We live in a Golden Age to be a writer. Everyone has an opportunity to publish. The downside of this is that we are being deluged with bad books, which frequently are just books published before the writer was ready.
In the old days, most writers failed miserably (especially in the beginning), but our failure was private and came in the form of stacks of rejected queries. These days, if we jump the gun, our rejection is very public and comes in the form of poisonous reviews from irritated readers.
This is one of the reasons its important to always be learning as much about the craft as we can. True artists are always open to new ideas, to growing and learning more. This is how we can enjoy a career where each book is better than the last. It can help build reader anticipation for our next book and the next. Readers trust us to be growing and always improving our storytelling.
Show Don’t Tell
One of the biggest problems I see (when I do edit) is writers have not yet learned how to show and not tell. This makes the work repetitious, predictable, and since it’s one-dimensional, the reader isn’t pulled into the work. The best way to keep readers hooked is to immerse them in your world and never let them up for air.
We’ve all heard the saying, Actions speak louder than words. This is true in life and even truer in story. Readers experience all the same emotions we do. They experience the same emotions as our characters.
Our job, as writers and artists, is to make them connect their own experiences with what is happening with the character. We’ve all felt love, lust, rage, disappointment, depression, loss, and elation. Our goal when writing is to help readers make that connection.
To show a little of what we are talking about, I am going to be a bit self-indulgent and share parts of one of my works Dandelion, which I have submitted for publication. In this story, Jane, a homemaker and prior D.A. is planning to kill the gunman who murdered her six-year-old son in a mass shooting.
Jane nurses her wine to kill the time that refuses to pass and the memories that refuse to die. She nurses her wine and nurses her pain. She wants the pain erased, but it’s all she has left. She needs it to propel her forward, because she’s planning the unthinkable. Revenge.
Most adults have been in a position where the hurt, pain, anger is so great that all they can do is keep sipping at alcohol in hopes they can numb the emotion threatening to break their thin composure. Also we can tell Jane is conflicted. She wants the pain to go, but needs it to keep her pressing toward her goal.
A song kicks up on the jukebox. Broken Hallelujah. It’s already played three times in the hour she’s been here. The song makes her start thinking and thinking only causes pain and her mind drifts from its moorings to that moment the world went wrong.
Here, the reader is given a sense of setting. We hear the song, and it is a very specific song. My character is a good Christian woman who now has lost her faith. The visual sense is the one most overused and it is actually one of the weakest senses.
Sound and smell are far more powerful. Also, instead of simply saying her mind drifts, I deepen the experience with the words “drifts from its moorings.” This gives a sense that what was once anchored has unexpectedly shifted.
Most of us have been in a position of stepping off a boat onto a dock and feeling the sensation of the boat drifting a way from us, scaring us. This makes the experience far more visceral. It also allows me to show the reader that Jane is no longer in control of what was once stable.
A hand touches her shoulder. Jane jumps, so caught in the black undertow of her grief that she’s momentarily forgotten where she is.
All of us have been through something so terrible, that we drift into another world. We have a foot in reality, but another in the world of our pain. In this story we see that experience because Jane jumps when someone touches her. She needs a moment to remember where she is and why she’s there. I choose the word undertow very carefully. Undertows are invisible, frightening and have the power to drown and kill.
When the protagonist finally meets the person (Svetlana) who will help her with her revenge, she’s rattled. She’s a housewife, not a killer. But she’s trying to look strong so she asks for a cigarette even though she isn’t a smoker. She’s also hesitant to talk, because she knows that she’s planning something illegal and (to some) immoral.
Jane swallows. She says nothing. Volunteers nothing. She draws deeply on the cigarette, and tries to look casual, like she does this all the time, but Svetlana’s black eyes draw her in, and Jane’s helpless to escape their gravity.
Notice Jane swallows. Most people, when they are nervous, get dry mouth. Instead of me telling the reader that Jane is nervous, the words show it. I also show how she’s scared and knows she’s guilty. She won’t say what she wants aloud.
“I saw the news. I saw what he did.” Svetlana’s words sizzle with acid. A long pregnant moment expands between them and, just as Jane thinks she might crack from the pressure, Svetlana’s manner softens.
All of us have been in a situation where the tension is so thick we feel we are about to crumble under the pressure. Instead of telling the reader. “Jane is very tense, nervous about what comes next,” I pull the reader into deep POV where the reader can almost feel the pressure stealing their breath.
Thank you for allowing me to share some of my writing .
What This Means to You
When I read a lot of new works, I see a lot of “coaching the reader.” New writers do a lot of telling. And yes, we have to do some telling or our story would be 500,000 words long. But through training and practice, we can discern which parts to tell, versus which parts need to be shown so they can have max effect on the reader.
When I see phrases like “and she wept bitterly” I roll my eyes. Or “she slammed the door in anger.” Glad I was told she was angry. Stop telling! We are smart and we get it. Really. I’ve read works with so much heart-pounding I thought the character was about to go into cardiac arrest. There are a lot of ways we can use emotion and senses without being predictable.
On Friday, I highlighted two of WANA’s instructors in their post Making the Pages Cry. Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi have created a tremendous resource for writers The Emotion Thesaurus and they will be teaching a class soon Using Nonverbal Communication to Wow Readers.
All of us can learn to do these techniques better. It’s how we grow to eventually become masters of our art. I am still learning and always will be. I hope you guys will take advantage of this class, because it can take your writing to another level.
What are your thoughts? Questions? What are some works who used this technique so well you couldn’t sleep until you finished the story?
I love hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of February, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.
At the end of February I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!