Show, Don’t Tell

The best writing allows the reader to experience the story as the characters do

Every wannabe author hears “Show, don’t tell” until their ears fall off and fly away rather than listen to another dollop of unexplained advice.

Some writing teachers give examples but most often it goes something like this: “Here, this is an example of showing, not telling” with no explanation of what makes something shown and not told.

I mean, we’re dealing with words on paper. We call ourselves (figuratively) Storytellers. How can we share a story without telling.

Ah…let me provide an example much in the vein of Great Opening Lines – and Why!.

 
Here’s a paragraph from Carson McCuller’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and an explanation how things are shown (I’ll provide explanations of showing using the methodology I use when ala critiquing someone’s work. First, the paragraph:

Portia read from the Book of Luke. She read slowly, tracing the words with her long, limp finger. The room was still. Doctor Copeland sat on the edge of the group, cracking his knuckles, his eyes wandering from one point to another. The room was very small, the air close and stuffy. The four walls were cluttered with calendars and crudely painted advertisements fro magazines. On the mantel there was a vase of red paper roses. The fire on the hearth burned slowly and the wavering light from the oil lamp made shadows on the wall. Portia read with such slow rhythm that the words slept in Doctor Copeland’s ears and he was drowsy. Karl Marx lay sprawled upon the floor beside the children. Hamilton and Highboy dozed. Only the old man seemed to study the meaning of the words.

Now, what is shown element by element:
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Gable Smiled (work in progress)

A different take on A Horse and His Boy

[[Note: This content is edited from the public version. There’s a five question quiz at the end.]]

Valen patted Gable’s muscular neck as they trotted into Lensterville. They’d been ten days out, mostly soldiering Sipio’s vast Northern Plain, and this time of year that meant heat with a capital “H”. Valen could feel his own sweat trickling through the hairs on his chest and back, and every time his Ranger issue travel cords relaxed around him, his scent rose like steam washing his face.

Not pleasant.

Not so Gable’s smell. Gable was a Callisto class ModEquid, part horse part…something. Valen was never sure what and Gable liked to keep him guessing. Mostly horse on the outside, Gable’s sweat was the sweet musk of heavy horse, working horse, a gentle giant unless riled and it took a lot to rile him. There was a tang of trail dirt and rich plains tallgrasses and lathering neck and flanks that Valen thought wonderful, comforting, reassuring, and it made him proud that Gable had taken so to him.

“Let me know when,” he said to the horse.

Gable smiled back, Any time you’re ready.

Valen performed an emergency dismount, Gable still trotting so that Valen landed running beside him on the horse’s left, reins in Valen’s right hand. He knew Gable liked to run side-by-side, the two of them together, and the horse always smiled laughter at the man’s two-legged gait.

No speed, Two-Legs, he would smile at Valen.

“Yeah, well…speed when I need it,” Valen said back.

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Barry Longyear’s “Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop – I: An Introduction to Fiction Mechanics”

A Series of Open Book Exams on Writing, Regardless of Genre

This is another book I picked up years ago during my first round at writing. Longyear signed it and I’d highlighted parts of it so obviously read it before and didn’t remember doing so.

The power of this book is that it’s written from a student’s perspective. Longyear (I’m thrilled to see he’s still active. I lost track of him for several years) puts in the effort to remember his mistakes and the mistakes of others, and show the reader how to correct them. Another strength is the book’s examples – mostly from Longyear himself – with detailed explanations of what’s wrong with them and how to fix them.

 
Each chapter comes complete with an extensive Q&A/Study guide at the end, every answer to which can be found in that chapter or by combining knowledge gained from previous chapters with the current chapter. Anybody remember “Open book exams”? This is one and it’s a wonderful training program.
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The Augmented Man – Opening Quotes, Surface, In

The horrors of war never stay on the battlefield. They always come home.

The ideal experimental animal is man. Whenever it is possible, man should be selected as the test animal. The clinical researcher must bear in mind the fact that, if he wishes to understand human ills, he must study man. No researches are more interesting, more satisfying and more lucrative than those performed on man. Hence, it is up to us to forge ahead in our research on the most developed of animals: man.
— Mèdecine et Hygiéne, #637, April 1964

In all events, a healthy man does not have the right to be a volunteer for an operation which will certainly lead to a mutilation of the human body, or a serious and lasting deterioration of health. The patient cannot abandon to the doctor all rights to his body, over which he himself has only the right of usufruct.
— Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli, Pope Pius XII

This experimentation can only be applied to informed volunteers who are completely free to accept or to refuse it, and can only be performed by a highly qualified person capable of reducing the risks incurred to a minimum.
— Acadèmie de Mèdecine

It is known that free consent is relatively rare. An atmosphere of suggestion, of persuasion, can easily be created, which will succeed in influencing the personality. Naturally, more effective means of pressure can be applied to subjects who are prisoners…This mentality appears to us to be rooted in a regression and a return to the mentality of human sacrifice characteristic of ancient paganism, of those human sacrifices made for a new idol…
— Psychopathologie expèrimentale, Professor Henri Paruk, P.U.F.

Senator Martha Astin (R.MA): “It sounds like you’re making nightmare monsters.”
Captain James Donaldson, ONI COS: “Yes, Senator. I am.”
Senator Martha Astin (R.MA): “And where do you get these monsters, Captain?”
Captain James Donaldson, ONI COS: “Well, ma’am, you start with those who are afraid of monsters.”
— transcript, Gang of Eight Advisory Committee, 310815-1437FF, ONI 17901

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Character Development

You can’t tell the assholes from the bitches from the idiots from the arrogancia without a scorecard

The image below is of a sign at my gym a few days back. My gym routinely posts “Questions of the Day.” I wish they’d keep a list of the responses because some of them are priceless.

And it occurred to me that such a device would be a good tool for character description purposes, much like how the calendar was used to set a scene in Setting Scenes with Props.

click for larger image

 
Let’s say you want to demonstrate a character who wants to portray themselves as an intellectual, someone knowledgeable:
Emerson read the Question of the Day. “Are you talking just the nucleus or are we including the electron shells?”
Lori shook her head. “I don’t know. I just pick the question from a file. I wouldn’t know the difference between…what did you call it? Shells?”
“It makes a difference.”

We can also show that Emerson doesn’t know what they’re talking about:
Emerson read the Question of the Day. “Are you talking just the nucleus or are we including the electron shells? It makes a difference.”
Lori picked up the sign and read the question. “Not really. It’s asking about atomic mass, not nuclear mass. Even then, the nuclear weights would compare similarly to the atomic weights unless we asked about isotopes for elements side-by-side on the periodic table.”
Emerson’s face flushed. Pam chuckled in the office. She came out and high-fived Lori as Emerson hurried down the stairs.

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