through the lens of the character, because that’s how we as readers will experience it.
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?
Check out the rest of the Show Don’t Tell series!