SHOW don’t TELL.

I used to tell stories.

I used to enjoy telling stories.

I would sit down and write whatever was in my mind with no thought about anything other than telling a good honest story. I simply wrote and never gave any thought of telling stories any other way than just telling them.

I was always shy about letting people read my stories. They were personal to me and often they could be on the darker side of what might be considered ‘The norm.’ Showing one of my stories meant letting someone in to who I really was and that was a huge thing for me. I tried it once with a friend in school. I showed her a story I had written about a family of werewolves who moved in next door to a family of vampires and after reading it she never spoke to me again. She told everyone in school that I was a weirdo and everywhere I went people laughed and pointed at me. I was utterly heartbroken and  never showed another person another story again after that.

Despite that girls comments, who by the way was found murdered in her apartment just a few years back, I continued to write my stories. Not long ago I decided to share one with my mother because she had been diagnosed with lung cancer and had been given less than two months to live.

‘You wrote this?’ she said, sitting awkwardly in her hospital bed. ‘You really wrote this?’

‘Sure did.’

She finished reading and looked up at me. Tears leaked down her face. ‘What did I do?’ she said. ‘What the hell did I do?’

I took the story back off her because I did not want any of the nurses or doctors to get their hands on it. I could tell mum was upset and tried to reassure her that it was just a story, but she was completely freaked out. I explained that without people like me there would be no such things as horror stories to keep kids scared around camp fires.

A few days later I got a call from the hospital telling me that my mother had died. I spent weeks feeling that the reason mum had not liked my story was because it had not been written well. What I excelled at in imagination was hampered by what I lacked in form. I needed some coaching so a few weeks later I enrolled on a creative writing class.

And now I can’t tell stories.

I don’t know how to tell stories anymore because Margo, my creative writing teacher told me that writers don’t tell stories.

‘Writers show stories,’ she would say. ‘Do not tell me it is raining, show me the character struggling to put up an umbrella as cars splash by through deep puddles. We must show stories, not tell them.’

Whoever heard such nonsense. When in your life have you ever heard someone say, ‘sit down kids and let me show you a story.’ I can’t imagine Jesus saying to his disciples, ‘Come, let me SHOW you the story of the Good Samaritan. Or, some Grandmother saying, ‘hey kids let me SHOW you the story about Little Red Riding Hood.’

According to Margo, telling sounds something like this: ‘Edward walked along the street. It was raining hard, but that did not bother him because Edward was determined to kill Miranda.’ According to Margo this kind of writing, or telling as she calls it does not allow the reader to engage with the text. Instead we writers should write in such a way that allows the reader to insert their own imaginations into the work. Margo says we should write something like: ‘Edward paced along the wet sidewalk with cars whizzing past as quickly as his heart was beating. Raindrops exploded by his feet like miniscule hand-grenades. He smiled with each step that took him closer him closer to Miranda’s apartment. He imagined knocking on the door and waiting for the clunk click of locks before she opened up. She would smile and beckon him inside, closing the door behind her. They would stare longingly at each other for a few moments, and that’s when he would draw the knife from his jacket.’

Before I tell you and more about Margo and what I have in store for her, let me show you the opening paragraph to the short story I wrote for her, and then I will tell you what she said about it:

My name is Edward Steels. I’m fifty-three years old and I have just committed my first murder. Her name was Shelley Spencer. We went to school together and I had wanted to kill her since I was fifteen years old. Last night I broke into her apartment and cut her throat. I watched her flail on her bed with eyes that asked a thousand questions. It took her ten minutes to die. Ten beautiful and sensuous minutes that felt like my entire body was being massaged with a pair of hands made from the finest silk. So long Shelley Spencer. What goes around comes around.
Everyday I walk among people who think I am happy and amiable, but what they don’t know is that while I may appear light-hearted and jovial, I am actually thinking about skinning them alive, or, pushing an electric plane over their kneecaps. The urge to kill is getting stronger with each passing day. It won’t be long before it happens again. It’s just a matter of working out who, when, and how?’

According to Margo, my story has too much telling. When I first read her remarks I had no idea what ‘too much telling’ meant. The only thing I got from her comments was how important this telling thing was to Margo because she capitalised it every time she wrote the word. ‘Don’t TELL me that your main character is going to kill someone,’ she said. ‘SHOW me them stood outside their victim’s house brandishing a knife or a gun.’ She also said, ‘Don’t tell me the murderer has a knife. Show me the blade glinting in the sunlight and the horror in the eyes of the victim as the blade slices through the air and into flesh.’

I have been stood in the park outside Margo’s house since five this morning. My hands tremble and it’s not just down to the cold air. Cars and busses zoom by, pumping out thick blue exhaust smoke that seems to irritate the early morning joggers who bounce along the sidewalk with headphones stuffed into their ears. I watch Margo’s house from behind a large oak tree. I think it’s an oak. It could be an elm or one of those trees that grow red apples. I do not know what they are called. A red apple tree? Whatever type of tree it is, the branches are bare and ugly like it had had some kind of chemotherapy.

I peer out from behind the tree. Margo’s house is the third from the left on a semi-circular row of expensive looking terraces. I shiver and rub my hands together before thrusting them into my jacket pocket. Inside the warm, velvety lining of my parka I feel the cold hard shape of the Stanley knife. I think about what Margo is going to look like when she wakes up top find herself tied to a chair with a gag in her mouth; or maybe a pool ball. Her scared face will be wide-eyed and full of questions I suspect. I am going to read the short story I wrote for her while rubbing the Stanley knife down her cheek, possibly nicking her so a trickle of blood drips onto the floor. I may even kiss her.

It’s getting light now. The sky looks clear and cold with a few scratch marks put there by passenger planes. I imagine Margo’s screams as I slice her ear off while dancing to Stealer’s Wheels. I will then SHOW her the severed ear and TELL her that I am going to cut the other one off unless she explains to me exactly what she means by, ‘too much TELLING?’ And, why she decided that my short story with all its intricacies, metafictional devices, and intertextual references to several Quentin Tarantino films only deserved a lousy C minus?

As I strop the knife in front of her, getting ready for the second ear, I will remind Margo of another creative writing adage, one that she will soon know the true meaning of — Less is more.


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