On Countersinking: Showing and then Telling
Updated: Aug 4, 2022
This is inspired by Turkey City Lexicon – A Primer for SF Workshops. It’s worth checking out the full article because it highlights some of the common clichés and pitfalls that can clog up a story. The article was written with sci-fi in mind, although a lot of their points relate to all fiction genres.
The one I’m focusing on is countersinking. This one makes me grin because I used to do it a lot in my early writing. A few years ago, me and a friend set about workshopping our earliest pieces to see what we could learn, and to track our improvements. The workshops were a riot—seeing ourselves as young, bouncy authors, full of excitement and dreadful clichés, lacking finesse and attention to detail but having so much fun writing and developing our styles. It’s a bit like travelling back in time and spending an afternoon with the kid version of yourself, entertaining and not a little eye-opening.
I’m way more conscious of countersinking nowadays and rarely find it slipping into my prose, but I do falter occasionally, and often stumble upon it when reading other people’s work.
Here is a prime example of countersinking:
“You have to get out of here,” he said, urging her to leave.
And here is what’s happening:
A form of expositional redundancy in which the action clearly implied in dialogue is made explicit.
Or as I like to call it, “showing and then telling”. It’s obvious from the dialogue that somebody is urging someone else to leave, so the explanation urging her to leave is redundant.
Newer authors tend to do this due to a lack of confidence, but even pro authors are prone to do it too. I’m quite sensitive to countersinking; it slows down a story, reads clunky, and makes the writing feel loose and flabby. When doing a round of edits that focus on dialogue, I’m always on the lookout for sneaky countersinks. And if I find any? I kill them.
It’s strange how writing peeves can bring up so many nostalgic feelings. 🙂