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Show Not Tell

April 20th, 2009

I just stumbled onto possibly the best object lesson in showing, not telling in fiction I’ll ever get.

In 2005, I wrote a story called “Hope and Erosion”, about a kingdom living in a sandcastle threatened by the rising tide. It was the second story I’d ever sold, to a Christian fantasy e-zine called Dragons, Knights and Angels. I was very proud of it at the time. At the time, it was the best story I’d ever written.

In 2004, all unbenknownst to me at the time, Jeffrey Ford wrote a story called “The Annals of Eelin Ok”, which was published in Datlow and Windling’s The Faery Reel, and won the Fountain Award for that year (and on whose website it can still be read for free). It’s based on the exact same premise: a tiny, fantastical being living out his life in a sandcastle made by human hands. His story is way better. I just listened to it on a Podcastle show from a couple weeks back, read by Rajan Khanna, who may be my new favorite podcast reader—his voice is understated, quiet and calm and eminently listenable, but somehow capable of hitting just the right emotional notes with the strength of a clapper striking a cathedral bell. It almost made me cry.

Here’s the lesson: everything about a story is more powerful when you’re experiencing it right there with the character. “Hope and Erosion” is told like a parable. Hermit, the hero, is a hero in the classic fairytale sense, the way Sir Gawain is a hero, or the Red Cross Knight. Which is fine, but there’s no understanding that kind of hero as a person. He’s away up there on the pedestal of myth.

Eelin Ok is a fairy, but he’s a person. His whole life is there on the page, his heart is open, and you’re in it.

I suppose this lesson may work better on me than on you, gentle reader, since you may not have had the luck to have written the exact same story as Jeffrey Ford. But if you feel so inclined, you might could get a similar effect if you read the two stories side by side.

Read the Jeff Ford story, anyway, if you haven’t. It’s awesome.

   HM, Reading, Writings | 3 Comments »



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3 Comments »

  • jeffhowell says:

    Thanks for posting this. I unfortunately have a problem with the “show not tell” thing. So I will definitely listen or read the story and compare it to your work. But honestly I kind of want people to recognize a little gray area. Maybe I’m just trying rationalize my bad habits. But I think being able to write in a mythic/fable style is a good skill. Telling has its place. I’ve seen a lot of really awful showing. Most of the cookie cutter trash novels on the ‘best seller’ lists. If that’s what sells, fine. If telling is distancing to many readers, fine. It is good to always stretch and improve your writing. But I will read the two stories, and I will probably find things I like equally about them. It’s almost like right brain vs. left brain or something. Some people just need to have things spoon fed to them visually. But then those people will turn around and malign telling as being the lower quality spoon feeding method. I do admit telling and being a lazy writer might be related. It is something I should work on and I get embarrassed about it in my writing. But for all I know next year mythic telling fables will be all the rage and popular, then someone will re-write history. I mean, one example that comes to mind is J.K. Rowling’s book of fairy tales. Maybe that’s ok because its a tie-in book for a fantasy based world and for ‘young adults’. But still, I think they are admirable stories. Just like Aesop’s Fables are still interesting today. At least to me.

    • mjd says:

      You’re right, Jeff, that there’s a lot of leeway between pure telling and pure showing, and different styles of story call for a different balance. And yeah, some fairy tales work with hardly any telling. And obviously Jeffrey Ford is a better writer than me for more reasons than just that he shows and I tell. I don’t think my story utterly sucked. I just don’t think it’s really at risk of making anybody cry.

      I haven’t read Rowling’s fairy tales–but conceptually, it does sort of seem like something she couldn’t really have done with the same success had she not written seven Harry Potter books first. Like with Tolkien–he churned out a thousand “lost tales” and myths and such before he made all us layman readers (non-linguists, non-academics) care by putting it all into the heads of a couple of accessible hobbits.

      So yeah, I think you’re right in that it’s a matter of how people’s brains work and what they expect out of stories. But I do think there’s something objective, common among all readers, that makes certain storytelling techniques work more viscerally than others. Which is why I am willing to go out on a limb and say that if you read both stories and think mine is just as good as Jeff Ford’s, I’ll eat my hat. 🙂

      • jeffhowell says:

        Thanks for the response. I’ll read both stories and let you know. The audio version may have more power because of that medium and the reader. Reading has always struck me as a more intellectual exercise than emotional. Hardly any stories scare me, make me cry, etc. A life of corporate e-mail and technical manuals has perhaps ruined me. But something to work on. I just worry there’s a mental hurtle I may not be able to jump. I guess we all have our weaknesses. You’ve certainly made good progress on yours and I wish you much continued success.

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