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
Akira stood motionless at the base of the sixteenth tower.(1) It was(2) an immaculate structure(3) with reflective metallic siding. There was(4) no possible way to scale it due to this very reason.(5) The sides were sleek as ice, and the tower loomed(6) in ever-present luminosity(7); it was radiating(8) in a facade of light.(9)
1: This throws us into the story with a couple key pieces of information: Akira is the main character (or she better be—I hate it when a story doesn’t start with a main character). There are 16 towers.
2: This is but the first of 3 sentences in the first paragraph (in which there are only 4 sentences) that are passive tense. Not good.
3: An immaculate structure? What does that mean? It was clean? Conceived by a holy creature? Sure, it goes on and says metallic siding, but that’s only marginally more descriptive.
4: Passive Points: 2
5: Whoa. Yikes. Passive horror. This sentence is giving us a lot, but poorly because it’s raising more questions (and flags) than answers. Sure, you can’t scale a skyscraper. Obviously. But this sentence implies the main character was trying or wanting to do so. But why? And why can’t we see that thought process (or associated conclusion)? Plus, saying “due to this very reason” is clinical language that has no place in the action of a first paragraph.
6: Finally, an active verb! Even though it doesn’t tell us much.
7: Aaaand it’s ruined. If a reader has to take a step back and say “what the hell does that mean,” then there are a few options of what terrible mistakes were made. 1.) You were trying to be fancy and original, and you fell flat. 2.) You used words incorrectly. 3.) You used the wrong words. This shiny sentence screwed up all 3 of those things. Because 1.) ever-present luminosity is needlessly wordy and doesn’t give us any details beyond “consistently shiny” which was already told to us in the second sentence, and 2.) it isn’t “loomed in luminosity,” it’s “loomed with luminosity.” In is the incorrect preposition to use here, because it denotes positional relationship, when really the brightness of an object is a quality it possesses. And 3.) saying “ever-present” is not just garish, it’s not correct. Unless there’s some magic juju going on, that tower is not going to be luminous all the time. To me, “luminous” means an object is generating light (probably a consistent tone of light), not reflecting it. When I picture a reflective metal building, luminous is not the word I would pick. (Passive points: up to 3)
8: Passive points: 4! This could easily easily be “it radiated light.” Make your verbs do the hard work in a sentence!!
9: I don’t know if this sentence is trying to be punny or what, but it’s using “facade” incorrectly. A facade can mean two things: the front of a building or a ruse/mask. If this sentence is trying to tell us that the tower itself has a fake mask of light, then I don’t know what genre we’re in anymore. If this sentence is trying to say the front of the building is shining, then… sigh… a few things. 1.) This paragraph has told us the tower is bright about a million times. Make sure you’re using the real estate of your page (especially your opening page) to describe multiple things. Keep an eye out in your writing for when you are over-explaining or when you’re explaining/describing the same thing in multiple ways. Cut back. Let one or two descriptive sentences do their job, and move on. 2.) This sentence uses the wrong preposition again. It can’t be radiating with a facade of light if it’s the facade itself that is glowing. And 3.) Freaking semicolons.
THE AFTER PARAGRAPH
Motionless, Akira stood at the base of the sixteenth tower.(1) Its sleek metallic siding caught the cold moonlight, like sparks hovering on every curve of glass.(2) She couldn’t scale the tower like she had with the others.(3) The metal would be like ice beneath her fingertips if she could even find a single handhold.(4) She’d have to go inside.(5)
1: Did a slightly switch to offset the sentence with “motionless,” because I think it gives it more rhythm.
2: Not the best simile, I’ll grant, but it gets the job done. We get the sense that light is reflecting off the tower without being beaten over the head with it. I did make an assumptive leap and decided it should be nighttime. This gives us time/setting.
3: Now that we’ve deleted extraneous description/language, we have more real estate to play with in the opening. Here we get a bit of history: Akira has stood at the base of 15 other towers, and she climbed them. That takes strength and strong motivation. No, we don’t know what that motivation is yet or what is gained by doing it, but we get a sense of that movement and history.
4: Here we find out that she free-climbed the tower. That takes strength and guts. We’re starting to get a sense of Akira, which is where the focus should be. Early on, the priority is learning about the main character—what they’re doing and why—not to extensively outline the physical surroundings. A few sharp details are better than a page of dull details. Plus we’re getting some more tactile details other than the fixation on light (visual) that we had before. Ice on her hands is a physical detail that’s important.
5: And lastly, we have direction. We know a bit about what’s going to happen next. Sure, we don’t quite know what the tower is, why she’s climbing them, or even how old she is. But we have some good details, a sense of previous and next steps, and a smidge of motivation. She’s done this before, so we can infer it’s a part of a longer goal.
What do YOU think? How would you tweak/change the Before paragraph differently? Any thoughts on the changes to the After paragraph?
Check out the rest of the Show Don’t Tell series!