The Show, Don’t Tell Paradigm


robot's-daughter-front-cover-for-promos---web-friendlyEvery new writer has been told, at least once, that she should show, not tell about her story’s characters and settings—told at least once in every class, every workshop, every seminar, and every critique group or club meeting. If one were so bold as to ask these advisors what they mean, quick examples of “shows” and “tells” would follow. Yet, a clear method of differentiating between the two is most often relegated to the realm of mysticism. Practice the art long enough, Obi Wan, and you will know them when you see them.
Such leaves us confused and frustrated.
Despair not, for one guru gave me a rational definition of a “Show,” which I offer here:

Image a little being on the shoulder of your POV character. Whatever this little being can see, hear, feel, or receive through any of its senses is a “show.’ All else are tells. And unfortunately any sentence that is contaminated with so much as a whiff of tellness, is damned to Tell.

Thusly enlightened, let’s apply this knowledge to an example from the first chapter of my recent release, The Robot’s Daughter. On the first page, I introduce Yanitur, captain of the Nirvania cruiser, Quantum. I begin the third paragraph with (1) : “He thought of the Nirvanian home sky, its night thick with stars: blues, reds, yellows, and whites strung like lights overhead, declaring a perpetual raucous party.”
Our criterion, declares this sentence to be a “tell.” The little being on Yanitur’s shoulder cannot see thoughts, therefore this cannot be a “show.”

So let’s fix that. We can turn this tell into a show easily, and so can you in your writing. (2) : “On the holographic screen floated an image of the Nirvanian home sky, its night thick with stars: blues, reds, yellows, and whites strung like lights overhead, declaring a perpetual raucous party.”
The little being on Yanitur’s shoulder can see the holographic scene, so this is now a “show,” right? It has improved the story a lot, right?

Maybe, and maybe, or maybe not.

There could be a debate as to whether “stung like lights overhead, declaring a perpetual raucous party,” is an interpretation that can’t really be seen. Thus that phrase might damn this sentence to Tell.

To the inquisitions! Let’s purify the sentence further (3) : “On the holographic screen floated an image of the Nirvanian home sky, its night thick with stars: blues, reds, yellows, and whites.” I like it. It’s kind of snappy, and it’s shorter. Shorter is better for the modern underdeveloped mind, right?

Well, hell, let’s make it shorter still (4) : “On the holographic screen floated an image of the Nirvanian home sky, its night thick with stars.” It’s still good because it’s a show, and therefore sanctified.

Just for argument’s sake, let’s go one shorter (5) : “On the holographic screen floated an image of the Nirvanian home sky.” It’s a show because the little being on Yanitur’s shoulder can see it, but we have no idea what he is seeing because all of the detail has been washed away through fanatical cleansing. In fact, sentence (5) feels terribly like a tell. It might be a perfect show, but it no longer communicates the captain’s nostalgia and sense of abandonment, which I attempted to infuse into the original sentence. Dare I say that it no longer conveys much of interest to the reader?

My point is, one can write some pretty rotten shows that do little to pique the reader’s interest, or one can write robust tells that paint vivid pictures in the reader’s mind.

Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein

Does the mantra, “Show, don’t tell,” help us to write more interesting stories?
In my opinion, it can be helpful, but it is not sufficient to guarantee successful writing. Perhaps we should rely more on the words of Gertrude Stein, “When should a sentence not be interesting?”

Next time: An alternative to the Show, Don’t Tell Paradigm.

Old World Presence in B.C. America


A Mimbres Indian ceramic that has a catfish depicted with the Libyan word of catfish drawn on it.

A Mimbres Indian ceramic that has a catfish depicted with the Libyan word of catfish drawn on it.

After my last post, a reader commented that Old World explorers were here thousands of years ago. He referenced a book by Barry Fell as evidence. Well, I never heard of Barry, who the hell Fell anyway. But wanting to be evenhanded, I decided to read one of his books before I laughed him off.
When you check into it, you find Fell was a formidable scientist in his own right, howbeit, in biology not anthropology or archeology. However brilliant one may be, he should never underestimate the level of sophistication of experts who have spent their lives in an area of study. Thus, one might rightly regard Fell as pompous to step into another field and declare the work of experts there to be inexact, illogical, and predisposed to a blindly accepted mythology about the ancient world.
On the other side, one also should never underestimate the ability of a well-honed scientific mind to step into a new field of endeavor and explore it in a precise and insightful manner.
So whose side am I taking? I would say, that I understand both points of view, but lack sufficient knowledge in this field to take a rational stand. Instead, I’ll just waver in the middle. By the way, I tend to waver toward those who have spent their lives studying the this niche of knowledge.
But, if you did that in the field of biology prior to the 1850’s, then you would have staunchly supported spontaneous generation, i.e., the idea that maggots formed, poof, from rotting material not from fly eggs laid in that putrefaction.
The fact is, mainstream science has been wrong, particularly when applied in a biased, predisposed manner, even more so when a deficiency of facts prevailed.
Back to Barry Fell, Frank Joseph and others. Unfortunately, they point from site to site, etched stone after etched stone massing evidence to support their thesis. Then they hit on a place you saw on TV, or visited, one you have always found suspect. Next you wonder, “If I knew more, would I view all of these places with suspicion?”
However, Fell and Joseph and others sometimes point to something, that if true, is absolute proof of Old World influence in the New World, things such as cocaine in the belly of an Egyptian mummy, or the depiction of a catfish on Mimbres pottery (the Mimbres River is just south of Silver City, New Mexico) with the ancient Libyan word of catfish written on it. IF either of these is NOT A HOAX then there was Old World contact long before Leif Ericson. The probability is too steep to support an alternative.
It is interesting, that the Mimbres catfish draws the attention of those who want to debunk Fell. Check this article.
But figure the odds of an accidental use of the Libyan word for catfish. Start with the number of symbols available for human communication. Let’s make a very conservative guess, say there are only 200 distinct symbols in all human languages, past and present. Surely there are many more than that, but we are setting a safe “low ball” boundary. For the three Libyan symbols to have appeared together without Libyan contact the odds would be 200 to the third power, 8 million to one. For said symbols to spell “catfish” on a catfish adds one more dimension. We might ask, how many animals were available for a Mimbres Indian to depict? The Mimbres tended to stick to fauna including insects and birds. A low ball guess would be 100. Surely there were more. Our model, could be strengthened by adding more factors, but I think it proves the point as is: i.e. the odds have now become 800,000,000 to 1 that this object is not the result of Libyan influence.
In the face of those numbers, arguments about catfish barbs, decorative use, and reverse images, all fade into non-relevance. They are trivial and just obfuscate the key issue, which is:
The Libyan culture existed, according to Fell, around 1200 B.C. The Mimbres culture existed around 1100 A.D. How did this arcane writing get carried through time from one to the one?
Fell says the Libyan culture continued to thrive here for 2000 years. If so, where are the many, many other Libyan artifacts that demonstrate this longer than any other civilization’s existence?
I would also find it odd that the Libyans would end up in the Mimbres Valley, about as far from an ocean as one can get. At that time, the Anasazi culture dominated central New Mexico and had trade routes into the jungles of southern Mexico where they acquired turkeys (the modern American wild turkey is said to be the descendent from feral Anasazi turkeys) and macaws. How come they didn’t acquire bits of the Libyan culture, particularly if it coexisted with them for 2000 years.
In short, the catfish can neither be Libyan, nor can it not be Libyan. I believe that Sherlock Holmes would say whatever is left, regardless how unbelievable, is the truth–that is, this object must be a fake. Now if only Sherlock would step forward and prove it.

More on this topic next time.

Oak Island Season Two


Oak Island has started the second season and America Unearthed is rumbling into its third this weekend. America Unearthed got more interesting in the second season by involving others with expertise and opposing views. Also we got to see new technical gadgetry used in the analysis process. I’ll be out of the country for the Alamo show, and it will be old hat by the time I get back, so I’ll write about it then anyway.
Oak Island kicked off with an analysis of the copper coin found in the swamp. I guess others were concerned that it may have been planted. It turns out to have the characteristics of a coin which had been buried in a marsh for years. They didn’t say which marsh, and I didn’t catch how many years, but the Lagina brothers were happy, therefore so am I. One might argue that a coin with the right characteristics could have been found in a coin collection and then planted. At some point, you need to let go of your cynicism.
Who is spending their money to dig this stuff up? They should care, not me.
So next they bring out the giant metal detecting loop and get a big hit, indicating a substantial slug of non-ferrous metal. Wow, let’s dig. Let’s see what the hell is down there. Oops, the province requires a bunch of permits every time you turn a spade, and they want a good portion of anything good that is found. Marty is tired of the mosquitoes so, let’s stop digging where we have a good indication there is something and go back to the money pit, where we aren’t sure anything is.
Make sense? No, but I think that was a little bit of drama to keep us hooked until the end of the season when they return to the marsh and find the something.
Meanwhile, a Clovis point was discovered in the surf off New Jersey. It doesn’t mean that the Clovis people came from Europe. After its discovery in New Mexico, the Clovis has been found over much of North America. However, I’d rather find a Clovis than an old Spanish copper coin.
Oh, yeah, and now there is another show where two brothers dig for giants. I suppose it’s called “Finding Bigfoot, Dead.” I’ll let someone who watches a lot of TV tell you about it, as if you need to be told that it’s a bit goofy.
As a final note, I have been notified that my “books,” most of which are really my short stories, are for sale at various sites. I have not authorized the selling of my short stories, so please don’t buy them. Instead download them for free at and their associate book vendor sites.

The All New Character Bloghop


This gallery contains 2 photos.

Today I’m posting my leg of the Bloghop handed to me by Jordan Bernal. Jordan writes about, and loves to travel in, Celtic realms. Her Keepers series is what I would call a thriller fantasy about modern day dragons and … Continue reading