Change Your Telling into Showing: A Tiny Example of Show, Don’t Tell

As I mentioned yesterday, I’m working on edits for a short story due in by April 30th–egads, that’s tonight!–for the Thunder on the Battlefield sword and sorcery anthology being put out by Seventh Star Press.

I ran across a section in the story that needed more description and explanation:

The trees grew too close together, hampering flight. Arrows whizzed past them. Another soldier fell.

Davian’s mind raced as he jumped over the root….

(Note: A quick explanation for those of you unfamiliar with my Elysian Chronicles. My characters are cherubians (angels), and they are being chased by mornachts (demons). (You’ll want to click on the links for an explanation of both species.))

Here are a few problems I found with that sentence:

  • It “tells” instead of “shows.” In a huge battle with lots of soldiers, me throwing an “Another soldier fell” sentence out there works fine. However, Davian is down to six soldiers. Each life matters. I can’t just have one of them die without giving the reader a reasonable explanation for how it happens.
  • It cheapens the life of this particular soldier. If you are dealing with unimportant characters, glossing over their death or their trouble might be fine. However, because this is one of Davian’s only surviving soldiers, and the first under his command, Davian would remember this death specifically.
  • It fails to evoke emotional reaction in the reader.
  • It misses an opportunity to show how evil my mornachts are. I could show more character with this if I work it right.
  • This story’s audience demands more visceral details. My Elysian Chronicles audience spans ages 9 on up to adult. I have to tread carefully with the violence. I often say that the body count in a Pirates of the Caribbean movie is about the same as that in The Gladiator. The two differ in how they portray violence. The Gladiator shows more visceral images–more blood, more of the horrific aspects of swordplay. Pirates of the Caribbean makes little boys want to be pirates. In this anthology, I have been asked to rev up the violence a bit and share the details that I might withhold from my novels. Because of this, “Another soldier fell,” simply won’t cut it.

The Fix:

The fix sounds simple, but is actually complicated. I need to add more details regarding how this soldier dies, but I need to take into account:

  • Pacing: Davian and Co. are flying through a woods trying to escape mornachts. It’s high-speed. My pacing needs to be slightly quick. I can’t spend twelve sentences describing this person’s death. That, and it’s a short story, which always has shorter pacing.
  • Word count: I can’t waste words on this person. I haven’t even named him. I need to get in and get out with as few words as possible while still giving the reader (and my editor) enough visceral details to sink his teeth into.
  • Point of View: The story takes place from Davian’s point of view. If he doesn’t see it, my readers don’t get to see it. Davian is currently flying/running for his life through a forest where one improper turn could make him trip or send him careening into a tree or a boulder. He must keep his attention in front of him. If a soldier falls to the ground dead, Davian can’t turn around to watch. (Note: In the story, I’ve already established that getting hit with a mornacht arrow will kill no matter what, so the soldier is as good as dead when he falls.) I have to describe what happens to this soldier from Davian’s perspective only.

Here were my changes. It’s not perfect yet, and it will go through another round of editing tonight, but I figured I would show you what I’ve done to fix the problem so far.

The trees grew too close together, hampering flight. Arrows whizzed past them. One hit a solider in the side. He tumbled to the ground with a pained roar. Mornachts and wolves seized him, and his cry melded with their howls and shrieks.

Davian dared not look behind, and he refused to let himself imagine the torture the soldier was enduring. His mind raced…

It’s not the most visceral, violent thing I’ve written, especially in this story, but it conveys the horror of these creatures and gets me closer to meeting my audience’s expectations. (I’ve found the power of suggestion can create a more intense image in the reader’s mind than words alone.) It also shows a bit of Davian’s mindset–well, as much as I can show in as few words as possible. Davian is horrified by the death, but he has to keep focus to keep the rest of the team alive.

Fantasy novelist M. B. Weston is the author of The Elysian Chronicles, a fantasy series about guardian angel warfare and treason. Weston hosts The Final Cut in Movies, an radio talk show about science fiction and fantasy movies that airs on 740 am WSBR. The Final Cut in movies can also be heard  on iTunes.  Weston speaks to children, teens, and adults about writing and the process of getting published. For more information on M. B. Weston, visit www.mbweston.com. Find out more about The Elysian Chronicles at www.elysianchronicles.com.

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About M. B. Weston

M. B. Weston is an award-winning fantasy, pulp, young adult, steampunk, and paranormal author. Her attention to procedure and detail gives her works an authentic gritty, military feel that takes an adventure tale to the level of a true page-turner. Weston’s writing attracts both fantasy and non-fantasy readers, and her audience ranges from upper-elementary students to adults. A gifted orator, Weston has been invited as a guest speaker to numerous writing and science fiction/fantasy panels at conventions across the US, including DragonCon, BabelCon, NecronomiCon, and Alabama Phoenix Festival. She has served on panels with such authors as Sherrilyn Kenyon, J. F. Lewis, Todd McCaffrey, and Jonathan Maberry. Weston has spoken to thousands of students and adults about the craft of writing and has been invited as the keynote speaker at youth camps and at several schools throughout the US.
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