Storyville: Show, Don't Tell

I can’t believe I’ve never written a column dedicated to the whole "show vs. tell" aspect of writing. It’s a very important topic, and I’m not saying that you can’t tell, that you shouldn’t tell—there is a time and a place for everything—but it’s crucial for you as an author to understand the difference, so you can immerse your audience in your prose. Let’s get started.

There is an exercise I like to do when I go talk at local high schools, and I think it’s perfect for this column. So, if I ask you to close your eyes and tell you to visualize something, can you see it? Depends on how I describe it, right? So, if you were to close your eyes, and I were to tell you there was a beautiful woman standing in the room with you, what would you see? Close your eyes, and picture that beautiful woman. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

So, what did you see? Hard to picture, right? You’re pulling up data on whatever you think is beautiful—blonde or brunette, tall or short—but based on my saying “beautiful,” you don’t have any details. Same thing if I say close your eyes and picture an ugly man. Or a scary monster. Or a haunted house. Just because I say scary, doesn’t MAKE IT SCARY.

Let me give you an example. Here is me writing about a haunted house (poorly, for emphasis):

The house on the hill was scary. It was dark. There was something wrong with it, I didn’t like it. It made me nervous, it was dirty and falling apart. It must be haunted.”

So, are you scared? HELL NO! That doesn’t do anything for us. AND, there are no concrete details. Let’s look at a better example, the opening to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

That’s much better. There are some truly disturbing moments there, as well as some excellent concrete details. The parts that bother me are the live organism, sanity, holding darkness within, the way the bricks meet the floor for some reason, the silence, and then whatever walked there, walked alone. That really sets the mood and atmosphere. The concrete details I like are the larks, katydids, hills, bricks, floors, doors sensibly shut, wood, and stone. And this is ONE PARAGRAPH. There is so much more.

I’m a maximalist— so setting and atmosphere, tone and mood, sensory detail and emotion—are all very important to my work. Here are few more examples from my work to illustrate how you might show something horrific, or even just to set up a place and time.

The first is “Chasing Ghosts,” which was in Cemetery Dance magazine, and long-listed for The Best Horror of the Year:

This wind outside our apartment isn’t a woman screaming, but there are nights I wake up in a panic, struggling to catch my breath. The garbage disposal becomes a rabid dog, its teeth nipping at my fingertips. The slam of the front door turns our apartment into a tomb, sealed shut as my wife disappears out into the night, leaving me for dead. I can’t trust myself to recognize the truth. Her lips on mine taste bitter, so I build a fortress around myself out of the evidence that is gathering. I wait to confront her, anxious for it to spill out into the daylight for everyone to see. I need to prove I am right.

Screaming wind, teeth in the disposal, apartment as tomb (sealed inside)—hopefully this goes a long way toward setting up this story, and place. Something is not right.

Try this longer passage from one of my more dense stories, “Asking for Forgiveness” (online at Menacing Hedge), which was also long-listed for The Best Horror of the Year:

Our father was a rumor, an echo, something only to be seen out of the corner of your eye. Our father was a woodsman, arms like tree limbs, beard as if born from bear, disappearing for days, for weeks, returning with so many things—tiny bird skulls, beads on a string, flowers for mother with purple blossoms and veiny leaves. The wood was stacked along one side of the cabin as high as it could go, the steady chop, the split of the timber, just part of the day, or so we were told. Our father was the cold creek that ran south of our home, filled with silver-backed fish with blood-orange meat, whispering every time we neared it, quenching our thirst, promises of sleepy peace if only we’d step a bit closer. Our father was the frosty moon that pasted the land with silence as our breath formed clouds of pain, feet bruised and bleeding, his laughter running over the mountain, guiding us down one ravine and up the other, wandering from hill to valley and back, some elusive destination always out of reach. Our father was time, stretched in every direction, elastic as a rubber band, as slow and anchored as a wall of granite, our eyes closing, waking up sore, grey where black had been. All lies. Everything she had ever told us was a lie. She never loved us, or it wouldn’t be like this.

It is surreal? For sure. And there is some telling in here, too, but the dominance is in the visceral, concrete details of the father, and the weird ways he shifts. Who, or what exactly, is he?

One more, from my story, “White Picket Fences,” (in the Shadows Over Main Street anthology), which was, again, long-listed for The Best Horror of the Year:

The stench gets worse as I ease down the steps, something pungent and fishy, the slime stretching out across the concrete all the way to the open steamer chest, Mrs. Johnson with her back to me, her housecoat wide open, doing something with her hands, her arms moving, a smacking sound like chewing gum, or eating a plate of ribs. On the floor around her is water, everywhere, up to her ankles pushing towards me, flowing out of the trunk. Her hands come down to her sides, blood up to her elbows, her back still to me, the saw on the workbench wet with crimson, a hammer glistening in red, and there is motion in the trunk, something stirring in the shadows, the skin of a snake, a tentacle perhaps, a slick surface of some kind curling and expanding, and then she turns, her face full of eyes, dozens of them, blinking, staring, her hair floating wide and electric, bare breasts hanging down, her legs parting as she births onto the floor one tiny creature after another, slimy little heads, translucent skin, slipping down her legs and onto the floor, her mouth a beak now, clicking open and shut.

This is a big reveal toward the end of the story, and I wanted something strange, and Lovecraftian to unfurl out of the normalcy of this town, this time period, and this woman. Hopefully you can see that well.

Hopefully you get a sense now of how to use setting and detail to show us people, monsters, and places, without judging and telling us how to think or feel. There should be room in here for the reader to assign their own emotion—their own verdict on what’s happening. Don’t tell me weak, show me weak. Don’t tell me horrifying, instead, horrify me. Don’t tell me magical, take the time to unpack and make it magical, wondrous, hypnotizing.

If you’re GOING to tell, then use that voice and authority to give me facts. “The hospital was the largest in the area, four miles deep into the woods, built out of glass and steel.” That’s not rendering judgment, it’s simply giving you details. Later, depending on how we use the hospital in the story (as background, or character, or mood) we can go deeper if we need to. If not, let it go, don’t take the time to slow down and unpack it—it’s not important.

Another mistake I see people make is with a passive voice, and passive verbs. “Something seemed wrong. She felt unease. The room appeared empty.” Again, don’t be weak with your assertations. The room WAS empty, but then show us what IS there—a smell, something sweet and rotting, dead flies on the windowsill— creating that unease we were talking about. Show me what’s OFF here. Don’t tell me it’s strange, or weird, or scary, right? Show me, without judgement.

So don’t use those empty words—beautiful and ugly, old and young, scary and safe. Take the time to show me these people, places, and things, and then let ME DECIDE how to react to them. You don’t tell me what’s sexy, you show me sensual and let me react. You don’t tell me a joke is funny, you just recite the joke, and I react. You don’t tell me the woods are haunted, you paint a picture, with sensory detail, and try to get under my skin.

It’s not easy, I know, and you will definitely slip into telling when you don’t want to. When you are editing your stories and novels, just go back, and pull out those empty words, and fill them in with your voice, atmosphere, genre, and authority. It will allow for a much more intense experience, layering in mood, tone, and emotion.

Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), as well as Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); and one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 140 stories published, his credits include The Best Horror of the Year (Volume Eleven), Cemetery Dance (twice), Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders (Bram Stoker winner), PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, has received five Pushcart Prize nominations, and has been long-listed for Best Horror of the Year six times. He was also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at Lit Reactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

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