Saturday, August 31, 2013


Or...What the Price of Chinese Tea Has To Do With Good Writing,

Or...Illustrate, Don’t Pontificate!

Duke Drummond stepped back with a gasp as the big bounty hunter set the disembodied head atop the bar beside a jar of picked pigs’ feet. 
            The head was not a fresh trophy.  It smelled like an over-filled privy with the added musk of a bobcat’s den.  The heavy eyelids drooped halfway over the eyes, and the lips—dry and cracked—formed a lopsided grin through which the tip of the dearly departed’s purple tongue protruded.
            A puckered hole, its edges crusted with dried blood above a scabby rivulet angling down along the right side of the dead man’s nose, had been blasted through the poor devil’s head by a .44 or .45 round.  At least, the hole resembled the size of one of those two bullets to the barman, Duke Drummond, who leaned as far back as he could from the grisly object, his eyes watering against the lung-burning stench.
            Drummond glared over the head at the grinning bounty hunter, Herschel “Shoot-to-Kill” McDade, and bellowed, “Herschel, what in the hell you think you’re doin’, bringin’ Willie McGinty’s head into my bar without the rest of him?”

The instruction to show and not tell in fiction writing is such an old saw that I feel chagrined to use it.  But however you want to spin the admonishment—illustrate don’t pontificate?—it’s as essential as the bullets in a gun or the wheels on a wagon.  And it’s the single hardest trick for an aspiring scribe to master. 

It’s also one that even wily old veterans need to relearn now and then.

Mean Pete’s been there himself.  And even after pubbing around eighty western novels over the past twenty years, I often still find myself there from time to time.  It’s usually when I get lazy without realizing or I’m unconsciously rushing and it just seems easier to narrate over a scene—to slap some words down on the page as fast as I can so I can feel good about getting my word quota in for the day and oh Merciful Heaven I can finally pop a beer!  Easier to do that than to dive into the quicksand of the scene, to get down and dirty and show that dead man’s droopy eyelids, the black tongue poking out of his smiling lips, and that puckered hole in his forehead, and not just tell about how the bounty hunter walked into the bar toting a dead man’s head.

That might be a start to a joke, but it’s not effective fiction writing.

I’ve flipped through several books lately--mostly ebook original western novels, unfortunately, but I’ve found the transgression in all genres—in which there is far, far more pontificating than illustrating.  Summarizing events as opposed to painting scenes with pictures made of words. 

Stories written in that fashion are about as compelling as watching mold grow.  I’ve flipped through whole books that are written that way from page one to the so-called grand finale.  They more resemble poorly written non-fiction than novels; they're summarized accounts of made up events written in dry-as-dust prose when what they should be is riveting movies on the page complete with virtual Surround Sound.

So if you’re having trouble learning how to show and not tell, to illustrate rather than pontificate, here’s a rule for you, because Mean Pete loves rules almost as much as beer:

The One-And-A-Half-Inch Rule

To show you what I'm talking about, lift one of your hands in front of your face.  Oh, go ahead and do it—it ain’t gonna kill ya!  Now spread your thumb and index finger about one and a half inches apart.  You see that gap there?  That’s how much space Mean Pete allows for any such nonsense other than illustration at any one place in his novel or short-story.  By any such nonsense, I mean writing that does not resemble those three paragraphs I started this essay with—you know, the one in which Willie McGinty bellies up to the bar without his belly? 

Showing versus telling.  Illustration as opposed to pontification.

Or, to be blunt, it’s where you’re not assaulting your dear reader’s senses, as you should be doing, without mercy, most of the time.  It’s where you’re not making the reader cower or gasp and yell, “Oh, what an awful man to make me read about such grisly events!  Really, Mean Pete needs to be shot forthwith!” 

(Okay, maybe "assault" isn't always the best term.  Appeal to, perhaps...?)

It’s passages in your tale where the reader can’t smell the coffee boiling on the campfire or catch a whiff of the cow shit and sage on the hot summer breeze.  Where he can’t hear the rumble of an approaching summer thunderstorm or feel the chill of fresh snow on his blankets. 

It’s chunks of dense black, print in which you can’t see that buxom, golden-haired, long-legged doxie in three-inch heels and black corset and bustier lean over in front of you and give you a good, long look at the deep, dark cleft between her lightly freckled breasts, which smell like rose blossoms.  In which you can’t see this pretty girl smile, her hazel eyes twinkling with reflected lamplight, and hear her in a breathy voice invite you upstairs for a discussion on the price of Chinese tea. 

Ha!  You didn’t see that blonde prance in behind Willie McGinty, did you? 

You’ve just been assaulted. 

And whether you liked it or not, whether my lascivious prose offended your sensibilities and compelled you to expound on how that dirty-minded rascal needs to be hanged from the nearest ceiling beam without further ado, or whether I made you chuckle and squirm in your chair a little with your ears warming, I was showing you that pretty blonde’s, um, attributes, and not just telling you about them.

That’s my job.  That’s what keeps my beer fridge stocked and why I can occasionally throw a ribeye on the Weber. 

You can summarize action now and then or get into a character’s head to tell us what he’s thinking.  But, aside from one and a half inch chunks (or smaller!) here and there, mostly what you’re getting paid to do is create a tactile world in the reader’s mind as real and with as much dimension as the one you’re sitting in now.  With more dimension, in fact, because it has Surround Sound!

Go ahead, don’t be shy.  Take me upstairs to that doxie’s crib.  Mean Pete’s just dyin’ to pontificate on the cost of Chinese tea!

(Stay tuned, Assaulted Reader, for a companion article to this one on how illustrating as opposed to pontificating can be enhanced by the deft handling of point of view...and really doesn’t work without it!)

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