Noah Lukeman (The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile) argues that a writer has more problems to worry about than the plot when writing a manuscript (p. 19). The story needs to be properly executed before a plot will be considered by an editor. He says there are several common mistakes made by beginning writers, such as style, viewpoint, narration, tone and characterization, and that writers should spend more time correcting these mistakes than worrying about the plot. But another critical aspect in writing that should not be overlooked is “showing versus telling”.
Ultimately, the story cannot just be described to a reader. You can't just tell it. But isn't that what we're trying to do? Tell a story, you ask? Yes, but it needs to be written so that the reader is somehow brought into the story.
Conversations need to be dramatized so that it doesn’t sound like the outline of a story. This happened, and then this happened, and then this happened. That gets boring fast. I made this mistake with the original version of my fairy tale. I gave a list of activities that occurred in sequence, but there was very little dialogue or action. Of course, it seemed to me that there was plenty of action, but I didn’t fully understand “showing and telling” at that point in time. I hope I have a better grasp on it now. Fingers crossed.
Even with descriptions and settings, it is important to try to show, not tell. Don't say there is a forest. Show that forest. Don't say there is a flood. Show that flood. Make the reader feel it and be in it. I remember reading Out of the Dust and every line in that book made me feel like I was covered in dirt from dust storms. Karen Hesse never says "there was this dust storm." Oh, can you imagine if she had?
Lukeman also emphasizes that stating facts is not the same as telling (p. 124). The difference is that facts are facts. On the other hand, telling directs us to conclusions, which doesn’t leave room for interpretation of the text by the reader. Facts are good; telling is bad. The writer should try to leave an element of ambiguity for the reader to draw his own conclusions. A great example of a book where the reader is left with ambiguity is The Giver by Lois Lowry. Her ending stated only what happened, but left so much room for interpretation that readers argue what must have happened to Jonas at the conclusion of the book. What happened? We don’t know because we were not told. This is one of the appealing elements of the book.
Burroway also agrees with the above advice of leaving room for ambiguity and interpreting the story. She says to give the reader details that matter, and to mean more than you say. “A detail is concrete if it appeals to one of the five senses; it is significant if it also conveys an idea or a judgment or both” (p. 76). This also reminds me of Alexandria LaFaye's "double-duty details", but that's another essay.
Burroway also agrees that readers need to experience the story. Words must translate into images. Make text specific, definite, concrete and full of particular details. Details prove something happened. Details persuade. Details are seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched. Likewise, use the senses to show abstractions. Don't label emotions. Show emotions through details. The emotion should be evident without ever mentioning the emotion. Don't say the boy was anxious. Show us the boy was anxious through his actions.
It is also essential to make a reader care about a character. To do this, move from a generalization to a sharpness of image, and gradually bring the character into focus. One point that really struck home with me was that a writer needs to use direct presentation of a thing rather than observing a thing.. This is known "in the biz" as filtering. The reader should look at a character rather than through a character (p. 82). For example, "'That's not true' she thought." The filter is having to go through the thoughts of this character. A direct presentation would be to just have the character say, "That's not true."
Don't tell a reader how a character is feeling; rather the reader should see how the character is feeling through direct presentation. Removing all filters also provides the added benefit of improving the pace of reading. This was another area where I needed to make changes in my fairy tale. Fin told his friend Willy about dancing in the moonlight and how happy it made him. I rewrote it to show Fin dancing in the moonlight and experiencing joy, although the emotion is not mentioned. As an aside, Burroway also cautions not to attribute human emotions to natural and man-made objects.
Active voice also is essential to make the reader care about a character. Characters must “do” rather than be people upon whom things are done. The passive voice distances the reader from the action. Several times in my original story I received the comment about distancing, but again, I didn’t quite understand what that meant until I read the meaning behind the statement. It is recommended, instead, to use precise active verbs to describe the exact picture in your mind. Also avoid linking verbs if possible for the same reason (p. 84). So, get rid of those "ing" verbs and those passive verbs like 'was failed', 'have been', and 'were slammed'.
Another way for a reader to experience a character’s emotion is through a control of starts and stops of the prose tempo. A sentence may be rushed or slowed down. A change in rhythm can signal a discovery or change in mood. It can also reinforce a contrast between characters (p.87).
- dramatize a story through use of details
- remove filters
- use the active voice
- control the rhythm of prose
Burroway, Janet. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. New York: Longman, 2003.
Lukeman, Noah. The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.
*(I found both of these books extremely helpful).