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Example of telling rather than showing from Dispensing Justice

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When high school freshman Michael Gurrick's father is killed by supervillains, he takes up his father's supersuit and seeks justice (or will it be vengeance?) against his father's killers. (e)

Sometimes it's better to tell.

Writers are frequently bombarded with well-intentioned advice. The admonition to show, don't tell is one of the most common writerly forms of critique. The idea behind this advice is, more times than not, quite sound. Unfortunately, when "show, don't tell" is treated as a rule rather than a guideline, the storytelling tends to suffer.

This chapter is from my novel Dispensing Justice (don't worry, it's only 1000 words or so) where I do a lot of "telling". Further commentary follows the chapter.

To set the scene, Michael, the narrator of Dispensing Justice, has temporarily moved in with his friend Penny's family, the Riggs-Armstrongs after his father's funeral and his mother's PTSD has taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Andy (short for Andromeda) and Achilles are twin younger siblings of Penny, and Diana and Hank are Penny's parents. Michael and Penny are on summer break after their high school freshman year. Achilles and Andy are three years younger than Penny and Michael.

Chapter 37 -- The Ninja Twins Attack

Sunday, June 17th, 1984 (13,648 days post Supernova 1947A)

Penny and I turned on to Tau Ceti Street, Bernoulli in the lead, snuffling along, nose to the ground, tail wagging. I glanced over at Penny, but she only nodded. It seemed like a rather encouraging nod, so I took the plunge. “I can’t stay here with those two, Penny. It’s like being Inspector Clouseau with two Catos trying to sneak up and kill me when I least expect it. The start of it was chilling enough. I woke up to find Andy and Achilles looming over my bed, looking all serious. They announced that, as ninjas in training, they were going to ‘hunt’ me. When I tried to talk them out of the idea, starting with ‘Oh, I’m too weak to be worthy prey’ then escalating up to ‘I’ll just lay there and take it’, they said that it was Sensei Fox’s idea, and that it is a formal duel with my ‘honor’ at stake. ‘My wits against their ninja powers.’ You’ve been in the advanced classes at Black Lagoon—has Sensei Fox ever told you to do something like that?”

Penny hesitated. “Well, you could interpret some of the things he’s said that way.”

“And the Terror Twins would twist it that way.”

“Yeah, they would. So your ‘honor’ is at stake, eh?” There was a hint of a smile on her lips.

“It’s not funny. I don’t feel a lot of honor accruing from battling a couple of eleven-year-old wanna-be ninjas. Even if they are capable of turning me into monkey stew. It’s going to escalate until I lose a limb or something.”

“They wouldn’t intentionally do that.”

We stopped while Bernoulli carefully marked his third bush. “Maimed is maimed. I don’t really care if they feel bad about it afterward or not.”

“So, what have they done?”

“In the past twenty-four hours they’ve attacked me with Spungi-swords—”

“That won’t maim you.”

“—and a net—”

“No risk of limb loss, either.”

“—and while I was in the bathroom!”

“Which means you might have died of embarrassment?”

“Har, har. Maybe a little more detail will give you a better impression of what’s going on.”

“Okay. I’m truly curious.”

“First time: I was in the kitchen making Mom a sandwich when they came at me from either side, screaming their martial arts screams. I managed to fling the refrigerator door open into Andy as I sprayed mustard into Achilles’ eyes. They slammed into each other and I beat a hasty retreat.”

Penny chuckled. “Did you save the sandwich?”

“Yes.” I snorted a laugh, then stifled it. “Okay, so that one might actually have been funny. The second time was less fun. After the kitchen incident, I put together a dispenser belt of a few things, which turned out to save my ass when Andy dropped a weighted net—”

“I thought Diana and Hank had confiscated that.”

“Well, apparently not. Anyways, I was walking through the foyer, and—”

“You didn’t check the balcony before going in?”

“Yes, I checked the balcony, and they weren’t on it. Andy had climbed up on the window ledge on the exterior wall across from the balcony, where I didn’t look. The net slammed down on me, but I managed to trigger a smoke grenade—”

“Ah, that explains the smoke alarm. You never can tell with the twins.”

“—and I rolled out of the way, dragging the net with me. They both tried to jump on me, Andy from her ledge and Achilles running out from his position in the upstairs hall. I heard a crash and jingling noise as one of them, probably Achilles, hit the chandelier on the way down. By the time they stopped bashing on each other I’d cut a hole in the net and escaped. If they had landed on me…”

“Okay, that might have really hurt you.”

“Finally, I was—well, I was on the—I was in the bathroom, and Achilles must have climbed up the outside wall. It’s brick—”

“I know.”

“Right. So of course it would have been easy enough for him. Luckily, I saw his shadow as he wrenched open the window behind me. I’m glad he didn’t just smash through the glass—”

“Couldn’t have. It’s bulletproof.”

“I’ll have to remember to thank Hank for that little favor. After I complain about his homicidal children, that is.” I paused, opened my mouth to continue, then shut it. How could I put this without sounding like I was whining?

“Spit it out, Michael.”

“You’d think the little brutes would cut me a break. I mean, even with their stunted empathy they should see how much it sucks to have your father die and your mom drugged to her gills.”

“Have you considered that they might actually be aware of that? And that this has all been an attempt, albeit warped, to distract you? Maybe even cheer you up?”

I hadn’t considered that at all. “Hunh. Okay. Maybe I’m misjudging the little monsters. Still, you have to admit that I have room for complaint.”

“Speaking of which, why haven’t you said something to Hank or Diana about the Terrible Twins?”

“I’m just grateful for them looking after Mom. I don’t want them to think I’m unappreciative of their hospitality and all.” And, come to think about it, the twins had been very solicitous towards Mom, fetching her drinks and pillows. They even managed to sit still long enough to read with her a couple of times. Their selection of Doc Savage novels was questionable, but Mom didn’t complain.

“They’re not going to think that.”

“Still, I feel awkward about it. I need to go home where I can get some sleep without fear of waking up to find one of the Twins standing over me with an ax. Spungi or otherwise.”

“Yeah, I can understand that. But I don’t think Diana’s going to let you go home by yourself.”

I had already thought of that, and I knew arguing with Diana wouldn’t work. “What about the Kinnisons? If they’d take me, do you think Diana would agree?”

“I think she’ll go for it. So how did you escape Achilles the last time?”

“I’d rather not say.”

“Oh, come on Michael, how bad could it be?”

“I’ll just say that he slipped on wet tile.”


When I wrote this chapter I wasn't thinking about showing or telling, I just wrote it the way Michael would. Later, a question came up in my writers group, to whit, "Why don't you write the scenes out? Particularly the last part where Achilles attacks Michael in the bathroom." It was then that I knew why Michael had chosen to tell it the way he did. He was embarrassed, and couldn't bring himself to relate the event directly. From my perspective as the author, I think the summarization was crisper, more entertaining, and more humorous.

Chapters 1-12 of Dispensing Justice available here.

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