Who is it?
Why are they there?
What are they doing?
I felt prompted to write this following the varied responses to something I posted on a Facebook authors’ group. Varied and just a little bit misinformed. Okay, there were some raging opinion-wielders but it’s Facebook so what did I expect?
If you’re an author, you will almost certainly be aware of the advice “show, don’t tell” (I hesitate to even hint it’s a ‘golden rule’ because of the raging opinion-wielders pedantically pointing out fatal errors wherever they want to see them).
Couple of obvious pointers, which are not obvious enough for some people: “show, don’t tell” does NOT mean “write long descriptions of everything” or “always try to show, never try to tell” or “follow this rule to the exclusion of any other rule, or even common sense”. And, most importantly and most often misinterpreted, “show, don’t tell” is not purely about describing what something looks like.
Now, the more pedantic and impatient opinion-wielder will want to ask this: Fine, smarty-pants, so what DOES “show, don’t tell” mean?
Easy. It means don’t bore the hell out of your readers, give them something to think about. It means don’t write “The king was evil” when what the reader needs to read is “The king liked to roast kittens for fun and drown miscreants in their own blood, even if all they had done was forget to salute his huge, obsidian statue seventy-five times each day.” It means be entertaining with your writing. Entertainment is key.
We can play around with some more examples, like this:
Sarah was happy.
That’s telling, not showing. Let’s give it some context.
Fred gave Sarah a bunch of roses. Sarah was happy because she appreciated the romantic significance of the unexpected gift.
That’s still telling.
Okay, smarty-pants, how else could you write it?
How about like this:
Sarah stared at the bunch of roses Fred was holding.
“For me?” she asked, clasping her hands to her chest. Her face lit up with a radiant smile. “They’re, oh, they’re just delightful.”
Pure gut-wrenching drivel, granted, but that’s showing rather than telling, and it gets a response from the reader. In this case, projectile vomiting.
In its most extreme form, telling becomes the infamous infodump. This is where the author wants to impart information they believe to be essential – usually the colour of a character’s eyes (green, generally) – but can’t figure out how to work it into the story so they just tell the reader about it.
Sarah looked in the mirror and saw a tall woman of twenty-three with long, frizzy blonde hair and emerald eyes.
That’s telling. Obviously. And a really painful way to describe your character.
First of all, nobody cares about the colour of a character’s eyes or the length of their hair. You generally see these descriptions somewhere in the first chapter and then never mentioned again. Unless a particular feature is essential to the plot, such as in a case of mistaken identity.
But I love how Sarah looks, protests the adamant author. It’s a huge part of who she is. I have to tell my readers what Sarah looks like.
Okay. Try this.
“You know you look like a cat, right?” Fred said.
“How dare you!” Sarah replied, gasping in horror.
“I mean your eyes, dummy. They’re green, like a big, cute, sexy cat.”
“Oh, that’s so sweet of you to notice. What do you think of my hair?”
“Looks like a Barbie doll fell in a cement mixer.”
“Aw, that’s exactly the look I was going for.”
And right there you get the description across, plus some insights into the two characters and their relationship. There are other ways to do the same thing, you just have to think like an entertainer rather than an estate agent.
Try this. It’s a tricky one:
Sarah opened the door.
That’s telling, not showing. Okay, but what if Sarah has been locked in the cellar for twenty years, without daylight? Or how about if Sarah is outside the main entrance of the castle belonging to that evil king? Or playing with a doll’s house? Or about to unwittingly open the front door to a serial killer?
Guess what – writing ‘Sarah opened the door’ would be fine in each of those cases. Adding an adverb would not improve it. Bloating it with descriptions would not improve it. But, and this is kind of important, it could be written differently because that’s up to the author and how they want the reader to feel when they read it.
No more examples, I’m sure that’s enough from me on the subject. I really need to get back to finishing the sequel to Cold Inside. Optimistically, it should be ready in the first quarter of 2019. I’ll post some more information on here as soon as I’ve got something definite to announce.
While I’m still celebrating the veritable tsunami of sales (single figures at the last count) of my sixth novel – crime thriller, Cold Inside – it is of course time to be writing the sequel while simultaneously planning the next thing I’ll be writing after that.
If you enjoyed Cold Inside (it’s about a 5 in 7.6 billion chance, but let’s go for it), then I know you’re going to be excited to hear that the sequel is well on its way. A fairly accurate estimate would put it at around 35% written, which leads to a finger-in-the-air forecast of a release date somewhere around October this year. That’s allowing for my ruthless editing and plenty of time for feedback from test readers. No title reveal yet, but I do have one.
What will come next? Well, I won’t keep you in suspense; it’s going to be a doomed marketing experiment. So far, I’ve failed spectacularly to get anything more than a handful of sales in genres that are currently popular, so I’m going to put something out in a dual-genre that is probably so unpopular that it doesn’t even have a cult niche of masochistic weirdos supporting it.
If you read this far, maybe you’re going to be intrigued enough to try it out. You at least deserve to hear what the genres are: Horror Western.
Your protagonist has a phone. Heck, yeah, we all have phones. But your protagonist only needs “a phone”.
Cody reached into his pocket and pulled out his Samsung Uberphone ZX81 and…
No, no, no. And no. It’s a phone. Your reader will imagine it to be whatever phone they want it to be. But not if you tell them the make and model. They could even begin to despise the character because of the phone he or she is using, but mostly they just won’t care.
The same goes for tablets or e-readers. Either don’t mention the damn things or just mention in passing that Cindy was reading. Does it really matter to your story or plot whether Cindy was reading a paperback or on a Kindle? No, it doesn’t. Unless she’s being stalked by the Kindle Killer, in which case it’s essential that we know (or at least suspect) that she is reading on a Kindle.
But 99.9% of the time we do not need to know what make or model of electronic device a character in a book is using.
Never, ever start your book with a dream sequence.
The wall exploded inward, showering her with chunks of plasterboard and shattered fragments of glass. A deafening, inhuman screech forced her to clamp her hands over her ears as a massive, green-scaled claw forced its way through the six foot hole in the wall. She backed against the jammed door, knowing that the next breath she took was going to be her last, her eyes squeezed shut to block out the vision of terror as the creature’s grasping talons closed around her…
Jenny woke up and turned off her alarm clock.
“What a terrible dream. Oh well, never mind. Time to go eat some cereal and have a chat with my best friend, Tracey.”
See, now that right there is appalling. The reader thinks they’re getting one thing (which may be awful, but that isn’t the point) but they’re actually getting something infinitely worse – they’re getting let down.
The best thing to do if you want to start your book with a dream sequence is to … NOT DO IT.
If you absolutely have to put a dream sequence somewhere else in your book, always clearly introduce it as such and don’t play a stupid game with your reader, who is absolutely not going to find any entertainment value in being duped by an author who thinks dream sequences are clever or fun. They are neither.
Okay, they’re not; not all the time, and not when the way a character looks adds something to the story. But, generally, it does not.
Any author who feels the need to describe the colour of the protagonists’s eyes, or the length of their hair, or the make of their suit in the first couple of paragraphs is sending out the clear message that they have nothing more interesting to say in those first paragraphs.
We’ve all read it, and you may even be one of those authors who does it. This kind of thing…
Misty Blade the teenage vampire hunter crouched at the edge of the steeply sloping roof. She pushed her long, deliberately unkempt style raven black hair over one shoulder and looked down at the dark street below through her matching pair of emerald eyes under arched eyebrows that were the same ebony shade as the aforementioned hair on her head.
Truly awful, I know. But come on, we all know someone who thinks that would be a great opening paragraph for their next novel.
Before describing a character, you need to ask yourself a few questions, of which these are just a sample:
1 – If you do NOT mention the character’s eye colour, will it affect the story at all?
2 – Can the character’s hair length be mentioned as part of an action sequence rather than just for the sake of it?
3 – Will the reader have a better time imagining how the character looks based on the character’s actions and behaviour, rather than being given an A-B-C description of eye colour, hair length, etc.?
If you absolutely have to mention a character’s physical features and clothes, try to avoid dumping them into the opening paragraphs like some kind of shopping list. And ditch the green eyes. They have been seriously overused.
Don’t use a mirror when you’re writing first person. You know what I mean, and if you don’t, well here’s another example.
I’m Byron Alpha, the extensively tattooed billionaire Mafia don. I paused as I strode past the mirror. I nodded with satisfaction at my mane of thick, glossy black hair (that every woman I met loved to run her hands through), hooded green eyes, aquiline nose, roguish two-day stubble, perfect cheekbones, and washboard abs that I knew were there but couldn’t see at the time because they were hidden beneath my very expensive Ermenegildo Zegna suit.
I am not completely opposed to describing a character’s appearance. I have done it myself, as anyone who has read any of my books will know. The point that I am making is that you do not need to shove details of eye colour, hair length and designer labels into the opening paragraphs of your book.
This is the first of a series of posts on specific writing issues where I feel that I need to add my own opinion to the millions that already exist. I have already posted a version of this on Wattpad, and I may post it elsewhere if I feel that it would be appropriate to do so. Or maybe just because it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Here are the albums that I was mostly listening to while I wrote (and while I’m editing) my fourth novel, Cheating Sunrise. This list isn’t representative of the style or theme of the novel, or the kind of music that I imagine playing in the background of any particular scene. This is just music that I have been listening to over the last eight or nine months while I’ve been writing this book. And working out. And driving.
I’ve listed the albums in alphabetical order of band/artist, because that’s always a good idea. If you click on an image, it will take you to the album’s iTunes page. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of the above bands for providing background music and a considerable amount of inspiration while I’ve been writing and editing over the last nine months or so.