Pandora Red, by Jay Tinsiano (3:55)

IOD-PandoraRedToday we see that presenting information by having your protagonist think about it does not turn telling into showing.

What I gleaned about the story: Sarah has access to government secrets. Sarah’s office will soon be moving to a much more secure facility. Sarah is about to do something that will forever alienate her from work, friends, and family. Sarah is either about to pull an Edward Snowden or a Jeffrey Dahmer. My money is on Snowden, but Dahmer would be more awesome.

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WTF #1: Broken imagery

Analysis: In the first paragraph, we’re given the image of a woman looking out of her office at night. The last sentence reads: There was a faded sound, like a distant roar from outside the double glazed windows of her office, a downpour of rain Sarah could see coming down in sheets from an external building light.

The immediate mental image I got was sheets of rain spewing from an external light fixture. I believe the author meant that she could see the rain by virtue of the external building light, but that’s not what was written, and when I paused to put my mental image back on the rails, immersion was broken.

WTF #2: Broken imagery

Analysis: In the very next paragraph, I see that: The glass walls of her office cast artificial light across the floor.

Again, I spent a moment trying to make the image suit the words as they were presented. Were the glass walls somehow emitting light of their own? But if so, why call them just “glass walls”? More likely, the author meant that the walls were “reflecting” or “scattering” the light, rather than “casting” it. But once again, I had to stop the story train to examine the words, so immersion was broken.

WTF #3: False drama

Analysis: Nearing the bottom of the first page, I felt myself getting restless with the prose. There were a couple of paragraphs along these lines:

Her feet quickly ascended the metal steps at the end, the echoes adding to her anxiety as she left G block and an entire lifetime behind her. No more after work drinks with the boys. No chin wags with her friend in the service, Janet Chambers. How surreal it would all soon seem. She could only imagine the shock of her colleagues when the news spread about what she had done. They would understand, in time. Surely they would?

This is something I call false drama, whereby an author tries to accentuate the drama of a scene by telling us how dramatic it is. It’s false because we don’t feel the drama for ourselves. We’re only told that Sarah feels it, and then we’re peppered with a bunch of her anxsty thoughts, but at no time do we see her do something that makes us feel like she’s in some kind of danger or undertaking some risky adventure. It’s all just tell, in one form or another.

Showing is something quite different.

If you want to show me the drama of what Sarah is about to do and make me feel my own anxiety about it, then let her take out a photo of her husband and kids. Let her kiss the photo. Give us a single tear running down her cheek as she sets it on the desk. Then have her pull on her balaclava, chamber a round in her Glock, and head for the boss’s office.

Why is that showing, while the anxious thought stream wasn’t? It all has to do with how we learn that Sarah is anxious. If the narrator decides it and then tells us about it, (“adding to her anxiety as she left G block”) then it’s telling. If Sarah herself decides that she is anxious, and just thinks anxious thoughts, there’s a layer of disguise over it, but that’s telling too. Neither of those techniques makes us feel the anxiety for ourselves. For that, we have to draw our own conclusion about what Sarah is feeling. When we watch Sarah’s behavior and decide for ourselves that she is anxious, that is showing.


Take the Pepsi Challenge: Want to know if my own writing measures up? Download one of these free short stories, in the format of your choice, and decide for yourself.

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About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is underqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.