Once a writer grasps the mechanics of composition, it’s time to sit back, fire up the Cuban cigar, and let that novel write itself. It’s all just paragraph breaks and dialog tags anyway. Right?
Wrong! Once you acquire the mechanics, it’s time to animate your prose and turn your story from a bunch of words on a page to a living organism. And how is that done? We’ve all heard writing instructors say those three magic words, and they aren’t lying: Show, don’t tell.
As writers, we must paint a picture with words. We have to put our readers in the room (or spaceship, dragon’s lair, submarine, etc.) with our characters and make the action happen around them. If we expound on backstories, describe past events in depth, and list details, we’re telling. That’s easy but boring. We need to show.
The irony, from my experience, is that experts often tell us to show, but they don’t show us. If you sometimes struggle with how to take your “tell” and make it “show,” perhaps the following example will help. I just made this sequence up, so I hope you appreciate that today’s post has value-added content in the form of a fiction vignette. Who else in the blogosphere gives you free content? That’s what I’d like to know!
Wait… all blogs are free? Oh. I just thought… Uh, let’s just get on with it, shall we?
Here’s my vignette in “tell” form. Try to stay awake:
By Joe Bland
Clark had been staying late at the bar with his buddies every night for weeks, playing cards and drinking beer. He kept promising Andrea that he would stop; that we would start coming home early, spend more time with her, and try to make things like they were in the beginning of their marriage. He wanted to make it right, because he still loved her, even if their relationship had grown stale.
He meant to leave early tonight! He really did. But he and his boys were drinking and laughing and having a great time. He didn’t care that he lost money in the poker game.
Andrea would care; she’d be pissed. Just after she got done being pissed about him getting home at three in the morning, which he was about to do yet again. He pulled in the driveway, got out, and tiptoed up the porch stairs, trying not to make noise but failing.
Andrea liked to watch TV and sometimes fell asleep in front of it. Clark hoped that was the case tonight. He peeked through the window to the living room, but it was dark in the house. She must have gone to bed. He’d catch hell tomorrow, but at least he would be able to sneak in.
He located the house key on his key ring, trying not to make jingling noises as he did so, and unlocked the door. He slipped quietly inside and closed it, then listened to hear if Andrea was stirring. He was reaching for the light switch when…
Sorry, I was getting bored with all that telling and became worried you were, too. My mechanics as a writer are sound enough that the tale was easy to follow, but who would want to follow it?
Let’s try “showing” the vignette instead. Notice how we can convey every piece of information in the “tell” version without repeating a single line from above or resorting to exposition:
Clark jammed the shifter into ‘park’ and cut the engine as fast as he could. Why are pickup trucks so much damned louder at three in the morning than at three in the afternoon?
He stared at the house, looking for signs of life. Quiet as a graveyard, he thought. Keeping his eyes on the upstairs bedroom window, he spit the wintergreen gum into the wrapper and stuck the wad in the ashtray.
She’s still smell the booze, but he had to try.
Clark turned the handle downward, slowly, and nudged the door with his elbow. The dented sheet metal popped and he grimaced. He shot another glance at the house… still nothing going on. He crept out, swiveled his head as if about to commit a crime, and then pressed the driver’s door shut with his shoulder.
Do driveways stones always make so many snaps and pops? He hopped over to the grassy side and made for the porch steps, whispering, “jeezuss,” when the stair creaked. He shook his head. How come these sounds never conspired against him when he got home at a normal time?
From the porch, he crouched before the side window to the living room, hoping to see the flickering of a TV left on and Andrea passed out in the couch. He cupped his hands against the cool glass to block the moon’s reflection and peered through. The couch was empty, the afghan folded into a perfect square. Too perfect.
Shit. She was going to kill him tomorrow. Especially when she discovers how much he lost in the poker game.
He rubbed his hand print from the glass with his sleeve – why leave evidence? – and reached into his pocket, clutching the keys tightly to silence them. He squinted to confirm he was using the correct one, swept himself silently into the house, and shut the door, thanking God for inventing the WD-40 he’d sprayed onto the hinges a week earlier.
He stood. Save for the hum of the fridge, the house was black and still and silent. Andrea was upstairs, asleep, dreaming of killing him, probably. Rather than fumble in the dark and knock something over, he decided to take the risk of turning on the florescent light over the sink. He ran his fingers across the wall, feeling for the switch, trying to avoid the coffee can full of pens.
The throwing star pinned his sleeve to the sheet rock before his brain even registered the whooshing sound. He yanked free and turned, ready to run for the truck, but realized his keys were no longer in his hand.
The ceiling-fan light over the kitchen table flickered to life. He froze, gripping the door knob, and looked behind him across the room. Andrea stood in the archway to the living room, dressed in billowing black, her index finger poking through the ring and swinging the keys back and forth.
“Looking for these?”
Clark turned to face her, glancing quickly at his empty hand. “How did you-”
She unleashed a second star, which imbedded in the door frame a quarter inch from his right ear. “You forget you marry ninja?”
Oh shit. She told him she was retired.
Clark fell to his knees. “Baby. I can explain! Sylvester… you know Sly… he started having stomach cramps. Me and the other guys, we took him to the hospital.”
Andrea crossed her arms. “Don’t bullshit me. I got no shortage of ninja stars!”
“It’s true! Sly is in the ER, getting his appendix out. The other guys stayed, but I said I couldn’t stand to be away from my baby another minute, so I-”
She kicked the door to the basement and it fell open. In the stairway, a large net dangled, imprisoning three men, a six pack of Milwaukee’s Best, and several playing cards.
“These guys, you mean?”
Sylvester, his face smashed against the netting, managed a feeble wave.
Clark’s eyes welled. He bowed his head. Ninja punishment was legendary. And swiftly chosen.
Andrea stood over him. “You take me to outlet mall every weekend for six month!”
“You get Brazilian wax. I like you smooth down there.”
“And…. My mother stay with us for one year!”
The neighborhood dogs howled at the unearthly cry issuing from the little blue Cape Cod on Sullivan Street. It’s the place all the kids call, “The House of Flying Stars.”
All right. Maybe I got carried away there, and I haven’t taken time to refine it. But I hope that by showing the vignette instead of telling it, I brought it to life just a little bit. Yes, it was way harder to write than the “tell” version, but nobody said this writing thing was a cake walk.
For more about showing not telling, here’s this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Rush singing the lead track from their Presto album from 1989: