Monday, 5 April 2010

Show, not tell

I've been busy this week editing my People's Friend serial, which is why I've not been blogging. There "wasn't a lot to do" said lovely editor Shirley, apart from "pick up the pace a bit" in the final part.

Pick up the pace.

Oh, God.

So off I hared to the phone and had a nice chat with her. It transpired she thought that while the final part (it's a four-part gentle mystery) obviously needed to include a lot of denouement and explanation, the last third felt a bit flat. Could I perhaps inject some action into it?

It is a sad fact of life that editors are rarely wrong, so I sat down and re-read the episode. And yes, she was right. Could I see how to fix it? Could I heck.

So I wrote down the sequence of the last third: Penny goes to the boat, Penny listens to one side of Leo's phone call, Penny sees the point at which Leo regains his memory, Penny listens to Leo telling her what happened, Penny and Leo solve the final mystery together.

Oops. All Penny's viewpoint. But if I rewrote the middle three segments from Leo's point of view it should suddenly become much more alive because the information is coming to the reader first-hand instead of second-hand.

This is the gist of the original (with some spoilers removed)
Penny saw memory hit Leo with almost physical force. His face drained of colour. “I’ve got a meeting. I’ll ring you back.” He turned off the phone, dropped it with a clatter and slumped forward, covering his face with his hands.

"You've remembered, haven't you?"

"I'd had a terrible night and was still going over what she’d said next day. I drove around a bend on a road that I must have travelled a thousand times before - the sun was low, it dazzled off the wet tarmac and I went off the road into a tree."

And this is the revised version
Why did he still have this gap around the time of his accident? They reached the bottom of the road, Penny started to make the turn and the sun glanced off the wing mirror straight into Leo’s eyes. A
kaleidoscope of images rushed at him. A bend. A quiet suburb. The road slick with rain and the sun dazzling off it. The steering wheel jumping. The scream of tyres...

“Stop!” he yelled, covering his face with his hands. “Stop!”

The car braked to a halt. “Leo, what is it?” said Penny. “Are you ill?”

Leo opened his eyes. A child skipped down the pavement with her mother. Seagulls screeched overhead. “I’ve remembered,” he said.

And guess what? It works. Just as I've always known and had temporarily forgotten. And that is Show, not Tell.

PS: the photos are of the hellebores that I transplanted from my mother's shade-garden so I'd always have a permanent reminder of her. I could have told you that today (top photo) they are bushy and thriving and twice the size they were two years ago... or I could show you (bottom photo). I know which works best for me.


Unknown said...

You make the transformation look so simple - what a difference it makes. thanks for sharing.

I love hellebores - they remind me of mil


Susie Vereker said...

Good one, Jan. Like the helibores too.

Joanna said...

The difference is striking and makes a really helpful and valuable lesson for us all.

Rosalind Adam said...

'Show not Tell' is such a mantra in creative writing groups that, like a cliché, you sometimes forget what it really means. Thanks for the reminder and for showing not telling us about those lovely hellebores. We have pink and white ones out at the moment. They're a treat.

Kate Johnson said...

Sometimes it's only obvious when you look back at it. I've done exactly the same thing in revisions!

Victoria Lamb said...

Being an editor myself, I do love your comment about editors being 'rarely wrong'. Such a comfort, especially when writers complain and act difficult, lol.

Thanks for this. It's really jogged me over a mid-novel chapter I have to revise tomorrow. I was poring over it, knowing it needs to be enlivened, but unsure how/where etc.

Now I shall apply the 'show, don't tell' rule, and hopefully inject it with instant vitality. That's the theory, anyway.

Deborah Carr (Debs) said...

I really must remember to show not tell. The second version is so good.

Love the helibores, such a great idea to have transplanted them into your own garden.

Phillipa said...

Jan - that is a fantastic example of show not tell. I'm in awe. Thank you for sharing. P x

Jan Jones said...

Thanks, all. It's astonishing how often it takes a different pair of eyes to see where we are going on.

Jan Jones said...

Going on??? I meant going wrong, obviously. Blogger eating random letters again.