Is the Narrative Voice Dying Out?

title1I’m teaching my Show and Tell workshop in October and that got me thinking about the narrative voice. The two things that always happen with this workshop is that everyone comes in wanting to know more about “showing”–as in they’ve been beaten over the head in various critique comments to show more. The other thing is that I try to convince folks that good narrative is as important as good showing–each has it’s place in fiction, but I do worry that writers are being pushed into too much showing. What–is such a thing possible?

My answer is yes, and here’s why showing can be a bad thing at times.

1-Narrative can set a reader into the world. Too often I’m reading manuscripts and the description is more than sparse–it’s nonexistent. As a reader I want to know where I am, when I am and I want to experience the world. This means weaving in details to make the world vivid–sights, sounds, textures, tastes, smells. This can be done through a character’s viewpoint to show the world, but sometimes narrative can be a lot more effective to set your scene and put a reader into the story.

2-Narrative can weave in backstory. Yes, you can clog the opening of any story with too much–but too little can be just as bad. It’s like throwing someone into the deep end of the pool–the reader is left struggling. Too little information and the story becomes confusing and right after that the reader is going to check out of the fiction. Telling the reader a few things can keep the reader interested, particularly if you bait the hook with interesting bits of background so the reader wants to know more. And narrative can keep the backstory clean and crisp, so there’s no clunky exposition in dialogue.

3-Narrative can help introduce new characters. Again, this can be overdone, but a few bits of telling can help a reader “see” a person and helps keep the cast of characters sorted out. This can be done in a character’s viewpoint, but a lot of times a little bit of telling the reader something important or “telling” about the character is a better way to keep the pace moving and keep the reader involved.

4-Narrative can help the writer’s voice stand out. This is perhaps the most important part of the narrative voice–of telling. Beautiful writing is a wonderful thing. Again, this can be overdone and the writing becomes “writerly” or so self-conscious it throws the reader out of the story. You don’t want to step all over the story–and your characters–to leave thumbprints, but a lovely turn of phrase here and there is not a bad thing. It adds to the overall experience.

Notice with all of this, the important elements of telling are to not overdo it, and to use the narrative voice to help the reader into the story. I like to say it’s about showing more in scenes that need emotion, and telling better between scenes. The narrative voice has it’s place in fiction–I just hope writers will continue to learn how to use it better.


Better Stories

cakeI read a lot of manuscripts as contest entries and a lot of them have the same basic problem–the story doesn’t start on page one.  It’s far too easy for a writer to get caught up in the details. Those details are necessary to make the fictional world come to life. You can focus so much on the right word or the right sentence or fixing the paragraph that you forget that readers want a great story. That’s the most important thing.

A few years back I noticed there were workshops on all parts of writing–dialogue, pacing, showing and telling, viewpoint. I teach a few of those and they’re important. But even more important is how to make all of this come together in a way that makes for a great story. Think of it this way–you can have flour, sugar, eggs, milk, salt, baking powder and still make a terrible cake. It takes knowing not just the list of ingredients, but how much do you need and when these should be added, and how to mix and bake them–you can’t just throw them all in a bowl and expect something wonderful.

That’s why I do a workshop on storytelling. I’m teaching it again this September for RWA’s OCC. It is a dense class with a lot of information but the focus is on story–on getting a great story onto the page. Meaning it’s about looking at the list of ingredients–viewpoint, dialogue, pacing, showing and telling–and how to mix them together into something tasty.

So…are you focusing on story? On your characters? Or are you too focused on details?

Workshops to Learn

wpaI’ve been teaching various writing workshops–and taking them, too–for a number of years online, and I’ll be starting a new workshop on Writing Women’s Fiction next week. Over that time, I’ve found a number of things help some folks learn more than others–and I’ve experienced that as a student. So how can you get the most from any workshop? Here are some tips.

1-Make time to participate. This is so important. Yes, life can get in the way–and I’ve lurked my way through a few workshops. The workshops where I’ve been passive, I’ve never really absorbed the lessons–they didn’t stick. Or I filed the lessons and never really got to them. When I’ve taught, the writers who do the assignments do learn–I can see it in the work.

2-Stay on topic. There are so many things to learn about the craft of writing–viewpoint control, pacing, dialogue, when to use narrative, punctuation, and more. If you try to tackle everything at once, you end up with scattered efforts and not really getting a firm control of one specific thing. Focus also help you refine your skills–you may have some skills, but really working on a technique will improve anyone’s writing. I often see writers who get distracted–by ideas and by other topics. Resist this urge and start developing the discipline that will also help you focus on your stories.

3-Ask questions. This is another way to participate. Try and give some thought to your questions so they are clearly framed–it can be difficult to make yourself understood in just text, but you may spark a discussion that leads to new ideas for you.

4-Respect the teacher and the class. I’ve taught workshops where it seems like one person is ready to dive in and take over the class. This is frustrating to me. I want to encourage interaction, but if someone is hijacking the workshop and taking it off topic it means I have to spend more time pulling the workshop back on track instead of teaching and working with others. Think about what you post before you post. It’s fine to give a few comments, but do not treat the workshop as if it’s Facebook where any comment can be posted.

5-Respect your work. You want to develop the habit of always reading your work aloud before you share it with anyone else. This is particularly important if you are writing new work for specific assignments. Proof your work, then proof it again. A few typos is not bad, but a lot of them makes it seem as if you don’t really care about your own work–and as if you don’t respect your writing. Make every piece of writing as good as you can–work hard to master all the basic techniques such as verb tense, commas, dialogue punctuation, and capitalization.

6-Write specifically for the workshop. This goes back to the participation issue. Yes, you can copy and paste parts of any manuscript for any workshop assignment, but you’ll probably learn more by doing work specifically for the workshop. This also has the benefit of getting you writing. To do this, look carefully at your schedule when you plan to take a workshop. If you sign up for any workshop, clear a few other things off your calendar and set aside specific time to both read lessons and do assignments.

7-Schedule your workshop time. I’ve always gotten more by setting aside specific time for workshops–this is both for teaching them and taking them. For me, it’s best to do this in the morning when I’m fresh. I can sit down with my coffee, review notes, read and do some work. At the end of the day, it can be tough for me to focus and sometimes I’m tired enough I just want to sit and read–or stare at a movie if I’m really brain dead from a tough day. That’s when I’ll push things off. So get your workshop time allotted and set in stone. Workshops usually only last a few weeks–Writing for Women’s Fiction is only six weeks, and that’s a huge topic to cover in that short time, so you want to carve out time for getting the maximum learning.

8-Have fun–and try new things. You learn more when you’re relaxed and willing to experiment. Workshops are a safe place to try out new things. Never written first person–give it a go. Want to try present tense verbs. Okay. I generally end up reassuring everyone at some point there are no grades–there’s no right or wrong. There’s writing that works, and stuff that doesn’t work so well–and workshops are a place to go splat because you’ll learn more from stretching your writing muscles.

9-Discard what doesn’t work. In any workshop, if you come out with one or two new tools, you’ve gotten great value from that workshop. But remember–in every workshop, the teacher is sharing what works for her. This tool may not fit your hand. Maybe it’s too advanced a technique and you’re not ready for it–or maybe it’s not the way you work. That’s okay. Just trying something different will improve your skills. Never, ever feel it’s your fault if something isn’t really clicking for you–it’s not the teacher’s fault either. There’s no one right way to write.

10-Be open to new things. While we all have our writing habits, go into any workshop willing to learn. Yes, be critical. But also try even the things where you’re not sure if they’ll work for you. Maybe a workshop about plotting puts down guidelines for so much structure it kills your impulse to write. That’s okay. Look at the guidelines you can use and take them into your tool box. Maybe a workshop about dialogue gives you one great idea, but the rest of it is stuff you already know. Cool! Celebrate that one great idea–that’s the value you got from the workshop.

The great thing about writing is that there is always something new to learn. That’s why I teach–I get as much from the workshops I teach as any student. And I’m really looking forward to this new workshop on Writing Women’s Fiction. It should be fun!


It’s the Characters!

tablettypeI’m just heading home from the California Dreamin’ Writers Conference, and as usual there was talk of craft and marketing, and much other stuff. Sylvia Day, of course, talked about writing the book you really, really have to write–the book you want to write. I find that best-selling writers often do that–they may be marketing smart, but they also don’t follow the market. They make it. They also write great characters, which I think is the real secret.

So how do you get great characters on the page. First, you need talent. But a few other things can help, and I’m going to cover this in detail in my Plotting from Character online workshop starting on April 1:

Twelve steps to create the story from the inside out.

  1. Start at the deepest point: for every character, find that person’s core internal need.
  2. When looking for motivations (the why) for a character’s core need, discard the first three or four ideas (those will be clichés). Internal motivations are strongest if tied to a specific event in the character’s formative years—create these scenes (you may use them in the story).
  3. Create one main external goal for the main character—needs to be tangible, so the reader knows if the character gets it or not. (There should be consequences for failing to achieve the goal—failure should be personally costly to the main character.)
  4. Look for the motivation for why the character needs this goal—this is strongest if it’s a specific event in the character’s formative years. (Theme will come from the main character’s needs and goals—that will be the heart of the story.) The WHY for the external goal should be WHY this person must do this and WHY now–as in most folks don’t suddenly decide to go out and catch a murderer without a strong reason WHY that person must do that and WHY they most do this NOW.
  5. Decide if your character recognizes his or her needs and motivations.
  6. Focus the story on one character’s specific growth. That is at the heart of the book and will relate to your theme.
  7. For a romance, set up a potential mate who can’t provide the main character’s need—and who has goals that are in conflict. (But make sure this person is fully developed.)
  8. Know each of your character’s sexual history.
  9. Layer strengths and weaknesses into each character–compliment and contrast.
  10. Create secondary characters around the main one, with clear needs, goals and motivations for every character. (These can be opposing goals for what the main character wants or needs–or the same, with approaches adding conflict, or conflict from only being able to reach the goal).
  11. Give every character a secret–maybe even one that stays hidden during this story.
  12. Leave room for characters to surprise you. And remember, even bad guys need love.

With all the above, play the “what if” game – what if this happens to this person? What would he or she do? Create many “what ifs” and use the “what ifs” that resonate most with you and that make life worse for the main character—test your characters.

Remember:  Character is revealed through obstacles and the character’s reaction to those obstacles as he or she tries to achieve his or her goal. That is story. Plot is the construction of the obstacles in any character’s path.



Dialogue and Subtext

lietomeI loved the show Lie to Me for its use of micro expressions–small facial ‘give aways’ that revealed the truth no matter how someone tried to stop it.  But what do these facial tics and bits of body language have to do with dialogue? Isn’t dialogue about putting down what someone is saying in your story?  Well yes–and no.

I’m doing a workshop on Dialogue for Outreach International Romance Writers starting this next Monday and I chose the title to be “Don’t Let ‘Em Say What You Mean.” The title applies to a common mistake that many beginning writers make–the dialogue is too “on the nose.” That phrase is used to describe dialogue that is clumsy–it’s too specific and not the way anyone really talks.

This kind of dialogue crops up when a writer has a character explain his or her actions, give too much information about his or her past (with no motivation for providing all those details), or explain the plot to another character so the reader will catch up. Now, all of this can be done in character and brilliantly–but for most of us, the goal is to weave subtext and have characters not really say what they mean.

You want your characters to lie–and tell white lies. You want them to exaggerate. You want them to duck questions and change topics. Above all, you want emotion to drive most of what a character says. And this brings us back to those micro expressions and bits of body language–because what a character does while he or she is talking is a tip to the reader that something more is going on.

Do you really believe the story the wife is telling while she also fidgets with her wine glass and licks her lips and keeps looking away? Do you really think the guy likes his brother’s pal–even if the guy says he does–if the guy’s smile looks more like a grimace and he’s giving narrowed-eyed stares at the brother’s pal? Do you really think the little boy did not take the candy when he swears he didn’t if he hides chocolate-stained hands behind his back? Yes, those are all lies, but they’re also giving sub-text–more is going on underneath the dialogue than just the words that are spoken.

Now sometimes you do want your characters to be blunt–and honest. But even then, a character needs good reasons to be that blunt. Maybe it’s a habit. Maybe they’re fed up with the other person and want to drive them away. Those motivations have to be made clear to the reader.

Above all, a story must interest and keep a reader’s attention–and to do that you need dialogue that sparks with tension and conflict. It doesn’t have to be world-shattering conflict, but you want more going on underneath your words as characters work to get what they want in each scene. You want characters who don’t say what they mean, who go the long way around to get to a point, who offer indirect statements, and who sometimes never answer any questions. Always look for better ways to get more of your characters’ emotions on the page and less of their explanations.

And for more dialogue tips you’ll just have to take the workshop.

Are you a writer or a storyteller?

When I first started out with the idea of writing for money I though I wanted to be a great writer. I soon realized I was wrong about that. Great writing is lovely–I get sucked into it all the time. I can get drunk on words. Great writing usually is found in great literature, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I also quickly realized that great writers aren’t always the one making the money.

erbTake Edgar Rice Burroughs–not the world’s best writer. Or Dan Brown, who gets slammed for his writing all the time in various circles. Or even Twilight author Stephanie Meyer–she is not someone who usually gets “great” and “writer” in the same description, unless the word “not” is added. However, these folks all know how to tell a story. They’re more than good at that–and that’s what we all want. A great story.

With a great story a reader will often overlook a lot of things. Frankly, I’ll skip past typos, weak sentences, poor description, and even clunky dialogue if the story is pulling me along. I cannot read any book by Burroughs without thinking, “What happens next?” The characters can be cliche, the plot can have holes, but if the story sweeps me up I don’t think about those things until later–that’s when my brain engages and I think, “Wait a minute.”

So what is it about story that can be so utterly compelling? It’s not just the characters–although as Robert McKee says, “Story is character and character is story.” It’s also about pacing and action. It’s about the whole idea of spinning a good yarn. I’m doing my storytelling workshop this September for Outreach International Romance Writers. It’s a workshop I started doing when I realized other writers were getting sucked into the “good writing” vs. “great storytelling” trap. I kept reading a lot of really beautifully written contest entries that just didn’t keep me wanting to turn the page–a huge problem for any writer of fiction. So I figured let’s figure out what you need to be a good storyteller–what are the elements of that craft.

A good storyteller juggles:

Characters And Hooks: Act 1

•   Stage Presence — you have to have characters that the reader wants to spend time with

•   Letting The Reader Play Too: Non-Verbal Communication (what’s otherwise known as showing more)

Basic Structure: Act 2

•   Pulling the reader in: clear and engaging openings — hooks!

•   Pacing — sequence of events

•   Ending — a sense of closure to give the reader that happy glow from any good story

Craft And Voice: Act 3

•   Clarity, Clarity, Clarity (as in don’t lose your audience)

•   Story presentation — Keeping Listeners’ Interest

•   Voice: Choice Of Language — which is what makes your stories stand out from others

Emotion and Innovation: Endings

•   Unique or Creative Use Of language

•   Presenting The Sequence Of Events

•   The Meaning Of The Story Artfully Expressed Or Suggested (what’s otherwise known as theme)

All of these elements add up to a good story. And the art is putting them together in a way that doesn’t come across as being too cookie-cutter or too out-there, but somewhere in the happy middle ground.

Story Telling — or Just Telling

What do all these opening lines have in common?

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. —Paul Auster, City of Glass (1985)

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. —William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

They’re all telling more than showing the reader anything. They also happen to intrigue the reader, show off the author’s voice, and be really compelling openings to strong books. So why does telling–the narrative voice–have such a bad rap?

Show and TellI think because it’s usually badly done.

These telling lines I’ve listed are all strong writing. The prose is clean. The authors clearly have something to say. I think a big reason why more writers are not told to “tell, don’t show” is because this would be viewed by many as an excuse for bad writing.

Strong narrative takes a lot of work. It takes revisions and edits and also it takes a strong voice–if you don’t have anything to say then telling can quickly become the written blah, blah, blah.

The second reason why I think the advice is usually “show, don’t tell” is that a lot of writers apply too much telling to emotional scenes. This is where the reader generally wants the writer to get out of the way–the reader wants to be with the characters. So in strong scenes, too much telling is like standing in front of the TV screen when the big love scene or action scene is taking place–you’re getting in the way.

I keep telling folks the advice should be “show more in your scenes and tell better in set ups and transitions” but that’s pretty wordy. But the world would have a lot more good books if folks listened to that advice.

NOTE: Show and Tell my book on stronger showing and better telling is available on