Working on Showing vs Telling

d3/111,465 words. 26/41 chapters revised to d2.5

I’ve spent some time studying the age-old show vs. tell problem, specifically through this book recommended to me by a fellow FWO’er.

I rewrote my first chapter making a dedicated effort to purge all cases of non-immediate inner monologues, as well as every case of telling an emotion or reaction, when I could just show it. The result feels a little flowery, to be honest, but it also feels much cleaner and easier to read.  I think a big part of the writing game that I have to get my head around, is that reading a book is not about being told a story.  Not really.  It is about having circumstances described to you, and allowing your own mind to create the story.  I can’t fixate on spoon-feeding the exact inner thoughts my MC is having in a particular situation, instead I just need to show what he sees, and if my characterization has been consistent, the reader will be able to get the same experience, but in a more enjoyable way.

This will be one of the major components of my draft 4 pass, and I am confident it will improve my writing dramatically.  On the negative side, it slows my word-count from nearly 1000 words per hour to about 100.  They may be better words, but that is still tough to swallow.

The changes are not always obvious.  Consider this line from D2.4:

D2.4  

He shuffled slightly to keep the swelling blood from touching his boots, and stared at the empty face before him.

His vision suddenly flecked with hot tears as guilt prickled across his face. He got back to his feet, blinking away the unwanted emotions. What good would they do him?

He flicked his blade, then removed a pink handkerchief from the fold of his blue trench coat and ran it along the cold metal, clearing the bits of matter that still clung to it. As he did, he urged his mind to go blank and the sting of shame softened. He was well practiced in bathing himself in a mental darkness, a meditative numbness, voided of self reflection and emotion. It was the only way to stay sane after all. Otherwise, utter despondence would surely claim him, as he was forced to commit all flavors of malevolence by his Pledge Binding.

In cases like this, the showing and telling are so intertwined, the whole thing needs to be rewritten.  I did so, emphasizing descriptions of actions and sights and sounds, rather than statements of what he was thinking or feeling. Here is the same section in D2.5:

D2.5

He shuffled slightly to keep the welling blood from touching his boots.

Vincent’s final expression was carved by terror, his mouth wide in a scream that had never touched the air. Nyklas’s stomach clenched unexpectedly, and looked away, but the man’s wide beseeching eyes continued to sting him. Guilt? Hells, where was that coming from?

He stood and flicked his blade, then removed a stained handkerchief from the fold of his trenchcoat and wiped the cold metal. There was nothing I could’ve done to stop this. I didn’t mark him to die. That was quite true, yet his stomach still twisted and an unease spread through his chest.

This whole situation was bullshit, from the depravity of his master to the Binding that enslaved him. Now he was killing random merchants in the slums of town… why, exactly? Did Golithias need nothing more than a perceived slight to toss his assassin into action?

The difference is, in my submission, fairly striking… but again, it required a full rewrite.  It is not a matter of deleting the word “sad” and replacing it with descriptions of sadness.  In many cases, whole sections need to be reworked to revolve around description and immediate experiences, rather than commentary.

Then there are times when I am telling, and I really don’t have the option of showing.  In those cases, I am tending to just remove the block.  I won’t follow this strictly throughout the book, but in chapter 1 if it requires telling, it can probably wait.

D2.4

Beyond the sea of rooftops nearly lost in darkness, the huge structure of the ship loomed. The facade of the aged spacecraft, two miles wide and half a thousand feet high, was like some kind of metallic god that watched over the entire city through a grey washed eye.

He spared the ship only a passing glance. Far from inspiring awe, the sight only summoned disgust. The ship was nothing more than a fortress. Half destroyed from the crash that seeded this planet, it stood only as a monument of segregation between the civilians and the sinister characters that played plutocracy over them. Such as his master.

The solution here was just to leave a lot of details out so I could show the things I needed to, use analogies to fill in the emotional connotations, and call it a day.

D2.5

Beyond the sea of rooftops the ship loomed tall, like the face of a fallen metallic god. The grey-washed surface caught the light with the sinister matte of an opaque and blind eye. Restraining a scowl, he looked away…

The last thing I addressed is not strictly related to showing and telling, but I group it together anyway: micro pacing. During intense scenes, it is important to control your prose by making sentences more concrete and shorter.  No similes or metaphors, just short, quick, action.  I looked at this during this pass because I can easily show something small and let the reader interpret the rest, without breaking out of the moment.  If I stop to tell the same thing, the action comes to a crawl. It seems counter-intuitive, and may not apply globally, but at least in the examples in this chapter, the showing felt natural and quick, whereas telling felt intellectual and contemplative, and thus slow. The escape scene suffers from telling instead of showing, of doing so during high-tension moments, and of telling in an info-dumpy sort of way:

D2.4

He turned and ran across the bedroom, but at the top of the stairs he stopped. There was a bang from below as the front door was kicked open. Angry voices sounded from within the house.

He grimaced, and looked around. The colors around him intensified as his heightened senses came alive. Power flooded from that core of energy that kept him alive — his Adonis Heart — making his muscles quiver. The sounds on the air were suddenly more vivid, and time seemed to stretch as he scanned his surroundings for options. At least a dozen men were downstairs. As a Spawn, he could probably fight his way through all of them, but that was beside the point. He didn’t want to kill more than he had to. He needed a plan, fast. There was a second bedroom on the back side of the house. He ran across the landing and kicked open the door, registering two windows within. The first overlooked the main street where a crowd was quickly becoming a mob, but the back window faced a narrow alley between this house and the masonry shop next door. In moments he was out the window, landing roughly on the tile roof across the alley. It was an inhumanly long jump, and he was sure they could not follow. Ignoring the stinging in his shins, he scanned his surroundings. Torch lights played off the building towards the main street, but the alley led to a small street behind the shop, which was empty. He rolled off the roof and landed in the narrow road backing the house.

Here is what I came up with for D2.5:

D2.5

He turned and ran across the bedroom, but at the top of the stairs he stopped. There was a bang from below as the front door was kicked open. Angry voices sounded from within the house. He grimaced, and looked around. The colors of the dark hallway intensified as his heightened senses came alive. His muscles quivered with ready strength. At least a dozen men were downstairs. As a Spawn, he could probably cut his way through all of them if it came to it. His master might not care either way, but he cared. He ran to the second bedroom at the back side of the house as heavy footsteps banged up the stairs. There were two windows. He opened the window above the narrow alley where he’d started. As voices and boots pounded into the bedroom, he gave himself to the wind, and landed roughly on the tile roof across the way. Shouts and whistling echoed from the front street. Shins stinging, he rolled off the roof landing on the hard stones of the alley a dozen feet below. Colors popped as his Spawn strength flared, dispelling the pain in his ankles and knees. He threw himself into a sprint down the alley towards the back street.

Anyway, this will all get one final pass, but I do think this revision brings it within 1 pass of being “done.”

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