Showing Too Much.

Posted on | September 17, 2011

Show, don’t tell.

It’s not just a great song by Rush, it’s a battlecry of writers everywhere to the raw recruits.  Over and over, we writers are told, it is import to show the story through the eyes of the characters, through the words they say and do, through the events they hear, see, and feel.   By doing so, you get a story, not just a collection of events arranged in the outline of a plot.

I had a problem, though.  I had, what I thought, was a great idea for a story.  One of the biggest problems I have with The Journal Entries is that I rarely explain anything to the audience.  I use a lot of high SFnal tropes, some of them relatively recent (mind uploads, consciousness taking credit for unconsciousness, robot rights, things like that), and I expect a reader to come up to speed on the things she doesn’t recognize fairly quickly.  Sometimes, when I’m feeling merciful, I write a fish-out-of-water story, taking a character from the Corridor and dropping them somewhere else, or taking someone from somewhere else and dropping them into the Corridor.  The culture shock scene is place where the character can say, “Back home, we do it this way.”   I’ve had one of those on my writing machine for a while, Nefer & Sabrine, which first appeared on my notebook as “City Terran / Country Sterling.”

I have written and re-written the first three scenes over and over, never getting anywhere.  Nefer is my city Terran– a mechanic and engineer, attached to an expedition soon to head off to a dangerous place.  Sabrine is my country girl– a historian by trade also attached to the same mission as team archivist.  Nefer is also a powered-armor goddess, but Sabrine’s dance training allows her to master the armor much faster than anyone else, giving Nefer a fit of jealousy, and of course desire.  Nefer turns out to be one of those people (like me) who dive headfirst into a language’s grammar and have it down in three months, after which all that’s left is the slog of encountering new vocabulary and remembering it, so soon she and Sabrine have a private language, French, between them.  This facility makes Sabrine jealous, but hearing an ordinary human speak her language also makes her homesick.  And despite both of them feeling obliged to put aside romantic attachments for the duration of the mission, and having other reasons to avoid entanglements, well…

Well, that’s tension.

I tried too hard, over and over, to impress the reader with Nefer’s and Sabrine’s relative skills.  I tried to show, and the scene got longer and longer without going anywhere.  One of the best pieces of advice I recently got from Trey Parker (of South Park fame) was this: “If you have two scenes, the connecting phrase between them should be ‘but,’ or ‘therefore’.  If it’s ‘and then,’ your story is boring.  ‘This happened then this happened then this happened is boring.  ‘This happened therefore this happened but that happened therefore this happened,’ that is an interesting story.”  My story had a “this happened then that happened” quality.

I stepped back and said, “What is this story about?”  The story was about Nefer and Sabrine seeing something interesting in each other.  One paragraph of admiration from Sabrine about the quality of Nefer’s armor, one paragraph of surprise from Nefer as she watches newbie Sabrine push her armor into a retire devant and then into a full battement develope while keeping the other foot en pointe, a common but difficult ballet move, was all that was needed to get past that scene.  (Yes, it’s told from two points of view.  That’s common in romance writing.)

The lesson is simple: Don’t show what doesn’t need to be shown.   Concentrate on what the story is about, and cut out any scenes, however lovely, that don’t progress the story.

 

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