Don’t tell me about the scary ghost! Show me!

I’ve just finished writing a short story, a paranormal ghost story.   Malice in Memphis, the local chapter of Sisters in Crime, is preparing an anthology that we hope to have published by the end of the year.  The stories feature historical or significant settings here in Memphis.  My story takes place on the Burkle Estate, commonly referred to as Slavehaven.  It is rumored to have been a stop along the Underground Railroad.

I took a break from my novel to prepare this short story.  Boy oh boy, talk about a transition!  Of course in a short story, there is a limited word count and you have to make every word count.  So the challenge became how to tell a complete story, one with the emotional impact of a novel, without the luxury of 90,000+ words?

I fought the temptation to “tell” the reader how scary the big, mean poltergeist are.  And in my first draft, it was fairly obvious that I lost that fight.  Fortunately, I have a brutal critique partner who informed me after reading, “oh, it was beautifully written, but it’s a ghost story, right?  How come I’m not scared?”

There was a brief moment when I wanted to slam down the phone, but then I reconsidered.  I read it again and knew instantly exactly what she meant.  There were quite a few errors that I should have avoided if I wanted a story that would engage the reader’s thoughts as well as emotions.

  1. I didn’t avoid the “telling” words.  Phrases like “He wondered,” “she realized,” “I felt”, “he noted” tend to take the reader out of the story.  For example:  “I realized that I left my coat in the car.”  Showing:  “I left my coat in the car.”
  2. Dialogue:  I reached the climax of my story, my heroine had finally discovered the courage the confront the mean ghosts.  Should’ve been a pretty emotional moment, wouldn’t you say?  Well, I thought so, until she pointed out that I’d laid a big messy “data dump” for my readers to clean up.  Instead of the 1-2 pages of backstory; it was necessary information but  written such that the reader would likely skim over that part so that they could get to the “good stuff”.  A more effective strategy would be to use dialogue between the hero and heroine.  Dialogue allows the reader to experience the scene as if they were there.  Instead of “telling” how scared the heroine was, I can let the reader hear it for themselves:  “I can’t do it. I can’t do it.”
  3. Be specific:  I’m going to reassure myself that I’m not the only one to do this, so. . .  In the interest of saving time and word count, I also gave in to the temptation to “rush” moments.  Example: “I had the best time of my life.”  Yeah, ok, but the reader will want to know what that feeling was: “We spent the entire day talking and making love.”
  4. Use sensory language:  use words that allow readers to see, hear, taste, smell and touch the world you’ve created.  Don’t just rely on the sense of sight, but try to incorporate several senses.

He was within arm’s length when I found that I could not retreat any further.  My back was literally up against the wall. The air around me chilled and I again felt the goose flesh rise on my arms.  The air around him and now me, reeked of rotten eggs, mildewed leaves and decaying underbrush.

Can you think of any other examples of “showing”?  I’d love to hear them.

4 thoughts on “Don’t tell me about the scary ghost! Show me!

  1. Don’t forget weather. “It was a dark and stormy night…” I did like the daytime setting because it adds contrast to what is going on inside the house.

    The last draft did send chills up my spine (even if I know the ending).

    Your crit partner in crime

  2. Mucho writing wisdom here. Good refresher for all of us who “write.” I am so glad to know you through Romance Writers. Great post! Am also enjoying the serial posts.

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