Writing to Tell vs. Writing to Sell
Here’s an example —
Telling: Mary showered before dressing.
Showing: Mary stepped from the steaming shower and wrapped herself in a thick white terrycloth towel. Her hair was bound to keep it dry, but now she let it down. She watched the coppery curls fall about her bare shoulders in the foggy mirror, her reflection an apparition in the haze.
In the showing example, the reader is in the bathroom with Mary. While her actual features are blurred in the foggy mirror, we know she has coppery hair and it’s long enough that if falls about her shoulders.
Here’s another one —
Telling: John played the guitar.
Showing: The sound was as gentle as a pleasured woman’s moan yet seemed almost too big for the tiny room. John closed his eyes, enjoying the erotic sensation of the hum of the cords reverberating through his belly. He let his fingers slide over the strings and listened to the slow gut-twisting refrain.
This example shows us John is an experienced guitarist. We see him playing the instrument in a small room, possibly a recording studio. The piece he’s playing awakens particular emotions in him, which the reader also gets a sense of.
How do we know any of this? Because we’ve been shown through the narrative.
We can also be shown a story through dialog. Look at these examples —
Telling: Mary paled, as if she’d seen a ghost.
Showing: “Mary, you’re white as a sheet. You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Telling: John loved dogs, but not jumping all over him.
Showing: “Mary, you know I love Spike, but would you mind controlling him?”
In the business of writing fiction, writers must tell a story in such a way that readers can see, and feel, what’s happening in the story. But does this make us storytellers or story showers?
Traditional storytelling goes back well before the written word — to a time of oral storytelling. This is the most intimate form of storytelling, as both the storyteller and the audience gather in a close environment to hear the tale. I won’t go into a history of oral storytelling here, but give you some examples of how this art is used.
Imagine you’re a medieval trader of exotic spices or fabrics, and you’re visiting a town to sell your wares. The local lord invites you into his home where he trades a hot meal and a bed for the night in exchange for you telling him tales of your travels. What tales would you tell? One of a dangerous ocean voyage? Perhaps, exotic people from other countries? Maybe you’ll relate some of the ancient stories you were told while in that foreign country.
What if you were a time traveler who’s gone back in time and you must explain about where you came from and how you found yourself in the past? How do you explain cars, planes and walking on the moon to someone who wants to know what the future is like?
As writers, we take these stories and write them in such a way that readers are pulled in, much the same as listening to traditional oral storytellers, and become part of the story. The biggest difference is that oral storytelling relies heavily on watching the storyteller, as he/she may become animated or perhaps sing to embellish the story. With fiction, the reader only has the page filled with words and their imagination. Their imagination is fueled by the words we put on those pages. And while a simple story, such as Cinderella, might be enough to entertain young children, an adult wants a story with a lot more meat in it. We want to tell a story to keep our readers up all night turning pages, not tell a bedtime story that puts them to sleep.
One of my favorite stories is an ancient Danish ballad called Hellelil and Hildrebrand. It was translated into English in 1891. The ballad, or a story written as poetry, tells the story of forbidden love. Kind of the Romeo and Juliet of Denmark, if you will. In my next example, I’ve pulled a scene from the ballad in which Hellelil, explains how her father, the king, has twelve knights watching over her safety, and how she’s fallen in love with one of them. Hildebrand happens to be the son of the King of England. Son of royalty or not, he’s still just a knight and she’s a princess. Read this scene and see what you get from it —
My father was good king and lord,
Knights fifteen served before his board.
He taught me sewing royally,
Twelve knights had watch and ward of me.
Well served eleven day by day,
To folly the twelfth did me bewray.
And this same was hight Hildebrand,
The King’s son of the English Land.
But in bower were we no sooner laid
Than the truth thereof to my father was said.
Then loud he cried o’er garth and hall:
‘Stand up, my men, and arm ye all!
‘Yea draw on mail and dally not,
Hard neck lord Hildebrand hath got!’
While this excerpt is telling an interesting story, it’s not what today’s mass market readers want.
Now read my excerpt, retelling what you’ve just read above, but in a format that makes the story sellable —
“You must go.” She pushed her lover’s shoulders, yet he would not release her.
“I’ll not leave you, Hellelil. I love you. No one will keep us apart.”
Her heart pounded in her breast, but she couldn’t tell if it was from the danger they were both in or the thought of never seeing Hildebrand again. Most likely it was both. He was her one true love, but she knew if her father found them together like this, his anger would know no end.
“Please, Hildebrand. If my father catches you here, he’ll show no mercy. You know I’m promised to another.”
“I’m a Prince of England, and I will have you.”
He embraced her within the safety of his powerful arms. The scent of their recent lovemaking clung to his skin. One more kiss, one more embrace, certainly laying with him one more night would do no harm. She knew they were both already meant for Purgatory. He’d taken the virginity she so gladly gave him, for she loved him too, and would rather him have the gift of her innocence than a man she didn’t love.
Yes, one more night . . .
Just then, there was no mistaking the sound of her father’s voice bellowing below stairs.
“Hildebrand has gone too far. I will see his head on a pike at my gates before the day is out.”
The sound of clanging metal grew louder as her father’s knights ascended the narrow stairs.
Hellelil’s tear-filled gaze flashed across Hildebrand’s face. She sought to memorize everything about him. The color of his eyes, the wave in his hair . . . his kiss-swollen lips.
She stroked her fingers across those lips, remembering the feel of them on hers not moments before. Her chamber door was locked, but it would not remain closed for long. One more kiss was all there was time for.
She pulled him down to her. “Kiss me, Hildebrand. For if I’m to die this day, I will take the sweet memory of your kiss with me.”
Hey, I write romance so you knew that would be schmaltzy! But, as you can see, the modern day version is the same scene, but it’s written in such a way as to flesh out the scene. It puts you in the room with Hellelil and Hildrebrand, and lets you into Hellelil’s head, and heart, by telling the story through her point of view. You feel her anxiety of being torn between her love for Hildebrand and the fear of their being caught together. Her heart pounds, she touches his lips with her fingertips, her love races through her in a desperate attempt at showing one last act of that love. We feel a great sense of urgency in this piece that we don’t feel in the original ballad.
The reader also knows Hildebrand’s feelings toward Hellelil by his words and the narrative action. Hildebrand holds Hellelil within the protection of his strong arms, his declaration of love, and his promise to have her as his own. We sense because he’s a prince of another realm that he holds some stature in the household where he is. He’s not just a simple knight who’s taken the virginity of the lord’s daughter in a heartless dalliance — he loves her. Hildebrand is a man of honor and breeding, and he knows his own heart and mind. So what if she’s promised to another.
Did you get any of that from the original ballad? Didn’t think so. Maybe a flicker if you applied it to another romance story you read, or a movie you saw, or even likened it to Romeo and Juliet. But reading my version puts it all out there in black and white without having to reference and compare it to something else to give it credit. This story is now sellable in today’s market.
By the way, the image above is called Meeting on the Turret Stairs and was painted by Sir Frederick William Burton in 1864. The original is hanging in a private viewing room at the National Gallery in Dublin Ireland. I’ve seen it. It’s incredible! The characters in this painting are Hellelil and Hildebrand. Note the Celtic motif on his tabard and the Norse motif on her gown. Remember, he’s a prince of England and she’s a Danish princess.
So, here’s my challenge to you —
Take a passage from a classic tale and turn it into a excerpt geared for today’s market. Doesn’t matter which tale it is. It doesn’t have to be romance. Any work of classic fiction will do — fairy tale, ballad, poetry, etc. Take a short scene or a passage from a scene and rewrite it so it will appeal to today’s readers . . . something that will sell to an adult audience.