How to Write Fiction: When To Tell Instead of Show

Many writers wonder how to write fiction well. There are all sorts of messages floating around. And I’m here to tell you something scandalous about the biggest of them all: Sometimes it’s better to tell instead of show. Yes, yes, I know. Everyone has heard of, “Show, don’t tell.”

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Showing you why telling is sometimes better than showing.

The Truth About “Show, Don’t Tell”

I think I’ll get into this subject more in future posts, but let’s just say that a lot of convoluted, cliché stuff happens when a writer desperately tries to avoid telling (like hammering hearts and foot-tapping gestures, instead of just saying, “She was nervous,” or “He hated when she was late,” or whatever). For now, though, I want to give you a fantastic introduction to why (and when) telling can work.

I never pretended to know everything about writing, but I’ve never posted in-depth thoughts from a reader, either. Today’s the day. A few months ago, a reader sent in a very thought-provoking, well-written essay on just this very issue. Here are some of Melissa Koosmann’s thoughts on Good Telling, as she sees it after reading some HARRY POTTER and the thoughts of Scholastic editor Cheryl Klein. This is brilliant stuff. I could’ve talked about it, but she just did it much better.

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I’ve been looking for, and finding, Good Telling in books for some time, but I couldn’t find a pattern in it until a week or two ago, when I stumbled on a transcript of Cheryl Klein’s speech “A Few Things Writers Can Learn from Harry Potter.” In this speech, Klein discusses J.K. Rowling’s use of showing and telling–including the Good Telling I’m so curious about.

Good Telling, according to Klein, often appears in topic sentences–like the ones we all learned how to write in fifth grade. Klein makes a great example of a topic sentence from a descriptive paragraph and claims that there’s a pattern of that sort of sentence throughout the book. I’ve been going through a copy of HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE, and she’s right.

Writing Good Telling Topic Sentences

There’s a Good Telling sentence at the beginning of most descriptive paragraphs. Consider this one in chapter two, when Harry is thrilled he gets to go to the zoo: “Harry had the best morning he’d had in a long time.” Kind of bland, eh? But it’s followed by a neat couple of sentences that show Harry keeping out of Dudley’s punching range and eating a dessert Dudley doesn’t want. This does a double job of showing: it makes Harry’s life seem pretty dismal, and it makes him seem like a nice kid. Without the Good Telling topic sentence, those neat details wouldn’t pack as much punch. As Klein puts it, “Sometimes readers need the plain straightforward direction of telling to elucidate the point of all that showing.”

So far so good–but that’s description, and I’m most interested in how to write fiction and how Good Telling works in action and dialogue. So I stepped back and looked at the telling that happens in those areas, and I found that Klein’s topic sentence observation applies there, too. It’s just that the Good Telling sentence directs the reader through a whole beat of text–a bunch of paragraphs rather than a single one.

Telling in Action and Dialogue

When a Good Telling sentence shows up, it usually marks a change: either a physical jump in time or space, or a subtle shift in mood or focus. Check out these Good Telling sentences from Harry’s trip to the zoo, still in chapter 2 of PHILOSOPHER’S STONE:

1. “But today, nothing was going to go wrong.” Something immediately goes wrong. Harry makes the mistake of saying he dreamed about a flying motorcycle, and Uncle Vernon gets mad.
2. “But he [Harry] wished he hadn’t said anything.” The narrative shifts to internal thoughts as Harry reflects that his aunt and uncle hate him talking about things acting in ways they shouldn’t. This segment is part showing and part telling, but it ends with a Good Telling sentence, too. More on that later.
3. “Harry felt, afterward, that he should have known it was all too good to last.” Gulp! There’s a small place shift to the reptile house as well as a big mood shift because the reader is prepared for something truly terrible to happen. Not long later, Harry makes the glass on the snake cage vanish.

After I started to see this pattern, I could detect it more often in places where a lot of dialogue and action were happening, where the Good Telling sentences weren’t so eye-catching. And guess what?

How to Write Fiction Telling in Transitional Moments

There’s a web of Good Telling working its way through the whole novel, supporting the narrative shifts that carry the reader from one emotional beat to the next. Rowling dispenses with these sentences at times when crisp, clear action and dialogue can carry the story forward on their own, but it’s rare for her to go more than a couple of pages without an instance of Good Telling.

I like the way Klein calls these types of sentences “topic sentences,” but it’s normally only in the descriptive paragraphs that they actually state a topic. Otherwise they act as invitations to the reader. It’s as if J.K. Rowling is saying, “Hey, over here! Harry’s stepping into a new room now, so why don’t you come on in with him?” or “Hi again! I just wanted to let you know Harry’s disappointment is about to shift to full-fledged anger” or “Watch out! New character stepping in!” Obviously the actual writing is far more subtle than that, but the Good Telling is instrumental in carrying readers along with the flow of change in the story.

Telling to Get on the Same Page as the Reader

Good Telling doesn’t always show up at the beginning of a beat. Rowling varies it on occasion, usually by beginning with a few flashy lines of dialogue–followed by a straightforward Good Telling sentence. Good Telling also leads out of an emotional beat of the text almost as often as it leads in. After showing a whole string of actions, along with punchy details that illuminate how Harry feels about them, she often makes use of a pause in pacing to state that Harry does indeed feel the way we think he’s feeling. Klein calls this “a confirmation for the reader, directing the emotional takeaway from whatever happened.”

Once you’re looking for it, this lead-in, lead-out pattern of Good Telling pops up in many books. And thinking about it makes writing easier. It doesn’t make for a very pretty writing rule, though: Show and Good Tell, don’t Bad Tell.

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Can you find any examples of Good Telling? Talk about them in the comments. I’ve been wanting to mine my theatre/actor training and how it relates to writing for a while. Melissa’s discussion of beats, above, is just one more reason for me to put on my thinking cap. I’m so happy that Melissa took the time to share her thoughts with me, and now I can share them with you.

Do you struggle with writing fiction characters who are complex and compelling? Still struggle with telling and showing? Hire me as your manuscript editor for book editing services.

Who Am I Writing For?

I got an excellent question from a reader a few weeks ago. This is actually something I wanted to post about myself, because it’s a frustrating disconnect about the whole getting-published process. There’s also stuff here about critique groups. Let’s hear her question and my answer:

I have been satisfied with the vast majority of my MS (YA Paranormal Mystery Romance) for many weeks and my “critique group” (mostly avid readers not writers) feels the same. My struggle is this: Who am I writing for?

My critique group, all readers who spend actual money to buy actual books, all have (gasp!) individual tastes! Their feelings about my MS are very much tied to their personalities, educational level, interests, etc. My friend who adores TWILIGHT loves the funny voice and the beginning and insists that TWILIGHT started out slow and so did HARRY POTTER. My English professor friend with a Master’s could take or leave the funny teen voice but prefers the vivid descriptive prose. My young adult niece finds the voice a tad grating and the beginning a bit slow but adores the entire rest of the book. My brainy teenage niece, in contrast, likes the funny voice of the first chapter and says the rest isn’t her genre but her friends like that sort of thing.

I feel torn. At the end of the day, not all writers have Masters Degrees in English. How do I resolve that when my readers like what I am pretty sure agents would reject?

Here’s the thing. Before your book can get into the hands of casual or even very experienced readers like the friends in your critique group, it has to get through the gates of PROFESSIONAL readers. First, agents, then, editors, the editors’ bosses, their bosses’ bosses, the sales team. Once all those readers who read professionally and with an eye toward the marketplace love your book, only then will you get a publishing contract. Then your publisher will pitch and win over the professional readers who work at bookstores and who will stock your books on shelves for those hobby readers to finally get them.

Ideally, you should be writing for the end user: teens (or adults who read YA, of course). However, to get to those teens in the first place, you’re going to have to volley over lots and lots and lots of people who AREN’T casual readers at all. And those are the people you’re going to have to impress years before your book comes out. So, even if your end user, the reader or teen, doesn’t have a Master’s degree in English, the people who decide whether or not that teen or reader is ever going to see your book often will.

I urge you, seriously, to get a critique group of other writers. Writers who are not friends and especially not family. (What are they going to say? That it sucks, to your face?) Not only is yours not a critique group (If they don’t write, what are YOU critiquing? We learn as much about our own writing when we critique the work of others as when our work gets critiqued.) but you might be doing yourself a disservice by getting feedback from people who aren’t intimate with the writing craft. If you can swing it, get feedback from people who are contracted to be published or already published. You learn and grow by putting yourself in a challenging situation. An audience of readers-but-not-writers sounds like you are being easy on yourself, sorry to say.

That’s why I’m skeptical of sites like Authonomy (Yes, the site is run by HarperCollins but the majority of people who gather and comment there are laypeople and not editors or publishing professionals). So what happens there? Writers post manuscripts. Hobby readers go on there and rave about these manuscripts. Then the writers who produced those manuscripts query me and give me “blurbs” from people who loved them on Authonomy. When I see that, I ask the writer, in my head, “So what? Someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about is talking. Great.”

Let me put it another way. I know nothing about cars. That’s why I’m in trouble if I ever go car shopping again. If you show me a car and it’s shiny enough, and has a sunroof, I’ll think it’s good. Only someone who knows what happens under the hood will be able to tell me whether it’s actually a lemon or not. A person who doesn’t know all of the complexities of writing a novel can usually be won over without much effort. It’s easy to impress the easily-impressed. Don’t stunt your own growth.

Third Place Winner, Novel Beginnings Contest

The Third Place winner in this terrific contest is Helen Robertson, whose YA novel opening for ALABAMA JONES AND THE UNSPOILED QUEEN has great interiority, characterization, and, also, tension and mystery elements. Check it out — with notes — below.

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At least I didn’t have to wear a dress to my dad’s funeral.

I’m a sucker for opening lines and this is a great one. It tells me a lot about the character, her sense of humor, and, of course, the setting and the story.

He always told me to be grateful for the small things—especially when the big things looked bad. So I focused on the fact that I was wearing shorts, a tank top, my favorite necklace, and flip-flops. I tried to enjoy the feel of the boat beneath my feet, and reminded myself that I could add Alabama to my “been there” list. I’d just started the list this trip, because it was the first time I’d gone anywhere except to other islands in the Caribbean.

Here we get more of the setting and more of what’s important to this character. We also get a visceral detail with the movement of the boat and physical description of what she’s wearing.

Now I’d been to Georgia (the Atlanta airport, anyway), and Alabama. I was curious about Alabama because that’s my name, too. We’d never visited before because when we lived on Saba, everyone came to us. Still. I could think of better ways than my Dad’s funeral to be introduced to the place I was named after.

My interest is piqued with the “everyone came to us” comment… it makes me wonder about what her family does. We’ve got strong voice so far.

Not to mention that this was his second funeral. Dad had wanted to be cremated and scattered in two places: the waters above the Saba Bank, and Mobile Bay. So the first time was on Saba, and here we were, fulfilling part two of that wish. To me it meant just one thing: saying goodbye to my dad. Again.

And if we thought we were dealing with an ordinary family — and an ordinary funeral — this tosses those ideas on their ears.

Like on Saba, it was an informal service. People were in shorts and tee shirts, and they filled my granddad’s dive boat as we putt-putted out into the bay. My mom, her face stiff and tight, clutched the urn with the last of my dad’s ashes. I stood with my grandparents, holding my little sister’s hand. Asia (Dad liked to name us after places he loved) was ten. We never held hands anymore, but made an exception in this case.

Great interiority here, and the rest of the family starts to fill in. The sister, the mom, grandpa, whose boat they’re using… We also get more of Alabama’s humor. She’s using some slight wit here in the voice but it establishes tension because she’s been talking about pretty much everything EXCEPT her dad, and the hand-holding moment tells me that “this case” has hurt her maybe more than she lets on.

Even though I was sad, it was good to be on a boat again. The farther out into the bay we went, the closer I felt to my dad. We’d spent a lot of time on boats, usually going scuba diving. Being on the water felt right. I was also glad to be surrounded by people like my dad. Divers, sailors, and surfers, all sun-bleached hair, brown skin, and faded clothes. Water people. My dad’s people, and my people too.

A lovely tribute to her dad here, that characterizes her… and him.

Only one person didn’t match. It wasn’t just that he was dressed up—a few people were, after all. But the clothes he was wearing were long—long sleeves, long pants, and a fancy dark jacket. Instead of flip flops, he actually had shoes on, black ones that shone in the sun. Tall and thin, he walked like a stork: stiff and deliberate, lifting his feet high with every step. Plus he was pale. But his red hair was pretty, and he had freckles. I have freckles too, so people with freckles are all right by me.

There was some joking going around on Twitter last week about how every character in a book has quirky red hair and hates their freckles. This has a redhead with freckles, but it is far from the usual fare. Also, this is a character who actually likes freckles. I also like the description of this character and his “otherness.” I also love that she distinctly notices that he’s NOT wearing flip flops. As a California girl, I have to say that I don’t trust a person who misses an opportunity to don a nice pair of ‘flops…

I didn’t realize he was a clue. Back then, I didn’t even know there was a mystery.

The mystery hook pretty much guarantees that I’ll want to keep reading!

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I hope these winners continue to be helpful and interesting to you. This most recent winner is a great example of a literary YA novel (the quality of the writing, the bent toward interiority, the focus on family and realistic issues rather than paranormal or fantasy, the contemporary time frame) with an enticing (from the looks of it so far) mystery hook that looks like it might have a good balance of character-driven and plot-driven elements that’s so important in today’s market. I have three more to post — Second and First Place winners and the Grand Prize winner! — over the next week or so. Stay tuned!

Just a Thought…

The old cliche is that, when two people have nothing better to talk about or they’re too awkward to talk about something real, they talk about the weather. Why do so many manuscripts, then, start with… descriptions of the weather?

I should hope that, if you’ve decided to write an entire manuscript, you’ve got better things to talk about than the weather and you’re not feeling too awkward to say them.

Think about it. (Yes, I am reading contest submissions right now. Yes, every other entry for the last 50 or so has mentioned some kind of weather in the first paragraph. No, I am not automatically dismissing these entries, though the author is putting themselves at a bit of a disadvantage. No, this isn’t unusual compared to the slush I usually get. No, you probably shouldn’t start a manuscript like this.)

Brainstorms and Tips

I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday weekend! Now — *cracks whip* — back to work! Just kidding. But we are wrapping up Revision-o-Rama. Of course, I will continue to talk about revision topics on the blog but not in this concentrated way.

Since there are a bunch of smaller things that didn’t warrant full posts but that are still fun and important to do. I call them Brainstorms and Tips. Read on!

100 Declarative Sentences

This is a great brainstorm tool, and it’s really hard. This works best with a character or a setting that’s giving you difficulty. Maybe your critique group thinks it’s thin or flat or unconvincing, or it just doesn’t feel right to you. Concentrate on this place or this person and write 100 declarative sentences about her, him or it. Sounds simple, right? Well, it really calls into question how well you know what you’re writing about. A declarative sentence is just an informative sentence that states a fact. Let’s say I have a character called Claire who isn’t working for me. I would start my list:

  1. Claire plays JV tennis.
  2. Claire likes to eat ice cream but only after she wins a game.
  3. Claire wishes she had long hair like Abby does.

Etc. etc. etc. A lot of it will feel like you’re just riffing. You’re making things up. You’re improvising. But you’ll come up with some great surprises, like quirks of a character that you never thought of. Then, around sentence 80, you will feel like you will never finish this stupid exercise. And you will hate me. And you will probably give up and watch some TV. So it goes. But the point here is that you’re thinking of the place or person as something real. Declarative sentences are simple and informational. It will force you to think about things you haven’t been considering yet.

Who knows if you will use all of the 100 things you come up with? But the truth and beauty of fiction always lies in the specifics. Here, you have an opportunity to come up with specifics, quirks, tidbits and other things that will flesh out your character or setting and make them seem more real, more significant. Some of my favorite details about a character or place, the ones that stick with me long after the book is over, are small things like this. That Claire has the purple nail polish chipped off the big toe on her left foot. That Bellmeadows, the town where Claire lives, has three car dealerships but no gas station. Character and setting are in the details. Force yourself to come up with some. You’ll get maybe 10 or 20 new things to add throughout your manuscript.

Boring and Ambiguous Words

In my slush pile, I get a lot of queries that use boring and ambiguous words. What do I mean? Here’s an example (an amalgamation of all that is bad, one it has pained me deeply to write):

Johnny learns a mysterious secret at the beautiful Temple of Adventure that will change his life forever. Shadowy conspirators push him into a meaningful choice — and there’s no going back. When Johnny is faced with the truth, dangerous circumstances propel him to a thrilling and exciting climax that will leave readers begging for more.

Huh? What? What is this book about? All I have are general words that are meant to hype me up but they’re all fluff. Just like a booming announcer’s voice during a movie trailer that’s trying to tell me a story, it’s all dazzle and no substance. There are some words that are so general that they mean nothing. Or they mean different things to different people. What one person finds “beautiful” or “thrilling” isn’t the same across the board. Using some in a query or manuscript is okay, but I’m seeing a lot of paragraphs that resemble the above. If I read a paragraph full of generalities and ambiguous words, I really have no idea what your plot is. Plot is made up of specific events, not hot keywords. Avoid these words in your query and in your manuscript. Specifics are key. What does “beautiful” look like to this character? How does that character react uniquely to something “exciting”? Use instances where you’d normally use a boring or ambiguous word as an opportunity to show us something about the characters you’ve created. Striking out these blah words also goes a long way toward adding to voice.

Filters

Filters are phrases like “I think” and “I see” and “in my opinion” that dilute your prose. They’re most noticeable in first person but appear in third person, too. For example, it’s a lot more wordy to say, “I saw a dog bounding across the lawn,” than, “A dog bounded across the lawn.” Obviously, the narrator saw it, or they wouldn’t be describing it for the reader. Same with, “I thought her hair looked stupid.” That’s weak compared to, “Her hair looked like a skunk had set itself on fire.” The “I thought” and “I saw” just lessen the impact of what follows. Of course, you’re allowed to say things like, “I thought I saw a ghost,” if they’re important to your plot, but try and weed filters out of your ordinary prose. Tangentially, one of my biggest pet peeves is when writers put: “… blah blah blah, I thought in my head.” Yes. Obviously. What else do you think with? Your elbow?

Reading Aloud

As many readers have mentioned in comments, a nifty trick during revision is reading your manuscript aloud. Yes, it’s tedious. Yes, you sometimes lose your voice doing it, but you catch so many things you never would’ve caught before. My favorite thing to do — during workshop and critique sessions — is to actually have another person (or, you know, if you’ve got such a patient person at your disposal at all times) read your manuscript or parts of it to you. This is extremely instructive. You hear it in another voice (one that’s not inside your head) and you get to see where you reader stumbled or seemed to get caught up in certain sentences. You get to see if another voice makes the prose come alive (which means it has voice of its own) or if it lies flat on the page and makes your reader start droning. Very useful stuff!

The above are just a few tips and brainstorms that you can use. There are literally millions of writing exercises, books, methods and other authorities that you can study on the subject. I’ll name some of my favorites in my next post (and the last for Revision-o-Rama, boo!).

In the meantime, you can find more tips in previous blog posts. Here’s a post about why to avoid the word “suddenly” in your writing, and here’s another post about a nifty and quick revision trick that will help you see your manuscript in a whole new way. Feel free to leave your hot tips and brainstorming ideas in the comments.

Theme, Imagery, and Description

This is quite literally a literary grab-bag of thoughts. The things mentioned in the title — theme, imagery, and description — are important considerations when revising a manuscript, but they usually come into play below the surface. Things like plot, character and dialogue are obvious, they’re right in the reader’s face.

It’s the subtler things that can really make or break your work, though. And a huge part of revising is seeing what common threads and themes you’ve left for yourself. It’s like magic. Your subconscious usually puts lots of things in your manuscript for you to find on a second or third read… connections you never knew you’d made, common images and ideas that resonate with the larger meaning of your work, all sorts of interesting stuff.

When you revise, think about what your work is saying. You’ve got to have a reason for writing it. There should be distinct themes and ideas that you could point to as the center of your book. GRACELING isn’t just an awesome fantasy story about people with special talents, for example. It’s also about one’s place in the world, duty, honor and empowerment. Those are the ideas that Kristin Cashore weaves into the manuscript, her themes.

Once you know what these are — and you usually won’t until you’ve started revising — you can use them as a lens. This sort of fits with the point I’ll be making about voice before the month is out. A theme for your work should color everything in it, subtly, especially the descriptions. If you’re working with a theme and a plot with a lot of loneliness in it, settings aren’t “empty,” they’re “desolate,” which has a much stronger resonance with the themes you’ve set out to play with. Filter your writing, your descriptions, your characterizations, through the lens of the bigger idea or theme that you want to work with.

The next time you’re reading a really well-written book, think about how the author is using imagery, description, metaphor, all of those fancy-pantsy literary devices that usually crystalize during revision. I bet all of the author’s prose seems to just fit with the plot and the theme of the work. In writing, everything is a choice. When you get to the really fine-tuning work of a fifth or sixth pass revision, you’re looking for all the little places where you can make the right choice. If you’re setting up a scene where a person is alone in their snowbound house, you wouldn’t say that a “boisterous” wind rattled the windows, you’d maybe say, “a pang of wind made the glass shiver,” or whatever.

Everything has to fit. From the way you describe a scene to the verbs you use to the seemingly-innocuous metaphor you choose for your character’s frame of mind at the moment. I hate putting labels on it like “theme” or “message” (because you really don’t want to be teaching anyone stuff with your fiction writing, readers, especially kids, don’t cop to that sort of thing) but there really should be something larger at work, something subtle but everpresent, in your novel. It’s in revision that it gets teased out and crafted. Every sentence should ring with it… whatever it is that you want your reader to feel and experience as they’re moving through your story.

In that same vein, don’t overload on the literary stuff either. Don’t go crazy with metaphors and similes to the point where every sentence has a “like” or “as” in it. And don’t go crazy with description, either. Those days when readers indulged in long, lavish scene-setting and endless purple prose are over.

The best description gets the job done quickly and economically. I like to tell people that the best writing comes from very specific, extremely well-chosen details. Let one or two perfectly-picked specifics do the work of paragraphs. Isn’t it enough for me to say, “Dinah saw that her thong was sticking out past the waistband of her jeans, blushed, and pulled her pants a notch lower,” for you to get what Dinah’s about as a character? I don’t have to describe her push-up bra or skimpy tank top or hooker heels or the silver cross nestled ironically in her cleavage… you get it right from the thong-flash.

So make intelligent choices that fit the larger goal of your work. Think like an MFA student for a day and make sure your images and descriptions match your theme. Cut out blocks of description and replace them with well-chosen details. See if you can’t make your writing tighter and more effective, sentence to sentence, page by page.

What “Show Don’t Tell” Really Means

“Show Don’t Tell” is the old adage you hear in every writing class, workshop, critique group and probably on some things you’ve had edited, rejected or submitted in your lifetime.

“Show don’t tell,” says the editor or agent or well-meaning crit partner. “You know, this really is an issue of showing versus telling,” says the writing teacher. Well, we all know that showing is good and telling is bad. But do we really know what that means?

show don't tell, writing, creative writing, fiction writing, showing, telling
Adjust those glasses because I’m about to blow your mind.

“Show Don’t Tell” Examples of Telling

The common rhetoric is too general. Here’s what it means and, more importantly, why it’s important.

Let me give you an illustrative example of showing v. telling. I’m not saying this is the end-all and be-all, or even that well-written, but I’m hoping you’ll see the difference. Here’s telling:

Katie was so hungry she could eat a horse. She bellied up to the diner counter, her stomach rumbling. If she didn’t eat now, she’d die. It felt like an empty pit had opened up inside her. “A burger, please!” she shouted.

Karl, working behind the counter, looked at the newcomer with disdain. He really hated people who came up and bossed him around, even if they were supposed to always be right. He procrastinated as much as possible with restocking the silverware caddy. Then he wasted some more time wiping down the counter. Finally, he came over to the girl who he didn’t like very much. “Would you like fries with that?” he asked, ironically, a fake smile on his face.

“Show Don’t Tell” Examples of Showing

Now let’s try showing on for size:

Katie ran up to the counter and gripped the edge hard. It felt like a pit had opened up inside her. “A burger, please!” she shouted.

Karl barely registered her from behind the counter. Screw “the customer is always right,” he thought, glancing at Benny, the fat manager. He opened the dishwasher and pulled steaming hot forks out one by one. Then he noticed a coffee stain on the counter that had to be rubbed twice, three times, four. The new girl wove in her seat like she was about to pass out. Victory. Finally, he met her eyes. “Would you like fries with that?”

Digging Deeper Into Showing and Telling

What do you notice? In the first one, the characters’ emotions are very obvious. Why? The narrator tells you all about them. We know Katie is hungry and we know Karl really isn’t digging the bossy way she ordered a burger. That’s fine. It works. It gets the information across, right? (In a very redundant way, mind you!)

What about in the second example. Did we still get that same information? Now what about it is different, then? There are a few things. First, we were able to get “hungry” without anybody saying the word. The rush on Katie’s part to get to the counter combined with a little bit of interiority about what she’s feeling and then matched to her shouting out an order. We’re pretty sure she’s hungry or, at the very least, that something urgent is going on.

Using Interiority: Thoughts, Feelings, Reactions

We get more into Karl’s head here. We get his tension with the manager and his attitude about a common customer service adage right away. He won’t even look at the customer. Instead, he busies himself with painstakingly removing forks “one by one” or the tally of how many times he wipes the counter. These drag out the scene without once using the word “procrastination.”

We also get more of Katie’s hunger from his perspective, and how it makes Karl feel. That way, his rehashed “Would you like fries with that?” still comes across ironically, though, this time, it’s because we know what’s been going on in his head much more intimately. This is called interiority.

How Readers Receive and Know Information

This brings me to why showing v. telling is so crucial, why so many writing teachers and agents and editors and crit partners harp on it: there are many kinds of knowing. One kind of knowing, you get by reading facts in the newspaper. You are a passive recipient of information.

Another kind of knowing, the kind you practice every day in your life, is the detective work kind. You have to do some reasoning, some sleuthing, you have to actively pay attention to what’s going on around you — what the world is showing you — in order to figure people out, judge a situation, make your own assumptions and decisions about things.

This is the exact kind of “knowing” that you’re interested in giving your reader. By showing them a scene, showing them what’s going on in a person’s head, giving them information but embedding it below the surface, you’re inviting your reader to put their thinking cap on, to dive into your story and go deeper. The reader had to work in the second example to figure out what’s going on with both Katie and Karl.

Guess what? That made them feel like they knew the characters better, it made them more engaged in the story and it gave them a sense of ownership of these people and their scene. Since the reader did some work to figure out what was going on, they now feel included, emotionally invested. Cool, right? And every author should pick creating that experience for their reader over just telling them stuff with every sentence they write.

An Exception to the Rule

Showing v. telling with a person’s interiority in third or first person narration is one small exception to the rule. I know some of you will ask why I still chose to tell the reader “It felt like a pit had opened up inside her” in the second example, too. There are some times when you can show too much. If you’re always saying “she punched the wall” or “she spat on the ground,” for example, instead of occasionally just saying what the character feels inside, it can get overwhelming. You don’t have to say “angry” outright, but you can simply tell the reader what’s going on with narration instead of action or gesture. Sometimes that’s easier and more direct.

It all depends on where you want the focus of each moment to go. And it is a balance. Play around with it. Now that you know why showing v. telling is so crucial in your writing, you should really, at least in the beginning, err very much on the side of showing.

Struggling with your balance of showing, telling, and interiority? Hire me as your novel editor and I’ll apply these concepts in a completely custom way to your manuscript.

Exciting Writing At the Sentence Level

Some writers are just a blast to read, they master exciting writing at the sentence level, from paragraph to paragraph. It almost seems like magic. Your eyes just can’t stop hopping along from one page to the next.

exciting writing, novel writing, sentence craft, fiction craft, how to write a good sentence, mimetic writing
Exciting writing begins at the sentence level.

How to Create Exciting Writing at the Sentence Level

How do they do it?

Let me wager a guess: sentences. Among other things, of course. But that’s right: sentences. The building blocks of prose, sentences are crucial to good, flowing, engaging writing.

A lot of beginning writers — caught up in plot and dialogue and characterization and description — sometimes lose sight of craft at the sentence level. Here are three things to watch out for in revision that will make your prose sing.

How to Begin a Sentence

Beware of structuring most of your sentences in the same way. The most common one I see, by far, is the “I verb” (first person) or “Subject verb” (third person) sentence beginning.

Take a look at these two short example paragraphs:

I looked down the street, first left, then right. I didn’t see anybody so I ran left. I picked wrong, of course. I had no idea that the bad guys were just around the corner.

Or:

He grabs the book and scans the lettering etched into the leather cover: The Volume of Secrets. He sighs with wonder. It is his at last. He slips it into his pocket just as Professor Detritus appears in the doorway.

If the above paragraphs inspire a vague sense of boredom, it’s because almost every sentence starts the same: “I verb” or “Subject verb.” Let me repeat: I see this a lot. If you’re not sure how often you fall into this trap, start underlining all of your “I verb” or “Subject verb” sentence beginnings. Seeing a lot of lines? Spice up your sentence structure so they don’t all start the same way.

How Long Should Sentence Be

Sentence length is another thing you want to take into consideration when you write. I know this might sound like a no-brainer to some of you, but varying sentence length in every paragraph is a great way to keep the reader engaged. Take a look at one example:

The river drifted slowly through the countryside. Lila stood on its banks and watched the water. Anthony hitched up his horse somewhere behind her. She could almost hear his impatience.

Now compare to this one:

The river drifted slowly through the countryside. Home. Lila stood on its banks, watching familiar water burble at her feet. Behind her, Anthony hitched up his horse, the saddle hitting Lightning’s muscled back with a hard packing sound. She could almost hear his impatience.

I’ve mixed it up a bit, varying the “Subject verb” sentence beginnings, but also sentence length. We go from the very short “Home.” to a pretty long one about the horse. This keeps the reader engaged because, otherwise, their eyes and brain get lulled to sleep by sentences that look alike. Keep your reader on their toes, right down to the varied length of your sentences.

Exciting Writing Is Mimetic Writing

Sentence length is also very useful in setting tone. Make your sentence length match the mood of what you’re saying. Take a look:

Her heels hit the pavement in staccato bursts. They were after her. Five of them. Guns drawn.

Short, choppy sentences heighten tension. Alternately, long, loopy sentences have their uses:

Edward’s pale marble skin erupted in a shimmering display as soon as he stepped into the lazy beam of afternoon sunshine. A light seemed to leak from his very soul and out of his pores, like a million twinkling stars dotting the nighttime firmament, each fleck of glitter as dazzling as the next.

Martha and Whitney, that was for you! You get my drift. 🙂 So be aware of the length of your sentences.

How to Use Punctuation

There’s not much to say about this one, really, except that sentence structure is closely tied to punctuation. Do a sentence without a comma. Then slip in a more complex sentence with a comma, several commas or (gasp!) maybe even a semi-colon.

Harnessing Your Writing Tics

Also, be aware that you might have some pet structures that you use over and over again. This doesn’t just apply on a sentence level, or a paragraph level, but on a manuscript level. Every writer has tics: pet expressions, favorite words, redundant descriptions. This applies to how you craft sentences, too.

One of my tics is this type of sentence structure, for example:

“The air tasted briny and salty and cool. As far as sunsets went, this one lit up the sky in orange, pink, and lavender.”

Using “word and word and word” and “word, word, and word” is one of my challenges as a writer. I like to describe things in threes. While using “and” sometimes instead of commas and vice versa mixes up the sentence structure, these shenanigans still litter my manuscripts.

I’m not saying get rid of your favorite way of crafting a sentence, I’m saying: be aware of it and make each choice, even on the sentence level, an intentional one.

Sentence Craft Is an Intentional Choice

Repeat after me, folks:

Every sentence in my manuscript is an intentional choice!

Feels good, right? Playing with sentence structure is just one way to make your manuscript that much stronger. It is essential to the craft and these are just three small things to take into consideration. Have fun!

An exciting novel begins at the sentence level. Hire me as your novel editor and we will engineer great fiction together from the ground up.

When to Use the Second Person

Is everyone clear on what the 2nd person is? It’s the “you” in a narrative. Many narrators, usually first person, use the “you” occasionally. Here are a few examples:

“My heart pounded with the kind of beat you only get after running for your life.”

“I’m telling you straight, man, she was so hot you could fry an egg on her.”

There’s also the implied 2nd person, which is sort of like the second example only the “you” is never explicitly stated. This implied 2nd person is usually used with a storytelling sort of voice:

“It rained so hard, honest to God, I never thought it’d stop.”

In all of these examples, there is either a “you” addressed or hinted at. The narrator is always talking to someone (usually interpreted as “the reader”) and breaking the fourth wall. (Theatre geek here, remember? “Breaking the fourth wall” is a theatre term, meaning the actors break the barrier between the stage and the house and address the audience directly.)

There’s also a less widespread use of the 2nd person… that’s when the “you” is another character in the story and the narrating character is talking directly to them. An excellent recent example of this is WHEN YOU REACH ME.

Finally, there are books that are written entirely in the 2nd person, where “You” is the main character. These do not work for me, at all, as the direct address feels like it’s pulling me out of the story the entire time. A book that I have recently been unable to get into, despite knowing how brilliant it is and having deep respect for its writer and editor, is (the aptly titled) YOU by Charles Benoit.

Now that we’re all clear on what the 2nd person is, I want to make a point about it. A lot of writers are very careless with the occasional 2nd person because it has become very common in our way of talking. Everyday speech is studded with expressions like “you know?” and they translate into our manuscripts. Sometimes a narrator will go on a 2nd person jag, and every simile has a “you” embedded in it. Other times, the “you” will be absent for hundreds of pages at a time only to show up randomly.

Be very careful with the 2nd person. It is confrontational. It breaks out of the 1st or 3rd person and crosses the line between story and reader, fiction and the real life of the person reading it. It makes the reader part of the story and, when used intentionally, can have a really cool effect (which I still probably won’t appreciate, as is the case with YOU, because I don’t personally enjoy 2nd person).

But I’m seeing a lot of sloppy, careless 2nd person outbursts in narratives that don’t necessarily demand the 2nd person. My tip, while you’re just feeling out a story and getting the hang of writing it, is to leave the 2nd person out, if you can. If used correctly and consistently, it rocks. Otherwise, it just seems spotty and annoying. From me, it gets the reaction of: “Leave ME out of it and get on with the story!”

So that’s what I’d say. Either you use 2nd person consistently in a manuscript (and I’m talking narrative here, not dialogue) or write a draft without the 2nd person and see if you miss it. All I’m saying, folks, is make it intentional.

Bonus Tip: If there’s one thing that bugs the jeebus out of me, it’s the use of a 2nd person rhetorical question to launch a query letter:

“What would YOU do if a flesh-eating virus was descending on YOUR town and only YOU had the antidote… locked in a small capsule in the base of YOUR spine?”

Um… are you honestly asking me? Because I’d probably mess my pants, eat a pint of ice cream and go hide in the basement with my back to the wall.

See, when you get the 2nd person involved, it automatically elicits a reaction from your reader. By starting a query with a rhetorical question, you’ll get on your reader’s nerves and most likely elicit the reaction of: “I don’t want to hear about ME, I’d rather hear about YOUR book, dingus!”

Not that any serious publishing professionals have ever been known to use the word “dingus.” (Okay, that might be a lie.)

How To Write Excellent Dialogue Tags

Dialogue tags are like clauses. If the actual line of dialogue is the meat of the sentence, these little guys hang somewhere around or within it and add information. But there are dialogue tags, and there are excellent dialogue tags. You want the latter, obviously.

dialogue tags, who to write dialogue, how to write great dialogue
Don’t clutter your scene with dialogue tags, let what’s being spoken take center stage.

When I’m reading manuscripts, I always note some dialogue tag issues. Here are some of the most common, so you can play along at home and edit them out of your revision.

Avoid Dialogue and Tag Redundancy

This is a big issue, as anything redundant in your manuscript sticks out like a big old zit in a prom photo. Go back through your manuscript and see if you’re saying anything twice in a single line… once in your dialogue, another time in your tag. Hint: this is where most of your ickiest adverbs will be. Examples:

“I’m so angry, I could spit!” she growled, nearly snorting fire from her flared nostrils.

Alex’s hands flew to blot at his crimson cheeks. “I am so embarrassed!”

“Oh yeah? What’s it to you?” she said, testily.

These are technically not bad writing. But they are redundant. In the examples above, the action or adverb basically echo what is conveyed in dialogue. If we separated those tags from the dialogue and used either the description or the dialogue alone, we would still convey the same emotions. Be careful not to repeat yourself (like I just did).

Don’t Use Dialogue Tags to Choreograph Action

Writing a novel sometimes feels like doing blocking for a play or directing actors in a movie. You have these characters in your head and they’re moving around the place you’ve imagined for them. In real life, we take pauses in our speech, we fiddle with our keys, we put a tea saucer down then pick it back up again (if we’re classy enough to drink it out of fine china).

You want to make sure your reader gets what these characters are physically doing in space, right? You want them to see your characters like they see actors in a movie. Sure, but when you do it too much, it really drags your dialogue down. Here’s an example of one short, continuous snippet that starts to read like choreography (sorry, indentation and blogging do not go together):

“I don’t know, I mean, he’s got to come out of there sometime,” Suzie said, ripping a bite out of her turkey sandwich with her perfectly white teeth.
“I gueff,” Chris said, his mouth full of burrito. He swallowed it down. “I guess.”
Suzie chased her bite with a sip of Diet Coke from her dewy wax cup. “It’s the third time this week Biff’s shoved him in that locker.”
Chris reached into his pocket and checked the time on his phone. “It’s been about an hour already.”
Suzie arched an eyebrow. “What if he runs out of air?”
“Impossible, there are at least a dozen vents.” Chris put his phone away and folded his hands in his lap.
Suzie pushed her chair away from the table, leaving her sandwich nearly whole on its red checkered wrapper. “But you know he has asthma!”

What’s going on in this scene? What are the characters saying? Do we even really care? I don’t. I couldn’t keep track of the dialogue because there was so much business in between. The only actions we really needed, I suppose, are Chris taking out his phone to check the time and Suzie pushing herself away from the table. The rest could be trimmed back significantly.

Don’t Stuff Adverbs in Dialogue Tags

This one needs no introduction or explanation. For the last time, folks, let’s lay it all out there: adverbs are like corn dogs. You think they’re a really good idea, then you eat a couple and you realize they’re much better in moderation. Don’t cut all adverbs out of your manuscript, but prune… aggressively. They don’t add much — only in special circumstances do they work — and they are usually a sign of a writer not trusting their reader.

Dialogue conveys things. That’s the whole point of it. It tells us who a character is, how they talk, what they think, what they say aloud vs. what they keep inside, what people are planning to do, what people did, how people feel about things, etc. etc. etc. Good dialogue is very information-dense without hitting you over the head. If it is well-written, the reader learns new things without even realizing.

Adverbs and the other kinds of tagging errors I’ve discussed here just get in the way of good dialogue and make it too… obvious. That’s not what you should be aiming for. If you’re seeing a lot of adverbs, it’s time to really examine your dialogue and make sure you’re conveying what you need to in the actual scene and not leaning on adverbs as a crutch.

How to Write Excellent Dialogue Tags

Some things to remember about writing good dialogue:

  1. Make sure your tags aren’t redundant.
  2. Let the dialogue speak for itself and don’t rely on adverbs or choreography.
  3. This is advice for writing good anything: trust your reader.
  4. Make your dialogue information-dense but not obvious.
  5. Bonus: don’t play the name game!

“Now take this to heart and prosper!” she said, triumphantly, her fingers clacking on the keys of her MacBook as she wished her readers well. (Ba-dum bum ching! See what I did there?)

Hire me for fiction editing. I will comment on all facets of your manuscript, including, yes, those pesky dialogue tags!