March 24th, 2002
Mudslinger Writer's Guide - Part X - By Excrucior
And now, on with the show!
You can state a fact quite easily and the reader will see it and accept
it. The reader wishes to be entertained with your tale and will
generally accept whatever you tell them (dealt with previously).
Alternatively you could allow them to work out the information they need. I've
touched on this earlier but I'll give a more detailed explanation here.
Let's take an example sentence.
"He walked along the deserted street. He was a warrior. He had fought
many battles. He was an expert in his field."
It gives the information that the reader needs, but it's very boring and
flat, as well as it being too easy to work out. I'll show you how it
could be written.
"Deep scratches in the man's breastplate were revealed by the noon sun.
He prowled the deserted streets, his eyes darting from side to side as
he watched for any potential attackers. His hand never strayed from
his sword's well-worn leather hilt, caressing it often as he would a
It's longer and includes more narrative, but the important part is that
it doesn't spoon-feed the audience. The first two words - "Deep
scratches" - indicate violence. They are in his breast plate, so he has been
in battles. Many battles, in fact, if you believe the well-worn hilt as a piece
of information. The breastplate and sword are obvious symbols of a
warrior. He caresses the hilt, showing a familiarity. He doesn't walk,
but prowls, and he is watchful. Well-used weapons, alert demeanor -
he's a veteran and skilled. Notice also that it takes more text to
explain what's in there than I used above.
The golden rule here is to show rather than tell. Remember this,
accept it, and use it.
How can you write in this manner consistently? Practice. Get used to
it - it's the best way to infuse a sense of being there for the reader.
Think about it from the viewpoint of someone who can actually observe
the man. They cannot know everything about him, but you can allow the
reader to make deductions. Through your character's observations your
You don't have to tell them everything, of course. You can save some
details until later in the piece. Maybe the warrior, three paragraphs
later when he's in the middle of an ambush, is wearing a faded symbol on
his chest. An attacker sees it and runs screaming, realizing that the
warrior is a veteran of an elite band of mercenaries or something.
As much as possible make sure you are trying to show things. Remember
the examples I gave earlier about introducing the piece?
"The sun sank below the walls that protected the City of Medievia,
plunging the streets into darkness..."
"The streets of the City of Medievia were thick with crowds, which
suited me perfectly. I didn't want to be observed..."
Neither of these told you things directly. The first tells you that
it's evening time and that the narrative viewpoint is within the City of
Medievia. The second tells you it must be "rush hour" as the roads are
busy and you can assume this is compared to a more normal time, and
that the narrator is up to no good or running from someone.
The average reader can work out details like this from the text and
they will pick up such things subconsciously. You are in the business of
entertaining people, but spoon-feeding them information works on the
conscious level. You could have written the first one as "It was evening.
The sun went down. The streets were therefore plunged into darkness."
but that just gives the information too easily. If the reader obtains
the information without directly reading it then they will enjoy it
more. Trust me on this.
The sort of things to use are aspects that you see, but don't notice
generally. Think logically and see what effects each cause has. The sun
sets - that means that the place goes dark, right? It also means that
there are shadows and that the light sources seem brighter - or even
that people start to make use of light sources. The wind blows - what
else is there? Grass rippling with every gust, tree branches waving,
flags snapping in the breeze, small pieces of debris moving around - these
are the logical conclusions from the cause. Use them. Descriptions
A very complicated principle here that I'll describe briefly is to use
a literary style called "E-Prime". It's very unlikely that many people
will have heard of this, but it's very heavily related to showing
instead of telling. The basic concept here is to avoid using the verb "to
You may be wondering how that can work - existence is at the heart of
everything, surely. Rephrase your work to avoid using the term "is,
was, were, will be, become" etc and see what happens.
"The guardsman was dressed in sturdy armor."
"Sturdy armor protected the guardsman's vitals..."
"The war-horse was impatient."
"The war-horse whickered, tossing its mane impatiently."
You certainly do not have to do this - the style is a technique for
advanced writers - but it does help you to think in terms of showing
rather than stating. I don't expect anyone to actually write in E-prime,
and if it was done correctly then the average reader wouldn't even know
(or care), but it does stretch the linguistic muscles.
Next time - Characters
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