Alone In The Club | Fiction
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.
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
John possessed all the charisma of a sleepy clam. Standing quietly against a sticky wall in the busy club he filtered fed off the air like a mollusk; he breathed in oxygen and exhaled waste product that mixed with the dense atmosphere of the large, strobe light lit dance hall. Though John swayed with the music, he kept his feet fixed to the floor while looking into the crowd at every guy dancing with a/their/some girl. After looking at the smiles and laughter of each couple, he would temporarily turn his sights to the ground. He would stare at nothing while his eyes fixed on a half stomped lemon wedge from some now far away dancer’s drink. He would eventually look up and continue the cycle.
His last attempt to join the crowd of pairs ended with a twenty-something-year-old woman awkwardly grinning while waving him goodbye. “I think my friend’s calling me,” she said right before she re-joined a circle of women and poorly hid her finger pointing at John. He 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.
Dante walked over to him while leering at a random dancer in tight pants and a tube top. To be heard over the violently loud volume of pop and hip-hop music Dante yelled into 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 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?"
John wasn’t a part of that noise. He wasn’t a part of that crowd. Or scene he eyed and envied from the background. His eyes began to well up as he took a sip.
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 from John. 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 saw joy in 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 down, 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 either broken glass or John’s watery eyes as teardrops ran down his face. He slowly walked toward the exit, wiping his cheeks with his thumb.
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, giving him goosebumps which he welcomed. He allowed the wind to 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 snowy mountain backdrop, smiled warmly into the camera, and at John as he looked down at himself from months in the future.
The tears came down much harder this time, though John’s expression remained unchanged. He simply placed the photo back into his wallet, put the wallet back in his pocket, and walked to his car, alone.
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