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Sounds Great, No Substance

If you’ve ever listened to the trailer for an action movie, you know what I’m talking about. A guy with a deep and raspy voice (think Will Arnett) is narrating as the sun rises over a wasted landscape:

In a world of destruction, the danger of explosive secrets will bring one man to the edge.

Sounds great. Really juicy. Until you think about it and realize you have no idea what the movie’s about. Well, this is the kind of thing you want to avoid in your prose and in your pitches. I see this a lot with novel openings. Writers think that they can juice up the tension by making their first few paragraphs sound like action-trailer nonsense. They often do this in queries, also, where they give me even less of an inkling as to what their book is really about.

We get a lot of talk about danger and secrets and tension and action, but nothing is actually communicated and, since it has all been telling, the reader never feels the emotions that those volatile things are supposed to be stirring.

The antidote to this is specificity. I don’t want to hear about “danger,” I want to see it, and I want to know exactly what it is and what it means for the character. I don’t want to hear about “secrets,” I want to be blown out of the water by them and see their high-stakes ramifications play out on character and relationship. And if you find yourself writing one of those filler paragraphs to open your novel, delete it and start in scene, with specific action, with specific characters.

That pretty much does it for my daily “show, don’t tell” plug. Now, I’m off on my day of intrigue, excitement, and thrills!

(Translation: My day of reading a manuscript, taking a lunch meeting, and checking out my new gym. Sure, this line-up doesn’t exactly sound as flashy as “intrigue, excitement, and thrills,” but it is specific, and now you have a much clearer sense of my day.)

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  1. Mary Ann Duke’s avatar

    My fourth graders knew about specificity. I preached it daily. Then, one day i saw im my WIP that I had NOT practiced what I’d preached. Humbling.

  2. Julie Daines’s avatar

    In a world of information overload, where false facts fly through cyberspace, there is still one place where hungry folks can at last fill their need for truth.

    Translation: Mary Kole’s website has the best advice for writers.

  3. Mary’s avatar

    Mary Ann — Ain’t that always the case?

    LOL, thanks Julie!

  4. Jade’s avatar

    If only I had a voice-over to narrate my day. My life would seem so much more exciting!

    As usual, thanks for the great advice.

  5. Tina Cho’s avatar

    Great tip! Be specific! Thanks, Mary! Now I’m going to finish cooking a Korean meal for my family.

  6. Peter Dudley’s avatar

    Only one man will be brought to the edge? What about all the other people? And the edge of what? Frankly, if I lived in a world of destruction, I’d probably rather live on the edge than right downtown. Just sayin’.

    Oh, what’s that? Missed the point? Whatever do you mean?

  7. Tony Acree’s avatar

    I would like to specifically thank you for contributing to my education as a writer. I look forward to reading other posts in the future.

  8. Catherine Johnson’s avatar

    Great tip, Mary. I’m really not sure if I’m cut out to be a novelist and with so many poems and picture books on the go it is easy to ignore my (in need of some ‘specifics’ MG), but I do have a beta reader reading it at last, so I’ll know for sure if it’s hamster cage material or salvagable. Thanks for showing us how to show.

  9. Kari Cowman’s avatar

    Oh Wow, I think each post is written for me. :/ As a cold wind howls through the deepest recesses of my barren consciousness, I return to a place neither here nor there and languish over the ghosts of my content. Was I dreaming or did I build an actual story?

    Translation: Back to the drawing board…

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