Saturday, September 29, 2012

Show vs. Tell

I’ve heard it said that “Show, don’t tell” is one of the hardest concepts for new writers to grasp. Really? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not belittling anyone who says, “Heck, yeah!” But to me, if you’ve mastered POV, “showing” should become second nature.

I hear the naysayers among you saying, “Umm…hello? They’re two entirely different concepts.” And yeah, as concepts they are indeed separate. But once you’re accustomed to writing a deeper POV, “telling” falls away as an added benefit.

Let’s start by defining “show” and “tell.” “Telling” is exactly that. You, as the author, telling your reader the details, like listing facts: dry with no passion. “Showing” allows the details to unfold more slowly, as your character realizes them. For example:

TELLING:  Jake was afraid. If he went home and told his parents he’d lost his bike, they’d be furious. It wasn’t his fault. Ronnie had told him the bike would be perfectly fine on his front lawn.

SHOWING: Jake stared at his front door and willed his sneakered feet to move forward. Both Mom and Dad would be in the living room by now. They’d notice almost immediately that he hadn’t opened the garage door to put his bike away. Fear slinked up his throat, pounded harder than his pulse. On a harsh swallow for courage, he stepped onto the porch and practiced the speech he’d planned all the way home.
“I’m sorry. I know you told me I should always lock up my bike, but Ronnie said it would be okay on his lawn. And I was only inside his house for five minutes…” 

One of the first differences between these examples that you should notice (besides the length) is that in the SHOWING version, I’m in a much clearer POV. And oddly enough, I didn’t go overboard with adverbs or adjectives in either passage. Dozens of adjectives or adverbs do not change a “telling” paragraph to a “showing” paragraph. Because showing is about more than detailed description. It’s about putting your reader in your character’s shoes. 

Smart-alecks will tell you that you must use all five senses in every scene to avoid “telling.” I’ll tell you right now, that’s a lot of bull. The only time you’d be able to use all five senses without losing track of your story is in a love scene. Generally speaking, if you can inject any three of the five into your scene, you’re good to go. Too much detail will slow your pacing to a crawl and bore your reader to tears.

Details should enhance, intensify, or define, but never slow your reader down.

For example, if you’re enhancing your setting, let’s say the beach, your character will feel the hot sun, a light breeze, sweat on his/her skin. She’ll hear the soft whoosh of the waves kissing the shore, the raucous cries of gulls, the screeches of children, an assortment of music from staticky radios. The odors of coconut sunscreen, salt, maybe burgers on a grill will fill the air. Salt and sand can land on her tongue. And visually? As much or as little as you’d like her to see. Blue water, white sand, multi-colored bathing suits, beach balls, clear sky, towels, chairs, a fat guy in a Speedo…

To intensify a character’s mood, let’s say your character is nervous about an upcoming job interview. Sweat might trickle down the back of his neck, his heartbeat might speed up, his hands could tremble. Body odor might waft up from his armpits. His brain could be reciting his resume in his head. He’ll probably pace, or squirm in the waiting room. There might be a secretary or receptionist in the room. He’ll be filling out an application. Maybe make a mistake and consider which makes him look worse. Should he cross out the error or ask the receptionist for another blank application and start over?

Define a character who’s self-absorbed with things like that quick check in the mirror or shop window reflection, the hair fluff, the perfect manicure, designer labels. Her dialogue (Yes! Even dialogue can be used to show, not tell!) would revolve entirely around what’s going on in her life, what inconvenience she’s suffering, what she wants, needs, hates. She could trip over a homeless man in the street and tell him to lie on the sidewalk elsewhere. Maybe her dogs wear outfits that match hers. She’s probably rude to salesclerks and service people.

All these descriptions are POV actions that will show, rather than tell. In each example, with the list of things the character sees, smells, tastes, feels or hears, the setting comes to life so much that you don’t need to add, “Andrea sat at the beach.” or “Jerry waited outside the executive’s office for his interview.” or “Miranda was a spoiled witch used to getting her way.”

Now for the exceptions. There will be times when you want to tell rather than show.

To push time along, you might close one chapter as a group of people are heading into the dining room and open a new chapter with a sentence like, “After dinner, the couples dispersed to stroll the moonlit gardens.” Unless it’s crucial to the story, we don’t need to sit through dinner with our characters. So a quick summary grounds the reader and allows them to see the passage of time. Perfectly acceptable.

Backstory should be told (in very small doses) rather than shown (which is generally in flashback).

And the last place where you tell rather than show? Your synopsis! (A topic for another time.)

Monday, September 24, 2012

Colon or Semi-Colon?

I read a lot of self-published work. Punctuation is a major issue in works that have obviously not been vetted by a competent editor. Be honest. Do you know when to use a semi-colon and when to use a colon? Do you even know the difference? This is a colon : This is a semi-colon ;

Got it? Okay, let's move on. Colons are used to define time or a list.
5:30 p.m.
The menu offered three different sauces for pasta: alfredo, marinara, and bolognese.

Semi-colons are used like commas (note they have a comma in them!) to separate independent clauses or in the place of a comma when commas are already used to differentiate a group.

Ron packed up the bats; Charlie herded the kids into the station wagon.
Jeremy introduced me to his sister, Pam; her husband, Lou; and their son, Robin.

**Note that by using the semi-colon in the above sentence, I've clearly shown the reader that Pam is Jeremy's sister and Lou is Pam's husband. If I'd just used commas, I could have been discussing four people instead of two: Jeremy's sister, Pam, Pam's husband, and Lou. (And look! I used a colon to define the list. Dang, I'm good!)

Still confused? Don't sweat it. But before you hit "upload," make sure you've got a really good editor to clean up these pesky little issues!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Anachronisms or Flashback to Something that Never Happened

Did you know the word, “Hello” wasn’t part of the English language until after Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone? It’s true. Developed from the old sailor’s call “halloo” (or a derivative), the typical greeting we use today won out over Bell’s own preference to use when answering the phone: “Ahoy.” Imagine that. We might have answered our phones with “Ahoy” all these years. I just might want to try that for fun. (Yeah, I’m a geek. Wanna make something of it?)

Now imagine you’re writing an Elizabethan romance. Your heroine is wearing the corset, the Spanish farthingale, a kirtle, and a sarcenet overskirt complete with low, square neckline. Her sleeves are appropriately puffy and her ruff is in place around her neck. She enters the magnificent Hardwick Hall and spots the queen. “I’ll just pop over and say hello,” she tells her escort.

That quickly, you’ve lost the loyalty of your reader. I hear those grumbles—those of you thinking, Oh, come on! What are the odds my readers know that? In ReaderLand, pretty danged good! Never underestimate your reader’s intelligence. Now is not the time to do the Time Warp.

No doubt a smaller percentage of you are thinking, So what? That’s what an editor’s for. Nope.

Editors are not the folks you see in television shows and movies who take your work, fix all the typos, and book you on Oprah next week. They’re overworked, underpaid, and juggling far too many projects to focus on just you. Your editor is your advocate in the publishing world. (S)he’ll help you make your manuscript better, but the work, my friends, falls into your lap. (Or laptop, if you will.)

So be careful with those anachronisms! Just as you wouldn’t have George Washington commanding the troops in Trenton from the driver’s seat of a Corvette because it obviously didn’t happen that way, you have to watch your word choices and be sure sayings and colloquialisms were in use in the old days. How? How else? Look it up!

A terrific website for etymology (word origins) is the Online Etymology Dictionary. Bookmark it. There are lots of others, but this is my go-to-first site. And be sure to double-check any info you clarify online. **NOTE: I called this my “go-to-first” site, meaning I have others.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Creating Sympathetic Characters

No character, real or imagined, is all good or all bad. We each have our flaws, faults, and foibles, as well as our talents, virtues, and morals.

Think about bad guys in real life. How often are their neighbors surprised because the individuals seemed “so nice”? John Gotti used to host free block parties on the 4th of July. John Wayne Gacy dressed up as a clown and entertained sick children in hospitals. Charming, good looking, and educated, Ted Bundy volunteered on a suicide hotline. Dennis Rader was a spiritual leader in his church, a Cub Scout leader, and a burglar alarm installer. He was also the BTK killer who eluded Kansas police for more than thirty years before being arrested for the murder of ten people between 1974 and 1991.

Be sure to layer your hero, heroine, and antagonist with virtues and vices to make them realistic as well as memorable.

How? Here's a list of sympathetic traits you can add to your characters to bring dimension. Remember, whether good or bad, a great character is someone your reader wants to spend time with!

  1. Undeserved misfortune: Make everything go wrong in your character’s life. Have him/her play the role of underdog.
  2. Insecurity: Everyone is insecure about something (looks, money, power, talent, etc.)
  3. Empathy and self-sacrifice: Fighting for a just cause or for those who cannot fight for themselves.
  4. Courage under fire
  5. Loyalty
  6. Kindness to animals and children
  7. An endearing quirk
  8. Sense of humor
  9. Intelligence
  10.  Familial ties
  11.  Responsibility
  12.  Generosity
  13.  Strong ethics
  14.  Independence
  15.  Modesty, shyness
Not sure how to make your bad guy more sympathetic? Is your hero too arrogant to be likeable? Your editor should be able to help you balance the good with the bad. Contact Gina for Excellence in Editing!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Ask the Editor: How to Write Numbers

Suzanne C. asked: "What is the rule for using numbers in a fiction manuscript? Should I write them out or is it okay to use the integers?"

I hate to tell you this, Suzanne, but it depends on the number.

When adding numbers to your manuscript, always write out any number under a hundred, any non-specific number, or any number spoken in dialogue:

We met three years ago.”
"Adelaide was twenty-two.” 
"Tom hosted a party for their fiftieth anniversary.”
"Thousands of bees flew from the hive."


"She turned to page 387." 

Time with less than round minutes, telephone numbers, addresses and zip codes, dates, and years can use numerals.

"I woke around ten o’clock."
"Lisa got to work at 6:34 a.m."
"The battle took place on December 3, 1796."
"George parked in front of 11 Elm Street."

Hope this helps and thanks for the question!