Show, Don’t Tell

When I was home in California last Christmas, I was clearing out a box of my things at my parents’ house. As a writer, sometimes it’s fun to look back at your earliest work and see how far you’ve come. I got to go over some of my earliest hits, like the very first short story I ever wrote: a ten page fantasy from fourth grade about the world’s richest rabbit. I also came upon my first manuscript ever: the historical novel I’d penned in high school. Reading through that was tragic.

It was very tough reading through my early works because I noticed I did a lot of showing, rather than telling. As you foray deeper into the world of writing, you’ll probably come upon this critique more and more from professors, peers, or just other writers in general.

So, what does that mean exactly?

If you struggle to differentiate between showing versus telling, don’t worry because you aren’t alone. Plenty of writers struggle with it. It all refers to the actions in your story. When you “tell,” you’re basically just informing the reader of what is going on rather than letting them deduce it for themselves. In other words, you’re just supplying them the information by stating it. Think of it as being the Captain Obvious of your own story. Examples of this would be telling the reader that the character is “upset,” “hungry,” or “cold.”

Instead, showing is basically painting a word picture for the reader to see in their mind’s eye. Rather than tell the reader the character is “angry,” “hungry,” or “cold,” you describe it to them with action. So your character can “slam a door so hard a picture falls off the wall,” or they can “take a sip of water to try and quell the feeling of acid burning in their stomach,” or they can “reach for an extra blanket.”

Instead of telling your reader what is going on, try to make them an interactive part of the experience – make them be able to close their eyes and see it as if they’re reliving a memory. I mean, we’re all readers ourselves so we know there is nothing better than being a reader with an active role in the narrative.

If you need more concrete examples, I’ve written some below:

Tell: When she hugged him, she could tell he’d been smoking.

Show: As he wrapped his arms around her, the faint waft of stale tobacco hit her nose.

Tell: Emily was blind.

Show: Emily’s white cane struck the side of the curb.

Tell: It was late fall.

Show: The orange leaves crunched beneath our feet.

Tell: The man was a plumber and he asked where the kitchen was.

Show: His coveralls were stained with white paint on the left leg. Wrenches of various sizes hung down from the leather belt around his waist. “Point me towards the leak,” he said.

Tell: The date was going well and Tom let his food go cold listening to Lisa’s stories.

Show: Tom’s baked potato had lost its halo of steam as he smiled and asked, “Please tell me the end of that German hostel story.”

Now, you may be wondering if telling is ever acceptable? And yes, it is. However, keep in mind that telling is just summary narrative. It doesn’t add any value to your plot/conflict/character/tension arc, but it can be used when you have to include the mundane but necessary information. In short, you want to do a majority of showing, but sometimes you have to tell some of the smaller, less important things. It’s a writing yin and yang – showing and telling both balance each other out. You just need to figure out the balance that works for the story.

The Perfect Way to Write Your Novel

Here it is: the cure-all secret that will revolutionize your writing. Are you ready? Do you want to know the perfect way to write a novel? Alright, here is a step-by-step guide below:

1) WRITE!

Thought I was going to let you off easy? Nope. The whole point of writing is to write. It doesn’t have to be good; it just has to come out on paper. That is what editing is for. The key that you need to focus on is sitting down to that laptop or notebook every day and writing something down. There really is no magical secret to writing a perfect novel. Everyone’s novel is perfect in its own way. The real magic lies in actually starting it so go write!

2) Set Realistic Goals

If you’re struggling to get writing, then setting yourself a goal of 5k words a day is a little unrealistic. In fact, it’ll feel next to impossible because when you sit down to write, you’ll get intimidated and suddenly your shower will be in urgent need of cleaning. And if your shower gets cleaned, then you should do the toilet and the sink while you’re at it. And hey, your living room could probably use a dust, and if you dust, obviously you need to vacuum too. Oh look, it’s bright outside. Why not go for a walk? If you’re going to walk, might as well make it productive and take a walk to the grocery store with the canvas bags because it’s about time you stop killing the environment and start meal prepping. If you’re going to eat healthy, might as well exercise in order to lose that gut so you should sign up to a gym. In fact, let’s take a drive to the gym to test it out? And – NO! JUST STOP! Rather than set unrealistic goals for yourself that will then be met with copious procrastination methods, take a deep breath and settle for something more achievable like 500 words. You can even set yourself a time goal instead, like set aside an hour every morning or evening to get some work done. Either way, start small and then work your way up to bigger goals as the smaller ones start to become second nature.

3) Take a Short Break

This is key. Short breaks are good for keeping your sanity. While it’s fun to immerse yourself into your work, short breaks help to avoid burn out. Rather than trying to schedule an eight-hour writing session on Saturday, try to go for six one-hour sessions spread across the week, and a special two-hour day on the weekend. And throughout those writing sessions try to factor in a quick 10-minute break where you can stretch, make yourself some tea, and just step away from the computer or notebook for a minute. It is also a good idea to give yourself a couple days a month where you just don’t write at all. Instead, go for brunch or binge Netflix. Do something that gives your brain a break from your work. It’ll actually make your work even better when you go back to it with fresh eyes.

4) Don’t Give Up

Inevitably, we will all hit a wall at some point in our story. It might happen early on, it may occur in the middle, or it might even come at the end. Either way, the proverbial writer’s block comes for us all. But the key is how you deal with it. Give yourself no more than 48 hours of a break and then get back to it. Even if after 48 hours you still feel like you’re blocked, power through. It’s better to write utter trash that can later be edited than to sit and wait for the brain fog to clear. Writer’s block is the leading cause for stories to go unfinished. Don’t let it happen to yours.

5) Repeat

This one is pretty simple. If you paid close attention to Step 4, you should have a finished product to show for it. Good job. Once it’s been edited and sent out into the world, you can move on to the next project on the agenda, and that is to repeat the cycle: Write, Be Realistic, Take Short Breaks, and Don’t Give Up. It’s not a magic formula, but in following the simple steps you will feel like you’re creating magic.

Happy Writing!

Writing Horror Fiction in Today’s World

Horror has a seductive hold on us. Horror is like a tentacle crawling from the crypts of our darkest dreams to suck us into horrific nightmares. Horror, if done properly, casts a dark magic, sending chills down readers’ spines.

Now is the time, now is the hour. In my opinion, horror movies such as Insidious 1-2, The Possession of Hannah Grace, and Sinister aren’t scary enough for me. I am an avid writer of horror fiction and I am well read. I know that in order to give readers or viewers the frights royale, readers should be too afraid to not leave the lights on all night and hide under the covers. And curse the writer because they can’t put the book down.

The writer must make extra effort to horrify jaded readers. There is a difference between horrifying and terrifying. One of the two you experience more deeply. Terror is more effective. I won’t watch The Exorcist which deals with similar themes as the movies mentioned above, but does a much better job. The Exorcist doesn’t turn away from something revolting, it stares it in the eye. It makes you look too, when you don’t want to. -and doesn’t let go. The same is true for Silence of the Lambs. But it doesn’t need to gross readers necessarily just to be scary.

Novels such as Dracula and Frankenstein reflected the time or era in which they were written. In Victorian times, darkly romantic fanged noblemen were scary because the society had different fears and beliefs about death than now. Those fears wouldn’t faze us today. Anne Rice wrote about vampires and made vampires intimidating and sexy again. That is why the novels were successful. Today, writers like Suzanne Collins draw from what they view in the world today. We are more sophisticated now yet desensitized at the same time.

If you are interested in penning a horror novel or short story, I suggest the following tips: Get out of your own comfort zone. Change the environment where you write. Bring your writing pad, coffee, and lurk in a cemetery, visit a haunted location or a morgue, and research the folklore of your hometown. You might create something original, which can be helpful. Getting out of your comfort zone and exploring new things breathes new life into your writing. Here are a few more tips.

Buy a tarot deck to inspire you, read dark poetry of a poet you never heard of until now. Go on a trip to a quiet seaside town that has a paranormal history. Be safe as you explore new eerie cemeteries or towns.

Trust in yourself. If you’re fearful while writing the story, there’s a good chance your reader will be too. Pay attention to your dreams. Often dreams reflect our daily lives and what is hidden in our subconscious. Heed your insights and flashes of inspiration. I penned a dark novel based on a flash of inspiration that I would never have dreamed up otherwise. Learn all you can and be openminded. Then when you have created your villainous monster, you can make him or her or it the main character. Be true to your creation, your own monster. Your readers will recognize the true effort you put in.

We have global communication today. We can see the world events on the Internet. The Internet opened a window into the savage truth that we could be in the grip of an almost impending apocalyptic doom. Now that is scary.

Audiences and readers today have seen everything. A novel can be successful still, but writers must be unabashedly original to truly terrify their readers. Look at what is happening in society. The monsters of yesterday are not the monsters of today. It worked for Stephen King and Thomas Harris and with luck, it can work for you too.

How Long Should a Chapter Be?

A common debate amongst authors is how long should a chapter be? James Patterson has chapters literally one page in length while J.R.R. Tolkien’s are dozens. Both are great authors. Both are infamous. But in the matter of chapter lengths, which one is right? The answer is they both are.

Let’s look at the definition of a chapter before going any further.

Chapter (Noun) – 1. A main division of a book, typically with a number or title. 2. A local branch of a society. 3. The governing body of a religious community, especially a cathedral or a knightly order. 4. A period of time or an episode in a person’s life, a nation’s history, etc.

We know it’s a main division of a book without even having to look at the definition, but look at the last example they give. A period of time or an episode in a person’s life, a nation’s history, etc. This is literally telling you, within the definition itself, that it does not matter how long the length of the chapter is as long as the scene within it is completed. You can still have a cliff-hanger at the end of the chapter, even if it is a page long.

Still not satisfied that the chapter can be any length? Let’s talk about lengthy chapters.

Do you remember seeing those fancy designs in between the text in some books? Those are called divider vectors. They are a visual ending of a scene for the reader. Vectors help to break up longer chapters so the reader is able to find a stopping point, because the reality is we always get interrupted by something while reading. It leaves an easier place to come back to.

Looking back at the definition of chapter again: A period of time or an episode in a person’s life. Your personal life is not cut into perfectly timed portions. An example — you only meant to stay at that Halloween party for two hours, but time whisked away and you found yourself there for five hours. The same goes with writing. One minute your character is behaving themselves and following the script. The next minute, they’re gallivanting across the countryside with a bunch of Dwarves and a wizard.

Do not restrict yourself or your characters on the fairytale ideals of perfect chapter lengths. Of course for young readers, you should make sure the chapters are easily comprehensible. But you still are not limited to a certain word count or a certain page-length for chapters. This is one of the steps that prevents many authors from simply writing.

So, sit down at the keyboard and just write.

Do I Need Chapter Titles?

When you first open a book, you more often than naught find a Chapter List shoved in between the pages before the first official page. The list of chapter names gives you an idea of what is going to happen within the book. Some people prefer this; some people believe it isn’t necessary since the summary on the rear cover should sell it. It honestly depends on what the author wants to do. Here are some of the pros and cons to help you decide for yourself.

Pros

  1. Your reader has an idea of what to expect for the book.
  2. Your book looks organized and professional on first glance.
  3. Some readers memorize the last place they’ve read by chapter number or chapter name. By listing it in the front of the book, the user can skim through the list to find the exact page number with ease.
  4. It’s normally expected. For book clubs, it makes it easier to keep track of where everyone’s progress should be after a certain amount of time. They will not thumb through a book to guesstimate this information for themselves.

Cons

  1. You thought naming the book itself was difficult. Now you have to name each and every chapter without giving away the entire story!
  2. Your reader knows too much about what happens in the book.
  3. You have yet another extra page between the cover and the first official page for the reader to begin the book. Being an extra page, it gets overlooked by some of the average readers who just want to begin reading.
  4. Extra pages also add extra costs to your book overall.

If these aren’t enough to convince you to sway either way, here is another brief article on the topic. Let me know your opinions in the comments!