Show Don’t Tell #13

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!

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Writing Rituals!

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!

Show Don’t Tell #12

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, we’re going to be paying special attention to adverbs, verbs, and tone.


THE BEFORE PARAGRAPH

Briskly,(1) I ran through the marketplace, desperately(2) searching the half-destroyed tables and heaps of smoking rubbish,(3) frantically reaching for anything and anyone(4) that looked faintly(5) my little brother.(6)(7) A charred mannequin, the broken leg of a upturned table.(8) It was hard to see(9) because of(10) the smoke, and I spun around, still searching and searching for him.(11)(12)

1: Adverbs are okay to use, but use them sparingly. This one isn’t needed, and it’s just acting as a buffer between us and the verb that drives the sentence (run). [Sidenote: The benefit of adverbs is that you convey tone/mood with a single word. The detriment is that you’re leaving it to the reader’s familiarity and pre-exposure to that word to set the tone/mood. Basically, it lacks specificity. Sometimes, however, that’s what you want, especially in more condensed action scenes.]

2: Okay, adverb #2 in this sentence.

3: ADVERBBBBBB #3 (Yes, I’m keeping score. No, paragraph, you’re not winning.)

4: This is a small but I think an effective change. This sentence moves from anything (object) to anyone (person). But when you’re looking for a person, you’d look for people and then resort to objects. Or there’s an argument for the first option, because the number of objects outweighs the number of people. But also think of the list in the next sentence, where it progresses from mannequin (human-like) to table leg (not human).

5: ADVERB #4 IN ONE SENTENCE. This is not just overkill, it’s a massacre. One adverb is fine, two is pushing it, four is leaping into the annoying world of Annoying Things.

6: I like that it takes the whole sentence to figure out we’re looking for a little brother, but I think it would be more powerful to have this revelation come after we see the mannequin and broken table leg, because those are just-human enough to tell the reader we’re looking for a person. Let the imagery tell us the story, and then confirm it when we’re already on the edge of knowing.

7: This sentence. It’s too long. It has too many adverbs. Its length doesn’t match the choppy pace that the story is expressing.

8: First, I quite like these two list items. But. It needs a third. The rule of three: descriptions are often presented in threes, so adding a third detail here will really help. [Sidenote: We humans like threes, especially in lists. I don’t know why (wikipedia does), but groups of three are a good rule of thumb. One is an anomaly, two is a coincidence, three is a pattern. It takes three for the reader to get a good sense of something. And I say this will all the confidence of someone who didn’t read that wikipedia article yet.* I’m going to let my math brain take over on this one. With one point, you’re at a stationary point on a graph. With two, you’ve established a linear pattern, which can have a steep or slow growth rate. You’ve connected two items, but only by a thread. With three? With three you can imply a parabolic curve or a shape (triangle!) that now covers an area. This implies exponential change and a scope of area instead of just two points. With three details in a set, you get a dynamic sense of direction and space.]

9: “because of” is a red flag, because it almost always is coupled with over-explanation.

11: This would read a lot better if the end of this paragraph was focused on the not-finding instead of the searching. Or at the very least if the “for him” wasn’t there, because it’s 1.) unnecessary words and 2.) it specifies the “searching” with the goal when we haven’t found the goal. I think it’s better if we’re just left “searching and searching” and the sentence feels more open-ended.

12: Also, let’s take a look at the verbs we’re using in this paragraph: ran, searching, smoking, reaching, looked, see, spun, searching, searching. Most of these are flat neutral verbs, sensory filters (looking, searching) that are repetitive and don’t give us a variety. We’re getting movement and searching, but not a lot else.

*Having now read the wikipedia article, it talks about the prevalence of threes but doesn’t go into any reasoning or psychology. But I bet psychology knows something about it, so if you’re more successful at research (or perhaps you moonlight as a psychologist), let me know!


THE AFTER PARAGRAPH

I ran through the destroyed marketplace,(1) dodging sparking wires that swung from tilting concrete and scampering over crushed vending stalls.(2) Smoke choked(3) the air, stung my eyes, and I blinked against both as I stumbled(4) over chunks of concrete and torn metal. Every movement caught my eye: the broken leg of a table splintering,(5) the shiver of a charred mannequin(6) as the plastic melted and cracked,  the twitch of unfamiliar fingers(7) coated with ash and dust.(8) But none of them were my brother.(9) I tried to scream for him, but I still tasted blood in my throat.(10)(11)

1: Calling it the “destroyed” marketplace upfront gives us a sense of that background (something destroyed it).

2: There was a distinct lack of setting in the first paragraph. So I took some liberties and assumed by “marketplace”, it meant big store that collapsed. There is a potential for a misreading of “concrete and scampering.” Maybe that last action is too much for this sentence.

3: Smoke choked is a fun linguistic rhyme.

4: Scampering and stumbling are both more physically descriptive of the character’s movements. I’m not sure “scampering” feels quite right, but there is a nice progression from one to the other. Maybe scrambling? See, you have to try a few things until you find something that fits just right.

5: The following three parts of this sentence offer a progression from the anthropomorphic to the human. We start with the leg of a table, which is hinting at human)…

6: … and we progress to mannequin, which is pseudo-human…

7: … and we end with unfamiliar fingers, which is not the human we’re looking for. Notice also how all three items have a unique description and verb paired with it. We start with the broken leg of the table, which is an intentional misdirect for a human leg. Then the mannequin shivers, which is often a human action. And then we have the twitch of fingers under ash and dust, implying a not-so-happy end for the market-goers.

8: This rule of three is a bit bulky here, because it does end up being a long sentence. It’s a case-by-case analysis of whether the sentence is clunky or if it flows, and whether the progression makes logical sense.

9: Here’s where we get the kicker: the character is looking for their brother. Now, it’s up to you whether you want to reveal this detail first or last. If you reveal it last, the tension is based more on the destruction. If you reveal it first, then the reader knows in that 3-detail sentence who we’re looking for, and those details take on a more poignant, gruesome light. So it depends on whether you want the brother detail to be a reveal or if you want to start off with it and build tension after.

10: Blech. Blood in the throat is disgusting and visceral, but it is a stronger image. And it’s less common than the frequent “blood in my mouth” description. It speaks to a deeper injury, which mirrors the high level of destruction we see around the character. It might make more physical sense, though, if it said something more along the lines of “but dried blood still stuck in the back of my throat”. Because I don’t know that *tasting* blood makes it difficult to speak.

11: Let’s look at the verbs of the new paragraph: ran, dodging, swung, tilting, scampering, choked, stung, blinked, stumbled, caught, shiver, melted, cracked, splintering, twitch, coated, tried, scream, tasted. There’s a lot more, and they are used in different forms. There’s even some in there used as adjectives that I didn’t include (sparking, broken). And take careful note of the utter lack of adverbs! Make sure you’re using a variety of vocabulary and that the verb choice in particular pairs well with the level of tension and action in the story.


What do YOU think?

How would you tweak/change the Before paragraph differently? Do you prefer building up to a reveal or revealing a crucial detail first and letting it color the rest of the content?

Any thoughts on the changes to the After paragraph?

Check out the rest of the Show Don’t Tell series!

Ask Authors Questions

A New Writer’s Resource

Ever wanted to know that you’re not alone as a writer? Ever wondered if other writers have weird rituals before they write? Where do writers find their Critique Partners?

Today marks the launch of the Ask Authors Tumblr blog, where over 100 writers participate in answering a big question each week. And they answer smaller questions submitted by visitors all the time!

Ask Authors Blog

What it Does & What it Has

The blog taps the resources, knowledge, and wisdom of the 125 writers who were contestants in the 2015 Pitch Wars contest. It also has a Resources Page (in development) that will host a slew of links that can take you to various resources that we’ve found helpful for querying and publishing advice.

There’s also a Twitter you can follow, just in case you’re not on Tumblr and you want to receive notice of when new questions go up and when fun things are happening!

How it Works

Every Monday, a new Question Post goes up, where the Authors Crew asks and answers a big question. Everything from the difference between Beta Readers and Critique Partners to our favorite terrible writing advice.

Any time in between, they’ll post responses to Asks that come in.

How Do You Ask?

Head over to our Anonymous Ask page, where you can inquire your heart’s desire! Book recommendations, tips for a pesky grammatical mistake you keep making, or the philosophy of the writing universe?

Feel free to ask anything!

5 Resources: Blogs I Follow, Articles I Love

You have to take advice before you can give it. If you’re trying to share an experience, knowledge, or story, you have to be well-versed in that world.

This goes for a lot of things. Read books before writing them, learn calculus before tutoring your neighbor, bake that iffy cupcake recipe before suggesting it to your coworkers, especially if they’re going to bring it in next week and you’ll have to smile and take a big bite, wondering why it’s so gritty (and if there’s real sand in there, not just unincorporated heaps of sugar).

Yeah, that spiraled to specificity pretty quickly. Moral of the metaphor is this: Research is important, especially if you want to give advice. And I do want to share advice and experiences and stories. So here’s some of the blogs and articles that have given me advice that I can, in turn, give to you!

3 Stages of Editing — This is a pretty brief article that covers the three basic stages of editing. I’ve talked about editing a bunch of times, but this article is very concise. I agree wholeheartedly with the process (even if I do some of the steps out of order occasionally—I’m looking at you, copyediting stage).

Analyzing the First 250 Words of Bestsellers — We all know a first page/chapter has to be polished. It’s important for getting agents, editors, and readers to commit to your book (kinda like a first date). Nicollete promises to go through the first page of several bestsellers and analyze what makes them great. I have high hopes for her analyses, and I think it could spawn really productive conversations.

New Leaf Literary’s Tumblr — Stepping aside from the fact that I signed with Pete Knapp at New Leaf and I’m now one of their clients, I’ve been following New Leaf’s blog for a very long time. A year, at least? Probably more? Either way, this blog’s shining point is that the staff at New Leaf (most often Suzie Townsend) answer questions about querying, publishing, representation, and more! Their blog is where I learned about Pitch Wars, the wonderful contest that resulted in me getting an agent.

Pete J. Knapp’s blog — While I’m being biased, here’s my agent’s blog. I highly suggest you follow the blogs of agents you admire (particularly those who answer questions about the whole process, like Pete), as you’ll learn an incredible amount of vital information about the querying process and the business. It really is invaluable to understand where agents are coming from, what type of people they are, and how they operate.

Authors on Tumblr (Victoria Aveyard, Maggie Steifvater, John Green, etc.)— Tumblr is one of the biggest platforms on the internet for blogging and interfacing with others (along with Twitter). It’s cooperative, user-friendly, and has the almighty Ask feature. More and more authors are responding to Asks and engaging with their audience in wonderful ways. Fan art, interviews, hilarity, and community abounds! So, find your favorite authors on Tumblr (and Twitter!), if they are there, and see how they interact with their fan base. It’s invaluable to see author’s insights, the way they present themselves on their public forums, and how they interact with others.

Pitch Wars Statistics (The Authors, The Books, The EXPLOSIONS)

  • If you don’t know what Pitch Wars is, read this.
  • If you didn’t read the Guest Post I did on Brenda Drake’s blog, it covers the basic statistics of diversity, word count, age, sexuality, POV, and other fun stats about the Mentee books.
  • If you haven’t read Harry Potter yet, I can’t help you, except maybe to direct you to the nearest bookstore and/or sanitarium.

THIS PAGE (compared to the post on Brenda’s blog) talks about EVEN MORE STATISTICS! AHH! I can sense your excitement. It’s like lemons and pine needles. (Also makes a good tea.)

There are three sections of statistics in this beautiful blog post.

  1. The Authors
    • Here you’ll find gems like how many books we’ve written before Pitch Wars, and our EMOTIONAL STATES during the editing/revision process.
  2. The Books
    • Here you’ll get a big ball of book stats like  if there are EXPLOSIONS, and how long it took us to write our PW manuscripts.
  3. Super Fun Times
    • Here you’ll learn about taxes and 3rd derivatives and integrals…. JUST KIDDING. You’ll learn about which HOGWARTS HOUSE we got sorted into, what our favorite colors are, and how we rank Pitch Wars on a 1-10 Insanity Scale.

The Authors

books

emotions

startms

The Books

chaptersFIREPOVtense

diversity

Super Fun Times

color

insanity

Howarts

quotes

Show Don’t Tell #7

Show, don’t tell! Instead of just giving writing advice, let’s dig through some examples to learn by experience!


BEFORE

At seeing the small child raise her hand, she felt (1) her heart tighten with powerful emotions. (2)

“What is it?” she leaned forward,(3) wanting to ask but not actually speaking. (4)

The girl faltered and pulled her hand back down. (5)

With it, she (6) felt her heart crumble into tiny, breakable pieces.(7)

1. With most sensations and observations in a story, we don’t need the “she looked and saw” or the “she felt” parts. We can skip right to the what, and it’ll be implied/obvious that the character is experiencing these things.

2. What emotions? This is too vague to tell us anything. Also, we don’t have a sense of why this is important. Is the small child volunteering for tribute or trying to answer a math question?

3. Not a dialogue tag.

4. But the character IS speaking, and DID ask? It’s unclear whether the “she” who is leaning/wanting to ask is the narrator or the small child.

5. We can tighten this up. A lot of times, you see things like “back down” and “up to” or “forward closer”, which are both redundant and probably not even necessary.

6. Again, unclear which “she” we’re talking about. This is when proper names are useful.

7. This image doesn’t flow, and it’s cliche. And it doesn’t jive with the hand lowering (the “with it” part of the sentence implies that the movement of the girl’s hand mirrors a metaphoric movement of the narrator’s heart, but the two images aren’t consistent).

AFTER

When Lacey raised her hand, Ms. Benson’s heart tightened. All year, Lacey had only raised her eyes to the chalkboard with the faintest glimmers of recognition. Never once had she raised(1) her hand.(2)

“Yes?” Benson leaned forward. Go ahead, ask. Ask anything.(3)

The room shifted with the creak of metal chairs and wooden desks.(4) Lacey’s eyes dipped from the board down to the floor. Her fingers curled into a fist, her fist lowered to her desk, and she slumped deep into her squeaking chair.(5)

As Lacey’s hand lowered, Ms. Benson’s heart sank. Another day of silence. Another moment lost.(6)

1. The raising of her eyes is now linked to the raising of her hand. This ties together the physical expressions.

2. See how we get a better sense of the stakes? It’s important not to know just what is happening, but also why we should care.

3. Getting access to Benson’s thoughts aligns her as the narrating voice instead of the confusion we had earlier. Plus, it gives us the words she wants to say but doesn’t instead of telling us she isn’t saying something.

4. Gives us location and a sensory detail.

5. Since we know this moment is important, it’s vital to spend enough time there. No, it doesn’t take a lot of actual time to lower one’s hand, but we need to spend time writing/reading these moments to get a sense of their weight and utility.

6. This gives us Benson’s sense of disappointment without outright telling us in over-flowery language.


What do YOU think? Every opinion matters! How would you tweak/change the Before paragraph differently? What are your thoughts on what to add/take away to make it better? Any thoughts on the changes to the After paragraph?