Archive for category Writer basics 101
If there’s one major issue I find writers struggle with, it’s the difference between showing and telling. In every developmental report I write for a debut author, I find numerous instances where they would improve drastically by grasping this principle. This week I found myself explaining it again, and as I’ve been watching How To Get Away With Murder, I found myself reaching for courtroom terminology to explain …
It’s all about evidence versus verdicts. Simple, huh?
First, what is ‘show not tell’?
Show not tell is a technique that makes writing more vivid.
• It makes us feel as though we’ve been present as story events happen.
• It’s persuasive when you need to teach us something about a character, an event or even an object. (Was the car dangerous? Don’t tell us. Show it.)
• Show not tell is a great way to explain information or back story in a way the reader will remember – effortlessly.
Showing gets more oomph out of your story events. It lets you pull the reader into the characters’ lives and make them share their hopes, happinesses and disappointments.
So yes: showing is a good thing indeed.
Telling is like this: ‘it was frightening’.
Here’s the showing version: ‘she walked along the dark street. Were those her own footsteps echoing or was somebody following? She reached into her pocket and felt the reassuring bulk of her door keys. Her hand tightened around them; spikes she could use as a weapon just in case.’
Can you see the difference in vividness? ‘It was frightening’ is easy to skim over. We hardly notice it. But the showing version shows you what it was like.
And here’s where I found myself thinking of the courtroom: telling is a verdict; showing is presenting the evidence.
A big difference.
Evidence convinces, persuades. It lets the reader draw conclusions. It gives them a deeper level of understanding. They own the knowledge.
Telling instead of showing
Writers who haven’t grasped ‘show not tell’ try to tell the reader what to think. They present a series of statements or summaries. Here are some typical examples. ‘She was difficult to love.’ ‘He had to be the centre of attention.’ ‘He had a peculiar way of sabotaging his own happiness.’ ‘He was intimidating.’
Certainly these observations are striking, full of nuance and complexity, but they seem abstract. We hardly notice them. But if you present the evidence for those claims, the reader draws the conclusions… and your book starts to come alive.
Showing is about evidence. Telling is about the verdict.
Other things to consider about show not tell
Sometimes you can add the verdict as well, depending on your style. A character might tell an anecdote (showing) and conclude ‘she never wanted me to have a chance of happiness’, or ‘she was more generous than I deserved’ or ‘it scarred me for life’. Equally, you might leave that unsaid.
Showing requires more effort than telling, and a different mindset, which is one of the reasons writers find it difficult. Most of the time when we’re planning our books, we think in terms of telling. We decide ‘this confrontation will be upsetting’. But when we write the incident at full length we want to inhabit it so that the reader feels the impact. Short version: outlines tend to tell; drafts need to show.
There are times, though, when telling is entirely appropriate. We have to be selective with what we present to the reader. It’s not necessary to show every observation; only those that we want to emphasise. You might say ‘John didn’t like getting up early’ and it’s not something you want the reader to dwell on or digest. In that case, telling will do just fine.
Your reader is a witness
We can add another courtroom word to this discussion: witnesses. Witnesses were first-hand sources. They had an experience. Mostly when we write stories, we want to create them so vividly that the reader forgets they’re looking at prose. There are many elements to this, of course, but a significant part is good use of showing. If an event, a scene or an observation in your outline is important, make the reader a witness to it.
Thanks for the dark street pic, Henry Hyde
Do you find it tricky to show instead of tell? If you’ve mastered the difference, how did you do it? Did you notice you got better feedback from readers? Do you have any tips to help?
Yesterday I spoke at the New Generation Publishing selfpub summit, and the discussions threw up some interesting paradoxes that writers encounter.
1 We must produce, but never rush.
Unless we’re writing only for the satisfaction of filling a document, we need an output mentality. We set schedules, aim to present work to critiquers, editors and readers, build a rack of titles for more market share and £££. But we must also learn our natural pace to give a book the proper time.
Last week Maya Goode took my post about the slow-burn writer and added some thoughts of her own, resolving to be swift with her blogging output, and leisurely about her fiction. (To an extent, this post will include a hopscotch through my archives. If you’ve recently arrived on this blog and these ideas strike a chord, these links are a junction box for further exploring.)
So what do established authors do? What’s a reasonable daily wordcount? You might as well ask a bunch of cats to form an orderly queue at the fridge door. Every writer measures a good day’s work by different standards and methods (helpful, huh?) . And if slow sales are panicking you to hurry the next book, here’s what some authors did to fight back, without compromising their standards.
2 We learn from others, but teach ourselves.
No matter how many courses you attend or manuals you ingest, your most effective learning is your own explorations. None of my real-life author cronies ever took a writing course. They taught themselves.
How did they do that? By reading with awareness.
Here I’m going to advance a theory. If there’s such a thing as a natural writer, it’s a person who is unusually sensitive to prose. For such people, a book isn’t just a story told on pages, it’s a transformation they’re observing on their own heart and mind. With every phrase, a clutch of neurones parses this question – what did that do? (Honestly, it doesn’t spoil the fun. It’s part of the pleasure. Quick question – how many of us here are slow readers?)
Anyway, our individual style comes from noticing the tricks of others and knitting them into our DNA.
You might say I’m doing myself out of a job here. Indeed, how dare I offer writing books, courses, seminars et al? Well, I can’t do the work for you, but I can help with insights from my own journey, feedback, awareness, methodology and (I hope) a friendly word of encouragement. To be honest, I’m first a writer, then a teacher.
BTW, there are ways to find writing help without paying a second mortgage.
3 We make our own rules but recognise when we’re wrong.
Much of the time, the writing process is an experiment. If we’re novice authors, we’re searching for our style, our voice, our signature. Even when we’re experienced, we still grapple with uncertainty – a stubborn plot, obscure characters. Each book goes through a formative stage with shaky bits, and feedback to do things differently. Sometimes that feedback is dead right; sometimes it’s way off beam. We need to assert our own vision – but also know when to listen.
Sometimes we’re misled by critiquers who didn’t understand what we were doing. Sometimes we need to ignore an editor’s suggestions, but find out where the real problems lie.
But sometimes the only option is to unplug and listen to our instinct.
(Pic by MC Escher)
That’s me paradoxed out. What would you add? And tell me if you’re a slow reader – and if so, what slows you down!
This is part of an ongoing series of the smartest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass for novelists. Previous posts have discussed how much extra material we might write that never ends up in the book, or handling the disappearance of a key character. The full list is here.
Today I’m looking at another interesting problem, one that might be especially useful if you’re gearing up for NaNoWriMo this year.
Is it a premise or a plot?
So what might that mean?
A premise is a situation that seems full of promise. (Like these little clay fellas in the picture here.) But many writers think a premise is enough. It’s not. A premise is static. It’s a still life. (Like these little clay fellas in the picture here.)
Here’s an example, using Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. A bunch of gentle people are taken hostage in an embassy in a south American country, and the siege lasts many months. That’s the premise. The story or plot (I’m using the terms interchangeably, though they have slightly different meanings) is the sequence of events that spring from that idea.
So you need to convert your premise into events. And what’s more, those events need a sense of change, of development. These events must matter to the characters, be irrevocable, present them with dilemmas and push them out of their comfort zone.
Now what might those changes be? Perhaps they might be events on a grand scale – a character dies, another character falls in love, the food supply is cut off, which makes everyone argue. Or the changes might be more subtle – the characters form allegiances and rivalries according to their personalities or political persuasion. They re-evaluate their life choices. You’ll want a mix of both, adjusted for the flavour of book you’re writing. If it’s a thriller or a crime novel, the events might be more extraordinary than the events in the character study novel.
Whichever it is, you need change to hold the reader’s curiosity. You need to treat the premise as an environment, a terrain that creates interesting challenges. The terrain isn’t usually enough in itself. You need an exciting route too.
I’ve seen many writers get stuck in this still-life phase. They create the characters and the world, and describe it all in imaginative and vivid detail. But they are lacking this sense of increasing pressure. Their scenes have a stuck quality. They write a lot of stuff that seems to examine a whacky idea, or maybe a theme, but there’s no sense of urgency and complication. Instead of advancing the situation, they simply study it.
And even if your purpose is to create a zoo to study humanity, the reader still looks for a sense of change – usually in their understanding. Your plot will come from this sense of increment, the sequence in which you present these observations of the human soul.
So you can deliver change in endless subtle ways – but it must be designed in.
The static character
A variation of this problem is writers who create vivid and thoughtful character dossiers and then present the characters in an unchanging state throughout the book. If a story is worth telling, it should contain events that challenge the characters in uncomfortable ways – and make them reveal their natures. Instead of presenting the character as an already complete image on a fixed canvas, we should think of allowing the plot to unpeel their layers.
So we could say a plot is a premise…. which you have quarried and shaped to show a sequence of change. Or how would you describe it? Have you had to confront this question? Are you still grappling with it? Some examples would be great – the floor is yours.
More to chew on…
Here’s a post about storytelling in literary fiction, and finding drama in events.
In my plot book I describe four Cs necessary for a good plot – curiosity, crescendo, coherence and change. Elsewhere in the book I talk a lot about conflict, another important C.
And if you’re doing Nanowrimo, here are other posts to help you prep.
I’ve had this interesting email:
Since January this year, I’ve been attending writing workshops, and my novel is progressing well. But English isn’t my first language, and I don’t do any creative writing in my day job. I feel I’m struggling. My priority is quality, and I think I need expert help. Should I get an editor? What do you advise? Maria.
It’s clear that Maria can express herself fluently – to the extent that she can work in a foreign country. (Certainly not something I could do.) So what’s missing?
I think Maria has already intuited it, which is why she feels stuck. She doesn’t yet have the flair that a fiction reader will be looking for.
Skills, craft and style
I think Maria’s off to a good start, developing her critical skills and craft at writing workshops. But this probably isn’t addressing her writing style.
Funnily enough, she’s in the opposite situation of most writers. The majority concentrate on honing their language and sentences, and have to be taught about the invisible mechanisms that make a novel work – characters, structure, pace etc. Here’s a post about that from my Guardian masterclasses.
It’s as if the machinery of a book and its language belong in separate mental departments. Indeed, I once had a ghostwriting assignment to rewrite a memoir by an expat who could no longer express herself in her original tongue. My role was to restore her to publishable English.
So, Maria, I wouldn’t worry about getting an editor yet. I think you could do a lot if you read authors in your chosen genre and study their styles. Develop your ear and your eye; notice how word choice and sentence structure makes you feel excitement, or tension, or fear or tenderness. The authors aren’t just writing what happens; they are performing the story with every syllable.
Spend a few months with this as your mission. Then go back to your manuscript – and you’re sure to find ways to express the story more stylishly. You could also try writing in your original language and translate as a separate revision phase. This might let you explore finer nuances, which you can then search for in English.
Not just literary
Are you wondering if language is a consideration only for literary fiction? Not so. The best genre writers also have to be deft and dazzling. Look at the verve in the verbs of a thriller writer. Look at the meaning and menace in the sparse dialogue of a noir. Look at the warmth and propriety in a cosy mystery.
Here’s another set of alerts. Notice which words and sentence constructions may be funny, or push the reader away. Use them only if you intend that effect. Writers who are still learning to control their voice often produce passages that sound unfortunately humorous, ponderous, melodramatic or detached. Even when their native language is English.
This method I’m proposing is not fast, but it will get Maria to a good place eventually. Here are some other posts that will help.
Reading like a writer, and a discussion on the same topic in an episode of my radio show.
How to develop something special in your writing.
Maria also mentions that her day job doesn’t give her much opportunity for creative writing, but there probably isn’t a day job that would give you the style you need to write fiction well. Here’s a post where I talk about that a little more.
Babel fish pic from Hitch Hiker’s Guide to The Galaxy, courtesy of Jonathan Davies on Flickr
What would you say to Maria? Are you writing in a language that isn’t your mother tongue? Whether you are or you aren’t, how have you developed your style?
I’m just back from a few days in Venice teaching a writing masterclass (I know, it’s a hard life). In my lectures, one subject I found I returned to repeatedly was the hidden clues that make a novel work. Readers often don’t realise they are there, and that means they’re hard for a writer to spot.
Does that sound vague? Let’s have some examples.
Readers have a strong sense of whether surprises are fair. Sudden fatal coronaries, floods, falling trees and brake failures have to be used with careful judgement because they are convenient for the writer. They must be foreshadowed so that they seem inevitable and surprising but not arbitrary.
So if you wanted to warm the reader up for a car crash, you could plant a hint much earlier in the novel that one of your characters is often fined for speeding, or that it’s Christmas and drunk-drivers are on the roads. Foreshadowing mustn’t be obvious, so you need to disguise your intentions by making the scene appear to perform some other function – such as a couple arguing about who will stay sober for the drive home.
Enough secondary and background characters so that the world is populated
Some characters seem to exist in a vacuum. They have no connections to other people outside the main action. But if you add, as appropriate to your genre, a few colleagues, neighbours, extended family members, they seem to acquire more reality.
You also need extra people to make public settings believable. When you describe your protagonist walking down the street where they live, add a little life – a person hauling a suitcase out of their front door, perhaps. If the scene takes place at the dead of night, add a cat hunkered down on the parapet. If your characters meet in a coffee bar, give us a snapshot of the stranger sitting in the window, tapping on a laptop.
Here, you can learn from the movies – you’ll almost never see a street scene or a coffee bar that doesn’t have an anonymous random person doing an ordinary thing. Without it, the scene would seem strangely empty, artificial. The same goes for novels.
Many writers plunge into a scene’s action too abruptly. Although it’s good to get the story moving, we can also be disorientated if we don’t know who’s in the scene, how many people there are and what they are doing. Include this in your opening so that the reader can load it in their mind.
With themes we have to use a light touch. I see manuscripts where the writer is desperate to point out their clever theories that make their story look universal and weighty. The characters have a lot of conversations, about the theme. They see it on newspaper headlines or their Twitter feed. Indeed, the characters might seem to be enacting a series of examples the writer’s theme, instead of following their real, human urges.
Themes work best when they are covert, not lit in neon. So the clever writer will nudge the reader to notice them – perhaps with their choice of language, names, a symmetry in the characters’ situations. It’s certainly there, and it has to be placed carefully – but it is hidden.
All these details are easily missed by readers – and this is their very nature. They are usually smuggled in. They do their work in disguise, under the waterline. Without them, the world of the story might seem unconvincing, a scene might be confusing, a plot surprise may seem arbitrary, or the novel may seem hectoring instead of engaging.
Let’s discuss! Have you come across these techniques? If you have, how did you become aware of them? Are there any others that you’d add?
You might have spotted it’s uncharacteristically quiet here today. Wednesday has, from time immemorial, been Undercover Soundtrack day, and yet you find instead a deafening hush. Rest assured, the series will return next week and I have the post in my paws already. In the meantime, I have a guest post today at Romance University.
And is that an unseasonable word in the post title? Nanowrimo: isn’t that in November? Well, one of the keys to Nano success is preparation. To make sure you keep as much of the creative fun as possible, I’ve focused on designing your characters – and then letting them run riot to give you the plot. Do hop over. (You can also get there by clicking the pic. Last time I ran a guest post, Jonathan Moore pointed out it was idiotic not to link the pic too. Jon, I have at least entered the point-and-click age. Your wish is my command.)
How do you create a fictional character who not only leaps off the page, but lives on in the reader’s mind after the story is finished? Today I’m puzzling these questions at Vine Leaves Literary Journal, with examples from Emily Bronte, Robert Goolrick, Patricia Highsmith and Nevil Shute. Do pull up a chair.
I’m writing an adventure story that takes place over a journey, and we meet many characters. I’ve been told my novel has too many, but when I look at comparison titles, big casts are de rigeur. Kidnapped has 15 named characters, though some are very minor. Treasure Island has six main characters and 15 or more minor named characters. The Silver Sword has six main characters and the same number of minor. The Hobbit has even more. How many should I have?
It’s true that journey stories tend to have large casts. In that respect they’re like the family saga, which begins with a core of characters and gathers and loses key players along the way. The constant flux of personnel is one of the pleasures of the genre. Who’s going to join? Who might leave – or even, die?
But it ain’t what you do. It’s the way you do it. Some of us can handle big casts; some can’t. So what are the signs that you’re spreading your story between too many people?
Here are the key symptoms I’ve noticed in manuscripts I’ve edited or advised on.
1 The characters don’t have enough to do. The writer knows we need to visit the main characters regularly, but when we do the scenes are dull. The characters will often be sitting around having inconsequential conversations, doing something uninteresting, or repeating a previous emotional beat. (Repetition can be good, of course, but it can also make the story seem stuck.) What should the characters be doing instead? They should be having experiences that make us curious or tug our emotions – and, importantly, we should have a sense of progress. What happens should seem new, or if it repeats, it should seem to confirm that the story situation is getting more extreme (which is progress). Of course the characters are allowed some opportunities for reflection and relaxation, but most of the time they should be increasing our interest in them.
2 Characters disappear. Sometimes writers handle this problem in the opposite way – the characters vanish for long periods because there’s nothing for them to do. But there’s a danger we may forget them.
3 The characters are too similar. The writer hasn’t developed them distinctively enough – they have similar outlooks, tastes, backgrounds, dialogue styles. Even their dilemmas might be the same. Of course, you might be making a deliberate feature of this similarity, and that’s fine. Perhaps you want to show compatibility, or that two rivals are the same even though they wear uniforms of opposing sides. But when a writer is finding their cast unmanageable they tend to create clones unintentionally.
Well it’s obvious – combine some of your characters.
Here’s where you can get creative. List them all and look for the most interesting splices. If a character is marking time before their interesting bit happens, merge them with someone who has a more active role. Revel in the possibilities to generate more story, and especially look for personal dilemmas – if you have a forensic pathologist and a murder suspect, could they be the same person? Could the lady’s maid also be the young girl who was raped in the dark lane? Could the gentle aunt who dispenses cake and sympathy also be the wartime spy?
And consider their internal landscape. Two sketchy characters could be merged into one three-dimensional, flawed, conflicted, internally contradictory character. Again, look for the unexpected – especially in their desires and story goals. (You might like this piece from the Telegraph about Pete Docter, writer of Pixar’s Inside Out, where he talks about whittling his cast down to manageable numbers)
There’s no hard and fast rule about how many main characters you can manage. It’s as many as you, with your particular story circumstances, can handle. If you can give 10 people proper significant roles and arcs, you can have 10 main characters. If you can find only 3 significant roles and arcs, you have 3 main characters.
There’s a lot more advice on developing characters – and detailed questionnaires to help you create distinctive people – in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel.
Let’s discuss! Have you discovered you had too many characters in a novel? What made you realise? How did you tackle it, and did it strengthen the story? Have you found you have a personal limit for the number of characters you can handle?
I’ve had this interesting email: ‘A literary agent told me my dialogue sounded lifeless and unconvincing and that my characters talked only about plot information. What might be missing? What could I do to improve?’
What’s good dialogue?
First of all, although dialogue is one of the ways we can unfold the story, it’s more than an exposition vehicle. Note that word ‘lifeless’ in the agent’s assessment: good dialogue brings a quality of real experience. It lets the reader eavesdrop on people who are experiencing the story first hand. Even in a first-person narrative, we need dialogue from other characters or the world may seem less vivid.
(Of course, you might do this deliberately, perhaps to create a highly coloured or unreliable view of the world. But usually even a first-person narrative will let the other characters speak for themselves.)
However, characters obviously must talk about what’s happening – who is going where, what so-and-so had done to someone else, what everyone should try next. So how should writers handle it? What might my correspondent’s manuscript be missing?
Again, look at the word lifeless. And consider another word that goes with it: emotion.
It’s all about emotion
I would bet the missing ingredient was emotion. And emotion comes from the writer connecting with the characters. If I talk about something I’m worried about, it colours my vocabulary, my body language, the questions I ask. So the first thing I’d recommend is:
Be aware of how each character feels about the situation. Aim to convey that, not the information.
Second, consider the characters’ personalities. Expressive, confident types might tell everybody what they’re feeling. What goes on in their heads comes straight out of their mouths. More private people might find it hard to articulate their worries to another person.
Check your characters’ personalities How does this particular person show they’re worried? And – a bigger question – how thoroughly have you developed your story people?
Relationships – how do they feel about the person they are talking to? Irritated, calmed, excited, flirtatious, threatened, grudging, hesitant?
And don’t forget:
Individual agendas – what personal concerns do the characters have in the scene? Are they hiding anything? Are they competing with the other characters in any way, and do they want to show this? Are they fishing for information?
If you’re finding this tricky
Write dialogue and narrative on separate days
Relax. To write convincing dialogue you need to make a mental gear change. You stop being the storyteller who knows everything. You inject yourself into the souls of the people who are caught up in the events. Many writers find it’s easier to concentrate either on narrative or dialogue in a session. And sometimes, if a character is quite different from you, you might need to concentrate a session on just their lines.
Riff, then edit
It’s hard to get the great lines instantly. Allow yourself to write a riffing draft where the characters natter. Let them go off piste if they want – natural conversation does that. Tune into their voices, their fears, their hidden agendas. Once you’re warmed up, they’re sure to surprise you too, so have fun with it. Then come back on a different day and pan for gold. Look for sections that enshrine the important differences between the characters’ attitudes, and their similarities too. Look for remarks that seem to underline a theme. Cut all of this together to make a dialogue scene full of emotion – and plot significance.
There’s a lot more advice on dialogue in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, as well as questionnaires to help you develop your fictional people.
Let’s discuss! What would you add? Have you had to add life to your characters’ dialogue? How did you do it?