I woke slumped against Oldy’s fuzzy beard. Sol was gone. Only our bodies held us up.
Then Sol appeared with her arms full. ‘Anyone thirsty?’
Sol brought us food and life all night. Our guard almost saw her, but she passed magically through the outer wall of the ship until he left.
I’ve already talked in a bunch of schools about having an interesting (well-developed and contradictory – like a real person) character with a serious problem, and about using as many of the senses as possible to make readers feel involved. Today’s main lesson is the infamous “Show don’t tell”.
Let’s imagine a character is kind, and you want readers to like them for their kindness.
Method 1: Telling – this method is BAD because readers have no reason to believe you.
Bob was very kind.
Method 2: Telling through dialogue – slightly better, but still awful. Readers still feel they’re getting told what to think.
“Hello Bob,” said Bobette. “I wanted to thank you for all your kindness yesterday.”
“Oh, it was nothing,” said Bob.
Method 3: Showing – this inevitably takes more space, but is the only good way for important information (including personal qualities, relationships between characters, and events that are central to your story).
Bob rushed out of his house, running late for work. He saw his neighbour, Bobette, standing on her front lawn looking up at her Chinese Elm. At once he turned from his car and asked her what was wrong.
“It’s my darling kitten,” said Bobette. “She’s stuck.”
Bob carefully reversed his car over to the tree and stood on the roof. “Here, kitty,” he said. “I won’t hurt you.”
The kitten hissed and climbed higher in a panic.
Bob took off his business jacket and hooked one leg over a low branch. Slowly he found more footholds and at last he held the terrified kitten against his chest. It immediately scratched him, tearing his shirt. “Don’t worry, little one,” said Bob. “I know you’re scared.”
He climbed down with one hand, and gave the kitten to Bobette.
“Oh, Bob!” she said. “Thank you! What can I do to repay you!”
“Think nothing of it,” he said, using his shredded shirt to mop up the blood on his aching chest. “She’s such a nice kitten, isn’t she?”
*It’s also worth noting that this scene has the same structure as any story – there’s a problem (kitten in a tree), the character’s efforts should help, but instead make it worse (Bob tries to reach it, but the kitten climbs higher), and the character makes another attempt (climbing himself) which resolves the original problem (now the kitten is safe).
*In a short story, I recommend:
-Have only a few characters, and a reasonably short period of time (this helps stop the story running away into complexity-land). Make sure each character’s name starts with a different letter so it’s easy for your reader to keep track.
-Write about something you know and/or care about. High schoolers know about high school. I often write stories with magic, because I read a lot of fantasy books and I’m interested in the way magic people deal with their powers.
-When you write your first draft – don’t think too hard. Just write! No human being writes a good first draft. The important thing is to write SOMETHING.