Show vs. Tell vs. Nothing

I published a story a couple weeks back at Every Day Fiction called "Incomplete." If you haven't read it yet, go take a look. I'll wait. Back? Good.

The response to the story was quite positive. It's great when readers leave comments or send e-mails about a story, but it's simply amazing when they actually blog about a particular story, as Erica Naone did. If you haven't read that yet, go take a look. I'll wait.

Now in the blog post she talks about creating an ominous mood right off the bat with the very first line:

The men without faces came for his father just after dinnertime.

This is one of those stories that started out with just that first line. I had no idea where it was headed. I just let the story tell itself.

One thing I was quite aware about doing, however, was staying detached from the story. Oftentimes it seems writers care way too much about their characters, and in doing so they smother those characters with their writing that the reader finds themselves not caring much at all.

Anton Chekhov once said that the colder a writer is toward his characters, the more the reader will care for them.

(Well, I'm paraphrasing here, because I'd first heard that in an interview with Stewart O'Nan, and even then I think he may have been paraphrasing.)

But the idea is the less you show and tell, the more the reader will feel inclined to step in and fill in the blanks.

(Yes, yes, just like Hint Fiction!)

So in the scene where the boy -- yes, I never gave him a name, which was intentional -- found the envelope with his father's thumbs, I never showed you his reaction. I left that reaction up to the reader, hoping they would then fill in the blank and feel the boy's surprise and pain themselves.

I don't think there's a term for this, and quite frankly, I've retired from attempting to coin literary terms (might as well quit while I'm ahead, right?), but I've always thought of them as punchline stomps.

Like when you tell a joke, you get to that punchline and everyone laughs and has a good time ... but if you keep going, past the point where you should have stopped, the joke loses its effectiveness.

The same thing goes for writing.

There are certain authors who know when to end a scene in the right place. Then there are certain authors who don't, and who draw the scene out for another two or three or four pages.

How do you know when you're stomping your punchlines?

Well, I'm not really sure. My suggestion is start at the very end of the scene or chapter or whatever, and start cutting. If you get to a point where you cut something and it takes away from the overall story, you know you've cut too much. After all, if you can cut and cut and none of it affects the story at all, what's it doing there in the first place?