Pitfalls to Avoid: Showing vs. Telling

As a writer, we have many expressions and mantras that both writer and reader alike have heard. Here’s another one you’ve probably heard ad nauseam: 

Show, do not tell.

However, a lot of amateur writers get this concept frequently wrong and why is telling so bad anyway?

Let’s start with an example of telling:

Grim unholstered his six-shot, pointing it at Sylvia. He felt angry and growled his fury.

Sylvia was unperturbed by his weapon, laughing defiantly. “If you plan on intimidating me, you’re sorely mistaken.”

He smiled cruelly, “The bullets in the gun are made from cold iron, demon. You’re finished!”

He opened fire, Slyvia screaming in anguish as each bullet tore through her violet flesh.

Is this bad? Isolated, no, not really, but it’s clearly amateurish and if the entire story is peppered with this style of writing, then it’s bad. The reason why is I’m telling the reader Grim is angry. I am telling the reader Sylvia was unperturbed. I am telling the reader Sylvia not only laughs, but how she laughs. I told the reader how Grim smiled and I told the reader how Sylvia screamed (okay that last part was really bad, but you get the point).

Understand that “show vs. tell” is a reader’s trend. At one point, it was perfectly acceptable for writers to tell the reader of the emotions and actions of the characters instead of showing. Read any 19th Century or early 20th Century literature. And if attention spans continue to get shorter and shorter, this trend may reverse itself and I may be writing a post about “tell, do not show.” I’ve been reading negative reviews of readers wanting just this thing (I’ll get into why in a moment)

So, how to avoid telling? Here are three rules to help you:

  1. Don’t use emotive words in the narrative at all. An easy test on yourself is if you have any emotive words. Angry, happy, sad, etc. Get rid of them.
  2. Use body language to describe the emotion. Instead of writing, He was angry, write, He grimaced, baring his teeth, nearly snarling. But you want the reader to feel a particular kind of rage, you say? Let the readers decide that for themselves. Don’t try to control that part of the process of writing for your reader.
  3. Mitigate or avoid adverbs. Adverbs are like salt. It’s okay to use one sparingly here and there, but overuse ruins the whole meal. A lot of adverbs is lazy writing. She laughed defiantly tells me how she laughed, and on top of it, how do I picture defiance? Instead, let’s go with, She folded her arms and proceeded to laugh, a raucous bellow that shook the room.

So, here’s the caveat of showing vs. telling and this is how I’ve seen this in the form of negative reviews. Showing increases your word count–considerably. It forces you to be more descriptive. Even if you chose a minimalist approach to describe an emotion, you’re still going to have more words than a simple, He was angry. In the example above, that was three words vs. seven. In the other example, that was three words vs. a whopping fifteen. Some readers hate this because you have writers who can literally spend a page and a half describing a gate-opening scene (George R.R. Martin, Game of Thrones, I’m looking at you). It’s beautiful, it’s immersive, but it’s long. So be aware when you’re being descriptive or you’re laying it thick on the purple prose.

Happy writing!

A Different Perspective: Understanding Point-of-View (POV)

As you’re starting in your writing journey and learning the different techniques and styles, you may ask yourself what point-of-view (POV) to use for your story. Should you go with First Person? Third Person? If Third Person, should it be a narrative style or omniscient? This post discusses the most common types used in crafting today and some ideas on which genres you should use. Bear in mind, these are guidelines, there is no hard or fast rule you should follow other than this:

Don’t break POV. I’ll get into why at the end of the post.

First Person Narrativefrom the mind of the main character(s). With First Person, the main character is telling the story. Everything the reader knows is from the MC’s perception and understanding. You will know the MC’s thoughts and every chapter will always feature the MC as the one driving the story along. This is good for a writer who loves to reveal their world through the MC’s eyes and through dialogue. Here is an example of First Person from my novel, The Ties That Bind.

I sat on my trusty couch in a silk charmeuse with matching pants and a white t-shirt, eating my dinner consisting of three bags of microwave popcorn, all different flavors, some cheese spread, a half can of whip cream, and a couple bottles of strawberry soda. For dessert, a bag of chocolate cookies with white cream filling laid next to me.

I ate the cookies first—the whole damn bag.

The TV blared an old black and white film noir movie called The Mark of the Spider, the rain outside making the movie more eerie than necessary. Occasionally, my windows lit up with a flash, no doubt the storm picking up the tempo.

My cell phone rang, but the number read, “Blocked.” I ignored it, tossed it back on the coffee table. More than likely some scam artist with a thick Nigerian accent pretending to be from the FBI ready to come and arrest me unless I paid a fine of five hundred dollars. That would be the third jerk this week. The phone turned silent then rang again. And again. Persistent bastard. After the third call, it fell dormant.

As you can read, our hero discusses everything as if we’re in his head. What he sees is what we see. You want to use this POV if you really desire the reader to become attached to your main character. The disadvantage of this perspective is that if you only have one MC, you’re “chained” to that character throughout the entire story, and it makes writing epic scenes more challenging.

Third Person Narrative – the invisible storyteller. Third Person is a narrator who is an invisible person standing alongside a particular character and telling the story from their perspective. However, if there is a scene change or new chapter, the POV can change to a different character. This is great if you have more than one main character or you wish to write the story from different perspectives such as writing an epic fantasy where you provide the perspectives of your heroes and your villains. With the narrative style though, you are telling the story through one character in any particular scene or chapter. Here is an example pulled from my novel, The Rise of Evil: The Lantern Bearer’s Quest:

As the companions descended the hill, Irshad’iz asked softly, “Sai Masadi, you could have let me go. What was that about?”

She nearly rolled her eyes, but instead met the young man’s curious stare. “A battle between me and that simpleton. I won.”

“Braelann? How—”

“You cannot be this sheep-headed. Why your god continues to spare your life perplexes me.” Masadi’s eyes emanated a glint of yellow marking her irritation. “No, I’m referring to that one, Jaktu.” She sighed as she observed no change in the lad’s blank stare. “Braelann has plans for you—intimate plans as she’s clearly in season. I can smell her passion aura. The other females are in season too, but not nearly as dire as Braelann.”

“What? In season? Gnolls fall in season? But…but I’m human.” Irshad’iz emphasized his statement by pointing at himself. He didn’t conceal his shock.

In this scene, the invisible storyteller is alongside Masadi, telling the story as she sees things from her perspective. We could be treated to what she is thinking, but we will not get in Irshad’iz’s head, or Braelann’s head, or Jaktu’s head (that would be Third Person Omniscient, but these days, not considered a good form of storytelling).

Why should you use Third Person Narrative? For one, it’s easy to look at the story from the perspective of other characters who may not be the main character. In the example above, Masadi is a supporting character in the Lantern Bearer’s Quest as the main character, Samdel Thatch, was indisposed during that part of the chapter. It was an important scene for me to introduce the reader to the gnolls and provide background on their people and society. Another advantage is you can do scene changes within the chapter, particularly if you’re running big climactic battles where you want to hop around to different characters.

So I will end this as to why it’s bad to break POV. It confuses your reader and is one of the most grievous sins in writing. Nothing will turn your reader off to your story for repeated instances of breaking POV. It also screams, “AMATEUR!!” to your reader as well.

Happy writing!



 

Creating Worlds of Wonder (3 of 3)

In the previous two posts (One and Two) regarding world-building, we discussed the rules on maintaining consistency and the tools you’ll use to craft your world in order to keep it all straight. But what if you’re in the middle of your series, and then suddenly you’re hit with an awesome inspiration, but it requires a fundamental change?

Here, we discuss what to do when you need to make a change that essentially violates the rule of consistency in your world-building.

Evaluate the damage if you just make a change and not expect the reader to notice. For example, if you have some far-off country named Ko-Astera, you’ve never used it in your series other than make a couple of references to it, will your readers notice if you introduce a character who is from Astera, not Ko-Astera? It depends, if you’ve been providing the reader a glossary and it specifically names the nation and inhabitants as Ko-Astera, you’ll need to come up with a justification. You can write the minor change as part of a dialogue:

“Hey, I thought you were called Ko-Asterans?”

“You thought wrong, fool. We changed and dropped the name of Ko the Usurper back to its proper name. We are Asterans. Get it right before I take my blade and butcher you like I’ve done my cows at home.”

“Excuse me, wolf-biter. It was just a dancing question. No need to get bloody Six Flames bent over it.”

Then, in this book, you’ll have a revision and a note about Ko-Astera now changed to Astera.

You’re literally changing the look/feel of a particular species. This one is a bit harder to do. Say for example you have a race of demon-touched humans who you never really took the time to describe other than they are humans with demonic tendencies, but you saw a super-awesome picture of a succubus with demon horns, furry goat legs, the whole nine yards. You want your demon-touched people to have this look and feel. Congratulations, make it part of the plot. Bad Stuff is happening and guess what—it’s changing the demon-touched more like into actual demons. When the book is concluded, the process is not reversible.

You need to add a new magical ability/spell/power. Just add it, and make it seem like it was part of the plot/story arc all along.

You need to “break” a rule in your world because you realize it will be totally awesome. You’ll need to work this into your story as part of the dialogue or an event. For example, you have a water mage and you want them to cast fire spells. You need to work out a method or something in the plot so it makes sense you have broken this rule. In Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, it was long established men could not channel (use magic) without going insane, so the theme of one of the books was to overcome just this problem.

In conclusion, when you discover you can writing something really cool and awesome, but it will violate the rules regarding consistency, a bit of creativity and stepping back to alter the direction of the story can be yours.

Happy writing!

Tips and Tricks: Making Self-edits Fun and Constructive

Yes, I wrote it. Editing. That dreaded e-word that can be ranked up there with the same level of reaction as if you shouted the f-bomb at a birthday party for 90-something-year-old nuns, all because you walked in with the hired stripper. Oopss…wrong party.

However, you don’t have to dread the editing process. You can make it fun and entertaining almost as crafting the story itself. The key is to focus on various parts of it and tackle those parts as if individual projects. So, here are two tricks on making the self-edit fun.

Note: The two tips below are guidelines. They are not hard and fast rules that will turn your story into a bestseller, but it will allow you to practice your prose and engage the senses with your reader. Call it a stylistic guide. I personally love the editing process at all stages of it, and I hope that with these tips, you’ll end up liking it too.

The Dreaded Passive Word “Was”

Was is an important verb, but the problem with it is that it leads to a lot of passive language which in turn opens your story up to more telling than showing. This is fine when it’s in the dialogue between characters, but it gets a bit more problematic when it’s in the narrative.

Some examples:

Wyntiir was angry.

Carla, my girlfriend, was a tall woman.

There will be times where it’s fine to actually write these, but if you literally dump the whole bottle of pepper on your meal, you will not stomach the taste. Your reader will grow bored with your story. In your narrative, go through your story and find every instance of the verb was. You must not only rewrite the sentence using only action verbs, but add to the sentence with stronger descriptions to appeal to the senses of the reader.

Let’s rewrite our two examples.

Wyntiir stewed in her fury, her hands balling into fists with a trickle of blood winding its way down her wrist from her nails digging too deep in the soft flesh of her palms.

Holy cow, she’s really pissed.

Carla, my boisterous girlfriend, loved to describe herself as an Amazonian maiden as she stood taller and wider than me, and her girth betraying her love of exercise and pure physical strength.

Dang, you go girl. You’re big and buffed.

You can do this with other passive verbs too, but you have to use discretion. If you literally managed to expunge all passive verbs and write elongated descriptions, you’re going to run the risk of killing tension, bringing your pacing to a snail’s pace, and having your reader grow bored because they just read three pages of your characters going back and forth with each other and still nothing has been accomplished. This is why I recommend you only do this exercise on the verb was. It’s the most common verb, but not enough to hamstring your pacing and tension. As for your other passive verbs, just rewrite sentences using action verbs and move on.

Let’s get to the second tip.

Targeting Boring Verbs

Amateur writers typically use “boring” verbs because they are like said and ask. They just come out and you don’t pay attention to them. However, when your reader is not paying attention to them, they are not paying attention to any action or drama you wish to convey. The boring verb list is ran, covered, broke, found, gave, held, pulled, and threw. You can Google more, but these are typically it. You especially do not want to be using these words in action scenes or sex scenes. However, you can liven up your editing by not only replacing the boring verb with a stronger action-oriented verb, but also use a single adjective or adjective phrase for emphasis. Only one (think of the pepper metaphor above). Let’s deal with an example.

Wyntiir threw her knife.

Now we can use an adjective on Wyntiir or her knife, but we’re only going to choose one.

Wyntiir hurled her blood-stained knife.

See? Self-editing can be a fun game if you take the time to break it down into manageable components. And you’re still creating! Now, go forth and get rid of all those verbs was.

Creating Worlds of Wonder (2 of 3)

In the last post of this series, I discussed the rules of about world-building. In this post, I will discuss how those rules are applied into actual tools and what said tools consist of.

First, why have these tools to begin with? For one thing, it will help you maintain a level of consistently. Not every author can keep track of every alien/foreign element in their world. The stranger you have something referred to using oddly spelled-out words, the harder it gets to keep all of it straight. For example, in my portal fiction, Fallen From the Stars, the elves referred to marriage as the “reading of their oaths.” They don’t have the words “married” or “marriage” (though the humans from the valley do). I have to have this written down somewhere because I have other cultural references, greetings, salutations, etc I need to keep track of. So there are two tools that you’ll commonly come across to help you keep all of this in good working order—the story bible and the glossary.

  1. Overview of the world
  2. Primary Religions / Gods
  3. Special Geographic Locations (floating islands, etc)
  4. General System of Magic
  5. The Races and Cultures (orcs, gnolls, humans, elves, etc.)
  6. Individual Nations
    1. Nation One
      1. Culture
      2. Politics / Government
      3. Special Laws / Taboos / Customs
      4. Special Notes
    2. Nation Two, etc…
  7. Special Terms / Terminology
  8. Technological Levels
    1. Medicine
    2. Warfare
    3. Transportation
    4. Communication
  9. Special Artifacts (magic swords, rings, crowns, etc.)
  10. Historical Timeline (go as far back as need to)

The story bible is more than just an outline (though it can contain it). It is the author’s comprehensive system of how their entire world works. It’s a behind-the-scenes toolkit that details the magic system, the religions, cultural nuances, nations, geography, races, all the way down to curse words to the name of the world/universe itself. It is as detailed as you need it to be (key word: need). When crafting your fantasy world or world that uses some form of mystical elements, take the time to put some effort in it. Start with a big overview, then work your way down like this:

As you can see, we can get quite detailed on just the list alone. An article I read some years ago (don’t quote me though) about Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is that his story bible was as thick as one of his books. If you’re not familiar with his work, his series was fourteen big books weighing close to an average 1,000 pages.

Now the important caveat is you should only create what you need to completely tell your story in its entirety. If you wrote out your outline for all six of your books and you never have your characters go to the nation of Ko-Astera, never interact with the djinn-like humans who live there, never use a Fire Summoner in your stories, don’t spend a lot of time detailing that nation and everything within it. The same with Conjuration magic. If you don’t have anyone who is a Pact-Binder with a demon from the Eternal Abyss, you don’t need to detail this system of magic.

Will you be laying this out to your reader in your books? I hope not unless it’s critical to your story. But if your characters are following the rules you outline in your story bible, your reader will note the consistency and detailed world-building. They will appreciate that—greatly (assuming your readers like world-building).

There are many articles on world-building and building your story bible. I (personally) hate most of them, because they are very generic. If you want an actual live example, there are books that give just that to you. They are called campaign guides or campaign settings. If you ever played Dungeons and Dragons or similar table-top rpgs, you’ll be familiar with what a campaign setting is. Video game guides to popular fantasy worlds are also great resources and examples. Essentially, they are the “story bible” for the game master to run such games that keep everything in a logical manner. Some of them are quite detailed and beautifully written. Here is one of my favorites, though it’s nowhere close to comprehensive:

Pathfinder Campaign Setting

The second type of resource is a glossary. This is for your reader. It goes at the beginning or at the end of each book of your series and pretty much is what you’ll use as your own story-bible. Whatever is in the glossary is all you’re using to tell your story. It’s a “story bible lite” per se. This is great if you don’t have a lot of different detail in your world, such as an urban fantasy set in modern day Seattle, but you just need to advise the reader of the different names of werewolf clans, their powers, their blood magic, and their weaknesses.

In my next post, I’ll discuss what do when you run into problems. Until then, happy writing!