No, this won’t be about federal security regulations.
And I know a father
Who had a son
He longed to tell him all the reasons
For the things he’d done.
He came a long way
Just to explain,
He kissed his boy as he lay sleeping
Then he turned around and headed home again.
The more indie fiction I read, the more convinced I become that the mortal sin indie writers most need to unlearn is telling.
If you’re a fledgling fiction writer, it’s probably only a few minutes since you last heard the maxim “Show, don’t tell!” You might have wondered why all the writing gurus seem to be shouting it at you. It’s important, rube! “Telling” is for dry-as-dust presentations done in conference rooms. “Showing” is our duty and prerogative as creators of fictional people with fictional problems to solve. It’s not too strong to say that the opportunity to show rather than tell is why we write fiction in the first place.
But then, a lot of younger and newer fictioneers don’t know how to distinguish the two. Hence this essay.
Here are a couple of examples from one of my novels:
“Why go at all? What makes it so bleeding important?”
She studied his face in the evening gloom.
“I’ve already told you,” she said. “It was my grandparents’ deathbed request. Grandmere Teresza said it was what she and Grandpere Armand wanted for me. They left me five million dekas’ seed money. But you knew all that. What else can I say?”
He took a moment to respond.
“Yes, you’ve told me all that,” he said at last. “But that just tells me it was important to them. What made it important to you?”
She started to reply, bit it back, and thought about it.
“You’re right,” she said. “There’s a missing step. It is important to me. It’s the thing I want to do most in all the world. It has been since I was eighteen years old. Even with all the expense and the effort and us about to be apart for three years. But I’ve never thought much about why that should be.”
He waited in silence.
She put her hands to the sides of his face, pulled it close, and rubbed her lips gently over his. His lips parted and she ran the tip of her tongue over their inner surfaces.
“Do you like that?” she whispered into his mouth.
“You know I do,” he said.
“What? Because—” He paused, drew a little back, and looked at her curiously. “I just do. It feels good. It’s you, you loving me. It’s a little reminder of all the rest of our intimacies. Why do you ask?”
“Because,” she whispered, “I don’t have any better answer. I want to go to space, Martin. I just do. I want to wander the stars. I want to see other worlds, and rub their soil between my fingers, and learn to love them as I’ve loved this world. I need to know whether there’s life on any of them. I hope there is. It will mean more to see and learn…more to love.”
Not today. I’m not leaving tonight. I’ll have some dinner, get a good night’s sleep, load that crap tomorrow morning and leave in the afternoon.
Mustn’t forget the medipod. Maybe leave in the evening.
No need to hurry.
Althea’s experiences of pain, of heartbreak, of love lost and love regained, of tensions within her clan and of clashes with others, had toughened her without deepening her. She had not acquired the knack for analyzing her own motives.
The first passage is a “show:” Althea, my protagonist, undertakes to show her husband Martin what it is about her that moves her to travel among the stars. She reveals an aspect of her character to him with words and actions. It was my hope that the reader would get a deeper sense for her from that scene, as most of the novel concentrates on her achievements in the physical sciences and finance.
The final paragraph of the second passage, over which I spent a far longer interval than you might have guessed, is a “tell.” Althea is alone, inside a rock orbiting her homeworld of Hope. She’s deliberately delaying her departure from Hope’s solar system, and rationalizing her decision to herself. I couldn’t find a satisfactory way to “show” the aspect of Althea’s character that she’s concealed from herself, so I “told” it through a direct narrative intrusion. I still wonder, twelve years after writing that passage, whether there was a better way.
“Show, don’t tell” is about character and motivations. If your story is to be affecting and compelling, it must bind the reader to the story’s protagonist(s), and steadily deepen that bond through depiction of his / their character(s) and motivational structures. Even if your tale is told in the first person, your narrator must refrain from telling the reader why your characters do what they do. The events of the story must show that:
- Through what the character says,
- Through what the character does,
- Through what other characters say about him.
For at every moment of the story, the central question in the reader’s mind is:
His need to know why is what keeps him reading. Otherwise he wouldn’t have continued on after the first paragraph. If you simply tell him why, his emotional payoff will be low to nonexistent. His interest in your other fiction will diminish.
Any time your tale starts to reek of “telling” – including extensive exposition on features of the setting – you’re in danger of losing your reader. I’ve tossed a lot of books into the trash, figuratively speaking, for that reason. So draw the moral.
If you’re an aspiring fiction writer, here’s an exercise for you. What follows is one of my earliest short stories. Read it with a critical eye. Decide where it “tells” and where it “shows.” Perhaps even make notes about how the “tells” could be transformed into “shows.” I’ll be interested in your conclusions. For the rest of my Gentle Readers, just enjoy the story.
Kenneth MacMillan laid the filing on the scarred pine workbench and stared into Jared Tillotsen’s eyes. “You can’t be serious.”
The lawyer’s mouth tightened. “I am.”
“There have to be a thousand reasons why I can’t hear this.”
Tillotsen nodded once. “I await Your Honor’s decision and explanation.”
MacMillan snorted. “Don’t get shirty with me, Jared. I’ve known you since…” The judge trailed off. Mentioning that was in bad taste, and always would be. “First, the class needs at least one stakeholder who’s willing to appear in open court.”
Tillotsen’s lips quirked at the pun. “I have one.”
Tillotsen said nothing. His eyes rested lightly on the judge’s countenance.
“With all the restrictions we’d have to put on him, with all the hazards he’d have to face to come before us, he’d still be willing to do it?”
Another nod. “It’s a she, actually.”
MacMillan waved the irrelevancy aside. “Second, no precedent has been established under which one of them may prosecute a legal action against one of us, much less all of them against all of us.”
“I’m aware of that, Your Honor.”
“It doesn’t appear to disturb you.”
“It’s why I brought the case to you.”
I should have known my reputation would land me in hot water someday.
“Well, third, what justiciable controversy exists to propel the action?”
Tillotsen pointed to the stapled sheaf of papers on the workbench. “It’s on the front page, Your Honor.”
And indeed it was, in the blackest of letters:
MacMillan tore his eyes from the accusation and regarded the lawyer at length.
Tillotsen wasn’t looking well. He’d lost a great deal of weight. Most of his hair was gone. His pallor was extraordinary, as if his flesh had been coated in plaster. The effort of standing upright appeared to tax him to the edge of his resources. He probably thought he disguised it well, but MacMillan had caught him leaning against the crate beside him, and panting as inconspicuously as he could.
“You still aren’t…?”
Tillotsen shook his head.
“You’re going to die, Jared.”
Something like amusement flickered across the lawyer’s face. “Not likely, Your Honor. Now, as to the matter at hand — ?”
MacMillan ground his teeth. He shifted his weight and nearly toppled the stack of detergent boxes on which he sat. “You ask far too much. I can’t let this proceed for all the reasons we’ve already discussed and a great many more.”
“I ask,” the lawyer said in a formal cadence, “that you do justice. We have a theory of rights that explicitly authorizes this case.”
“We have a theory? No, Jared, they have a theory. We have laws, no more. And none of our laws even nod sideways to your action.”
Tillotsen nodded and shoved his hands into his pockets. He stepped around the crates and mop buckets to stand before the sole window in MacMillan’s chambers. The building’s parking lot was all that lay beyond. The lights showed few cars scattered below. The lawyer stared down at them as if they could be decoded into a message from God.
“On what are our laws based, Your Honor? Are they merely matters of expedience, little adjustments of social mechanisms that have no moral significance?”
MacMillan would have flushed, were he able. “You know better, Jared. They codify the basis of our survival. There’s no deeper morality than that.”
Tillotsen awarded the judge a knowing smile. “You never disappoint me, Kenneth. How many years, how many cases have I brought before you? And you have yet to miss the point. You always find the principles beneath each case, and you never betray them. Even when I’ve lost, I’ve never disagreed with you at the end. And that’s why I’m here tonight.”
MacMillan started to speak, stopped and clamped his mouth shut much too hard. He suppressed a grunt of pain. “You expect me to elucidate a theory of rights that will cover this case, for the purpose of allowing the case to proceed in the first place, when all our legal practice and everything deducible from it forbids me even to look at your papers! Jared, the strain of being your hero is getting to be too much for me.”
Tillotsen turned back to the window. MacMillan rose and went to join him.
The darkness was at its deepest point. The brilliant arc lights shone upon an utter stillness below. Few of the office tower’s windows were illuminated. MacMillan and Tillotsen were close to having the building to themselves.
“I’d like a dinner break, Jared. It’s been a long evening, and I’ve had nothing for quite a while.”
Muscles rippled along the lawyer’s bony jaw. MacMillan was struck by a realization. “Your… client is in the building, isn’t she?”
Tillotsen continued to stare through the window. “She is.”
“Six twenty-four.” The answer came without hesitation, delivered in a mechanical monotone.
She must be as extraordinary as he is.
MacMillan laid a hand on the lawyer’s frail shoulder. “I’ll have to sleep on this, Jared. What you’ve asked of me is far more than I can commit to after an hour’s thought. It goes to the root of our society’s existence. It could affect more than even you realize.” He clapped Tillotsen’s shoulder gently. “Go to your client. Take her home, make sure she gets there safely. Come back tomorrow and I’ll have an answer for you. And, Jared?”
“Yes, Your Honor?”
“Don’t expect too much from me.”
Tillotsen nodded and went silently from the room.
The sound of the door opening catapulted Ann Mears into a state beyond terror. She leaped from her chair, dropped to the floor and slithered under the pile of scrap cardboard, struggling to restrain a shriek.
“Ann?” Jared Tillotsen’s voice was soft in the darkness. “It’s all right, it’s only me.”
That’s bad enough.
Tillotsen’s reassurance wasn’t enough to bring her out of concealment. She held still and listened until she was certain that only the lawyer was there with her. When she’d finally garnered the courage to leave the shelter of the piled garbage and stand upright, she found him leaning against the doorjamb, a glint of kindly humor in his eyes.
“The judge suggested that I take you home,” he said gently. He started to offer her his arm, then chuckled and let it fall.
“What…” She swallowed and tried to calm herself. “What did he say?”
“He needs time, Ann. Your kind don’t have standing, by the usual reading of our laws. Therefore, the class action is ab initio invalid. The judge has to find a basis for even conceding that you and yours could file such a suit.” The corners of his mouth rose. “I think he wants to, but without a well reasoned basis, our people would simply ignore his decision.”
“How long do you think it’ll take him to decide?”
“He said to come back tomorrow. Can you?”
“Can your friend stay with Melissa again tomorrow night?”
She offered up a silent prayer for strength. “Then I’ll be here.”
He gestured at the door, and followed her out.
MacMillan couldn’t sleep. He writhed in the confines of his bed, shifting from one position to another, but his real discomfort marched within his skull.
Jared Tillotsen was an idealist and a crusader of the best kind, or the worst, depending on whether you agreed with him. In MacMillan’s eyes, the law could boast no brighter jewel. Tillotsen would take no case that didn’t square with his sharply defined views of justice. He was bulldog tough once the contest was joined. Yet he never deviated from principle. When he lost on the merits, he accepted the defeat and tried to learn from it. When he won, he was as gracious as anyone could ask.
The lawyer idolized Kenneth MacMillan. The wonder of receiving such a paragon’s esteem was exceeded only by the burden of carrying it.
Tillotsen had laid a blueprint for the destruction of their society before MacMillan and had asked him to rule on it. His belief in the rightness of the cause was written on every fiber of his rapidly deteriorating body.
There will come a point where his course will become irreversible. Even if he recants, his body will no longer be able to recover.
MacMillan was certain that the lawyer knew as much.
The judge nodded once, very slowly. “It can proceed.”
Delight spread across Tillotsen’s face. “And the basis, Your Honor?”
MacMillan grinned. “You put me in an impossible position. I had to ponder it for quite a while. What basis exists in our jurisprudence for determining whether a particular creature does, or does not, possess rights? Only a hearing in a recognized court. I cannot reject Miss Mears’s claim summarily based on no standing, because the rejection itself would entitle her to file for certiorari as to why I had rejected it. One way or another, she’s entitled to stand before me and demand to know whether she has rights in our eyes, and why. That alone would compel me to concede them.”
“And all her people as well?”
The judge nodded again.
Tears welled in Tillotsen’s eyes. He leaned heavily against the pallet of paper towels beside him. “Thank you, Kenneth. Have you set a date?”
“Monday next, in the main room in the basement. Your action will be first on the docket. I expect it’ll be heavily attended, so you’d better be ready.”
Tillotsen nodded without looking up. The weakness that was stealing over him had never been more visible. MacMillan fought down the urge to take the lawyer in his arms.
“Jared, forgive me for saying so, but I can’t believe that you’re going to last until then.”
Tillotsen pulled himself upright, forced himself to stand straight. “I’ll be there, Your Honor.”
“I hope so, considering all the trouble this will make for me.” The judge shifted uneasily on his crate. “You’re going to lose the class action, you know.”
The lawyer grinned. “I expected to. No matter what you decide about standing, it would be ex post facto to permit any prosecutions. But that’s not the main event.”
“Jared, do you really think they’ll help us, after all the history we have with them?”
“Yes. The basis of every unforced exchange is mutual advantage, and we have a lot to offer them.”
And they to us, of course. “Do you suppose I might meet your client now?”
Tillotsen’s grin vanished. He was silent for several seconds. “Do I have your word that she’ll leave here unharmed, Your Honor?”
The lawyer’s jaw clenched. “Please just say yes or no, Kenneth. I haven’t made arrangements to protect her from you tonight, and you can see that I’m not up to the job myself.”
The judge sputtered. “I could simply follow you to where she’s waiting, if that were on my agenda.”
Tillotsen would not relent. “Yes or no, Kenneth?”
A hand closed around MacMillan’s heart and squeezed. He took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and rose. “You have my word that I will not commit physical violence against your client, nor permit any other of our people to do so, tonight or on any other occasion. Now please, Jared, bring her here.”
The lawyer turned and left.
Ann Mears was barely able to walk. With each step her knees tried to buckle and send her to the floor. Her backbrain screamed that she was going to her death. Only by separating her body from her consciousness and running it on automatic was she able to continue forward.
At some point during the walk from room 624 to the fifth floor janitor’s storage area, Tillotsen had taken her arm. She hadn’t noticed at first, but when the frigid clasp on her flesh penetrated the fog around her thoughts, her entire body turned to ice. Yet she would not pull away. She did not want to offend him. She did not want to discover the consequences.
He ushered her into the storage room with gentle, formal courtesy. A dim light seeped in from the parking lot. It silhouetted a stooped male figure perched upon a cardboard box. The figure did not move, but allowed Ann and Tillotsen to approach.
“Good evening, Miss Mears. My name is Kenneth MacMillan. I’m pleased and proud to meet you at last.” The old man smiled.
At the sight of those pronounced canines, so well suited to their legendary purpose, she almost succumbed to the urge to flee, but Tillotsen squeezed her arm gently and she stood her ground.
“Good evening, uh, Your Honor. Is that the title you use?”
MacMillan nodded. “Just as do judges of your kind. The dignity of the court and all that. I suppose Jared has told you that I’m going to permit your action to go forward?”
“Yes, Your Honor, just before. Thank you.”
The judge chuckled. It was the strangest sight Ann had ever seen. There was no bloodlust in the eyes under those bushy gray brows. There was wisdom, and honor, and a considerable amount of respect. Ann’s fear subsided.
“I…” MacMillan halted himself and gave another chuckle. “I was about to say I’ve been dying to meet you, but that wouldn’t be quite right, would it? I’ve been looking forward to this encounter, Miss Mears. Jared has told me only a little about you, but just on the basis of your presence before me, I think it safe to say that you’re the most courageous person your species has ever produced.”
It pricked a laugh from her. “Thank you, Your Honor. But if you could hear my knees knocking you might not think so well of me.”
“To the contrary, my dear.” The judge waved at Tillotsen. “Jared has said he can protect you for the hearing on Monday. Have the two of you discussed it?”
She glanced up at the lawyer. “We have.”
“And you’re satisfied?”
“Then I suppose there’s no more to be said about the practical arrangements. But Miss Mears, please take care in all things.” MacMillan’s expression became somber. “You’ll be the first living human to appear in one of our courts in all our history. Those around you will have no cause to love you and every reason to wish you ill. You must avoid anything that might be construed as a provocation, no matter how elaborate Jared’s protections are. No religious emblems. No perfume. No mirrors. For the love of God, no wooden stakes! And don’t approach anyone in the room without Jared’s approval, and him at your side. Are you comfortable with those restrictions?”
She swallowed. “It won’t be a problem, Your Honor.”
“Good.” The judge seemed about to dismiss them when she found her voice.
“Sir, why did you decide to allow our suit? It has to be the biggest threat to your people that they’ve ever faced. If we win, your own laws will forbid you to feed on us.”
MacMillan was silent for a long interval. Ann wondered if she had triggered something she would regret. Tillotsen remained impassively still beside her.
“I am not an elected official, Miss Mears. I hold my responsibilities because our people hold me in high regard. In part, because I am the oldest of our kind.
“There are not many of us in the world. How could there be? Perhaps twenty thousand on this continent, and perhaps twice that on all the others together. We will never be a populous species. You living humans, who… provide our sustenance, must always outnumber us dramatically.
“For at least ten thousand years, there has been war between us. I, whose memories span three hundred seventy-two years, have never known anything else. Though we feed upon you, ours is a miserable and frightened existence, a continuous cowering in the dark before your superior numbers and other advantages. The human who believes in the reality of our kind may fear us, if he should chance to leave the lighted places, but the vampire fears humankind in all places and times.
“War is no species’s preferred state, Miss Mears. We want peace, just as you do. We want stability, just as you do. We want the privilege of walking the earth openly and without fear, just as you do. But Jared has convinced me that until we cease to look upon you as our cattle, that can never come to pass.
“So on Monday, I will take a bold step. I will allow you to claim rights before me, rights to life, liberty and property that would not accrue to a mindless meat animal, and I will uphold the claim. News of my decision will spread through our numbers from that night forward, and our world will change.”
“Will it, Your Honor? Laws seldom change the behavior of the living.”
MacMillan grinned ruefully and stared at his knees. “I know, Miss Mears. Before I… crossed over, I was a judge among living men. Vampires are different. We have always had very little, and our laws have always been few.” He looked up with an expression of entreaty. “We’ll be gambling that your world will change as well, though it will surely take longer. Will you do what you can to hasten it?”
Ann nodded. “I will, sir.”
MacMillan rose and moved slowly toward her, one hand extended. Tillotsen released his grip on her arm, allowing her to stay or go as she wished.
She raised her own hand and took the judge’s in a soft clasp. His flesh was cool to the touch, as was Tillotsen’s, but it closed on hers with a suggestion of strength that no creature, living or undead, would dare to challenge.
“He’s a great man.”
Tillotsen squeezed her hand. “He is.”
“Will he be putting himself in danger?”
The lawyer shook his head. “Kenneth MacMillan could never be in danger among other vampires. You would never believe the love we have for him. He’s the glue that holds us together.”
Another squeeze. “Don’t worry about it, Ann. Just be ready on Monday.” He opened her door for her, then gasped strangely and bent double, hands pressed to his middle.
She stooped and took his head in her hands, and his eyes met hers. She could not read those eyes, the eyes of a man dead longer than she had lived. But her concern seemed to reach him, and he straightened and smiled.
“I’m all right.”
Vampires lie no better than humans.
“How long has it been, Jared?”
He shrugged. “I’ve ceased to keep track. A month, maybe.”
“Since you met me, right?”
In time, it will change. We’ll come to accept them, make provisions for them, learn how to synthesize what they need. But for now, only the old ways will do.
“Melissa’s not going to make it, you know.”
She would not have believed that he could become paler still, but he did. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” she murmured. “Jared, would you… change her for me?”
His mouth dropped open. “You honor me more than I can say, Ann.”
Not half as much as you deserve.
“It will have to wait until after the hearing on Monday, though. I can’t risk it before that. I’ve grown too weak.”
Ann gathered both the lawyer’s hands into her own. “Thank you, Jared. For everything. When…” A rush of grief flooded through her, momentarily washing away all her words. “When she wakes up as one of you, I didn’t want to have to fear my own daughter.”
“Or for her to fear her mother,” he whispered.
Ann Mears came to a decision. She gestured Tillotsen across her threshold. “Come in, Jared.”
His eyes clouded with confusion. “Why, Ann?”
She reached up and pulled his head down to hers, brushed her warm lips across his cold ones.
“I want to fix you something to eat.”
Copyright © 1996 Francis W. Porretto. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.