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Monday Craft Tip #3: Show, not tell, part 2

I don’t know about you, but I find that dictum Show, don’t tell the thorniest piece of advice about writing. It is so hard to get right. Naturally, when I started to write, I did a lot of telling. Then I got the idea that you should put things in scenes. Great! I thought in my naivete. I’ve got that nailed. Throughout 2010, my first novel kept getting rejected by agents, but they didn’t have time to tell me why. I took a writing course at the beginning of  2011, and found out that tells were ingrown into my prose style like a bad case of kudzu. So I’ve been trying to weed them out. Yesterday, I read a wonderful piece of advice about showing and telling that I hope (maybe) will finally put the whole issue to rest. (For those of you who want to look it up, you will find it in DESCRIPTION AND SETTING by Ron Rozelle, pp. 66-72.) Compare the following:

The city suffered significant damage in the blast.

The smell of death was a little fainter than the day before, but the places where the houses had collapsed into tile-covered heaps stank vilely and were covered with great, black swarms of flies.

The first sentence is clearly a tell, the sort of thing you would read in a newspaper.
The second is far more descriptive, the sort of thing you would find in a novel. Notice that the author of the second piece never tells you that the city suffered significant damage in the blast. He or she conveys this but the use of telling descriptions. Notice that I used the word telling, because (of course) the second piece is full of tells. How could it not be? But the tells pull the reader in because the content of the descriptions are powerful and they have been word-smithed by a careful choice of words.

The takeaway message?

  1. Do not make anything you write come off as a report.
  2. Choose to show more often than you tell.
  3. Remember that you will have to tell sometimes, because your novel is going to be very clunky and long if you don’t have some narrative summary.
  4. When you use tells, draw the reader in by using emotionally powerful descriptions, then seduce them by using beautifully crafted prose.

Image: British Pathe

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Monday Craft Tip #2: Show, not tell, part 1

“Show, don’t tell,” is a common thing that you hear writing instructors say to their students during workshops on craft. And there are obvious things you can do to heed that advice, such as putting all of the emotional high points of a novel into scenes, rather than summarizing them.

But there are subtle ways in which tells show up in prose style, that also need to be watched. Today, I am going to share what some of those problems are, something I didn’t realize about my own style until it was pointed out to me in the Self-Editing and Revision course I’m taking from Writers Digest.

Here is an example of what I mean. I have put the ‘tells’ in block caps:

Dominick Rossi had fought in the Great War from April 1917, when the United States declared war on Germany, until April 1919, when he’d finally returned home to Chicago. His war had been over for little more than two years and still his experiences haunted him. He brushed away  unpleasant thoughts, TELLING himself that he must  help free the world of the evils of war, and make this new decade, the twenties, happy and peaceful. He looked around, NOTING that dusk was beginning to fall, and REMINDED HIMSELF that he was on his way to his lodgings in Georgetown, Washington D.C.

Here is how I re-wrote the excerpt, getting rid of the ‘tells’:

His war had been over for little more than two years and still his experiences haunted him. He brushed away such unpleasant thoughts. He must help to free the world from the evils of war, and make this new decade, the twenties, happy and peaceful. He looked around. Dusk was beginning to fall. He was on his way to his lodgings in Georgetown, Washington D.C.

Why would you want to do this? The problem with too many ‘tells’ is that it has the effect of distancing the reader from the characters. If the point of the craft you deploy is to make your novel un-put-downable, you don’t want to do that. This is why you look over your writing and eliminate these mistakes.

I am very grateful to the instructor for pointing out these subtle errors in my prose style.

Image: The elegant spire of Healy Hall, Georgetown University, Washington D.C. Dominick Rossi is staring at that tower in the scene I excerpted.

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