Wednesday, August 14, 2013

What's in a Word? Keep Your Promises (or Remove Your Hand From My Eyes)

Today's rant post involves a pet peeve of mine, something I've only become aware of in the past few years, but that now seems to crop up everywhere. What is it? Broken promises, as the title indicates. "What?" the author says, "how can I break a promise to you? I don't even know you."

Imagine you're standing next to a window, but someone is blocking your view. They stare out the window, pleasure etched on what you can see of their face, and exclaim, "What a gorgeous view!"

Now, what would you say? Would it be something along the lines of "I wanna see"?

How many times have you read a book and witnessed the scenario I've just described? The author mentions a lovely day, a beautiful painting, etc. They're making a promise to the reader that they're about to see something amazing. What if the author then moves on and doesn't show you? Does it leave you with the impression of having a hand over your eyes?

Let's go one step further. Why tell you it's a beautiful scene at all? Why not show you what's outside that window, and let you make up your own mind?

Through a window glass blurred with age I gazed out over the lawn. The graceful fronds of a weeping willow swayed in the breeze, and cream-colored blossoms larger than my hand stood out in stark relief against the deep green of a magnolia's leaves. Not a single speck of white marred the deep blue of the sky. In the distance the Appalachian Mountains kept watch over our quiet valley, as they'd done for millenia. I couldn't help but smile. Welcome home, indeed.

One heck of a view, wouldn't you agree? And I didn't have to say "what a great view" because I showed you. I also snuck in the suggestion of why the protagonist found the view so lovely--they were home, and had only recently arrived back there.

But what if you hate the great outdoors, are allergic to magnolias, and prefer rainy days? Then I shouldn't tell you it's a great view, I should show you what's outside that window and let you be the judge.

Likeways, "What a handsome man." Everyone's tastes are not the same, so if I simply said, "He was a handsome man" you may visualize blond hair and cornflower blue eyes, a dimpled chin, etc. Then when I mention his dark beard and moustache later, you're completely thrown because you have a firm dislike for facial hair. So in telling you "he was handsome" and leaving it at that, as an author I'm telling you what to think.

Why don't I simply show you and let you make up your own mind?

Chestnut eyes crinkled at the corner when Max laughed, his gleaming smile peeking out from a neatly trimmed moustache and beard which framed his mouth, leaving his cheeks bare, exposing fine cheekbones a model would kill for. Dark lashes closed over his eyes when he glanced down. His widely set eyes and oft-broken nose stood out against a sallow complexion, but even after ten thousand years, I'd never tired of his face. 

Lately I've been revisiting some of my old stories, cringing when I find examples similar to the ones I've given of telling the reader instead of showing them, but I'm working to improve. In every What's in a Word post, I'm not pointing fingers at others' works, but at my own, and hoping that by sharing what I've learned I can help someone else.


  1. I am having Starbucks flashbacks...
    Eden: Glancing up from The Ladyboy Chronicles asks, "What does Bangkok smell like? Is it hot?"
    Me: "Yeah, stifling. It depends a where you are..."
    Eden: Stares nodding at the slow student...
    Me: OHHHHHHHHHH.... yeah okay lol..

    But even with the best intentions a writer can slip into telling as opposed to showing... (me more than most!)

    Adding this to my Edenism. THANK YOU!!!

    Hugs, Z.

  2. I'm slowly learning, and wanna share each new discovery.

  3. Part of the reward of following an author's works as a reader is getting to see how they grow and develop as authors.

    Following your writing is going to be such a treat, being an avid reader one of the things I've learned over the years is that the truly good authors are the ones who think they always need to improve and better their craft.

  4. Aww.... Thanks! I really do try to get better with each book, and even recently completed an editing course.