Show and Tell

There are numerous adages for writers to follow. They are bounced around classrooms, websites, and editing groups.

“Write what you know”

“Write every day”

“Use active voice”

“Have the courage to write badly”

“Edit mercilessly”

“Read – a lot”

Working on editing my current work-in-progress Rule of Fire, I’m doing my best to keep them in mind without being overwhelmed by the clutter (It is a lot to fit in my head!). Sometimes I think it is best to edit in layers: clean up the plot and look for holes or breaks in logic (yes, even fantasy has logic!), double check characters for consistency, work on sentence structure, polish every word, and finally send to editor/beta readers for suggestions before beginning the sequence again (this step can be done earlier, but you might not like what they say). I’m looking forward to the polish phase!

But right now I’m still on the big edits, taking out chunks of chapters and building new blocks. Every once in awhile I find myself working on some of the nuances. One of the biggest to clean up early is “Show, don’t tell.”

Let’s face it, too much description and too much explaining, is just boring. But when you are writing, explaining everything to get it right in your head as the author can be important. More than that, describing a scene is a neat trick to overcoming a dose of writer’s block. However, the reader doesn’t really need to suffer along with the writer.

Since this is about showing rather than telling, to demonstrate, though I’m embarrassed to share something I feel is so bad (and has happily been deleted!), below is a snippet that when I going through the first read of my manuscript got me rolling my eyes, snarling, and circling in heavy, black marker. It just wasn’t going to do!

There had been nothing beyond the stunted grass and scrappy pines fading to the north. Only once had they seen a group of horses in the distance. Khodan’s heart had leapt to heights he had not known existed, growing greater with warmth than the sun. He had expected to see children at any moment tending to the sleek ponies. His ears listened for the call of a greeting on the wind.

But there had only been a faint neigh and the sound of hooves over the sodden earth. No riders appeared, no nomadic village of lightweight willow huts with skin coverings. The horses, they could see when they finally walked stealthy close enough, were covered in mud with untrimmed hooves. There was no one to care for them.

Khodan had remembered the springs around which his people had camped. He’d found them. But there had been no sign of people nearby, no trampled grass or mud, no signs of grazing or manure. The moors rolled on endlessly in all directions, each as blank as the next. After the hope born of the horses, Khodan felt hollow in comparison. He was as empty as his homeland.wildhorses2

After a bit of work, it became:

It was over an hour later Laireag stopped abruptly.

“What . . . ,” Niri began, but he held up a hand, tilting his head.

“Don’t you hear?” Laireag asked. Then Khodan did.

Over the next hill, a horse neighed, another snorted. Khodan dropped his satchel and bedroll, running up the last of the ground to the hilltop. Over a mile away, a herd of horses jogged across the higher grassland. He had found his people.

It was like the sun had risen within him. He could not contain the joy as it leaked tears from his eyes. Any moment, he knew, riders would cover over the hill. They would be children, who tended the herds. The little group of four would be seen, greetings yelled in a language he only heard now in his sleep. Khodan held his breath and waited.

The breeze whispered through the stiff grass. The horses, a group of over twenty, slowed, bending their heads to eat. The sound of their hooves died away. The world was silent.

“No,” Khodan whispered without meaning to say the word.

“Perhaps,” Laireag began, but stopped.

Together, they walked cautiously toward the herd. The stallion watched them come, his ears flicking forward and back as they approached. Khodan guessed that Laireag calmed him somehow, but he couldn’t be sure. The stone he wore blocked all sense of such things. It didn’t matter though, he didn’t have to get very close to see what he feared.

Mud caked the horse’s hides. Untrimmed hooves were long, sinking into the damp earth. The animals were uncared for. Khodan closed his eyes, unable to look at them.

“A wild herd from animals that escaped?” Niri hazarded. Ty snorted. Khodan’s hand curled tight as his side, then the heat in him disappeared.

After the hope of the moment before, he felt empty. As empty as the moors. Khodan swallowed, taking back his satchel from Laireag, who had picked it up for him.

“The camp is still a few days away,” Khodan said. His voice finally spooked the wild animals. They tossed their heads, galloping away as if they had never seen people before.

Harry-and-Marlowe-escape-by-Carrie-Vaughn-575x442I hope you see an improvement! And I’m not done yet. I still have a lot of that polish to rub on! Oddly enough, to prep for that, I follow the last adage: Read – a lot. I keep a few of the best stories or sections of chapters I’ve run across on hand. I go through those as I edit to see why I find them so incredible (the list is top secret, sorry). Then I turn back to what I’m working on.

I wanted to share a recent find that truly swept me away: Harry and Marlowe Escape the Mechanical Siege of Paris by Carrie Vaughn. Even if you are not completely in love with the characters and story by the end, I hope you can see it is a fantastic bit of writing! Does Ms. Vaughn tell at all? Man, I have so much work to do . . . .

What are some of your favorite writing and editing proverbs?

___

Autumn is the author of the epic fantasy novel Born of Water, its Novel Companion, and most recently the compilation of adventure travel stories Danger Peligros! All are available at Amazon, Smashwords, and other retailers of enovels.

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3 comments on “Show and Tell

  1. Great post, Autumn. I admire you for dropping your trousers in public like that (metaphorically, of course)…I barely even let myself read my early drafts. Don’t know if you’ve seen this, but Brandon Sanderson (most recently famous for finishing the late Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series) posted his entire writing process for a book called Warbreaker–from rough drafts through to final version. Here’s the link: http://brandonsanderson.com/book/Warbreaker
    Of course, show don’t tell is a biggie for me when editing, as it is for all writers, but I think it has to be tempered with Elmore Leonard’s rule: try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Sometimes, telling is more prudent, and knowing when to do one versus the other is one of the things that separates great writers from the rest.
    Thanks again for sharing!

    • lol. You would use the analogy of dropping trousers, Bruce! I have heard about Jordan’s Wheel of Time. The transformation of a manuscript into a finished piece is a bit amazing to me.

      I think one of my reading pet peeves is when an author drops tons of information about something . . . and then never brings it up again. Why do that??? If I put a detail in, I try to make sure it is important to the plot line as a rule of thumb. Otherwise, sum it up and move on!

  2. Pingback: Redirecting the Flow | Two Voices, One Song

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