I’m not a great writer. I may noy even be a good writer. But I am a great story-teller.
I have 4 Audible books (short stories) that all get terrific reviews. When it comes to getting representation from an agent for longer books, though, I strike out.
Usually when I send a manuscript to an agent for consideration (and get rejected), I receive a comment (when I get a comment) similar to this: there was too much telling and not enough showing.
“Show, Don’t Tell” is something that drilled into every writing student’s mind. Essentially it means you want a reader to experience a story through actions, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through narrative.
To me, it often means the inclusion of a lot of text that adds nothing to a story.
Here’s an example of what I mean. In a novel I am writing my main character is going a hotel to meet with two FBI agents to discuss his ex-wife. He doesn’t know why and, because he has been divorced for more than two years, is more annoyed than curious. Here is what I wrote:
Harry crossed the hotel lobby, made a left turn and walked into a conference room with a placard that read Mountain Laurel Conference Room. The room was huge, obviously intended to be used to weddings or large conferences, and so empty that Harry’s footsteps echoed as he walked toward two men sitting at a table.
He expected them to be in sharp suits, like the way FBI agents are portrayed on TV, but their suits were run of the mill, off the shelf suits, probably from JC Penney. He decided that their mode of dress was most likely the manner in which FBI agents actually dressed.
I suppose I could have written a description of the room, how the tables and chairs stacked up against the wall, the missing bulbs in the three chandeliers, how the stains in the carpet were visible because it was not covered with the tables, and so on. I could have also added a flashback, one in which Harry recalled attending a wedding in the conference room, and how annoyed he was at the poor service, terrible band, terrible food, and so on.
As far as the FBI men are concerned, I could have added a bit more about what Harry noticed about their suits. Perhaps they were polyester, the cheapest fabric available. Harry could have noticed a slight stain on one of the agent’s ties, or how rumpled one of their shirts was. Add to that a memory of one of his law professors, one who was notoriously sloppy in his choice of clothing but nonetheless brilliant. Harry could then decide that clothes don’t make the man.
Doing the above could easily take up one or more pages of text, but why bother? It would have no impact on the story. Here, in my mind, is what the reader needs to know – Harry is going to meet with two FBI agents who want to discuss his ex-wife. He is slightly annoyed, but mostly curious, and his mindset was disclosed earlier in the story.
There is no need for the reader to know anything more.
I would like to compare my style of writing to two other authors – Philip K. Dick (PKD) and Michael J. Sullivan (MJS).
I am currently reading a short story by PKD called “The Skull.” This is the synopsis: the protagonist is given a chance to get out of jail if he agrees to kill a man that has died 200 years ago. He is given a skull from which he can identify the man, and is sent back in time in a capsule. Eventually he realizes that the skull is his own, so he is going back in time to murder himself.
PKD’s writing style contains virtually no “show, don’t tell.” It is mostly dialog. Here is and example from The Skull:
“The Movement preached that you couldn’t stop war by planning for it. They preached that man was losing to his machinery and science, that it was getting away from him, pushing him into greater and greater wars. Down with society, they shouted. Down with factories and science! A few more wars and there wouldn’t be much left of the world.
“The Founder was an obscure person from a small town in the American Middle West. We don’t even know his name. All we know is that one day he appeared, preaching a doctrine of non-violence, non-resistance; no fighting, no paying taxes for guns, no research except for medicine. Live out your life quietly, tending your garden, staying out of public affairs; mind your own business. Be obscure, unknown, poor. Give away most of your possessions, leave the city. At least that was what developed from what he told the people.”
The car dropped down and landed on a roof.
The car dropped down and landed on a roof. I love it. What kid of roof? How high was the roof? Was there a noticeable thud?
In two paragraphs of dialog, a lot is revealed. In one sentence, we know the protagonist is on a roof. Do we need to know anymore?
Most analyses of PKD’s stories say that they have unparalleled imaginative properties, but that the writing itself is bad, or at the very least, basic.
So what? Once you start reading, you won’t stop. The stories are good.
I am currently listening to a book by MJS (I could not read it without groaning). MJS is a wildly popular writer who, according to the “rules” of writing, is a terrible writer. Here is an example of some dialog from the book I am listening to.
“Go back!” she shouted and waved at Kolby. “Use your weight to raise this end!”
“I need to come with you!”
“You can’t! I need you to lift me! Do it! Do it now!”
Seven exclamation marks in three sentences. Probably a few hundred in the book. If you take a writing class you will learn the general rule about exclamation points – don’t use them. Overuse denotes amateurism. Yet MJS gets away with it.
PS: the first sentence should have been written as: She shouted and waved at Kolby. “Go back! Use your weight to raise this end!”
Here is another example of the violation of “the rules”: “That’s only one theory,” Farilane qualified. The word qualified is not a “dialog tag” and thus should not have been used as such.
Finally, the story I am listening to takes place either on another planet and in the distant past. Yet a character, expressing annoyance, says, “Jeez.” Okay. According to the Oxford Advanced American Dictionary, “Jeez” is short for “Jesus.”
I suppose Jesus could have visited another planet in the distant past, but I found the use of the word nonsensical.
Again, MJS gets away with it.
Why? He has an incredible imagination and the stories, albeit loaded with unnecessary showing, are easy to get through. I also suppose that the stories, being fantasies, attract an audience that just doesn’t care. They only want a good story that does not require a lot of thinking on their part.
So, I am planning to put together a collection of stories that I will call “Stories for Readers with Attention Deficit Disorder.”
The collection will include 7 short stories, 2 of which recently won first and second prize in a North Carolina contest, and 4 of which are on Audible.com.
I’m looking for funding to create a slick paperback book. Any suggestions?