Show and Tell

I know it’s been a while since I wrote any fiction, but I had no idea it was all the way back in March when I posted my last short story and only in April when I wrote my last writing exercise. It seems so vacant, thinking about things now, how I’ve gone so long without writing. It’s been nearly as long since I’ve written in my journal, come to think of it. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why I’ve felt so disconnected and lackluster of late. Without writing, my blood turns stale and lifeless. With blood follows breath, and then the rest is listless emptiness.

This next prompt came from the chapter in “Method and Madness” on showing and telling, those oft-cited glories and errors of skillful storytelling. “You’re telling too much,” he might say of a boring and cumbersome passage, or perhaps “Show more,” she’ll advise after reading the same thing. We would think that telling is dangerous, that without telling writing is automatically uplifted to the realm of perfect prose, but that would be mistaken. Just as I always advocate a pronounced state of balance and moderation, the same applies in writing: Too much showing is just as baneful as too much telling. This exercise will help us get down to the bottom of why.

It was November 14 in 1998 when John and Sarah met. The air outside was nefarious, to say the least, but inside the little shack at the end of the field the air was toasty around a fire that John had made from a couple broken chairs after Sarah had stumbled inside. She had been studying the wildflowers when the storm descended upon them and he had been on the other side of the woods hunting at the first sound of thunder. He had staggered, soaking wet, from the trees and spotted the run-down shack only moments before the door banged open again and Sarah came stumbling into the darkened, musty air. She had red hair that had been in a bun but was now coming undone and dripping onto a dark blouse that held tight to her curves. John licked his lips as he greeted her. It had been a long time since he had seen anyone as beautiful or delicious as she looked. The darkness wasn’t conducive to studying his new guest, however, and he quickly started the fire. But in the firelight, she recognized he wasn’t entirely human–and just when he lunged at her to attack, she grabbed a piece of wood and swung it at him.

Now, my readers, that was rather boring, wasn’t it? That was telling, through and through. I told you a story–but I gave you no embellishments and gave John and Sarah no characterization whatsoever. Sure, I said what she looked like, but I bet you didn’t care. It didn’t make her come alive and walk off the page.

That’s why telling is so frequently bashed around by authors advising new writers: Because it doesn’t paint a picture. It merely presents the facts, colored according to the author’s own opinions, and nothing more. It’s lifeless. As modern readers, we like a lot of life. Even in our vampires, werewolves, and zombies. Without life in ’em, they’re just not that much fun to read, are they?

Let’s look at this next try, the same story, but instead of narration, I’m going to write it in pure showing–so this should be perfect, shouldn’t it?

Rain struck her as she banged on the door and it opened. Sarah said, “Who’s there?”

“Just me,” said a voice. “I’m John. Let me get a fire going. Better to see you with.”

Sarah listened as wood cracked and then there was a puff of air and the stack of wood burst into flames.

“I’m Sarah,” she said. She looked at him. He smiled, but his teeth were jagged. He moved closer, flexing his hands.

“It’s good to have some company,” he said. “What brought you out here?” He leaned back, against the wall, and then he lunged at her.

Sarah grabbed a piece of wood and swung it at him.

Trying to eliminate all telling from our writing is difficult, because we rely on telling–on narration–to say what can’t be seen. We can’t see the thoughts in a character’s head or the way some things are said. Metaphor and simile might as well be thrown out a window for all their use in pure showing. So it’s hard to craft something that’s appreciable with showing alone, unless you’re Hemingway or someone like him. The point is that it takes both to make a good story. So instead of poring over this drivel, why don’t we move onto something that might finally be entertaining?

Why did I have to come out here today? Sarah thought as she pummeled through the rain, mud splashing on her boots as she ran along. There was a rundown shack at the edge of the field, just before the trees began, that she was running for. She just hoped the door would open–and that no animals had taken roost inside.

Sarah skidded in the mud and ran right into the door. It wobbled, and then she pushed it open. It swung inside with a loud creak that seemed louder than thunder, but the sound didn’t stop her, and when the door swung shut behind it, she was plunged into darkness.

Lightning flashed and for a moment the shack was filled with purple-blue light and she saw something move. She jumped back, banging into the door again.

“Hello?” she said. “Who’s there?”

“Just me,” said a voice. It was deep, a bit gruff, and Sarah felt her pulse quicken. “I’m John. What’s your name?”

“S-sarah,” she said. “Do you–do you have a light or anything?”

“I was working on a fire,” he said. “There’s some broken chairs here. The wood seems dry enough.” Lightning flashed again and sure enough, right beside the man–was he really so tall, or was it just a trick of the storm?–was a pile of broken wood. He bent down around it, his back towards her, and as thunder boomed, there was a spark. By the time John had stood up and turned around, the pile was a small blaze.

“How–?”

“What brings you out here?”

“I–I–” Sarah shook her head. Stay calm, she told herself. Maybe this isn’t as bad as it seems. “I was gathering wild flowers native to the region. I’m a botanist.”

John smiled, but his teeth looked…jagged? No, it couldn’t be. The flickering flames were just playing on her fears, tricking her into seeing something that wasn’t there.

“What about you?” she quickly added.

“Oh,” he said. “I was hunting in the trees.”

Sarah looked him over as lightning filled the room with purple-blue light again. He didn’t have on hunting gear, but thank god, he didn’t seem to have a gun either.

John walked over to the wall and leaned on it, but he was angled oddly. “What’s a woman like you doing out here all alone?”

“I’m not alone,” she blurted out, but bit her tongue as she said it. She was alone. Her partner was home with the flu, but she really, desperately needed those samples. Why hadn’t she waited?

“Is that right?” he said, twisting slightly at his waist. “Then I guess I’ll have to be quick.” He pushed off the wall and sprung at her.

Sarah twisted around, grabbing the first thing she saw, and swung it at him. The wooden two-by-four knocked him off his feet, but she didn’t plan to stay long enough to see him stand again. She turned around, throwing open the door as wind and rain showered in upon her, and then plunged into the nefarious weather.

But even through the rain she could see across the field. If she was going to escape him, she realized in an instant as thunder shook her bones, she’d have to take to the trees.

It’s better, don’t you think?

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2 thoughts on “Show and Tell

  1. >your Hemingway

    My Hemingway? Can I collect his royalties?

    > “Why did I have to come out here today? ” Sarah thought […]

    “‘Quotation marks?’ Optional?”

    > […] but she didn’t plan to stay to him to stand again.

    Too many to’s, to be blunt. I reckon you meant “for him to stand again?”

    I learned a fair bit from this post, I do believe. And yes, the first example was excruciatingly boring; the second perhaps a bit confusing. The third was far more exciting than either, and far more immersive as well.

    • I hate it when all the words in my head don’t make it to the keyboard. Sometimes I just think faster than I can type–and certainly faster than the keyboard can catch it all.

      Thanks for pointing out the mistake. It has been fixed.

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