Tag Archive | writing

What’s Showing and What’s Telling?

cropped-top-bar.jpgI regularly teach Show and Tell: An Interactive Workshop and I’m about to start it again, and two things always come up:

1-Folks want just to learn to show more in their stories.

2-Folks don’t really know what is showing and what is telling.

Now both showing and telling have a place in any writer’s toolbox. However, what I’ve noticed is that writers just learning their craft haven’t figured out how to show more, and their telling is just awful–they haven’t learned that good narrative takes a lot of work.

I don’t think any writer is really lazy–the work is just to hard to attract someone who wants to take it easy. But writing is more than hard work. It also needs smart work.

So, quick tips here:

Showing means you SHOW the character in action. Action includes someone who is talking as well as doing things. Any actor knows this–an actor cannot just stand around spouting lines. An actor must express emotions by what they do–and that means they need bits of business. So the writer must become the actor for every character and think up how that character expresses emotion (and not just with cliches of shouting or thumping).

Telling means you TELL the reader what the character is feeling. This can be done with phrases like ‘he felt’ or ‘she was angry’. The trouble with telling the reader this information is the reader doesn’t get a chance to SEE the character–there is no reveal through actions. So the reader tends to feel cheated.

Now the confusion comes in that all of this showing and telling takes description–also, showing and telling are not absolutes. You can blend them. It’s a matter of balance. Too much telling will flatten a scene. Too much showing if you’re trying to do a transition (not a scene with emotion) makes the story drag. So you have to learn when you need to show more and when you need to tell better. And all this takes practice and awareness. It also take reading the work of others with awareness so you start to understand the techniques–if you don’t know your tools it’s hard to use them like a true master craftsman.

And a few acting classes can also help any writer better understand the need to get a character on the page by giving that character more bits of business to reveal the character’s inner nature and emotions.

Punching Dialogue

bamI judge a fair number of writing contests–my way of giving back since I learned a lot both from entering and judging. One thing almost always pops out–experienced writers know how to punch dialogue. And nothing marks a writer as a “beginner” as much as flat dialogue.

This November, I’m teaching my dialogue workshop for YRW, but there are a few tips that can help punch dialogue to take it from flat to fab.

First off, get the technical stuff clean and perfect enought to show you’re a professional who knows the craft. Commas in the wrong place, periods used when you need a comma, or vice versa, and quote marks incorrectly used will stop a reader. This distraction throws the reader out of your story–so just get a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, keep it by your computer and master you techniques.

Next, are you propping up the dialogue with tags? Does your heroine sigh words, does the hero say things angrily? If you’re putting in descriptive phrase  like that odds are the dialogue itself is weak. Instead of going for a crutch, tear out every description for the dialogue and look at the words coming out of the characters’ mouths.

Pretend you are writing a script for our favorite actors–and you want those actors to come to you and praise you for giving them wonderful words to say. Make the dialogue itself the star, not the descriptors.

When you do describe how someone is talking, make it vivid and detailed. Don’t settle for one word. If  the character trails off with a weak, squeaky gasp, be specific about what that really sounds like. If a character has a charming Scottish lilt and burr, describe that early on but don’t try to recreated it unless you have a really good ear for how to work this in.

Do an edit JUST on each major character’s voice. Does this person have a unique voice? Pet phrases? A regional shading to the words? Words that reveal the character’s education, experience and intelligence? Now look at the other major characters–are they all sounding alike?  Can the reader tell who is talking just by the words spoken? If not, it’s time to revise and give each character his or her own voice.

Read  your work aloud. There is no habit that will help you more. Do you stumble? If so, the reader will as well. Are there awkward sentences? Unclear thoughts? Yes, in ordinary life people cross-talk and talk nonsense, but this is fiction–the dialogue has to be better than real life.

Are the words right for the character and the era? If you’re writing a historical set in the 1940’s different words will be in use than a historical set in 1840, or 1640. Now, too much accuracy can throw a modern reader, but too much inaccuracy will also jar the reader from the story. Think, too, about not just how different a world would be in the past, but also the differences between classes, genders, and countries. These are subtle differences that can make your characters come to life–or leave them flat cardboard stereotypes.

Be picky–about the words chosen, about the tone in the words, about the voices your charcters have. Don’t settle for okay dialouge–give every character great words to say. Use dialogue to let your characters express emotion, negotiate for what they want, to lie and to try and get out of tight spots. Don’t just stuff plot explotion into a character’s mouth and call it good enough. It’s not.

Sometimes less is more–learn to edit and revise your work. Do multiple drafts. Do an edit just on dialouge. Do an edit just on action tags. Use actions to reaveal the truth and dialogue to hide the truth. Remember–we don’t just talk to tell someone something, we try to convince, to hide, persuade, passively get our own way, punish, lie, cover up, hide, and a million other things. Words aren’t just a writer’s tool, we all use them. So know what your charcters want in each scene and have them trying to get it–all within character. But what a character doesn’t say is often more important than anything else.

Let your characers be funny, witty–let them say the things you always wanted to say, or thought up an hour later. Again, fictional dialouge needs to be better than how we talk in reality. Punching means punching up to make words stronger and dialouge sharper.

There are some other tricks, but these  will get you going to make your dialouge stand out–and often it’s the dialogue that really sells a story.

 

 

The Best Question A Writer Can Ask…

…and Keep Asking!

It’s one little word, and yet it is vital.

WHY?

Why doairconditioneres my hero want this goal? Why does my heroine go into that haunted mansion? Why does the bad guy in the book want the hero dead? Why…why…why?

The answer to why is the motivation for a character to act. In fiction, the reader has to buy into that answer. Fictional characters have to make more sense than real people. Real people can do odd things for seemingly no reason–but readers want their fictional worlds to make more sense.

Now when you ask that why, don’t settle for the first thing that pops into your head. Anyone who reads a lot is going to go straight for a cliche–meaning a overused answer to why–for motivation.

Oh, the hero has commitment issues because his girlfriend dumped him (cliche).

Oh, the bad guy is just crazy (cliche).

Oh, the heroine goes into the haunted house because I really need  her in danger at this point in the story (cliche and contrived).

So you ask WHY? Then you ask again, and again, and again. About the fifth or sixth, or seventh or eighth time your brain will run out of cliches and you’ll start getting ideas that really connect to your specific character. That’s where the gold is–and you have to dig for it.

Which means next time your story is stuck, go back to WHY is she doing this? Or WHY is he acting this way? And keep asking WHY. It’s the most best question you can ask of your characters.

Likeable Characters

If you have a choice, are you going to spend the evening with folks you like—or with people who make you grind your teeth? I’m going to bet on the former. This holds true in a book, too—readers (all of us) want to spend time with folks we like.

This is a huge issue in any book—it was one I faced in A Cardros Ruby. Initially, the heroine started off as just too cranky and too hard to like. Now, she had her reasons for being that way—and she’s still a little touchy (she’s just seen her brother brought in unconscious, so she can be forgiven for being a little upset)—but I worked hard to make certain she didn’t put folks off.

Lady ScandalMy own experiences with this had taught me the hard way—the heroine of A Dangerous Compromise is a hard-to-like girl. She eventually redeems herself—or at least shows a good side—but that came too late in the story for many readers who just didn’t cotton to her. And I can understand that.

If I’m going to pay money and spend my hours with some folks—even fictional folk—I want to have fun. I want to be with people I like. Let’s face it, if your characters aren’t likeable, you’re going to have a hard time getting readers to settle down, buy the book and the world. That’s the voice of experience talking.

This is particularly true for series characters. I recently devoured the Phyrne Fisher mystery series by Kerry Greenwood. They’re fun, set in 1920’s Australia–but the important thing here is that Phyrne, while she has her flaws, is funny, sharp, and I’d love to sit down to dinner with her (particularly if she has her staff cooking). The books are a delight and I read all twenty because I wanted more time with Phyrne. Others have felt the same for the books have been made into an Australian TV series.

As a reader, I want characters I can root for, characters I can laugh with and cry with, characters with whom I sympathize. Kurt Vonnegut even notes in his Eight Rules to “give the reader one character to root for.” That’s good advice and if you break that rule you’d better have a good reason and even more talent.

But this brings up the question—what is likeable?

This is where subjective opinion gets into it. Even the most beloved characters have their detractors. And good characters are like people—or they should be. This means not every character will be liked by every reader. However, there are some basic things you can do give a character a better chance of being someone that a reader wants to spend hours with, as in give your characters:

Indiana_Jones_in_Raiders_of_the_Lost_ArkMad Skills – We tend to like folks we admire; we like people who are good at what they do. This is why sports figures at the top of their game—we like to see folks doing amazing things. Think of Indiana Jones—we like him because right off, even if things don’t go his way, he’s shown to have extraordinary skills. This is something I use in The Cardros Ruby—the hero’s shown as being able to handle a tough situation right off.

Good Intentions/Actions – We tend to like folks who mean us (and the world in general) well. We like characters who have good reasons for what they’re doing—as in a mother who is out to protect her child, and she may do bad things, but she’s got really good reasons, as in Sarah Conner of The Terminator. We like folks even more when they do good thing. The guy who rescues a stray dog. The woman who goes without movies for a month to buy her niece the prom dress the poor girl has been longing for and can’t afford. Little acts of kindness can mean a lot to a reader—and will put the reader on the character’s side. This is another one I use in The Cardros Ruby—even though the heroine’s heard bad things about the hero (and some of the gossip is deserved), she stands up for him because she recognizes she owes him.

Underdog Status – We like characters that don’t start out with everything going their way—folks who are behind the eight ball and have had nothing but bad luck tend to stir our sympathy. If the main character has everything else stacked in his or her favor, that’s not someone who is earning our praise and sympathy. This is another one I use (and notice that you can layer these on—just don’t go heavy handed with this).

Grit – This could be called strong moral fiber—or even just stubbornness. These are folks who don’t quit when things get tough—characters who preserver, because it’s nice to see that works (even if only if fiction at times).

Humor – Let’s face it, we like folks who make us laugh. This is what keeps comedians in business. These are the witty types, folks we admire for having a fast mind and a way with words.  I actually try to have all my characters be funny and quick because I love people who are sharp—so that’s a personal choice. But think of Tony Stark in Iron Man–it’s his sense irony and his humor as much as his iron suit that makes him stand out in any crowd.

Quirks – Every character needs some flaws—no one likes perfection. A few quirks and a character is both more memorable as well as more likeable. An odd physical trait—a scar, or a handicap overcome such as being very, very short. Or a metal quirk, as in Monk, the OCD detective.

Empathy – Characters don’t exist in isolation—they need to be aware of the world around them. Characters who demonstrate empathy for others earn our empathy—we are prone to like these folks.

Now this is not to say that all characters must display all these traits—that would be too much for any reader to believe. But pick three or four things. Or even a couple. Demonstrate that your main characters—your protagonists—are likeable. And keep in mind that if a character is going to have to do bad or stupid things in the story, that character needs the reader on his or her side early and to a great degree. Even give some of these likeable traits to your antagonists. They need to earn the reader’s sympathy, too, if the conflict is going to be strong. After all, even Hannibal Lecter had the admirable traits of being a cultured man—and very, very mad skills (emphasis on the mad there).

Let your readers get to know and like your characters before you start having your characters do terrible things—and then think long and hard about if a reader can forgive that character for breaking up a beautiful friendship by betraying the reader’s trust. If any reader finds the main character too unlikeable, that book is going to be put down.

Think about making sure your character demonstrates he or she is likeable—it’s not enough to tell the reader these things. The character has to be shown doing things that are worthy of the reader—the character must be shown doing things that show off that character’s traits. (And if you’re not sure about this, read Dick Francis, he’s a master at making you like a character in less than a page.)

Above all remember that you’re asking a reader to spend time in your world. Make sure readers want to stay, want to root for your characters, and start to like them. It all starts off with creating characters you really like—and making sure they show up right off doing some admirable things. At the very least–make sure you like them and find them fascinating.

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!