I’ll Show You Mine If You Show Me Yours: An Exercise in Show Versus Tell

We are not above immature ploys!
We are not above immature ploys!

I know, that title is childish – but it got your attention, didn’t it? That’s a lesson re-reminded to me from the “Blogger’s Butt” post we ran yesterday. A good, catchy title brings readers to your post. Remember that. Sometimes I forget.

You guys often get all excited when I explain a particular aspect of storytelling, and I like to make you happy (even if other people think it’s dull) so here’s an example of a critique I did recently. The names have been changed to protect the innocent (maybe), but this is a really interesting story that I’ve taken a sample of to show you my critique process and a few points on SHOWING VERSUS TELLING.

Trust me, it's not that bad.
Trust me, it’s not that bad.

If you join a critique group, keep in mind that each reader brings their own likes and dislikes to your story, and not everyone will get it – same as with readers when they go to buy your finished book, with some differences. What appeals to a custom cabinet maker in California may not be what appeals to a retired chemistry teach in Michigan, but they both might read your story. Your blurb and cover design will help rope the right audience, but some things appeals to everyone.

(We recently discussed blurbs HERE – they are super important!)

Show Versus Tell – NOT what you did in kindergarten.

Let the reader see the scene. Describe it. When you show what’s happening, you are putting us there in the moment as readers, using our senses; we get a better feel for the story and characters. We are part of the scene as it is happening, and we immerse ourselves more in your story – making it more interesting and harder to put down.

An example is when Chekhov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

Yeah, do that.

The internet can occasionally be helpful!
The internet can occasionally be helpful!

If your search for the term “show versus tell in storytelling,” you’ll get a lot of articles that explain this in a lot of detail and that give examples. Read some of them, but develop your style for it. Watch for how your favorite authors do it. Now that you’re aware, you’ll see it – or not see it, I guess, if it’s done well.

Okay, here’s the story and the critique notes in bold. I try to be friendly, light, and informative, but just as often I’ll ask questions I’m thinking at that moment like a reader might be thinking in their mind, and I’ll make comments a reader might be thinking, too. This is helpful as play-by-play feedback, letting the author know you are getting the material or not. I am also very lax in capital letters, punctuation and spelling in critiques, cos I’m lazy.

This is a long post, but it’s worth it to see how things unfold.

Well, maybe that last one...
Critique-ers can be nice, friendly, helpful folks!

REMEMBER: each critique will bring a different perspective. By receiving several as you’re writing, you can appeal to a wider range of reader or hone in on a specific type. You’ll get differing opinions on how to address a problem so you can make a choice that feels best to you. My suggestions are just my ideas. Somebody else might have a better one. Use it!

Here’s the story:

.

Simone was sitting at the table in the small kitchen of the flat. She had a glass of wine in front of her and a cup of what we called coffee but was really a blend of chicory and acorns taking alternate sips of each.

“That’s an interesting breakfast.” I straightened the skirt of my uniform waiting for her to acknowledge my presence.

She shrugged and took another sip from her wineglass. We had been living on a small inheritance from our mother but it was hardly an inexhaustible source of income. I was focused on my work, but Simone had been distant and unmotivated since her last love affair had come to an end even though there was a long line of replacement suitors. We shared a phone in the hallway with six other tenants and were most unpopular as the majority of calls were for Simone. She went out most nights but came back at varying hours of the morning saying little to nothing to me about her personal life. Simone was much more French than I was.

 

Isn’t wine glass two words?

This paragraph is a bit tell-y. I’d give one or two details here, but more casual and save the rest for later

for example:


We had been living on a small inheritance from our mother but it was hardly an inexhaustible source of income.
Why’s that important to know now? Lingering resentment that you work and’s doing whatever? dig in a bit, Maybe with some conversation.

as you get ready: “Mom’s inheritance isn’t going to last forever.”
“Hah. That pittance.”

established the inheritance (obviously from a deceased mother), that it’s not a lot, and that they disagree about how to live using it, or whatever else you want to imply. You can also say it was a stale conversation you’d gone over a thousand times before

and this:
“Are you still upset about Harry? It’s been three months. And from the number of phone calls you get, there is no shortage of replacement suitors, princess.”
“Oh, everyone knows all about my social life, don’t they? Maybe if we didn’t share a hallway phone with have six other tenants…”

Then the comment about most nights

This folds it in and makes it seem less like a big gulp of information, much more digestible, to my eye

I sat down and poured myself a cup of the same liquid. I looked at my sister over the rim, noticing her smudged mascara, the slight paleness of her lips and red tinge under her nose as if she had been crying, although I discarded that thought immediately for Simone rarely wept. Even after suffering the dissipations of the morning after a late night she was still strikingly beautiful and I had to stifle the usual streak of jealousy I felt in my stomach. She acted her usual aloof self and didn’t meet my eyes once. Was she coming down with a cold?

 

This is good, but imply the jealousy, don’t tell it straight out

Sisters will have ideas about each other. you can show her semi-jealousy without stating it. Assume your reader is smart, and if there’s jealousy it’ll come cross in the tone they take with each other.

However,
Even after suffering the dissipations of the morning after a late night she was still strikingly beautiful (damn her)

She acted her usual aloof self and didn’t meet my eyes once.
that statement implies jealousy.

Also, you can google jealousy or signs of jealousy, and have our characters do those things. Readers will pick up on it.

too pretty/always trying to look good
too many phone calls
active social life

I think they’ll get it.

 

“Well, see you tonight then.” I stood up.

She looked up and her eyes focused on me for the first time. “Oh, good bye Sylvie.”

I turned back after opening the door but she just gave me a dismissive wave of her hand. I didn’t bother with my coat but put up my umbrella for it had started to rain early in the morning, although it was a light shower. There was the usual Friday traffic. The footpath was filled with people as I turned from White Hart Lane to the much more crowded Whitehall where I worked. There were men and women in uniform as well as mothers pushing prams, older couples on their way to the shops, young girls traveling to school, and other assorted people going about their lives as best they could considering the perilous times.

this definitely reads as icy, but when you say “dismissive wave of her hand,” imagine you doing that, or somebody doing it to you. Think about what you see and describe that. Maybe they hold the newspaper up in front if their eyes, don’t look at you, wave their hand – THAT SHOWS the dismissiveness without TELLING it, and brings your reader in much more.

I started my routine typing after reaching my office, noting that my boss Colonel Hastings, was not in as yet, a common occurrence of late where previously he had been implicitly punctual. There was an air of something different over the past few months with him, for Colonel Hastings, always friendly and jovial, had become positively secretive. He had taken to staring at me when he thought I wasn’t looking and his expression was pensive as if he wanted to tell me something but was holding back. I took it personally thinking he was dissatisfied with my work and I was about to be transferred, although it had always been satisfactory.

it is said we don’t start to do things, we just do them. So maybe she assembles some paper and whatever. I can go either way on it

I started my routine typing after reaching my office, noting that my boss Colonel Hastings, was not in as yet, a common occurrence of late where previously he had been implicitly punctual.

maybe try:

I started my routine typing after reaching my office. Colonel Hastings, was not in as yet.

That’s becoming more and more common.

occurrence of late where previously he had been implicitly punctual.(implied)

Later she can refer to him as boss, but I think him being a Colonel it’ll be assumed if she is readying herself for typing. See? In my mind, the officer doesn’t type, the underling does – saying it without saying it again

He entered the office. We dispensed with saluting, an understanding we had between ourselves unless joined by a superior. He appeared tense as he bid me good morning, the furrow I had come to recognize between his eyebrows. His blue eyes were bloodshot and rimmed with black circles in contrast to his pale complexion. I was alarmed. Was everything was all right with his family?

We dispensed with saluting, an understanding we had between ourselves unless joined by a superior.
and this cements the work chain of command

He appeared tense
what does that look like? Darting eyes, sweaty upper lip, fidgeting with papers, tugging at his collar or necktie?

It was his custom to greet me, perhaps exchange a few words, and then continue into his office. Instead he paused, moved aside the files I was working on and actually sat down on my desk, a completely unprecedented event.

some of this reads as very formal. not good or bad, just an interesting style thing. if the author’s tone is more formal when the character is at work and less so at home, that’s a neat technique

“Sylvie, in a few moments I’m expecting a young man. When he comes in I want to speak to you both.” He blinked three times in quick succession, a thing he only did when he was concentrating or annoyed. I wasn’t sure which it was.

three is a but technical. it may or may not work. Why not say several times and keep the explanation. It’s something she’d know about her boss, but three reads as too exact to my eye

 

“Yes, sir. May I ask his name, sir?”

“His name?”

“Yes, the name of the young man.”

“Oh of course, forgive me. His name is Andrew. Andrew Le Claire.”

I was confused. “But Colonel Hastings, that’s my surname. Is he related to me?”

that’s my surname.
he would know this, readers will quickly get it

 

“No, Sylvie, but he will be.”

With that mysterious comment he left me, open mouthed, his last sentence resounding in my ears like an echo. It was impossible to just carry on with my typing but I made an attempt. After three errors in the first paragraph alone, I paused trying to calm myself. What could Colonel Hastings possibly mean by those cryptic comments about the man named Andrew?

good question

As if in answer to my query the door opened. He was indeed a young man, older than myself but not by many years, likely twenty-seven or eight to my twenty-five. He was dressed somewhat formally in the clothes of a businessman, although he could never be mistaken for one. The knot of the tie was crooked, and all the buttons of his jacket and coat were open in a carelessness that implied he was dressed like that by necessity, not choice. He had fine features, a wide, easy smile, full lips for a man, and a lock of dark hair that fell across the left side of his forehead. He was carrying the newspaper opened to the crossword that was half solved. He had a way of holding himself that was not military at all, an aura I found refreshing and confusing at the same time.

this description is good. unlike the earlier one, which seemed info-dumpy, we’d expect her to spend some time taking in this stranger under these circumstances.

“Hello.” His voice was quite lovely, somewhere between tenor and baritone. “I’m Andrew.”

lovely tends to be a British term

I stood up, the top of my head came to about his cheekbones. “Sylvie Le Claire.” I extended my hand but instead of the shake I was expecting, I got a formal bow that contrasted ridiculously with his demeanor. He took my proffered hand so I wouldn’t look like a complete fool and pressed it into both of his own. He continued in a polite string of perfect French to which I answered him in the same language.

now, if she thinks he’s good looking, she can say she came up to his impossibly handsome cheekbones, although if you said that I’d probably get on you about it, but you take my point

show us a few French words. it adds to the ambiance and shows us she knows French without having to tell us

“Bienvenidio, madame.”
“Merci”
“Aah, cest speak francias?”
“Oui, messieur.”
“Blah biddy blah blah about the recent weather”
“Reply in French about I prefer it warmer”
smiles
the colonel interrupts

Colonel Hastings interrupted by opening his door. “Well I see that you have met each other then. Splendid. Please come in, both of you.”

don’t tell us he interrupts. we see it. another possibility:

He took my hand. “Bonjour, mademoiselle.”
“Merci.”
He smiled. “Oh, vous parlez français?”
“Je suis du Québec.”
“La météo est toujours cette agréable?”
“This cool weather is unusual for us. I prefer it warmer.”
The colonel cleared his throat. “Well, I see…

See? (French words and odd markings compliments of Google translate)

 

Andrew stood aside to allow me to precede him. We sat opposite Colonel Hastings who pursed his lips and didn’t look directly at either of us. Andrew leaned back in his chair, the puzzle open on his lap while I sat straight without moving. I clasped my palms together surprised that they were moist.

“Forgive me for all the cloak-and-dagger Sylvie, but what I’m about to explain to you is in the highest confidence.”

“Of course, sir,” I crossed my legs. Most of our work was classified.

period after sir

 

“Let me start by asking you how long it’s been since you have seen your father?”

That was probably the last question I was prepared to be asked but I decided to answer without inquiring the reasons. “About ten years, although my sister visits every year or so, at least she did until the occupation.”

I’d break this up.
That was probably the last question I was prepared to be asked. I decided to answer without inquiring the reasons.

it gives us readers a pause at the period, making it feel like she’s contemplating her answer.

 

“I see. And your step mother?”

“My step mother? You mean Colette?”

He nodded. I didn’t speak out of bewilderment so he leaned a little forward. “Go on, Sylvie.”

“The same amount of time I suppose. They only married recently after the death of my mother but have known each other many years.”

“Did you know she had a son that lives here in England?”

Aha! I knew it. The England part, not the son.

see, and that is an example of showing not telling. We pick that up contextually and confirm it like this.

 

I was starting to have an inkling what the conversation was possibly about, but instead of looking at Andrew, I kept my eyes on my boss. “Yes although I don’t really remember him. I believe Simone, my sister, is acquainted with him but I’m afraid my father and I are somewhat estranged, so I’ve lost track of the family.”

“Yes, well her son was at Oxford some years ago reading mathematics but never finished his studies. He was recruited to a special branch when war broke out. I’m not at liberty to discuss it more than that.”

“That’s all very interesting sir, but I don’t see—“

“Andrew is Colette’s son and for our purposes, your brother.”

“Andrew is Colette’s son – and for our purposes, your brother.”

(more dramatic)

Dun, dun, dunnn!

 

I turned toward Andrew and saw him in a new light. Of course, I now remembered his name was Andre. There was a resemblance to my step mother around the eyes, but not in the color for Andrew’s were greenish while his mother’s were dark brown, it was more to do with the shape. I thought he might lean forward and kiss me on both cheeks, but he sufficed with winking, a gesture I thought odd for a man I had just met. “Enchante.” The newspaper rustled on his lap.

I had the feeling the two of them were in a conspiracy about something, as if I had walked into a room and everyone had stopped talking. Colonel Hastings cleared his throat. “Let me explain from the beginning what the proposal is.”

“Proposal?” My oblivion was embarrassing.

He went on to say how for the past few months he had been working on a special project and was currently recruiting suitable people to infiltrate occupied France and become operatives of an organization of which I had never heard called the Special Operations Executive. He thought of me because of my familiarity with the language and the fact that I would be able to blend in without arousing suspicion.

“We want you to return to Sainte Victoire where you will be reunited with your father at his café. Andrew will be at the farm his mother owns and you will both be couriers among other things.”

I was too shocked to ask him to elaborate.

“I know it’s a lot to take on board. You would be doing a great service to your country, both of you. We have intelligence that a certain officer whose father is a high ranking Nazi frequents Sainte Victoire, it being his assigned territory if you will. The man is known to be careless and might be persuaded to let certain important information slip if properly handled.”

You know, I rarely read author notes because they can give stuff away, but this had a definite WWII feel to it, probably from the formality of speech and things like a typewriter, the hall phone, etc. Good job of getting me there.

 

I had to laugh at that. If Colonel Hastings was looking for a femme fatale he had the wrong person in me. “My abilities at that type of thing are sorely lacking, sir.”

“I think you underestimate yourself Sylvie, but we have another role in mind for you. We were considering someone else for the part of…of becoming friendly with the enemy.”

A sudden pain hit my temples as the realization struck me. “Simone.” My voice was almost a whisper.

good job with this!

Okay, and although you can’t really end here (it was too soon in the story), you can see how ending here would be an amazing page turner/cliff hanger, right?

.

END OF SAMPLE AND COMMENTARY

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See? Critiques aren’t so scary!

Okay, you saw mine; now show me yours! What ideas would you bring to this story, or what thoughts of mine did you find helpful? All opinions count equally!

.

Your humble host.
Your humble host.

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Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the hilarious upcoming novel “Poggibonsi: an italian misadventure.” Check out his other works HERE.

8 thoughts on “I’ll Show You Mine If You Show Me Yours: An Exercise in Show Versus Tell

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