Show Me, Don’t Tell Me

“Don’t talk of stars, burning above! If you’re in love, show me!
Tell me no dreams filled with desire, if you’re on fire, show me!
Here we are together in the middle of the night.
Don’t talk of spring, just hold me tight!”
Show Me from My Fair Lady

Think of your book as a court case. Would you, as the jury, believe the prosecutor if he screamed, “The defendant is guilty!!! …And I rest my case.”

No. You want proof so you believe beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty.

Apply the same idea to your writing. What proof do you have to convince your reader that your character is bored, that her hero is unhappy, that his antagonist is delighted? Let’s look at an example.

Belinda was bored. She had a lot to do and her friends, while hilarious, had no idea what sort of deadlines she faced. Three C++ programs and an analysis of Moby Dick to write? She had to figure out how to make her excuses and get out of there, quick.

What’s the problem? I’m telling you she’s bored and has a lot to do, but I don’t tell you how she’s reacting to these facts. Let’s try again.

Belinda twisted her ring around her finger. A paper and three programming assignments. She crossed her legs. Maybe she could write the Moby Dick analysis first? She uncrossed her legs. No, Moby Dick would take much longer, better do the programs first. Belinda glanced once at her cell phone, pressing the side button to illuminate the little screen and see the time. Class in twenty minutes. She stood to stretch, and no one said anything, knowing her history with back pain. She pushed her chair back to its desk and straightened the other empty chairs around her, inching for the door.

What is different? I rely on shorter sentences to portray an anxious mood. There are descriptive verbs: twisting, crossing, uncrossing, glancing, stretching, pushing, inching. Can you see someone doing this? Too polite to say they want to leave, but showing you they want to, anyway?

The Point: Use small details to reveal the bigger picture without flat out explaining the bigger picture.

Movies and songs do this because they don’t have the luxury of 80,000 words to explain everything. Love songs describe missed phone calls, the smell of an old shirt, the empty half of a bed. Small details showing us the singer is alone and heartbroken, which is more powerful than the singer repeating, “Oh, I’m heartbroken, can’t you see I’m heartbroken?”

Treat each scene in your book as if it were a scene in a movie. What details would the camera show the audience?

Showing Through Body Language

Watch your co-workers, family, friends and enemies, the strangers on the street. Can you tell what is going on without hearing the conversation? Are they standing upright? Are their shoulders hunched? Are they looking away as they speak? Are they sweating?

Showing Through the Environment

Sure, maybe it was a “dark and stormy night,” but we’ve all heard that before. What about your five senses help you realize that it is storming, and that you wouldn’t want to be caught in the middle of it? Are the gnats gathering into furious swarms? Is the heat pressing against your skin, making you feel like you can’t breathe? Are the trees swaying? Can you smell the heavy dampness?

Showing Through Architecture

What about the buildings that your characters live in? Are they worn down, a sad testiment to what once was? By the way, don’t ever say “the house was worn down, a sad testiment to what once was.” That’s telling.

Show me the house is worn down by describing spider webs in the windows, so thick they prevent the full sunlight from shining into the room. Show me how the roof is badly patched with pieces of rotting bark collected from the nearby forest. Details, details, details.

Comment on the Show Don’t Tell mantra to enter in the Worderella free critique contest. Do you think it works? Are you tired of hearing it? If this is the first time you’ve heard about it, does it confuse you?

Books to Buy: Eight Ways to Bring Fiction to Life, How to Write a Damn Good Novel

Links to reference: Showing Through Dialogue, How to Avoid Too Much Backstory

This five part series is my participation in Lynn Viehl’s Left Behind & Loving It (LB&LI) convention. I’ll tackle a different facet of editing each day:

  1. Monday: Put that shitty first draft away
  2. Tuesday: Be brutally honest
  3. Wednesday: Show me, don’t tell me
  4. Thursday: Tell me, don’t show me
  5. Friday: Focus on those nitty gritty details

Read more for details about winning a free Worderella critique at the end of this week!

Five Tips on Character Building through Adversity

We don’t remember Scarlett O’Hara for her beauty, we remember her because she survived countless marriages, a war, childbirth, poverty, sickness, the end of the world as she knew it, and heartbreak on a monumental scale. And she’s flawed, boy, is she flawed. And a brilliant character. You either love her, or hate her. So how do you make your own Scarlett?

It should be cliche at this point: Know your character. Sometimes you will only know your character after you’ve thrown a couple of bad situations at them. I really do suggest sitting somewhere with a journal, and ask yourself, “What if…?” What would she do? Who does she turn to? Inward for self-reflection, or outward for comfort?Don’t know what to throw at her? That’s okay, I’ve also provided you with a list of bad things that you can use as a starting point…

  1. Physical adversity. Death, dismemberment, sickness. Everyone will go through at least two of these in their life, so your character better have some experience with at least one of them.

    Sometimes this is the worst thing that can happen to your character. But what if it isn’t? Don’t be afraid to pile on the adversity. The worse the situation is, and the more empathetic your character is, the more you hook your reader.

  2. Unfulfilled desire. No one ever gets things the way they want all the time, every time. What if your character is used to getting her way, and one day doesn’t? What if this moment completely alters her understanding of herself and the world around her? What does she do? Does her desire destroy her, does she rise above it? Does she ruin the lives of those around her in her quest to satisfy her desire?

    Note this desire doesn’t have to be romantic in nature. In fact, if it isn’t, and you’re writing a romance, what a great twist to your story! Suddenly you’ve added a new dimension to your romance, making it all the more believable. No one in the real world has time to only worry about their romantic life, so why should your characters?

  3. Haunting past. Regrets about things you didn’t do. Regrets about things you did. Each of us is interesting because we have personal histories. For instance, many think I savor my food, or that I just eat slowly. I do this now, but it started because my baby brother choked many times as a child, and one time I panicked instead of remaining calm. My father had to perform the Heimlich even though I’d been trained by the Red Cross. From that moment, I realized how easily it is to be careless and put your life in danger.

    See how much you learned about me just by hearing how I eat? The moral of the story is: Don’t discount the little things. They are the collection of moments that create our personalities and fill the prologues of our lives.

  4. Use the time period to your advantage, and against your character’s. The women of today are strong-willed and ready to shout it from the rooftops. The women of yesterday were just as strong-willed, but required the mastery of subtlety or they might suffer the rule of thumb. If your character wants to do something that she just wouldn’t have done in your chosen time period, don’t give it up for the sake of the time period.

    Use the frustration to build your character, showing the reader just what sort of a person she is.

  5. Go with it. Sometimes you’ll surprise yourself with the scenarios you create. Actually, I hope you surprise yourself. In fact, you better surprise yourself. If your scenarios don’t surprise you, you won’t surprise your reader, and that’s bad.

    What’s really great is when a character surprises herself. But again, you need to know your character well enough to know when she can surprise herself. As a hint, use your research to spark your imagination. Read old newspapers and be amused and shocked by what happened back then. Truth really is stranger than fiction.

I’m using all of these techniques against my character, and while it pains me to write scenes where my character suffers, I’m also ridiculously proud of her stamina against adversity.

So tell me, what is the worst situation you’ve thrown at your characters? And how did you feel while writing those scenes: timid, worried, daring, jubilant?

Horror Fiction

Think you’re just a simple fiction writer? That your romance doesn’t have anything to do with horror? I find that the best fiction has elements of multiple genres, or at least tricks from multiple genres. You want to add tension, or make your antagonist creepy and scary? Try applying some of these horror fiction hints to bring out that creep factor. Even if in the end you decide it’s not for you, it will make for a great writing exercise!

Horror Fiction Unearthed
by Shaun Hutson

Getting a Reaction
Can you hear scratching at your door while you’re reading this? Nothing too insistent. It might just be a sound you haven’t heard before, a banging in the radiator pipes possibly. A creaky floorboard? That’s the way a lot of horror stories start. Something small and apparently insignificant grows gradually until all Hell is let loose, sometimes quite literally.

Writing horror for me started with a similarly small and apparently insignificant event. Quite simply, I read a horror book that was so badly written that I thought I must be able to do better myself. The only problem is that when people say they’ve read something of mine and felt inspired to start writing I now wonder if it’s for the same reason I started…

Let’s hope your desire to start writing horror comes from what I now see as a vocation in life. That is to say, scaring the living daylights out of people. But also the realization that you can work in a genre like no other from a writer’s point of view. You can do everything within a piece of horror fiction that you can do in any other genre, and much more. The only thing that limits you is the extent of your imagination.

I’m in the business of scaring people. The by-products of my work might be nightmares (which are the ultimate accolade in this genre), they might be vomiting (I would say I’m only kidding but someone wrote to tell me a scene one of my books inspired this rather more than usually visceral reaction), or they might be outrage at some supposedly taboo subject that I’ve dared to write about but, whatever the case, the main thing is to get a reaction. Make them love you or make them hate you but don’t allow them to be undecided. To my mind, the worst thing a writer can be confronted with is indifference.

So, how the hell, if you’ll excuse the pun, do we go about getting that reaction?

Continue reading

From the Notebook: Bringing Fiction to Life

I’ve been cleaning my place, trying to get things in order since I’ve moved back to campus, and I found some old notes about how to bring fiction to life.

I only got as far as character surface life in terms of my detailed handwritten notes, with a character that I gave up, sadly enough. There are a couple things I wanted to post from my notes, however, since they seem useful.

* Take cues from other actors (characters) to know how the main (or other) character should be treated.

* Want to build suspense? Here are twelve ways to do so:

  1. Objective – begins the reader anticipation, because now the character is working toward a goal.
  2. Raise Stakes – this increases the importance of the objective.
  3. Danger – increases the suspense because now lives might be at stake.
  4. Ticking Clock – having a time limit/deadline always raises stakes. What happens if the goal isn’t reached by the time limit?
  5. Obstacles – the inability to take action can be very frustrating. This frustration ups the suspense as the reader sympathizes with the character.
  6. The Unknown – allows the reader to contemplate possibilities.
  7. Sexual Tension – having an attraction to someone always raises the suspense. Life is hard as it is, but throw in feelings, and the uncertainty that they are reciprocated, and we have a whole subplot in the works.
  8. Dramatic irony – this isn’t necessarily suspenseful for the character, but for the readers who are privy to the new information.
  9. Living in the Future – the reader anticipates the difference between reality now, and what might happen in order for that reality to take place.
  10. Lack of Resolution – end your scenes and chapters with cliffhangers!
  11. Secret – “Secrets, secrets are no fun. Secrets, secrets hurt someone.” Keeping secrets is a dangerous business. Keep them from the characters, not from your reader, unless you want your story to be vague and hard to understand. In other words, don’t keep the secret from your reader if you want to be published.
  12. Character Type – through knowing the character, the reader anticipates what the character might and might not do. This wonder whether the character will do as expected increases the reader’s suspsense.

Notes taken from The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life by Noah Lukeman. St Martin’s Press 2002, New York, New York.