Monday, March 6, 2017

The Long and Short of Show and Tell

Sacchi Green

I write short stories. Sometimes I feel like that’s a character flaw, a reluctance to commit to a longer , harder undertaking; an impatience that doesn’t want to wait for the delayed gratification a novel would involve, although I’ve known even short stories to take years to see publication. For that matter, a couple of the anthologies I’ve edited have taken almost three years to come out, but that was in unusual circumstances. Come to think of it, from what I’ve heard about several small presses lately, the unusual part may be that they’ve been published at all.

Mostly, though, I figure it’s not a character failure, just an alternate aptitude, a lesser one than I imagined  when I was a kid, but still something. Writing short stories takes a different set of skills than writing novels. Not all novelists can write good short stories, after all, or maybe they’d just rather not bother. I once long ago wrote and sold a short mystery story for an anthology to be published by Barnes&Noble called 100 Crafty Little Cat Stories because the editor had been trying to get stories from mystery writers with little luck, so he sent the guidelines out into the science fiction/fantasy community, where plenty of us  knew how to write short stories. The pay was better than usual, but for me the real payoff was that my parents read and liked my story, and I’ve been able to send it to other older relatives from time to time to prove that I do actually write, without elaborating on what other kinds of things I write. This was back before I did much with erotica, but my folks couldn’t wrap their minds around my science fiction/fantasy stories, although they were both well-educated and voracious readers. My mother was even a librarian.

But the grass looks so much greener over on the novelists’ side. I’d always thought I’d be a writer, but life (and, I suppose, inertia) happened, so when I finally made a serious attempt I felt too old to start on something that would take such a long time both to write and get published. Now, of course, twenty years later, I could kick myself for not trying to write longer forms back then. I don’t subscribe to the old-dogs-can’t-learn-new-tricks theory, but I do seem to be rather set in my ways when it comes to how to write, and this is dragging me down now that I’m belatedly trying my hand at a longer work. I was invited by a publisher to write a novella, and decided that it was probably now or never, so I committed to it, even though the subject is supposed to be lesbian superheroes and I’ve never been a fan of superheroism.

 I had an idea, proposed it, signed a contract, and even turned in my 23,000 words on time, just barely. But then I got some heavy editing full of “show, don’t tell! More detail here! This isn’t dynamic enough! Develop these secondary characters!” All of which, of course, was justified. Then I was told that there was so much plot packed into my story that they wanted me to expand it to novel length, three times as long as what I’d done. I agreed, and I’ve now turned in two-thirds of the required wordage, although there’s a good possibility that some of my plot perambulations have jumped the shark so badly that they’ll decide to cut it all back. Well see.

Old habits die hard. I can’t help feeling as I write merrily along (hah!) that “this is too wordy! I should whittle this down, refine it,” and maybe I should. (I also can’t help feeling that I could have written three short stories that interested me while I was working on this, but I might not have done it even if I’d had the time. Inertia is powerful.)

Which brings me to the issue of show versus tell. Yes, I know perfectly well that it’s important to show things through the actions and dialogue of the characters rather than just telling about it. It may be even more important in short stories than in in longer forms, since you don’t have much space to play with.  Some short stories are entirely “show,” featuring a single scene, or a just a few, in great detail, and that’s fine. But sometimes, I think, the lack of space calls for more telling rather than less. If a story needs more background, possibly more depth, than can be shown in play-by-play detail, skillful, concise telling is needed. A bit of telling can also have the effect of framing and intensifying the showing part.

I should confess here that my mood is currently affected by being in the midst of reading submissions for an anthology, and I’m at the misguided point of skimming through stories that are entirely play-on-play-on-play scenes in hopes of finding something in them besides the sex to pique the readers’ interest. A bit of telling, setting the characters in space and time and personal situation, might be just what such stories need. Or maybe not. My editorial confidence has been shaken by the realization that I may be right after all about not having the right set of skills for writing novels.

Well, I’m trying, and now I’m diving into the final third of my theoretical novel. I don’t know yet whether my rewrite so far fits the requirements. At one point I told the editor that I was almost finished with Part One, having described in detail the adventures in the desert where a traumatic encounter with an ancient statuette of an Abyssinian  goddess conferred a superpower on the main character; and her escape from the military training facility for psychics and other paranormal practitioners; and would proceed to do a step-by-step of the character (an AWOL Army Lieutenant) during her questionable traverse of casino after casino in the US using her telekinetic powers to game the roulette wheels in order to get enough money to fund her crusade against sex traffickers. To my relief, the editor replied that I didn’t have to show absolutely everything, so I could just cover that period by telling rather than showing.

For Part Two, taking place in and around Boston, MA, I expanded the action as requested to cover five rescue missions in depth rather than the three I’d started with, each (I hope) more dramatic than the one before, although I have a feeling that they may have just become more and more unbelievable and possibly repetitive without adding much. Part Three will take the main characters (there are actually two of them, the Lieutenant and  the Sergeant who was her driver in the Army) back to the Middle East where sex trafficking is a large part of warfare, which makes for a target truly worthy of the superpowers they’ve both practiced and, hopefully, perfected.

See how boring all that telling is? You know, I think I’ve just converted myself to the
“Show, Don’t Tell” school of thought after all.    



  1. I wholeheartedly agree that some of the skills required to write a novel are quite different from those needed for a short story. However, there's lots of overlap as well. Characters are still key. So are sentences (duh!) Writing a novel actually allows you to be lazier. You don't need to agonize over every word (though you may sustain the same level of agony over entire scenes).

    I suspect that one reason you're feeling so ambivalent about the novel is the fact that you are writing to spec rather than just following your personal inspiration. From your post, it sounds as though your editor is exercising significant control over the process. That may make it harder to feel as though the book is really "yours".

    I look forward to reading it, though. If you'd like a beta read, let me know!

    As for "show don't tell"... I believe that the importance of this rule has been 'way over-emphasized. Sometimes a book (or a scene) requires showing; sometimes telling is what's really needed. "Show don't tell" is partly a response to readers' laziness and a bending to fashion.

    You have fabulous instincts, honed through decades of writing. I'd trust them if I were you.

  2. I wholeheartedly agree with both of you about not blindly treating "show don't tell" as a sacred rule. For Pete's sake, an art like writing demands more flexibility and judgment and discrimination than a sweeping rule will usually accommodate; and one of the things I've found truly discouraging over the years is how ready a community that's supposedly full of highly literate, thoughtful people—writers and editors—is to parrot absurdly rigid dicta, dicta most of those same people probably don't really adhere to in the way they're stated, because, really, how could they? Sure, an overreliance on "telling" can result in flat storytelling, and that's why keeping "showing" in mind as an important writing technique is a good idea. But "always"? "Never"? Bah! I'm so tired of hearing "experts" handing down simplistic rules and reductionist dichotomies for literature and the arts.

    1. Also, as Sacchi indicates, the needs of a particular piece may make more "telling" more desirable. Sacchi mentions length as a factor, and I will mention style and tone. I think some pieces that have a more "intellectual" approach achieve that feel through a narrator that does a lot of discursive "telling." In the right hands, it works (depending on the reader's tastes, of course), and what it comes back to is another reality that sometimes seem to be lost on the rule makers: writers do not and should not all write in the same manner.

    2. I'd also like to second what Lisabet says, Sacchi, about trusting your instincts—and tie it in to what I said above about individual style. Granting that you don't have a lot of experience writing long-form specifically, you nonetheless have plenty of grounds for being confident that you know what you're doing—that you know what you want to do, and that you know how to do it. If I were in your shoes and I got the occasional editorial note like "Maybe a little more showing and less telling here?" or the like, well, sure, I'd revisit the passage with an open mind and a willingness to accommodate. But if I were getting "Show don't tell!" every three pages, I would start to feel that maybe my individual style as a writer and the editor's desiderata were simply not a great match.

    3. Not a good match is, I think, correct, although it still may be that I'm not a good match for novels. This editor is also a writer whose work I respect, and someone I respect for other reasons, although we've never met. But when she eventually got enthusiastic about the novel idea, she mentioned how much she loves to fix and improve and generally tinker with manuscripts (not her actual words), which fills me with foreboding.

  3. Narrative can be as compelling as dialog if executed with good instincts and an understanding of the tools. And there are times we want to slow things down, offer a related aside or explain a detail.

  4. I agree with what everyone else has said so far. Sacchi, I so agree with your take on erotic stories for an anthology that I've sometimes had trouble paring down a story to fit the maximum word-count because it makes me cringe to show characters getting it on soon after meeting -- and even if they do, I want them to have ages, occupations, cultural backgrounds, past histories (i.e. baggage) as well as bodies. Plus they need to meet in a particular setting. The circumstances in which you are writing a novel sound discouraging, but I'm not sure I would agree that you are essentially a short-story writer RATHER than a novelist. I've read your stories, and they tend to include well-described settings and distinct characters with past histories, all of which could be fleshed out further in longer works. (You could try expanding a story into a novella, which would probably be fairly painless if/when you have time.)

  5. I was struck that you called having an aptitude for short stories "a lesser one."

    Admittedly, the best pay seems to come from novels (if you hit that well—otherwise I've sometimes been paid better for shorts). However, as a passionate lover of shorts (as both writer and reader), I don't think the aptitude for them is lesser at all. I'm glad you write them, and that you edit collections of them as well!


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