Show, Don’t Tell…But Don’t Show Too Much


I am trying a new technique with my latest novel.  I am finding it to be a refreshing way to tell a story, and fun to create puzzles that the reader has to solve.  Let me give you an example.  The following is a chapter from my novel in which Ethan relates his struggle after being bushwhacked by a young man hiding in the reeds.  Ethan was trying to sneak away when a militia group showed up to terrorize the tent village he was staying in.  Ethan is a quasi-villain, posing as a soldier to get unrequited privilege from the group.

My leg hurt so bad.

I didn’t really see that kid at all but then he was on top of me.  I just wanted to get out of there as quick as I could before I ended up on the menu.  I was done with the soldier boy routine, but now I was tied up face down in the mud with my leg soaking this gritty sand with precious fluid.  Felt like I had a sharp rock in the wound.

I figured I’d start trying to crawl away, so I pushed with my one good leg to slide across the muddy gravel on my chest.  Too bad I didn’t take a knife or something because I could have figured out how to unbind my wrists.  Got tired of scooting along and decided to roll over and sit up.  Surprising how hard it is to do that with your wrists bound behind your back.  I made the mistake of trying to use my bum leg to push over with and felt like someone shoved a hot poker in there.  Hardest part was standing up.  I had to bend my knees and cross my ankles in the dirt and then roll forward to get up, then I fell face first and busted my nose on a rock.  

That was when I saw the snake.

It was a big black one and it sat there cobra like, head vertical a few inches, its remarkably white mouth open, hissing at me.  I didn’t know what kind of snake it was but it looked dangerous so I lay there as still as I could and tried not to scream.  

Then there was gunfire.  First a shot like a high powered rifle then there was automatic fire and screaming and shouting.  I didn’t dare move.  The snake didn’t seem to care that there were bullets whizzing by.  It just sat there with its mouth open and looked at me not two feet from my face.  A bullet shot through the weeds and kicked up the sand to my left.  This caused me to flinch and close my eyes and then I felt a sting on my neck.

The snake was gone when I opened my eyes but the bullets were still streaking around over my head.  I couldn’t feel my neck but it was throbbing something awful just like my leg now and I figured if that snake was poisonous I was probably going to be a corpse soon.

What did I have to lose?  I rolled over again, got my legs in a cross ankled position, bent my knees, tried to ignore the shot of new pain in my thigh, rolled forward and sat up enough to see over the tall brown and green grass and all the cat tails that looked like weird hot wieners.

At first I didn’t really know what I was looking at, but then my eyes adjusted to the smoke and then I wanted to rub them just to make sure they were working right.  What I saw didn’t make sense.

At this point, the reader doesn’t know if the snake bit Ethan or not.  Was the pain in his neck caused by flying debris?  Has he been shot?  Will he succumb to poison later?  What did he see?  The last question is revealed in the next chapter, but what I have done is create mystery in the mind of the reader.  I have spent considerable chapters getting into Ethan’s mind, and he is hatefully likable.  I use this technique earlier in the novel as well when I relate the story of a fight between an unarmed old man and four heavily armed militia.  The old man wins, and the militia run in fear into the woods leaving their horses for the heroes to use.  I only hint at what happens, using the voices of the different narrators to help the reader piece it together.

3 things to remember:

1.  Find a Way to Keep Them Interested – If you bog the action down with boring description, lengthy explanations about what is the message of the novel or just lengthy explanations, you leave nothing for the reader to buy into.  The reader has to have something to keep them interested, to keep them invested in what they are reading or else your book will become one of those millions of books that get read for a few chapters and then get put back on the shelf.

2.  Don’t Give Too Much Information – I give readers just enough to be intrigued, but don’t give too much right away.  Novels take time to percolate, but you should be leaving bread crumbs about the secrets within your novel from the first few pages.  If there are no secrets in a novel that novel is pretty much useless.  Some novels with secrets (sorry for the spoilers, but I have to prove a point):

  • The Keep by F. Paul Wilson – This story starts out making you think it is a vampire tale, but through subtle storytelling we realize that it is actually a story about two aliens who are on this planet as jailed and jailor.  At the end of the novel, we see that what we perceive to be our reality is actually a fantasy, that legends may be based on visitation by aliens or other beings outside our dimension.
  • Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk – The film actually does this book some justice, but throughout the book we get subtle hints that the two characters are two personalities within the same person.  Palahniuk is a textbook example of a writer who lays clues carefully in the text to reveal the big secret.  Read him carefully to see a master at work.
  • Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card – I love how this book doesn’t really tell the reader at all what is really going on until the last few pages.  All we know is that Ender is going through training to be a warrior in this future world Card has created, but we don’t know the purpose of it until nearly the last chapter of the novel, and even then the last chapter is cryptic and puzzling.  However, when the big secret is finally revealed, there is definitely a “wow” moment for the reader.

3.  Don’t Reveal Too Little – Sometimes writers don’t want to give anything away about their secret until the last chapter of the novel.  This is a huge mistake, unless you are M. Night Shymalan and you just want to be a one trick pony.  These things have to be carefully planned.  M. Night’s concept worked for The Sixth Sense, because he carefully laid clues throughout the film (i.e. Dr. Crowe eats dinner with his wife but she ignores him, he can’t go down in the basement).  When the reveal happens at the end of the film, you want to watch it again to see the hints.  The same thing goes for The Book of Eli and Shutter Island.  Watching those films after we know the secret is like watching a whole new film.  Your novel should be written this way.  If you don’t reveal anything because you want to keep the secret from the reader, then you better be ready to not leave any loose ends in the final reveal or you will leave your reader grumbling…unless of course you want to answer unfinished questions in a sequel.

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3 thoughts on “Show, Don’t Tell…But Don’t Show Too Much

  1. Pingback: Who Do You Write Like? « Writing Is Hard Work

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