The Show, Don’t Tell Paradigm

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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.

Oak Island Season Two

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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 Smashwords.com and their associate book vendor sites.

The All New Character Bloghop

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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

Ask Mother

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Ask Mother is a short story spinoff on Hugh Howey’s Half Way Home. I flipped Howey’s story on its head, making the hero into bumbling fool and making the key villain, an AI, into something we’re not sure about. The heroes became a pair of lesbians. It’s a kick with sound effects. Or read it quickly and easily at Wattpad. Both are free.

Ask Mother is a fan fiction based on Hugh Howey's science fiction story,  Half Way Home.

Ask Mother is a fan fiction based on Hugh Howey’s science fiction story, Half Way Home.


To understand Ask Mother, you need to know some things from Half Way Home. If you haven’t read it Hugh’s story here are the facts you need:
1. The humans were sent as zygotes to colonize another planet
2. Colony is an AI that raised them and taught them in incubators until they were 15. Then something radical happened and Colony tried to destroy them all. At the last minute it saved 50 of them. They were supposed to be incubated and taught until they were 30 yrs old, hence the title of his story, Half Way Home.
3. Vinnie are giant caterpillar-like animals that the people eat.
4. The canopy is a forest with trees over a 1000 meters high, it seems to stretch everywhere, but we know it doesn’t reach the mountains.
5. Bomb fruit, which I rename as root bombs, is fruit that falls out of the canopy. The people also eat the fruit bombs.
6. Hickson became their leader and under Colony’s instruction, established a totalitarian regime and killed several of the people for not following orders.
7. Porter led a revolt and overthrew Hickson and Colony. Porter is gay.
8. Myra was Hickson’s girl friend, but appeared to be a weak clinging dependent who didn’t have much say in his reign of terror.
Byline for Ask Mother: With crops failing and something lurking in the canopy, the disenfranchised rogue, Myra, and her lover, the wily Leila, disobey the village leadership and turn to an old adversary for help.