Tags: showing

Let the Lady Scream: Showing vs. Telling PART I

by Amber Keyser
Published on: December 12, 2013
Categories: Craft
Comments: 7 Comments

mark-twain-author-dont-say-the-old-lady-screamed-bring-her-on-and-let-herIn the past few weeks, I’ve been doing a lot of YA manuscript critiques.  Multiple times in the margin of each manuscript I’ve scrawled, “Stay in the scene” or “Show me.”

Showing is hard.  It is so much easier to just tell the reader what you want him to know.  Both beginning and seasoned writers fall into the telling not showing trap.  Those with more experience fix it during revision.

But what does “showing not telling” really mean?

To me, it means staying in the scene.  Characters need to be doing and saying things that convey what the writer wants the reader to know.  Examples show this better than me blah, blah, blah-ing at you, so today I’m beginning an occasional series of posts that demonstrate showing vs. telling.  I’ve asked some writer friends to pony up before and after paragraphs over the next few months.

I’ll start with this example that one of the authors for whom I recently critiqued was kind enough to proffer before my revision knife.  (You know who you are.  THANK YOU!)

First, the original paragraph.  It is perfectly serviceable.  The writing is tight.  It tells the reader a lot about Tom and his dad.  I love the phrase “strict no-go territory,” which gives us some of Tom’s voice.

Dad was nothing if he wasn’t private.  From as soon as Tom was old enough to be held accountable for his actions, his dad made it clear that he was not to go poking around in his stuff.  Dad’s desk, his papers, and especially his briefcase were always off limits—a strict no-go territory Tom and never violated.

Now consider a rewrite that has turned this into a scene, which puts the reader smack-dab in the center of the action and Tom’s emotional state.

From the hallway, Tom saw the briefcase on top of Dad’s desk.  There might as well have been flashing neon arrows floating in the air.  The papers were there.  He knew it.  It would be so easy to walk across the office, to run his hands along the slick leather, to snap open the brass latches on the case.  

Tom shifted his weight from one foot to the other like a boxer getting ready to fight.  

A few seconds, that’s all he needed.  The papers could be swishing down the toilet before Dad got home.  Problem solved.  He flexed his fingers, balling his hands into fists.

Tom had been three years old the first time he’d gone into Dad’s office—his first spanking.  He’d risked it again at five and could still feel the belt.  The last time, he’d been ten, and Mom had sent him to Grandma’s for a week after.

Sweat soaked through the armpits of his Metallica t-shirt.  Tom smelled his own stink rising.  The desk was so close.  Like Antarctica close.  Which meant absolutely un-freaking-reachable.  God, I’m a pussy, Tom thought, turning away from the papers he needed to save his own life.

The rewrite still communicates the basic message that Tom knows better than to mess with his Dad’s stuff, but to explain why, I had to bring in backstory (his dad borders on abusive) and hint at the current conflict (Tom needs those papers).  I also added sensory details like the feel of leather and the smell of sweat and kept absolutely everything from Tom’s perspective.  The fringe benefit of the “showing” version is that you know more about Tom—a lot more.

Until the next installment of “Let the Lady Scream,” may we all stay in the scene.





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