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  • One oft-repeated bit of advice that seasoned authors and editors dole out to aspiring writers is this:

    Show, don’t tell

    You can take what you want from these twelve letters: Paint pictures rather than narrate; let the action spell out what you want the reader to know instead of narrative passages; use flashbacks rather than recite backstories; say “Jim’s eyelids drooped” instead of “Jim got drowsy;” convey settings with a mix of sense impressions rather than simply describing what goes where; imagine scenes set as screenplays. All good, but don’t take it too far.

    Some parts of a tale must be told, after all. You can’t always jack off an action that captures a character’s inner state; sometimes it works better to simply say what he or she is thinking, and make that fascinating. And as tempting as it may be to pen high-resolution imagery, you shouldn’t dally with the sensual for too long unless you’re a Proust, Joyce, or Nabokov. Over-elaborating the look and feel of things invites readers to get lost in the scenery instead of propelling them forward. Scenery is necessary, but make sure each little thing you describe is in some way important to your story and not an act of self-indulgence.

    But here’s where showing can get tough: Suppose your character has an intense backstory that has shaped him and his fears and desires, like living through a war. To tell it all at once could take a page or perhaps many. Instead, you could flash back to show him in the thick of it, but that would require even more verbiage. You would have to describe settings that won’t be otherwise used and invent dramas and characters just to show what happened once upon a time. Unless you’re scripting a movie, what might work better for you is a “slow reveal” that conveys his story piecemeal through scattered conversations passim, perhaps not even in chronological order. But there’s a potential downside: having to piece his story together can confuse readers. Still, giving them that work will engage them more than shoving their faces into one long narrative that could overload or bore them. And if you show in these reveals how his past affects him in the present by how he contextually conducts himself and reacts to situations, you have made him more believable, more tangible. It’s show and tell.

    Another way to show and tell is to insert beats—fragments of physical actions that can pep up dialogs (not to be confused with beat poetry). The action in a beat can illustrate a sudden realization or a reaction to something that was just said or done. Consider this snippet of dialog:

    “I might have expected something like that from an ignorant dolt like you! Oh my God, I’m sorry! I should never have said that!”

    ...that could be improved with a beat, such as:

    “I might have expected something like that from an ignorant dolt like you!” Her hands flew to her mouth. “Oh my God, I’m sorry! I should never have said that!”

    Something changed inside her that the beat conveys to the reader, right then and there.

    A beat can substitute for a “she said” or a “he asked,” by making it clear who’s speaking. Here’s a passage from my novel Mahmoud’s Jihad in which Mahmoud has just learned to his horror that the head of his group of conspirators has been arrested. First, the original version:

    “And so it seems,” Mahmoud said glumly, “that the operation is finished.”
    “I am afraid so,” Andreas agreed. “We can’t pull it off without George. Even if we could, you might just walk into a trap.”
    Along with his mission, Mahmoud’s confidence evaporated. Fear penetrated his armor. Fear of being captured, imprisoned. Fear of losing his way, his purpose, of dishonoring his family, of being forsaken by God. Without Jihad, who am I? Just another casualty of war.
    He began to weep. For George. For himself. For jihad. “What will we do?” he repeated.

    Here is that passage in its current state, having added beats plus some other changes:

    Mahmoud wasn’t feeling lucky. “So it seems the operation is finished.”
    “It looks like that. We can’t pull it off without George. Even if we could, you might walk into a trap.”
    Mahmoud leaned back and expelled a sigh. Along with their mission, his confidence was seeping away. Fear oozed in. Fear of being captured, imprisoned. Fear of dishonoring his family by forsaking his jihad, perhaps to be forsaken by God. I had a purpose. Who am I without it? Just another casualty of war.
    He buried his face in his hands, murmuring “What will we do, what will we do?”

    His thoughts to himself still are revealed, but the beats show how what he just learned changes his equilibrium.

    As can any literary device, beats can be overused. Including too many can add static to what a conversation signals, so use them sparingly. They’re particularly useful for hinting at feelings, indicating when a conversation veers off track, or signaling a dramatic revelation or a sudden turn of events.

    Speaking of literary devices, writers have tons to choose from, from allegory to verse, some with names you may never have heard of (me either), such as asyndeton, litotes, or metonymy. See a whole wardrobe of them at and try a few on for size while you’re there.

    Curiously, that site doesn’t have an entry for beat. But you’ll find a good explanation in the article What Dialogue Can Do for Your Writing at The author, Mary Carroll Moore, refers to a pretty practical and useful book I’ve been reading, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers that has a whole chapter on beats. That’s where my first beat example came from.

    So, when you go tell it on the mountain, be sure to show what the view is like up there. Try to envision your story as a screenplay or a graphic novel. Tell only what needs to be told and sketch the rest.

    Now, the irony hasn’t been lost on me that I’ve been urging you to show by telling you how. It’s time, then, to get out your red pencil. Read this passage from a murder mystery called The Shadow in the Glass by Charles J. Dutton, my grandfather, who wrote 17 of them over about as many years while he was a Unitarian minister. That and writing his sermons must have kept him busy. This novel is one of his earlier ones, published 1924. It’s a workmanlike whodunit, but no exemplar of the genre.
  • He set it in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, an upscale seaside resort where Charles had worked as a lad and knew the shops, the mansions, and the grand old hotel very well. A rich man, Mr. Rice, has just been bludgeoned to death in his library full of rare books (some of the books mentioned were in grandfather’s collection). Written in the first person, the narrator—simply referred to as Pelt—is an old friend and travelling companion of the brilliant private detective John Bartley, a Dr. Watson to Bartley’s Holmes. (They appear together in some other of his crime stories.)

    In this scene, Bartley is about to interrogate witnesses to sleuth who killed Rice on the eve of his daughter’s wedding and also stole a valuable old book and a box of gold coins. Bartley, Pelt, and the Westerly police chief are at the scene of the crime as the corpse cools its heels in the next room. Bartley first addresses Richards the butler. (There always seems to be a butler in these kinds of stories.) Read through the passage and think about how you could improve its prose and perhaps bring it a bit up to date. Then turn the page to see my version.

    When [Bartley] straightened up, I noticed that a keen look was in his eyes; he had evidently struck something, though what it was I could not tell. But the very tenseness of his voice when he spoke, told that he was throwing off the shock caused by his friend’s death. Again he was the keen-witted Bartley, intent on his case.
    “Richards,” he said, “where are those two detectives?”
    “Why, sir, they were down getting their breakfast. I thought that you would like to see the, so told them to have breakfast down in the servants’ dining room.”
    “Get them up here at once,” was the command.
    The Butler left the room for the elevator, and we all stood rather foolishly wondering what would happen next. I could see that the solving of the affair would rest with Bartley, for the chief was too perplexed to be of much aid. Suddenly he heaved a sigh.
    “Mr. Barley,” he said with a grin, “This thing is way over my head. I hope to God you are going to work on it.”
    It was a sheepish grin, the grin of a heavy-set man, a bit bewildered. Yet the very frankness of it, suddenly made me like the chief. I could see he was not only a slow-thinking man, but, like most big men in size, was not jealous. He was confronted with something that was too much for him, and was glad for help.

    Charles had an editor at his publishing house, but possibly not a very thorough one. The book contains some typos and quite a bit of repetition. For instance, there must be at least twenty rehashings of what went on the night of the murder, and other descriptions also strike me as redundant. Before turning the page, think about how you would spruce up the passage.
  • Here is how I would do it:

    When [Bartley] straightened up, he had a keen look in his eyes; he had evidently struck something, though what it was I could not tell. He once again seemed the perceptive, incisive Bartley I knew, intent on working the case even though he had just lost of one of his dearest friends.
    He impatiently tapped his foot. “Richards, where are those two detectives?”
    “Why, sir, they’re having their breakfast. I thought that you would like to see them, so I directed them down to the servants’ dining room.”
    “Get them up here at once,” came the command.
    The Butler took the elevator downstairs, leaving us standing rather foolishly, wondering what would happen next. Mostly I wondered how the chief would take to Bartley inserting himself as chief investigator. I didn’t have to worry long at all, for he heaved a sigh and with a grimace said “Mr. Bartley, we’re not used to things like this happening here. I hope to God you are going to work on solving this crime.”
    His grimace turned sheepish. He looked almost bewildered, but his tacit admission that he was out of his league made me admire the chief. It was his case to solve, and doing so would put a feather in his cap, but he didn’t pull rank. Instead of resenting Bartley for taking the lead, he just let him proceed and seemed glad to have help.

    Charles’s profiling of the chief is one of many interpretations of personality that litter the novel, such as when Bartley proclaims a suspect suffers from “inferiority complex … A bit of modern psychology from Freud and others.” Perhaps that was considered progressive in 1924, when Freud was coming into vogue, “big men” were thought to be “slow-thinking” but not “jealous,” and mentally disturbed individuals were as often as not tied up in straightjackets, but today it seems patronizing. But it is what it was then.

    So please forgive me, Grandfather, and accept my thanks for what you’ve given me.

    @image: Cute, vaguely relevant cartoon by Bex from her WriteRight blog
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