Show Don’t Tell! That means I’m going to provide a bad writing example and show you how to fix it! (Otherwise known as: an absurd amount of notes on an absurdly short paragraph.) This time, we’re going to be paying special attention to adverbs, verbs, and tone.
THE BEFORE PARAGRAPH
Briskly,(1) I ran through the marketplace, desperately(2) searching the half-destroyed tables and heaps of smoking rubbish,(3) frantically reaching for anything and anyone(4) that looked faintly(5) my little brother.(6)(7) A charred mannequin, the broken leg of a upturned table.(8) It was hard to see(9) because of(10) the smoke, and I spun around, still searching and searching for him.(11)(12)
1: Adverbs are okay to use, but use them sparingly. This one isn’t needed, and it’s just acting as a buffer between us and the verb that drives the sentence (run). [Sidenote: The benefit of adverbs is that you convey tone/mood with a single word. The detriment is that you’re leaving it to the reader’s familiarity and pre-exposure to that word to set the tone/mood. Basically, it lacks specificity. Sometimes, however, that’s what you want, especially in more condensed action scenes.]
2: Okay, adverb #2 in this sentence.
3: ADVERBBBBBB #3 (Yes, I’m keeping score. No, paragraph, you’re not winning.)
4: This is a small but I think an effective change. This sentence moves from anything (object) to anyone (person). But when you’re looking for a person, you’d look for people and then resort to objects. Or there’s an argument for the first option, because the number of objects outweighs the number of people. But also think of the list in the next sentence, where it progresses from mannequin (human-like) to table leg (not human).
5: ADVERB #4 IN ONE SENTENCE. This is not just overkill, it’s a massacre. One adverb is fine, two is pushing it, four is leaping into the annoying world of Annoying Things.
6: I like that it takes the whole sentence to figure out we’re looking for a little brother, but I think it would be more powerful to have this revelation come after we see the mannequin and broken table leg, because those are just-human enough to tell the reader we’re looking for a person. Let the imagery tell us the story, and then confirm it when we’re already on the edge of knowing.
7: This sentence. It’s too long. It has too many adverbs. Its length doesn’t match the choppy pace that the story is expressing.
8: First, I quite like these two list items. But. It needs a third. The rule of three: descriptions are often presented in threes, so adding a third detail here will really help. [Sidenote: We humans like threes, especially in lists. I don’t know why (wikipedia does), but groups of three are a good rule of thumb. One is an anomaly, two is a coincidence, three is a pattern. It takes three for the reader to get a good sense of something. And I say this will all the confidence of someone who didn’t read that wikipedia article yet.* I’m going to let my math brain take over on this one. With one point, you’re at a stationary point on a graph. With two, you’ve established a linear pattern, which can have a steep or slow growth rate. You’ve connected two items, but only by a thread. With three? With three you can imply a parabolic curve or a shape (triangle!) that now covers an area. This implies exponential change and a scope of area instead of just two points. With three details in a set, you get a dynamic sense of direction and space.]
9: “because of” is a red flag, because it almost always is coupled with over-explanation.
11: This would read a lot better if the end of this paragraph was focused on the not-finding instead of the searching. Or at the very least if the “for him” wasn’t there, because it’s 1.) unnecessary words and 2.) it specifies the “searching” with the goal when we haven’t found the goal. I think it’s better if we’re just left “searching and searching” and the sentence feels more open-ended.
12: Also, let’s take a look at the verbs we’re using in this paragraph: ran, searching, smoking, reaching, looked, see, spun, searching, searching. Most of these are flat neutral verbs, sensory filters (looking, searching) that are repetitive and don’t give us a variety. We’re getting movement and searching, but not a lot else.
*Having now read the wikipedia article, it talks about the prevalence of threes but doesn’t go into any reasoning or psychology. But I bet psychology knows something about it, so if you’re more successful at research (or perhaps you moonlight as a psychologist), let me know!
THE AFTER PARAGRAPH
I ran through the destroyed marketplace,(1) dodging sparking wires that swung from tilting concrete and scampering over crushed vending stalls.(2) Smoke choked(3) the air, stung my eyes, and I blinked against both as I stumbled(4) over chunks of concrete and torn metal. Every movement caught my eye: the broken leg of a table splintering,(5) the shiver of a charred mannequin(6) as the plastic melted and cracked, the twitch of unfamiliar fingers(7) coated with ash and dust.(8) But none of them were my brother.(9) I tried to scream for him, but I still tasted blood in my throat.(10)(11)
1: Calling it the “destroyed” marketplace upfront gives us a sense of that background (something destroyed it).
2: There was a distinct lack of setting in the first paragraph. So I took some liberties and assumed by “marketplace”, it meant big store that collapsed. There is a potential for a misreading of “concrete and scampering.” Maybe that last action is too much for this sentence.
3: Smoke choked is a fun linguistic rhyme.
4: Scampering and stumbling are both more physically descriptive of the character’s movements. I’m not sure “scampering” feels quite right, but there is a nice progression from one to the other. Maybe scrambling? See, you have to try a few things until you find something that fits just right.
5: The following three parts of this sentence offer a progression from the anthropomorphic to the human. We start with the leg of a table, which is hinting at human)…
6: … and we progress to mannequin, which is pseudo-human…
7: … and we end with unfamiliar fingers, which is not the human we’re looking for. Notice also how all three items have a unique description and verb paired with it. We start with the broken leg of the table, which is an intentional misdirect for a human leg. Then the mannequin shivers, which is often a human action. And then we have the twitch of fingers under ash and dust, implying a not-so-happy end for the market-goers.
8: This rule of three is a bit bulky here, because it does end up being a long sentence. It’s a case-by-case analysis of whether the sentence is clunky or if it flows, and whether the progression makes logical sense.
9: Here’s where we get the kicker: the character is looking for their brother. Now, it’s up to you whether you want to reveal this detail first or last. If you reveal it last, the tension is based more on the destruction. If you reveal it first, then the reader knows in that 3-detail sentence who we’re looking for, and those details take on a more poignant, gruesome light. So it depends on whether you want the brother detail to be a reveal or if you want to start off with it and build tension after.
10: Blech. Blood in the throat is disgusting and visceral, but it is a stronger image. And it’s less common than the frequent “blood in my mouth” description. It speaks to a deeper injury, which mirrors the high level of destruction we see around the character. It might make more physical sense, though, if it said something more along the lines of “but dried blood still stuck in the back of my throat”. Because I don’t know that *tasting* blood makes it difficult to speak.
11: Let’s look at the verbs of the new paragraph: ran, dodging, swung, tilting, scampering, choked, stung, blinked, stumbled, caught, shiver, melted, cracked, splintering, twitch, coated, tried, scream, tasted. There’s a lot more, and they are used in different forms. There’s even some in there used as adjectives that I didn’t include (sparking, broken). And take careful note of the utter lack of adverbs! Make sure you’re using a variety of vocabulary and that the verb choice in particular pairs well with the level of tension and action in the story.
What do YOU think?
How would you tweak/change the Before paragraph differently? Do you prefer building up to a reveal or revealing a crucial detail first and letting it color the rest of the content?
Any thoughts on the changes to the After paragraph?
Check out the rest of the Show Don’t Tell series!