Where to Start Your Story – First Page Critique – “Harm to Come”

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Below is an anonymous submission of the first 400 words of a brave author’s work in progress. Read and enjoy. My feedback is on the flip side. Please comment with your constructive criticism. Thank you.

***

On the floor. Broken and alone.

The image had haunted Kit Paterson’s mind for days. No one should die alone.

Viewing Rachel’s crumpled body in her head was harsh enough. Seeing it for real would have been unbearable. Rachel, neighbor and friend, had been thirty-two, eighteen years younger than Kit.

A dog’s sudden barking sent Kit to the windows of her dinette. It wasn’t MuMu’s usual bark. This howl sounded angry.

Kit knew MuMu’s owners weren’t home. She peeked through the blinds to the backyard beside hers. While searching for the Bogarts’ shepherd-lab in the near-darkness, she noticed the next house over, Rachel’s house. A glow came from the living room in back. Kit was certain she’d turned off all lights after boxing Rachel’s possessions for the day. Apparently she hadn’t. She grabbed her keys from the kitchen counter.

Beneath a streetlight, Kit smelled the aroma of smoke in the brisk October wind. She smiled. Smoke from someone’s chimney made autumn official. She wrapped her cardigan close.

MuMu’s frenzied yowls continued.

Feral cats must be prowling the woods, Kit thought. Or maybe coyotes again. She increased her speed.

As she approached Rachel’s one-story home, brightness from the windows on each side of the battered front door caught her attention. The radiance wasn’t steady like a lamp’s. This light danced.

Fire!

Kit snatched her phone from a sweater pocket. She punched 911. The operator asked, “What is your emergency?” Kit shouted the situation.

A drought had dogged Atlanta since spring. What if the fire jumped to the Bogart’s property? To the woods? To the neighborhood behind? The fire station was only a mile away, but she couldn’t wait. MuMu agreed.

Kit tore across Rachel’s lawn, past the garage, toward the rear of the house, where she collided with two people dressed in black. The taller one shoved Kit away. He and the shorter figure dashed to the road.

Kit stood stunned, until the stench of smoke slapped her awake. She ran to the patio off the living room.

A coiled garden hose laid below a faucet, unattached. Kit’s fingers trembled as she placed its end to the spigot. After several attempts, she connected the fittings and spun the faucet wheel to the left. The smell of burning wood and fabric began to overwhelm. Kit covered her nose and mouth with a hand while MuMu crashed against the chain-link fence, raising holy-hell.

FEEDBACK:

I had to reread this one a few times before I got the picture of the action. The brief memory and back story introduction of Rachel’s death had me following a path in the action until I realized there had been a detour back to a barking dog and something happening next door. One of the best tips I ever received from another author—and I’ve certainly read about this tip here at TKZ—is to “Stick with the action.”

The brief flashback to the body of Rachel is too important to gloss over and it’s a distraction from what’s happening in the present. It reads like the dead body is immediately on the page until the reader finds out this is a flashback and back story at the same time. I almost want this story to start with the body and how Kit discovers her dead neighbor. That would sure raise the hair on my neck if the author can put the reader in the moment. Very creepy.

This submission doesn’t do that. It quickly jumps into a dog barking and a fire starting next door, another good place to start. Either could be pulled off effectively, but the combination of both of them gives me the feeling that this intro is rushed and neither approach has enough meat on the bone, so let’s flesh this out.

DEAD BODY START – If the author moved the start of this story back to when Kit first discovers her neighbor Rachel’s dead body, there would need to be a setting established to put the reader into it. Why had Kit gone next door? When did it start to get creepy and why? Picture a harmless reason to call on a neighbor until Kit sees a door cracked open. Stick with the action and draw the reader into every aspect of that frightening experience. Did she scare off the killer? How much did she see of the body?

From there, where would the author go? Kit questioned by detectives, reporters, and the intrusion into Kit’s life. What does it feel like to find a body of someone you knew well and considered a friend? Kit’s reaction might cause her to overreact when a dog barks the next night and she runs to find the house on fire.

The bottom line is that this story seems to have a beginning off the page and only hinted at in the first few lines. That raised questions with me as a crime novel reader. I wanted to know what Kit saw? The dog barking and the fire can be exciting, but what happened to Rachel?

DOG BARKING/FIRE START – If the author decides to start the story at the first sound of a dog barking, that can work, especially if when Kit goes to check on the fire, she finds Rachel’s dead body and the shadow of someone running from the house. Then it would be OFF TO THE RACES.

THE IMPORTANCE OF SETTING – Whether the author chooses to go with the dog barking or the dead body to start this novel, setting can help to titillate the reader’s senses and give meat to the bones of this introduction. This intro is a little sparse for me. Try answering these questions by writing a solution into the introduction and see how much better it will read. It’s important to tease the reader with all their senses to put them into the scene.

Setting Questions:

  • What time of day is it? The first hint of time is in the 5th paragraph where the author references it’s “near-darkness.” We have control over every aspect of this scene. Why not pick total darkness? Anyone setting fire to a house would want to do it under cover of darkness.
  • What is the weather? In the paragraph starting with “Beneath a streetlight,” there’s mention of a brisk October wind. Instead of making this fact add to the mood of the scene and foreshadow what’s coming, the author made the choice for Kit to smell wood burning in a fireplace and it made her feel good. So picture a cold wind making Kit think twice about going outside. It makes her uncomfortable and forces her to bundle up. She’s already at odds with the weather, but her curiosity outweighs the biting chill.
  • What does Rachel’s house look like? Does it foreshadow what Kit might find? If Kit found a body there, going back would make her relive the shock. How would that make her feel? A house where good memories used to be might be cast into a sinister feel if Kit found Rachel dead inside.
  • How does the barking dog react when Kit approaches? If Kit’s going because she’s worried about the strangeness of the dog’s bark, how does the dog react as she approaches? A frenzied dog yapping would put me on edge and cause my adrenaline to hit the red zone, especially if I thought someone lurked inside.
  • How can the setting layer in the feeling of anticipation that something bad is about to happen? Make the reader feel the ramped up tension by layering the dread of something about to happen. Hitchcock was a master at building the anticipation of something bad. He knew how to build and layer. Once the reader (or moviegoer) saw what was behind the door, the tension was gone.

TENSION-FILLED DIALOGUE – Kit is alone for this intro, except for when she calls 911. Instead of focusing on Kit’s side of the call, while she’s frightened and unsure what to say, the author only writes what the calm dispatcher says, “What is your emergency?”

The author also uses a “telling” way to express Kit’s emotion by saying ‘Kit shouted the situation.’ Showing is a more effective way to get the reader engaged and have a visceral reaction to the action in the scene.

Imagine what Kit is feeling and how she might report the fire or a dead body. Her heart would be racing, her adrenaline would be off the charts, and she’d be panting as she tried to find her thoughts. She might speak in short spurts and stumble over words or ramble. What the author envisions for this scene, focus on the most emotional aspect of it—that’s Kit.

PLAUSIBLE ACTION – Toward the end of this intro, Kit encounters two people dressed in black. One of them shoves her. Instead of Kit being fearful of these two people, she races for a garden hose. That didn’t seem rational to me. If I ran into two people who obviously were up to no good, I would be afraid for my life. I wouldn’t be worried about a garden hose. Let the firemen do their job with their big hoses. (Everyone knows they have big hoses.) How gutsy does the author want Kit to be? Does she fight these people? Chase them? There are options for her behavior, but grabbing the garden might be last on Kit’s list if she is a gutsy, smart character.

For Discussion:

  • What constructive feedback would you give to this author, TKZ?

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Key Ways to “Show” Your Character & Not “Tell” on Him – First Page Critique: Palm Beach Nasty

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

This photo makes me want to go on vacation. Let’s take a ride with Crawford, our character in Palm Beach Nasty, a 1st Page Anonymous Submission. Read and enjoy. My feedback follows:

ONE

It turned out Crawford really missed the murder and mayhem up in New York. Which was weird, since the whole reason he’d gone south was to get away from it all.

At age thirty-six, with a bad case of acid reflux, chronic cynicism, and acute burnout, Charlie Crawford had packed up his Upper West Side apartment and headed down to the Sunshine State. He decided on the Keys, the plan being to take up surfing, give the Jimmy Buffett thing a shot. But after three long months of listening to stoned-out beach bums in lame Hawaiian shirts oohing and aahing pretty average sunsets and duding each other to death, Crawford was ready to move on.

So he’d reached out to a handful of Florida law enforcement agencies, and when the Palm Beach Police Department made him an offer, he grabbed it. But almost a year into the job, no one had come close to getting knifed, shot, garroted, or even banged up a little. Christ, what he’d give for a nice facedown stiff, a little rigor setting in. Crawford was drawing a bunch of nowhere cases, which could best be summed up by the one he was writing up now.

It was late afternoon on Halloween, and a call had come in about a possible trespass up on the north end. The north end of Palm Beach was really two places, depending on the exact location. Obscenely rich or doing just fine, thanks. Spectacular houses on the ocean and Intracoastal that started at ten million dollars and went up from there. Or fixer-uppers, on postage-stamp lots at around a million. Recently a Russian fertilizer billionaire had plunked down a shade under a hundred mill for Trump’s monumentally ugly, but colossally huge, ocean spec house.

But despite that, the real estate market had been hit hard when Wall Street collapsed three years before and was still wobbly. Somewhere between anemic and soft, desperately trying to claw its way back to pre crash levels. One of the top brokers in town was whining about having a lousy year—4.8 million in commissions as opposed to over 7 million in ’07. And real estate lawyers quietly grumbled about fewer closings, but even more about a troubling new phenomenon: clients hondling them on their fees. And pity the poor builders, who had traded down from tricked-up ninety-five-thousand-dollar Escalades to basic Ford 150s.

FEEDBACK
Overview – There is an ease to this writer’s voice that I liked. This intro is written in a deep POV that is close to first person. I almost wish it was full blown 1st, to give the character more room to breathe. This character has opinions about everything, which would work for the intimacy of 1st person if the author can tighten the narrative (without too much meandering). Because of the mental meanderings, the pace is significantly slower with a lack of focus for the action or world building.

A good thing to note is that this author can hear the character and is willing to channel him. That’s not an easy thing to get and execute. Kudos.

But how can this author retain the good parts of the character voice, yet not slow the pace? A big part of this resolution is how to introduce a key character by SHOWING rather than TELLING about him.

HOUSEKEEPING:

Where to Start? – The author started with a back story dump, sharing where Crawford had lived in NYC with a subsequent stay in the Keys, then on to police work in Palm Beach. These are all things that can come out later with patience. At the start, it’s too much misdirection without a point. That puts us down to paragraph 4 to search for a place to start–at the body or crime scene and any interesting lead up to that moment–but we get a lesson in real estate and the Wall Street crash. Bottom line, we need a better place to start that can showcase Crawford and his personality, through his actions and his cynical dialogue or banter with his colleagues.

Passive Voice – There were too many uses of ‘was’ and ‘had’ to indicate a past time period, or hint of backstory. ‘Was’ is used 8 times and ‘had’ is used 9 times in 400 words of this introduction. These are words I try to minimize and correct in an edit. It indicates this story should start with the present action and minimize the backstory.

Missing words typos – These are hard to catch. As authors, we are too familiar with our own work and miss words that should be there if we don’t read more carefully or read aloud. Last sentence in 2nd paragraph – “…oohing and aahing AT pretty average sunsets…” (‘At’ is left out.)

But how can this author retain the good parts of the character voice, yet not slow the pace? A big part of this resolution is how to introduce a character.

Key Ways to SHOW your Character rather than TELL On Him:

Try introducing your character like some films do, with big character stars like Capt Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean. Johnny Depp doesn’t merely walk onto the scene and speak his first line, he makes a big intro to SHOW who he is. In mere seconds, we know him and who he’ll be. It takes practice to do this for an author of fiction. I call this “The Defining Scene.”

So imagine who Crawford is when he’s first introduced to this story. Since I like the author’s instincts on voice, I wanted to ask open ended questions for a rewrite of this intro. I didn’t want to influence the author by rewriting it myself. Think of it as a homework assignment, a short exercise.

1.) He’s a transplanted New Yorker with a side trip to the Keys. I can see his NY accent coming through. Are there remnants to his Keys stay? What does he wear in Palm Beach as a former New Yorker?

2.) Crawford is cynical and opinionated. How does this affect his co-workers, the other cops. Is he liked? Does he like them? Is he a loner?

3.) What hobbies does Crawford have? Are these apparent? Does he let other people know about them? What does he dream about? Is he saving for a beach house or a boat? Maybe he works more than one job to save up for something he doesn’t want to share with anyone else. Why did he choose the beach again? Does he miss NYC?

4.) He seems to thrive on crime scenes, being in his element. How does that manifest? Is he overly detailed in his approach or almost too relaxed? Does he communicate on the scene or keep to himself? Does he have a partner? If so, is his partner the same or opposite? Do they get along or not? How does that work for them?

To make Crawford memorable, the author gets a ‘first shot’ at a reader’s first impression. How would the author set the stage?

Below are some things to keep in mind.

  • Devise this crime scene for Crawford to shine or standout. Is it particularly morbid? Has he seen cases like this before? Does he bring NYC bagels and coffee? How does he react versus how others do? Set the stage for Crawford.
  • Give him something to do that will show the reader who he is. When others are turning away, he’s unusually attentive to details of the corpse. Does he have any idiosyncrasies at the scene, like how he treats the victim? Does he notice a stray cat in an alley with a possible clue when no one else does?
  • Make this scene about Crawford and focus on him. Let the reader know how he ticks, his values, his likes and dislikes. Carry these things through the book to take the reader on a journey.
  • Focus on Crawford’s character, more than plot, to give the reader a sense of him in this intro. If the author can devise a way to jump-start the plot (as in the murder scene), then you’ll get two birds with one stone.
  • Build on the energy from the Defining Scene. The reader will make an investment into Crawford going forward.

DISCUSSION:

What feedback would you give this author, TKZers? Is the engaging voice enough to keep you turning the pages?

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Show Don’t Tell! So, show me what that means

By P.J. Parrish

How many times have we all heard this: SHOW DON’T TELL!

I put it all in nice bright letters because those three words are so commonplace in writing workshops that shoot, we might as well put them in neon, right? Ask a writing coach or an editor what the cardinal sin of bad writing is and “telling” is right up there with procrastination. We really get our panties in a wad about it. But let’s stop and take a deep breath here

((((Breathe in pink, breathe out blue…)))

and figure out what SHOW DON’T TELL really means.

Okay, let’s start with a definition because it’s always good to start with specifics.

Show don’t tell means writing in a manner that allows the reader to experience the story through a character’s action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the narrator’s exposition, summarization, and description. The idea is not to be heavy-handed, but to allow issues to emerge from the text instead.

(((((ZZZzzzzzzz))))

And that, my friends, is me telling you what “show don’t tell” is. And now, I’m going to try to show you.
But first, a caveat: Not all telling is bad. Sometimes, you have to tell things in your story. Not every thing that happens in your story is worthy of showing. Some things are best handled in narration:

Boring but necessary physical action
You don’t waste words on stuff like this : “He stared at the phone then slowly depressed the little red button to disconnect the line.” You write: “He hung up.”  Also, you don’t write: “He slowly swung his bare feet to the cold wood floor, scratched himself, yawned, and got out of the bed in an existential funk.” You write: “He got up.”
Boring dialogue
You don’t write:
       “Hello Joe,” he said. “Long time no see.”
       “Yeah, it’s been about two months.”
       “That long, eh?”
       “Yeah.”
       “What you been up to?” he asked.
       “I was carving fishing lures, but the then the wife left me and I found myself living alone and eating and drinking too much.” 
Write (tell) this: He hadn’t seen Joe for two months.  He looked terrible, like he had been living on Big Macs and Jim Beam. Talk around the station was that his wife had left him and he was going crazy sitting at home making fish lures. 

Pure description

This is where you the writer can step in and shine because it is you telling us (in your unique voice), what things look, smell and sound like. But usually, description works best and is more involving for the reader if you can filter it through a character’s point of view. Here are two examples. You tell me which one works best.
Third person POV detached
She looked at Louis. He was twenty-nine and bi-racial, his father white, his mother black. She knew he had grown up as a foster child and had made peace with his mother toward the end of her life, but that his father had deserted him.
Third person POV intimate 
She turned toward him. God, she loved his face. Forceful, high-cheekboned, black brows sitting like emphatic accents over his gray eyes, the left one arching into an exclamation mark when he was amused or surprised. And his skin, smooth and buff-colored, a gift from his beautiful black mother whose picture he had once shown her and his white father, whom he had never mentioned.
    

Backstory

There are a lot of great posts in our TKZ archives about how to deal with backstory. But in terms of “show don’t tell” we have to concede that backstory is essentially telling. And that’s okay. Just do it well, be evocative and be brief because your reader wants to get back to the forward plot momentum. Example:

        The first image that usually came to him when other people started talking about their childhood was a house. Other things came, too. Faces, smells, emotions, mental snapshots of events. But those kinds of memories were fluid, changing for good or bad, depending on how, and when, you chose to look back on them.
But a house was different. It was solid and unchanging, and it allowed people to say “I existed here. My memories are real.”
His image of home had always been a wood frame shack in Mississippi. It was an uncomfortable picture, but one he had held onto for a long time, convinced it symbolized some kind of truth in his life about who he was, or what he should be.

Notice that although this is TELLING, the reader is emotionally involved with the narrating character. And it is short. The very next sentence takes us right back to the present plot.

Okay, so show me already!

Now I’m going to try to show you what I mean by all this with some before and after samples from a workshop I teach on this subject. Number 1 is an excerpt where the setup is a cop standing over a dead body in bayou country.

        Shadows closed around him as the sun played hide-and-seek behind dark clouds. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Impending rain scented the air. Spanish moss fluttered in a sudden breeze that carried with it the cloying acridness of the swampy bayou.
        And at his feet in the vermin-ridden humus lay a young woman. A woman who, until a day or two ago, had hoped, planned, and dreamed. Maybe even loved.
        Now she lay dead. Violently wrestled from life before her time. And it was his job to find her killer.
        He started when, with a flap of wings, a snowy egret soared into the air twenty feet in front of him. As the regal bird disappeared from sight, Kramer couldn’t help but wonder if maybe it was his Jane Doe’s soul wafting to the Land of the Dead. The way the dove in Ulysses had carried Euripides’ soul.
        Despite the day’s heat, a chill seeped through him. Instinctively and unselfconsciously, Kramer crossed himself and wished her soul Godspeed.

Here’s a rewrite of the same scene:

       Shadows closed around him as the sun played hide and seek behind dark clouds. Distant rain scented the still air and Spanish moss hung like wet netting on the giant oaks. The cloying acridness of the bayou was everywhere.
      Kramer wiped the sweat from his brow and  looked down at the dead woman and drew a shallow breath .
      She was the third young woman this year who had been left to rot in the muddy swamps of Louisiana.
      With a sudden rustle of leaves, a snowy egret soared into the air twenty feet in front of him.  Against the slanting sun it appeared little more than a ghostly white blur but still he watched it, oddly comforted by its graceful flight up toward the clouds.
     Then, with a small sigh, he looked back at the woman, closed his burning eyes and crossed himself.
     “God’s speed, ma cherie,” he whispered. “God’s speed.”

Why does the second one work better? Why does it hit our emotions harder? Because the writer got out of the way and let the character’s actions and words move the story along.

Here’s example 2. This is the opening of chapter 1 and the setup is a woman overseeing a parade at Disney World. It’s long but it’s worth analyzing.

        Dorothy Gale got it wrong. Even as a kid, I didn’t understand why she was so hell-bent to hustle herself out of Oz to return to Kansas. Was she crazy? I ached to leave ordinary behind and devoured every magical Frank Baum book in the library. When I was nine, I vowed I’d find the Emerald City one day and I did. The Wizard—or rather Orlando’s theme park industry—set a shiny, incredible Land of Oz at the end of my personal yellow brick road.
Ten years ago, with a fresh college diploma—Go Terps—I’d found my niche and myself when I snagged my first job at Oz. Work felt like play in my fairytale world. And my disappointed parents stopped blaming themselves for those library trips when Oz promoted me to assistant department manager for process improvement. Tonight, we were rolling out a new parade, and for me, the excitement rivaled Christmas Eve.
Churning the humid Florida air, the dancing poppies whirled by in a swirl of red, plum, and purple, so far a flawless debut. Across the Yellow Brick Road, my boss Benjamin flashed me a rare smile and gestured to his stopwatch. The lilting music gave way to the recorded yipping of hundreds of puppies, and forty employees pranced by in shaggy-doggy costumes. Toto’s enormous basket-shaped float reached the corner, and excited children squealed, adding a thousand decibels to the noise.
“Slower, Toto,” I murmured into my mouthpiece. “Turn on three.” I counted and the basket’s driver, hidden deep inside the float, turned with inches to spare. 

Here’s how I would handle it.

      The red and pink poppies danced in the humid Florida air.  The lilting music gave way to the recorded yipping of hundreds of puppies, and forty employees pranced by in shaggy-doggy costumes. Toto’s enormous basket-shaped float reached the corner, and excited children squealed, adding a thousand decibels to the noise.
      Across the Yellow Brick Road, my boss Benjamin flashed me a rare smile and gestured to his stopwatch.  So far, it was a flawless debut. I pressed my clipboard to my chest and smiled.
       God, how I loved it here.
       My own fairy tale world.
       My own private  Oz.
       “Slower, Toto,” I murmured into my mouthpiece. “Turn on three.” I counted and the basket’s driver, hidden deep inside the float, turned with inches to spare.
        My own parade – every day.
        Dorothy got it wrong. Even as a kid, I never understood why she was so hell-bent to get out of Kansas. 

I think the writer got into the scene way too early and it’s way too much exposition “telling” backstory so early in the book. And I think you always save your best line for last. In this case, it was “Dorothy got it wrong.”  The writer opened with it and as such, it’s not not bad. But I think it works better AFTER we know we’re at Disney World. Plus, I like the technique of ending a scene with your best line because it works as an emphasis of the point you are trying to make with your scene. And every scene does have a point, right?
Here’s one more for you to chew on. The set up is an unidentified person creeping through a house after already finding one dead body. We do not know who this is, what gender, or why he/she is there.

         In a large pantry off the kitchen, I found the maid.  She, too, was dead.  From the marks on her neck, my guess was someone had strangled her.  As I completed my trip around the downstairs, I heard a noise from the front of the house, then a call of, “Police.  Anyone here?”  I took a deep breath and started toward the front room.
The cops met me in the hall with the obligatory order to drop my weapon and assume the position against the wall.  I complied and a young patrolman named Johnson explored areas I preferred not touched by a stranger.  However, I understood.  I’d have done the same if I had found anyone during my search, and I wouldn’t have concerned myself about his or her privacy.
Once he finished, I showed my PI credentials. 

In the rewrite, I converted the “tellling” into “showing,” mainly by handling things in dialogue.

         In a large pantry off the kitchen, I found the maid.  She was face down on the marbled floor, arms splayed, feet part, still dressed in her baby blue cotton uniform. I knelt  and when I moved her thick pony tail, I saw a tattered clothesline wrapped tight around her neck. She had no pulse. It hit me that I met her three times on previous visits and yet I could not remember her name.
      “Police! Anyone here?”
      I turned toward the echo of voices, toward the long cavernous hallway that led to the living room. Before I could take a step, I felt a jab of steel against my temple and someone’s hot breath in my ear.
       “Against the wall, lady.”
       “But —”
       “Shut up,” the cop said as he patted around my ass for a weapon. He found my gun, ripped it from its holster and roughly  turned me around.  I didn’t know the officer in front of me but I saw Sgt. Randy Rawls standing in the doorway, trying not too hard to stifle his snicker.
       “She’s okay, Jim,” he said. “Her name is Jenny Smith. She’s a local P.I.”

One more example but it’s one of my favorites. The setup is a TV anchorwoman looking forward to meeting her boyfriend after work. I like it because the writer was so close to getting it right. But he needed to focus in on what I call special details and actions that show (ie illuminate) character.

     Tonight, however, Corrie was looking forward to dinner with Jake.
     Jacob “Jake” Teinman employed a wicked, take-no-prisoners wit.  She found his sense of humor engaging, and delighted when he would elevate one eyebrow while keeping the other straight alerting his target to an oncoming barb.  Corrie truly liked Jake, a lot, but experience taught hard lessons and she had qualms about the two of them as a couple.
      They were awfully different — she: a public persona, trim, career driven, self-centered, frenetic and Irish Catholic; he: private, stocky, successful with a controlled confidence that drove her nuts, and Jewish.  At least that’s how she pictured the two of them.  She wondered if Jake’s version would agree.
      She’d noted they’d been dating exactly one year and he had made reservations at “The 95th” just six blocks from the WWCC studios.  It was sweet of Jake since he knew it was one of her favorite places.

Notice how the rewrite below works better because the same info is conveyed through tighter action and dialogue rather than the writer telling us what is happening.

      Tonight, Corrie was looking forward to dinner with Jake. And as she watched him come in the restaurant door, she smiled. It used to annoy her when people said how different they were. But it was true.
     Jake…
     Stocky. Dark. Jewish. Coming toward her with that confident swagger.
     And her…
     Tall. Blonde. Irish-Catholic. Sitting here wondering if he’d show up.
     He kissed her on the cheek and sat down.
     “You remembered,” she said.
      He frowned. “Remembered what?”
      “That this is my favorite restaurant.”
     He glanced around before the puppy-dog brown eyes came back to hers. “Sure, babe,” he said. “I remember.”

So what do we get from all this? The point I am trying to make here is that whenever you can, filter the story through the consciousness of your character(s). Don’t waste words on dumb physical stuff. Be evocative and fresh in your description. And when it comes to backstory narrative, don’t dwell in the past too long.
Okay, that was telling. Let me show you one more time, this time in an action scene (where you should always show not tell).
TELLING DRAMATIC ACTION
As he was walking slowly down the hotel corridor, someone hit him on the back of the head and pushed him forward. He felt the world go black. His body flailed, hitting the plate glass window and shattering it. The glittering shards caught the throbbing glow of red neon as they fell, like the tails of fading fireworks.
He fell to his knees and looked up into the chiseled face of his attacker. 
SHOWING DRAMATIC ACTION
      He walked with his head bent, scanning the front page of the New York Post. The hallway was dim, the slow blink of the red neon from the lone window lighting his way. 
      The blow came out of nowhere. So quick, so hard, blood filled his mouth as he bit his tongue. He stumbled forward, his head hitting the window. 
       An explosion of sound and glass. A rush of cold air. A flood of warm blood.
       He dropped to his knees and looked up.
       The face above him pulsed red. Then it was gone.

What’s the main problem with the first one? The “telling” is slow-paced and un-viscereal. And if the guy just went through a plate glass window he probably can’t see the glass falling and it sure as heck wouldn’t register in his senses as “glittering shards” and “fading fireworks.” In the second version, the POV is fixed and every detail that IS possible is filtered through the man’s senses.

In summary, here are the pitfalls of TELLING
  1. Narrating the physical movements without being in character’s head.
  2. Use of too many ‘ly’ words in action or in dialog (i.e. She said impatiently, walked slowly, yelled angrily.) 
  3. Use of stock descriptions, purple prose or lengthy descriptions of places (and people) especially those that have no bearing on the plot.  
  4. Too many adjectives and cliches.
  5. Omniscient POV (distancing, describing from an all-seeing POV) The man getting hit on the head cannot see the glass as it falls six stories to the ground.)
Here are the strengths of SHOWING
  1. Action that uses the senses, stays within the character’s consciousness and uses words and phrases that reinforce the mood of the scene.
  2. Strong verbs.  (Walked vs Jogged, Ran vs Raced, Shut the door vs Slammed the door.)
  3. Original images and vivid descriptions that are filtered through the character’s senses in the present.
  4. One compelling adjective vs. a string of mediocre ones.
  5. Keep POV firmly in character’s head. (Establishes sympathy and connects emotionally.)
As usual, I have flapped my lips and overstayed my welcome. It is 7:30 p.m. There is pizza and a glass of pinot with my name on it out there and a chapter 12 that needs to be finished.  Don’t tell me to stop. Someone needs to show me the way to go home. 

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Show Don’t Tell! So, show me what that means

By P.J. Parrish

How many times have we all heard this: SHOW DON’T TELL!

I put it all in nice bright letters because those three words are so commonplace in writing workshops that shoot, we might as well put them in neon, right? Ask a writing coach or an editor what the cardinal sin of bad writing is and “telling” is right up there with procrastination. We really get our panties in a wad about it. But let’s stop and take a deep breath here

((((Breathe in pink, breathe out blue…)))

and figure out what SHOW DON’T TELL really means.

Okay, let’s start with a definition because it’s always good to start with specifics.

Show don’t tell means writing in a manner that allows the reader to experience the story through a character’s action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the narrator’s exposition, summarization, and description. The idea is not to be heavy-handed, but to allow issues to emerge from the text instead.

(((((ZZZzzzzzzz))))

And that, my friends, is me telling you what “show don’t tell” is. And now, I’m going to try to show you.
But first, a caveat: Not all telling is bad. Sometimes, you have to tell things in your story. Not every thing that happens in your story is worthy of showing. Some things are best handled in narration:

Boring but necessary physical action
You don’t waste words on stuff like this : “He stared at the phone then slowly depressed the little red button to disconnect the line.” You write: “He hung up.”  Also, you don’t write: “He slowly swung his bare feet to the cold wood floor, scratched himself, yawned, and got out of the bed in an existential funk.” You write: “He got up.”
Boring dialogue
You don’t write:
       “Hello Joe,” he said. “Long time no see.”
       “Yeah, it’s been about two months.”
       “That long, eh?”
       “Yeah.”
       “What you been up to?” he asked.
       “I was carving fishing lures, but the then the wife left me and I found myself living alone and eating and drinking too much.” 
Write (tell) this: He hadn’t seen Joe for two months.  He looked terrible, like he had been living on Big Macs and Jim Beam. Talk around the station was that his wife had left him and he was going crazy sitting at home making fish lures. 

Pure description

This is where you the writer can step in and shine because it is you telling us (in your unique voice), what things look, smell and sound like. But usually, description works best and is more involving for the reader if you can filter it through a character’s point of view. Here are two examples. You tell me which one works best.
Third person POV detached
She looked at Louis. He was twenty-nine and bi-racial, his father white, his mother black. She knew he had grown up as a foster child and had made peace with his mother toward the end of her life, but that his father had deserted him.
Third person POV intimate 
She turned toward him. God, she loved his face. Forceful, high-cheekboned, black brows sitting like emphatic accents over his gray eyes, the left one arching into an exclamation mark when he was amused or surprised. And his skin, smooth and buff-colored, a gift from his beautiful black mother whose picture he had once shown her and his white father, whom he had never mentioned.
    

Backstory

There are a lot of great posts in our TKZ archives about how to deal with backstory. But in terms of “show don’t tell” we have to concede that backstory is essentially telling. And that’s okay. Just do it well, be evocative and be brief because your reader wants to get back to the forward plot momentum. Example:

        The first image that usually came to him when other people started talking about their childhood was a house. Other things came, too. Faces, smells, emotions, mental snapshots of events. But those kinds of memories were fluid, changing for good or bad, depending on how, and when, you chose to look back on them.
But a house was different. It was solid and unchanging, and it allowed people to say “I existed here. My memories are real.”
His image of home had always been a wood frame shack in Mississippi. It was an uncomfortable picture, but one he had held onto for a long time, convinced it symbolized some kind of truth in his life about who he was, or what he should be.

Notice that although this is TELLING, the reader is emotionally involved with the narrating character. And it is short. The very next sentence takes us right back to the present plot.

Okay, so show me already!

Now I’m going to try to show you what I mean by all this with some before and after samples from a workshop I teach on this subject. Number 1 is an excerpt where the setup is a cop standing over a dead body in bayou country.

        Shadows closed around him as the sun played hide-and-seek behind dark clouds. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Impending rain scented the air. Spanish moss fluttered in a sudden breeze that carried with it the cloying acridness of the swampy bayou.
        And at his feet in the vermin-ridden humus lay a young woman. A woman who, until a day or two ago, had hoped, planned, and dreamed. Maybe even loved.
        Now she lay dead. Violently wrestled from life before her time. And it was his job to find her killer.
        He started when, with a flap of wings, a snowy egret soared into the air twenty feet in front of him. As the regal bird disappeared from sight, Kramer couldn’t help but wonder if maybe it was his Jane Doe’s soul wafting to the Land of the Dead. The way the dove in Ulysses had carried Euripides’ soul.
        Despite the day’s heat, a chill seeped through him. Instinctively and unselfconsciously, Kramer crossed himself and wished her soul Godspeed.

Here’s a rewrite of the same scene:

       Shadows closed around him as the sun played hide and seek behind dark clouds. Distant rain scented the still air and Spanish moss hung like wet netting on the giant oaks. The cloying acridness of the bayou was everywhere.
      Kramer wiped the sweat from his brow and  looked down at the dead woman and drew a shallow breath .
      She was the third young woman this year who had been left to rot in the muddy swamps of Louisiana.
      With a sudden rustle of leaves, a snowy egret soared into the air twenty feet in front of him.  Against the slanting sun it appeared little more than a ghostly white blur but still he watched it, oddly comforted by its graceful flight up toward the clouds.
     Then, with a small sigh, he looked back at the woman, closed his burning eyes and crossed himself.
     “God’s speed, ma cherie,” he whispered. “God’s speed.”

Why does the second one work better? Why does it hit our emotions harder? Because the writer got out of the way and let the character’s actions and words move the story along.

Here’s example 2. This is the opening of chapter 1 and the setup is a woman overseeing a parade at Disney World. It’s long but it’s worth analyzing.

        Dorothy Gale got it wrong. Even as a kid, I didn’t understand why she was so hell-bent to hustle herself out of Oz to return to Kansas. Was she crazy? I ached to leave ordinary behind and devoured every magical Frank Baum book in the library. When I was nine, I vowed I’d find the Emerald City one day and I did. The Wizard—or rather Orlando’s theme park industry—set a shiny, incredible Land of Oz at the end of my personal yellow brick road.
Ten years ago, with a fresh college diploma—Go Terps—I’d found my niche and myself when I snagged my first job at Oz. Work felt like play in my fairytale world. And my disappointed parents stopped blaming themselves for those library trips when Oz promoted me to assistant department manager for process improvement. Tonight, we were rolling out a new parade, and for me, the excitement rivaled Christmas Eve.
Churning the humid Florida air, the dancing poppies whirled by in a swirl of red, plum, and purple, so far a flawless debut. Across the Yellow Brick Road, my boss Benjamin flashed me a rare smile and gestured to his stopwatch. The lilting music gave way to the recorded yipping of hundreds of puppies, and forty employees pranced by in shaggy-doggy costumes. Toto’s enormous basket-shaped float reached the corner, and excited children squealed, adding a thousand decibels to the noise.
“Slower, Toto,” I murmured into my mouthpiece. “Turn on three.” I counted and the basket’s driver, hidden deep inside the float, turned with inches to spare. 

Here’s how I would handle it.

      The red and pink poppies danced in the humid Florida air.  The lilting music gave way to the recorded yipping of hundreds of puppies, and forty employees pranced by in shaggy-doggy costumes. Toto’s enormous basket-shaped float reached the corner, and excited children squealed, adding a thousand decibels to the noise.
      Across the Yellow Brick Road, my boss Benjamin flashed me a rare smile and gestured to his stopwatch.  So far, it was a flawless debut. I pressed my clipboard to my chest and smiled.
       God, how I loved it here.
       My own fairy tale world.
       My own private  Oz.
       “Slower, Toto,” I murmured into my mouthpiece. “Turn on three.” I counted and the basket’s driver, hidden deep inside the float, turned with inches to spare.
        My own parade – every day.
        Dorothy got it wrong. Even as a kid, I never understood why she was so hell-bent to get out of Kansas. 

I think the writer got into the scene way too early and it’s way too much exposition “telling” backstory so early in the book. And I think you always save your best line for last. In this case, it was “Dorothy got it wrong.”  The writer opened with it and as such, it’s not not bad. But I think it works better AFTER we know we’re at Disney World. Plus, I like the technique of ending a scene with your best line because it works as an emphasis of the point you are trying to make with your scene. And every scene does have a point, right?
Here’s one more for you to chew on. The set up is an unidentified person creeping through a house after already finding one dead body. We do not know who this is, what gender, or why he/she is there.

         In a large pantry off the kitchen, I found the maid.  She, too, was dead.  From the marks on her neck, my guess was someone had strangled her.  As I completed my trip around the downstairs, I heard a noise from the front of the house, then a call of, “Police.  Anyone here?”  I took a deep breath and started toward the front room.
The cops met me in the hall with the obligatory order to drop my weapon and assume the position against the wall.  I complied and a young patrolman named Johnson explored areas I preferred not touched by a stranger.  However, I understood.  I’d have done the same if I had found anyone during my search, and I wouldn’t have concerned myself about his or her privacy.
Once he finished, I showed my PI credentials. 

In the rewrite, I converted the “tellling” into “showing,” mainly by handling things in dialogue.

         In a large pantry off the kitchen, I found the maid.  She was face down on the marbled floor, arms splayed, feet part, still dressed in her baby blue cotton uniform. I knelt  and when I moved her thick pony tail, I saw a tattered clothesline wrapped tight around her neck. She had no pulse. It hit me that I met her three times on previous visits and yet I could not remember her name.
      “Police! Anyone here?”
      I turned toward the echo of voices, toward the long cavernous hallway that led to the living room. Before I could take a step, I felt a jab of steel against my temple and someone’s hot breath in my ear.
       “Against the wall, lady.”
       “But —”
       “Shut up,” the cop said as he patted around my ass for a weapon. He found my gun, ripped it from its holster and roughly  turned me around.  I didn’t know the officer in front of me but I saw Sgt. Randy Rawls standing in the doorway, trying not too hard to stifle his snicker.
       “She’s okay, Jim,” he said. “Her name is Jenny Smith. She’s a local P.I.”

One more example but it’s one of my favorites. The setup is a TV anchorwoman looking forward to meeting her boyfriend after work. I like it because the writer was so close to getting it right. But he needed to focus in on what I call special details and actions that show (ie illuminate) character.

     Tonight, however, Corrie was looking forward to dinner with Jake.
     Jacob “Jake” Teinman employed a wicked, take-no-prisoners wit.  She found his sense of humor engaging, and delighted when he would elevate one eyebrow while keeping the other straight alerting his target to an oncoming barb.  Corrie truly liked Jake, a lot, but experience taught hard lessons and she had qualms about the two of them as a couple.
      They were awfully different — she: a public persona, trim, career driven, self-centered, frenetic and Irish Catholic; he: private, stocky, successful with a controlled confidence that drove her nuts, and Jewish.  At least that’s how she pictured the two of them.  She wondered if Jake’s version would agree.
      She’d noted they’d been dating exactly one year and he had made reservations at “The 95th” just six blocks from the WWCC studios.  It was sweet of Jake since he knew it was one of her favorite places.

Notice how the rewrite below works better because the same info is conveyed through tighter action and dialogue rather than the writer telling us what is happening.

      Tonight, Corrie was looking forward to dinner with Jake. And as she watched him come in the restaurant door, she smiled. It used to annoy her when people said how different they were. But it was true.
     Jake…
     Stocky. Dark. Jewish. Coming toward her with that confident swagger.
     And her…
     Tall. Blonde. Irish-Catholic. Sitting here wondering if he’d show up.
     He kissed her on the cheek and sat down.
     “You remembered,” she said.
      He frowned. “Remembered what?”
      “That this is my favorite restaurant.”
     He glanced around before the puppy-dog brown eyes came back to hers. “Sure, babe,” he said. “I remember.”

So what do we get from all this? The point I am trying to make here is that whenever you can, filter the story through the consciousness of your character(s). Don’t waste words on dumb physical stuff. Be evocative and fresh in your description. And when it comes to backstory narrative, don’t dwell in the past too long.
Okay, that was telling. Let me show you one more time, this time in an action scene (where you should always show not tell).
TELLING DRAMATIC ACTION
As he was walking slowly down the hotel corridor, someone hit him on the back of the head and pushed him forward. He felt the world go black. His body flailed, hitting the plate glass window and shattering it. The glittering shards caught the throbbing glow of red neon as they fell, like the tails of fading fireworks.
He fell to his knees and looked up into the chiseled face of his attacker. 
SHOWING DRAMATIC ACTION
      He walked with his head bent, scanning the front page of the New York Post. The hallway was dim, the slow blink of the red neon from the lone window lighting his way. 
      The blow came out of nowhere. So quick, so hard, blood filled his mouth as he bit his tongue. He stumbled forward, his head hitting the window. 
       An explosion of sound and glass. A rush of cold air. A flood of warm blood.
       He dropped to his knees and looked up.
       The face above him pulsed red. Then it was gone.

What’s the main problem with the first one? The “telling” is slow-paced and un-viscereal. And if the guy just went through a plate glass window he probably can’t see the glass falling and it sure as heck wouldn’t register in his senses as “glittering shards” and “fading fireworks.” In the second version, the POV is fixed and every detail that IS possible is filtered through the man’s senses.

In summary, here are the pitfalls of TELLING
  1. Narrating the physical movements without being in character’s head.
  2. Use of too many ‘ly’ words in action or in dialog (i.e. She said impatiently, walked slowly, yelled angrily.) 
  3. Use of stock descriptions, purple prose or lengthy descriptions of places (and people) especially those that have no bearing on the plot.  
  4. Too many adjectives and cliches.
  5. Omniscient POV (distancing, describing from an all-seeing POV) The man getting hit on the head cannot see the glass as it falls six stories to the ground.)
Here are the strengths of SHOWING
  1. Action that uses the senses, stays within the character’s consciousness and uses words and phrases that reinforce the mood of the scene.
  2. Strong verbs.  (Walked vs Jogged, Ran vs Raced, Shut the door vs Slammed the door.)
  3. Original images and vivid descriptions that are filtered through the character’s senses in the present.
  4. One compelling adjective vs. a string of mediocre ones.
  5. Keep POV firmly in character’s head. (Establishes sympathy and connects emotionally.)
As usual, I have flapped my lips and overstayed my welcome. It is 7:30 p.m. There is pizza and a glass of pinot with my name on it out there and a chapter 12 that needs to be finished.  Don’t tell me to stop. Someone needs to show me the way to go home. 

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