“Show, Don’t Tell” explained

This is one of the most misunderstood rules in all of prose fiction.

It’s important to understand that every single sentence you write is simultaneously telling one thing (the explicit/referential meaning of the sentence) and showing others (that which is implied or inferred by the sentence).

So, the famous example of “showing” by way of “the light glinting in broken glass” is indeed “showing” the reader that it is night, because that is not made explicit but rather inferred by the reader. However, the sentence is “telling” us that there is broken glass and that light is glinting in it.

The general recipe for “show, don’t tell” is this: think about whatever it is you want the reader to feel or imagine or understand, and then don’t write that thing. Instead, write around it, so that the reader can feel what you are getting at by way of implication or inference.

Showing is always more evocative than telling, since the reader supplies the information from their own imagination, which is necessarily more vivid than reading it on the page. Showing uses more of the reader’s brain, and places the target image in their imagination, not just within their linguistic processing.

“Show, don’t tell” applies to all aspects of writing, including theme, tone, character, emotion, plot, setting, description, etc. You can show any of these things, or you can tell them.

For example, to “tell” emotion is to say, “John was angry”. To “show” the same emotion is to have John punch someone, or tell them to fuck off. Likewise we can identify “telling” for character, as in “John was the sort of guy to get angry easily”, for setting, as in “they were standing in a grocery store”, for description, as in “it was really dark”, and so on, all of which can be translated into “showing” statements by picking out the right sort of evocative details—details which imply or allow the reader to infer that which you intended to convey.

There are many literary techniques for “showing”.  For example, the techniques of metaphor, irony, understatement, ambiguity, and unreliable narration all depend essentially on what is not stated by the writer. Each of them, in their own way, refrains from telling directly, and instead shows just enough for the reader to comprehend the meaning on their own—these techniques all rely on the reader to do some work to find the underlying meaning, where it’s hidden between the lines. They are all examples of showing, rather than telling.

In literature, the written text includes narrative gaps that are filled in by the reader. According to some critics, in particular reader-response critic Stanley Fish, this is the distinctive feature of literature: plain-language is referential and expository, whereas literary language reveals additional meaning through intentional interpretive gaps. According to this view, “show, don’t tell” is not just advice on good writingit is the essence of literature. Plain language puts the meaning in the surface level of the words (it “tells”) and literary language puts the meaning in interpretive gaps filled by the reader (it “shows”).

Before writing anything, you should figure out what it is you are hoping to express. You can think of what you want to express as the “target”—it could be a character trait, an emotion, a theme etc. The goal of “show, don’t tell” is to write in such a way that you express the “target” without saying it explicitly.

My Story Addrassus in Broadswords and Blasters issue #8!

Very happy to have my story Addrassus in issue #8 of Broadswords and Blasters, just released, and available here! And really happy to have the story described as “shades of Odysseus and some of the best action sequences you’ll read this year”! I hope you check it out! Thanks! And if you do, please tell me what you thought!
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Imps & Minions – Open Call for Subs and Kickstarter

The Imps & Minions anthology is now open for submissions from authors, and the Kickstarter page is live!

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From the open call page:

We are seeking high-quality speculative fiction (fantasy, science fiction, and speculative horror) on the theme of “imps & minions”. Stories should feature an imp or a minion.

Submission information and the submission form can be found on our kickstarter page.

If you like this project and want to support us, I would really appreciate if you would take a look at our kickstarter reward options and help us out by becoming a backer. (I recommend going for the paperback reward option.)

Thanks a lot! I’m really looking forward to reading all the submissions and putting together this awesome project with the team, with the support of our kickstarter backers!

Colony–“one-shot” anthology released

What happens when you get a team of writers together and give them 24 hours to write and edit an entire speculative fiction collection on the theme of “Colony”? This anthology happens!

Colony Cover - ebook

This speculative fiction anthology was created during an intense, 24-hour period of writing and editing. A team of authors residing in Toronto were given the theme of “Colony”, and a strict timeline to produce stories based on that theme.This is more than a collection of imaginative and entertaining stories—it is also a feat in creative writing. It embodies the efforts of authors writing and editing fervently under absurd time pressures. They set themselves a challenge and pushed themselves to the finish line. The Colony anthology is the result of their efforts.

I hope you get a chance to read it, and let the authors know what you thought of their work!

Sanctuary – an entire science fiction, fantasy, and horror anthology written in a day

We wrote and edited this entire anthology in a day. Seriously.

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It usually takes about a year to produce an anthology. We decided to see what would happen if we tried to do it in a single day. Sanctuary is the result of that experiment.

All of the writers were given the theme “Sanctuary” in advance. They were allowed to come up with ideas, characters, plot elements, or anything else they wanted for planning purposes, based on this theme. But all the writing and editing was done in a single day, most of it over four hours in a marathon writing session at The Imperial Pub in downtown Toronto.

The cover is by Dominik Gutzeit (Hydraw-Art).

The paperback is available from Amazon here. Full disclosure: I make 8 cents per copy sold at this cover price.

If you want an eBook of Sanctuary, I’m happy to email you one for free. I’ve made a form for that here.

I would really like to get some positive reviews for this experimental anthology. So please, if you enjoy it, drop by the Amazon page and leave a review.

Thanks!

David

 

 

Story Structure – the basics, and why you should know it

If you want to write fiction, you need to understand story structure.

I am not saying you need to study literary theory or technical terminology. I am not saying you need to write an outline. I am not saying you need to follow a formula, like Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet, or Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” monomyth. I am not saying anything at all about your education or your writing process. You don’t need to go to school for this, and you can use whatever process you like. But whatever process you use, whatever education you have, you still need to understand story structure.

We have a built-in sense of story structure. If you’re reading a book to a child, try stopping in the middle. They will know they’re being cheated. We have this innate ability. It’s what qualifies every reader, regardless of experience or training, to judge their reading material. The subjective sense of “something doesn’t feel right” is a sufficient barometer of a story’s structure. But for some reason, when we sit down to write, this innate ability goes away. We have it as readers, but not as writers.

I have a theory about why this happens. When we write, we rely on our internal sense of whether the story is working -the same one we use as readers; we simply gauge, subjectively, whether the story feels satisfying. But when you are in the position of the creator, this feeling of satisfaction is muddled up by other sources of satisfaction: the satisfaction of seeing your ideas come to life; the satisfaction of imagining other people reading your story; the satisfaction of artistic creation; and so on. So the writer feels a sense of satisfaction that will not be shared by the reader. Their structural barometer is faulty because they are engaged in the process of creation, which rewards them in other ways besides the strength of their story. Relying on this faulty barometer leads to structural holes that a reader can identify, but the writer missed.

One solution to this problem is to let a manuscript sit for a few weeks, and then look at it with the eyes of a reader. This may help you see things that you missed the first time around. But to some extent, it’s impossible to read your own story as a reader would. No matter how long it sits in a drawer, it’s still your story, and you will have a fondness for it that other people simply won’t.

A better solution is to deepen your understanding of story structure. Hone your ability to diagnose structural problems. Learn to see a story in terms of its working parts. Understand the narrative forces that lead to compelling drama. This understanding needs to operate at two stages during the writing process: the creation stage, and the editing stage.

The creation stage is typically done in a flow state. We get into the groove, something like hypnosis. We simulate the characters in our head, we hear them talking, we let our imagination run wild, and the words flow on to the page. In a very limited way, we are doing the work of improv actors, running sensory impressions and experiences through the minds of characters that exist in our head, in order to generate plausible thoughts, dialogue, and interactions. I don’t believe all of this can be done while consciously juggling thematic and structural concerns; it needs to be done in a subconscious flow state.

Knowledge works in a flow state only to the extent that it is habitual or ingrained. So you need to practice story structure until it becomes ingrained -until your writing naturally tends towards well-structured stories. Seat-of-the-pants writers like Stephen King are able to write effectively without an outline because they have such a strong and innate understanding of story structure that their writing tends to flow in a structurally sound direction (and even Stephen King needs to rewrite and revise for structural purposes). You can’t hope to write that way unless you have a strong, ingrained sense of structure. You need to develop, through practice (both reading and writing) an intuitive sense of structure.

The second stage of the process is editing. In order to do this properly, you need to have an understanding of the mechanics of story structure, and an ability to consciously diagnose problems. Unlike the flow state, during the editing stage our knowledge of structure is applied deliberately. It is mechanistic. During this stage, we will rely on technical terminology for identifying the various narrative forces, and the ways in which these narrative forces interact to produce compelling drama.

Our skill at both of these stages is in large-part a product of our practice with story structure.

Those who have a strong intuitive sense of structure are natural storytellers, and we might say they have “talent”, but it is still a skill that can be developed through deliberate practice–reading and writing, while paying attention to narrative forces. Those who have a strong conscious command of story structure will be able to effectively diagnose structural problems and come up with solutions. In addition to developing our knowledge of story structure, learning the shared terminology allows writers and editors to communicate effectively with each other for the purpose of beta-reading and structural editing.

Learning Goals

Develop understanding of story structure; learn story structure terminology; learn different definitions of “story”; apply story structure concepts to analysis of a story

Story Structure Basics

One of the most common problems with short stories written by beginners is that they aren’t actually stories. They are more accurately called vignettes. Or we can think of them as introductions–the writer succeeds in rendering the first act of a story, but thinks that it’s done as soon as it gets going. It happens a lot for people writing short stories, and it happens because they don’t appreciate what constitutes a complete story.

You can write thousands of words and fail to write a story. Or you can write six words and write a complete story. It’s not the number of words; it’s what those words manage to tell you. In order to constitute a story, the words need to reveal the right information.

A story is not merely something with a beginning, middle, and end:

“first go to the store. Then buy eggs and milk. Then come home.”

This is not a story. It has words and sentences and images, it has a beginning, middle, and end, but it’s not a story. Believe it or not, people will write thousands of words that fail similarly at qualifying as a story.

I will give a few different definitions of “story”. They can all be mapped on to each other; In essence, they are all saying the same thing. But looking at the definition in different terms may help to deepen our understanding.

Conceptions of Story

1. A story shows the life-cycle of a problem.

A problem occurs when someone wants something but they aren’t in a position to get it, either because of an internal or external obstacle, or (perhaps preferably) both. This is also called conflict. If something must be done for someone to get what they want, but that person is already in a position to overcome that obstacle, it is not a problem, but a routine step in obtaining their goal; If, on the other hand, they have to change something in themselves (by learning or growing or developing a skill), then it is a problem. For example, if someone’s goal is to get through a locked door, and they already have a key in their hand, it’s not a problem. If the key is lost, it’s a problem (they need to change their knowledge and strategy for opening the door). If they look for the key and find it in their pocket, it’s a story. It’s probably not a good story, but it’s a story. It shows the life-cycle of a problem.

(They might also break through the window; this solves the door problem, but creates a new problem. Solving problems in this way is called “yes, but”–yes, the problem has been solved, but it created a new one–and it is a way to maintain narrative momentum through a story; another method is “no, and”–wherein the problem remains, and the action taken has actually made things worse–you can read more about these methods of plotting here).

2. A story is a transition from equilibrium to disequilibrium and back to equilibrium (usually a new equilibrium).

An event occurs that disrupts a character’s equilibrium (equilibrium is the state the character was in before the problem arose). They are now missing something in their life; there is something they want, but they can’t get it. This is disequilibrium. It is also called conflict. It is also called a problem.

The person takes steps to regain equilibrium. They change either something about themselves or something about the world. Equilibrium is reestablished. This is a story. It is a transition from equilibrium to disequilibrium and back to equilibrium.

Encountering a locked door that you want to pass through, but not having a key to open it, is a state of disequilibrium. Finding the key in a pocket re-establishes equilibrium.

3. A story is an account of change in response to conflict.

Somebody wants something. This is a goal. There is a reason they want it. This is called motivation. Something gets in the way of the goal, but the person is not presently equipped to resolve the situation. This is called conflict. They do something to make themselves equipped to resolve the conflict, either by changing something in themselves or their relation to the world, or (perhaps preferably) both. This is called change, or an arc. All of this together is a story. It shows how someone changes in response to conflict.

4. A story is three dramatic acts.

Somebody wants something. Something creates a problem, and the person is not presently equipped to handle that problem. This even that causes a problem is called the inciting incident. Whatever action the person takes will not solve the problem at this point, because they are not yet equipped to solve the problem. The action they take initially in response to the problem is called the first plot point. The period in which they are not equipped to handle the problem is called the second act. Something affects them in such a way as to force them to react in a different way. This event is called the climax. The character acts in such a way as to move towards resolving the problem. This action, taken in response to the climax, is called the second plot point. The problem moves towards resolution. The movement towards resolution is called the third act.

(Note: three act structure has nothing to do with relative duration of various parts. Many people think that the first act needs to be, say, something like 25% of your words. That’s nonsense. It can be anywhere from 0% to 100%, provided the narrative structure is somehow implied or reasonably inferred from the words on the page. The three act structure is not a recipe or a formula for generating stories; it is just a definition of the word “story” that comes from Aristotle trying to figure out the essence of a “story”)

Exercise: Applying Story Structure to Identify Parts of a Story

Here is a poem called “Maybe, Someday”, by the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos:

I want to show you these rose clouds in the night.
But you don’t see. It’s night – what can one see?

Now, I have no choice but to see with your eyes, he said,
so I’m not alone, so you’re not alone. And really,
there’s nothing over there where I pointed.

Only the stars crowded together in the night, tired,
like those people coming back in a truck from a picnic,
disappointed, hungry, nobody singing,
with wilted wildflowers in their sweaty palms.

But I’m going to insist on seeing and showing you, he said,
because if you too don’t see, it will be as if I hadn’t –
I’ll insist at least on not seeing with your eyes –
and maybe someday, from a different direction, we’ll meet.

As it happens, this poem is also a complete story, in each of the four definitions given above. The exercise is:

  1. Describe in a single paragraph why this poem is a story according to the “life cycle of a problem” definition of story. Your answer should identify the problem, explain why it is a problem for the protagonist, and explain what changes to resolve the problem.
  2. Describe in a single paragraph why this poem is a story according to the “equilibrium” definition of story. Your answer should explain the disequilibrium the protagonist encounters, why it is a disequilibrium, and how equilibrium is reestablished.
  3. Describe in a single paragraph why this poem is a story according to the “change in response to conflict” definition of story. Your answer should use the words “motivation”, “conflict”, “change”, and “arc”.
  4. Describe why this poem fits the three act structure. In your answer, identify the inciting incident, the first plot point, the climax, and the second plot point, as well as the first, second, and third act.

Exercise 2: Identifying a Story

Consider the following six words, possibly written by Hemingway:

“for sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

This sentence is sometimes touted as the shortest story.

  • Is it really a story? Prove it, using two of the definitions of story.
  • If this is a story, what percentage is the first act? What percentage is the second act? What percentage is the third act?
  • Hint: elements of a story can be implied.

Exercise 3: Identifying the central narrative arc

Choose a published novel (excluding your own) with which you are familiar. Choose any of the four definitions of story, and use that type of definition to summarize/capture the entirety of the work; distill the entire novel’s story structure to the simplest skeleton you can, using the terminology of the story definition you have chosen. (For example, if you are using the equilibrium definition, identify the initial state of equilibrium, the state of disequilibrium, and the new equilibrium, and discuss how the story transitions between these states).

Exercise 4: Diagnosing Structural Issues – Redundancy and Narrative Forces

Choose any story with multiple scenes (someone else’s story or your own).

  1. Identify the central narrative arc (as in exercise 3) using whatever definition of story you prefer.
  2. Show how every scene contributes to or ties into the central narrative arc, using terminology appropriate to the definition you have chosen (for example, discuss how the scene changes the state of equilibrium for better or worse). Or if, it doesn’t, explain why that scene is redundant and can be cut without affecting the central story.
  3. If any scene feels “slow”, see if you can account for that feeling in terms of narrative forces. Use the terminology appropriate to the definition of story you have chosen.

Final Words

I hope you’ve found this discussion of story structure useful and/or interesting!