Search This Blog

Monday, 26 September 2011

Editing tips - Don’t tell me and then show me

The adage for a public speaker is ‘I’ll tell you what I’m going to say, then I’ll say it, and then I’ll tell you what I’ve said.’ Fine, that kind of repetition is to register the salient facts with the audience.

Some writers tend to follow this adage, and I feel they’re doing themselves a disservice. They tell us what is about to happen, then show us. In fact, any dramatic effect has been lost.

Any number of books can be used to make this point – including my own, I’m sure. Anyway, take, for example, this excerpt from Lonesome Dove. I’m only using this book as I’ve just read it, and it’s well worth reading. (I’ve removed the character name, so as not to spoil it for any subsequent reader).

'He found them an hour later, already stiff in death. He had raced as fast as he could over the rough country, not wanting to take the time to follow the river itself but too unsure of his position to go very far from it. From time to time he stopped, listening for shots, but the dark plains were quiet and peaceful, though it was on them that he had just seen the most violent and terrible things he had ever witnessed in his life…

(three paragraphs later…) He could see the three forms on the ground as if asleep…'

So there’s half a page of dramatic, suspenseful writing, but it’s wasted because we already know the outcome. There’s probably a name for this literary device that anticipates and waters down the dramatic scene. I’d much rather delete that first sentence and show the reader through the character’s eyes and emotions how he came upon the three ‘stiff in death’.

3 comments:

Charliann Roberts said...

Good point! Thank you for bringing this to our attention. I'll now be aware of it when writing my own.

Nik said...

Thanks for the comment, Charliann. More tips to follow...

Danielle Thorne said...

Good tip!