Writing

Showing & Telling (Why They Both Matter)

“Show, don’t tell.” It’s probably the most repeated advice a writer hears. In fact, it’s so widely spread that we, as writers, sometimes struggle to understand that telling, too, has a place in great writing. How do you tell when to show and when to tell? What is the balance? That’s today’s topic.

Reporting vs. Experiencing:

One of the major ways to tell whether you’re showing or telling is in the timing. Active, engaging scenes happen in real time (even when writing in the past tense, “she said” instead of “she says”). If your reader is experiencing the scene and watching it unfold, you’re in “show” mode. If, instead, you are reporting what happened prior to the scene, you’re “telling.” That doesn’t necessarily mean a flashback is telling, as well-written flashbacks also unfold before the reader in a “real time” fashion. But if you are describing events after the fact, regardless of it’s timeline in the actual story, you’re in “tell” mode.

Scenes vs. Narration:

Scenes are all about action and dialogue and the movement of characters through your story. They are understandably harder to write than narration. We are conditioned in our day-to-day activities to narrate, after all. But it makes for boring novels. Readers don’t want to read page after page of dry exposition, they want to see the characters in action. That’s how they come to an understanding of your character’s personality, goals, flaws, and lives.

So, you must write not to tell your audience about everything secondhand, but instead to drop them into the story so they can experience it. Rely on dialogue and actions, set it in a concrete place that has substance. Describe to engage your reader’s imagination (but not so much that it stifles the theater of their mind) and allow them to see the scenes unravel before them.

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The goal is to write in such a way that your audience becomes unaware of your existence. We want them to be so involved in your characters that they forget they are reading the words altogether. And you can’t do that by telling them what happened. That can only be accomplished by engaging their emotions, and you do that by showing them.

But be careful to not cut out all of your narration. By doing so, you risk creating too uniform a read. The major bonus of narrative exposition is in it’s ability to slow things down for your reader and allow them to catch their breath. Varying the pace of your novel, you create a more expansive feel and allow what would have been a quick scene to feel more like several hours as opposed to several minutes.

Narration also allows for smoother transitions and less repetition. For novels which expand over months and years, for example, or for characters who take the same actions like run in marathons, narrative exposition can be used to create the feeling of it occurring without drafting scenes which would bore your readers. (“Days grew to weeks and to years, and the unfamiliar became familiar” as opposed to scene upon scene of the transition to familiarization, or “after the first race, they all seemed the same, in a way. Losses, or wins, it didn’t matter” as opposed to drawing out every race.)

Emotions vs. Feelings:

On a smaller scale, there can be instances of showing and telling within your scenes and narration as well. The best tip for these is to “show emotion, tell feeling.”

We want our readers to relate to our characters. The connection is built upon an understanding of our character’s emotions. But telling our audience what the character is feeling detracts from forming that connection–our readers must experience the range of emotions with them and grasp not only why they feel how they do by how. Far more powerful to show your reader the prick of pain in your character’s chest and the struggle of fighting back stinging tears than to simply say your character is sad.

However, some things we can assume our readers understand. Being tired is something we all experience relatively the same. Our arms feel leaden, or feet drag, our eyelids become weighted. And all of that description is fine, but your reader knows what it’s like to be exhausted, so tell them she’s tired and move on to how it impacts what she’s doing.

The World and Objects:

You don’t want your entire novel to be nothing but purple prose, so don’t shy away from simply telling your reader some facts so that you can move on to what’s important, but also be aware that it’s possible to show without delving into paragraphs about your subject. Create a deep world your reader can immerse themselves in.

Your character may drive an old beater. But how much more powerful is it for your reader to come to the understanding of how much of a beater it is on their own. Show them the rust that drifts in the breeze from the bottom of the door when they open it, let them see the character need to cross the wires to get the headlights to work.

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Similarly, your setting should be seen and not told. Don’t tell your reader the sun is beating down, show them the hazy lines of heat above the asphalt.

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” — Anton Chekhov

Takeaway:

“Show, don’t tell” is excellent advise, but writers must strike a balance between showing and (sparingly) telling to get the most out of their writing. Show emotions and settings and write in scenes, but use telling to smooth out transitions, create a crisper and more cohesive timeline, and describe feelings.

Have questions about showing and telling? Drop us a line below, and check out our free Master Lists for Novelists to help you make your writing shine!

 

Writing

The Art of Dialogue

Dialogue is easy to imagine and terribly difficult to write. It’s often called the hardest part of writing, and many writers who’ve mastered the other elements in their novels find their dialogue holding the rest of their book back. The difference between good dialogue and not so good dialogue is what separates amateur writers from the pros, so today we’ll take a look at how to make your dialogue seem natural and believable.

“Said” is NOT Dead:

Something that tends to trip writers up hails way back from their grade school days. Well meaning teachers would tell their students that “said is dead” in an effort to get them to find more creative ways to indicate who was speaking. But this was poor advice.

The truth is, in this industry, “said” is king. Because our brains have seen the word so much in life, we tend to skip over it entirely making the dialogue itself stand out. By using other words to indicate the speaker, like “growled”, “snapped”, “whispered” or the most hated of all, words that describe an action not speech related at all like “smiled” (who smiles a word?), our brains pay extra attention, making the dialogue feel watered down and putting the reader very much back into the printed words and less into their imaginative theater of the mind. If a long string of “said”s makes you nervous, insert a few attribution tags in the middle of the line (“I loved it,” she said. “It was a moving song.”) or intersperse them with beats. Sparingly use “said the man” instead of “the man said”.

Also, never attach adverbs after or before said. You want your readers to not just understand the emotion but to feel it, and that’s hard to pull off when you as the writer practically scream it to make sure they understand it. Let the character’s actions show they say something angrily, it gives your reader more credit. Make whether they said it softly or not irrelevant based on their body language (and their wording).  Don’t patronize your audience by literally spelling it all out, and don’t fall back on lazy writing by telling them an emotion outright.

Physical Beats:

If “said” is king, physical beats are the ethereal angels singing. Not only does adding beats between writing break up long strings of dialogue and also show who is speaking, it makes the writing pop with both verbal and physical meaning. It allows the writer to show their character’s feelings in a more profound way than telling their tone of voice ever could.

Your character could mumble their line, or they could run their hand through their hair, letting it fall back over their face like a mask. They could scream the words, or they could slam their hand on the dining room table, making the tableware jingle. They could say their piece nonchalantly or thoughtfully, or they could flick the ash off their cigarette or swirl the last sip of whiskey around the bottom of their glass. They could say something surprised, or the food could drop from their fork and their mouth could hang open.

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Not every line should be a physical beat, however, and they should be used to avoid a noticeably long string of “said” attributions or when the dialogue needs it to explain (which should be rare). Too much and you risk taking your reader’s thought line away from the dialogue itself and exhausting them. Mix beats in with “said” and experiment with how it reads silently and sounds aloud.

The Name Game:

There’s few things worse in dialogue than your characters using each other’s names every time they address them. It gets redundant to have your characters refer to each other by name every single line. Allow your beats or your narration to reveal that if you need to.

Ditto for using other indicators like “sis” or “cousin” or “my dear friend”. Often, it reads as if you’re trying to bash your reader over the head with information you already gave them. They already know your protagonist’s familial relationship with their sister if you’ve told them (and do make sure to, don’t get sloppy and reveal that sort of thing in dialogue exchanges because nobody approaches their siblings and immediately begins with “Hey sis”, they more often either use their name or, more commonly, know the person knows their talking to because they’re looking right at them!)

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Another name note: don’t switch up what the character is called throughout the scene. That means no flipping between “Mrs. Holloway said” and “Mary said” and “Mary Holloway said” and “the teacher said”.  Pick one and stick to it throughout the scene.

Avoidance, Misdirection & Misunderstandings:

Far too often, dialogue seems stilted because we try to make it read as natural despite knowing it’s fiction. We have our characters answer every question directly. But in real life, we rarely speak that way.

Let your characters avoid questions, or answer the unasked question. “Did you know they were dating?” doesn’t have to be answered directly. Allow your character to skirt the question. “I haven’t seen either of them in months” or “I don’t know why it matters, you’ve been dating that guy from the office for weeks now, haven’t you?” Ask a question in response to a question, let your characters dance.

Or let them misunderstand. “Did you get it fixed?” “Yeah, I worked on the car yesterday, got it all lined out. All it was–” “Not the car, Jerry. Did you talk to the bank?”

Allow characters to interrupt each other or change the topic. Mimic real conversation but keep it interesting–you don’t want it so real it becomes a boring small talk scenario where the weather and family are discussed politely and your reader gains nothing from the conversation.

Punctuation:

People tend to carry on conversations in massive run on sentences. Full stops are pretty rare in today’s world. Writing should reflect that in a logical way.

“I don’t see why you would think that. I didn’t find it rude at all. Just honest. Stop being a prude!” This is great and all, but most readers will find it somewhat less than realistic. Let’s try without all of those full stops.

“I don’t see why you would think that, I didn’t find it rude at all, just honest. Stop being a prude!” See how it reads more natural? You can even add the attribution in the middle (“…I didn’t find it rude at all,” she said. “Just honest…”) and dispense with the exclamation point unless you find it absolutely necessary (though the scene itself should let the reader know how worked up she is without the extra explanation).

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Perhaps your character is hesitant to reveal something, trails off, or the reader can only hear one side of the conversation. Use an ellipses (…).

Maybe your character is being cut off mid-sentence. Use the hyphen (–)

How It’s Said:

Just as few people have the exact same lexicon and formality in their speech, so should your characters have the same variation in theirs. What your characters say matters, and so does how they say it.

A first year college kid is more likely to say “That pisses me off” than “I find that rather irritating”. A prim and proper matron will “that was a surprising turn of events” sooner than she’d say “I didn’t see that coming!” Be sure the formality and language matches the character you’ve created, and make the speaking character evident in how they say things.

Takeaway:

The key to amazing dialogue comes down to letting it speak for itself without drowning it in unnecessary explanation and trusting your reader to understand the underlying meaning through the character’s wording, body language, and actions. Never, ever, explain your dialogue. A careful use of beats, well crafted lines and realistic subversions all add up to stellar and believable back-and-forths.

What do you think of dialogue writing? What areas of it do you notice yourself falling back on, and how are you going to improve going forward? Tell us below!

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Writing

POV (And Why It Matters)

Point of view. It seems fairly self-explanatory. As a writer, you only have so many options here, and as long as you pick one and stick with it, you’re fine, right? But as straight-forward as it seems, it’s incredibly easy to misstep and veer your reader in multiple characters’ heads without meaning to. This article delves into how to do it right, and what to avoid.

First Person:

This is the “I” voice. In first person narration, the reader feels as if they’re being spoken to directly to by your POV character (not the writer). The great thing about first person POV is that your audience gets an effortlessly intimate view of your character because they’re in their head.

In order to make this POV work, you need to have a strong, well developed character that is capable of creating an interesting viewpoint for your reader to view the world from. This is a difficult tightrope to traverse, because you must have a character that just interesting enough to not be boring, but not so interesting that your audience feels adrift inside the head of a lunatic (unless, of course, that’s what you’re going for!).

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Where it begins to get hairy is when the story needs information your POV character either can’t know or can’t express out-of-character. They can observe, but everything is seen through the filter of their experience and understanding.

One way to combat this is to have more than one first person POV character. This should be limited by scenes. Don’t head jump from character to character in a single scene; multiple POV characters are generally broken up by chapters, to avoid reader confusion as to whose head their in.

Omniscient:

If first person is the most intimate, omniscient has the most perspective. However, it’s an excellent option when your story has elements your characters won’t know, but the reader needs to see. This gives the reader more of a cinematic view of your story–instead of having the actor’s voice narrating the movie, the reader is simply seeing it unfold and having the benefit of catching elements your characters are unaware of. Think of it as the background music of your story–it can be the upbeat melody of an impending delight or the ominous tone of impending doom.

This POV may be distant, but the perspective is excellent. The danger is telling the story without the benefit of getting a first-hand view of the emotions behind it, so as a writer, you’re expected to describe them well without “telling” your reader what those are.

Third Person:

Third person POV is the middle ground between intimate first person and perspective omniscient. This POV has a wide range of variables and balances between the two, and allows for a myriad of ways the writer can experiment with it. It all comes down to how your narration is worded.

If your narrative exposition focuses on feelings or emotionally rendered sensations, it will evoke an almost first person POV feeling for your reader, but if it focuses on distanced, matter-of-fact descriptions, your writing will have a more omniscient POV feelings.

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Generally, readers feel more of a connection to intimate-styled writing, so as a writer, be sure to invoke those feelings. It leads to a richer reading experience, and from the language you choose to use, you inform your reader of much more than just the “here and now” aspects of your story–you also show the education, history, and culture background of your character. A character may simply see a “black dress” or may see a “fitted chiffon Chanel” and the reader can guess at the history of that character based on the level of details they notice and give importance to from your narration.

However, there is a line to how much intimacy you have to your writing. Typically, readers associate “depth” with “importance”. If you make everything deep, your reader will become disappointed when a character they’ve emotionally invested themselves in has only a minor, relatively unimportant role not central to the story. Thus, having narrative distance can work in your favor to relay information without creating an expectation of importance.

Takeaway:

Your choice of point of view will dictate the direction your novel takes. Make the decision by considering how intimate you want your writing to be and where you want your reader’s focus to sit. Remember that balance is important, regardless of which POV you choose, and write accordingly. Don’t “head jump” or switch POV characters within a scene (always either create a new scene or chapter or insert a linespace to indicate the change so as not to confuse your reader).

What POV are you currently writing in, and would it serve your story better to write it in a different POV? Tell us below!

 

Writing

Exposition in Novel Writing: How to Do It Right (And How Not To)

Within any narrative, there is certain critical information that is outside of the plot which the author must delivered to the reader. This background information is necessary for the reader to gain a better understanding of the characters, plot and setting, so they can have an authentic experience with the narrative. The sharing of this information is known as exposition. Quite literally, the author is exposing unseen particulars he or she believes are essential to the story.

Why is it used?

Through proper exposition, we learn characters’ past, perspective, opinions, and general backstory. We may learn a character used to be romantically involved with another character. We may learn something simple such as the character enjoys a certain type of food, or something more juicy, such as the character used to be in prison. Regardless of what we learn through these expositional techniques, it should be relevant to the story either immediately, in the future, or it may help to further the reader’s understanding of something that has already happened. Exposition may be setting us up for something we need to know in the future or just helps us understand existing character relationships. It can also be more specific to setting, but typically deals with character development.

Third Person Exposition

A talented writer can go about this process is several ways. Commonly, we may further our understanding through the author’s third person description.

Although Eliza was born in San Diego, she never called it her hometown, since she spent most of her childhood in San Francisco.

The author just revealed some pertinent information that will help us in understanding Eliza better. Now that we know she doesn’t identify much with her  hometown, we can apply that to her interaction, thoughts, feelings, etc. throughout the story.

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Exposition through Dialogue

The author may choose to share this expositional background information through dialogue. Characters can reveal a lot about themselves through their conversations with other characters. Conversations held in secret can bring a different level of knowledge to the reader.

“I wish you could’ve been with me last year when I was recovering,” he sighed to his coach.

Now we understand there is a physical and emotional struggle this character has been dealing with, which will certainly come up again as part of the story. When it does, the reader can readily connect the previously shared dialogue with the current situations. A first person monologue can also be used to let a character deliver their own information to the reader. Exposition can also come in the form of media within the story. Authors can present newspapers, letters, and television, which can go a long way in sharing critical events with the audience. By reading a headline or a letter, or hearing a news anchor deliver a headline, we can store crucial bits of data for future or past reference. In some cases, an author may use a prologue in order to introduce the requisite information, but this can inhibit the reader’s natural discovery of information and flow of the narrative. There may not be as much artistry when using a prologue to deliver the exposition.

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Telling, Not Showing

It’s a popular repetition in the writing community; “show, don’t tell”. But exposition has it’s place in writing. Not everything should be told directly to your reader, although the careful use of exposition can work to counter an overabundance of showing. Regardless of the method employed by the author, the exposition should be entertaining enough that the reader’s interest does not fade, but it should not dominate the story. Exposition, by nature, lacks action, so it is important that it doesn’t drag on because while it is being delivered, the story is not progressing.

Yes, the reader requires these details to make full sense of all the situations and relationships, but it must be done properly. If an author goes on too long with this process, the reader may begin to lose interest. The author must still be working toward the climax of the story and building action. It should be kept rather concise and, ideally, be quite interesting. If the method used to deliver this exposition doesn’t maintain the reader’s interest, the information can go unnoticed or forgotten, and the story ends up with a gap in the sequence of events, along with the reader’s lack of necessary knowledge.

Takeaway:

The author’s artistry must shine through in every aspect of the story. It’s not something that comes easily. The best authors share this information seamlessly after years of practice. Most people don’t even realize there is real thought and effort put into delivering this information to the reader, it just seems organic. We know what we need to know and that’s why we can truly appreciate a properly told story with classic exposition. Make your expositions count in subtle ways, because it should be the exception, not the rule in your writing.

How are you slipping well-crafted exposition into your stories, and what are you struggling with in getting it in? Let us know in the comments!

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