Posts Tagged show not tell

A conversation about story structure – and writing rules

Become a native in the world of your storyThis post was provoked by a tweet. I was working on Nail Your Novel 3 and tweeted that instead of writing ‘the three-act structure’ I’d written ‘the three-cat structure’. Keyboard possessed by Blake Snyder?

Teddi Deppner (@tmdeppner), who you might have seen commenting here from time to time, rejoined:

‘I sure would like to see alternatives to the 3-act structure. Especially for non-movie, non-novel storytelling.’ She elaborated:

‘I want to write serial fiction that offers an experience more like an ongoing TV show (instead of a novel)… I wonder how comic book writers structure their stuff? Maybe that would be similar, too…’

It happened I knew just the man…

‘Husband @MirabilisDave is a comic writer, however it’s not an ongoing story but a big story split into many episodes.’

mirabdaveThen Dave said:

‘Not sure that I do use 3-act structure. I just write each episode as it comes, like a TV show. Structure emerges, not planned.’

Darn! There I am, writing about structure for my next book, and I’m nearly trounced by my own team. Dave has always been sceptical of writing ‘rules’. I persisted…

But does the structure follow the 3-act pattern?’

He said:

In retrospect, you can see a 3-act structure in each season.’


3 and 4-act structure

In case you’re scratching your head, here’s a catch-up. Briefly, the ‘act’ structure is all about where you put crescendos and twists in your story. There’s a general pattern that turns out to be most satisfying to audiences – a major change at roughly a quarter in, then another one at the three-quarter point. That’s three acts. It’s also good to have another change at the halfway point, which actually makes four acts, but some people don’t count that so they call it three. Why three? It’s beginning, middle and end. Simple.

Whether you call it three acts or four, it works so well it’s been translated into a fundamental formula. Some writers use it to outline before they start. Some use it to troubleshoot – if the story feels flabby, you can tighten it by restructuring to fit this shape. If you have a long-running story with characters and plotlines that mature at different rates, you can construct each of the arcs so they hit those markers.

mirabBack to rules

… and back to Dave. As I said, he’s wary of the idea of storytelling ‘rules’ or ‘principles’, preferring to write by instinct. Indeed he told me that many years ago, a friend came back from a writing course with news of a wondrous formula – this three-act thingy. Dave had never heard of it, and indeed had already published several books. However, when he investigated further, he found he’d structured them with the major crescendos and twists at the quarter points.

This is how it is with writing – or any art. We all understand some aspects innately. For others we find it helpful to be shown a rule or a principle. In my case, I understood structure and pacing from the get-go. I struggled, though, with ‘show not tell’ and needed a good bit of nagging to grasp it.

Thanks for the pic, Sandy Spangler

(So yes, I am working on Nail Your Novel 3, which will tackle plot. It doesn’t have an official title yet, nor a release date, but if you’re interested, sign up for my newsletter. Other Nail Your Novel books can be found here)

And in the meantime…

Which writing rules do you find easy and which do you find difficult, either to grasp or to accept?

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Free indirect, deep point of view – two ways to get closer to your main character

1110472913_d5ffabe3b7_zFree indirect and deep point of view are ways to help readers walk in a character’s shoes. You may find you already use them. But if you’re told you need to get closer to the main character, you might find these two techniques helpful.

Free indirect
Free indirect is a technique used in third-person narration to show a character’s thoughts. To understand what it is, and why it has such an opaque name, we need to backtrack a little.

Direct speech. The character’s thoughts are reported in quote marks (unless you’re leaving them out as a style choice, like Cormac McCarthy). Example (unless you’re Cormac McCarthy)

She slammed the front door and thought about what she had seen. ‘Just what are those gnomes doing on my lawn?’

For today’s readers, this can look unnatural. It has the effect of making the character seem to utter the words out loud. Which you may or may not want.

Indirect speech aka reported speech For noveling purposes, this is dialogue without the quotes (not in the Cormac McCarthy sense), and with extra text to explain it’s thoughts.

She slammed the front door and thought about what she had seen. She asked herself just what those gnomes were doing on her lawn.

So indirect speech avoids that awkward mental picture of the character declaiming to an empty room…
… and is where we get the name…

Free indirect
In free indirect speech, we enter the thoughts of the character. It’s as though we’re having a first-person narrator’s experiences from a third-person perspective.

She slammed the front door and thought about what she had seen. Just what were those gnomes doing on her lawn?

It’s more intimate than normal indirect, less artificial than direct. (And therefore is the most direct of the lot, but let’s not get confused.)

Writers who aren’t using first person often wonder how to show the character’s thoughts. Some resort to quote marks, but that looks weird unless the situation calls for out-loud declamations. Some writers try italics, but this is hard to read. Italics are for emphasis. Great paragraphs of italics make for migraine on the page. Normal indirect speech flows better but adds a lot of extra undergrowth.

Free indirect, though, mimics the immediacy of dialogue without the awkwardness.

nynfiller2Deep point of view

This is another way to involve the reader in the character’s experience. While free indirect is about thoughts, deep point of view is about feelings and the senses.

She opened the gate. And stopped. On the front lawn were three small, jagged shapes. She peered into the gloom, waiting for a movement that would reveal perhaps it was a fox. Hopefully not a skulking burglar, but all the same her hands were tightening defensively around her keys. Behind, a car swished down the wet road. Its headlights filled the small front garden. Gnomes. Those things were three garden gnomes.

Now here’s the same scene told in a less deep point of view:

She came down the steps and saw an unexpected shape that made her stop in astonishment. For a moment she peered into the dark, wondering if it was a burglar. Then a car’s headlights revealed the truth. They were three garden gnomes.

The first example, in deep point of view, is closer to what the character is feeling. In the second example, the narrator (not the character) is the personality. Many of the words give distance, in this case slightly ironic – ‘made her stop in astonishment’, ‘wondering if it was’.

It’s not necessarily worse, by the way. If you have multiple story strands with several main characters it’s the natural way to wrangle them all.

If you have a single strong protagonist, whether first person or third, deep point of view will give you immediacy and vividness. You probably won’t use it for less intense moments, such as catching a bus or making breakfast. Readers don’t need every moment in deep point of view. But you can deep-dive to increase our connection to dramatic events.

Thanks for the image from Half-Life 2, Eric Sagen on Flickr

Do you have problems getting close to a character’s experience? Do you have any tips? Share in the comments!

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Don’t tell us she’s special. Show us

You know one of the best ways to irritate someone? Keep telling them how wonderful a person is who they don’t know – and never say why. ‘She’s so lovely.’ ‘She’s great.’ ‘She’s terrific.’ Result? After a while, you think ‘she’ is anything but.

I’ve been reading a novel where the author has been doing exactly this. The main character has been separated from a girl he has fallen in love with, and for long periods is wondering if he’ll ever see her again. The author did a grand job of setting up the romance earlier. The problem was when he was separated from her and the yearning began.

Tell me again, I can’t bear it

We have endless screeds of ‘he loved her so much’. ‘She had a certain something.’ (What did she have? Three ears?) ‘He felt a pain whenever he thought of her.’ (In what way was he thinking of her?’) It was unsatisfying, empty – and pretty soon very irritating.

Why? Readers (in general, not just heartless old me) don’t like being told what to feel. We want to feel it too. Or we actually react the other way. (Which is fine if that’s what you want. In this book it wasn’t the case.)

Besides, it’s not truthful. Perhaps that’s why we resent it, because it seems empty and insincere. When someone’s really missing their dear one, they don’t remember their summary of the emotion. They’d get an exquisite flashback of the time they got lost together walking back from the bus stop in the pitch dark. They’d find themselves snagged by faces in a crowd, because their foolish brain was saying ‘wouldn’t it be lovely if she was there’.

Show not tell

This is, of course, showing, not telling. And it’s so powerful. Showing makes the reader feel what the character feels. It casts a spell of experience. It is not analytical. It is not a summing-up. It presents the truth and lets the reader make up their mind.

Show not tell is one of the hardest things for a writer to remember. The example that provoked this post is actually from a published novelist of otherwise impeccable accomplishments. Show not tell requires the most imaginative effort and all the writers I know slip unintentionally from time to time.

Why is it so hard?

I’ve often wondered why this is. Maybe it’s because our analytical brain is saying ‘in this scene he missed her’ and it’s easy to write that. Showing it means we have to submerge into the character’s experience – which isn’t always easy. But showing intimately what a character feels is one of the most gripping things a writer does. Good writing isn’t words. It’s an experience. And experience is not analytical.

Don’t write the analysis. Write the experience.

Let’s play a game. Find an example you like and leave it in the comments – and afterwards show how you’d squash it flat by telling instead of showing. I’ll kick off.

‘Once he had been strong enough to lift a carousel horse in each arm. That was a long time ago.’ Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven. Telling version: ‘He used to be so strong’.

Take it away, guys

Thanks for the pic Philip Morton

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When to keep your distance: why you don’t always want the reader in the thick of the action

Most of the time we’re trying to put readers in the thick of the characters’ experience. But distance is also an interesting fictional technique with a power all of its own.

In Hitchcock’s film Torn Curtain, there’s a scene where the protagonist kills a taxi driver. Normally you’d expect scenes like this to be presented in close up. We’d see the struggle, the driver’s desperate fight and the hero’s anguish in taking someone’s life. We might wonder what the outcome will be.

But that’s not what Hitchcock does. The scene is shot from a distance, as though it is happening to someone across a road. Almost as if it’s not even happening to the protagonist.

There are no questions about whether the MC will succeed. The driver is killed, and that is that. The MC doesn’t even pay a price by getting hurt. He doesn’t flinch from what he has to do. The distance of the camera plays with our empathy, representing how the characters distanced themselves from the deed. And so we see a normal, married man forced to kill an innocent stranger in cold blood. We see the resources he has in his soul that will ensure he survives. What does it do to the viewer? It makes us complicit in an uncomfortable world. As if we have made that choice too.

In Persuasion, Jane Austen shows the final reunion between the lovers as though she’s filming it at a distance. It’s surprising, but allows the characters privacy in their moment – which is all the more touching.

Of course, you need to use distance carefully. I often see scenes where writers duck out of showing a key event, possibly because they didn’t feel up to writing it. There is a strong likelihood that if you pull the prose camera away, the reader will feel cheated. You have to make a careful judgement call. If there are any questions lingering, the reader needs to see what happened. But if the reader can fill all the blanks and be just as satisfied, it might be powerful indeed.

Every event we share in a story has an effect beyond just showing what happened. And distance can sometimes lend more power than a close-up. Like Hitchcock, you could create an interesting complicit effect, show characters turning a corner. Result? The audience is disturbed in a way that is far more complex and chilling. Jane Austen had spent so long keeping her lovers apart that we wanted them to be together. When they finally were she went one better – she allowed them to be totally alone. Result? Reader satisfied.

That’s just two examples. Give me yours and tell me why you think they work!

Oh, and (spoon tapping glass). My Memories of a Future Life is getting great reviews. Episode 2: Rachmaninov and Ruin, is limbering up for release on Amazon at midnight as 4th September turns into 5th. You can find episode 1 here and you can try the first four chapters on a free audio here

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Are you writing the wrong genre?

We all have strengths and weaknesses in our writing, but are yours telling you something about the kind of novel you should write?

I was critiquing a manuscript recently and as with all drafts, there were areas that sang beautifully and others that needed more work. Some types of scene came to life in a three-dimensional, gut-pummelling experience. Others trotted through at a distance as though the writer was including them dutifully but wasn’t interested in them. (And this distance wasn’t deliberate; sometimes we use these techniques for specific effects but that wasn’t what was going on here.)

Of course you know what I’m going to say. If you’re not interested in writing a scene, the reader won’t be interested in reading it. Either don’t bother or find something in the scene to engage you.

How to pep yourself up

Perhaps you don’t feel very sure of the content. Ask yourself – what are you not sure of? Do you need to do more research to bring it to life – for instance, if it’s a new location you don’t know well? Or do the characters need more to do beyond the main goal of the scene?

Or maybe you know full well what’s going to happen but you’d rather get to the next interesting bit. In which case, you either need to generate something in the scene that excites you (for instance, add conflict, twist events an unusual way) – or do something else entirely, no matter how inconvenient that seems.

But listen to the voice that tells you you’re unengaged. It’s telling you for your own good.


But this client’s manuscript was different. It was a thriller, but the author wasn’t engaged by his chases, backstabbing, skulking and close shaves with assassins. All of these were competent and well planned, but told at a summarised distance. I showed him how to make them ping off the page, of course. But he came to life, all by himself, in spectacular fashion in an extraordinary near-drowning scene, where the character has a haunting, hallucinatory encounter with the people stalking his psyche from his past. It was as though another book was trying to fight its way out of the one he thought he was writing. And one that was much more real to him.

This is, I suppose, one of the mysteries of writing. Just as parents have to let children be who they are rather than who they can be moulded into, writers sometimes have to let their true genre bust out by itself. Inconvenient though that might be if you think you’re writing a straightforward, saleable genre novel.

Is your book telling you you haven’t yet found the right genre?

Thank you, Iko, for the picture. Coming August 30: My Memories of a Future Life.

I’m fascinated to know if anyone else has done this. Have you tried to write one sort of novel and found you naturally wrote another?

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Don’t keep your distance – capture the experience

Describing physical or emotional feelings can be a minefield and writers can easily become abstract, which distances the reader. Don’t be afraid of finding a simile or metaphor

The main character in my forthcoming novel* has an ailment of mysterious origin that causes her pain in her hands. So I have my work cut out to find vivid ways to describe it and keep it in the reader’s mind.

First problem is variety. So I deployed all the interesting adjectives. Throbbing, pulsing, lancing, searing, burning, nagging, agonising… Nouns too: stab, spasm, twist… you get the picture.

But I’m not there yet. Those synonyms flex the lexical apparatus but they don’t let the reader in. They are abstract. They don’t make the experience real. They’re telling, not showing.

My favourite quote this week from all the posts I’ve shared on Twitter is this, by Alain de Botton – ‘Writing is about capturing experience’ .

That’s what I needed to do. Bring alive the experience, not plunder the thesaurus.

:) for similes
Early on in a key passage I slung in a simile.
‘In medieval times there was a kind of torture where your hands were bound in soaking cloths. As they dried they squeezed your hands like little birds in a vice, an inescapable ache hammering in the bones. If I carried an umbrella for half an hour, that’s how it would feel.’

A metaphor did the trick in another early passage:
Sometimes I woke in bed at night, imprisoned between long gloves stroked by lightning.

Of course the poor lamb has some nasty medical tests. All praise the simile again:
‘When the switch was thrown, an electric current fired down the main nerves and the doctor watched my thumbs twitch. It was painful and peculiar in a sickening way, like grabbing an electric cable and not being able to let go. Not the million volts they use to fry murderers in Alabama, of course. This was a spider-leg scratching, an electrical rasp, a dance of millipedes under the skin that you felt could do bad things to your heart but only if given the long leisure of a professional torturer.’

A few other details to show how the pain limits the character’s life (which the umbrella example gets a second tick for), and I was all set. For most of the time, when I needed to remind the reader, my supple synonyms could be offered with confidence.

Telling, showing, aargh
Most writers I know wage a constant battle between telling and showing. We know the character’s pain is agonising, so our first recourse is to say that, or find a synonym. But that can be too abstract and distancing. Although similes and metaphors can be overused, like any figure of speech, they can be just what you need to bring an experience alive.

Handle with care
But similes and metaphors have to be chosen with care. The wrong one can be academic and distancing. You always have to ask yourself: how does the experience feel and how would somebody who had it tell me about it?

Here’s an example. A friend who lives in Australia was telling me she found an enormous spider. She didn’t say ‘It was as big as a plate’, although that would be accurate. She said: ‘hold out your hand, it was that big’.

Sometimes a simple description will do.

That’s what we do as writers. We try to capture the experience.

Thank you for the picture, Juliejordanscott on Flickr. Do you have trouble showing instead of telling? In what kind of scenes? Share in the comments!

*My Memories of a Future Life will be available from August 30

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How to state the obvious – obligatory scenes in Stephen King’s The Green Mile

Sometimes writers have to state the obvious or
put in a scene everybody is expecting. But that’s
not a licence to coast. Here’s how Stephen King’s
The Green Mile  makes an obligatory scene into
something special

Stephen King’s The Green Mile is a story about the lives of guards on death row. One of the first things it does is set the scene with an execution.

Some writers might coast here – surely the material is startling enough that you don’t have to do anything else with it, right?


Here’s what The Green Mile does.

It shows two execution scenes, in stark contrast.

The first isn’t real, it’s a rehearsal. One guard plays the ‘condemned’ man. He gibbers like a loon and makes lewd last requests. When the other guards throw the switch he writhes and screams with glee. The prison governor allows them to lark about, knowing he is seeing nervous men struggling with a difficult job. He also tries to keep the joking to a minimum because there is a newcomer who needs to be trained. This allows us a way in – in several ways: the prison governor trying not to let the hi-jinks get out of hand, yet realizing the men need to let off steam. The guards themselves, coping with the stress the best way they can. And the new guard, seeing all this for the first time. It also gives the author a licence to dump in as much exposition as he wants. Masterful.

And then he goes one better by showing an actual execution. And how different it is. The prisoner is frightened. The governor handles him with great sensitivity. The guards who were roaring with laughter before are nervous and gentle.

The Green Mile could have gone straight to this scene, relying on the content to speak for itself. But because he put the other one before it, the real one becomes much more appalling. We see how strange and difficult a thing it is to extinguish life.

I often see manuscripts in which the writer assumes there are some things they don’t have to explain. Execution is a nasty business – who’d have thought?  Surely you don’t have to spell that out.

Wrong. For two reasons.

1 One of the things audiences have paid their money for is details of the grisly process. They need to get it somehow. What they don’t realize they want is for you to make it way more powerful than they were expecting. So you can’t just cruise with scenes like this.

2 In the world of your story, anything is possible. You could have, if you wanted, a bunch of prison guards who were completely blase, and no more affected by executing a man than if they were squashing a fly. You set the rules of the story, what is right, what is wrong, what is difficult and what is easy. And you have to demonstrate them.

So, an execution must be shown and it must be shown to be a difficult job. But The Green Mile turns this into storytelling gold.

Have you got any favourite examples of exposition and obligatory scenes that have been handled with panache? Have you solved similar problems?

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Tell the reader your story isn’t real – and make them commit to it even more

Dare to push the reader away – and they’ll come back even more keen



We usually do all we can to ensure readers suspend disbelief.

But there is a story technique that directly invites the reader to reject everything they are seeing.

I call it challenging the reader’s oath of faith (although more literary types call it distancing or alienation).

Here’s an example. In the film Total Recall, the action stops and a psychiatrist tells the MC, Doug, that he is not on Mars, but in Rekall Inc’s offices on Earth, dreaming a pre-ordered fantasy – go to Mars, get the girl, kill the bad guys, save the planet. Now the psychiatrist tells Doug it’s gone wrong and he must exit.

The audience knows this may be true. Right at the start of the story, we saw Doug go to Rekall Inc for a virtual vacation to Mars. Everything has happened as he asked and now somebody has appeared to tell him the fantasy has to stop. It is a question not just for Doug but the audience. Choose logic, or know you are going with a delusion.

Done badly, it’s asking for disaster. But done well, it’s powerful indeed.

It tests our faith and reinforces it. We are given evidence that Doug’s whole adventure might be a dream – and we decide we don’t care. We give him and his cause our wholehearted commitment.

There’s a classic oath-of-faith moment in The Matrix. Morpheus tells Neo: ‘You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland and I show you just how deep the rabbit hole goes.’

Here’s another example, from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. We have shared Marion Crane’s confusion and guilt, been chilled by the creepiness of Norman. Then, in a long scene at the end of the film, a man perches on the edge of his desk and analyses everything Norman did in clinical, academic terms. Norman’s dead mother is living as an alternate psyche in Norman’s mind and that explains everything.

We think, is that all? Can this experience be summed up by psychobabble? Some commentators even complained this was Hitchcock having an off day – telling not showing, blatant use of exposition, stopping the action etc etc. They missed the point – it’s meant to make us pull back and think, this cannot be the truth.

In both these examples, the ground was prepared. Doug went to Rekall for a virtual vacation to Mars, and his adventures have been just what he asked for – so the logical objections have to be despatched at some point. And with Psycho, we do seek an explanation. But when we hear it, we shake our heads and say, no there’s so much more to it than that.

The writer’s skill was in tackling the question at the right moment. Slipping in the moment of distancing that would make us choose with our hearts.

Stories are about belief and faith. Yes, they must work logically, but that is just the surface. Underneath this, good stories tap into what we want, what we love, fear and care about. We respond to people we like and dislike, what is right, satisfying, inexplicably wrong – and what we feel to the core of our souls.

If you dare, tell the reader it isn’t real.

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Doctor Who story problems that wouldn’t be allowed in a Hollywood movie


You're right. This is from GalaxyQuest, not Doctor Who. But read on and all will become clear

If Doctor Who was being made as a Hollywood movie, two lazy, cobbled-together storytelling problems would have to be sorted out.

I love Doctor Who. One of my earliest TV memories was Patrick Troughton drowning in a room of foam, which sounds cheap and silly but actually was bizarre and horrible. 1970s Doctor Who became my weekly tutorial in creativity. It was ‘what if everything around you was different’, on LSD. Shop dummies came alive and drove the Doctor away in a car, and turned around to look at him with blank faces. A storyteller couldn’t have a better start in life.

The reborn Doctor Who is different, of course, and in many ways better. However, the writers have got lazy when they have to extricate the Doctor from trouble. Husband Dave touched on this on Mirabilis Year of Wonders (which you can read here after his rant about the Daleks– strange how if you put our names together they make Davros).

 These are the two storytelling sins I’m seeing worryingly often in Doctor Who.

1 The Doctor deals with a crisis with an outburst of gangsta-like posturing – ‘Yo, I’m the Doctor, be very afraid.’ Like he’s channelling Kanye West.

 I like a character with attitude, and can get my groove on to Kanye West. But Kanye West Doctor Who is embarrassing. It’s not that the Doctor can’t be a remarkable, fear-inspiring creature – the problem is that the writers don’t show it.  

 Sherlock Holmes, a chap not known for modesty, doesn’t tell enemies to give in just because he’s Sherlock Holmes; he does something brilliant. But telling readers what to think and feel, instead of showing it, usually backfires. When Kanye West Doc says ‘be afraid of me’, my response is, ‘I’ve met plenty of plonkers like you’. 

Yo, show not tell.

2 ‘Solve the situation by giving the bomb counselling’.
In the new Doctor Who, aliens, bombs and errant Hoovers are often talked into finding their inner humanity and then renouncing their evil intentions.

 Actually, this would work if the writer had set up a weakness early on in the story that could be exploited in that way. You can pull absolutely anything out of the hat to solve a problem if it has been seeded properly. But in Doctor Who it often isn’t done, and so counselling the bomb looks like sentimental rubbish and the last resort of a writer who couldn’t think of anything better. Sir Terry Pratchett calls it makeitupasyougalongeum in his guest blog post on SFX. (He also points out that in more academic circles it is known as deus ex machina.)

You might say that I shouldn’t take these things so seriously. In that case, I urge you to look at the climax of GalaxyQuest. Although it’s a spoof, it played fair by the audience. The crew dragged a magnetic minefield behind the ship and tricked the enemy to wander into it. It was properly set up – earlier in the story we saw them have a tricky encounter with the minefield. It wasn’t plucked out of the vacuum as a thing they’d suddenly found and could use.

(This reuse of ideas seeded earlier is called reincorporation. It’s extremely satisfying and you can find more on it here.)

 In Doctor Who, makeitupasyougalongeum surfaces in another guise: ‘get out the sonic screwdriver’.

The sonic screwdriver can get the Doc out of any hotspot if convenient. Some producers of earlier series minimized its use, because they didn’t want a gadget that could cure all. But now it’s a magic wand that writers can wave to solve any problem. Handily, they have it malfunction or make up new characteristics for it when they want the problem to last a while longer. Eg in Silence in the Library it apparently won’t open a door made of wood. I bet it’s opened plenty in the past.

 The first rule of magical or powerful devices is to give them boundaries but this has none. What the sonic screwdriver can do is entirely governed by what is convenient for the writers in each episode.

 As I’ve said, I love Doctor Who and regard it as essential brain food for creatives, young and old. But often it is plying audiences with major story cheats – ones that Hollywood movies, for instance, wouldn’t allow. Hollywood storytelling may sometimes push obvious buttons, but its principles are underpinned by what we respond to as intelligent life forms. We don’t like fudged explanations and we snigger at plonkers.

It’s kind of a law of the universe. Yo, don’t mess with that, Doctor.

 Do you have any examples of makeitupasyougalongeum or Kanye West Doctor Who? Share them here!

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How to avoid exposition – the Dirty White Candy way

4 cups granulated sugar, 1 cup light corn syrup, 1 cup water, 1/4 tsp salt, 3 egg whites beaten, 1 cup crushed amaretti biscuits, 1tsp vanilla

If you simply must explain a process or procedure in your story, make it into a bit of an adventure. Like this recipe…

I wanted to do a festive post. Many blogs I follow offer recipes for brain-stimulating confections, Holly Cupala and jmartinlibrary to name but two. With a handle like Dirty White Candy it surely was my duty to create a signature goody. Especially as no one can tell me what the real stuff was.

I imagined the photo that would accompany the post. Heaps of something yummy, mainly white, streaked with trademark ‘dirt’. Perhaps chocolate. Or coffee.

 I polled some friends. ‘Suggest a recipe that could be Dirty White Candy.’ Try divinity fudge with a twist, said one. How about bashed up biscuits instead of nuts? Perfect.

 Only, in order to take the sumptuous picture, I would have to make the darned stuff. And, as any of you fudgemeisters will know, this entails faffing with molten sugar and thermometers.

 I don’t have a sugar thermometer. I have never dabbled in such things. Years ago, chemistry A level put me off heating sugar vigorously. It’s a short step from caramel to tar-plating your pan. But I am an optimist. And I had set my heart on posting a festive recipe for dirty white candy.

 I am also not patient. I could have waited to buy a proper thermometer, but I wanted to do it right away. Besides, knowledgeable souls said a bowl of iced water might do. That’s all I needed to hear. After all, I have chemistry A level. Surely I could manage.

 I’m not saying I felt totally confident. I chose a pan I didn’t mind ruining. I read the instructions several times, even though they seemed simple. Put sugar, corn syrup, salt and water in a pan and heat until boiling. When it’s soft ball, dollop a spoonful into the beaten egg whites. Somehow, keep beating the egg whites with one hand and your volcanically hot sugar with the other. Steady the pan with your tail, if you have one.

 I started. The sugar melted and in seconds was bubbling violently. Cripes, it was a monster. I spooned gobbets into the iced water until one drop formed a tiny pearl. Hooray, soft ball. Or maybe beyond. (Wished I got that thermometer; black tar was possibly moments away). I whisked a bit into the egg white and it took on a glossy appearance, like meringue. So far, so good.

 Now I had to keep stirring everything, while testing for light crack, or something. Here my confidence got shaky, as did my multitasking. A spoon in each pan AND dropping stuff into water? That required three hands. And the testing instructions were alarmingly vague. It would leave streaks in the air when you pulled the spoon out, apparently. Even better, it would happen VERY FAST and if not turned out immediately would stick in the pan like a pot of set glue. As if the first stage hadn’t been fast enough. Eek.

 By now I had no idea what I was doing. Every time I dropped it into the water it looked the same. But wasn’t it supposed to change VERY FAST?

 Perhaps it had already.

 I lost my nerve, whipped it off the heat, whupped it into the egg whites, shook in the bashed biscuits, spread it on a tray and heaved a sigh of relief. Whoo, I made dirty white candy. No blackened disaster, and no glue.

 Except it didn’t set. It remained there like a big white splat. I had peaked too early.  

 ‘Um, what is it supposed to look like?’ said Dave.

 ‘Divinity fudge,’ I said.

 ‘And what does that look like?’

 ‘Actually, I’ve no idea.’

 (In England, we don’t have divinity fudge.)

 We prodded it. Ate spoonfuls (several in fact). We left it, in case it wanted time to think. It developed a light skin, like custard does, but that was as solid as it got.

 I’d come this far. Darn it, I wanted my signature candy. But in no way could I cut this up and display it on my prettiest plates, as cake gurus insist you must. Pretty plates wouldn’t hide the truth.

 I wondered about doing it all again. No; without a sugar thermometer there might be worse outcomes than a big white splat.

 Dave said: ‘Let’s smear it on ginger biscuits and make it look as though it’s worked, then you can take the picture.’ We did. It looked like sticky white stuff smeared on biscuits, (although it didn’t taste bad). I reckoned even if we didn’t have a clue what divinity fudge looked like, you guys would spot the subterfuge.

 We ate spoonfuls until our teeth felt like they were wearing socks. Considerable amounts remained. We squashed it into a bowl and stuck it in the fridge. Next morning it had not transformed. It reproached me every time I went to get the milk.

 In desperation I spooned dollops onto a baking sheet and shoved it in the oven at 200C. In 12 minutes they had swollen into golden cookies, light as clouds, and sticky within. Delicious.

 And so, after much ado, I can present to you, dirty white candy… the cookies! Happy holidays. Or as we say in the divinity fudgeless world, merry Christmas and a happy new year. It’s not what I set out to make, but hey that’s part of the fun.

 Stories are like that too. The best scenes or anecdotes, expositional or not, don’t turn out as anyone expects.

 How have you handled scenes that were in danger of being exposition?

And have you tried making my cookies ;-) ?

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