Tag Archive | workshops

What’s My Motivation?

No wonder most folks think they suck at plotting—they do. Lately, I’ve read implausible plots, overly melodramatic plots only missing the villain twirling a mustache, plots so tangled there’s no way you can get the synopsis to five pages and have it make sense, and complex plots where the romance (and the character) are lost in the action. How do you fix this? It all goes back to character.

To quote Robert Mckee “character is story and story is character.” A good story comes from good characters—folks with clear goals and motivations that make sense. The plot then is actually pretty easy—you throw things (events) at those characters that will hit on their weak points (take them off track from their goals) and hit their buttons for their internal issues. The plot tests the characters you’ve created.

If you haven’t done the homework of creating strong characters to start—that means well developed characters—those story people are going to be feel pushed through a contrived plot. This will give you implausible, melodramatic, tangled, and/or too complex plots. This is because you’ll be using action to make up for weak conflict due to weak characterization.

I’m going to be doing my Plotting from Character workshop again soon, and from what I’ve seen in contests lately, a lot of folks could use this. If you start with character, plotting gets a lot easier. And characters need a few things to work well in fiction:

Goals – everybody wants something. Even the character who wants for nothing will still have something that he or she wants and needs – a story is about a character whose life is pushed out of balance. And the goal for that character is to fix this imbalance—to get back to a happy place. Goals work best when they are a specific thing that represents achieving that goal—which is how you end up with things like the Maltese Falcon (it’s something tangible folks can be after—having it in your hands means goal achieved).

Negative goals (to avoid some event), aren’t so great unless you also have a clock running—as in stopping the bomb from blowing up becomes a positive due to that ticker. But something like avoiding marriage is a little harder—since it’s a negative, the reader doesn’t knows when the character has achieved this goal (Is he married now? Married now? How about now?) See—that’s not going to give you a tangible “he made it” goal.

Motivations – to go along with the goals, fictional character needs good reasons for their actions, for their goals. Fictional folks have to make a lot more sense than real people.  And motivations work best if deeply rooted in the characters psyche—the deeper, the better. As in, a motivation that comes from a key, formative event the character’s childhood is much stronger than a motivation that comes from a recent event. For example, a character that needs to find a new job because she’s been fired—that’s motivation, yes. It matters, but it hasn’t been made personal. A deeper motivation comes from that character having been raised poor. So what if she saw her mother crying over a broken down car when she was ten and vowed never to be that person. Now, she’s got strong motivation to get that new job. The motivation has been made personal. And notice how you also want to tie this motivation to a key moment in that character’s life so it will resonate—and you can use that scene then in the story.

Internal Needs – this relates to motivations, and also to goals. Stories work best with lots of conflict, so you want to develop characters with strong internal needs. And hopefully these are going to be in conflict with their goals. So the character who is out of work and needs that job—and has motivations from being poor in childhood—if she’s got the internal need for respect, and she’s offered a menial job with no respect, now her external goals and internal needs are in conflict. She wants the job (external), but she needs respect (and won’t get it from the job). So what does she give up? She’s in conflict, which is always good stuff for fiction. How the character then resolves this conflict becomes part of your plot—and reveals this character’s true colors.

Motivations – just as with goals, internal needs have to be motivated. (Remember, fictional folks have to make sense—much more so than real people.) So this character needs an event in his or her formative years that leaves him or her with deep reasons to have these internal needs. And, again, you want to tie this motivation to deep, core issues—could be the character is compensating for a handicap, and respect isn’t just about being respected.

Characters should have such strong goals and needs that the character (and the reader) should feel as if that character’s “self” will be destroyed by giving up either the goal or need.

And then you throw in the romance (if you’re writing a romance).

Once you create your main character, now you design the love interest, and all the other characters. The love interest is someone with a conflicting goal, conflicting internal needs, and motivations that are just as deep and strong. In other words, this is both the ideal person, and the totally wrong person. This is a soul mate (and I use the definition that soul mates are those people who push all your buttons—they make you grow).

You develop goals and motivations for all characters—in other words, you never have a bad guy who is bad just because he is bad. And you look to develop goals and motivations that go beyond clichés. (Trust me, your first few ideas for goals and motivations will be cliché—that’s why they pop up so readily. As Orson Scott Card advises in Characters & Viewpoint, dig deeper.)

And, very important, you want the story’s antagonist—the person up against the protagonist—to have conflicting goals. Only the protagonist or the antagonist should be able to win the day (and for more on this, study up on Bob Mayer’s talk on Conflict Lock – he’s bestselling author and he knows what he’s talking about).

Theme – this is what helps you with all this goals and motivations stuff, and with all the secondary characters you need. If your theme is about how love heals, you’re going to need hurt characters, and folks who’ve never been hurt by love. You’ll need folks who haven’t been heeled by love—and those who have. You need all sides of the theme. And the main character is going to be at the center of that theme.

Now, with characters and theme shaping up, you can plot. Meaning you look at your main character and you keep asking—What is the worst thing that could happen to this person? You ask this many, many times and jot down the answers. What could prevent this person from getting his or her goal? What would force this person to give up his or her goal? What would push this person to the extreme to get his or her goal or meet his or her needs? Keep pushing, keep making it worse. (Action movies are great to take apart for this sort of stuff—look at Indiana Jones, and how his life just gets harder and harder and harder.)

These ideas for obstacles that the main character must overcome can then be shaped into the main turning point actions—the plot that will test your character. It will also test the main character’s relationship—the romance. You put just as much strain there as you do for any action.

As you do this, you’re coming up with events to throw at your character, but this is not the time to decide yet how your character will act—that come from knowing your character and putting your character into these bad, bad situations. In other words, you set up the obstacle course—your characters decide how to run that course. The story comes out of the characters dealing with worst case scenarios.

Two things about this—first, you need to structure the action so that tension and conflict rises. In a good story, things go from bad to worse—not the other way around. Second, you’ll develop subplots around the main plot, but it’s the main action line—the main character’s driving goal, motivations for this, and obstacles (or turning points)—that should be the main focus. The main story arc must have the main character at its heart—the main character must resolve the story (or fail at this, which makes it a tragedy). And this should be the last set of story points to be resolved. (Subplots can start sooner than the main story, but should be all wrapped up before the main story is in order to create the most satisfying story.)

Notice how all this plotting now comes out of the characters that you set up. Your characters give you your theme, they start to suggest events you’ll need in the story to block them from their goals. For example, you know the woman who need a new job is going to start off applying for new positions—and maybe that’s not so exciting, so you start her where she’s just been turned down for the 100th time. But she starts off trying to do this the easy way—that’s so your story can build and get worse. You know you’re going to make things worse for her—she’s going to be face with choices. Maybe even asked to commit murder in order to make a million dollars. But she’s not going to be asked that right away—that’s going to come after she’s been tested, and tested, and tested more. That’s going to come when she’s more than desperate. That’s going to come when she has so few other choices this extreme one seems a viable option.

Once you get the ideas and characters down in writing, you’re going to check in with a writer friend. You’re going to look at this from all angles to see if it makes sense. If it’s plausible. If every character is well motivated with strong goals. You do this because it’s too easy to think you’ve got it all buttoned up when you don’t. And you’ll find you have stuff worked out in your head that doesn’t make it onto the page—you want to always make sure to get the story on the page as close to what’s in your head.

What this means it that you won’t be coming up with cliché conflict (the heroine is kidnapped and the hero saves her)—conflict will be very specific to the characters you’ve created because it will be deeply rooted in individual pasts. You won’t be stuck with how to escalate conflict and tension, because you’ve got goals and you’re going to take away all the easy ways for that character to reach his or her goals. You won’t be caught with a romance that relies on misunderstandings or mistaken assumptions to create problems in the relationship—problems will be built into your characters.

Just keep in mind—it’s all about the characters.

How to get More from Online Workshops

Having taught and taken online workshops, I’ve some thoughts on how I think folks can get more bang for the buck. I’ve also taught in classrooms and at conferences, and it’s a whole different animal when you go online.

The good news is that most online workshops are cheep–there’s no overhead for classroom space, no issues about traveling to the workshop (which can be wearing if the workshop runs for more than a day or two), and you get to attend when you have the time.

The bad news is that both the instructor and the attendee miss out on face to face interaction: that’s bad, because a good instructor can gauge where/how a class is going by the interest shown in the attendee’s eyes–you can’t do that online.

With an upcoming online workshop on Writing Regency Set Novels that I’m teaching for Lowcountry Romance Writers this August, and one on Show And Tell: An Interactive Workshop, for OCC RWA chapter in September, I’ve been thinking about things that attendees can do to make the class more interesting–and to get more from the workshop.

1-Participate. In every online workshop, there are the lurkers, the participants who don’t participate. I’ve been one of them more than once. There are a hundred reasons to lurk in the electronic shadows, including lack of time, however, I’ve always gotten more out of the workshops where I’ve participated. This may mean trying some writing exercises, or just asking questions.

2-Ask questions to the group. Each workshop there’s at least one person who wants to communicate outside the workshop. As the instructor, I can’t do that–everyone benefits from every question and every answer. So ask those dumb questions to the group.

3-Stay on topic. This one’s hard. In a classroom, it’s easy to get off topic and to bring the workshop back on topic. These side branches can be useful. But online, getting off topic tends to snowball into anarchy. If you have a question that’s off topic, preface this so that you let everyone know you’re aware this may be off topic. Or find a way that it fits into the overall workshop theme and structure. Do keep in mind that you signed up specifically to get information on the workshop topic.

4-Follow the structure. This one’s very difficult. Online is a great equalizer–meaning it’s too easy to ignore posting guidelines, and to start side conversations, and to wander off on your own path. Unfortunately, if you do this in an online workshop, you take the workshop with you — meaning you’re missing out on what the instructor had planned. And remember you can always ask questions about how flexible the structure is to help you get the information you need.

5-Let the Instructor instruct. Side comments can be a great way to participate, but again, if you hijack the workshop away from the instructor, chances are you’re going to miss out on the benefits the instructor might be able to give you of that person’s experience and knowledge.

6-Give good feedback. If something clicks for you, don’t forget to post the “ah ha” moment. That may help someone else and will help the instructor.

7-Keep asking questions. If something doesn’t click for you, look to rephrase the question and try again. Provide more detailed information in follow ups. Communication online can be tricky since you don’t have someone’s face and body language to read–you just have words. This is good in that we’re supposed to be writers–we’re supposed to communicate. But we also have to always check back with our words to see if what we intended made it onto the page.

Whenever I take an online class, I try to follow the above guidelines–I don’t always succeed. Sometimes the workshop assignments seem more work than I’m willing to tackle at that moment. Sometimes I just feel like hanging back.

But I know that I get back from any workshop what I put in–that includes the workshops that I teach. And I figure if I get one gold nugget of information, I’m that much a better writer.

As an instructor, I love the attendees who contribute ideas, and comments, and who participate. They make the workshop more interesting for me as well as for others. And I have to keep reminding myself when I take a workshop to be that brave soul who steps up and participates fully, instead of being the lurking writer who likes to sit back and observe.

Managing POV

Years ago, I was lucky enough to have Jo Beverley judge one of my manuscripts in a contest. Her one comment stuck with me–learn to control viewpoint and you’ll sell. She was right. Now, I’d already tightened up a lot of other craft technique, but viewpoint was a place where I went a bit fuzzy. I wasn’t even aware how much it slipped, but it made me take a really hard look at viewpoint—and to start practicing the habit of only changing viewpoint when I absolutely needed to be in someone else’s POV. This let me cut a lot of the deadwood out of my stories, making them tighter and stronger.

Since then, I’ve since seen a lot of the same old habit I had in contests entries. It’s like something most writers have to go through. And I’ve noticed that viewpoint control actually impacts a whole bunch of other things.

Tighter viewpoint control picks up the pacing. It forces you to show more and tell less (you can’t keep slipping in and out of omniscient POV). Tight control improves characterization, brings in more emotion, and you get a much better story. The reader also tends to be less confused, and becomes more engaged by the character—spending time with anyone (even a character) is a good way to get to know and like that person.

Yet, this is a place where a lot of folks seem to want to be a little loosey-goosey. Folks will say, “But I like to switch POV.” And, yes, switching is fine, but if you’re not doing it for a reason, you may be killing the best parts of your scene. This is where a little more discipline and a little less seat of the pants can help.

And first person viewpoint can help a writer lean a lot. I’ve written a lot of stories in first person, and I still use this technique for scenes that are giving me trouble. Don’t get me wrong, I love third person, but first person is a great way to learn more control. It’s also sometimes the best way to tell a story. But watch using several first persons in a story, that can be tiresome and confusing to a reader unless there are large chunks of time with each character.

With the contest entries I read, I also sometimes get the feeling that some writers may not be aware of what are the viewpoint options. And how do they tighten their control of these.  Managing POV is an important technique to learn, and master.

Viewpoint control is like any other writing technique.  It’s one you have to think about, study, and practice. Once you get really good at it, you can put it in your hip pocket and forget about it—until it comes time to edit and fix problems. And then you need to get back to basics.

I’m doing a workshop on Managing Viewpoint with Savvy Authors this month. Hopefully, this will help folks pick up a few more tips and techniques to bring out the best in their scenes, stories, and characters.  There are techniques that can help you smooth viewpoint transitions. And there are exercises that will strengthen your control of viewpoint.

Even with first person POV, there are ways to improve your control—you can still slip into omniscient from first person if you’re not careful.

And I’m hoping the workshop will remind me, too, of the basics that I always have to keep in mind to tell a good story.

Writing Workshops – How to ?

A friend recently asked about how to do online writing workshops.  So it seemed a good idea to put down what I’ve learned from teaching writing for about ten years now online.

Writing workshop

I’ve taught both workshop classes and online workshops, and there are some big differences. In person workshops give everyone a lot more interaction—you get to see the faces of the people in the workshop, so you can see if there are blank stares, or if folks are getting it. And those taking the workshop can direct some of the information with immediate questions.

This is not to say you can’t ask questions in an online workshop, but so often the question you send in an email or post to the workshop group might not actually be the question you need answered. Communication is an art. But that’s one of the advantages of online—you have to write down your questions, and your assignments.

I’m a big believer in assignments, or exercises. I like the interaction it spawns—when you’re teaching, you get to see if folks are really getting the information, or not. And there’s nothing like practical application to stretch your writing skills.

I also think it’s great to try new things—I like to do that with my own writing skills, just to keep them sharp, and to make sure I keep learning.

Which is a big part of teaching workshops—everyone learns, the instructor included, in a great workshop. There’s an exchange of ideas, approaches, and information. To me, a bad workshop—either online or in person—is one where that exchange, for whatever reason, doesn’t happen.  If students don’t put in, or give back, to the workshop, the whole thing becomes a dull experience—for everyone.

This means the best online workshops have a mix of participants—a few who ask tons of questions, do every exercise several times, and basically throw themselves into it, a few who do some of the assignements, but basically absorb the information, and then a few who lurk, pulling in the bits of information they need.  In person, you often have this same mix, but online, it’s somehow stands out more.

As to structure, the beauty of online is the flexibility. With an in-person workshop, there’s always the limitation of distance and time—the workshop has to be close enough to get to, and it can only last for as long as the room is available. While online workshops always have some time element to them—as in they might last a week, or two, or even a month—that’s more than enough time to cover the subject matter and allow for lots of participation. Time is extended, and since the room is a virtual one, there’s no worrying about ‘driving’ to get to the workshop—or about being late. That’s a luxury for me, too, since I can logon at any time to see questions, post a lecture, or add notes.

I’m also now developing books to go with the workshops—one of the things I’ve found is that folks want to keep and refer back to the material, and with ebooks becoming so popular, it’s going to be easy enough to have ebooks with the material available for those who would like them.  I know I’ve several writing books on my shelves and I refer back to them when I need a refresher course back—that’s what the books will do, and they’ll be a logical extension of the course.

The one thing I’m always trying to get write, too, is the amount of information taught. It’s great to have a workshop with lots of great info, but I’ve taken ones where the information is just too much—I can’t absorb it. Too little information and I start to wonder what I’m doing in that workshop. But the balance is a tricky issue in that what’s too much for one person might be just right for the next. And there’s always the experience issue.

When I taught horseback riding, you’d find great teachers who had gone past the ability to teach beginners. They no longer had the patience for beginners—and they also had been doing this for so long that what seemed obvious to them wasn’t obvious.  The level of experience a writer has can be a big impact in any class—online or in person.  A workshop has to be able to bring the least experienced writer forward with the class—but it cannot drag so much that the most experienced writer is bored. That’s a difficult task.

A range of information can help with this—as can good explanations that more experienced writers can skip past but which will help the less experienced writer keep up.

But I’m always looking for ways to improve the workshops I give—I’ve several set up for the rest of this year, and some already booked for next year, too.

So what do you like most in the workshops you’ve taken online? And what could you live without?

Workshops – Teaching and Taking

I’ve been teaching online workshops now for a few years, and I’ve one coming up for the Show and Tell: An Interactive Workshop course with the Lowcountry Romance Writers, and every one of these is a different beast from the others. There are advantages to online workshops, the best being that you don’t have to drive, and with winter still hanging around, that’s a huge plus. But the other big plus is that, for writing, it’s all about the writing and getting the words down and communicating. That’s a challenge with just text, and so it’s why I’m always adjusting these workshops, and adding new things I’ve learned from my own writing.

Up, up and awayThere are times I feel a lot like a balloon — filled with hot air and not much else, something worth a glance. But the view is always better from up in the balloon. And while maybe I’ve covered the same material before, it only takes one questions that puts everything into a new light and makes it all fresh again.

I’m also a believer in covering the basics over and over again — you do the same thing in dance, you drill. It’s the repetition that actually leads to strong technical skills. That’s true for writing too — you really cannot cover the basics enough.

But all this leads me to think about what someone should expect from an online workshop — what is it possible to get and what is it possible to give. And since I’ve taken a few courses I have opinions about both sides of workshops.

The first job of any teacher is to engage. This means workshops shouldn’t bore. This one can be tricky online because you’re trying to balance conveying a lot of great information with trying not to overload the workshop participants — and everyone has different levels of processing. “The mind can’t absorb what the butt can’t endure” — in a classroom, you can only keeps folks sitting for so long unless you are utterly fascinating. Online that changes. Some folks read faster and some don’t; some folks retain more from what they read, some don’t. So there has to be a fair bit of repeating, balanced with the new information.

And sometimes it just takes saying the same thing several times to make it click. Short sentences help. A lot.

The second job is to inform — and my own criteria is if I get one gem, one golden nugget out of any workshop, it’s worth the price of admission. (And, yes, I’ve had a few workshops where that was missing, but almost every workshop will give you one good bit of advice — everything after that is gravy.)

With the entertaining, and the information snuck in, that covers the basic for any workshop for me. But I do think the best workshops have one more vital element — they’re fully interactive. Teaching has to be a dialogue.

I’ve lurked in workshops and I’ve participated — I always get more from the ones where I dive in and try out new things. I have more fun if I get my hands dirty. And workshops should be a place to fool around and try new things.

I also like teaching workshops more when those taking the workshop are willing to play — give and take is always more fun that either just giving, or just taking.

Which, actually, leads us back to the “show and tell” workshop — fancy that — because stories that both show and tell are also more fun that stories that just show or just tell. It’s all about balance really — in a workshop, or a story. A balance of information and engagement. A balance of give and take. A balance between showing folks how it’s done and telling. And that’s the thing about balance — it’s something that must be maintained. And I think that’s what I’m always looking for in a workshop — a well balanced flow of information.

But what’s your criteria for a great workshop?

It’s Not Just a Point of View

Let’s start with a disclaimer—I am not a POV purist. I’m probably going to sound like one, but really I’m fine with viewpoint shifts in a story, so long as they work. But I think most folks use the “I’m not a purist” line as an excuse not to master POV technique. And a lot of folks just don’t know why they need strong POV control in a story.

Back before my first book sold, I was lucky enough to get Jo Beverley as a judge in a contest (she writes historical romance and if you have not read her work, go and buy her books—she’s good). She stressed one comment—master your POV and you’ll sell. She was right. Back then, I had something I see a lot from journeyman writers—floating POV.

Floating POV is when the viewpoint is sort of third person and sort of omniscient. It’s sort of in one character, but sort of not. This can show up in first person, too, where it’s sort of first person, but sort of omniscient, so don’t think you’re immune there. However, it is less likely to show up in first person, which is one of the big advantages to using it. The big problem with floating POV is that it leaves the reader floating above and out of the story, too—the reader ends up emotionally detached. It’s weak writing.

Deep POV, the opposite of floating POV, is about reader immersion. And by deep, I mean viewpoint that is locked within a character. This means locked right behind that character’s eyes and within that character’s head and emotions. Deep POV can be locked in first person or third person, but it is locked tight. When you lock POV like this, it’s very tough to shift—both because you as the author start rolling along with the character, and each shift is a place to lose the reader. With deep POV you naturally tend to want to put viewpoint shifts at chapter breaks or major scene shifts instead of putting these viewpoint changes within a scene.

All transitions in a story are slippery places—chapter shifts, scene shifts and viewpoint shifts are the places where a reader can pause, slip out of the story and put the book down. Put enough of shifts into a scene, or too many fast shifting scenes before the reader is deep in a story, and you can see how POV purists end up having a good point—you’re better off being a purist than someone who changes POV so much that it pushes the reader out of the story.

Like any other writing technique, POV control is about mastering the technique. That’s an advantage a POV purist has because that person has nailed this part of the craft. And if you don’t practice a discipline, if you’re always loose with your POV, you won’t learn how to control your story (or the reader’s attention).

Coming from a background where I’ve dabbled in the other arts—music, painting, dance—I’m a believer in solid technique as a foundation. The stronger your technical skills, the more you can let them run on auto-pilot and focus on the fun stuff. When I played violin, every practice started with a half hour of scales. Only then could I dive into the music and have it come out sweet. Scales both limbered up my skills and improved my technique. A writer doesn’t really have the equivalent of musical scales, but we can still practice technique.

To improve my control of POV and my technical skills, I set myself the following disciplines.

First book I sold, I kept to one character’s viewpoint per chapter. This became the technical exercise in the book. If I needed to cover another character’s emotions in a scene, the following chapter could go back a bit in time to do that scene from that character. But I was a POV Nazi for myself and kept to one character’s POV in each chapter. This deepened my characterization and the emotion in the scenes. It gave me the control I needed—but I still have to go back to this practice at times (yes, those skills you don’t practice get rusty).

Next thing was to write more in first person. I still do this. While I like third person for the flexibility it gives of putting the viewpoints of a lot of characters into a story, I’ll still use first person to write a scene. After the scene is written, if the story is all in third person I’ll shift the first person scene into third person. First person helps me get into my characters and also works a lot like those musical scales to keep my technical skills sharp. It also gives me more emotional bang in my scene, and keeps me honest about my viewpoint control (it’s so easy to think you’re doing this well when you’re not—I always say there’s the story in your head, the story on the page, and the story in the reader’s head, and these don’t always match).

The last discipline is to always ask—do I need to shift viewpoint? (Hint: “Because I feel like it” is never a good enough answer.) Viewpoint shifts need to be treated like any other part of the story—they need a lot of good reasons to be in the story, or they need to be left out. That which does not improve a story will detract. If I have three good reasons to need a viewpoint shift—including the best one, which is that another person in the scene now has more emotionally at stake in the scene—only then will I look at crafting a shift.

Granted, sometimes the instinct to shift viewpoints is one you need to listen to. Writer instincts need to be developed and used. But sometimes this is also justification for a lazy habit that you need to pound out of your writing. This is where you have to be able to look at your writing and know that the scene works—it’s giving you the emotion you need, so don’t touch it. Or you have to apply the discipline to rewrite it and keep the reader within the viewpoint of the key character in that scene so the reader gets every ounce of emotion from that scene.

When you have to make a viewpoint transition, you want to use some technique to smooth this (it’s like a baton hand-off in a relay race, and if you fumble this, the reader can trip right out of your story). But that’s the subject for another day, and for the POV workshop that I teach (shameless plug there, but if you don’t take this workshop, at least pick up Orson Scott Card’s book, Characters & Viewpoint to grab some good tips).

I won’t tell you, “Master POV and you’ll sell.” You may have other writing or story issues to address. But I will say that mastering immersive POV—the ability to put your reader into the story and keep the reader there, the ability to control viewpoint so well that it the craft is transparent to the reader—is key to becoming a great storyteller.

At least, that’s my point of view.


(First published as a guest blog at the FFnP RWA Blogspot.)

Show and Tell

This August, I’m doing the “Show and Tell: An Interactive Workshop” online for the FFnP Chapter of RWA, so it seemed time for blatant promotion and to post tips for this.  The “show don’t tell” advice I understand but it sometimes chaps my hide a bit since telling can be a way useful tool for a writer and if folks are struggling to show everything they don’t get around to leaning how to do strong narrative.  That’s too useful a tool for a writer to ignore.  The way I figure it, these are two things you need in your toolbox–same way a carpenter needs both a screwdriver and a hammer.  Hammers really are great for pounding things home–but there are times you need the finesse of a screwdriver to just tighten things up.  Means a writer needs to learn how to both show and tell–and you need to learn when each of these works best for your story. 

Now, about those tips….


  • means convening the character in action and words.
  • takes more words because the goal is to create a picture and feeling in the reader’s mind with only words.
  • takes vivid descriptions that reveal the characters emotions to the reader.
  • requires good visualization by the writer.
  • is strongest when you use as many of the five senses as possible: smell, touch, taste, sight, hearing.
  • is the continual search for how to reveal what your character feels and how that character displays (or doesn’t display) those feelings.


  •  means conveying exact meaning to the reader; it is, literally, telling the reader information.
  •  compresses word count (useful in short stories and a synopsis).
  •  alerts the reader that the information, or the character, is relatively unimportant.
  •  can smooth transition in time, distance, or viewpoint.
  •  can establish a mood or setting when you do not wish to do this in any character’s viewpoint.
  •  is the continual search for fresh ways to give your reader information the reader must have.

To know if you’re telling vs. showing, look for “clue” words that tip you off when you may be telling more than showing, such as was, were, are, to be (as in, The sun was hot.).

If the telling is done in a character’s viewpoint, it is really showing us how a character sees the world.

If dialogue is about plot exposition, it is really telling a plot point to the reader—this is why exposition in dialogue usually falls flat and leaden (use dialogue to show more how a character is feeling).

Use of deep viewpoint allows the reader to ‘discover’ your characters through showing that inner person.

A character’s actions always speak louder to the reader than any thoughts or narrative about that character; actions reveal true character—you can tell a reader a character is brave, but if you show that person acting like a coward the reader will believe the action, not the telling.

To better show a character, give your characters mannerisms (physical and verbal habits) that reveal their inner person.

In general, if you have a character thinking something, put that thought into dialogue. 

Most people respond to any motivating stimulus (something happening) in this order FEELING, BETRAYING ACTION, THOUGHT, DELIBERATE ACTION (GESTURE/SPEECH), so that’s how you want to structure scenes, so that a character feels something, acts on that feeling, then says something.

The main except to the above response order comes when training or instinct kicks in action before all else. 

Less can be more (in both show and tell)–what you leave out is often more important than what you include. (Just don’t be obscure.)

Words and sentences and paragraphs that do not add anything actually detract from what is there–the end result is to weaken the good stuff.

Multiple edits are your friend; it’s not necessary to get everything in one pass.  Make one edit about dialogue, the next edit about punching the narrative (telling), the next edit about adding more showing details, etc..

Showing and telling do not have to be absolutes; use more show than tell in a dramatic scene, or use more tell than show in a transition.  Part of the choice about how much of each you have is your style, and part is the effect you want to have on the reader.

For the rest…well, you’ll just have to take the workshop.

Online Workshops — too much ?

I’m due to give an online workshop with Colorado Romance Writers – in past years this has been very well attended (it’s the Show & Tell Workshop), but this year isn’t looking too full. And might well be canceled. They show other workshops they’ve held in the past couple of months as also canceled. Which makes me think folks are really tightening belts and budgets, and this falls under extras.

I’ve cut back on a few things–less trips, fewer lattes out, and really thinking twice before I buy a book (but I’m still buying and have hit a new streak of great reading).

But I’ve also seen writer contests struggling, pushing back close dates, entries dropping. So now I’m wondering if it’s a time crunch as well as cash–as in the second job take, or the extra work undertaken, or the stress of job shopping (can be hard on the muse, I know).

Maybe it’s due to just too many contests, too many workshops online, too much info floating about. There’s certainly nothing wrong with putting your head down and writing–much more can be learned from the doing instead of the learning. But I do wonder how this will shape the market, and future writers.

April Online Workshop

I’m doing the Show & Tellworkshop online again for OCC–not sure it’s good that this seems to be a perennial favorite. However, I took a year off from giving this workshop, and that was good–time always gives perspective (and new things to say).

The interesting thing about this workshop is that most folks get how to “tell” a story, but don’t get that good “telling” takes as much work to craft beautiful prose as does good “showing” (or action).  In fact, I sometimes think a beautiful narrative passage is even more work.  This is a difficult concept to teach, because, it’s like music–you have an ear for it (language or music) or you don’t.  If you don’t there’s no teaching it.

It’s also interesting in that so many writers are hung up on having been told to show more that that’s all they want to focus on.  And the real trick to learn is not just to show, but to show the RIGHT things.  It’s not the details, the actions, that make a character–it’s the right actions.

The other interesting thing will be to see what mix is in the workshop.  There are always more than a few lurkers, which is cool, but it’s not like a classroom where you can look at the quiet ones and know which ones get it and which ones are struggling.  There are a few teacher’s pets who do every assignment and ask tons of questions but I sometimes have the feeling they’re too focused on doing it ‘right’ and that can defeat the point of learning.  There are the difficult ones, because email as a form of communication can leave much to be desired, and sometimes I wonder why these folks signed up for anything since they just seem to want to do things their ways. And then there are the surprises. That’s the best part of any workshop. We’ll see what this one brings.

Show & Tell Workshop

There is such a thing as teaching burn-out.  I’ve taught folks how to ride — and I miss that part of my life, and still plan to get back to it someday.  But these days it’s more about writing workshops.  The best part of any workshop is that it makes me rethink some of my own process.  However, when you find yourself saying the same things over and over, it starts to feel dull–which is why 2008 was the year of just say no to any workshops.  But I’ve already lined up a few for next year, and I’m actually excited.

The first one off is a “Show and Tell” workshop Jan. 5th thru the 16th for the Northeast Ohio Chapter of RWA. While I’ve given this workshop before, a year of space has given me time to rethink things, and I did a run through of this for the local LA RWA chapter, and that went well. It always interests me just how many writers do not have a clear idea between what’s the narrative voice, and what isn’t–and I think there’s a connection here between if a writer leans more towards instinct or analytics.  Instinct is good, but one thing I learned from one of the most brilliant riders I’ve ever known–George Morris went on to coach the US Olympic riding team, and he always said he’d take a solid technical over a brilliant instinctual rider.  He knew he could count on the technician to produce–that person might not give the brilliant rides, but the instinctive rider also has moments when instinct fails or goes wrong, and so there’s a lack of consistency in the performance.

Writing is a lot like that.  Instinct can fail–can take you the wrong way.  But solid technique–that can lead you to solid performance.  Which is why I lean more towards wanting a better understanding of craft.  I adore brilliant writing– but I also love a really well-crafted story with solid technique.  And if I can pass on a love and interest of that–well, hey, that’s not a bad thing, is it?