Linking, Not Telling

Show, don’t tell is a hoary maxim in storytelling, but how exactly are you supposed to do that? I read both fiction and nonfiction in which numerous interesting incidents are related, but very few scenes or sections bear much relation to their neighbors. Upon talking to the authors, I invariably learn that they had been advised to show, not tell, and that explains the absence of any thematic material binding the pieces together. The book is all knees and elbows without any sinew.

You want to show a person or character involved in an event. That type of writing provides vivid, up-close details that a reader can use to imagine himself in the person’s shoes. That vicarious involvement is one of reading’s greatest pleasures. Telling about that same incident, on the other hand, places a filter between the reader and the experience. The author is relating secondhand news—“as told by.”

Once you have written out the incident, however, that doesn’t mean your job is finished. Now you need to provide context. Sometimes that can be accomplished by linking two thematically related incidents back to back. But most times you need to provide bridgework that provides the linkage. For example, an argument Cal just had with his wife will not seem connected in the reader’s mind with the argument he had with his mother 200 pages earlier unless you remind the reader.

Many other times you need to provide framing. Whether through an author’s reflections or a character’s thoughts, you give an overview that explains why what we are about to read or have just read is brought up at all. A doctor fails to saves a patient, for example, and in the next scene she learns a lesson in compassionate healing. How are you supposed to convey that unless she thinks about the lesson she learned? With such a device, you now have given the reader the sense of how this incident fits within your larger picture.

Exercise: Pick out an incident in your manuscript. After reading it, do you know how it relates to the rest of the book? Of course you do. Write down that reason, in a sentence or a paragraph, depending how much explanation you think is needed. Try placing that explanation, from the lead character’s or author's point of view, at the end of the incident.

“Don't say the old lady screamed—bring her on and let her scream.”
—Mark Twain

Copyright @ John Paine, 2015

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