SHOW DON'T TELL WORKSHOP 1!
Here's Rebecca to walk you through today's very first Show Don't Tell Workshop!
Mimi felt angry as the attic door closed and locked. “Please don’t do this to me, Mom, I didn’t mean to leave the bathroom light on,” she pleaded.
“When you learn how to follow my rules, I’ll stop locking you in the attic,” her mother said with spite.
Mimi heard footsteps getting further away until the sound disappeared. How could any mother do this to their child? Feeling defeated, she went crazy and demolished the room. She slumped to the ground to calm down. After a flood of tears and even more swear words, she felt a cold draft. She was wearing shorts and a tank top and had no shoes on. And it was only going to get colder with the setting sun. She would have to find a blanket or something and settle in for the evening. A smelly blanket was found in a box. There was an old couch in the corner and she decided to sleep there.
Now let's analyze this...
Mimi felt angry.
The word “felt” is considered telling, robbing the reader of the experience that one goes through when angry. Body language, visceral reaction, inner monologue, tone, and speech should be considered when emotions are expressed.
Dialogue tags are some of the most common places where telling is used. Use only said, says, etc. and use an action beat which shows the emotion instead.
Her mother said with spite.
Same as above. Keep the dialogue tags to said, says, etc. and use an action beat, showing the emotion instead.
Mimi heard footsteps.
Since we are in the point-of-view character’s head, “heard” is telling and unnecessary. Just show the reader what they heard, without using the word.
Feeling defeated, she went crazy and demolished the room.
This entire sentence is telling. First we have that “feeling” again, and then, instead of showing the reader what she does, allowing them to experience her frustration, we are told what happens, the visual scene robbed from the reader of what she did to the room and what it now looks like. Expound on this, and let the reader experience it with Mimi.
to calm down.
This is another common mistake when writing, which is the use of “to” instead of “and.” By switching out the words, it is the simplest fix to change telling to showing. “She leaned in to kiss him.” Or, “She leaned in and kissed him.” Unless the action will be stopped or interrupted, change out the words. “She leaned in to kiss him, but he backed away.” Also, show us how she calmed down.
After a flood of tears and even more swear words, she felt a cold draft.
While sometimes we need to use telling to move a story forward, this isn’t the place. Elaborate on this scene and allow the reader to connect with the emotions that should be present. Again, we have “felt” that pesky telling word which lends nothing to the scene but rather denies the writer from creating a strong setting and the ability to show the character’s reaction to the cold. As far as the swear words, add those in where it seems natural.
She was wearing
When it comes to describing clothing, this is typical telling in manuscripts. Instead, omit the “was” and give the reader the description in an active, showing sentence.
And it was only going to get colder
While this sentence is telling, sometimes it’s okay to use “was,” especially if the sentence is surrounded by active verbs and sentences. But make sure there’s no other “active” way to write the sentence before moving on.
She would have to find
Show her searching for a blanket instead of telling us she needs to find one.
A smelly blanket was found in a box.
Instead of allowing her to rummage through a box until she locates a blanket, we are told she found one. Also, what did it smell like? Maybe mildew, moth balls, etc.
There was an old couch in the corner and she decided to sleep there.
Don’t tell me what she sees and what her decisions are, show me. Again, this is an opportunity to create setting and give the reader an idea of the odds stacked against our protagonist.
Now to put it all together with the above recommendations:
Mimi’s hands balled into fists and her chest thumped against ribs as the attic door closed and locked. “Please don’t do this to me, Mom. I didn’t mean to leave the bathroom light on.”
“When you learn how to follow my rules, I’ll stop locking you in the attic.” Ice laced her mother’s tone, hateful and ugly.
Footsteps grew fainter and disappeared. How could any mother do this to their child? Her chest heaved and her body stiffened as rage flooded her veins. “Damn you to hell, Mother!” Grabbing a stack of outdated magazines, she screamed and ripped them apart, scattering the torn pages at her feet. Boxes flung from high stacks, and empty canning jars smashed against unfinished walls.
With tears flooding her face, she slumped to the ground and inhaled deep breaths. A shiver stitched her spine, and she rubbed her arms as a cold draft whistled through cracks between boards, her pajama shorts, tank top, and bare feet offering no protection against winter. The setting sun cast long shadows across the room, bringing with it the promise of plunging temperatures.
Bouncing up and down, she rummaged through an antique chest, moving aside a stack of musty letters and yellowed crocheted doilies until a faded green sleeping bag emerged, the word Slumberjack embroidered into the nylon outer shell. Mildew spotted one corner, the stench so strong she gagged. But the cover would have to do.
Careful to avoid broken glass, she inched her way to the other side of the attic and curled up on a thread-bare settee. She sighed and bit her lip, willing herself not to cry another tear. Burying her head under the bag, she blocked out the cold world and pretended to have a mom who loved her, imagination offering the only escape from the reality of having a monster for a mother.
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Every Wednesday and Saturday we bring you an edit tip of the day. Be sure to check out the archives for our popular summer series of SHOW DON'T TELL workshops!