Last week I blogged about the “Do Not Do” list, and thought the topic warranted more discussion. The reason for the list is that, in most cases, avoiding the items are best—for your writing, and especially for your readers.
Tackling the “Show, Don’t Tell” rule in conjunction with use of active rather than passive voice, here is a sentence, perhaps one in the middle of a scene.
Deke was afraid.
This is a passive sentence and a “telling” instance. Let’s remove both weaknesses.
Deke’s hands trembled.
“Trembled” denotes fear, but it can be reaction to other outside forces as well, like cold or a case of nerves.
Deke’s hands trembled, his head [temples] pounding with each heartbeat. Sweat beaded above his upper lip.
(Note: In the above sentence, the word “temples” in brackets tells me, the writer, to make sure I utilize the best word, whether “head” or “temples” or something else—it tells me to stop and look deeper into the nuance of the sentence. I bracket words or phrases during first drafts so as not to halt writing flow).
Maybe a bit more is needed in the above example to flesh out Deke’s character, while adding a little back-story without the dreaded info dump.
Just like the war. He had survived that, and he would survive this—the hope fell hollow and silent.
Adding the hope fell hollow and silent [hope rang dull] shows doubt and desperation, but at this point the reader may or may not know if the threat causing Deke’s fear is real or imagined.
With a little revision, the section now reads,
Deke’s hands trembled, his temples pounding with each heartbeat, sweat beading above his upper lip. Just like the war. He had survived that, and he will survive this—the hope fell hollow and silent.
A slight change at the end adds a question rather than the loss of hope:
He had survived that, and wondered if survival this time required the same action.
Either way, the sentence is longer, but more important than word count, is Deke’s response to fear: Showing Deke’s reaction versus Telling the reader what he feels.
Each writer brings to the keyboard a lifetime of experiences and observations, and depending on how and what they want to reveal will determine how each scene is portrayed.
One writer may choose to write as described, while another might opt for brevity:
Fear crept up Deke’s spine, prickling his scalp just like during the war. Will I run this time?
This last version has a bit of “telling” with the use of the word fear, but then describes Deke’s response—prickling scalp—and informs the reader that the character was in the war (back-story). The question Deke asks himself also adds a question in the reader’s mind: is Deke a deserter, or does he define orders to retreat as running?
Each writer will make these types of choices in a thousand times a thousand instances; creation demands you convey what you want the reader to feel and sense and wonder about.
How you craft sentences will be based on several factors, but much has to do with how your character’s history affects the “now” of the story.
Each version written about Deke causes questions readers will ask themselves; questions prompted in a reader’s mind will draw them to the next sentence, the next paragraph, and the next page to the end of the writing.
Isn’t that what we want?
See you on the next page,
P.S. Of course, you could write the sentence, Deke was afraid (or frightened, or terrified), but is that really what you want to do?
(Knights of Writ’s 50th Blog Post)