The first time I heard those words I was in ninth grade. As you may or may not remember, I spoke at length and rather highly about Mr. Bowne. Turns out, he was the one speaking. Show me, don’t tell me. If that’s not obvious enough, it means let the writing and description fill the gaps in the mental image. Paint the reader a picture. Don’t tell them. Telling is just facts on a sheet with no life. Twelve years later, I still struggle with this concept.
Yeah, in that sense, I feel like I’ve failed Mr. Bowne’s lesson. And being aware of a problem doesn’t negate the negative impact. There are moments, just moments, where the words leap off the page at me and I know, I just know, that it’s going to work. Those are the moments I write for, hoping vainly one day I can forge an entire story of that moment.
Fantasy. Lacking a certain realism. Still, that’s the goal. There’s virtually nothing that goes down on paper the first time that I keep, certainly not even the “show me” scenes. But, those scene’s I have a feel for. Hopefully, when everything is said and done, no one can tell the difference, if I’ve done my job.
Here are two different examples. The first is a “show me” scene that came almost fully formed:
Leaning back, Sypher stared at Stein’s face intently. Something, he couldn’t quite put his paw on it, seemed off. Pale skin, well-defined jaw. Behind his glasses twin, milky eyes. He could feel Susan observing him. Then he had it.
“Stein,” said Sypher. Across the table, Susan grinned.
“So, I’ve been wondering this for a while now…”
“You wear glasses.”
“You know, there’s a thesaurus behind that bar,” said Susan, all too happily. “Yes is under ‘Y’. Go ahead, we’ll wait.”
“A thesaurus? Behind the bar? Why is there a thesaurus at the bar?” asked Stein.
“I don’t know,” said Susan, “But the library’s in the swimming pool and this you find the strangest thing?”
“All he’s saying,” said Nell, “is ye didn’t answer his question.”
Stein shot her a look as close to indignant as Sypher had ever seen. Of course, he knew that, the look said.
“I needed them in the time before.” Stein self-consciously pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “I just… never got out of the habit of putting them on in the morning.”
This scene, from the moment I wrote it, has stayed largely the same. There’s a bit more characterization in that I know exactly what every’s saying and how now, but this scene might have done as much for me to define the voices of the characters written in it as anything else. Certainly, you get a great example of how Stein sees the world and how Sypher sees Stein.
The scene also reveals quite a bit about Stein and how his habits define him, blocking him from seeing otherwise extraordinary things, like the library in the swimming pool.
This next scene originally, was a “tell me,” where I forced almost everything into place.
“Another row with professor Spektor?” Felicia-Maria asked, half teasing.
“No. Thank you. Transmutational Geometry sucks.” Normally, Transmutational Geometry was second turn course. Jen, however, did not seem to mind. “It’s… everything I imagine happens. I just don’t know why. Spektor doesn’t really approve.” She put her text down. “How did your match go?”
“A loss.” She let out a sigh. “Completely outclassed.” Exhaustion weighed heavy. Listlessly, despite the long match, her paws itched for a rag and a counter to wipe. Days cleaning her Lady’s cabin felt easier. “I just want to read a little before dinner.”
Jen cast her eyes beyond to the stack of books piled up on the desk. “Light reading? Felicia, your idea of light reading is twice as thick as our average text book.” With two hands barely large enough to hold the book, Jen rolled her eyes mischievously. “Oh, no, I see. You’re right. How could I have missed this? It’s so short.”
Felicia-Maria allowed herself to laugh.
“Well, if you’re going to insist—and I know you will.” Jen clapped her hands together. Running them across Felicia-Maria’s sheets, she smoothed the ruffles. A gentle heat radiated from the comforter. “Curl up and go do some of that ‘light reading.’ I made the blankets nice and snuggly, so you won’t get stiff.”
Felicia-Maria laughed. “What are you going to do?”‘
Jen stuck out her tongue. “Homework.”
Crouched up her desk, beginning the homework that she felt no desire to complete, Jen sulked.
Felicia-Maria curled up with a book. Advanced Theoretical Ice Mechanics and Assorted Water Theory written by Lady Bryanna, of the Frosty Forge Mountains. Leafing through, she found her spot on page 207. Light reading, she had assured Jen when she started. Only 600 pages, the book should keep her distracted. With her assignments for the weekend already completed, she needed the distraction.
The evening had gone as she flipped past the final page. Engrossing as the book had been—she could actually picture the formation of water and ice dragons, surrounded by mist—finishing the last few eight or so of pages left her drained.
Her clock read 0201h. Not that that particularly helped. She had no certainty of when she had finished her ranking match and returned.
Jen slouched asleep at her desk, face planted firmly on her parchment. Her right hand swayed loosely by the floor. Her pen rolled uselessly against the chair leg. This time, only a small pile of drool had dribbled on her homework. Felicia-Maria would have to correct that before class tomorrow. With a smile, Felicia-Maria picked her up gently and placed her under the covers.
Wandering down to the common room, she found Rogers Barnette on the couch in front of a comfortably warm fire, reading. The couch might be the lone piece of comfortable furniture that furnished the common room. Ostensibly a place to relax, the sparse reality of the decorations suited her just fine. Lockers, where cadets kept personal items or books that didn’t quite fit in their cramped quarters, lined the walls. Desks and bookshelves filled the remaining space, a testament to their expected work ethics. Maybe. High stone ceilings, reaching several times her height gave way to windows that met at peaked arches. Sun bleached stone showed precisely where the sun shone through, detailing the exact time of day and the exact day of the season. Across the ceiling, about half way up the walls, heavy, ancient wooden beams traversed the open space. There those Hun Xue’Er who flew roosted. If industrious, a cadet could find a spot for a moment alone. She herself used such spots for her morning prayers.
“Wha’r you doin’ up?” she said, wiping the sleep from her eyes, not quite aware of the irony in her query.
In this scene, I never felt like I got the voices quite right. Jennifer, to me, represents a fascinating perspective of life and how someone with such power as her is limited and childish in many ways. Her relationship with Felicia-Maria also evolved as the scene evolved. There was, at one point, a much deeper sexual subtext which was eventually removed due to the fact that Jennifer’s something like 11 and Felicia-Maria is something like 17. Not that in this world, with lots of animals (most of whom can reproduce after a year or so) that such an age difference is particularly strange. Still, there’s some here, about the first time you meet Jennifer, in context, that defines who she is and how she interacts with the world.
Both scenes take place before the first hundred pages, so there isn’t much plot spoilers, certainly not any more than the profiles I’ve posted.
Still, there’s a bunch of stuff that I can’t stand, such as the in-depth descriptions. I’ve never been a fan of them. My bread and butter growing up was classic science fiction and you don’t find a lot of overly detailed description of the scenery there unless it’s important. In that world, the thoughts in play, the concepts overrode sensory descriptions. I’m not good enough yet, but I hope I’m getting there.