Fiction Writing Tips 21–30
Welcome to the third page of Fiction Writing Tips. Here you will find tips 21 through 30
To return to the tips index, click here.
Tip #21: The Dumb Puppet Trick
Years ago I wrote puppet scripts for my church's children's department. Puppetry, like fiction, is a great way to have audience members or readers receive words of truth and challenge that they probably wouldn't accept from a pastor or nonfiction book.
Very often in these puppet scripts I would need to have some information come out to the audience, whether it be explanation of what's going on, clarification of the plot points, or enunciation of the message.
So I would bring in the dumb puppet.
"Sally, why are you stacking up those Bibles? Are you going to start 'standing on the promises'? Gu-huh, gu-huh, gu-huh."
"No,Jimmy! We're stacking these up because Leroy is going to give them away to the children during backyard Bible club next week."
"Oh, so they can stand on the promises."
"Well, in a way."
"Because they're all short and can't see?"
"No, Jimmy! So they can learn about Jesus and maybe become Christians."
If you'd had Sally talking to Leroy instead of to Jimmy (a.k.a. the dumb puppet) it wouldn't have worked. You can't have characters talk to each other about the details of things they both perfectly understand.
"Wow, Leroy, I hope all these Bibles will be enough."
"I do, too, Sally, because as you know we're going to be giving these out to the kids at BBC next week."
"Yes, I do know that, Leroy. And as you know it is our hope that these kids will learn about Jesus and become Christians through these Bibles."
"Exactly, Sally. Well said."
I mean, come on. Nobody talks like that. But you bring in the dumb puppet and everything you need to have the audience know gets brought out in a believable way.
The Dumb Puppet in Fiction
The dumb puppet trick is very useful to bring out information in fiction. It helps you avoid long paragraphs of exposition or backstory (i.e., "telling") and it prevents the Sally and Leroy kind of conversation in which everybody is talking about what they all already know.
You could write: "Jennifer had always loved interior decorating. It all started in 1973 when her mother decided to redocorate the living room and kitchen of their ranch home in Southern California, after the divorce." [blah blah blah--pure telling]
You could also write: "Jennifer, I see that you love interior decorating." "Yes, Barb, I do." "I imagine it goes back to 1973 when your mother got divorced and decided to redecorate the kitchen and living room." "Yes, Barb, it does. How you know me." [ick ick ick--pure silliness]
Or you could bring in a dumb puppet. Note that a dumb puppet doesn't have to be dumb. It is simply someone who is new to the situation and doesn't know all the whats and whys of the moment.
"Jennifer, this room is lovely. I'm quite sure our readers will adore it."
"Thank you, Sylvia. That's kind of you to say. I'm still in shock that your magazine wants to feature my work. I'm nobody."
"Well, our editor doesn't think so." Sylvia looked down at her notepad. "So, when did you know you wanted to get into interior design?"
And you're off to the races.
The next time you're going through your novel and you see large chunks of exposition or backstory, and you're sure it's information that must come out to the reader, consider how you might bring in someone who could ask the right questions to bring it out organically.
Remember, anyone can be a dumb puppet, even a genius. The only qualification is that he or she (or it, for those of us who write speculative fiction) not know the situation and might be reasonably expected to ask.
Children are great for this because they ask what no one else will. Visitors, tourists, reporters, the new guy, the visiting relative, the repairman, the inspector, and the delivery guy are all good candidates.
The dump puppet is your friend.
The Argument or the Breakdown
There's a variant to the dumb puppet trick that I'd like to tell you about.
One situation in which people talk about things they already know is when there's a newcomer to the situation to whom it must be explained.
They also talk about such things when something goes wrong.
"Why are you adding coolant to the asponerator? I told you never to do that."
"I know what you told me, but look at the heat meter. It's maxed out. Your 'repairs' must've broken something else. Again."
"Enough with that already. I fixed it, didn't I? And I know I didn't break anything this time. Maybe the meter's wrong."
"It's not wrong. I ran a diagnostic. Maybe it's that new enzymer Keely put in."
"Do you think it could be the strain? With 5 of us on the station now instead of 3? Maybe it can't keep up? Maybe we're in trouble."
And so it goes. These two characters never would've talked about this stuff had something not gone wrong. Either an argument or a problem--or in this case both--can give you great freedom in bringing out information in a natural, organic way.
Tip #22: Stick to One Name Per Character Per Scene
The tall man sat at the conference table. The doctor took a sip of coffee and looked at his presentation notes. The Lithuanian orphan scratched his head. The left-handed man jotted down a note. The Harvard grad readjusted his chair. Karl checked his watch. The old man wiped his glasses. The widower looked around the room...
...and saw that he was still alone at the conference table.
Are you thinking, "Wait, how could he be alone? What about all those other people in the room? The doctor, the orphan, the tall guy, the lefty, etc.?"
Many aspiring novelists make the mistake of referring to an individual character by more than one name or descriptor in the same scene. In the scene above, all those descriptors (from Lithuania to Harvard) refer to the same person. Karl was a tall, old, left-handed, widower who began life as a Lithuanian orphan and then went to Harvard and became a doctor.
But my guess is that you thought there were eight people at the table. That's the problem with referring to the same character by different names or monikers in the same scene: it's confusing and misleading.
The rule is this: stick to one name per character per scene.
Maybe I should add "per viewpoint character" to the rule.
If your viewpoint character calls him "Karl," then he must be called "Karl" throughout the scene in which you're in this viewpoint character's head. If the next scene is from a new viewpoint character's head, and that person refers to the same character as "Pops," then this new viewpoint character should refer to him as "Pops" throughout the scene and probably never as "Karl," "the old man," or "the Beatles fan."
I think writers do this as a form of telling. They think they can use these different names and descriptors as subtle ways of sneaking in other bits of information or backstory about the character. I mean, by the end of the scene (if you'd been able to understand it correctly) you would've learned a lot about our man Karl. But it would've been cheating. Because telling is usually cheating.
If you need us to know that Karl was a Lithuanian orphan, figure out a way to bring that out organically, through scene and dialogue (or perhaps even through the Dumb Puppet Trick, Tip #21), not through sticking it in here and thus confusing us, your readers.
Stick to one name per character per scene (per viewpoint character) and you'll do fine.
Tip #23: Describe Actual Places
Back in Tips 5-8 I did a series on creating descriptions for settings and characters. I recommend you read those carefully. The current tip is designed to add on to what I said there.
When I read unpublished fiction I often get no sense for what a place (and, to a lesser extent, a person) looks like. Tips 5-8 will greatly help with this, but here's one more tool to use.
Describe actual places.
Go to the Web and the library and find photos of Scotland or New York City or wherever might look like the settings in your novel. Pick out at least one photo for each setting in your book.
When you sit down to write the description for that scene (and you'll do so whenever you take us to a new setting, right?), pull out the chosen photo and simply describe what you see. That's so much easier, and results in a much more authentic description, than making something up in your head.
You may need to make up the sounds, smells, temperatures, and tastes of the place, but at least the visual descriptions will be compelling and inspired. And very often you can invent logical sensory information based on what you imagine would be going on in the photo.
A photo will help you with all the procedures in Tips 5-8, actually. Look for the comparisons that the image in the photo conjure up in your mind. If you have a wide-enough angle you actually have an establishing shot.
You can use a photo to describe your characters, too. Many novelists "cast" their novels the way filmmakers cast their movies, sometimes using models in Sears catalogues or even movie stars to people their books.
This is fine, so long as you steer clear of identifying the people so precisely that the "any resemblance to actual individuals is purely coincidental" disclaimer becomes a lie.
Using photos of real people can help not only your character descriptions but even your thinking about what they might be like. People-watching at the mall is great for casting your novel, too, but it's harder to remember what people look like when you do it that way (and taking their pictures without having them sign a release can get you in trouble).
Every setting and character in your novel must be described. Using photos of (or visits to/with) actual places, buildings, vehicles, and/or people can give your fiction that ring of authenticity and veracity readers love.
Tip #24: Don't Skip Over It and Then Tell It in Recap
You're reading that headline and going, "Say what?" Sorry it's obscure, but you'll understand soon.
Sometimes the novelist jumps past an important event in the lives of the characters--an event the reader very much wanted to witness--and then has someone summarize what happened after the fact. It's awful.
The little girl has been dreading the stage performance for weeks (and chapters). It's been the central thought on her mind for many pages and scenes. She's been rehearsing, attempting to perfect her lines, working with the costumes and props, but everything she does seems to go wrong and she simply can't get it right. Anxiety makes her sick every night, and even during the day as show date nears. She's praying and hiding and crying whenever she's not working on the project. Finally the moment arrives and she steps out onstage.
Then the scene ends. In the next scene her mom is talking to someone on the phone. "Oh, yes, Doris, the show went great. She did fine. Everyone liked it. Once, she thought she was going to forget a line, but then she remembered it and the rest went perfectly. She got roses."
Now I don't know about you but if I were to read that I would be very upset. No, I would be furious. The scene I'd been heading toward the whole time finally arrived, but somehow, despite my every effort, I missed it. It happened offstage. I read every word of every previous page. I pulled for the little girl. I was beside her when she was sick with worry and fear. I willed her to remember her lines.
And, by gum, I earned a spot on the front row of the crucial scene. When she stepped on that stage--and at every moment through to the crucial point--I wanted to be right there with her.
Instead, the novelist cheated me. I wanted with all my heart to see that scene happen, but I was kept on the outside as if I were a stranger or, worse, an enemy.
And I'm ticked at that author.
The average reader may not realize why she's upset and feeling frustrated or let down, but this is why. She wanted to be front and center for the big event, but the author didn't let her see it.
It would be like calling up your mother-in-law and saying, "Oh, by the way, your daughter's pregnant. Well, she actually gave birth last month. Thought you'd like to know."
Skipping over the big event and telling about it in retrospect disrespects the reader and distances her from your story.
Okay, But Nobody Does That, Right?
I wish I could say that were true. I wish I could say that I've invented some obscure fiction sin that nobody ever commits. But that's not so. I see this all the stinkin' time.
I think it has something to do with telling. I say that because it is often the author who leans on telling and exposition in other parts of his style who also does this skip-over-it-and-recap-it-later thing. The two must be related.
After all, it's a lot easier to summarize (i.e., tell) a scene than to show it. And the bigger the import of the scene, the more pressure there is to do it well. How much nicer it would be to not have to write it at all. "I'll just bring readers right up to the brink of it and then skip over it and summarize it later. That'll be a lot easier on me."
I also think that novelists do this out of some sense of suspense. They realize that this is a moment the reader wants and they've learned that withholding from the reader the thing she wants is sometimes a good way to up the tension. So the ultimate way to up tension, it follows, would be to withhold from the reader the thing the reader most wants to see.
But it's a terrible mistake. Suspense isn't something withheld, it's something withheld temporarily. It's something you've had to wait and wait and wait for, but that does finally come.
Doing all this buildup without providing the reader with the big event she's been patiently waiting for is an extreme example of "plant without payoff" (which I cover in detail in Tip #12). Don't do it.
You must not let things the reader wants to see take place offstage. If the event is important to a main character and falls within the scope of the current story, it must be shown as a scene in the book.
Imagine if all the X-Wings took off toward the Death Star and then we cut to the medals scene at the end. Someone comes on and says, "Boy, Luke, that was amazing. I didn't think you guys were going to make it, but then you did, and who would've guessed Han Solo would return like that--but what about Darth Vader, isn't he still alive even though the Death Star is destroyed? Oh, and too bad about R2D2, but I think he's okay now. All right, go get your medal!"
That's an extreme example. But I wish I could say I'd not seen anything that egregious in the manuscripts I've worked with over the years.
Now, in fiction, don't we skip over some scenes? Of course! We don't write every scene for every major character. They have to go to the bathroom, for instance, but most readers don't want to see those scenes.
Nor do we have to show every major event in the main characters' lives. Okay, so she was orphaned at age 3. That's a tragedy, but if the story takes place much later in her life and does not involve her parents or early childhood, scenes like that don't have to be portrayed onstage in the current story.
But if it's something that readers would reasonably want to see, if it's something that involves a main character, and if it belongs within the purview of the current story, you must write out the full scene and let readers have front row seats (and backstage passes) for the whole thing.
Or they will start not liking you. You'll be like the step-dad who promises a special thing but then forgets or simply doesn't deliver on the promise. Though they will want to keep liking you, you will have caused them to begin to understand that you will betray and disappoint.
That's not what you want your readers feeling about you and your story.
Write out--show--all the scenes your readers want to see. Let your readers in--like the most intimate of friends--to the secret fears and the moments of truth. And all will be well with the world.
Tip #25: Attend a Christian Writer's Conference
This one is more of a career tip than a writing tip.
You should go to a Christian writer's conference. They're wonderful. Where else can you find hundreds of other weird people like yourself? [grins innocently]
Seriously, writer's conferences are great places to meet like-minded people who want to write and who love the Lord. You can laugh and weep with these folks because they understand you like perhaps few other people in your life do.
Conferences are places to attend seminars by experts in the field you're trying to break into: acquisitions editors, accomplished writers, influential agents.
Sometimes, depending on the conference, you can even catch VPs of publishing, sought-after speakers, and that holy grail of Christian writing: famous authors. I've had the pleasure of rubbing elbows with the likes of Frank Peretti and Jerry Jenkins at some of these conferences.
It's a tremendous place to network, too. Sometimes "who you know" really can help you out. If you meet an agent and you two hit it off, who knows but that a beautiful professional relationship might just be born. If you meet an aspiring author like yourself and you critique each other's work, who knows what might happen if that author gets published and is willing to put in a good word for you with her editor?
Best of all, Christian writer's conferences are the only place I know of where you can pitch your novel idea directly to the acquisitions editors at major publishing houses, even if you don't have an agent. Almost every CBA house is closed now to unagented authors. The Christian writer's conference is your way to bypass that restriction and get right to the person who can get you in the publishing door.
The classes and seminars and panels you can attend at these are often worth the price of admission unto themselves. Imagine learning plotting from James Scott Bell, Writer's Digest fiction columnist and Christian novelist. Imagine learning how to market yourself from Rebecca Seitz, a professional publicist who works with all the major Christian houses. Imagine learning suspense from master storyteller Angela Hunt. Writer's conferences afford you opportunities you'll not get anywhere else.
And did I mention the wonderful people you'll meet?
Some of these conferences are held at beautiful retreat locations, too, giving you the chance to get into the mountains or the forest or the beach when you're not in class.
But you might be having too much fun yukking it up with your new lifelong friends--or pitching to editors--to do much sightseeing.
After you attend one Christian writer's conference you will be hooked. You'll think, "That's the best thing I've ever done for my writing career." And you'll be back next year.
I have listed some of the major Christian writer's conferences here. (Scroll almost to the bottom of the page.) Check them out.
Attend a Christian writer's conference. You won't be sorry.
Tip #26: Formatting Dialogue
I see a number of errors in fiction rough draft manuscripts in the area of formatting dialogue.
It's a strange kind of writing, after all, a subset of English grammar with its own rules.
This week I do a quick roundup of the the errors I see most often.
Punctuating Speech Attributions
What's wrong with the punctuation in the following paragraph?
"That's what I was trying to tell you." Said Jimmy.
Answer: there is a period after you when there should be a comma. Putting the period in makes it seem that "Said" must be capitalized. Two sentences, right?
It should look like this:
"That's what I was trying to tell you," said Jimmy. (Or, better, "That's what I was trying to tell you," Jimmy said.)
I know it doesn't make grammatical sense to not end a quoted sentence with a period, but when the fuller sentence continues on (with the "Jimmy said" part) the sentence doesn't receive a period until after the wider statement is complete.
Adding to the confusion is that you do include exclamation points and question marks where they fall in the spoken sentence, even if the wider sentence doesn't end there. For example:
"That's what I was trying to tell you!" said Jimmy.
Looks wrong, doesn't it? But it's right. So is this:
"Is that what you were trying to tell me?" the woman asked.
Sometimes writers try to do it like this:
"That's what I was trying to tell you," said Jimmy!
"Is that what you were trying to tell me," the woman asked?
Those are incorrect.
Punctuation and Quotation Marks
Here's another one I see a lot: placing the punctuation outside the quotation marks.
"Help me with this".
That's wrong. The period should be inside the quotation mark, not outside. This is wrong, too:
"Can't you see I'm walking here"? the pedestrian said.
"He came home last night", she said with a sigh.
The rule is this: the punctuation goes inside the quotation mark.
These are correct:
"Help me with this."
"Can't you see I'm walking here?" the pedestrian said.
"He came home last night," she said with a sigh.
Ellipsis and Em Dash
Another detail you can work on to make your dialogue look professional is the proper use of ellipses and em dashes.
The ellipsis is the three periods: ...
The em dash is the longer hyphen: —
In dialogue, you use the ellipsis to suggest a voice trailing off to silence and you use the em dash to suggest interruption.
"Do you want to tell her about the...?" She looked over at the serving line.
"I was going to but—"
"Shh! Not here."
When a character is interrupted or interrupts herself, use an em dash. When the idea is left hanging or the character's voice simply dies away, use an ellipsis.
Nodding and Head-Shaking
This isn't exactly a dialogue thing, but it comes up mainly in dialogue sequences.
I've seen something like this a number of times: "She shook her head in the negative" or "He nodded his head in the affirmative" or, worse, "She shook her head in the affirmative."
In fiction, nodding means yes. Shaking the head means no.
You don't have to say "nodding in agreement" or "nodding to indicate yes." And I hope you don't ever write "nodding in the negative" or "shaking her head to agree."
Nod for yes. Shake your head for no.
A Speech Spanning More Than One Paragraph
It doesn't happen often but occasionally you'll need to let a character keep speaking across a paragraph break. Maybe it's a lecture or sermon and to do it all in one paragraph would result in a monster paragraph (and thus violate Tip #9).
The best way to solve this is to find a "beat" that can break up the paragraphs. Thus:
"...[long paragraph of speaking]...is what brings me to my next point."
He stacked the pages on the lectern and leaned toward the dignitaries. "We must disarm...[more speaking by the same speaker]..."
But if you feel you must break the paragraph without inserting a beat, then a strange punctuation rule applies.
You don't include an end quotation mark at the end of the first paragraph but you do include an opening quotation mark at the head of the new one. Example:
"Our dear friend, Jimmy, loved long paragraphs of dialogue...[blah, blah, blah]...and it finally ended his life.
"The beauty of a life lived in that manner is that...[blah, blah, blah]..."
See that after "his life" there was no close quotation mark? It looks wrong, but it's right if it's the same speaker speaking in the next paragraph.
All right, now you're in the know about some of the dialogue formatting errors I see all the time. By eliminating them from your manuscript you can move a step closer to looking like a professional novelist and, hopefully, becoming one.
Tip #27: Managing the Passage of Time Within a SceneOne of the things it's difficult to to do as a novelist is gauge the passage of time during a scene, especially when dialogue is involved.
In my early writing I found that I went way too quickly with emotions and relationship developments. At the top of the page the character would be fine; at the bottom he'd be suicidal. Hysterical (but not good).
It took me an hour or more to write the scene, after all, and that's about how long it should've taken the character to move from Point A to Point B. The problem is that it took the reader only about two minutes to read the thing, and to her the character's change feels like it's stuck on fast-forward.
Dialogue scenes in which a prolonged process is involved (eating a meal, for instance) are classic examples of when this difficulty shows itself. I see it often in the manuscripts I work with. The couple orders their food and, seemingly seconds later, the food arrives. Seconds later, they're ordering dessert. Talk about fast food.
I believe that it's all but impossible for the author to sense how to pull this off correctly while he or she is writing it. With experience and the tips below, I think you can get much closer on the first try, but even then you're writing on faith that it will feel correct when read.
This is because we lose objectivity as soon as we begin writing. Not only in the sense that we lose the ability to accurately judge whether this is a work of genius or, as we more likely assume, a piece of junk. But also in the sense that we lose the ability to judge how the reader will interpret the passage of time within a scene.
Here are three pointers for making sure that dinner—or golf game or cross-country roadtrip—feels like it takes as long or as short as it should.
Give Clues in the Scene About the Passage of TimeRather than simply letting the dialogue suffice to manage the flow, give the reader little time-marking clues.
For the next twenty minutes Harold proceeded to tell Elaine the story of his brother's exploits in the black lagoon.
Jenny picked up a handful of wooden stakes and began driving them into the sleeping vampires' hearts. As she worked, she explained to Van Helsing about how someone had made a movie and later a TV series out of her life. By the time she got to the M crypts she'd gone on to a discussion of ancillary rights from the series, and it took her all the way to a vampire named Zidredd to get off the subject of why Firefly had been cancelled.
Those are relatively small paragraphs, but we do get the sense that time has passed. We didn't have to include twenty minutes' or more of dialogue to do it, either.
Use a couple of these little clues here and there in a dialogue scene to be sure the reader gets a fix on how much time has elapsed.
Use Beats To Manage TimeThis note is quite similar to the first one but is different enough to bear mentioning.
Beats are passages of text, sometimes just a phrase and sometimes several paragraphs together, that give information about what a character is doing and/or what's happening in the envoronment. They also manage the pacing of a scene.
For instance, spot the beat here:
"That's...interesting." Ella sat on the edge of the bed and began tying her jogging shoes. "How long have you been thinking about joining the circus?"
The sentence between Ella's two lines of dialogue is a beat. It tells us where she is and what she's doing. It ties us down into the environment. It also—and this is important to notice—implies a pause between her two sentences. It tells us that she's processing or, more likely, choosing her words carefully. Beats are beautiful things.
You can and should use beats to help manage the perceived passage of time within a scene.
Longer paragraphs of description (i.e., longer beats) imply slow motion. The longer the paragraph, the more ponderous and sluggish the momentum feels for the reader.
A long paragraph is the literary equivalent to a lazy summer afternoon in west Texas. Nothing but heat and cicadas. A short paragraph is like a rifle shot shattering the stillness.
You can use longer paragraphs here and there in a dialogue scene in which you want it to feel that a good deal of time has passed.
If your dinner scene feels that it's just whipping by, consider adding in some slow-down paragraphs to make it feel a little more leisurely and time-consuming.
Wait Three Weeks or Have Someone Else Read ItThe reason you can't judge for yourself whether or not a scene feels like it's taking the correct amount of time in the reader's mind is, as I said before, you've lost objectivity.
There are at least two ways of getting that objectivity back: 1) put the scene away for three weeks and then come back and read it again, or 2) have someone else read it.
If you have a reader you trust (and if you can bear the pure horror of letting someone possibly unkind see your fiction), set it in front of her and ask her to read the scene with an eye toward whether or not it feels like the time in the scene flows appropriately or if things move too quickly or too slowly. If she says it feels too fast or slow, you know what to do.
If you have no one you trust, or if you simply cannot bear the horror, you'll have to read it yourself. Just go work on something else, even another part of the ms., for a few weeks and then come back to the scene in question.
You won't exactly be an objective reader then but the scene should strike you with a little more freshness than it would've on the day you wrote it.
If you give clues, use beats, and bring in an objective reader, you should be much closer to writing scenes that feel to the reader like they take about as much time to transpire as you intended.
Tip #28: Establish Your POV Right AwayI'm a big believer in establishing things pretty early in any given scene.
There are reasons why you'll occasionally want your reader to be left guessing about who the scene is about, where it's taking place, or what time of day it is. But most of the time you're going to want to let your reader know right away what's going on.
I did a whole series of tips (5-8) on establishing the setting of a scene. You'll notice there that I urge you to give this information by the midpoint of the first page of any scene.
The same holds true with POV. Very early in a scene—on the very first line or two—you need to let us know whose head we're in. One fiction rule I've seen says you should name your viewpoint character in the first sentence of a new scene, if not the first word. It's good advice.
Novelists don't always realize how disorienting it is to read a novel. They don't always understand how heavily readers rely on them to get them grounded in a scene and setting. But with the simple absence of certain elements (or, worse, the presence of misleading elements), the reader will become confused and frustrated.
Jenny took the baby upstairs and put her in her crib. She sat in the rocker for a few minutes, just enjoying being a mommy. Larry watched her go and then decided to blow out of town and become a used car salesman.
If I did that right, you thought for two whole sentences that we were in Jenny's head. But then suddenly I reveal that I've supposedly been in Larry's head the whole time. Or maybe I was first in Jenny's head and then in Larry's. Either way, it's disorienting.
In this tip I'm not talking about the importance of staying inside one person's head per scene. That's basic fiction mechanics, and something you'll read about in Tip #10.
In this tip I'm talking about establishing for the reader whose head we're in. I'm simply assuming you'll exercise the discipline to stay in that head throughout the scene.
If the sample paragraph had stayed with Jenny and continued to give us Jenny's thoughts, etc., it would've been a good way to start the scene. Right away you've told us whose eyes we're seeing through. Excellent.
But it didn't stay with Jenny, and so it was confusing.
Here's another example:
The movie started late, though it was almost impossible to tell because of the new advertising/previews thingy they were showing now instead of the ad slide show of yore. It was annoying that people had brought young children to this R-rated movie. How selfish or careless were these so-called parents? The movie did start, finally, and it was enjoyable. The credits at the end were even entertaining. Ian almost hated to have to blow the place up.
Okay, I've condensed it a little, but you get the point: we've been through an entire two-hour movie without knowing whose head we were in. Who thought the parents were selfish? We don't know. Who missed the ad slide show? We don't know. It's only at the end that we figure out whose head we're in. Grrr.
And what if the last sentence had revealed the viewpoint character was really a kindly old retiree? That would change everything.
How we interpret a scene is based on whose eyes we're seeing it through. Keeping us in the dark about whose POV we're in is like telling us only at the end of a scene that all along it's supposedly been pouring down rain. If you don't tell us until the end, in our minds it basically hasn't happened at all.
Establish POV right away in every scene.
Tip #29: Show vs. TellFor 28 tips now I've resisted talking about the single biggest area of need I see in the fiction manuscripts I've encountered: show vs. tell. I've resisted because early on (in Tip #10) I directed folks to Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, which does a marvelous job of covering the topic.
However, in the name of having a more complete set of fiction skill tips here, and because it's easier to refer people to a short article they can read online than a book they have to purchase and read, I've decided to cover it briefly now.
What Is Show vs. Tell?In fiction, telling is when you give information in a straight summarized fashion: "Jim was a lazy slob." Showing is when you illustrate that through scene, action, and dialogue:
"Louise, where's my beer? I'm thirsty, woman!"
"Get off that couch and get it yourself, why don't you?"
Jim scratched his belly and enjoyed how it jiggled like a water balloon. "Just get it, all right? Get and I'll...I'll get out there and mow the front lawn."
Louise poked her head around the door jamb. "You mean today?"
"Yes, today. What'd you think I meant?"
"And you'd do the back lawn, too?"
Jim pointed the remote and changed the channel. "Don't get greedy now."
Louise went back down the hall. "Get your own beer."
You see that it took a little longer to illustrate that Jim is a lazy slob than it did to simply feed it to the reader on a spoon, but look how much more interesting the showing version was. We might know intellectually from the telling version that Jim is slovenly and lazy, but from the showing version we feel it. We know it in a deep way. Jim is a slob and a jerk and a lazy moron and he treats his family like dirt.
With showing, what you lose in brevity you gain in impact.
Showing is when you reveal things about your characters, the story world, relationships, etc., as you go about advancing your story. With telling, you stop the story in its tracks, kill whatever momentum you had going, and back up like a dump truck to dump a ton of information onto your reader.
Your reader thinks, "I don't care about this stuff right now! Get on with the story."
Categories of TellingThere are three main areas in which novelists generally resort to telling: backstory, exposition, and character motivation. But they all have one thing in common: they stop the story cold.
Backstory is background information about your story, the environment, the setting, the characters, and the relationships. Here are some examples:
Kevin had grown up in affluence. His parents had always given him whatever he wanted. So he was spoiled, too. When he was ten his mother bought him a... [blah, blah, blah]
The planet had been colonized two hundred years ago as part of a... [blah, blah, blah]
Jerry used to be Susie's boyfriend, but that was before Susie caught Jerry kissing Delilah, who had been Tom's girl before the operation. [blah, blah, blah]
Do you see how the story has shifted into neutral (or park, or even reverse) while the author spoon-feeds the reader information about how things were before the story began? Nothing is actually happening. The story is stalled while we are forced to endure a lecture on the lore of yesteryear. Yawn.
It would be like someone delaying the beginning of a movie in order to stand in front of the audience and say, "Before you can watch this you need to understand the distribution channels we went through to bring this to you. And you probably need to understand how distribution works in other industries besides the film industry." The audience would revolt, shouting, "Shut up and get on with the story!"
Exposition is when the novelist explains everything.
The movers had used heavy duty packing tape because sometimes the lighter stuff gave way and someone's belongings would come crashing to the floor.
The events that took place over the next month were the strangest the town had ever known.
As Browne & King say in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, "resist the urge to explain." R.U.E.
This kind of telling is like meta-information. Information about the story rather than something in the story itself.
Finally, telling happens in character motivations when the novelist brings the impulse to explain everything to his or her characters.
"Oh, my!" Twilene was impressed with what the general had said. "I'm so impressed with what you just said, General!"
"But everyone knows I'm not making this up, right?" Jerome said, looking for some support because he was feeling insecure.
In the words of Dilbert, "Gah!"
Death to TellingTelling should die a horrible death.
The irony is that most of the time novelists later show what they've already told. They do both. Like Twilene and Jerome above. If you cut the telling, wouldn't their words have shown the very thing the novelist felt compelled to also tell?
I believe novelists resort to telling because they're concerned the reader won't get the point if they don't. That's why I used telling in my early (and unpublished) years of writing, and it's why other novelists tell me they've put that stuff in. "I was afraid the reader wouldn't understand that they'd once had a relationship if I didn't spell it out."
And so we go on being heavy-handed and treating our readers like dimwits.
Meanwhile, now that we think we've told them enough that they'll get it, we then proceed to show it, more confident that we'll be understood.
But the truth is that readers know how to interpret fiction. When you take out the telling, the showing remains. And that's all they need. You can remove just about every bit of telling in your book and you'll find that you've actually shown it adequately.
A reader who understands something because you pound it into her with telling is going to feel like her brain has been turned off or numbed. In contrast, a reader who "catches" something in the way two characters talk or who figures something out based on the awards on a character's wall will feel engaged and energized. Which do you want your reader feeling?
Don't Summarize, Dramatize!Go back through your ms. looking for the telling. It will be hard to see at first, but you must work to develop the ability to spot it.
Now that you can see it, cut it all out.
Is your story hurt? Does the reader not know something that she must know to understand the story?
If so, if you've stumbled upon one of those rare occasions when something that you'd put into telling is actually necessary to the story, then you must figure out a way to bring that out through scene, action, and dialogue. In other words, make it part of the story.
Here's the rule: include the bare minimum that your reader needs to know to understand what's going on.
But hold on: that doesn't mean you can give three pages (or even three sentences) of telling so long as it's stuff the reader needs to know. No, it just means that you need to find ways to dramatize those few bits that really are important.
You may feel like you're speaking with a more limited vocabulary or painting with a broader brush when you restrict yourself to only what the reader can catch by watching your story play out. After all, you'd become accustomed to telling every last detail you could think of, but now you have to act everything out?
If you're feeling restricted, good! That's what discipline feels like. It means you're going to have to decide what things are really important and illustrate only those things. Back when you could throw in everything and the kitchen sink, you could be lazy and self-indulgent. Now you have to make hard choices.
Because it is harder to figure out how to convey something through scene, action, and dialogue alone than it is to just tell the reader exactly what you mean. Just for the sake of time and your sanity you'll find yourself tossing out the nonessentials and retaining only what needs to be there.
Odds and EndsNovelists sometimes worry that their wordcount will go down too far if they cut out those pages and pages of momentum-killing telling.
Or they may worry that their wordcount will go up too high if they write out into full scenes all the information they'd originally given on a platter.
The truth is that the two will cancel each other out. It's easier to tell and tell and tell, but you give too much information and you stop the story. It's harder and takes more words to show instead, but you keep the story going and you cause your reader to become engaged in your book.
Are there exceptions? Is there ever a time when summary is okay or even preferred? Absolutely. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers covers this well, too.
In short, you can (rarely) summarize something if it's A) something the reader needs to know to understand the story and B) it's not important enough to play out in a full scene.
For instance, let's say your protagonist gets separated from his minor character friends for a couple of chapters. Then suddenly they reappear onstage and they're reunited. Now, we probably need to know what they were doing while they were separated, but we don't need to see it all played out in full scenes. That's a good place for summary.
But even there it's best if you can do it within the context of a story-advancing scene. Maybe the protagonist asks where they'd been and they can respond. Instead of summarizing it yourself, you let your characters summarize it. This keeps it as part of the scene and also gives you an opportunity to further characterize these minor characters.
Such occasions are rare, though. I'd say that 97% or more of your ms. should consist of showing.
Think of yourself as a filmmaker. You are allowed to include only that which the camera can see and the microphone can hear.
When you think about it that way, suddenly all those pages of nothing but narration in which you're explaining the world and its history become obviously out of place. How could you do that with only a camera and microphone? You couldn't. So cut it.
You can't push the analogy too far, of course, because fiction allows us to see through the eyes and hear the thoughts of our viewpoint characters, which film usually can't do. But it is still a useful rule of thumb.
Okay, time for you to go hunting for the telling in your manuscript. As you go, watch out for the little sneaky ones, too, like, "I did," said the plumber who had once been a sailor in the navy, "I surely did."
When you find the telling, delete it. That will probably be all you need to do, as you've likely shown the same information already. If you find you need some bit of what you've cut, figure out a way to dramatize it in a scene.
To get you started, rent Hitchcock's Rear Window and watch the opening camera move that pans across the inside of our protagonist's apartment. Before a single word is uttered, you know a ton about this guy. That, my friend, is showing. Go thou and do likewise.
Tip #30: Point of View (POV)Ah, POV, that slayer of otherwise publishable manuscripts, that arch-foe of the aspiring novelist. Contract's Bane, we shall call it.
Besides egregious telling (Tip #29), POV errors are the single most common problem I see in the unpublished fiction manuscripts I encounter. I see this a lot in published books, too. More's the pity.
Also like telling, POV errors have to do with a presence or lack of discipline, in my opinion. It's simplicity itself (as in laziness) to simply tell readers what they should be getting or understanding. It's harder to provide the clues so they can figure it out on their own.
It's the same with sloppy POV. It's much easier to simply jump into every character's head to explain to us what he or she is feeling and thinking. It's much harder to restrict yourself to a single point of view within a scene.
In POV, as with most things in life, the easy way is not the path to excellence.
Omniscient POVThe most common POV error I see is when the novelist attempts to use what's called omniscient point of view. In this style, the novelist hops from head to head to tell us exactly what everyone is thinking and feeling. We never miss anything. We're given a God's-eye view of the whole situation. Hence the name.
Strictly speaking, omniscient POV is not an error. It is a legitimate way of handling point of view in fiction. Many successful authors use it today, and it was the viewpoint of choice in previous generations of fiction. Our beloved J.R.R. Tolkien uses it some in Lord of the Rings.
Here's an example of omniscient:
"That's marvelous," Lucy said, thinking she could maybe parley this into a date, after all.
Johnny noticed her thoughtful look and felt she must be thinking of trying to get as far away from him as possible. "Yeah, it's pretty cool."
"You two are something else," Carlotta said, fearing that her chances with Johnny might be drying up. She had to do somehing drastic. "Hey, Johnny, come here a minute. I want to ask you something."
Oh, great, Johnny thought. Here it finally comes. "Why don't you tell me from there?"
That's the sound of us head-hopping into every character's perspective.
As I said, there's nothing technically wrong with that. It's just...lazy. In my opinion. In fact, it's a whole lot like telling. Maybe it is telling in another form.
It's also less realistic. Your reader is most probably not omniscient in real life. She is more likely accustomed to knowing only what she knows and trying to discern what everyone else is thinking and feeling.
If you want your reader to identify with your protagonist, let her get close to that character only (by being privy to only that character's thoughts and feelings and perceptions). Letting her in on everyone's thoughts doesn't create intimacy with all characters equally, as you might think. Instead, it creates distance from all of them because the reader doesn't know who to pull for or get close to.
Finally, omniscient POV removes the mystery from your characters and deprives you of the ability to surprise your reader.
How can you conceal who the bad guy is if you've been giving us his nefarious thoughts all along? How can you keep the reader in suspense over whether John Black can be trusted or not if you've allowed us to hear that he's wholeheartedly on the hero's side?
Thinking to endear every character to the reader, and thus create a stronger connection to the story, omniscient instead creates a powerful psychological distance that the rest of your story will probably not be able to overcome.
Omniscient POV is like abstract art. Sure, anyone can slosh paint on a canvas and call it "Woman in a Hat," but only someone with extensive art theory training can actually make it work.
In the same way, it takes a grand master of fiction to pull off a novel in omniscient POV. Sure, anyone can hop around in every character's head and call it omniscient, but without mastering the other disciplines of fiction it may feel like a hack job.
My advice: avoid omniscient POV until Publisher's Weekly refers to you as a grand master of fiction.
Third Person POVThird person is the most common POV in modern fiction. There are books about fiction out there that subdivide third person into third person limited, third person objective, third person omniscient, etc. But for my purposes we'll just call it third person and be done with it.
Here's an example of third person as I define it:
"That's a lovely hat, Meredith." In truth, Tom thought the hat was ridiculous but now wasn't the time for candor.
"Why, thank you, Tommy," Meredith said, looking shy. "You don't think it's too much, do you?"
"Oh, no! Of course not. Not for you."
Her face clouded. Uh oh. What had he said? Her eyes narrowed. "You're not just saying that because you want to get close to me, are you? I never could read you, Tommy."
"Never mind. I prefer not knowing."
Okay, you see it, right? We get Tom's thoughts but not Meredith's. We see Meredith's face cloud but we don't know what it means. Because Tom doesn't know what it means.
This restrictiveness and uncertainty feel more realistic because it's how we perceive the world, too. Third person also allows you to keep characters' true motives and loyalties hidden, something the novelist needs to do often.
In third person, you are limited to what the viewpoint character can see and hear and know. Think of the viewpoint character as a camcorder. You can't show us something the camcorder can't see or its microphone can't hear.
Plus you get the element of thought: the viewpoint character can't know things the viewpoint character doesn't know. Like when a stranger walks into the room and suddenly the viewpoint character begins referring to her by her name. Um, that's a POV violation. The viewpoint character couldn't know it, so we can't know it, either.
I recommend you write just about everything in third person until you've got a couple of novels under your belt.
First Person POVFirst person is the most intimate POV there is. This is the "I" and "me" POV. You're so close to the viewpoint character that there is no distance between you and him or her.
Here's an example:
"Lois, why did you buy that?" I figured I knew why, but I thought I'd best check.
She looked annoyed at my question. "I needed it for work. I told you about the presentation, remember, or weren't you listening?"
Next she'll attack my video game hobby. "Oh, okay."
"I don't know why you hassle me about these things. What was that memory card thingie you bought for your console last week? You didn't tell me about that. You just showed up with it."
With first person you're so close to the viewpoint character's thoughts that you're essentially one with him or her for those scenes. The vocabulary you use in these scenes ought to sound like that character's thoughts, words, and phrases he or she would use.
This is the Vulcan Mind Meld of fiction.
A great time to choose first person is when you're writing about someone very different and distant from your typical reader but to whom you want that reader to feel close.
For instance, in Operation: Firebrand—Deliverance I chose first person for the scenes in which I was seeing through the eyes of a pregnant North Korean woman.
Talk about someone who was different from my reader—not to mention from me! But I wanted the reader to span the distance and understand how familiar and normal she was. I wanted the reader to care about her more than anyone else in the book. So she was the character I chose to write in first person POV.
With first person what you lose in objectivity (compared to third person) you gain in intimacy with the viewpoint character.
First person is also great when you want to create a claustrophobia—one similar to what your detective protagonist is feeling, perhaps—because you're stuck inside only one person's head.
Like third person, first person is limited to what the viewpoint character can see, hear, and know. If he doesn't see, hear, or know it, neither can the reader. This takes discipline but is well worth your effort.
First person is the second most common POV used in modern fiction. Try your hand at it. It's wonderful.
Cinematic POVI think I've just made this term up. As far as I know it's not a legitimate style of POV. I wanted a way to describe what I've seen in some unpublished manuscripts.
In this style, the author zooms in on every character's reaction or action but does not give us his or her thoughts. It's like a camera that sees all, even if the viewpoint character can't see it. For example:
Jimmy tied his shoes and resumed his walk to school.
Behind the bushes, a predator lurked. It tracked Jimmy's progress with its eyes.
Inside the house, Mrs. Tucker washed dishes and rubbed her temples.
The mailman rounded the corner and pulled up to the first mailbox.
Whose head are we in here? No one's. We're in the director's head, I suppose. We see everything, but externally. We don't know anyone's thoughts. We're on the outside of everyone. But we don't miss anything.
This strange, distant spectator POV is cropping up here and there in the manuscripts I see. It makes sense, I guess, since so much of modern fiction is more like a movie than traditional fiction. Maybe things are moving in that direction.
But I don't like it. Fiction still does do a few things better than movies can do, and getting the viewpoint character's thoughts and feelings is one of them. I would hate to be limited to only what an external observer could see.
Mixing POVsFinally, let's talk about using different POV styles within the same book.
In my first three novels I used third person exclusively. Then in my second three novels I used a mixture of third person and first person.
How do you mix POV styles? I did it by choosing one character to be my first person viewpoint character and using third person for all the other viewpoint characters.
I chose one person to feature, if you will, and used first person for that character. Every other viewpoint character just got the third person treatment.
If your novel has only one viewpoint character, then you're golden. Just pick third or first person and stick with it throughout. But if you've got more than one viewpoint character, try doing one in first person and the rest in third.
One warning: don't do more than one first person viewpoint character in the same book. It's confusing to the reader. Pick one to make your reader closest to. Do the rest in third person.
For more on POV, read the excellent chapter on the topic in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (see also Tip #10).
Master POV and no longer will Contract's Bane defy you.
Want More Tips?
Be sure to return to the tips index to get all the tips so far.