Here’s something you won’t hear much at conferences. We are all told that if we hone our craft and become an excellent writer, we will be published. That is only part of it. Ultimately, it’s the story that counts. It’s stories editors buy. You can be a wonderful writer, your words can sing, but if you don’t tell an intriguing, spell binding story, those words are worth little. Of course, a good story without exceptional writing won’t sell either. Please don’t remind me of that horrible book you tried to read last week and threw across the room. That I can’t explain.
Let’s concentrate on creating such vivid word pictures neither editors nor readers can resist. In other words, show don’t tell.
As with all rules, there are times when we must break this one as well. Occasionally, it is necessary to get past something that has happened which we don’t wish to use as a scene. Sometimes dialogue will serve us better in this situation than narration or exposition, because we can show off our characters as they discuss what happened. Either way, there are times when you have to tell it and get on with the story. Only you, as a writer, can decide which occurrences need to be scenes that show, and which ones must be told.
Excerpts from my historical novel, AN ENEMY PRESENCE, still looking for a home.
Here’s the scene:
He awoke to a terrible silence. Across his neck lay a heavy arm and his cheek pressed into the frozen earth. He couldn’t move or feel anything. He could be dead, or frozen so stiff he would never move again. He might be a spirit lingering over the battlefield where the white soldiers had killed all the Beautiful People. But his leg hurt too much for him to be dead.
A moon set as the sun rose to reveal the scattering of bodies covered with new fallen snow.
Then he saw his friend White Elk and knew he was dead from the ghastly expression on his face.
Here’s how I wrote it to show, don’t tell:
Silence hammered in his ears, more intense than the rumble of gunfire that lingered in his memory. An arm, heavy with death, lay across the back of his neck, pinning his cheek against the frozen, blood-soaked earth. He had no muscle or bone but sprawled limp, molded into the snow bank. Either he had perished under the white soldier’s vicious attack or had frozen stiff. Perhaps this was only a vision of himself alive, while his spirit lingered to take one final look at what horrors had been visited on the Beautiful People before they were dispatched to the afterlife. But surely he lived, for a vicious fire burned in his side and leg.
A stench of black powder and blood and gore hung in the cold air that earlier had echoed with the blue coat’s hideous shouts. To the west a silver moon poised like a plate on a shelf, then slipped below the horizon. Even as it disappeared a wintry sun burst to life, its golden light nipping at ghastly shadows that obscured the battlefield. Bodies, weapons and blood glistened with a coat of new fallen snow.
Still afraid to move, Stone Heart gazed into the grotesque face of his friend White Elk, who lay deathly still, arms and legs splayed awkwardly. His eyes wide and unseeing, mouth open in a silent scream; blood matted the ebony braids, a rime of ice frosted his flesh.
This scene is vivid with description buried within the mind of Stone Heart as he regains consciousness and realizes what has happened to his people. But it isn’t description alone, it pushes the story forward into what will, what must happen next. When he realizes he has been left for dead by the white soldiers who will surely return with the coming of dawn. For the purpose of analyzing this scene, it will help you to know that Stone Heart is the illegitimate son of George Armstrong Custer and a Cheyenne mother. A man who was raised white, but has returned to his mother’s people who, on the verge of extinction, struggle to return to their homeland. It is the final winter of the Northern Cheyenne.