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Quick Edits

Quick Edits: A Look at “Show Don’t Tell”

Craft of Writing, Quick Edits, Writing

Quick Edits is a short feature where I give quick editing advice on how to handle common problems in fiction writing.

Show Don’t Tell

In my capacity as an editor, I’ve written “This is telling. I want to experience this with the character, not be told about it,” countless times. And the soundbite is “Show, don’t tell.” We’ve all heard it.

But the problem with soundbites is they’re meant to be short, so if we embrace them as rules, rather than guidelines, we lose the nuance.

“Never use adverbs.”
“Don’t use passive verbs.”
“Don’t use exclamation points.”

All of those items that are verboten by soundbites are valid, useful parts of speech. The issue the soundbite is trying to address is that they’re all overused, so the general guideline is not to use them at all. The guideline is really to keep us from overusing them (or using them wrongly, which is usually the case with adverbs) and to make us think about the instances when we do choose to use them.

“Show don’t tell,” is similar. Authors should mostly show. But it doesn’t mean authors should never tell. The “show don’t tell” soundbite drops all the nuance and all the reasoning of why authors should show, rather than tell. And because of this skipped nuance, many authors, particularly novices, adhere to the soundbite as if it is set in stone.

It isn’t.

Below is a list of instances where telling could be appropriate, where you can and sometimes should violate “show don’t tell.” Note that you don’t always have to tell in these instances, and sometimes shouldn’t. As writers improve, they learn when each is appropriate. Generally guideline is still: if you’re unsure, go with showing.

When to Tell

  • when transitioning from one scene to another – often Telling can happen at the beginning of a chapter or a scene when setting up for the action to come
  • when the action doesn’t matter – if your character is traveling from one place to another and nothing happens during the travel, the reader doesn’t need to know every turn and stop the character makes
  • when there is repetition – if a character has to tell another character about something the reader has already heard or experienced, Telling the reader that the character conveys the story is better than rehashing everything the reader already knows (an exception to this is if the character is misrepresenting or misunderstood what happened; that can be important for the reader to know)
  • when time passes – similar to above, if time is passing and nothing important happens, you don’t need to Show us that
  • in short stories – because short stories have a word limit, Telling is often necessary to summarize events that may not be as important to the plot as others.

There are also some instances in which you should rarely Tell. Obviously things that are the opposite of the list above. For example, any time the action does matter, it should be Shown and not Told. Another instance is action scenes. Action scenes should always be shown.

So there you go! A quick guide on when not to use Show Don’t Tell. Can you think of other times when you should Tell rather than Show?

Are there any editing issues you run into that you’d like covered in the Quick Edits series? Drop a comment below!

Keep writing,

Quick Edits: Don’t Blink

Craft of Writing, Quick Edits, Writing

Quick Edits is a short feature where I give quick editing advice on how to handle common problems in fiction writing.

Don’t Blink

We’ve all read it. Some of us have probably written it.

Some surprising thing happens. And, in response, a character blinks.

This is a problem. Why?

Because blinking is not an indicator of surprise. If it were, we would be indicating surprise more than twenty five thousand times in a day. Blinking is a mostly involuntary bodily action. It happens all the time.

In face-to-face life, it isn’t blinking that shows a person’s surprise. It can be wide eyes, a shocked expression, raised eyebrows, a flinch, a mouth agape. There are any number of things that actually show surprise. Blinking is never one of them — unless it’s a melodramatic blink for effect. And even then, I’d argue that’s deliberate, not as a result of a surprise.

Blinking, like breathing, is a natural thing that the body does over and over again each day. In order to justify mentioning it on the page, there should be something special about that particular blink. So I find blinking to be acceptable when there’s something in the character’s, eye or when he’s trying to hold back tears.

As an editor, I see the use of blinking as an indicator of surprise to be a wasted opportunity. There is so much more that could be described to really push the surprise across to the reader to make it vividly drawn in her mind. Using blinking seems lazy.

So don’t blink.

Are there any editing issues you run into that you’d like covered in the Quick Edits series? Drop a comment below!

Keep writing,

Quick Edits: Action Scenes

Craft of Writing, Quick Edits, Writing

Quick Edits is a short feature where I give quick editing advice on how to handle common problems in fiction writing.

Let’s talk about writing action!

What Is Action and What Makes a Good Scene?

Action scenes are any scenes that require high tension and lots of movement by the characters. Obvious sorts of action scenes are fights and chases, but they’re not the only types of action scenes. Sex scenes are also action scenes.

Clarity and high tension are the hallmarks of an effective action scene. The reader should have absolutely no opportunity to put the book down. She should be grabbed and pulled through the scene with so much need that turning the page takes too long.

Action Scene Toolbox

Clarity

The reader must understand exactly what’s happening in the scene, so clarity of language is very important. You don’t ever want him to have to stop and reread things in order to envision who is doing what.

You want to use concise and vivid words. No wishy-washy descriptors, like “fast” or “large.” Instead, use “breakneck” or “colossal.” While a thesaurus will be useful in the case of substituting a word, don’t limit yourself to that. Consider whether rewording the sentence altogether would make for a more exciting and memorable description. Stretch yourself. Don’t take the easy way out.

Active and evocative verbs are your friend, but don’t go overboard and use so many or so unusual words that the pacing of the scene gets bogged down.

High tension

Writers have much more in their tool boxes than just words. One of the most effective tools for getting readers to feel what you want them to feel is sentence structure. When writing action scenes, you want to use shorter, punchy sentences. Simple noun-verb-object structures with the occasional phrase at the beginning or end.

Why? Because shorter, simple sentences are very easy to parse, and we can read them faster. Complex sentences make us slow down to make sure we understand what’s being said. In an action scene, you want the reader to read faster and not have to slow down. This serves the purpose of raising the tension. Used in conjunction with your actual writing — ie, how you describe what’s happening and the words you use — you get a bonus on top of the natural tension of the scene.

As a writer, you should use all the tools at your disposal to get the reader to feel what you want him to feel. 🙂

Are there any editing issues you run into that you’d like covered in the Quick Edits series? Drop a comment below!

Keep writing,

Quick Edits: Distancing

Craft of Writing, Quick Edits, Writing

Quick Edits is a short feature where I give quick editing advice on how to handle common problems in fiction writing.

Distancing is when you are using 3rd person limited or 1st person point of view and then use language, usually in descriptions, that distances the reader from that POV. Here’s an example:

She watched Thomas get out of the car.

If we are firmly in our character’s POV, we don’t need to be told that she’s watching. All we need is:

Thomas got out of the car.

We will know she watched that happen, because if we’re in her head and she didn’t watch him getting out of the car, we wouldn’t even get the action at all.

Another example:

As he closed the car door, he felt the chill of the metal on his palm.

Instead, consider:

As he closed the car door, the metal chilled his palm.

The first sentence is the author telling the reader what the character is feeling. Do you notice how we are pulled out of the character’s head? It puts a degree of separation between the reader and the character that you, as the author, may not want. In the second sentence, we are invited to experience the feeling along with the character, which, in my experience as reader and a writer, is infinitely preferable.

Words you can search your manuscript for that might identify distancing sentences:

  • Saw
  • Watched
  • Heard
  • Felt

There are others, but that is a start. Now, of course, not every instance of these words will need to be removed, but they should each be evaluated individually. Push yourself to think outside the box, to think about how a sentence can be phrased differently.

Pulling these words out of your writing encourages you to create better, more vivid and interesting sentences. This will make you a better writer.

And isn’t that the point? 🙂

Are there any editing issues you run into that you’d like covered in the Quick Edits series? Drop a comment below!

Keep writing,

Quick Edits: Word Echoes

Craft of Writing, Quick Edits, Writing

Quick Edits is a short feature where I give quick editing advice on how to handle common problems in fiction writing.

This week we’re looking at word echoes. Word echoes can be used as a writing device to emphasize some aspect of the scene, character, or plot. Therefore, you don’t want accidental word echoes. You always want echoes to be a deliberate choice.

There are a couple different types of word echoes.

One type is crutch words. These are words that, as a writer, you lean on heavily, usually in first drafts. I keep a list of my crutch words (which includes “actually” and “smile,” also “so,” among others) and when I finish a first draft, I search on each of the words to see where I can change them up. Notice I didn’t say “find a different word.” We’ll talk about word choices in a minute.

A second type is words that commonly connect with each other in some way. This is an echo I began to recognize as I edited professionally. Words that have a natural opposite, like “up” and “down,” “in” and “out,” often find their opposites within a few lines. In my experience, it’s very common that if I see “on” somewhere in a sentence, “off” shows up, usually within three lines of it (and vice versa). And that pairing is usually repeated two more times within the next page or two.

A third type is simply when we use the same word too many times in too short a span. I find that I do this most often when I’m not in the zone of writing and just trying to get the words down on paper. I will usually mark it and come back to it later.

But the bigger issue is when we don’t see those echoes on the page. This is where beta readers can come in. I wrote a post on how to best utilize beta readers. One of my suggestions is to give beta readers specific things to watch for or comment on. So you can task one of your beta readers with watching for echoes. That is probably the easiest way to catch them. If you hire a professional editor, they will definitely catch those echoes. (If they don’t, you need a new editor 😉 )

A word about word choices

See what I did there? 🙂

When looking at word echoes and deciding how to fix them, don’t always go for a synonym to substitute for the offending word. Look at the entire sentence. When we echo, it’s a good indication of sloppy writing. Not necessarily bad writing, but when we wrote, we went for the easy words, the expected words. That’s why we echoed.

If you look at the sentence and can work out a way to revise the sentence itself so that the echoed word is no longer necessary, I will bet that the sentence you come up with is much better than the original sentence.

Why? Because the sentence was built with intent, rather than just tossed together in the midst of a writing sprint. Intentional writing is almost always better than off the cuff writing.

My advice: try not to think in terms of synonyms. Think in terms of recreating the sentence to get rid of the echo.

~

Are there any editing issues you run into that you’d like covered in the Quick Edits series? Drop a comment below!

Keep writing,

Quick Edits: Pronouns

Craft of Writing, Quick Edits, Writing

Quick Edits is a short feature where I give quick editing advice on how to handle common problems in fiction writing.

Pronouns

If you have two or more people of the same gender in the same scene, it’s easy to use pronouns in a confusing way. (I’ll be using male/female pronouns in these examples, but neutral and non-gendered pronouns are also subject to this issue.)

Say Tina enters a room and sees her sister, Marcy, who has been missing since the day before.

She ran over and gripped her in a bear hug, and her bag fell onto the floor.

We might assume that the subject (she) is Tina herself. And that the first “her” is Marcy. But think for a moment. Couldn’t the subject (she) also be Marcy? The sentence works that way too. And then the first “her” would be Tina. And we have no idea, either way, which of them dropped their bag. See how that can be confusing?

I generally advise, at the very least on the sentence level, but it’s probably even more effective on the paragraph level, to choose one character for whom you’ll substitute pronouns.

So pick either Tina or Marcy as being the one that can have the pronouns. And the other, you’ll use her name. This doesn’t mean you can only use pronouns for that character.  You can still use the pronoun character’s name. Just don’t use pronouns for the non-pronoun character.

So the sentence could be changed to look something like this:

Marcy ran over and gripped her in a bear hug, and Tina’s bag fell onto the floor.

Or this:

Tina ran over and gripped her in a bear hug, and Tina’s bag fell onto the floor.

Or this:

Tina ran over and gripped her in a bear hug, and Marcy’s bag fell onto the floor.

See how the same sentence with ambiguous pronouns could be clarified to mean a lot of different things? We should shoot for clarity in our writing, and this is one that is really easy to flub up! But it’s a pretty simple fix, as you can see.

Are there any editing issues you run into that you’d like covered in the Quick Edits series? Drop a comment below!

Keep writing,

Quick Edits: Passive to Active Verbs

Quick Edits, Writing

Quick Edits is a short feature where I give quick editing advice on how to handle common problems in fiction writing.

Changing a passive verb to an active verb is pretty easy. Have a look:

She was sitting on the barstool.

She sat on the barstool.

 
Drop the “is” or “was,” take the -ing verb, make it an -ed verb, and you’ve got an active sentence.

He was laughing at the clown’s antics.

He laughed at the clown’s antics.

 

Which one would you be laughing at?
My answer: Neither. I’d be running! 😉
(Photo from the documentary, Pennywise: The Story of It)

Advanced tip: Once you’ve made your passive sentence into an active sentence, you might consider revising it to use an even more vivid word. Usually when we’ve written a passive sentence (often without realizing it), we haven’t chosen the most interesting verb, so it’s worthwhile to reassess when you’re rewriting the passive to active verbs.

Happy writing!