I clicked into the sci-fi story. I had only been on WordPress for a few weeks and was looking for fiction blogs. There were many out there but for some reason this one caught my eye. I started reading the story:
Bob came out of the building onto the third level of the city. He looked and didn’t see anyone. He started walking down the road.
Bob heard a gunshot. He heard the bullet whizzing by his head. Bob turned and saw the gunman aim again. Bob started running in a zig-zag pattern.
Bob looked back and saw the gunman chasing him. Then Bob heard a voice whispering, “Quick, in here.” Bob ducked down the alley and then he entered a door and followed a figure up endless flights of stairs. He saw a light ahead. He realized they were heading to the forbidden fourth level. Etc.
I was ready to surrender after only a handful of paragraphs but continued to plow through. Some of the ideas were good, but I hated the style. After finishing I was about to write a comment but stopped myself.
I didn’t want to act the hypocrite.
The problem was that many of my own stories read this way – Jim did this and then he did that. In fact, I just read an example of my older writing that is full of “he did this and then he did that”.
Of the nearly 50 short stories I’ve posted only three were previously written, I wrote the rest specifically for this blog. Last week I posted The Washerwoman. The new story I had started was going nowhere so I broke down and look through my archives for something to post. Unfortunately this was a last minute decision so I was only able to spend about an hour editing before posting. One big issue I noticed was that I very often used the “Stan did this and then he did that” sentence structure. Actually, it was more often on the paragraph level. I’d start by telling you what Stan did, have a little explanation and a little description. The next paragraph would again start, “Then Stan did this”. I tried to take examples of this type of writing out as I found them, but I left quite a few in.
How do we fix this problem, perhaps the worst form of “telling, not showing”? I’ll admit that when I first noticed it in my writing I tried to hide it with filler. For instance I’d add some description. This made the reading a little easier, but it didn’t fix the problem.
Bob came out of the building onto the third level of the city. The angular buildings threw stark shadows in crazy lines across the pavement. Bob didn’t see anyone. He started walking down the road.
Perhaps a better way would be to vary the focus of the action. Although we’ll stay with Bob’s POV we’ll get a little farther out of his head.
Bob came out of the building onto the third level of the city. The only thing on the streets were the stark shadows created by the angular buildings. The coast clear, Bob walked down the road.
Not much better. It’s almost as angular as the buildings. Maybe if I tried to create a little more atmosphere.
Bob came out of the building onto the third level of the city. An eerie silence hung over the angular buildings. The streets were strangely deserted, the neighborhood too quiet. Bob slunk shadow to shadow down the road.
Closer but still not there. I’ll try mixing the action up a little more and putting in even more mood and description. I can also use some more action words by using the “-ing” verb tense.
The door cracked open enough for Bob to peek out. The muscular buildings threw crazy angular shadows across the blue pavement. The color coding marked this as the city’s third level, a free trade zone, yet the typical hustle and bustle were missing; not a soul moved on the eerily silent streets. Opening the door a little more Bob slipped out. Confident he wasn’t observed, Bob slunk shadow to shadow down the road.
Well place dialog can also help create a better flow.
As the action picks up we can revert back to a style that is closer to “telling”, but should still stay away from “He did this and then he did that.”
A shot rang out, the bullet whistling inches away. Bob instinctively dove and rolled. Looking back he noticed the gunman taking aim at his new position. Bob sprinted away, trying to mix his path up with sudden course changes. Risking a glance over his shoulder proved the gunman was in pursuit.
“Psst, hey, over here,” a voice said. A figure was waving from an alley.
As Bob lunged into the alley the figure disappeared into the dark maw of an open door. Bob followed without hesitation.
The scuffing of feet was heard just ahead in the claustrophobic world of darkness. As Bob followed the sounds changed, started climbing. After tripping over the first step, Bob found himself ascending a steep stairway.
“Hurry,” the mysterious stranger said from someplace above.
“I’m hurrying, I’m hurrying,” Bob muttered, but tried to pick up the pace.
The echo from below was getting louder. Bob realized the gunman was catching up. Even though his lungs felt they would soon explode he pushed even harder.
Bob’s heart sledgehammering against his ribs told him he couldn’t last much longer. He needed rest, he needed to catch his breath. The end would have to come soon, one way or another. Looking up Bob notice he could see the silhouette of the figure in front of him. A strange orange light was beckoning from above. With a shock he realized they were headed to the forbidden fourth level.
OK, this still isn’t prize winning prose, but it does read better than the example at the top.
I still write, “He did this and then he did that,” too often. The above shows a few ways I try to solve the problem. A search for “show not tell” will bring up hundreds of posts. Perhaps something will work better for you.
Good luck. Happy writing.
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