Show, Don’t Tell – The Importance of Scenes

I have been on a fantasy hunt lately with my reading. Having finished Lord of the Rings ages ago, I wanted something that I could get lost in – something that could take me away from the routine of everyday life and transport me to another land. So far I have been flitting back and forth between Robert Jordan and Steven Erikson, but both are massive series, and they are a little tricky to get into.

So, I went back to my newly organized personal library and found the Forgotten Realms books by R.A. Salvatore.

I had the chance to meet Mr. Salvatore at a book signing way back when Borders was still around. It was such a crazy coincidence, mostly put into motion by my girlfriend’s mother at the time. We were out shopping and I mentioned that Bob was going to be doing a book signing at the store, but I couldn’t remember when it was. Then, as Mrs. Torrance led us into the store, we realized that the book signing was happening that very afternoon.

Clutching our new copies of The Highwayman, complete with one of the most gorgeous book jackets I’ve ever seen, we waited and eventually Bob arrived, introduced himself, and answered fan questions.

I was fairly new into his books at that time. A few friends on my Odyssey of the Mind team all played Neverwinter Nights, and also told me about Drizzt Do’Urden. So, after getting my book signed by Bob, I quickly devoured it and then stock piled his omnibus editions.

When Borders was going out of business, I grabbed a few more box sets by him as well as the character book, and then added them to my shelves. But, I couldn’t get into them for the life of me. I didn’t know what was wrong. I had read this man’s work so long ago, and I loved it all back then. What was different now?

Well, I chock it up to two things – partially it was my brain’s fault for being an adult and worrying about having limited time to read. I would get through a page and then put the book down, forgetting everything I read.

However, with the blizzard coming tonight, I decided to pick up one of the books in the box set again and give it a shot.

I read through the section where I’d left off and tried to muscle my way through a few pages. It was then that the second reason I have been unable to stick with the books became apparent.

The particular book I am reading, Streams of Silver, is one of Salvatore’s earliest books. So, it is a little rough around the edges as far as finding his voice goes. I realized as I read that there were sections of the book where he blatantly tells me description of what’s happening, almost like a continuing montage of events. There was no anchor for me other than a collection of names on the page.

Of course, I know the characters he’s writing about, but there was nothing emotional happening to keep me invested.

Then, as I was about to put the book down, the companions arrived at a wizard mansion and the story latched onto me. This was a scene – and the characters were allowed to live and breathe. The story became so strong, I couldn’t put the book down. I cruised through sixty pages in one night, and that hasn’t happened in a long time.

So, what was the difference from a reader’s perspective? Well, I was finally being shown something rather than being told something. I was witnessing the characters experiencing strange and wonderful magical phenomena. I was seeing the events through their points of view, and in that way, I was allowed to feel emotions that the characters were feeling. I actually laughed out loud at one part where Bruenor Battlehammer has a back and forth with Drizzt at the wizard pub. Soon Bruenor was on the floor, passed out from drinking.

Those moments are so precious to me as a reader. I need to read carefully, taking note of what I respond to and what I gloss over. If I do, then when I go to write my own stories, I can try to do what worked for me as an audience member. It is our job when writing fiction to transport our readers into the story, and we can do that a lot more easily if we show them the images and experiences, allowing them to put everything together, rather than telling them a list of events. Used sparingly, the telling can get the story where it needs to go. But, with too much telling, the reader may lose interest and put the book back on the shelf.

I’m glad I got through the telling portion, because there are a whole lot more of Mr. Salvatore’s books left for me to experience.


2 thoughts on “Show, Don’t Tell – The Importance of Scenes

  1. This was really insightful. I can relate to having a hard time getting into a book. Part of my reason is knowing that my time is more limited now and stressing over whether or not there is something I should read that would be better entertainment or learning value.
    BTW, Robert Jordan’s books are gonna take you a while. The last 3 before Sanderson takes over are almost a chore because they’re not as tight as they should be. I think I learned more about what not to do from them than what to do.
    I’ve been wanting to jump into Erikson’s books for a while now. I think I’m going to take it on once I catch up with the stormlight archive.

    I would love to see a deeper analysis of what you learned about pacing.


    1. Thanks, Jim! I had to start Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon twice before I actually made headway into the story. He just plops you in the middle of a fully functioning and ancient society without any explanations or hand holding. So, it was a difficult read, but paid off in the end. Haven’t started his second book yet, but it’s on my list. I’ll keep your thoughts on Jordan in mind when I get to those later books. I hate skimming or skipping entries, but sometimes it’s better than a plot that drags on.

      Maybe I’ll come up with a little more analysis, with some examples of different things I’m reading/have read. Could come in handy once it’s all collected!


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