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.”

how to write fiction, when to tell in writing
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 when to tell in writing.

I never pretended to know everything about how to write fiction, 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 rule about how to write fiction though: Show and Good Tell, don’t Bad Tell.

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Can you find any examples of when to tell in writing? 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? Struggling with when to tell in writing? Hire me as your manuscript editor for book editing services.

How to Write Actions: Stimulus First, Then Reaction

I’ve been thinking about how to write actions that work. When I’m editing manuscripts, I often notice that I fall into trends and phases. There are things I pick up on more than others these days, and those things haven’t always been the same. The more I read, the more I notice, and the deeper I get into my own understanding of novel craft. That’s why it’s always interesting to me to analyze the kinds of notes I give across manuscripts, the things that a lot of writers are doing and why they work, or don’t.

how to write actions, action writing
As human beings, we see, interpret, and react. If you jumble the order for your characters, readers will have a hard time navigating through your sentences.

Here’s a note I’ve found myself giving very often in recent months: Stimulus first, then reaction.

How to Write Actions: Don’t Put the Reaction Before the Stimulus

Here’s an example of what to avoid in terms of how to write actions. This is just something random that I’ve written:

“Jeez! You scared me,” Anne said. Howard was standing in the kitchen, holding a butcher knife.

In this example of action writing, we get Anne’s reaction to Howard first, then we finally figure out what the reaction means: Howard is standing in the kitchen with a butcher knife.

The effect is jarring for the reader, but not in a good, suspenseful way (which I think is what the author intended). We get something that doesn’t seem to fit (reaction) and, instead of reading, we are now scrambling to figure out where the reaction belongs (to the stimulus). It takes the reader out of the story.

The Wrong Way to Build Suspense

Now, I know that some people like to build suspense by giving a reader the reaction, then making them wait for the big reveal of what the stimulus is. This fails more often than it works because of the aforementioned confusion. And you’re likely going to reveal what caused the reaction within a sentence or two anyway, so is the payoff of withholding really worth it?

How to Write Actions: Don’t Introduce a Character with Dialogue

When we’re considering how to write actions, the same goes for introducing a character with dialogue instead of putting them in the scene first. Here’s an example:

“What’s going on, party people?”
I looked up. John was going around the room with a beer in one hand, slapping sloppy high-fives with the other. What a tool.

Once again, we’re left to play catch-up and try to figure out who uttered the phantom dialogue. It would be much more effective to manipulate this bit of action writing to say:

John barreled into the room and slapped a round of sloppy high-fives, spilling beer in his wake. “What’s going on, party people?” he yelled.
What a tool.

We know exactly what’s going on, the stage is set, all the players are in place. When it comes time for John to speak, we know the who and the why and the how of the situation.

Clarity is King: See, Interpret, React

When you plunk a new character into the scene or when you’re building a moment of surprise, remember that clarity is king. Give us a linear progression that goes from the stimulus to the narrator/main character’s interpretation and reaction. This is how to write actions effectively. (For extra credit, check out my post on how to write action scenes.)

That’s what we do as human beings. We see, interpret and react. Why should our action writing reflect something different?

Do you need help adding clarity to the actions in your story? My editing services will help you smooth out your action writing so readers can zip right through your prose.

Swear Words in Young Adult Fiction

At the last few conferences I attended, people have been very interested in swear words in young adult fiction. Now, a brilliant writer I know said to me, when I asked him for guidance on this issue: “A swear word is just another word. It has to be a choice, just like every other word in your manuscript.”

swear words in young adult fiction, writing young adult fiction, ya fiction, swearing in children's books
Worried about swearing in children’s books? Keep this young adult away from your manuscript, because he’s about to drop some swear words…or not…

The Considerations of Swear Words in Young Adult Fiction

I completely agree. If you absolutely have to use a swear word in your manuscript, if there’s no other word it could be, then use it. You won’t get a squeamish look from me. (You may get an odd glance from a few people in my DFW Writers Conference audience, who apparently gasped when I dropped an f-bomb or two in response to this same question. What? The guy who dropped it first looked self-conscious, so I had to take some of the heat off of him!) You might also alienate yourself from certain libraries, school administrators, booksellers and editors who work for more clean-cut imprints and don’t publish edgy content, including swearing in children’s books. There will be parents who are too scared of their kids growing up, who are in denial of the words and ideas that fly around every middle and high school in every town in every country, too.

The thing is, kids are really good at figuring out what’s a good fit for them and what isn’t. If they are reading swear words in young adult and it makes them uncomfortable, they’ll skip that part or put the book down. The same goes for any other kind of edgy content. Parents, librarians, administrators and booksellers shouldn’t always presume to know exactly what kind of book is scandalous to what kind of teen reader.

Everyone Has Their Swear Word Limits

On a recent trip, I was getting really into a story, and dropped an f-bomb. Not loudly or rudely but, you know, sometimes I get carried away. The man in front of us, who was sitting with, no joke, a 17 or 18 year-old daughter, in a college sweatshirt, for Pete’s sake, turned around and hissed, “Can you please not say that? I’m traveling with a child!” He indicated his daughter with an angry nod of the head.

I can guarantee that his scowling teen was 500% more scandalized by being referred to as a “child” in public than she was by a word I said. Words only have power if you give it to them. (Of course, I shut my yap right after that. I may not have agreed with the guy but I’m not a jerk.)

Superfluous Swear Words

Speaking of which, there are certain times when I don’t think swear words in young adult fiction are necessary. If it’s every other word, that might be too much. If it’s peppered in to be hip or cool or edgy, then it will come across as forced. Some people circumvent the issue by creating their own colorful vocabulary. If the language is natural enough, this could work, but it mostly feels contrived to me. The important thing to remember is that nobody’s forcing you to do anything, it’s your manuscript. You can swear if you want to but, by the same token, if you don’t want to swear, you can write a clean manuscript and that’s just fine, too. There aren’t any hard and fast rules about swearing in children’s books.

Swear Words in Young Adult Writing Are Totally Up to You

If, though, as mentioned above, including swear words in young adult is a conscious choice, a careful choice, then there’s no problem with it. An editor or agent can always let you know if something is too much or not right. And if you do publish a book with any kind of content — like sex in young adult fiction — there will always be people who balk.

But you know what? Fuck ’em.

🙂

Come on. I had to.

Are you hitting the right young adult voice? Hire me to be your young adult editor.

ETA: WOW! Clearly, this is a very passionate issue. Lest anybody here thought that swearing in children’s books was settled, let them come and read the comments. The use of a swear word or an opinion about swearing, one way or another, has caused certain readers to lose their respect for me. It has caused other readers to gain it. This is powerful, powerful stuff.

My favorite part of keeping this blog and of teaching writers is ALWAYS how much I learn about my own subject matter in the process. In throwing up this post — and its intentionally cheeky last few lines — I’ve had so many new thoughts on the issue of swearing in YA. I’ve delved a lot deeper into this issue in my head. Watch out for another post about swearing in YA on Friday.

Lastly, as one reader pointed out, and to repeat the obvious, this is about swearing in YA fiction. The same rules do not apply for MG at ALL. (I would highly recommend NOT swearing in MG.) Thank you all for the food for thought!

Creative Writing Revision Exercises

Here are some creative writing revision exercises that’ll help those of you wondering how to rewrite a novel. Grab your red pencil and read on!

creative writing revision exercises, how to rewrite a novel
Want to know how to rewrite a novel? Sharpen that pencil and dig into these creative writing revision exercises.

Creative Writing Revision Exercises to Strengthen Character

100 Declarative Sentences

This is a great brainstorm tool, and it’s really hard. This creative writing revision exercise 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.

Creative Writing Revision Exercises to Strengthen Prose

Cut 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.

Eliminate 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 for how to rewrite a novel 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!

More Resources for How to Rewrite a Novel

The above are just a few creative writing revision exercises 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 creative writing revision exercises in previous blog posts. Here’s a post about how to avoid writing cliches, and here’s another post about a nifty novel revision tip. Feel free to leave your hot tips and brainstorming ideas in the comments.

Feeling stuck on your WIP? Need help with how to rewrite a novel? Hire me as your novel editor and I’ll offer a fresh perspective on your work.

Developing Writing Voice, Loud and Clear

Developing writing voice is the number one thing that separates the published from the unpublished and, after that, the good books from the mediocre ones. The most successful writers in kidlit these days have undeniable voice. One way people describe voice is that, if you pick up a book without seeing the title or cover, and start reading, you’ll be able to guess who the author is. Sure. That’s what I like to call “authorial voice” and it’s important. But if you’re just starting out or you’ve only completed one or two projects, your authorial voice is still developing. So that explanation of voice isn’t satisfying enough, in my opinion.

developing writing voice, types of voice in writing
You need to figure out who your main character is and then see the world through their eyes.

Developing Writing Voice Defined

How else can we define voice? Where does it come from? I want to argue that it comes from character. And since a lot of main characters are thinly-veiled versions of the author, this means the character’s voice shares a lot of elements with the author’s own voice. Two birds with one stone! What do I mean by “the character’s voice”? Well, if you remember, a character should be as fleshed-out and vibrant as a real human being. They should have their own favorite words that they use (not necessarily slang, people, that’s the cheap and superficial way to do it!), their own way of speaking, their own way of describing things, their own way of seeing the world.

If you want to work on developing writing voice, or if people keep telling you that your voice didn’t hook them enough or wasn’t enough for them to make a connection, I would seriously try writing in the first person. That’s where you can see the effects of voice most easily and immediately. But there are different types of voice in writing — some authors write with a lot of voice in close 3rd or omniscient 3rd, but it is much more challenging. Either way, let me explain voice in the context of a character.

Voice is How Your Main Character Sees the World

I said in my post about writing imagery that theme is like a lens… something everything else in your manuscript is filtered through. This idea holds even more true for developing writing voice. You need to figure out who your main character is and then see the world through their eyes. Use the words that they would use. Describe things with that character’s particular slant. Here are two ways of describing the exact same thing: a green couch. First: “It was a moss-green item of furniture that could fit four people.” Second: “The lumpy old raft of a couch was baby-poop-green and threatening to make me sick. After all, it was jammed with my three least-favorite people: Uncle Mordy, Aunt Mildred, and my lech cousin Kenny. Oh yeah… and me.”

That is in a character’s unique voice. Aunt Mildred might’ve described the couch in a completely different way, because she happens to watch a lot of Martha Stewart, or whatever. And we still get the information that the couch is green and fits four people. But we get it through a special filter. Just like we’re learning something about a manuscript’s theme through the writer’s use of imagery and description, we should also be learning about the character through the voice. Different types of voice in writing will reveal different sides of the story.

Word Choice Matters

Developing writing voice also circles back to word and verb choice. Boring words that sound like they’re out of a business memo or that are too adult and drab for the kidlit audience are the bane of my existence. Words that are stilted or businesslike, like “objective,” “achieve,” “vehicle” (instead of “car”), “communicate,” “item,” “object,” even general words like “beautiful,” “exciting,” “dangerous,” mean nothing. That’s because they lack voice. And a reader isn’t going to respond to them and get engaged in the material. Two paragraphs above, I used the verb “jammed” instead of the more static “sat” or “reclined” or “rested” or even “was stuck” because it’s active, it fires up the imagination. And it fits the mood and tone of the situation I’m describing.

Character and Voice and Inseparable

Some people liken developing writing voice to almost “hearing” the character whispering the story into your ear as you write. That’s a nice way of thinking about it, if it helps you. I think voice is equal to the life in your character. Pitch-perfect word choices create voice and define character. A well-defined, unique character generates voice. The two are in a constant feedback loop. And the same is true for 3rd person, only it’s really the narrator’s voice that shines through here. Depending on how far removed your narrator is from the story, you can either make the voice a really big part of the tale, like Adrienne Kress does in her books, or you can be more distant. Whether your voice is outrageous and brash, as in the example above, or a little more subdued, like your average 3rd person narrator, it still needs to be carefully crafted, word by word, so that its unique essence comes through on every page.

And that’s a huge challenge. I can tell you honestly that the books which I choose to represent all have voice. 99.99% of what comes in to me might not be “bad.” It might even be “pretty good.” There may be nothing technically wrong with the writing, either. But the voice will be lacking, and that’s really the “x-factor.” It’s usually the last thing to fall into place for a writer as they wade through their Million Bad Words. It’s when you’re proficient at all the other writing tricks and tools that you really feel like you can play around and experiment and play Frankenstein… create a living, breathing thing on the page.

Do Your Research

But the only way to get there is to write and study types of voice in writing. Try Laurie Halse Anderson and David Levithan, Carrie Jones and Frank Portman, Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) and M.T. Anderson. Meg Cabot (Yes, even her! Some people find her sugary energy grating, but that’s why so many people love her!) and J.K. Rowling. If you want to read an adult book (Gasp! Heresy! And on KIDlit.com, of all places!), I would seriously recommend THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO by Junot Diaz. That is voice heaped on top of voice and piled with even more voice and slathered with a heaping scoop of voice to make a delicious voice sandwich. It’s the only adult book I’ve read this year (how awesome is that?) and I read it twice.

Use Your (Literal) Voice

One thing that works for me in terms of developing writing voice is speaking the story into a pocket recording device and transcribing it later. The first stories that people told each other were oral histories around the campfire. This was long before the Bible and the printing press. Composing your story to yourself aloud helps open up creative channels you’re not used to using, helps you improvise, forces you to get a little hammy and act it out. It also reminds you to use a unique voice (yours!) and that you’re, at the end of the day, telling a story. Write a whole book that way or just try a chapter. It’s worth a shot.

My manuscript critique services will help you develop a unique voice that suits your story.

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, show don't tell examples
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 “show don’t tell” means and, more importantly, why it’s important.

Let me give you some show don’t tell examples. 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 about these show don’t tell examples? 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 “show don’t tell” 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 of the two show don’t tell examples 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. (Check out my post on interiority in writing for more on this concept.) 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 of the two show don’t tell examples, 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 “show don’t tell” 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.

Plotting a Novel in Four Steps

Many writers get stuck on how to write a novel plot. How do I know? I’ve seen thousands of plots, and very few that worked well enough to sell. Plot is one of the most important elements of any story, from picture book to chapter book to a middle grade novel outline to young adult.

Novels are quite the tricky kettle of fish. We’ve already talked about character, but characters mostly add internal conflict to a story when left to their own devices. They sit and contemplate how lonely they are, or how unpopular, or how much they want something exciting to happen. So what do we do? We give them external conflict: plot.

How to Write a Novel Plot in Four Key Points

I’ve had the tremendous luck to study with middle grade author Lewis Buzbee in my MFA program. Not only is he a very talented writer but he’s an excellent teacher. This way of looking at plot is cribbed almost entirely from him, because I think it’s just that good. (But he often gives this workshop in person and, if you ever get the chance, do listen to him talk about it… my version will be a pale imitation.)

So, basically, what Lewis teaches and what I believe is that there are only four key points to a plot. This is that “dramatic arc” that you hear so much about. Some writing teachers subscribe to a “three act” structure, some like five acts, some like to choreograph your plot right down to what should happen in a story when. I think these micromanaging techniques miss the point.

All The Novel Structure Your Need, With None of the Gimmicks

Put whatever you want in your plot, run your characters through the story that’s in your imagination, but when you’re reading your manuscript over again, make sure it adheres to this very simple arc:

how to write a novel plot, plotting a novel, novel structure
Memorize this little graph so you’ll know when to zig instead of zag in your plot.

Do you like my lovely drawing? I never said I was visually gifted, mind you. Let me explain what’s going on here, point by point:

  1. Normal: This is your character’s baseline. At the beginning of a story, your character is usually their normal self in their normal circumstances (as much as possible). Something has probably happened to knock them off balance but they are making do. They might even be doing well. Even if they’re starting on their first day at a new school, they’re making a friend or two, they’re not completely failing their classes, they discover a magic shop where the owner seems very interested in them, etc. This leads us to…
  2. The Rise: This, for the near future, is as good as your character is going to get. You want to spend some time, maybe the first quarter of your story, building relationships, exposing your character and their goals and motivations, creating a world and planting all the seeds of plot, story, theme and character that will be important later. If your story is longer, maybe spend only the first 1/5th or 1/6th here. Then get ready for…
  3. The Fall: But things were just moving along so nicely! Oh well. We don’t pick up books to read about nice people in calm, tranquil situations. All that stuff that you’ve established in the first quarter, fifth or sixth of your story… screw it up. Things go from okay to bad, from bad to worse, and from worse to impossible. The character’s relationships get troubled, their goals and aspirations are thwarted at every turn, they make dumb decisions and have to deal with the consequences, etc. The very bottom of this point on the graph is usually the climax of the story, aka. when things seem hopeless or so bad that they can’t get any worse. Then, the character triumphs, and…
  4. The Evening Out: No, not a nice night out on the town with a date. This is the getting back to some kind of equilibrium again. It shouldn’t be the same equilibrium because, hopefully, your character has changed over the course of their journey. It is a new normal, a new way of living and thinking and existing in the world of the story.

There you go. Now, you’ll notice that the graph outlines more of an emotional journey than specific plot points.

Focus on Character Emotions to Get the Most Out of Your Plot

Unfortunately, I can’t sit here and tell you all the things that must happen in your story. I don’t know. They have to be born from the character who’s starring in your book and the story that you want to tell. But take this four-point structure to heart and make sure that the plot you’re creating puts your character in roughly this emotional state over the duration of your story.

How you get them to these emotional highs and lows, to these particular experiences, is up to you, but make sure you’re massaging and revising your story into the above shape. It is the most effective and a great starting place, even if you do want to experiment later. (Here’s an idea about making your plot points irreversible and very important.)

In order to do this more effectively, you might want to outline. That’s right, everyone hates writing a middle grade novel outline or a young adult chapter by chapter breakdown. I know pantsers are going to hate this advice. But it’s worth at least trying, so you can see how you’re plotting a novel in front of your very eyes.

How to Write a Novel Subplot

Subplots don’t need to be quite as dramatic — the highs shouldn’t be so high, the lows shouldn’t be so low — and they don’t have to span the whole length of the book, but do make sure that they follow some semblance of this graph, too. Subplots are usually generated by secondary characters. Let’s say the plot of your book is American Pie-esque… a guy, Joe, trying to get laid before the end of his senior year in high school.

That quest will form the main plot. Let’s say, though, that he’s got a best friend, Sam, who can’t seem to stop getting laid, and he’s been hiding all his various girlfriends from each other.

Sam’s subplot is that he wants to simplify his life and get rid of some of his attachments. This subplot could interact with the main plot because Sam might try to pawn off girls on our hero Joe, for example, or one of the girls pretends to like Joe just so she can get back at Sam. So subplots usually belong to other featured characters in your story and have this same trajectory. The moments when they interact with the main plot should serve to move the main plot along.

Leave Room for Tension, Mystery, and Surprise

This brings me to my last consideration about how to write a novel plot. Readers like to be surprised, they like suspense, they like the unexpected. Your plot shouldn’t be so linear. That’s why I like using the emotional highs and lows of your story for guidance. For me, as long as you hit these emotional points, there’s a lot more room and flexibility for an interesting plot. Ally Carter, in a workshop I went to, talked about surprises. They’re characters and plot points that dig into the story you’re telling and spin it around, shooting it off in a completely different direction.

Make sure you’ve got key places in your story where a character or event acts like a bumper car and sends the story in a new or unexpected place. Let’s say Joe, our high school virgin, is about to ask his dream girl to the prom — where he’ll try to seal the deal — but she asks Sam, blissfully unaware of his Hugh Hefner tendencies. Now Joe is caught between his loyalty to Sam and wanting to save Dream Girl from Sam’s clutches. This creates a whole new wrinkle in the story.

Complications! Surprise! You don’t have to be zany for the sake of zaniness here, like I have been, but do try to keep the tension and suspense of surprise alive and well in your story.

Wondering what to do with your specific novel plot? Get one-on-one,  in-depth feedback on your manuscript when you hire me as a fiction editor. I can look at your synopsis, a partial, or your whole novel to really drill into how you’re using plot.

What Makes a Great Character?

Today, I want to talk about what makes a great character. A publishable one? First, let me say: book elements do not exist in isolation. A stellar protagonist must be put into action with great plot and dialogue, a fascinating plot must have great heroes to act it out, etc. etc. etc. Character, for me, is most important, so I’m starting here. You’ll even find a character development worksheet to help you along.

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How to create a character who’ll engage and dazzle young readers.

How to Create a Character

Every story has a main character. If the story is written in the first person, the character is also the narrator. If it is in third, I’d argue that there still needs to be a main anchor to everything, even in omniscient narratives. (Or two main characters… Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld is a good example of a narrative balanced fairly equally between two people.)

A character-driven book usually focuses on your character and their life, and it is the character who dictates what the plot is. Other books toss a character, a John Everyman, say, into an aggressive outside plot that determines the course of the book.

Questions for Character Development

In either case, I say that the writer needs to have answers to the following questions in this character profile worksheet:

  • What is your protagonist’s nature? Are they shy? Gregarious? A homebody? A great girlfriend? A backstabber? (Examples of personality and nature are endless…)
  • What is your character’s physicality? Are they fat? Thin? Awkward? Do they have some kind of physical issue? Are they a slouch? (Also endless…)
  • What is your character’s self-esteem? Is there something about themselves they want to change? Why?
  • What are their secrets? Are there things they’ve never told anyone? Do they wish they can tell someone? Why?
  • What does everyone else know (or think they know) about your character? Is it true? What does your character wish everyone knew about them? Why?
  • What are your characters goals in life and moment to moment? Their wants in life and moment to moment? Their needs in life and moment to moment? Their frustrations in life and moment to moment? Why, for all of the above?
  • What is their motivation in life and moment to moment? Why?
  • What is their “normal” baseline? What is life usually like? (This usually gets disturbed pretty early on in the story.)
  • What are your character’s relationships with other characters? What is the most important relationship? The best? The worst? The most fulfilling? The most frustrating? The one they most want to change? The one that will never change? Why?
  • What is the character’s unique perspective on life? (I will talk more about this when I talk about voice.)
  • What is the hero’s past? What is their present? What is their future?

Character Development Exercises

When you’re reading your book over, feel free to use some of the above questions as writing exercises to brainstorm. I’ve tried to avoid questions that would trigger simple “yes” or “no” answers. Drill deeper than that. You probably don’t have to be so thorough about every person in your book. But the above character development worksheet is a good place to start.

You don’t really need to spend valuable time figuring out the deep, life-defining secret of the guy your character borrows a pencil from on page 37, for example. But your protagonist? Yes. The important parent/guidance figure? Yes. The best friend? Yes. The love interest? Yes. The enemy? Yes.

When you start brainstorming, you’ll be surprised at what you find out. That’s the great thing about creating (See? You do get to be creative during revision!). When you start thinking about some of these things, your mind will just come up with answers you never anticipated. And they’ll feel right. Give it a try. Maybe answer one of these questions a day. When you comb back over your draft, figure out places where you can reveal whatever answers you want your readers to know.

Character Development Brainstorming

A lot of these things may never make it into the manuscript itself. And a lot of them, like the goals and motivations, will come out in scene, but below the surface. A character’s past will emerge through backstory. Relationships will come out in dialogue and plot. Secrets and yearnings, other private thoughts, will come out in narration (if in first person… if you’re writing in close third, the narrator can peek into their head).

I’d say that, out of the above questions in the character development worksheet, the answers that will make a huge difference to your story page by page are the questions of goals/needs/wants/frustrations and their motivation. A human being changes from moment to moment. In one scene with their crazy mom, they might want to stick it to The Man. In another, they might just want a parent who can listen to them.

Character Objective and Motivation

As you go through your plot and through ever scene, ever action your hero takes, think about what’s driving them in this moment. What needs/wants/goals/frustrations are in play. Those will usually factor into why they’re doing something — the motivation. And every scene and moment in your story — as well as the larger story arc — needs motivation.

Now, the tricky part is, all this stuff is hidden. We never walk into an argument with someone saying: “I want such and such and I plan on yelling at you until you give it to me!” No. First we might flatter. When that doesn’t work, we might get nasty and say something mean. When that backfires, we’ll try to guilt trip the person, and so on and so forth.

In college, I got a theatre degree (as well as an English degree). It was the best thing I ever did because I got to take playwrighting and acting classes. I highly, highly recommend this to any fiction writers, because you figure out just how essential motivation and goals and actions are to character.

Character Development and Subtext

If you think about the stage, every moment has to be alive, to keep the audience engaged (and awake). How to do that? Lots of tension, lots of subtext. Every moment has to have something larger running underneath it. This comes from a character’s wants and needs. If you put two people who usually like each other into a scene and they want totally opposite things underneath the surface… voila! Tension! Drama! A page-turning read!

We all understand this on a fundamental level. There are very few times when we’re just bantering with someone without any ulterior motives. That sounds bad but it isn’t. We are all built to care about our goals/wants/needs/frustrations a lot. And when we do things, we’re primarily motivated by what will serve our goals/wants/needs/frustrations. Be aware that your character would, too. That’s how to create a character, in a nutshell.

From moment to moment and scene to scene, make sure you map out their goals/wants/needs/frustrations and see what their motivation is at the beginning of the encounter. What do they want? What are they going to do to get it? Do they get their objective by the end of the scene? (Sometimes they will, but that’s boring… it’s better if they don’t and then they have to try something else, try another action, fall flat on their faces again… Tension! Drama! A page-turning read!) You will also want to work with the idea of interiority, which you can learn more about.

Character Development and Plot

And so, with a character who is fleshed out and has strong motivation, you can start to string together scenes and moments. As you go back through your work, make sure you know what’s operating below the surface, what’s important and at stake for each person. What each character is really doing in a scene.

If you have a lot of scenes of people hanging out, making small talk, not moving toward their goals, not caring about their wants or needs, not advancing away from their frustrations… you’re probably creating less tension than you could be. Go scene by scene, moment by moment. And always keep your character’s interests at the front of your mind. This way, you slowly start assembling next week’s topic: plot!

Want personalized help with what makes a great character for your story? Come to me for book editing services and we can dig into your protagonist together.

Teenage Perspective in Your Young Adult Novel

One of my favorite parts of SCBWI (where I took no pictures, because I am made of #epicfail, by the way) was Krista Marino’s voice workshop, where we dissected and discussed the young adult novel and writing teen characters. One of the keenest insights came when she invited her author Frank Portman (mastermind behind KING DORK and the forthcoming ANDROMEDA KLEIN) to talk about his songwriting for his band, The Mr. T Experience (better known as MTX).

young adult novel, writing teen characters, writing teen perspective, writing authentic teen voice
As you’re writing your young adult novel, remember that nailing voice is critical. If you need a push in the right direction, use music as a reference point.

Know the Teens Who’ll Read Your Young Adult Novel

Dr. Frank and Krista made a very good point during the workshop. Writers, remember:

Teens aren’t stupider versions of adults. They’re just as smart, just as emotional, just as perceptive… they’re simply lacking the experience and perspective that most adults get in the process of living more years on the planet.

And, since your character will change over the course of your young adult novel, your narrative is just one way they’ll get some different perspective and evolve as people, right? Excellent. In the meantime, as you’re fleshing your characters out, MTX songs make an excellent primer in teen voice and angst.

Tap Into Those Angsty Teen Emotions

Have you forgotten how desperate guys are to find a girl, any girl who likes them/wants to talk to them/can stand looking at them? Do you remember the sting of feeling completely alone and invisible to the opposite sex? Listen to the hilarious “Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend” off of Our Bodies Our Selves.

Have you forgotten the tremendous roller coaster of first love? The ups and downs and the dizzy compulsion to make it work despite any and all common sense? Try “Who Needs Happiness (I’d Rather Have You)” from Revenge Is Sweet, And So Are You on for size.

Do you remember the ecstasy of finding the one person who understands you? The relief of discovering an oasis amidst the torture of high school? Listen to “Thank You (For Not Being One of Them)” off of Love is Dead.

If You Need Inspiration, Try Music

If you think the voice in your young adult novel is lacking authenticity, if your teen emotions aren’t ringing true, do yourself a favor and pick up a couple of Mr. T Experience albums. And yes, this is extremely, extremely gratifying for my 16 year-old inner fangirl. Who knew my nerdy MTX fandom would pay off career-wise? You can check out Dr. Frank’s website by clicking here.

Are you hitting the right young adult voice? Hire me to be your young adult fiction editor.

 

How to Write a Query Letter

There are a lot of “how to write a query letter” articles out there about what not to do. A lot. And I’m going to write some here in short order. But this is a different article. An article on how to approach a literary agent query letter, just so you can see my philosophy on queries.

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Writing a query letter that’s simple and compelling is an art form.

How to Write a Query Letter: The Beginning

Want to know how to write a query letter? It’s simple, really:

Make me care.

Cut out the cutesy jokes, the rhetorical questions, the extraneous subplots, the superfluous biographical details and get to the heart of your story.

Start simply, without a lot of throat-clearing, and get to the point:

Dear Name,

I’m writing to you because you represented BOOK/because I saw you at CONFERENCE/because I like your philosophy of WHATEVER. I’ve got a complete manuscript I want to tell you about: MY BOOK, a WORD COUNT – length novel for AGE GROUP.

So far, so good. Personalize the literary agent query letter and then give them the bare bones details of what your project is.

The Key to Writing a Fiction Query Letter

Now we get the meat. The meat is a longer paragraph (or two shorter paragraphs) that creatively presents the answers to the following questions:

  • WHO is your character?
  • WHAT is the strange thing going on in their life that throws them off their equilibrium and launches the story?
  • WHAT (or who) do they want most in the world?
  • WHO (or what) is the main character’s ally?
  • WHO (or what) is in the way of them getting what they want most in the world (their obstacle)?
  • WHAT is at stake if they don’t get what they want?

The above questions are essential to a complete story. They are, in effect, designed to get you thinking about the most important elements of your book.  They’re also the key in terms of how to write a query letter that’ll grab an agent’s attention. The funny thing is, when I read the answers to these questions, I start to care about the character! I start wishing I could read the whole story! (For more on this topic, check out my post on writing fiction that makes readers care.)

Unfortunately, you can’t just present the above information in Q&A format. These are the questions you’ll have to answer in prose, in a maximum of two paragraphs, in a style that tells the agent something about you, your book and your voice. Yes. It is moderately difficult to do. But now you’ve got tons of ideas for how to pull it off and what the meat of your query should include.

How to Write a Query Letter: The Closing

Then, you’ll finish your literary agent query letter with:

  1. Some brief biographical information. Things that are relevant: if your life has somehow inspired something in your novel, like you’re writing about a kid who’s obsessed with physics and you happen to be a physicist, also mention previous publication credits, advanced degrees like an MFA or anything else that is applicable to writing, etc. Things that are not relevant: how many cats you have, that your kids loved this book when they read it, how great the weather/food/backpacking is in your neck of the woods.
  2. A cordial invitation to request the full manuscript.
  3. Your signature and contact information.

Voila! Now you have a query letter format that hits the very heart of your story, doesn’t waste any space and makes the agent or editor reading it care about the character and the character’s journey.

This is by no means the only answer to questions about how to write a query letter, but it does cut to the chase rather simply and brilliantly, doesn’t it?

Need a query letter editor? I’ve seen tens of thousands of queries, and I can help yours stand out in the slush pile.