Many times, I’ve heard, “make the action tell the story” or “show the story, don’t tell it.” It’s a vague concept, but I’m learning this lesson as I edit Tishta the Crystal Orb. Like most of us, before we learn the rules of authoring, I quite often fell victim to telling, not showing, in the first draft of my novel.
Here’s an example from Tishta. In one scene, I wanted to say why Toran was fighting. I wrote:
He missed Gillan. While waiting, he had enlisted to fight with the local militia against the neighboring fiefdom over a petty land dispute. He chose his side because they had owned the land without any challenge for many generations. And it appeared the other side had outside advisors guiding them and mercenaries fighting for them. Besides, it helped him stay in shape and eased the boredom of waiting.
In the next scene, when Toran joins Gillan, I brought it up again:
After Kano laid down for the night, Gillan and Toran sat wrapped in their blankets, gazing into the small fire. When he shared about the land dispute, she told him to tell Criften when they got back together. Then, they just sat together quietly.
In both of these paragraphs, I’m telling, not showing. I’m definitely going to rewrite this. In the first scene, I’ll remove why Toran chose his side, and include it as dialog in the second scene.
He missed Gillan. While waiting, he had enlisted to fight with the local militia against the neighboring fiefdom over a petty land dispute. It helped him stay in shape and eased the boredom of waiting.
After Kano laid down for the night, Gillan and Toran sat wrapped in their blankets, gazing into the small fire.
“What did you do while you were waiting for me?” Gillan asked.
“Just like you guessed, I was fighting”—he broke into a radiant smile, then became serious—”It was strange. They were battling over a border that hadn’t been disputed for generations. I think the neighboring fiefdom had outside advisors guiding them, and maybe mercenaries fighting for them.”
“That is strange. Be sure to tell Criften when we meet up with him.”
Gillan scooted closer and Toran wrapped his arm around her. Then, they just sat together quietly.
I like this a lot better. The characters are telling the story, not the narrator.
Some of the other ways we tell instead of show are more subtle. Two that surprised me were overuse of exclamation points and of the word “suddenly.”
In the discussions I read about these, there were many opinions, but I noticed some of the more seasoned authors saying they never use exclamation points or start sentences with “suddenly.” The words an author uses should be enough to convey the surprise of the action. A general rule is to only use them in dialog, and then, only sparingly.
When I reviewed Tishta for these two, I found a fair number of both. I removed all the exclamation points from the narrative, and most of them from dialogs. I did leave a few uses of “suddenly” only because I think it reads better with them left in. But, if my editor balks, I wouldn’t be averse to removing them all.
Like all the rules I’ve been discovering, they’re really just guidelines and meant to be broken on occasion. I like rules. They give me structure. As I’ve applied them to my own work, I’ve found I really do like the updated versions better.