Show Don’t Tell – Rewritten Scenes Part 1

Show, don’t tell.  Show, don’t tell. Repeat after me, please.

This has been the story of my life for the past few months as I have struggled to take the advice of an excellent and generous literary agent (read all about her here: http://fineprintlit.com/about-the-agents/suzie-townsend/).  Her biggest comment was about one of the most common first-time author mistakes: telling rather than showing what happens in your story.  I’ve decided to post, over the next couple of weeks, a few excerpts of scenes that I’ve rewritten in my WIP as a result of her advice as well as the advice of other literary agents via their blogs.

Example 1:  Reading a book about the Battle for Allyria

Context:  After being transported from modern-day America to the medieval world of Allyria, main character Lex is traveling with the handsome warrior Ash as he seeks to help save his homeland from barbarian invaders.  Lex shows him a book she has found about an ancient battle between their ancestors and the same enemy.

Before:  “Come look, Lex,” he said softly, completely absorbed in the book, and my depression melted.  I spread out my bedroll and lay next to him on my stomach.  I looked where he pointed, and he explained what the diagram meant, and how the plan that Elendor and Maia had made for the battle was flawed, and resulted in the burning of part of the city.

Together that evening, in our little refuge, by the glow of a single candle, we learned all about the Battle for Allyria, and wondered aloud how we could learn from their plan, including the things they did right as well as their mistakes, to protect Archam from attack.  Even though I had read this book before, it was all new to me as seen through Ash’s eyes.  Viewing the book’s illustrations from the perspective of a person who had been in battles and who understood military tactics, I was able to understand more than I had reading on my own.  He explained things so well, not impatiently, not patronizingly, just simply and frankly.  From there, it was an easy matter to continue talking about all manner of things.  It seemed that once our tongues were loosened, we had no trouble keeping the conversation going.  It was probably well after midnight before we blew out the candle and fell asleep.

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The problem:  Oh my, where do I start?  Once it was pointed out to me that I was telling instead of showing, scenes like this began jumping off the page at me.  I had just been lazy, lazy, lazy.  It’s so much easier to tell about a conversation than to choose the exact words your characters will say.  My new mantra: if it advances the plot, it’s worth showing through dialogue and gestures; if it doesn’t, it should be cut out completely.  Here’s how I rewrote it.

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After:  “Come look, Lex,” he said softly, completely absorbed in the book, and my depression melted into something warm and glowing in my chest.  I spread out my bedroll and lay next to him on my stomach.  I looked where he pointed.  The book’s hand-inked parchment glowed in the candlelight.

“See how the Varangians were able to surprise them and gain the walls?  The people of the city were trapped, Lex.  We can’t let that happen in Archam.”

“How will you stop it?” My voice in my ears sounded gentler than usual, and I hoped he didn’t notice.

He waved a hand across the page.  “Archam’s defenses are different.  Our bridges will prevent an attack from the river, and our walls and towers are higher and stronger.”

“Won’t people still be trapped inside the walls, though?”

He gazed at me for a moment, the candlelight reflected in his eyes.  “Yes, I suppose you’re right.  You and I will have to think of a way to prevent that from happening.”

As he went on about the weapons the Varangians had brought and the primitive ways the Marrocans had fought them off, I hardly heard him.  A flush went through me.  You and I, he had said.  The candle threw the planes of his face into sharp relief; as I gazed at the spark of light in his eyes, the warmth spread through me.

It was well after midnight before we said goodnight and moved to opposite sides of the shelter.  A tiny flame of something continued to flicker inside me long after the candle was extinguished.

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Please let me know if you like the rewrite and have additional suggestions!

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One Response to “Show Don’t Tell – Rewritten Scenes Part 1”

  1. Denna Jones Says:

    Yes. Like the rewrite! So much better. Thanks for sharing the before and after. Really instructive and useful.

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