Hurricane Sandy came through here a few weeks ago. Well, to speak in an absolutely accurate technical sense, it was Super Storm Sandy by that point… but it is not my meaning today to discuss meteorological terms.
I came through the storm essentially unscathed, and I was very fortunate. Many people here in the northeast know of some favored spot along the Atlantic or its myriad harbors, bays, and inlets that have simply been washed away.
More importantly, there are thousands who are still without heat, light, and even the most basic comforts. There are members of this fandom, including some of my fellow authors, who are still struggling in the aftermath of the storm.
I was very lucky. The storm did not approach the ferocity in my area that they had expected it to. Instead, driving wind and rain were my company all of that long evening and night, and I only lost power for a few hours.
My garbage cans made a run for it, and they have not yet returned. I find myself still wondering where they could have gone. Wherever they have strayed in their travels, I hope my garbage cans are safe, warm, and happy, and that they will have wonderful tales of their adventures to tell me upon their return.
As I went looking for my prodigal waste receptacles, I walked down my hill and observed the beautiful chaos that sat around the horse farms and stables near my home. A chorus of chainsaws arose from backyards, and I stepped across piles of branches shorn of their leaves by the winds.
As I passed through a thicket of large pine trees I looked upon something that I had known, in some way, would be there. Still, the ruin that played out before me stabbed at some soft recollections in my mind.
The barn had already been ancient when I was a child, an artifact of the agricultural world that my valley had once been. It was a fading, aging temple to a dead religion of tractors, dairy co-operatives, and sunburnt self-reliance. Even as the paint had fallen away over the years the tall white boards still held their place, and the deep green of the roof tiles had kept their vigil as my valley had slowly become a sprawl of suburbanization. The cornfields it had once lorded over had became tract housing and horse farms for the wealthy.
I stepped out of the pines to discover that it had finally fallen, that the winds and rain had finally driven it to the ground.
I looked upon the ruins, and then stepped forward across the great earthen ramp that lead to where the doors had once stood. The steel wheels that opened them, each as large as my hand, now lay there, bent and useless.
I could only sigh as I picked my way across the pile. Soon I stood amid the shorn, tattered remains of the siding, listening to the roof as it settled imperceptibly among the boards.
The great, vast framing timbers of the barn had not been spared. One set lay collapsed before me, lying there like a toppled monument of a forgotten empire. Another set stood to my left, still lifting uselessly into the air with outstretched joists, looking more like a crucifix set among a battlefield than a structural element of a barn.
More sighs escaped me as I crept forward, trying to picture where the beams had been that had connected those timbers. A much younger T.D. had once climbed an ancient ladder that had rested across them, leaning against the steps as my hands were held before me, cupped like a beggar searching for alms.
I walked the length of the beam like that as light fell through the spaces between the boards. My eyes were set ahead of me, and my sneakers made whispering sounds across the beams as dust fell from them.
That younger T.D. fought his way across the beams as cars went up the road behind him, their sound filling the barn, and he blinked in the light as he gulped for breath as each small step found its place on the beam.
With that I had settled the fledgling back into its nest, the mother sparrow looking on as her head bobbed. Around me the old barn had creaked and settled, expanding and contracting in the heat of the thick summer day.
The memories of days like that fell through me as I left the ruins of the barn behind, picking my way cautiously across the collapsed boards and batten as imposing nails reached out for me with rusty teeth.
Goodbye, good and faithful servant.
So, you may ask, what does any of this have to do with Ponies? What does it have to do with fan-fiction? What, T.D., does it have to do with writing? “Why,” you may ask as you drum your fingers across your desk, “did T.D. just spend all of that time telling me about the barn?”
Well, the truth of the matter is, I didn’t tell you about the barn.
I showed you the barn.
How different would this recollection have been if I’d not taken the time to let you know the sentiments and realizations that hit me when I saw the barn?
“The hurricane came through. This old barn that I used to play in came down. That’s pretty sad. I saved a fledgling in there when I was a kid. I bet it will all be turned into pre-fabricated houses soon. Also, Spike is best pony.”
No heart, no soul, no real reason to have read it.
Better authors than myself in this fandom, and in the “real world”, have repeated this point often enough that it should be gospel for all fan-fiction writers. But, I repeat it here again… because it bears repeating.
“Show”, do not “tell”.
Mark Twain said, “Do not say ‘the old woman screamed’. Instead, bring her on, and let her scream!” While I certainly agree with that most quoted of American writers, I do need to point out that we who write fan-fiction do have the immense advantage of having established characters to work with.
We all wish to explore what it would be like for the characters to explore new settings and have new experiences. The key though is not to let our desire to present the idea overwhelm our real purpose for the work, which of course is to entertain, challenge, and intrigue our readers.
If the author only just moves from idea to idea, then the readers feel “talked at” rather than engaged. This is not what we, as authors, should be setting before those who take the time and make the effort to read our works. Simply having an idea is fine, but we as authors should be trying for that much more.
Instead, as we write, we should be asking ourselves questions. Have I developed my setting? Have I shown who and what is present? Have I given evidence as to what my characters are feeling, what they are thinking, and what they are facing in this moment? Learning to imply rather than inform is a lesson that I would advise every and all authors to pursue, and in the end it is what really matters about writing… it empowers and moves the readers, and it makes them want to know the reach and depth of the story.
That is the great power that writing has over any other medium. That is the single advantage that writers have above and beyond any other creative outlet in this fandom, any fandom, and in the real world. A good author empowers the reader… the author gives the reader the ability to sense, perceive, and grow their own scenes in their mind. Reading is an expansive pursuit, one that is limited only by the willingness of the reader to use their imagination.
The proficient author shows them that world. The good author lets them hear the woman scream, lets them hear the groaning of the collapsed boards, and lets them feel the tiny bird in their hands.
“Show”, do not “tell”.
All last week large yellow earthmovers made their way slowly back and forth across the scene, tossing black puffs of diesel fumes into the air. As they noisily clawed at the earth they removed the remains of the barn, wiping away the physical presence of a piece of my childhood.
Only a few pieces of aluminum remain, and the bent spire of the lightning rod and weather vane remain stacked against the old blue farmhouse. In all they have the appearance of a metallic tombstone, one that marks the end of the life of the structure.
Still, the barn continues on. It goes on because of the stories I can tell. The century and more that it stood there, sheltering cows from deep winters, guarding the bounty within from hot summers, remain with me now as stories. That, more than the deep brown patch of turned soil that marks where it stood, gives it something of immortality.
Thank you for letting me show it to you.
And, please, let me know if you see my garbage cans. I miss them terribly.
Many thanks, T.D(.)! Although it's endlessly discussed, many authors (especially new ones) struggle mightily with the idea of what exactly constitutes "showing," and what exactly is the difference between it and telling. And why it's important, for that matter. This is as good an explanation as I've read.
There's one thing I do want to emphasize though, because it seems to be a regrettably common misconception: the difference between showing and telling is not one of length. Perhaps because showing often does require more words, some seem to think that that is the difference between the two, and slather a bunch of flowery descriptors onto their story (often without concern for meaning or value) in an attempt to improve it. Consider these examples:
"She was filled with unfathomable anguish when she learned that her father was dead. The sorrow so overwhelmed her that she couldn't hold her head up. She felt tears on her cheeks, a watery testament to her grief, as she silently reflected on his final days."
"The orderly didn't speak; he just shook his head. She didn't scream, didn't ask any questions, didn't protest. She simply laid her head down and cried."
Example 1 is more than twice as long as example 2, yet 1 is telling, 2 is showing. Good reading/writing/reviewing, all!