Show, Don’t Tell

I committed a faux pas recently. I did not hunt down the list of literary magazines to which I submitted The Biscuit to let them know it had been accepted by another publication. Whoops! Even though I am now going to correct this oversight, it led to a serendipitous realization.

Now, I was advised this very morning not to post my rejection letters, but I will violate this advise for this instance:

Members of the selection committee read your story and felt that while there are some interesting details … there was a lot of telling but not a lot of showing.
The best stories are those that take the reader into the story, not just report the action. While I don’t wish to be insulting, there are many websites that effectively demonstrate and / or discuss the difference.
Fortunately, this was not the first time I heard this critique, but the third. The first was from my writing friend who just finished his MFA (I keep referring to him, perhaps I should just give him a name), and the second was from the editor at The Fem. Fortunately, by the time The Fem responded, I knew that the section they were specifically referring to would have to be cut. If I made it into a short film – which I aspire to do – I would add it back, as a scene to play while the credits are rolling. After a few quick revisions, everyone was happy with the story, and it was ready for publication.
Now, when someone takes the time to respond with feedback, whether positive or negative, I take the time to thank them, and make a little mental note that these are the kind of people I want to work with in the future. To this one I replied, “I appreciate your feedback, and I agree that telling rather than showing is one of the habits that I must break.”
Keep in mind, I wrote The Biscuit several months ago, and I have broken that habit – for the most part – in the meantime. (But I’m not about to say that to HIM, since it smacks of hubris.) This is obvious as I re-read and mark Colossus for revisions; The scenes I added later have significantly fewer markings that read “SDT.”
Allow me to explain!
After receiving this feedback, I printed up the first one hundred pages of Colossus (it’s 330 when double-spaced), and made myself this Post-it:
It’s been over a month since I declared the draft finished and put it aside. I’ve had a couple of beta readers read it, but avoided looking at it myself. This past weekend, I read though, marking relentlessly. (I even found a humiliating typo in a tense scene, completely sabotaging the mood!) I marked and highlighted certain lines or paragraphs – in once case, an entire scene – and wrote SDT! in the margin. In most cases, there are two or three per page, two or three instances where I needed to add more sensory details, rather than explain what a character was experiencing.
As of today, I have edited the first hundred pages for typos, re-wording, commas (UGH! Commas are going to kill me!), and awkward sentence structures. I have only gotten through the first thirteen pages when it comes to re-writing the SDT sections, but those thirteen pages are now amazing – comparatively.
For example:

They settled down surprisingly fast when the substitute called for attention. His voice was not booming, but it was sharp with authority. Unfortunately, this did not prevent the students from goading him.


They settled down surprisingly fast when the substitute called for attention. His voice was not booming, but it was sharp with authority. It commended obedience is most of the students, but for others, it presented a welcome challenge. Witt sucked on his bottom lip as he stared at the sub, waiting for another opportunity to draw attention to himself.

Adding that little bit of detail not only illustrated the scene more vividly, but it sets up slightly more about Witt’s character – and foreshadows a bit that you don’t learn about until later. And now that I’m looking at it once more, I’m thinking that there are ways I can do more. For example, I can describe the sound of the class settling down, what it looks like for the students to turn their eyes on him.

This process is slow and building. However, it feels good. Unlike editing for grammar and syntax, there is a clear progression. I’m enjoying this process.

Back to the writing board!


2 thoughts on “Show, Don’t Tell

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