Knowing When To Show #writerwednesday

“Show the readers everything, tell them nothing.”

—Ernest Hemingway

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The fact that Hemingway wrote in a sparse and telling style, and said the above quote all at the same damn time makes absolutely no sense. But that doesn’t make him any less right. 

Well, at least half right.

Telling has its place in fiction, but every story you write definitely needs more show than tell. The reason why is fairly simple; we don’t read fiction to have someone tell us a story. In my opinion, we read fiction to experience the story through the character and the world that an author creates. 

How and when to show.

In last week’s post, we talked about how “show, don’t tell” is all about using descriptive language and using it properly. 

As an author your main goal is to provoke feelings in your reader. One of the best ways to make that happen is to focus on small details and group them in a way that when the reader closes their eyes, a vivid picture is created in their mind.

Use your character’s senses

Your words may be black writing on a white page, but the world in which your character exists should feel three-dimensional—full of sights, sounds, smells, and textures that they should take notice of with their senses. Try to ground your character in the setting or the scene using them. 

However, you don’t want to use all of the senses at once!

Noticing all five senses will result in sensory overload for the reader. I like to pick three senses--the three that I feel will make the biggest impact—and describe those in detail. Tailor this to your character’s personality and your reader will immediately connect with them. 

Use it to foreshadow events.

Foreshadowing is one of those writing devices that is difficult to do well. Show your character’s actions and reactions to hint at a future event in a way that feels significant and memorable.

Use strong verbs.

Strong verbs often imply movement. Worlds like accelerate, deploy, explore, ignite—these words invoke action that will pull the subject from one sentence into the next. However, just like telling, this bit of advice should be used sparingly. Weak verbs have their place in literature and shouldn’t be omitted completely. But if you’re looking to create tension, or draw attention to a particular scene, use strong verbs. 

Don’t use too many adverbs.

Stephen King’s quote from his memoir “On Writing” about adverbs paving the road to hell, has somehow become an unbreakable commandment for writers. While he had a point, I think that with adverbs, the writer is telling the reader what to think when they are afraid that they aren’t expressing themselves clearly. Also, if you’re using strong verbs, adverbs are rarely necessary.

When you come across an adverb in your manuscript, look at the verb that it modifies and decide if you really need it. 

But for goddsakes, don’t delete all of them. That just makes your book stiff and boring. 

Be specific.

The more specific you are, the easier it is for you to show your reader what your character is experiencing. Show us with strong verbs how they react to plot points, and how interact with the other characters. Couple this with just the right amount of telling and you will have created a dynamic scene. 


Again…this does not mean that you should write a page and a half description of your character’s dress. 

Get your characters talking!

Dialogue always shows. It’s immediate and always conveys forward movement. Just be careful about using dialogue as an info dump. Backstory has its place, but that place isn’t in a conversation between your characters. If your character says something like “As you know…” and begins to tell the reader things that they didn’t know about your character, you’re neck deep in an info dump. Take the time to determine if this information that your reader needs to know. If it’s not, don’t include it. If it is, find another place for it in your story. 

Use your character’s emotions.

Your character’s emotions are always the best way to cue your reader in to their personality traits. Their word choice, quirks, mannerisms, vocal cues, body language—all of these can be shown by describing your characters emotions. 

And now that we’re talking about body language, we’re ready to dive into the one time that I think you must always show and don’t tell: when you’re describing your character’s emotions. We’ll start that blog series next week!

Thanks for reading and happy writing!

Tasha

Knowing When To Tell #WriterWednesday

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

—Anton Chekhov

For some reason, the rumor on the internet about “show, don’t tell” is that it is hard to spot and difficult to master. I don’t pretend to be some sort of genius at this, but I think that quote from Anton Chekhov illustrates it easily and brilliantly. It’s one that I keep in mind when I’m writing. But if I’m being honest with myself, it’s a little disingenuous to say, “I know it when I see it.” The truth is, it hasn’t always been that easy for me to spot in my own writing. You only need to look at the first chapter of my first full length novel, In Her Closet, Book One of The Lust Diaries. I somehow managed to do too much of both!And a lot of the confusion can be credited to the way this particular bit of writing advice is explained.

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First, let’s define “show, don’t tell.”

In very simple terms, showing allows readers to experience the story a long with your characters rather than observing them. Telling summarizes and instead of allowing the reader to form their own decisions. Showing gets your reader involved in the story and evokes emotion. Telling distances the reader from the events and characters in the story.

Wordmakers, if you’ve been paying any attention to my posts on character development, you know that unintentionally creating distance between your characters and your reader is the last thing that I want for you. But those brief explanatory definitions, you would assume that telling is all bad and has no place in fiction. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Telling is not all bad. Like any other piece of writing advice, there is a time and a place to use it. 

“Show, don’t tell” is really about using descriptive language. 

When you’re revising your book, telling language will stand out in ways that will make them easy to spot so that you know when you’re doing it wrong. 

Here are a few ways to spot “telling” in your writing:

You give your readers conclusions instead of clues. Often this is a sign that you don’t trust that your writing will provide the evidence they need to come to the conclusion themselves.
You use vague, abstract language. If you can’t visualize what’s happening in the sentence—if it doesn’t create a picture in your mind—you’re probably telling. 

You sum up what happened. This typically happens at the beginning of a scene or at the end. Quite often, in an effort to get to the point, or “the good stuff.” Or maybe you just want to wrap it up neat and tidy with a bow. This is a sure sign that you’re telling.

You use too much backstory. Important scenes should be shown to your readers in real time. Past perfect tense is usually a good sign post for this particular mistake, ie. had watched. In The Basic Character Creation Workbook I explain when and how to use your backstory, but if you’re unsure, eliminate it altogether if it doesn’t enhance the scene in any significant way.

You use too many adjectives. Wherever you see an adjective in your writing, look at the noun or pronoun that it modifies and you’re using them creatively and to make an impact. 

Your verb usage is weak. The above mentioned adjectives are usually combined with linking verbs—verbs that connect an a a subject with an adjective or a noun, ie. was/were, is/are, felt, appeared, seemed. These verbs are weak because they don’t show any action. Replace these with more active verbs and you should eliminate the telling language. 

You use too many filter words. Saw, smell, heard, felt, watched, noticed—these are all filter verbs that describe what a character is perceiving or thinking. This is problematic because they tell the reader what the character is thinking or feeling instead of letting them experience it directly. 

You tell your reader what your character is feeling. When you name an emotion, you’re telling. This is actually the easiest one to spot and fix. Instead of naming emotions, use actions, thoughts, reactions, and body language to show what your character is feeling. 

These are all great ways to spot telling in your writing, but in my opinion, the easiest way to know when you’re telling? It’s boring. True, Hemingway is a beloved novelist, and he sure as fuck told us everything that happened to everyone in his books so this definitely something that can be left to up to interpretation. It’s just my opinion that we don’t read fiction to be told a story, we fiction to be entertained. 

Having that said, there are definitely times that you should tell. 

If you’ve written an intensely dramatic scene. If emotions are high and intense, showing too much will seem melodramatic. This is the perfect time to sum things up or gradually ease the tension with a bit of telling.

When you’re revisiting a static setting. If your characters have been to a location before, it’s fine to minimize the descriptive language you use to ground your character in the setting.

When your character is moving from one location to another. If the trip between the coffee shop and where your character works isn’t important, the reader doesn’t need a turn-by-turn navigation from point A to point B. 

When you need to convey a passage of time, a change of location, or swap point-of-view. A sentence or two to transition the reader to the next scene, location, or point of view will do. Give them just enough to anchor the reader in the scene and dive into the important stuff. 

When the details won’t advance the plot. We don’t need to watch your character work through a bit of complicated code while waiting for important information from his colleague. If there isn’t something in that code that will advance the plot, leave it out. No matter how smart it makes you sound.

When you need to write an action or fight scene. The pace of an action or fight scene should be fast and adding too many details can slow it down. Show the important details, and tell what isn’t. 

When you want to minimize the importance of a particular detail. This shows a reader that this detail is not something they need to remember. Minimizing that importance of an important detail can also be a foreshadowing trick.

When it’s part of your character’s personality. Your character might be the sort who doesn’t pay attention to detail. Some people are just more matter-of-fact. Telling important details can make it obvious that this is how they see the world. 

In summary, if you have factual information to tell your reader, It’s fine to just tell it. 

Showing a telling scene, will slow down the pace of your book. There is, however, one place in your writing where you should always show and not tell: when you’re talking about character emotions. We’ll talk about that next week.

Until then, 

Happy writing!

Tasha




How to Conquer the Dreaded “White Page Syndrome." #WriterWednesday

Before we dive in, I want to let you know about a wonderful writerly conversation that I got to have last week with the ladies at Marginally Podcast: A Podcast about Writing, Working, and Friendship.

It was a fun conversation and we talked about damn near everything there is to talk about when it comes to writing and making it fit around our daily lives. You should definitely check out that episode if only for my characteristic liberal use of the f-bomb and nerdy soliloquy to my process journal. 

Onto this weeks blog post! 

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We've talked pretty extensively about characters the last couple of months and if you've purchased The Basic Character Creation Workbook and put it to good use, you probably feel you know your characters upside down and inside out.

But for some reason, you’re still struggling with white page syndrome. This, wordmakers, is a classic case of analysis paralysis. 

Listen. I totally get it. It happens to all of us. 

This is the point when I like to do a focused free write. 

What is a focused rewrite?

A focused free write is loosely defined as writing without stopping about a specific topic for a set amount of time. I first discovered free writing when I read The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. She recommends an exercise called morning pages where you sit down and write three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing first thing in the morning. I’ve been writing morning pages for years and I decided it might be a good practice to employ for those days when I’m fighting that hateful blinking cursor. 

You can either set a timer for fifteen or twenty minutes or write until you fill the page. But the most important thing to remember while you're writing is to WRITE FROM YOUR CHARACTER'S POV. These prompts and questions are a lot more effective if you use them this way to find your character's voice and set the tone for your novel. 

Creative Writing Prompts 

  • Childhood memories can shape a person and can potentially effect how you relate to the world. Ask your character to describe one of their earliest childhood memories.

  • It's very easy to find things that you don't like about yourself, but so much steer to point out things that you do like. Ask your character what they see as one of their best qualities.

  • Religion and a relationship with a higher being can give your character purpose or drive them to dedicate their lives to sin in every form. Ask your character about their religious beliefs. Are the same ones that they had as a child? If so, why? If not, how and why did they change?

  • Personality traits are often attributed to where a person falls in the birth order, while certain negative traits have been assigned to only children. Is your character an only child? Ask them about how they feel about that and what benefit that see in it. If your character has siblings ask them about the pros and cons of sharing their parents with brothers and/or sisters.

  • People are often changed by love, but some are initially resistant to the vulnerability of being in love or they believe that even the slightest crush is love at first sight. Ask your character if they have ever been in love and if they have, how did they know?

  • Even the most confident person can be plagued by insecurities, especially when it comes to body image. Ask your character if they are insecure about some part of their body and in what way does that manifest. If they aren't insecure, ask them why they are confident about their physicality. Did they work hard to get that way? Or are they comfortable with their body regardless of their level of fitness?

  • Being comfortable in your own home is  important to humans. And more than likely, there is a room in your home where you feel especially happy or cozy. Ask your character which spot in their is their favorite and why.

  • The class valedictorian is often admired from afar but folks rarely ever get to know them. A coworker who always seems to overdeliver keeps everyone in the office on their toes. Ask your character if there is a fellow student or coworker that they admire. 

  • You can’t be friends with everyone and more than likely, there is one kid in your school that you couldn’t stand for whatever reason. Or you have that one coworker that never pulls their own weight. Ask your character about the worst classmate or coworker they have every had.

  • Adversity builds character. Ask you character to tell you about a time when they succeeded at something because they just refused to give up. 

  • Every city or town has its own culture, it’s own vibe. The residents of that city or town often embody that in their slang, their dress, and the type of music they like. Ask your character if they are a typical representation of the people from their home city or town. Or if they’re different, explain how and why.

  • Kids often tend to have a favorite toy or game they like to play. Ask your character what their favorite toy or game was when they were a little kids.

  • Don’t set your purse on the floor or you’ll stay broke. Don’t cut a baby’s hair before their first birthday—they’ll have “bad hair” and bad luck. If your right palm is itching it means you’re going to get some money, if the left palm is itching it means that you will lose some. These are all superstitons and some people believe in them whole-heartedly. Ask your character if they have any. 

  • Birth and death can alter the dynamics of a family or friend group. Has there been a death in your character’s family or in their close knit circle of friends? Ask you character how they were affected by that death and how it changed their lives.

  • Making friends is easy when you’re a kid but it gets harder when you become an adult, especially if you’re relocating for a job to an area where you don’t know anyone. Ask your character about a friend that they have made recently. How did they meet? What do they have in common? 

  • Your first best friend is often the most important relationship you have as a child—outside of their parents of course. Ask your character about their best friend from childhood. Are they still friends with this person? Why or why not? Tell your story about your first best friend as a child.

  • You can learn a lot about a person when you see how they keep their house or car. Is your character messy? Is cleanliness important to them?

  • Some people will live and die for their city, while others can’t wait to see their hometown disappearing in their rearview window. Is your character the dying to get out or would they rather have keep their lives small and live in the same fifteen to twenty mile radius? 

  • What’s your character’s sign? Are they a Scorpio rising or a Leo moon? Do they fit the characteristics attributed to that sign? Why or why not?

I hope that these prompts help you defeat that dreaded blinking curser! These twenty or so questions and others are available in The Basic Character Creation Workbook now available on Amazon. 

For the next couple of months we’re going to pivot a little bit to talk about that age old bit of writer advice, show don’t tell and when and how to use it. 

Until then…

Happy Writing!

Tasha


Whose Story Is It Anyway? #writerwednesday

This week, I want to take a bit of a break from the deep dive into characterization conversation we have been having to talk about point of view (POV). 

This tip is often glossed over, but I think it’s an important decision that needs to be made when you approach the page—preferably before you start writing. 

In The Basic Character Creation Workbook, I talk pretty extensively about the five characters that every story needs. Some writer’s call these archetypes, but I disagree. Archetypes, in my opinion, are far more in depth than these character designations, however here are the ones I feel are essential for a well rounded story.

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Five characters every story needs

1. The Protagonist: 

This is your main character and the story is often told from their POV (point of view). They have the most to lose. Your readers are meant to identify with this character the most.

Their journey is the source of your story’s theme and their actions and reactions drive the plot!

2. Antagonist: 

They directly oppose the charter and they are the primary obstacle between your protagonist and their goal. This can be an actual person or a aspect of your characters personality.

3. Sidekick: 

They are the Robin to your protagonist’s Batman. Loyal and supportive to your protagonist, this character’s goals align very closely with the main character, but they often different in very important ways that often compliment each other. In the case of Batman and Robin, Batman has genius level intelligence, is in peak physical and mental condition, a master at martial arts, and is a master of stealth; Robin is in non-lethal combat, detective skills, acrobatics, hacking, and is a well-trained tactician. Together they are a formidable team, but Robin—the sidekick—wouldn’t be as formidable without Batman. 

4. Mentor:

Your protagonist learns from or is aided by this character. The Mentor will often accompany the protagonist on their quest or journey and will protect them from any dangers along the way. The mentor’s main purpose is to be a moral compass for the character and keep them on the straight and narrow. Their loyalty can be swayed if the protagonist opposes them in anyway. 

5. Love Interest:

The protagonist is in love with this character, but the love interest may or may not be in love with them. This character’s purpose is to be the catalyst that sets the protagonist on their inner and outer journey. They can be supportive or oppositional depending on how committed they are to the protagonist’s goal. Meaning, if they think the goal will serve them, they’re behind it 100%. If it doesn’t, they will try to talk the protagonist out of it. The Love Interest can also be combined with characters 2 through 4.

Point of view

Now that we’ve ironed that out, let me throw you for another loop. These roles you have chosen do not determine point of view. Point of view (POV) refers to who is telling the story which means, you can tell the story from the skeptic’s POV or the antagonist’s POV or all of them alternately! The most important thing to remember is that changing the narrator does not change the role of the character in the story, but it does shift to include that character’s perception and is influenced by their beliefs and experiences? Is this confusing? Let’s talk a little bit about point of view (POV).

There are four different types of POV:

  • First—I go.

  • Second—You go.

  • Third (deep/limited and omniscient)—He/She goes (most commonly used).

Which one should you use? That’s a stylistic choice, but I will break them all down for you to make it a bit easier to decide how your characters will tell their story. 

First Person

Historically, first person point of view has been considered a big no-no. Most teachers and editors at major publishing houses strongly discourage it. It’s often misnamed as the favorite point of view for newbies. Why? The most common complaint is that writing in first is easy. It’s just you telling a story to the reader. The writing is often labeled as weak and is just the narrator telling the reader about the events in their life. Writer’s of first person fiction also tend to write summaries instead of scenes, leaving the reader outside of important events in the character’s story. I’ve read a lot of first person fiction like this and I understand why readers, editors and publishers feel that way. Reading a story inside of one character’s head can get extremely boring, which is why I don’t agree with the first sentiment that writing a first person character is easy because if it’s done well, it’s not easy at all.

Having that said…

I love reading and writing in the first person. In my opinion, first person point of view packs a powerful intimate punch. If you’re looking to have your reader completely immersed in the character, this is the POV you want to use. It also gives you an immediacy that writing in third doesn’t. Everything in first person is happening right now. In fact, I have switched from third to first as a plot device to point out the urgency of a scene before. It creates a bond with the reader and a believability that this is not a character created for their entertainment but a real person. Maybe that’s my own personal observation, but that doesn’t make it any less true. 

So how do you use first person point of view to connect with your readers? 

Balance. They key to doing it well is to make sure you’re not drowning your reader in exposition. What’s exposition? Exposition is used to introduce background information about events, settings or characters. Basically, if your novel is heavy on the exposition you’re telling me everything that is happening to the character instead of letting me read along as it happens to them. Avoiding this info dump is exceedingly difficult when you’re writing in the first person because you don’t have another character’s head you can jump into to give the reader a different perspective, but if you keep these next few points in mind it should make things easier.

First, get your character’s talking. This will not be the last time I say that dialogue is the key to eliminating telling language. In fact, I will say it so many times that it will become second nature to you. Well, I don’t know if that’s true, but I’m speaking it I not existence. Get out of your character’s heads and MAKE THEM TALK TO EACH OTHER IN REAL TIME. Relaying important conversations via summary and exposition is boring and it leaves the reader feeling left out of the action.

Which brings me to my next point…

First person narrators tend to fall into the trap of telling the reader about things that are happening instead of walking them through it. I’m not saying you have to give me a live action, play-by-play of everything your character eats, what they do in there day, or the number of times they brush their hair (unless it’s important to the narrative). I’m saying that I want to see your character move through this world that you have created. Put them in motion!

Scenes tend to be another pitfall for writer when they choose a first person narrator. I know what you’re thinking…of course I’m writing scenes! But if you’re writing in first person, chances are you are not. What you’re doing is giving your reader a recitation of events. It’s not a scene unless something happens; some sort of action, some sort of conversation that is important to the plot. Scenes show your character interacting with their setting or the other people in their world. Now, that’s not to say that there is no place in your novel for a summary of events. But if it’s something major, happening in “the now” to your character, that deserves a scene, not a summary. Scenes give the reader of a deeper understanding of a character’s feelings and reactions. 

Second Person

This is probably the least popular POV to write. It is most often used in do-it-yourself tutorials and choose-your-own-adventure novels. There are times when second person POV occurs naturally and should be used. It shares a lot of literary similarities with first person point of view, but still offers it’s own unique perspective. 

Second person can be a very powerful point of view. It instantly makes the reader part of the story and calls them to action in a way that first and third persons do not. It intensifies all the emotions in your writing because you attribute them to the reader instead of the character. They experience the story as if it’s their own.

Second person dialogue can be tricky. Similar to writing in first person, it’s very easy to lapse into a dense and exhausting narrative full of telling language. All of that telling can create distance and you lose the potency of this point of view. The most effective way to eliminate that is to pair it with first person, POV. 

Example:

It’s the middle of the night or maybe the wee hours of the morning and you are at my door pressing the bell impatiently.  It’s late and I’m slightly grumpy having been disturbed from a deep sleep. I open the door. The night is balmy, a light breeze blows ruffling your gorgeous hair.

You’ll say, “I know it’s late.” Then with a hesitant smile you’ll ask, “May I come in?”  

I step aside and you step across the threshold, brushing against me gently as you pass.

In this passage you’re aware that you (the reader) are not the narrator. There is someone else telling the story and addressing another character. 

Third Person

Third person is the favored and most common point of view used in storytelling. Newbie writer’s often choose first person POV when they are writing their first novel, unaware of how limited it can be. The inclination to choose first is most often driven by the desire to create intimacy between the character and the reader. If that is your aim, third person deep is similar to first person and can do the job nicely. But unlike first person, third person deep still allows room for the more objectivity. The first person narrator is unreliable in a way because they can only tell the story from their point of view. And just like real life, they can exaggerate or downplay their experiences or misinterpret the actions of other characters. If done right, the end result is so subtle that the reader barely notices it. In comparison, third person is usually used to tell a story from two or more points of view, exposing all perspectives and giving a larger interpretation of the story. 

Of all the ways to tell a story, third person is the most flexible. If your story or character development stalls, you can easily switch to another character. Or even if you are using third to tell the story from one character’s perspective you an step outside of that character for a wider or omniscient point of view. Third person omniscient allows the reader to experience the plot and action of the story without being influenced by the character. That flexibility can definitely give you more freedom, but you have to remain aware that stepping outside of the character too often can create a distance between them and the reader. 

Choosing the right point of view can make or break your novel. I hope that this will help you decide who tells your story and how they will do it!

Happy Writing!

Tasha