I’ve been pretty quiet over the past year about my book. So what’s been going on? When’s my book getting published? WHAT’S GOING ON??
I’ve been pretty quiet over the past year about my book. So what’s been going on? When’s my book getting published? WHAT’S GOING ON??
Show Don’t Tell! That means I’m going to provide a bad writing example and show you how to fix it! (Otherwise known as: an absurd amount of notes on an absurdly short paragraph.) This time, let’s talk dialogue rules, context, and continuity errors.
THE BEFORE PARAGRAPH
“Don’t.” I put my hand on the barrel of the gun and she hesitates.(1)(2) Her hand shakes. “Why?” (3)
I close my eyes. “I’m just asking you to wait.” I stare at the door behind her, waiting and hoping and praying for it to open and for the hero to walk in.(4)(5) She glances between me and the gun in her hands.(6)
The door doesn’t open. It doesn’t even twitch.(7)
Her finger twitches(8) on the trigger, and I reach out and grab the barrel to twist it away.(9)
1: There’s a comma needed here just before “and she hesitates.” Quick summary on why: If there’s a conjunction “and, or, but,” etc., look at the part of the sentence before and after it. If both are independent sentences, a comma is required. This is called having an independent clause (whole sentence) on either side of a conjunction, so a comma is needed.
2: Maybe it’s the lack of context, but where is this gun pointing? At the main character? On a third party? Obviously they are physically close enough to have this interaction, but I don’t have a clear picture of what’s actually happening.
3: Dialogue from two different characters can’t be on the same line. Actions should be separated out as well. Be careful not to let the actions in between dialogue make the pacing feel stilted and interrupted. Sometimes, we need quick smooth dialogue, and sometimes you want those beats in between.
4: You can’t have a character close her eyes and then stare at a door in the same line. I’m not saying you have to show a character’s every minor physical action on the page, but if you’re going to call out something specific, don’t contradict it immediately. For editing, read these things out loud and picture it like a movie. Where does the camera zoom in and pan, when to we get a broader scope establishing shot, and when do we get some good b-roll that zooms in on the moment. Try thinking cinematically. When does the camera show us the shine of a weak incandescent light on the trembling barrel of the gun?
5: Also, this sentence makes me cringe. Waiting for a hero to barge in, eh? What are you, a 1950s damsel in distress? Gosh. Maybe this sentence is trying to set up a clever “our heroes can’t save us” bit, but it’s falling into a pile of melting cheese. There is a VERY fine line between a meaningful quote and a hokey line. That line is made of cheese. Don’t cross the line into cheese-land, if you can help it. Most times, you just have to re-read things critically to catch these things.
6: This is the third time we’ve been shown things just because the character is looking at them. This is a trap of third person narration. Sometimes we’re afraid that we can’t show what’s going on in the world if the main character isn’t paying attention to it. But that’s not true! You can’t show what’s going on in the next room, but you CAN show us the current room with out staging it behind a direct observation. The downside to using “she saw” as a way to show the reader something is that it makes that observation seem very significant. If you’re just trying to show window dressing of the scene, a trifling observation might accidentally feel like a clue the reader is supposed to pick up on. PLUS! We already know she’s holding the gun, so saying that it’s “in her hands” isn’t giving us any new detail.
7: Twitch is a weird and probably poor choice of a word. I’m not sure how to visualize a door twitching, and I’m not sure I should try. Nope. Too late. Twitching doors are going to haunt my dreams. Anyway, I would suggest either scrapping this or tackling a thesaurus.
8: This is the second twitch in as many sentences. Too much twitching. Cut it out.
9: At first, I was going to criticize the use of the phrase “grab the barrel to twist it away,” because it doesn’t actually show us what’s happening. If we pay very close attention to word choice, it’s telling us the intent of what’s supposed to happen. Character grabs the barrel in order to twist it away. But is it successful? Does the gun move? Does our MC pull off the move successfully? It’s not clear, and maybe that’s the point. Then again, maybe we can achieve the same effect with a bit of tighter language. Also, if the MC was already touching the gun, she shouldn’t have to reach out to grab it. Continuity errors are the demonic ghosts that haunt all writing, especially revisions.
THE AFTER PARAGRAPH
“Don’t do this.”(1)
Vivian’s tightens her grip on the gun pointed at my chest. “Why?”(2)
“I’m just asking you to wait.” I stare at the door behind her,(3) even though I know no one is going to walk through it. I’m on my own.(4)
She follows my gaze, and the gun in her hands moves two inches so that it’s pointing at my shoulder instead of my heart.(5) Her finger twitches on the trigger, but this is my only chance. I step forward, grab the cold barrel of the gun and twist.(6)(7)
The sound of the gunshot rings in my ears.(8)
1: The opening is a lot more brisk now, and quite brief. What it lacks in detail will hopefully be remedied in the next paragraph, as long as the pacing works out.
2: See how we get more detail in just a single sentence? We get the antagonist’s name and a bit more of the physical layout of the scene. Notice that I sacrificed the detail about our MC putting her hand on the gun. That’s okay, because I think that touching the gun would ruin the escalation that happens in the later lines.
3: Juxtaposing “asking you to wait” with “stare at the door” implies a direct relationship between them. The MC is asking Vivian to wait for something or someone who is supposed to come through that door.
4: And then we have the lines that the MC actually knows that no one is coming and that she is alone. It’s much more condensed and tense now. We know what the MC knows AND what she’s trying to convince Vivian of.
5: Now we’re showing small movements which have a big impact. A shoulder wound is a hero’s wound, while a heart wound is fatal. We get to see the situation and understand the benefit for the MC.
6: In this line, we get all three actions at once, so it’s more of a sudden and intense escalation. Sometimes a scene might call for more of a slow build, where the actions are separated out. In one paragraph, she may take a step forward. In the next, she’ll reach out. Then in the last moment, she’ll twist the gun away. It all depends on the length of the scene, the timing, and what sort of tension/reaction your trying to create. And notice how the sentence still successfully shows that the action is being taken, but doesn’t give away whether the action was successful or not? Now that we’ve removed unnecessary repetition, it gives us more space for meaningful descriptions.
7: Also, there should be a comma before the “and”, because this is a serial list of actions. I am a fan of using the serial commas in all instances where it adds clarity and especially a certain syncope when you read it.
8: Boom. Literally. Separating this onto its own line really give it strength. It gives it a punch. We can be left with the question of who got shot, who pulled the trigger, etc. But the impression and feeling your reader will get is dependent on how you phrase it, how you contextualize it, and the details you provided beforehand. In this paragraph, we see the gun drift from the heart to the shoulder, so we can hope that if our MC gets shot, tis a flesh wound. The line itself focuses on the auditory sensation of the sound of the bullet. This might imply that the MC doesn’t feel the pain yet or maybe didn’t even get shot. Imagine if this line said “A gunshot splits through the air, and a blossom of fire burns in my chest.” That would be both auditory AND tactile, and it spells a much darker fate for the MC. As always, every line is important and should be doing good work.
What do YOU think?
How would you tweak/change the Before paragraph differently? Are you a fan of putting a single one-punch line on its own paragraph, or are you a “paragraphs for days” type of writer?
Any thoughts on the changes to the After paragraph?
Check out the rest of the Show Don’t Tell series!
Thanks to MK England for tagging me in the writing rituals video! I didn’t answer any of the questions, but I did what inspired me! Which was to poke fun at my own rituals and how they can fail me sometimes. See, rituals are intended to get you into the proper headspace for getting work done, so you have to re-evaluate if it isn’t working for you!
It’s that time again! Where is my book, where is my life, and what IS life?
Ninja Car is Dead: My car has been dying not-so-slowly. The transaxle and fuel emission lights would come on about once per week (up to a few times per day near the end). A dead starter and a AAA tow, and I spent the weekend on the hunt for a new shiny car.
Now to welcome my new car (which I have not yet named)! It’s a gray 2014 Honda Accord–quite the step up from my 2001 Ford Taurus. A 13-year step up, to be exact. There are things that will take getting used to: like driving faster than 55mph on the freeway and bluetooth and rearview mirrors and actual acceleration.
60-hour Work Weeks: Through the last few months, I’ve been working 60-hour weeks. That’s a lot of hours. Multiple hours. Too many hours. That’s what happens when you love your job, you have a sudden and spontaneous deadline, and you don’t mind being the only car in the parking lot of an office building.
New Coworker: We’ve hired a new Technical Writer to our team! See the above 60-Hour Work Weeks fiasco. Having a new coworker that I have to train will mean more work for a while and then less work when they are trained enough to take over some responsibilities. Woo hoo for sharing responsibilities!
The Never-Ending Outline: I’ve been working with my editor on the outline for my debut book, THE NAMELESS QUEEN, for a while now. We’ve spent a good chunk of time (ie months) settling on the new structure and motivations. I’m finally at the point where I have a deadline for the revised manuscript! Labor day! That’s six weeks from now! Six…. weeks…… *panics* Nope, everything will be fine. Deadlines are encouraging and motivating. A bit of healthy stress, right?
The VACATION! The SOLAR ECLIPSE: I started my current job in 2014, and I’m finally about to take my first real vacation! A whole week! On August 21, I’ll be somewhere near Alliance Nebraska, in the Path of Totality for the first total solar eclipse to pass through the USA since 1979! The next time it happens in America is 2024. (Though, there IS an annular eclipse in 2023 on my birthday!) For the rest of that week, I’ll be hiking in the black hills. Road trip!! (We will not be taking my new car, because of mileage and warranty reasons.) And with those long long weeks I’ve been working, a vacation will be just what I need.
What IS life? New cars and coffee stains and computer keyboards. All of these things and everything else.
After getting an office job almost 3 years ago, I’ve picked up some tips (aka: mistakes and lessons learned) for women in the workplace and for anyone looking to be more confident in their profession. Let’s jump right in:
1. Don’t say sorry when you mean something else. Say excuse me, pardon me, or Hello There.
2. Walk in the middle of the hallway.
3. In that same spirit, take the lead when walking with a group.
4. Another reflexive thing I see myself and others doing: folding in on yourself at meetings.
5. Think first, then ask. But don’t overthink.
If you have any tips you’ve picked up at your office, let me know! I’m a weird nerd who pays too much attention to social dynamics and physical behaviors, so I’m always looking to learn more!
My life goals typically look like this:
Basically, my lists are now-oriented. I’m not a big fan of Bucket Lists or Life Goals. Why? Because I want attainable goals that I know I can accomplish. I want to dangle the cookie just within reach, because then I’ll fight for it. I don’t want to hang the cookie on a distant star in outer space where I can only see it through a very expensive telescope that I can’t afford.
There’s a metaphor in there, I promise.
Anyway, my goal lists are always concrete and reasonable. This goes for things like basic human functions, and larger scale goals that are linked to my passions.
So when I set the goal as a wee child to publish a book, I knew I had a lifetime to do it. It was my cookie in the stars. But as I grew up, I broke that goal down into cookie-on-a-string tasks. Here’s a brief list of goals I set:
Things are crazy. This place I’ve found myself is crazy. Setting goals makes it seem less crazy and stressful and makes it seem possible. It makes it achievable.
At times, it’s incomprehensibly and phenomenally lightning fast. Sometimes it trudges like dregs of unmixed hot cocoa: delightful and painfully out of reach. Sometimes its simplicity is astoundingly sharp.
Sometimes I get to write blog posts about the hundreds of tiny steps and goals, the relentless and torturous ambition, and the unending thrill of finally being so close to my sky-cookie that I can taste it.
And guys? It tastes like starlight.*
Fact: Someday, I will sign my own name wrong in a book that I have written.
Planned Reaction: Hey, yeah. So… I spelled my name wrong in your book here. I’m just gonna… yep. I’m just gonna keep this one and, uh, slide you this shiny new copy. Isn’t that shiny? So shiny. And you know what? I’m not even going to sign it. We’ll just call this a wash–a net zero situation. You walk away with a totally neutral book, not marred by any egregious misspellings, and I’ll just have this pile of reject books over here. That’s okay, right? No? Okay. Well…. No, yeah, that’s totally how I’m spelling my name now. Yep. There are three C’s in Rebecca now. Totally.
Fact: Someday, someone will ask me about something in my book, and I’ll have zero recollection of making that decision.
Planned Reaction: Errr… why did that particular plot event happen, you ask? Uhh, I see you’re holding my first book there. That’s, um. That was a tough decision to make. Having the, er, character… do that thing they did. And geez, the tension and conflict? Must’ve been… it was a bold choice, to be sure. There’s… wait, what? Whoa, did that really happen? I wrote that? And there’s that terrible plot hole? Yeesh. Well, I’m sure I had my reasons. Probably. Did you want me to sign it? Because I’ve doubled up on the number of C’s in my name. I’m now signing my name as Rebecccca MccLaughlin to avoid confusion for when I spell it wrong by mistake. I also offer fun variations like RebClawflin for that super authentic scribbling signature vibe.
Fact: Someday, my ego will get the better of me in a normal everyday situation.
Planned Reaction: Oh, yes. I’m buying this shiny new laptop. Why yes, I do need the full sized keyboard. You see, I’m an Author. A Proper Author who authors things, and I am in quite desperate need of a keyboard that makes the right kind of sound when you type. I’m sure you’ve seen my book. It’s on the very front shelf at that bookstore across the street. I mean, it was in the back of the store when I was snooping, and I moved it up onto the fancy bookshelf near the front. I also signed it while I was there. You’ll see that the signature matches this new driver’s license I’ve had issued: Rbcccccca Mcccccln. My name is mostly C’s now.
Fact: Someday, I will say something inadvertently foolish, insensitive, or dumb online.
Planned Reaction: Yeah, I tweeted about it, for sure. What did I say? Oh, just that all books in the universe should be set on fire. Well, no. I meant it as a metaphor, obviously. Obviously! Sure, that’s fair. I DID light one of my own books on fire as a visual aid for the metaphor. Well, how was I supposed to know that the–what’d you call it? The booklr community? How was I supposed to know they’d get so upset. Come on, it’s not like I threatened to light ALL of the books on fire. Oh. I did? I did say that? Well, obviously I was overdosing on coffee and caffeine, and I shouldn’t be held accountable for–wait, what? There’s a trending hashtag about me? Really? Is it… no, it’s not good. Oh. Definitely not good. It’s #RbccccccaHatesBooks. Hmmm. I can see how that would be bad. At least it’s not being–oh it is. It’s being archived on the internet forever. I see.
Fact: Someday, I will accidentally spoil something about an unpublished book.
Planned Reaction: Okay, well I just announced to the world that everyone dies at the end. Yeah, I thought it was a joke too, until I remembered that 98% of the characters actually DO die at the end. So, what should we do about it? Is it too late to pull the books from circulation? It is. Okay. Well. How about we do a sequel where they all come back to life? And then there’s a High School Reunion that they attend even though none of them ever went to high school? And then someone inherits the universe?? No, I know it doesn’t make sense! But I’m panicking! This is what happens when I panic! I have really terrible ideas that I immediately pursue! Yes. YES. I DID just tweet about the sequel. What do you mean, “a sequel isn’t in my contract”??? What if I publish under a pen name?? How do you feel about RccccccMcccccc as a pen name???? Why can’t I stop tweeting?? NO, I KNOW I’M PANICKING. WHY DON’T YOU STOP PANICKING?!
So as you can see, I’ve given a lot of thought to what my life might be like as an author. I’m basically 100% prepared for any and all situations that may face me. Except for the complications of changing my name so that it has zero vowels and an excessive number of C’s.
I mean, I’m ready for that journey, but I don’t think my driver’s license will be a helpful tool for the police officer when I’m arrested for a.) signing my own books at a book store, b.) lighting innocent books on fire for an incomprehensible metaphor, or c.) breaking into the Twitter Archives to delete panic-induced tweets.