Don't miss a freebie, deal, or new release.Join Now!
banner with headshot and name

Show and tell

Show the readers everything, tell them nothing. ― Ernest Hemingway

Writers are frequently admonished to show not tell, but what does that mean exactly? I’m no master yet, but Mary Buckham’s recent Body Language and Emotion class has helped a lot.

(Seriously, if you get the chance to take anything she teaches, spend the money.)

Think of the movies. The best actors are those who can convey their thoughts and emotions without saying a word. In a well-written book, the characters do the same thing.

In my own work, I have whole scenes where the characters talk and move around the imaginary space, but the scenes feel like they move too fast. They're flat and lacking emotion.

I don’t want over-the-top drama, and there are times when it makes sense to just “tell” and move on, but part of the reader’s experience is the vicarious emotion of the characters. If we don’t give them that, they won’t come back for more. To get them involved, we not only need to tell them what the characters are doing, but more importantly, show how the characters are doing it.

Here’s an example of telling:

Jenny gave him a nervous glance. “I didn’t take it.”

Gavin didn’t believe her. He could always tell when she lied.

The passage above gets the point across, but I’m telling you what kind of look she gave him, telling you that he didn’t believe her, and telling you why. Wouldn’t it be stronger and more interesting if I showed you what each character was feeling and let you name the emotions yourself?

Here’s my effort to rewrite with nonverbal cues to show you what’s going on:

Jenny met his gaze briefly, then dropped her focus to the woolen rug near her feet. She tucked an arm across her stomach and smoothed her skirt repeatedly with her palm. “I didn’t take it.”

Gavin snorted and shook his head. She gave her away her lie with every move.

That could probably use an editor’s red pen, but still, I think the second passage is richer. It involves the reader more. I didn’t name a single emotion, but I’ll bet you figured them out anyway.

Next time your hero crosses a room, show the reader how he does it. Instead of merely walking he could stomp, stalk, or skip even. Don’t let the heroine hold a letter in her hand just to break up a paragraph of dialogue. Have her fold it into careful pleats, squeeze it in her fist, shred it, or clasp it to her chest.

Combine those actions with a few other telling, er, showing moves and your story will come to life.

We have to move our characters around their world—what Mary Buckham calls choreography—so why not make those moves mean something?

Image credit: Kuroda Seiki [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Filling my toolbox

My writing education has a theme. I cannot learn and apply a new concept or technique until my brain is ready for it. I’ve read book after book and taken numerous classes on all aspects of writing. Characterization, point of view, dialog, plotting, and so on. But often, even if I see the value of a lesson, it doesn’t “take” without some basic foundational knowledge that I don't yet have.

In basketball, they don't practice three-pointers before learning how to shoot from the key. (I hope.)

For example, I’ve been exposed to Dwight Swain’s ideas on using the scene and sequel technique for writing several times. (I hear Jack Bickham’s book aptly named Scene and Sequel, is a must have.) But for some reason, the concept didn’t click for me. Until now.

I’m taking a Pacing class with Mary Buckham. Seriously, if you ever get a chance to take one of her classes, run to get in line. Two of her lectures covered the S&S concepts, and all of a sudden it made sense. I give a lot of credit to Mary’s easy way of breaking ideas down to the basic, important points, and her willingness to answer all manner of dumb questions. Many of them mine.

I had a similar experience with Story Structure Demystified by Larry Brooks. I’ve mentioned it before. But looking back, many of the things I learned early on didn’t make complete sense to me until I understood the basic parts of structure. I took classes and read books that either ignored it, or assumed I knew it already.

As I move along on my learning journey, I’m acquiring the basic skeleton on which to hang everything else. It’s a heady feeling to see it all coming together, and be able to better identify where my areas of weakness are. I mindmapped my view of the writing process and the business and it turned out as shown below. You could probably argue different placement of some of the points, but I’d be most interested to hear what you think is missing.

Some elements of writing craft

The business of writing

Yes, I don’t know what I don’t know. There’s more out there that I haven’t yet discovered, I’m sure.

But I can also see how far I’ve come from that eager writer who knew nothing at all and just wrote for fun. Sometimes I miss the ignorance of those days because writing was pure joy. But the excitement is back as I start my new WIP knowing that my toolbox is filling up and I can use those tools to get my stories closer to the end product I want.

What's in your toolbox?

The next dimension

Now that my (very) rough draft is complete, I'm working my way through Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass, and applying it to my current MS. Chapter 2 is called Opening Extra Character Dimensions, and it is a real eye opener.

It's a great exercise–similar to one I did at a workshop by Mary Buckham and Dianna Love–where you identify a strong character trait for your protagonist. Then, you determine the opposite of it, and write a paragraph where your protagonist demonstrates that opposing quality.

Repeat four times.

For my hero, I found this fairly easy. In fact, I had done this already in many instances throughout my MS. Yay me, right? But wait. What about the heroine?

I failed. Not only did I make her as multi-dimensional as a piece of cardboard, I had a much harder time coming up with four personality traits for which to find antonyms. I didn't realize she was that boring, but she could probably use some work.

I think I'm biased. I like men, so I spend a lot of time working on my hero and making him amazing, but human. I want the reader to fall in love with him as much as I do.

But ideally, the heroine is just as human and complex as the man. The reader needs to like her enough to feel that she deserves our beloved hero after all.

None of this was conscious on my part, so going through the exercise was enlightening.

How do you bring out the many dimensions of your characters to make them complex and compelling?

Refrigerated writing

Today's blog is also posted at:

Is your writing fresh and new? How can you tell?

I was recently catching up on Janet Reid's great agent blog, and she addressed this very issue. After discussing how she handled the 122 of 124 writers she chose not to represent in 2009 (!), she gave some advice for aspiring authors.

First of all–and the part I can really get behind–any progress toward your goal is a measure of success. Don't think of writing as all or nothing. That is, if you didn't get published, but you made great strides in improving your writing, that's not failure. If you learned what not to do, that's not failure.

The part that gave me pause, however, is something that keeps cropping up in agent blogs, workshops (Dianna Love & Mary Buckham mentioned this very thing), and writing books: Make sure your writing is fresh and new.

This part scares me. Not because it's bad advice, but because my own gauge for whether anything I write is unique seems to be broken.

Ask me what's different about my stories, characters, and settings and I draw a blank. Well, other than the fact that I wrote them. And, which part has to be special? The voice, the characters, the premise? All of it?

I'm exhausted just thinking about it.

So how do we figure out what hasn't been done before? Of course, without being so different that no one wants our work. (And people wonder why writers are crazy?)

According to Ms. Reid, Joe Finder and Lee Child read voraciously in their genres (and still do), and did research to make sure they weren't just duplicating the rest of the market.

The logical, business major in me loves this idea. It makes sense. I want to sell my books. But as a writer, it sounds so clinical and cold. Where's the passion for the story of your heart?

The reading part I have down pat. No problem. I can only hope my “fresh and new” meter gets calibrated soon. I'd really like to quit writing stale, overdone stories sometime before the next decade.

Maybe I should write in a refrigerator.

How do you keep your writing fresh?

The Daily Squirrel: vagrant

The pile of blankets next to the dumpster suddenly moved. An old man emerged, white hair sticking out randomly around his head. He scratched his scruffy beard and adjusted his dirt-crusted pants, which were worn at the knees and unraveling at the hem. Like a walking closet, he wore several shirts, a torn sweater, a scarf, hole-ridden mittens, and a green fatigue jacket with frayed cuffs and a large tear in the elbow.

Sun-browned skin wrinkled like paper when he spotted me and smiled, the gap of his missing front tooth as familiar as his greeting. “Mornin', early riser.”

“Good morning, Mr. Adams,” I said, holding out my usual fiver as I stopped in front of the alley on my way to the office.

“Good indeed,” Mr. Adams said, his weary eyes settling briefly on mine. He thrust the money into his front pants pocket as his eyes darted around to the other sleepers in the alley. Then he patted my hand and crawled back under his blankets.

My Aha! Moment with GMC & BIF

In August, I had the good fortune to attend a workshop by Mary Buckham and Dianna Love based on their great book, Break Into Fiction (hereafter called BIF). I read the book beforehand, and went through the workshop thinking how great all of the templates are because they force you to answer the tough questions about your characters and plot. But, still, I struggled with filling them out. They get into details I wasn't ready to produce yet.

I had an “Aha!” moment yesterday when I realized that filling out the GMC charts for my characters provided me the macro view of their lives and story that I needed to have in order to complete the micro-focused BIF templates. By completing the GMC work first, I can make sure I'm not spending my time on the BIF templates until I'm fairly sure my story will work.

So, after moving 20K words (ouch!) into my Unused Scenes folder (a topic for another day), I'm pretty much starting over.  But, this time I'm going to try it with the help of the GMC and BIF tools. The great news is that I'm pumped up about my story again. My goal is to have a completed rough draft by January 31. I'll keep you posted on how it goes.

Chalk it all up to lessons learned and, like Dory says in Finding Nemo, “Just keep moving.”

BTW, if you ever have a chance to take a class from Mary or Dianna, you won't be disappointed. Both of them are incredibly giving of their time and insights, and will answer endless questions with patience.