Wednesday, July 1, 2015

July 2015 — Show Don't Tell—What to Cut

 #7 Revision is a Process 
This is Part 7 of a 12-part series on Revision is a Process @ 2015 All Rights Reserved

Every word is optional until it proves to be essential, something you can only determine by removing words one by one and seeing what is lost or gained. - Jack Hamann

One "rule" of fiction is to show more and tell less. What does that mean? A very simple examples is that saying it's "a flower" is telling but to say it's "a white rose, whose petals are edged with a mist of ruby-pink" is showing. Showing means providing an instant, vivid image so the reader "sees" what was meant.

Yes, showing requires more words than telling, but how much detail is too much detail when showing? Keep in mind that readers will stop reading and skim over sentences and paragraphs of details in order to get "to the good stuff" of drama, action, and "something happening of interest." So it's best to choose those descriptive words carefully. In the heat of drafting, the shorthand version, the telling, usually ends up on the page.

So in this revision stage, the guideline is to highlight
all bland, telling words and to highlight all descriptive phrases and passages to determine what needs to be rewritten for visual effect and what is too lengthy.

I'm of the school that one to three sentences (or twenty to sixty words) maximum be used at any given spot where descriptions appear. In other words, no paragraphs describing or explaining how something looks or works. That includes "laundry lists" of right-to-left or left-to-right layouts of what rooms or landscapes look like.

So how do you put such detail in without overdoing it?
It's not that hard. Just pick the one or two most vivid, relevant details. For example, Character A walks into an old house. What is the first thing they see, smell, hear, or touch that immediately tells volumes about the state of the house? Maybe it's the antiques that smell of orange furniture oil? Maybe it's the stench of a dead rat because wallpaper is peeling off the walls.

Then, as the character moves about, add in another "vividly showing" detail. Perhaps it's the creak of the floorboards when the character walks across them. Maybe it's the cobwebs hanging off a chandelier dripping with grime-covered prisms. Using sensory perceptions helps the reader draw conclusions. Obvious conclusions. And those vivid images adds tone and mood to the scene.

To restate: Succinct, vivid, instant-images won't stop the action. Describing something in detail does. So I can't stress enough that in revision, it's the important and vital things that should be dramatized. Which means that if you have a character who is alone and the character is taking a shower or a bath, preparing or eating a meal, doing dishes, or driving somewhere and thinking, that's mundane stuff and boring stuff. It's too ordinary. So cut straight to the point and simply state he ate breakfast or she drove to the library mulling over all that had happened.

Also, and this is very important, when showing action or describing things, be sure the words (the vocabulary, diction, and syntax) are those of your story's or scene's narrator and not you, the author (that's called an AI, and Author Intrusion). Readers hate Author Intrusions.

Next, are there items or details in your story that will date the work? Better to use a tissue than a Kleenex, or a black stiletto than a black Prada shoe. Of course, if you're writing about a certain era, then you'll need some of the hallmark trademarks of technology and everyday items of that era. Just don't overdo them. What's overdoing it? It depends on the story, but you can't go wrong with keeping it down to one to three items per chapter or scene.

One more caution—when showing or describing items or actions, look for unintentional repetitions of actions or descriptions, especially colors (not all shoes are black). And do note that not all dishes are china. Not all trees are oaks. Not all flowers are red roses.

So, on your Master Revision Checklist for this step of the revision process you might have:


[ ] Are there any paragraphs of description, details, explanations?
[ ] Have I woven vivid details, particularly sensory perceptions other than visuals, into the action or have I stopped to catalogue (make a laundry list of) the setting or landscape?
[ ] Is my character alone doing mundane things and thinking? If so, why? Can that passage be deleted or a transition used to get to the good stuff of drama or action?
[ ] Am I using my own vocabulary, diction and syntax instead of the character's or narrator's?
[ ] Have I used too many name brands, trademarks, etc. and used them too frequently?
[ ] Are there repetitions of colors, actions, details of any kind?

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