It strikes me that I’ve been meandering quite a bit the last few times during my times at bat here on The Ladykillers. The topic this time is supposed to be Telling Details, and I’ve been writing about the weather. I hope I put in enough details in the preceding paragraph to qualify.
Whenever I do think about telling details, though, the old writer’s axiom of “show, don’t tell,” comes to mind. Basically, it says the writer should “show” the scene, letting the reader experience it, rather than pedantically “tell” what’s supposed to be happening. And the way you show something is by using those telling details.
As I mentioned, I’m closing in on the CFFL of my latest book. (For those of you who don’t know what a CFFL is, it’s an abbreviation that my former writing partner, Julie Hyzy, and I came up with a few years ago. It stands for the Customary Fight For Life scene that normally appears at the climax of an exciting story.) As I wrap things up, there are a variety of plot points that I have to include in this section. These telling details are needed to round out the various subplots and give the CFFL, or climax, that satisfying resolution. In trying to make sure that I got everything in that I needed to include, prior to writing the scene I devised a list of plot points, or details, that I felt were indispensible. I jotted these details down in random order on a piece of paper, then I numbered them in the sequence which with they needed to happen during the course of the scene. The hero arrives on scene would naturally be the first, and the villain’s last gasp would bring up the rear. In between were the resolutions and fates of a couple subplots and secondary characters. When I’d finished the numbering, it struck me that I had completed a short outline of the entire scene. It was simply a matter of figuring out how to present this list of telling details in a showing manner, and the scene would practically write itself.
I’ve been teaching some creative writing classes at a junior college and one of my sessions involves this show, don’t tell concept. It begins with the advice once given to me by my friend, Sara Paretsky, who graciously gave me some pointers back when I was a fledgling writer. “You have to make the reader feel he’s right there in the scene,” she said. (If there’s ever been a simpler, more eloquent explanation of show, don’t tell, I’ve yet to come across it.) My lesson goes on by giving the students a rather “telling” paragraph:
I followed Breck’s trail through the jungle. It stank and the ground was soft and wet. Plus, it was also very hot. I was sweating heavily.
I then tell them to expand each sentence in the paragraph using one of the five senses. For instance, in looking at the first sentence, I ask, what does the narrator see as he walks along?
I followed Breck’s trail through a maze of high grass and hanging vines, dipping down like snakes and periodically blocking out the sunshine.
The next sense I use is hearing:
Something slithered through the brackish water to my left.
The other senses, touch, smelling, and tasting follow:
The wetness seeped through my shoes as my foot suddenly sank into a murky patch. The stench of rotting vegetation and who knew what else assailed my nostrils and I could taste my own sweat.
I also make it clear that using the list of the five senses to expand the original paragraph in a “show, don’t tell” manner doesn’t have to be done in order. I usually suggest a little tweaking:
I followed Breck’s trail through a maze of high grass and hanging vine, dipping down like snakes and periodically blocking out the sunshine. The stench of rotting vegetation and who knew what else assailed my nostrils and I could taste my own sweat. The wetness seeped through my shoes as my foot suddenly sank into a murky patch. Something slithered through the brackish water to my left.
As you can see, I changed the order so the reader will be left with something slithering through the water right after the narrator’s foot is immersed in a murky patch. But in terms of telling details, how much is too much? Remember, in good writing, every line should advance the plot. The writer must put in enough detail to make the reader feel like he’s there in the scene, but not so much that it diverts the reader’s attention by going off on a tangent of superfluous description.
So how do you tell the difference? The answer is simple: you finish it, let it sit for a bit, then do your revision. As Rolad Dahl was fond of saying, “Good writing is rewriting.” No truer words have ever been spoken. The devil is often in those “telling details,” but the nice thing is, you don’t have to get it exactly right the first time.