Oh Please, Do Tell

 

Show, don’t tell. Put the reader in the moment. Activate the senses with detail. Be specific.

These are all necessary lessons and they’re repeated like a common mantra in just about every creative writing course. It’s not bad advice. There’s nothing wrong with learning how to show a character with action or set the theme with an image of the natural elements. But when writing is burdened with too much showy detail, it’s more distraction than illumination.

What if the slap of frigid cold air, the sting from the stench of rancid cooking oil, sweat dripping, palms itching, nose twitching and fingers fidgeting was all crammed into the first page of a story? Does the reader really need to be reminded of every bodily function a human being could feel in a ten second interval?

Gravy

Gravy (Photo credit: Knile)

“Show, don’t tell” can persuade the beginning writer to add oodles of boring minutia, killing the pleasure of the story, and overwhelming the plot. It’s detail for detail’s sake and the results are typically clumsy and amateurish. I know because that’s the feedback I received from an early piece. It didn’t have details sprinkled or woven into the story. Rather it was image after image, ladled on like thick gravy covering the main course.

I had over-learned the lesson “show, don’t tell.”

Slenderly, languidly, their hands set lightly on their hips, the two young women preceded us out onto a rosy-colored porch, open toward the sunset, where four candles flickered on the table in the diminished wind.

This famous passage from The Great Gatsby is in the first chapter when Daisy and her cousin are sauntering out to the patio. It captures the setting wonderfully and deserves its place up on the literary pedestal of imagery par excellence.

chase: 100 pts: the great gatsby

chase: 100 pts: the great gatsby (Photo credit: emdot)

But well before this lovely sentence Fitzgerald had used a “tell”, so plain and effective, it laid the foundation for the showy parts to work their magic.

Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction—Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.

The narrator had already pulled us into the story by telling us who he is, and how a certain man had altered his moral compass.

And this is the lesson I wish I’d heard early on—writing is all about how to balance show and tell.

Narration, exposition, stream of consciousness are needed to move the story along or reveal an internal frame of mind. Learning to write narrative that doesn’t sound like a lecture or feel heavy handed and intrusive, that skill is possibly the most important. Because a string of images needs a narrative spine to hold the story together.

... it was the season of Darkness

… it was the season of Darkness (Photo credit: Avital Pinnick)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …

Can’t you just see young Dickens in a creative writing class at his local community college? He turns in the first chapter to A Tale of Two Cities only to be told the opening lines are too general and excessively broad. The instructor hates the comma splices and suggests he try to give a specific example, to learn to “show, don’t tell”.

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Story Forge – Opportunities of War

A few months ago we used the Story Forge Cards to come up with a story outline for Film Noir. Several of us in our writing group each looked at the same card layout and created our own story. Two have already been posted, and here is mine. And I’ll mention it has some NSFW language in it, since we don’t normally have that on here.

Meet Me... by DomiKetu

Meet Me… by DomiKetu

The man in the long coat took a deep pull from his cigarette and blew the smoke in towards the tavern across the street. Bright light and raucous noise spilled from it out into the night. There was other noise on the street that night, but none other sounded of fun. “Are you going to go? Or no?”

The young woman next to him bit her lip, but her eyes were firm. “Yes,” she said. “I can do this.” While the man leaned casually against the wall at the end of an alley, she stood at his side tense and stiff. As if she might bolt at any moment.

The man smiled at her. Not a warm smile, not a comforting one, but a thin smile of agreement. “Good. There will be many soldiers there tonight. Many have not seen a pretty woman in a long time, so you will be… popular.”

The woman nodded. “I can handle randy men.”

The man shook his head. “No, their lust isn’t your problem. Most of them are fodder. They know nothing. You want to make this work, you need to get to someone important.  Then let your wiles do their work.”

“I’m supposed to be a serving girl, how do I ignore everyone wanting ale?”

Shrugging, the man took another drag from his cigarette. “This is not my problem. I only get you in there, get you hired. I create opportunities. That is me. How to spy? That is you.”

“You say you don’t care about either side in this war, but I know you do. Getting me in there with the new offensives coming will be invaluable for us. This name, this job, had to be nearly impossible to do. You care. I know you do.” She touched his arm.

“It was not as difficult as all that,” the man said, smiling again.

“You care. I know you do. Now… I must get to work. Thank you,” she said, sliding across the dirty and noisy street to the tavern.

The man in the long coat watched her enter the tavern. He blew smoke up into the darkness, listening to the yells and catcalls from across the street.

A few minutes later another figure appeared in the alley behind the man in the long coat. The new figure stayed deep in the shadows.

“She will give you what you need, Captain?” asked the man in the long coat.

“She’s perfect. When I uncover her as a spy we will not only get valuable information, but I will surely get a promotion.”

“And what of her when you are done?”

“Kill her, of course,” said the Captain. “What of it?”

“I could use her. A woman like that could fetch a good price.”

“Good price? As one of your whores?” The Captain laughed. “After we interrogate her she will not be nearly so attractive.”

“This is wartime, Captain. Even you might be surprised what men will pay good coin to stick their cock into.”

“So you will make money selling her again and again. You are a harsh man. You fit this war well,” said the Captain.

The man in the long coat flung his cigarette butt into the gutter. “Your war means nothing to me, but it does force me to get creative in finding… opportunities. Good night, Captain.”

 ###

This ended up being a bit darker than the things I usually write, but that’s one thing I like about writing exercises like this – they take you in directions you don’t normally explore on your own. The hardest piece of the story to work out for me was the “betrayal” in the first card, but once I sorted that out the rest fell into place, and I think I covered every card in the layout.

Story Forge – A Soldier in Southfield

This is the second short story written from our Film Noir Story Forge layout. Our group each took the same layout as a starting point, but came up with very different stories. You can read all of our Story Forge pieces here.

Never Gonna Cry Again 2 by alphadesigner

Never Gonna Cry Again 2 by alphadesigner

It could have happened anywhere in the country but this particular incident took place in Southfield, Michigan. It’s a common enough story about a soldier returning home, leaving the war zone but not the war.

Not long after Lieutenant Colonel Chris Bradley retired from the Army, surviving three tours overseas, twice in Afghanistan and once in Iraq, he settled into the family home that his parents had abandoned for Florida. His childhood neighborhood didn’t exist any longer, now as foreign as the dry barren terrain of the Middle East. The houses on both sides were occupied by people from a different culture, the Islamic culture that had baffled him in its place of origin, and was even more puzzling here in the old stomping grounds of Southfield.

The house that was closest to Bradley’s was occupied by a couple from Pakistan with three children and a pair of parents, his mother and her father, all living under one roof. They were quiet and didn’t disturb anyone. The basketball hoop over the garage went unused and they were rarely seen, the women especially. Occasionally Chris would see the son walking home from school, a slender boy with a slight limp named Ahmed.

Only one other neighbor from his childhood hadn’t sold out. Mr. Vincent lived across the street. He sat on his porch most evening, luring Chris over with beers, a game of checkers and talk of the old neighborhood. It was ironic because Chris had been frightened of Mr. Vincent—years ago he’d seemed ancient and imposing to his adolescent’s mind.

Mr. Vincent wove story after story of the onslaught against the American culture, the threats to the Judeo-Christian heritage Chris had fought for. He sat listening to Mr. Vincent rail against the neighbors, his parents included, for moving away so they didn’t have to see the takeover of Islam.

One evening while they were on Mr. Vincent’s porch, there was screaming next door. A hysterical young woman, wearing a head scarf but with her face uncovered, came running out the front door screaming. Her clothes were on fire. On reflex, Chris stood up and ran to help. He pushed her to the ground and rolled her body in the grass, using his own body to extinguish the flames.  The smell of kerosene was unmistakable.

No one emerged from inside the house where the women came from. Mr. Vincent stood at the edge of his porch, looking on.

“Call 9-11,” Chris yelled. Others had come out of their homes but no one moved.

His truck was in the driveway. Chris scooped the young woman into his arms and rushed her to the passenger side of his truck.  The truck screeched as he backed out and swung around, leaving tire marks as he headed toward the hospital.

She wailed and moaned in the seat and when Chris tried to ask her in how it happened, all she did was scream and cry. The smell of kerosene filled the truck, but he didn’t ask, only staring at her face, twisted in pain.

There was a bronze tone in her skin and she had a long straight nose with close set eyes. There were flecks of green in the light honey colored pupils, flecks of beauty shining through the pain. Even in anguish she was lovely and he wanted desperately to make her pain go away, to see her smile.

Chris drove straight to the area where the ambulances dropped off the urgent cases. When the doctors began to ask what happened, she whimpered in what Chris recognized as an Afghanistan dialect of Pashto. He would find out later she was brought to Southfield by her husband and his family.

The only English the young woman spoke were fragments of worry that there was no money for doctors. His heart clenched like a fist, hating how their culture treated women, knowing the husband and his family must have abused this innocent young woman.

The police were called and when questioned, Chris revealed his suspicions, the smell of an accelerant.

He’d seen the family before, the men coming and going, the women covered when they left the house. There were at least a half dozen people living in the home. He knew the burning wasn’t an accident, but a punishment gone wrong.

Her name was Sabia; it meant pretty girl. He waited until she was in a room resting. The heavy clothes had protected her body. A yellowish ointment was smeared over her arms, chest and hands. Incoherent she jabbered and mumbled in a half sleep. He couldn’t understand all the words but he knew what her cries meant. For no rational reason Chris made a promise to himself that he’d keep her safe. He used the smattering of Pashto he knew to soothe her and then he left the hospital full of thoughts of how to take care of her after her release. She couldn’t go home and it didn’t seem wise to have her move into his house, directly across the street from the family who tried to burn her to death. Maybe a shelter for abused women.

When he arrived home, a police car was parked on the street and a news van from the local television station was in front of his house.

Mr. Vincent was still on his porch and Chris climbed up the steps, leery of the news crew. The other neighbors were out, mostly dark skinned men in small groups, smoking cigarettes and talking amongst themselves. He saw a woman in a burka move away from the window inside Sabia’s house.

Before Chris could ask Mr. Vincent what had happened, the police were walking a young man in handcuffs out of Sabia’s house. The man was being led out of the garage and down the short driveway toward a patrol car. The news team moved quickly, the cameraman jogging after the reporter as they tried to get a shot of the man whom Chris assumed was Sabia’s husband. He was short with a round belly, dressed in slacks and a gray shirt, with the same oily black hair and dark skin Chris had lived among for years, fought for their freedom.

Mr. Vincent popped the cap off another beer. After the police drove off, the reporter came into Mr. Vincent’s yard, the camera man in tow. Up close Chris recognized a veteran news caster he’d grown up watching. Soon it was revealed Chris was the hero who’d saved the young woman’s life. There were questions and comments, gushing of praise and pride in a hometown soldier making Southfield proud. Then it came out that the reporter had learned from the Muslim neighbors that the argument started because someone had spread rumors of Sabia’s infidelity. She’d been seen sneaking off to take English classes at the local high school. Pictures of her in the company of other men had been given to her husband.

Listening to the story, Chris felt more compelled to rescue Sabia from her barbaric husband and his vile family.

After the news team left and the neighbors returned to their homes, only Chris was there with Mr. Vincent.

The older man offered another beer but Chris declined. All he could think about was Sabia. He’d go early tomorrow to see her. His mind began planning for a future with Sabia—his heart had taken a leap he couldn’t retreat from now.

He’d have to sell the house as he’d need to get her away from Southfield. How far did would they have to go to ensure her safety?

“You should have left it alone,” Mr. Vincent said. “Why’d you have to go sticking your nose where it didn’t belong, soldier?”

Chris looked over, pulled out of a reverie of possibilities.

“What? She might have died, or been disfigured.”

“Yeah, well it happens all the time. Proves what heathens they are. Same thing happened just before you came home. Right around the corner—a man and his wife bludgeoned their daughter to death because she was seen dancing with a black man. Let nature take its course. It’s the only way we’ll clean up the neighborhood.”

Chris couldn’t believe what he was hearing, suddenly struck with the same apprehension towards Mr. Vincent he’d had as a child.

“He’ll be deported now at least. Time to move on to the next one.”

Chris stared at Mr. Vincent. He was sitting rigid in the chair, facing the street, his eyes sweeping over to the house next door to Chris’s place.

“You know that kid?”

Chris nodded.

“What’s his name?” Mr. Vincent asked.

“Ahmed,” Chris said.

“He’s a queer, don’t you think?”

“What makes you say that?”

“I can always tell. I knew that younger Kowalski boy was queer as a three dollar bill before he did. You can tell. It’s all over ‘em like flies on dog shit.”

“What are you saying?”

There was silence as Mr. Vincent lifted the beer can to his lips. He took a swallow and then slowly said, “It’s not too hard really, to use their own perverted culture against them.”

~~~

Story Forge is like tarot cards for creative writing. The Protagonist in this scenario was the Betrayal card and I couldn’t fix on a character with that description. Looking at the lay-out, the Officer card (7) sticks out like a handle. That’s where I latched onto the main character. The double-cross, the cruel twist of fate and the tragic outcome certainly pushed me to come up with a more complex story.  Up next is Jeff Moriarty’s version of this Film Noir Story Forge.

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Story Forge – Scales and Betrayals

The following was written from a Story Forge card layout.  To see what Story Forge is all about, see the first post in this series. You can see all of our Story Forge inspired pieces here.

Bacon-wrapped filet mignon

Bacon-wrapped filet mignon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I should have known it couldn’t last.  Who was I kidding?  Myself, apparently, and others, as well.  But, I was in so deep that I started believing the lies I had spun each and every day, the lies that had kept me as close to safe and sound as anyone in my line of work could hope to be, hour after hour, day after day, case after case.  One last job, one last collar, one last bad guy to put away, and I, so my boss had said, was the only one that could pull it off, the only one that had the trail of credentials to get in, get close, get it done.  They just forgot that there should have been one more “get” in there: get out alive.

That last one was pretty important to me, of course, but it wasn’t looking too good as of late.  I had let my guard down, actually trusted one of Don Gardino’s crew, someone I thought was a kindred spirit, as close to a kid brother as I had ever had.  But, like a kid brother, he’d tried just a little too hard to help me out, got them just a little paranoid about me, led them to discover the faulty chink in my otherwise solid armor.

Still, I couldn’t give up and risk the mission, not with so much on the line.  Don Gardino, we’d been after him for way too long and he’d tipped the scales way too far toward the evil side, like some butcher with his thumb in the mix, charging filet mignon prices for ground beef.  I chuckled thinking just how apt an analogy that was, given the number of witnesses that had been laid out cold along the way.

There was no way I could have known that Big Jim Fairbanks, Gardino’s former lieutenant was going to be my downfall.  He’d been put away, far away, at least that was my understanding.  Not that I was going to be getting any answers about how, what, who, when, why.  He was here, and looking straight at me, just one of those bum rolls of the dice that life sometimes throws your way.

All my training, all my carefully built up persona, it all came crashing down, and here and now was all I had left.  And that smug bastard, Don Gardino, he’d get away with it, probably even profit by it in some way.

***

This was my first exercise utilizing the Story Forge cards.  I would say I got hung up a little on the process and tried to adhere very closely to the touch points, one at a time, versus taking in the whole bunch and letting them drive a complete story.  I did make one full editing pass through to improve flow a little after getting all the ideas in place. I thoroughly enjoy writing in the film noir, hard-boiled detective style and have used that type of voice in a number of previous pieces.

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Cakepan II: Chapter Six – Paging Dr. Winston

This is a creative writing experiment, shamelessly stolen from the Chopin Manuscript: a serialized story where each author writes a different chapter. The members of this blog are each writing their own chapter, and we’re calling ours the “Cakepan Manuscript”. This is our second story.

For this story we used a random plot generator, which gave us: “The story starts when your protagonist gets lost. Another character is an anesthesist who is researching something terrible.” You can start reading at Chapter One, and we posted a new chapter until now… the thrilling conclusion!

We hope you enjoy!

Chapter Six: Paging Dr. Winston

The front end of a numeric pager

Image via Wikipedia

Terror was taking hold and the last thing Russ heard clearly was Tony saying, “Let’s get him out of here.”

Though the bag muffled the conversation that continued, Russ could still feel every bounce as he was wheeled down the hall and into the elevator.  He had never experienced the feeling of a muscle paralytic without an accompanying sedative and it made him feel helpless.  If they didn’t get him on a respirator soon, he realized, he would stop breathing. At least he would then be released from the prison his own mind and body had become, a consoling thought amidst the terror.

His thoughts turned to the last words that Alex Udo had said.  He had no recollection of having a wife, let alone a lovely one.  Miriam, Udo had called her, but thinking the name brought no specific memories, no matter how hard he tried.

Russ felt the elevator come to a stop and he mentally pictured the doors sliding open as he wondered excactly where they would be taking him.  Two sharp reports, clearly from a small caliber pistol cut through the muffle of the heavy bag.  That was sure to be noticed in a hospital, thought Russ, a thought that was cut short by a blinding light as the zippered opening parted and the face of Nurse Ratched swam into view.

“Let’s get him on ventilation, stat! And Tony, clean up this mess I’ve made,” she said.  “Mr., err Dr. Winston, everything is going to be just fine.  We’ll talk after the paralytic works its way through your system.  We’re going to sedate you now, I’m sure you’ll appreciate waiting things out in dreamland.”

It seemed like it was only seconds later that Russ was waking up, groggy but no longer paralyzed.  Through his hazy vision he saw Tony and Nurse Ratched talking at the foot of the bed, a very different room from the one on the fourteenth floor where he had started the day.

“Oh good, you’re awake,” said the nurse, noticing his fluttering eyelids. “You have had quite a day, I know.  First off, let me tell you that you are safe and sound.”

“What about…” Russ mumbled, still shaking off the effects of the sedative.

“Dr. Morrissette and Mr. Udo? Hmmm, they have had a most, shall we say, unfortunate accident,” said Tony, choosing his words carefully.  “And we have recovered all of your research notes as well.”

“Your amnesia was drug-induced Dr. Winston and now that you are no longer being given those drugs, you will be regaining your full faculties,” added Nurse Ratched.  “You have a lot of patients that require your expertise.  Thankfully, you did not join their ranks.”

“I am indeed starting to remember things, but tell me this, what about my wife… Miriam? Alex said she…”

“Oh, but Dr. Winston, you aren’t married.  Never have been.  Too engrossed in your work for… romantic pursuits,” offered the nurse, “no matter how eligible a bachelor you are.”

“Udo always was a sadistic little prick,” said Tony, “you shoulda fired him a long time ago but Maureen always talked you out of it.  I guess we’ll never know why.”

~ The End ~
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