Alex Clermont a writes show dont tell a writing exercise

A Writing Exercise – “Alone In The Club”

In an effort to follow my own advice, I’ve been trying to control my tendency to show and not tell when I write my little stories. As with most things it’s easier said than done. It’s easier to say, “John felt miserable,” then show, “John’s eyes began to well up.” I’m tired and I wanna write the shorter sentence, but in general those shorter ones don’t engage a reader—they’re boring. What makes showing not telling even harder is that you don’t always know when you’re doing it. 3 sentences that only tell a character’s state of mind can go by unnoticed because of some wonderful wording that you fell in love with… Lots of things can happen and I try my best to limit it in my own writing.

Now, I did say limit. As this great article on Writer’s Digest by Joshua Henkin put it, “the phrase ‘Show, don’t tell’ is a wink and a nod, an implicit compact between a lazy teacher and a lazy student when the writer needs to dig deeper to figure out what isn’t working in his story.” That is to say, you want to write what will work for readers. You also don’t want to get bogged down with descriptive language that kills pacing. Sometimes, “John felt miserable” is appropriate.

Backstory

Alex Clermont writes don't get bogged down in backstory!

Try to keep the narrative flow and don’t bog it down with backstory!

What I think is also helpful to work on is the use of character backstory. With a recently critiqued piece I was told, correctly, that I loaded it with backstory. An overabundance of this, and the accompanying flashbacks or character , can kill the momentum of your story. There is more on this in a great article by Roz Morris for Jane Friedman’s blog where she describes 4 ways in which backstory might kill your novel.

Say your character is having a break down and you intercede in the moment to show how they had a lover who broke their heart. You describe a scene that takes readers away from the emotional break down they were sucked into—the actual narrative timeline. What I mean is that a chunk of backstory was killing my piece and now it’s back to the drawing board.

The really short story below is an attempt on my part to go to extremes on both issues. The narrator is a detached third person void so I’m forced to give their state of mind through their actions along with descriptions of the scene. It’s also very linear. There is no meandering or deviation from the main timeline. It’s an attempt to show you a story rather then tell it. Let me know if it works for you!


Alone In The Club

That night, John possessed all the charisma of a sleepy clam. Standing quietly against a wall in the busy club he filtered fed off the air like a mollusk—breathing in oxygen and exhaling waste product that mixed with the heavy air of the large, strobe light lit room. Though he swayed with the music, John still managed to keep his feet fixed to the floor as he looked into the crowd at every guy dancing with a/their/some girl.

His last attempt to emulate them ended with a twenty-something year old awkwardly grinning and waving him goodbye right before rejoining her circle of girlfriends. John got the hint and reattached himself near the wall—drink in hand.

The glass of whiskey and soda had become watered down from the five melted ice cubes placed in it fifteen minutes ago, but John lifted his hand and drank the spiked water anyway. It drained through his closed jaw, only to be expelled as waste product into the foul-smelling club bathroom later on.

John caught sight of Dante leering at women as he walked over to him. To be heard over the violently loud volume of pop and hip-hop music Dante yelled in John’s ear, “Yo, what’s up with the chick I saw you talking to?”

Dante aimed his ear at John to receive the answer. “Nothing, man. She said she came to dance with her friends. We didn’t do anything.”

“Her what?”

“Her friends. She wanted to dance with her girls.”

“I hate when chicks do that. I’m like, if you’re all about your girls, why come? Have a fucking pajama party at home or something.” John avoided shouting again and instead shrugged his shoulders with a look of irritation. After looking into the crowd for half a minute, Dante continued, “I’m talking to this girl named Gina. She’s in the bathroom right now, but we might be leaving together, you know what I’m saying? You’d be cool, right?”

He wasn’t a part of that noise. He wasn’t a part of that crowd. His eyes began to well up as he took a sip and looked on as a spectator.

With exaggerated head nodding John said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. No sweat. Do you, man.”

“Cool. You got the car keys, so you’re good.”

More head nodding. Dante nodded along, and for a short moment they resembled two bobble-head toys. Dante quickly turned his head to scan the women’s bathroom exit, leaving John’s head to bob alone for a little less than a second extra.

Dante said, “That’s her, man. Wish me luck,” and was off before John could reply. From where he stood he watched as Dante grabbed the woman named Gina by the waist. Their cheeks met and he said something that made her smirk. She added a giggle and with a firm hold of her hand Dante led her out of the club.

John stood alone and watched the crowd in front of him continue to mingle and flirt. He noticed smirks and giggles on the faces of people who had accomplished what he tried to do that night, but couldn’t. The sounds got louder. The movements of the strobe lights sped up to match the rhythm of the increasingly high-energy music. John moved in reverse so that whatever upper body gyrations he had been maintaining slowed, then stopped entirely while the clamor in club threatened to bring down the roof. He wasn’t a part of that noise. He wasn’t a part of that crowd. His eyes began to well up as he took a sip and looked on as a spectator.

With a heavy sigh he let the glass fall from his hand and shatter to pieces near his feet. No one noticed it, or his eyes as stray teardrops ran down his face. John slowly walked toward the exit, smearing tears across his cheeks with his thumb and index finger.

The music ended with the loud thud of a side exit door and John found himself on the sidewalk letting the cool breeze from the early fall weather cut through his dress shirt—it gave him goose bumps. He let the wind do its damage as he stood still for a few seconds in the noise of downtown New York City traffic. Eventually, though, he moved just enough to dig into his back pocket for his wallet. He pulled out a photo and stared at a younger version of himself holding a woman from behind. Bodies touching, they both, despite the snow in the background of the picture, smiled warmly into the camera. John looked down at the image of the two who were smiling warmly back at him.

The tears came down much harder this time, though John’s expression remained unchanged. Not bothering to wipe them away he simply placed the photo back into his wallet, placed the wallet back in his pocket, and walked to his car alone.

Comments
6 Responses to “A Writing Exercise – “Alone In The Club””
  1. Thanks for linking to my piece, Alex!

    • Alex Clermont says:

      Thank you for checking out my article, Roz. Tell me what you think of my little writing exercise when you get a chance : )

  2. Thanks for sharing your story. Here’s what I think. The first several paragraphs are very clever at showing your point. Of course your prose is well crafted. But I think it goes on for a bit too long. The paragraph “John stood alone and watched the crowd” and the 2nd to last paragraph have no real purpose except to repeat that John is depressed, which we already know. I’m not completely in sync with the ‘show don’t tell’ crowd, because too much showing can slow down the pacing of a story. I don’t need to see, smell and taste every last detail. I just want to know what happened.

    • Alex Clermont says:

      Thanks for reading though my writing exercise, L.! I do agree that you need both to make a story flow well, but this was me going to the extreme on showing. I really appreciate your comments on what didn’t work. I might actually continue with this story based your comments and do something with it.

      Love your comment about not needing to “need to see, smell and taste every last detail.” I don’t do it in real life and I don’t need it in stories either : )

  3. Rob says:

    Well. I liked it and it made me want to know more – more about what happened in the past and what’s gonna happen in the future – and thats enough for me..

    • Alex Clermont says:

      Hi Rob! I appreciate the comment. I like this little story too. Although it does have its faults, it was a fun exercise in extremes and I appreciate that it made you want to know more… but that it was enough for you : )