Show, don’t tell

I’m sure you’ve heard this before: “Show, don’t tell!” If you do a writing course, they’ll probably throw this at you at least ten times before you’re done. But, the funny thing is, what it really means hardly ever comes across. I kept looking at their examples and I felt like I had learned nothing.

Then came the fateful day when Zara asked me to have a look at her work.

My ah-hah! moment had arrived. Her manuscript was incredibly short but there was a lot going on. And all I could think was: But I want to see these things happening. Almost everything was in narrative.

Full of trepidation at having to tell a budding writer that she needed to change nearly everything she had written, I decided to take a different angle. I told her “We are going to go through the story together and try and improve things here and there. You will see, your word count will go up tremendously!”

At first, it felt like I had sentenced myself to the most frustrating experience you could possibly have with another writer…but it was the exact opposite.

One paragraph describing a scene turned into almost two pages of action and dialogue. And, as we went, it just kept growing. It was amazing!

How to do it:

Now, this post would be utterly useless if you got only this far, so, I’m going to give you what you really need – proper examples* of what “show, don’t tell” really means.

Gamm was a jerk and nobody liked him. It was so bad, in fact, that his own mother had told him that he was allowed to come by only if he had grandchildren to present her with. Not that he’d ever have any, his wife left him after exactly one week of matrimonial blisters.

This (↑) will be our “tell” piece.

Show, don’t tell

Even though the piece may be humorous, there is a long way to go before it turns into something that shows. Let’s start with sentence one. Sure, it’s nice and concise…but, let me ask you this, which of the following is more entertaining now?

Tell:
Gamm was a jerk and nobody liked him.

Do you feel engaged after this piece? Do you feel like you know what could be going on now?

Show:
“He strangled my chicken for crowing this morning!”
“Not General Cockadoodle? The General’s cry was how I woke up in time to get the kids ready for school!”
“Not only that, he put poison in the carcass and threw it over the neighbours’ fence to kill their dog. They’re at the vet right now, pumping the poor pooch’s stomach.””I didn’t think it was possible but I hate him even more now.”
“Maybe we should begin a ‘Gamm’s karma brigade’. We could TP his house to start with.”
They snickered.

Do you think Gamm might be a misunderstood individual after reading the Show piece? The Tell sentence could have started a story for a guy with bad luck and rotten timing. But the Show piece gave you some insight into what kind of jerk he really is.

Should I go on?

Different levels of importance

How much you write really depends on the focus of your story. Are you telling the story of Gamm, the jerk, and how he redeemed himself? Are you telling the story of Mrs Green and how she got even? Or maybe Gamm is just a supporting character in two or three chapters?

You really don’t have to waste time if the character isn’t that important.

Tell:
Gamm was a jerk and nobody liked him.

Show:
He’s the main character
Gamm snickered inwardly as he stuffed the rat poison down the stupid cockerel’s gullet. Two birds with one stone. No more howling at night and no more ungodly crowing before dawn.
He stood on his toes to peer over into the yard where the mongrel lived.
Two brown eyes looked up at him. The dog gave a little bark.
“Here, you rat bastard. I have a treat for you. It’s to die for.”

He watched long enough to make sure the dog took a second bite.
Mrs Green is the main character
“He strangled my chicken for crowing this morning!” Janet Green was gesticulating sharply as she spoke.
“Not General Cockadoodle?” Vanessa winced. It really did feel like an inevitability. Then it occurred to her. “The General’s cry was how I woke up in time to get the kids ready for school!”
Janet’s curls bounced with her curt nod. Her face was pinched and blotchy. “Not only that, he put poison in the carcass and threw it over the neighbours’ fence to kill their dog. They’re at the vet right now, pumping the poor pooch’s stomach.”
“I didn’t think it was possible but I hate him even more now.”
They stood for a moment in a companionable angry silence.
“Maybe we should begin a ‘Gamm’s karma brigade’. We could TP his house to start with,” Vanessa said darkly.
They snickered.

Gamm appears for 3 chapters only
“Isn’t Gamm that guy that strangled the chicken and then poisoned a dog with it?”

“Yeah, jerks work hard to keep up with his level of douche baggery. His own mother won’t let him visit. Said he can come by if he manages to sire grandchildren for her.”
“Like any woman would let him close enough to get pregnant!”
They snickered.

Is he really?

One of my writer friends, Richard, recently told me about reading a book that told instead of showing that made him exclaim: “Really? I don’t believe you!” so many times that his wife refused to be in the same room with him when he read it. In fact, when I wrote the sentence: “Gamm was a jerk and nobody liked him” I immediately heard him in my head: “Is he really?”

See, Richard wants to feel what your characters feel. He wants to feel part of the story. He wants to get carried away. Narrative just doesn’t do that.

Now, imagine Richard read the show versions above. What do you think he’d say now? I’d imagine he’d use a few colourful expletives to describe people like Gamm.

Your show tools:

But what do you change to show in stead of tell? The answer is simple…though it takes a while to apply to your own writing (my, preciousss). You have two main tools.

  • In-the-moment descriptions
  • Dialogue

In-the-moment descriptions

Tell: She had silky hair.

OR

Show: His fingers slid through her hair. Wow, it’s so soft, he thought to himself.

Dialogue

Tell: She had silky hair.

OR

Show: “How do you get your hair this soft? It’s like silk!”

show don't tell

Of course, I’m just being silly now. Please don’t put pictures in a book that doesn’t need it.

I’d love to hear what you think! Do you have more tools?

Gearing up for 2017

At ICON 2016 in Johannesburg (organised by GeekXP), I ran into a whole bunch of my good old wargaming friends. What an absolute pleasure after having been stuck with my two rugrats for, what felt like, forever. We roamed the stalls and had our books signed by Raymond E. Feist (who is, by the way, a truly humble man and an absolute pleasure to talk to).

Daniël, who had served with me on the Tuks Wargaming Council in 2005, was bubbling with praise for Brandon Sanderson (author of the Mistborn series), talking about his lectures and the idea of having a writing circle of authors who write roughly the same number of words per day/week/month. I really hadn’t seen him this excited since 2008, when the MEAD Legends LARP started up (my friends decided this kind of thing needed to happen in South Africa’s northern parts too).

That afternoon (it was Friday, 24 June), Daniël, Hendrik and I stood in the convention parking lot and founded our (hitherto unnamed) writing circle. It’s a moment that has been graven onto my memory banks, despite looking like nothing special to the bored car guards standing a few metres away.

Since then, we have met two times *cough cough*…but it has made a massive difference to my writing drive.

It led to a long-time friend of mine sending another writer my way and, after a bit of an unpromising start (where I was dreading having to help an aspiring writer through the discovery that they had much to learn), she has changed my writing (style/planning/drive) drastically. At this stage, I can hardly fall asleep at night because my brain is buzzing with ideas and thoughts on how to edit my one flagging story. It feels like rain has fallen on the drought of my writing mind and all forms of new life is springing up faster than I can keep up with.

I can’t wait for the next post I want to write about my epiphany about “show don’t tell”. *bounces around with energy*

 

The Flight of the Phoenix on Unisa Radio

Before 25 July 2015, I had never before been in a radio station studio before. I arrived a good hour early…you know, so I have time to get lost trying to find the campus where it’s situated and then get lost trying to find the right building and the right room and so forth.

It turns out, I used to work on the very campus where Unisa Radio has its building. And it took me all of 5 minutes to find the station’s building inside.

IMG-20150723-01571

Going on air was actually quite relaxing after stressing myself out beforehand. I guess it also helped that our DJ, SindiM, was really easy to talk to and she didn’t ask any questions I wasn’t prepared for.

Unisa Radio SindiM

HJ Kruger, SindiM and Natalie Rivener

To listen to our interview, click here.

Afterwards, true to form, HJ and I spent an hour talking about writing and story ideas. It’s a writer thing – you get lonely sitting behind your PC screen tapping away at the keys. And, when you finally see someone who can relate, you develop instant verbal diarrhoea and overcome all paranoia about the other author stealing your ideas.

Unisa Radio sign

HJ Kruger and Natalie Rivener taking a shameless selfie…haha

The Flight of the Phoenix – podcast

This is your chance to hear me displaying all kinds of bravado on Release the Geek, the official GeekXP.co.za podcast!

GeekXPbadge

Les (from Release the Geek) actually podcast ambushed me one sunny day while I was at home with my son (who was almost 3 months old at the time)…so, you might get to hear a little baby voice here and there. *blush*

All in all, I think it went quite well. And I put my foot in my mouth less often than usual.

Click here to listen to the podcast!

The Flight of the Phoenix – Authors

Last but not least is HJ Kruger. I met this multi-talented artist/writer/designer during my university years. He is an absolutely fascinating creature and I have spent much time marvelling at his art (photography, paintings, stories, designs and more).

He has slaved away hours working on cover and banner designs for The Flight of the Phoenix and we are eternally grateful for his fantastic work.

Here is his interview:

How has your participation in The Flight of the Phoenix changed your approach to writing?
Let me start by saying what an amazing experience it’s been collaborating on this anthology. Flight of the phoenix taught me to be more focused in my writing and also to be more flexible. In developing a story specifically tailored for a publication I leaned to be receptive to constructive criticism and respect the creative process. The best thing of working on this project was the support and developmental feedback from the publisher, Siygrah Books, that always assured me that my story was in the best possible hands from the start.

Is writing a short story much different from screenwriting?
Screen writing is a lot more structured with a more defined format. The use of adverbs and inner dialogue, especially narration, is widely discouraged. Because a screenplay is never supposed to be a piece of literature by itself, it should rather be looked at as the creation of a blueprint that will guide and aid the filming process. When writing a short story I feel a lot freer to explore the minds of my characters and describe their inner realms, something that is sadly absent when you have to tell a story visually.

As the cover designer of the anthology, what was your biggest challenge?
The original image was a stunning hand-drawn image by Elsabé Viljoen; my biggest challenge was to reinvent the image to better suit the market and genre expectations and I think that the process was well worth it and yielded a image that both me and the publisher were happy with.

Get into contact with HJ Kruger:

https://www.facebook.com/hjkrugerwriter

The Flight of the Phoenix – Authors

Ahhh, Richard. The man who set me on the next journey in my writing career. He’s one of those guys who will charm the socks off you. I can’t help but listen to his advice. Heck, today I came home with a tub of coconut oil and a packet of coconut flour just because he was telling me about its amazing baking applications.

Initially, I actually met him because he was my middle sister’s best friend’s little brother (at the time, all I really knew about him was that he kept a rat called Rattex). Try that for a tongue twister! Say “my middle sister’s best friend’s little brother” six times fast!

He kept popping up in my life and I never suspected that he would one day be writing right along with me…and that I would learn so much from him.

Here’s what he had to say when I asked him a few questions:

What was the biggest lesson you learned as a contributor to the anthology?

Each writing project teaches you something about yourself, but a collaborative project can acquaint you with your limits. Limits of personal time management, limits of personal leadership and, more importantly, the limitless potential of a collaborative effort. Writing is usually a solitary affair, but when writing for an anthology it’s not just you. Your work needs to match up to others, so you naturally up your game.

An anthology gives you an opportunity that you also don’t always have readily available, access to other writers and an overarching volume editor. These two parties also have a stake in the quality of the anthology, so they tend to provide focussed and valuable feedback to your work, and you to theirs.

If you have the opportunity to write for an anthology, I’d recommend it. Your co-authors will make you a better writer, and hopefully, so will you them.

What are your current writing projects?

It’s a pretty exciting time, actually. I am writing a series with a co-author, the talented Carmen Dominique Taxer, and simultaneously blogging about the process of writing, post-production, publication, and marketing the series on DauntlessWriting.com. I have the aim of doing this full-time, as opposed to trying to squeeze it in between full-time drudgery at a traditional nine to five. We’re going full indie, taking responsibility for every facet of the creative process. Marketing is creative too! I’m hoping that the non-fiction work will be of some help to others who walk the same path as we are.

The series itself is something that I believe will have seen the light of day if the traditional gatekeepers of the publishing world had their say. The beauty of indie authorpreneurship is the ability to do what you want, when you want to, and not being beholden to someone else’s idea of what will be “worthy” for publication. If traditional publishers were honest with themselves, they would admit that they have no idea what makes one book explode onto the bookshelves of every home in the world and another fizzle back down into obscurity.

The series is called Sanguinem Emere, (which is an archaic legal term that, loosely translated, means redemption bought through blood). It is a Gaslight Vamp series which draws from diverse inspirations, such as from the Anne Rice Vampire Chronicles to A Song of Ice and Fire, to the Steampunk genre, to the classics’ Gothic Horror. Like I said, traditional publishers would have had no idea what to do with this.

If an aspiring author approaches you about writing their first novel, what advice would you share?

ABC. Always Be Creating. There is a reason that the first episode of the Dauntless Writing Podcast is on this topic. The rest of the stuff will follow, just get yourself in the seat and write. Even if you think your writing is no good, even if you think you have a bunch of other stuff to do first, like reading up on craft or publishing. Write, because the best way to get better is by writing. Read up, by all means, but never let that stop you from putting words on paper.

Priority number one is Always Be Creating. You can always make it better later as you learn new skills and techniques.

Contact Richard T Wheeler

His personal website

Dauntless Writing

Vampire Bibliographica

Goodreads

Facebook

Twitter – @RichTWheeler

The Flight of the Phoenix – Editor

Every book has its evil editor and I have the honour of filling that role this time. I sent their stories to beta readers. I made my writers jump through hoops. I made them rewrite whole stories. I demanded pictures, author bios and links to their online presence. I had to strongly resist the urge to drive over to their houses to strangle them.

Being an editor really is no cakewalk. You have to tell people that their pride and joy is riddled with errors and inconsistencies. You  have to wheedle and needle people for stories they promised time and time again and simply did not submit. You have to cajole and encourage and sometimes even berate your writers (friends, family and acquaintances).

I’m not a heartless person. In fact, I have been known to be a real softy. But, goodness, did this anthology make me learn the value of giving a cold shoulder to people you love…and to yourself.

I was among the very last to submit a story. My story’s second round of beta reading happened in the last two weeks of editing the book. And I’m very relieved to say that my feedback meant minimal changes.

During the compilation and and endless editing on The Flight of the Phoenix, I have learned more than I ever expected to. I had a crash course in learning how to use Scribus, an amazing open source programme for desktop publishing. I learned how to publish a book on Amazon and CreateSpace. I had to relearn how things work on Goodreads. I had to rediscover what my preferences were for writing conventions. I had to put my foot down really hard to get things the way I wanted them. And…I learned that Amazon will make us wait 3 months before we get to publish on Smashwords. And publish on Smashwords we will (in October).

My advice to anyone who wants to publish a book:
Get your ducks in a row, it’s not easy. You need to keep to your own deadlines. You need to keep your writers to their deadlines. You need to learn skills you never knew were necessary and things like that take time.

To get your hands on our book, use any of the links above and remember to get your discount code from me on via our Facebook page.