One of the first rules of writing I learned was the mantra “Show, don’t Tell”. I’ve lost count of how many times I heard this advice “told”, but ironically, I’ve never been “shown” how to do it. If you agree, read on, for I will “show” you my version of Show, don’t Tell with a demonstration of what I call forensic editing – a way to improve writing line by line, paragraph by paragraph, page by page. And I’m going to use a sample of my own work to illustrate how it’s done.
I’ve never shown a rough draft of my writing to anyone before, but I want to give you real “before and after” examples. Below you’ll find the original version of Page one from my novel, A Petal in the Wind III: The Great War. I’ll guide you through an analysis of its many flaws and correct them using forensic editing. Let’s begin:
Lala Hafstein stepped out of the taxi in front of her house. Still a charming two story stone cottage, she observed, surrounded by blooming rose bushes and bathed in mid-afternoon sunshine. The cherry tree was bare of fruit, but the walnut tree was laden, the plums needed harvesting, and apples and pears would soon ripen on their respective trees. A typical early August day in Bohemia, she thought, even if absolutely nothing else was remotely so.
A sense of déjà vu enveloped her as she clutched her travel satchel to her chest and stepped aside. Her parents entered the house, followed by the driver who assisted in bringing in their travel trunks. Lala went inside as well and looked around. The gilt-framed mirror still hung in the entryway above the walnut cabinet her father had constructed decades ago in his carpentry shop in Prague. The parlor, filled with a mix of old and recent pieces acquired through inheritance and her father’s masterful woodworking skills, was as they’d left it save for a trace of dust. She wondered if Hilde, their maid, had been in for over a week. Her life, like everyone else’s, was interrupted nine days earlier, when Emperor Franz Josef directed the bombing of Belgrade in retaliation for the assassination of his nephew by Serbian nationalists. #
Consider an ideal page one. The opening sentence functions as the “hello” to the story, grabbing the reader’s attention. The first page must coax you into the first chapter and hold your interest. It should give readers a sense of the who, what, where, when, why and how of the story. Usually the who – your protagonist – is foremost. Page one lays the path to the when and where (is this taking place) and the what (is going on), which eventually leads to the how (the story will play out) and why (it’s important). This version fails on most accounts.
Let’s review the first sentence:
Lala Hafstein stepped out of the taxi in front of her house.
The who is clear, the where not so much. We know she’s home, but where is home? What is significant about her coming home? How does that intrigue the reader?
This opening line is neither dramatic nor engaging.
The rest of the first paragraph provides some setting details with imagery. We learn where, in Bohemia, and when this takes place, August. But with summer fruit at its peak and fall fruit soon to harvest, readers might figure out this must be late summer anyway. Not until the end of the paragraph’s final line, …even if absolutely nothing else was remotely so, do we get a hint that all is not what it appears to be. This may be too subtle or cryptic to hook readers.
A dissection of the paragraph shows it’s moving in the right direction, but fails to engage readers. It conveys very little for the valuable real estate it occupies.
The next paragraph shows Lala’s been traveling with her parents. The déjà vu reference harkens back to something that occurred in the first Petal novel. As this is Book III, many readers might not recall this and make the connection. The rest frontloads the page with backstory. The implication, that on the surface things look the same but really aren’t, repeats what was in the first paragraph. And we still don’t know why that is until the end of the page. I knew the bombing of Belgrade marked the actual launch of the first World War, but to readers that reference might be vague; not everyone spent months researching the subject like I did. Worse, I reveal WWI’s onset in an undramatic way, telling rather than showing. Not much of a pay-off for the “things are different now” scenario I imply, nor an irresistible way to end page one.
The opening also falls into a classic trap by limiting Showing to visuals – no scents, no sounds.
Now let’s examine how to fix these weaknesses:
1- Write an opening line that entices the reader and alludes to what will transpire.
Lala Hafstein stepped out of the taxi in front of her house does not accomplish this. My first revision:
Lala Hafstein stepped out of the taxi laden with trunks and valises in front of her house.
A little better. We surmise she’s been traveling, but we don’t know how she feels upon returning or what her return means, so back to work. My final version of the opening sentence:
Relief washed over Lala Hafstein as the taxi laden with trunks and valises came to a stop in front of her family’s house.
Relief. That exposes her state of mind. We know what that looks like and feels like. The word captures our interest, puts the rest of the paragraph in perspective, and also mirrors the ending. Woo-hoo, triple points.
2- Shore up the sensory details that lead to the teaser at the end of the opening paragraph.
I amended it so her parents now exit the taxi with Lala, but I got rid of the procession entering the house. Lala remains outside while the driver unloads the luggage, so I focused on better illustrating the where instead of the home’s interior. What began as a purely visual description:
Still a charming two story stone cottage, she observed, surrounded by blooming rose bushes and bathed in mid-afternoon sunshine…. became:
As she inhaled the scent of roses warmed by the afternoon sun, Lala looked over the property. The two-story stone cottage perched on a hill, overlooking rolling plains sectioned by thickets of forest….
Adding relatable sensory details beyond visuals, and broadening the setting, vivifies the where.
3- Eliminate the repetition and make the reveal about the war’s onset more impactful.
Having Lala wonder what the maid experienced, which is third hand information, dulled the impact. The most visceral reveal would be through her first-hand perspective, but Lala wasn’t there. I went with the next best thing, a creative solution based on logic. Curious to know, she would ask, “What was it like here when it began? How did you know?” to someone who was there – the taxi driver. In the final version, Lala does that:
The driver understood, for he answered without hesitation. “Church bells, Miss. The church bells rang out.” He stood up and with head bent, took off his cap and held it against his heart as if facing a coffin. “Not just our church bells, but you could hear them ringing off in the distance, from every town and hamlet in the region, ringing for a long, long time. We knew then our empire was at war.”
As he described that moment, Lala could almost hear church bells clanging from near and far.
Now we not only understand what has happened, we feel it through the taxi driver’s firsthand account of the moment the war began. By establishing it with sensory detail – in this case, sound – readers, like Lala, can virtually hear the church bells clanging as we listen to the man’s response and see his physical reaction. I can also see readers turning the page to find out what happens next.
If you would like to see the first page as published, click on this link:
Click on “LOOK INSIDE” and scroll to Chapter One. The entire first chapter is available.