Show Don’t Tell #13

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, let’s talk dialogue rules, context, and continuity errors.


THE BEFORE PARAGRAPH

“Don’t.” I put my hand on the barrel of the gun and she hesitates.(1)(2) Her hand shakes. “Why?” (3)

I close my eyes. “I’m just asking you to wait.” I stare at the door behind her, waiting and hoping and praying for it to open and for the hero to walk in.(4)(5) She glances between me and the gun in her hands.(6)

The door doesn’t open. It doesn’t even twitch.(7)

Her finger twitches(8) on the trigger, and I reach out and grab the barrel to twist it away.(9)

1: There’s a comma needed here just before “and she hesitates.” Quick summary on why: If there’s a conjunction “and, or, but,” etc., look at the part of the sentence before and after it. If both are independent sentences, a comma is required. This is called having an independent clause (whole sentence) on either side of a conjunction, so a comma is needed.

2: Maybe it’s the lack of context, but where is this gun pointing? At the main character? On a third party? Obviously they are physically close enough to have this interaction, but I don’t have a clear picture of what’s actually happening.

3: Dialogue from two different characters can’t be on the same line. Actions should be separated out as well. Be careful not to let the actions in between dialogue make the pacing feel stilted and interrupted. Sometimes, we need quick smooth dialogue, and sometimes you want those beats in between.

4: You can’t have a character close her eyes and then stare at a door in the same line. I’m not saying you have to show a character’s every minor physical action on the page, but if you’re going to call out something specific, don’t contradict it immediately. For editing, read these things out loud and picture it like a movie. Where does the camera zoom in and pan, when to we get a broader scope establishing shot, and when do we get some good b-roll that zooms in on the moment. Try thinking cinematically. When does the camera show us the shine of a weak incandescent light on the trembling barrel of the gun?

5: Also, this sentence makes me cringe. Waiting for a hero to barge in, eh? What are you, a 1950s damsel in distress? Gosh. Maybe this sentence is trying to set up a clever “our heroes can’t save us” bit, but it’s falling into a pile of melting cheese. There is a VERY fine line between a meaningful quote and a hokey line. That line is made of cheese. Don’t cross the line into cheese-land, if you can help it. Most times, you just have to re-read things critically to catch these things.

6: This is the third time we’ve been shown things just because the character is looking at them. This is a trap of third person narration. Sometimes we’re afraid that we can’t show what’s going on in the world if the main character isn’t paying attention to it. But that’s not true! You can’t show what’s going on in the next room, but you CAN show us the current room with out staging it behind a direct observation. The downside to using “she saw” as a way to show the reader something is that it makes that observation seem very significant. If you’re just trying to show window dressing of the scene, a trifling observation might accidentally feel like a clue the reader is supposed to pick up on. PLUS! We already know she’s holding the gun, so saying that it’s “in her hands” isn’t giving us any new detail.

7: Twitch is a weird and probably poor choice of a word. I’m not sure how to visualize a door twitching, and I’m not sure I should try. Nope. Too late. Twitching doors are going to haunt my dreams. Anyway, I would suggest either scrapping this or tackling a thesaurus.

8: This is the second twitch in as many sentences. Too much twitching. Cut it out.

9: At first, I was going to criticize the use of the phrase “grab the barrel to twist it away,” because it doesn’t actually show us what’s happening. If we pay very close attention to word choice, it’s telling us the intent of what’s supposed to happen. Character grabs the barrel in order to twist it away. But is it successful? Does the gun move? Does our MC pull off the move successfully? It’s not clear, and maybe that’s the point. Then again, maybe we can achieve the same effect with a bit of tighter language. Also, if the MC was already touching the gun, she shouldn’t have to reach out to grab it. Continuity errors are the demonic ghosts that haunt all writing, especially revisions.

 

 


THE AFTER PARAGRAPH

“Don’t do this.”(1)

Vivian’s tightens her grip on the gun pointed at my chest. “Why?”(2)

“I’m just asking you to wait.” I stare at the door behind her,(3) even though I know no one is going to walk through it. I’m on my own.(4)

She follows my gaze, and the gun in her hands moves two inches so that it’s pointing at my shoulder instead of my heart.(5) Her finger twitches on the trigger, but this is my only chance. I step forward, grab the cold barrel of the gun and twist.(6)(7)

The sound of the gunshot rings in my ears.(8)

1: The opening is a lot more brisk now, and quite brief. What it lacks in detail will hopefully be remedied in the next paragraph, as long as the pacing works out.

2: See how we get more detail in just a single sentence? We get the antagonist’s name and a bit more of the physical layout of the scene. Notice that I sacrificed the detail about our MC putting her hand on the gun. That’s okay, because I think that touching the gun would ruin the escalation that happens in the later lines.

3: Juxtaposing “asking you to wait” with “stare at the door” implies a direct relationship between them. The MC is asking Vivian to wait for something or someone who is supposed to come through that door.

4: And then we have the lines that the MC actually knows that no one is coming and that she is alone. It’s much more condensed and tense now. We know what the MC knows AND what she’s trying to convince Vivian of.

5: Now we’re showing small movements which have a big impact. A shoulder wound is a hero’s wound, while a heart wound is fatal. We get to see the situation and understand the benefit for the MC.

6: In this line, we get all three actions at once, so it’s more of a sudden and intense escalation. Sometimes a scene might call for more of a slow build, where the actions are separated out. In one paragraph, she may take a step forward. In the next, she’ll reach out. Then in the last moment, she’ll twist the gun away. It all depends on the length of the scene, the timing, and what sort of tension/reaction your trying to create. And notice how the sentence still successfully shows that the action is being taken, but doesn’t give away whether the action was successful or not? Now that we’ve removed unnecessary repetition, it gives us more space for meaningful descriptions.

7: Also, there should be a comma before the “and”, because this is a serial list of actions. I am a fan of using the serial commas in all instances where it adds clarity and especially a certain syncope when you read it.

8: Boom. Literally. Separating this onto its own line really give it strength. It gives it a punch. We can be left with the question of who got shot, who pulled the trigger, etc. But the impression and feeling your reader will get is dependent on how you phrase it, how you contextualize it, and the details you provided beforehand. In this paragraph, we see the gun drift from the heart to the shoulder, so we can hope that if our MC gets shot, tis a flesh wound. The line itself focuses on the auditory sensation of the sound of the bullet. This might imply that the MC doesn’t feel the pain yet or maybe didn’t even get shot. Imagine if this line said “A gunshot splits through the air, and a blossom of fire burns in my chest.” That would be both auditory AND tactile, and it spells a much darker fate for the MC. As always, every line is important and should be doing good work.


What do YOU think?

How would you tweak/change the Before paragraph differently? Are you a fan of putting a single one-punch line on its own paragraph, or are you a “paragraphs for days” type of writer?

Any thoughts on the changes to the After paragraph?

Check out the rest of the Show Don’t Tell series!

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Writing Exercise: Shared Poetry (Campfire Style)

Think hot potato. Then think poetry.

That’s right, a really fun and probably terrible poem is about to burst into existence.

Here’s a writing exercise I did with my sister for funsies, and it was really really fun.

What you need:

  • 2+ people
  • 2 different colored pens
  • 1 or 2 pieces of paper
  • A timer (you can Google “timer” and get a really simple one)
  • A dash of imagination and adventure

Here’s the rules:

  1. You put the timer on for 30 seconds at a time.
  2. Start the timer! You each start writing a poem on your page. Hopefully you have legible handwriting.
  3. For 30 seconds, you write and write and write. When the timer goes off, finish the word you’re on. (Or don’t! You can cut off in the middle of a word if you want!)
  4. Trade papers! Start the timer again!
  5. Go back and forth like this until you’re about half way down the page. Now might be a good time to change the timer from every 30 seconds to every 45 seconds (or longer).
  6. When you get to the bottom of the page, stop! Or if you think the poem has ended or needs more space, feel free to keep going or stop early.
  7. Your poems are done!
  8. You each get to add a title to one of the poems!

Here are some helpful hints:

  • Leave an inch or two at the top of the page so you can add a title once it’s finished.
  • Leave an inch or so margin on the left side of the page in case you want to go through and add doodles or art or something later!
  • Use pens that have a different enough color so you can tell who wrote what.
  • Don’t forget to sign and date it! Sign it in the color you wrote with.
  • If you finish it and want to share it with us!
    • Twitter: tag us (@McRebecky and @MelAnn1313) with the tag #campfirepoetry
    • Instagram: @MelAnn1313
  • If you just want to let us know if this was helpful or fun, leave a comment here and share your experience!

Here’s what one of ours looked like!

20161126_201501

The final version, typed:
Except Nothing
the aroma of damp, decaying leaves
and crisp fall air with nothing,
nothing on the skyline except
except
except
maybe that’s just it — Nothing.
Does it frighten you?
You, who has spent time frolicking in fields
of death — graveyard flowers, cracking headstones,
trash left by those who couldn’t forget
the emptiness of horizons, the loneliness of what
once was, now only a void.
This is you.
Or it was. At least. Once. It was. I promise.
Death. You are Death. Right? Or have you
abdicated that title in exchange for a
new one. Are you Angel? My angel?
I almost feel the decay of winter
chilled against my fingernails, my toes. Is this–
this– the sky you’ve left for me?
Bleak, gray, unyielding to my cries and prayers?
Except
Except
It is not empty. I am not empty. I am Death, too.

Show Don’t Tell #12

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!

Show Don’t Tell #11

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!

Show Don’t Tell #10

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!

 

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?

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?