Show Me a Story

Author J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter an...

Author J.K. Rowling sharing a story at the White House. Screenshot taken from official White House video. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week, my son took some things to school for show and tell, except it’s not called “show and tell” anymore. I don’t know if this is a global change or just one at his school. For them, it’s “show and share” (and for younger kids, it’s just “share”). The cynic in me thought that it’s just another way to say the same old thing a different way.

But then I got thinking because that’s what I do. Is there a difference between show and tell and show and share? Certainly, people don’t like to be told what to do. Sharing seems a lot more friendly, and the change of one word could be a way to encourage children to take turns, etc., etc.

And for writers, of course, there’s something in that one poor word, “tell,” that just makes us cringe.

As an editor for a fiction journal, I throw that little four-letter word around all the time. It’s a great reason to reject a story. One part of the job description for readers and editors at Fiction Fix is to give notes on why we accept or reject each story. I try to pull quotes from stories, where applicable. If the dialogue is awful, I use an example. If the piece is full of malapropisms, I’ll list a couple. And if there’s too much telling, I include that in my notes, as well. Except one story this week… I couldn’t choose. There were too many examples, each worse than the last. In the end, I noted that the entire piece was one grand example of telling. Minor problems we can fix, but rewriting the whole story? That’s just a skill that the author needs to learn.

But what’s so wrong with telling, anyway? Isn’t at least some telling necessary? After all, they’re called storytellers, not storyshowers (well, and no wonder because you could easily read it as “showers” instead of “show-ers”).

Some telling is necessary, of course. But in this particular story this week, telling was in the form of: “And another nine years passed, and little Joey was suddenly in high school.” Yawn. I’ve read much more creative ways in which to show the passage of time.

One example of an author who I think did a great job with telling was J.K. Rowling in her Harry Potter series. The more fantastical the world, the more world-building is necessary, and that can easily turn into info-dumping, AKA telling. To create the wizarding world, not only did Rowling have to introduce new names and places and ideas to her readers, but she also had to introduce them to one very important character: Harry Potter, himself. What a great way to present much-needed information! As Harry was fascinated with his first owl post and trip to Diaogn Alley, so were we, and we got to see it through his eyes. We were shown.

But then, there were other times when we had to learn important information, and an author with less finesse could have completely blown it. Instead, Rowling had two characters in place, Hermione Granger and Albus Dumbledore, who were storehouses of knowledge. Hermione, being the bookworm that she was, knew more than most witches and wizards her age to begin with, and if she didn’t know, she went to the library to find out. And Dumbledore… well, he was full of all kinds of bizarre and useful bits of knowledge, although he was slow in divulging it all. Potter fans, do you remember the end of the first five books? With a sense of relief, you knew that Dumbledore would tie up quite a few loose ends… and leave you hanging just a little, which was where the next book would pick up.

Other means of imparting facts in unique ways that Rowling and other authors have utilized are by having the characters find facts and discover clues in books, e-mails, letters, diaries, newspapers. We’ve all read dictionaries and textbooks, right? That’s where we get our info, too, so it’s perfectly acceptable for characters to gain their insights in this way, as long as the author doesn’t rely on it too heavily. After all, the narrative does still have to move forward.

But then there are the ever-so-awkward dialogues, telephone conversations, and internal monologues that are meant to convey something important. For instance, a first person narrator will have a more difficult time describing him- or herself than if the book has a third person narrator. Say the female narrator needs to come across as humble. She’s beautiful, but she can’t tell you that herself. So instead, someone says it to her… but it gets overdone:

“Oh, Celeste,” Amanda gushed, “the way you’ve braided your hair is just so becoming! I love the way the light catches your golden highlights, and your blue dress just brings out the blue in your eyes perfectly!”

Okay, so we know that Celeste’s hair looks nice and that she has golden highlights. And her eyes are blue. But do people talk like this? (Admittedly, some do, but they are few and far between. And doesn’t that drive you nuts? Also, note the use of the word “gushed.” Ick. Please don’t write or talk like this because your average person doesn’t.)

Here’s a more natural way to convey similar information:

“Oh, Celeste,” Amanda said. “Look at you! Didn’t I say you would clean up well? And that blue is just the perfect color on you.”

Wait a minute. What happened to the braid, the hair color, the specific reference to the eyes? What happened to the gushing? Although most people don’t like relying on italics, that’s how I tend to hear people when they’re talking, and an italicized word here or there saves you from overused dialogue tags, such as “gushed.” And how important was the physical description, anyway? The more you write, the more you’ll discover that things like this don’t always matter. But, if you’re still not sure, here’s another way to get your point across:

I tried the braid that my mom had shown me, and although I would have preferred sweats over dressing up, the blue sheath she had picked out matched my eyes, at least. I smiled in the mirror, already imagining how Amanda would gush when she walked in the door.

Okay, so maybe it’s not a masterpiece, but you get a little bit of description, plus some character development. (See how she’s uncomfortable but pleased at the same time?)

Oh, and the telephone conversation. Listen to someone talking on the phone one day. From one side of a conversation, you can pick up a lot, but you usually have to fill in a lot of the blanks yourself (or sometimes let them remain a mystery). So in books (and movies, too), should the characters spell out everything for the readers’ sakes? Check out this one-sided conversation for what not to do:

“Hi, Mom. It’s Cindy… I know you expected me to call earlier, but there was a line at the phone… Yes, I guess a lot of other kids are homesick, too… I miss you a lot, but it’s been a great week here at Camp Sparkly Lake, where you’ve sent me for two weeks… Uh-huh, I’ve made a couple friends already. Jessica is a cheerleader just like me, and she can do a backflip, also just like me…”

It could go on and on. Why would Cindy say so much stuff that her mom already knows? People don’t talk like this! I know that you’re trying to minimize the telling, but this isn’t the way to do it. Try instead:

“Hi, Mom… I’m sorry, but there was a line at the phone… Yeah, probably, and I guess I am a little, too. I mean, I miss you a lot, but at least I’ve made a couple friends… Yeah, there’s another cheerleader here named Jessica, and she can match me backflip for backflip. Pretty cool, huh?”

Here, you can imagine what the mom’s saying, and Cindy’s responses are much more natural. As for the other information, like the name of the camp and how long Cindy’s staying, these can be told quickly, but in a way that won’t turn off your readers:

Although the line to the phone looked about a mile long, I supposed it was time to call home and give my mom an update on my first week at Camp Sparkly Lake.

Ta-da! A teensy bit of telling can go a long way.

Which is good advice for me to heed. As an editor, telling slaps me in the face and leaves me reeling. Yet as a writer, info-dumping is so seductive. And since I tend toward the fantastical (or at least magical realism), there’s usually quite a bit of world-building involved.

It’s so difficult to craft those opening pages, believe me. On the one hand, you have to capture the interest of Any Reader, that fickle person who will drop your book like a live grenade if you can’t seal the deal within a sentence or two. On the other hand, you have to create the rules and boundaries of your fictional world up front. If you do a bang-up job of painting your characters in the beginning, waiting until ten pages in to wallop the readers with a garbage load of information, you’re not doing anyone any favors. You have to impart info without hanging a flashing, neon sign over it that reads: WORLD-BUILDING GOING ON HERE! LOTS OF INFO TO DUMP! DON’T GET BORED! I PROMISE IT’S IMPORTANT TO THE STORY, AND YOU WON’T REGRET THIS IN 50 PAGES! Yeah, right. As I’ve said countless times, every word must count.

If you follow my blog, you know that I’m almost done editing last year’s NaNoWriMo novel. The first draft clocked in at 148,000 words. The second draft, which I distributed to beta readers, was 129,000. It took lot of editing on my part to cut those 19,000 words, but it wasn’t enough. I have to take some of my own medicine, and my goal by the end of this month is to not only be done editing it but to have it under 100,000 words. (Right now it stands at 107K.) My readers have asked me how I can cut so much. And they liked the book, so I must have done something right. But at the same time, I know that my first person present narrator needs to keep some things to herself. She doesn’t need to think of what she’s going to do, explain it, and then act. Yes, I’m in the storytelling business, but I would much rather show it.

I would much rather leave my readers wanting more.

With a good book, even picky writers and editors like me won’t notice the craft. It will melt away, and the story will shine through. That doesn’t mean that we won’t savor great lines or powerful scenes. But what it does mean is that the writing won’t get in the way. It will serve the story completely, as it’s meant to. And in the end, we won’t think, Well, a lot of years passed, and those characters sure did grow up – they must have because that’s what the narrator kept telling me. Instead, we’ll think, Has this author written anything else? I’ve got to have it now! I’ve got to read more books like this, and maybe one day, I’ll be able to write something this great, too.

Something worth sharing.

2 thoughts on “Show Me a Story

  1. releaf1954 says:

    I know that “show; don’t tell” is the first rule of fiction writing but it’s quite a challenge, even for experienced writers. You gave some great examples. Thanks!

  2. […] instead of telling was another biggie. (You can read more about that here.) I used to be the type of writer who had to describe the layout of every room and the outfit of […]

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