Showing and Telling

Today we’ll be discussing the principle of “show not tell.” Let’s start off by saying this is important to create strong writing, but like all things there’s a balance to strike.

Times when it’s okay to tell rather than show include: showing passage of time (two weeks had passed in silence before Tom saw her again) and to connect scenes, when including backstory to keep it concise, giving details that are not important to the story (and yes, this includes killing your darlings. Even when you love the language you masterfully crafted, if it’s not important, cut it out).

So how do we accomplish showing instead? The first is to remember to describe all five senses. This will really immerse the reader in the scene. Most of us only write about one or two senses so challenge yourself to include details for all five senses in your scenes. Also include setting, body and clothing choices for your characters, language usage and voice, character’s actions, and unique details in your descriptions of characters.

Avoid telling verbs like thought, wondered, felt, heard, saw. These remind the reader of the of the author’s presence which pulls them out of the scene. Especially avoid telling emotions (felt, thought). Give the reader space to experience emotions without author intrusion. Instead of saying he felt angry, show him clenching his jaw as his hands balled into fists. Show the throbbing vein in his forehead and his mottled red cheeks.

Avoid relying on adverbs to tell emotion or how a character acted. Instead pick stronger verbs. For instance, instead of saying he ran quickly, use he sprinted across. Instead of she said sarcastically, use she said rolling her eyes and sighing. You should also avoid using adverbs in your dialogue tags. Describe hand, face, and body gestures and actions instead to convey the emotion used in your dialogue. Instead of “I love you,” he whispered softly, use he took her hand in his, tracing the line of her palm with the tips of his fingers. “I love you.”

One thing to consider when describing a scene is which character’s perspective are you writing from. A teenage boy’s description of a kitchen’s décor will be different than what a middle-aged woman will notice. Describe the scene appropriately based on your characters. You can begin with a couple of specific details or give an overall impression of the setting.

Details you decide to include should be important. Don’t waste a lot of time describing something that will never come up again in your plot. On the other hand, if your character is going to use an object later on in your story, you better plant it in the description beforehand.

Use specific nouns along with strong verbs. Have your character collapse into a worn, leather couch. Have them skip past their mother’s rose bush. Have them gulp down orange juice from a chipped coffee mug. Be specific.

As I said in the beginning, there’s a balance you need to master for showing and telling. There is such a thing as too much showing. For instance, he walked towards me with a dancer’s grace. His features were that of a chiseled statue with a roman nose, full lips, and a strong jawline. His shirt the shade of falling twilight brought out his eyes that were the blue of a summer’s day. There’s a lot of flowery language in that description and it’s getting heavy-handed. Aim for one telling statement for every few showing descriptions that you use.

Showing instead of telling is an important skill for writers to master. The following prompt can help you practice this skill: Write about the way you feel right now using only action and sensory detail. Do not use any feeling words (sad, angry, tired).

Post your examples below or any tips you have for show don’t tell. As always, happy writing!

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What Makes a Strong Antagonist

This week I’ve decided to focus on antagonists since it’s a natural extension of our character discussion last week. Besides your protagonist, your antagonist is the most important character of your story. They drive your plot and protagonist forward, create suspense, and provide the conflict that your story needs. So how do we make a good villain?

First by making a good character. Last week we discussed what all characters need: goals/motivations, flaws, and traits that make them relatable. This is especially important for antagonists. A bad guy your reader can relate to is a bad guy who will chill your reader to the core.

Give them flaws and vulnerabilities, and on the other end of the spectrum, do not make them too powerful. You want your antagonist and protagonist to be evenly-matched in order to build suspense and believability. If a villain is indestructible, how will the protagonist ever win?

Keep their goals in mind. The antagonist’s goals should be directly in opposition to the protagonist’s goals to create conflict and force your protagonist to act. You should know your antagonist’s greatest goal and their biggest fear.

Think from your antagonist’s POV. Every villain is the hero of their own story, so practice thinking from their Pov. This will help you understand their justifications and enable you to make your antagonist a three-dimensional character.

Compare and contrast your antagonist with your protagonist. Highlight similarities between them and contrast their different decisions and reactions. Similarities equals complexities and will add depth to your characters.

Finally, spend as much time developing your antagonist as you do your protagonist. This will help you avoid the pitfall of a two-dimensional, clichéd caricature of a villain who twirls his mustache as he laughs maniacally. Make your villain as well-rounded as your protagonist; your story will thank you.

On another note, you should know your antagonist’s history and what makes him tick, but be careful not to add too much backstory into your work. The present story is what’s important and you should only add in backstory that drives the present story forward.

What are your thoughts on what makes a strong antagonist? Comment below and happy writing!

Writing well-rounded Characters

I’ve decided to keep this blog dedicated to writing, whether that’s my writing or any aspect of the writing process. I meet with a lovely pair of writers each week where we explore different aspects of writing. So, much of this blog will probably be gleaned from my writer’s group, but should be as helpful and informative as our group has been so that we can all advance as writers. I encourage all of you to join local writing groups or start one of your own if there aren’t any where you live. They are wonderful.

I thought we could cover characterization for this first foray because characters are so vital to our stories. The best plot will fall flat on its face if it’s peopled by weak characters. Characters really are the life of our writing and key to our readers becoming immersed in our story. So how do we write strong characters?

Know the clichés and how to break them. Now it’s easy to quibble about the difference between clichés and archetypes, but I think if we’re honest about it, we know which ones are overused. We don’t have to stay away from the archetypes, we just have to be self-aware about them. Want to use the lover? Just don’t make him your dark and brooding solution to your Mary Sue. Got your hero? Don’t make him an orphan with a destiny. We already have Harry Potter. You get my point.

Make sure your characters all have flaws. Especially your protagonist and antagonist (they should be evenly matched in both abilities and weaknesses, but that’s for another time). Nobody likes someone perfect and flaws help make your characters relatable (good thing) and makes your story more interesting (double win).

Give your characters some quirks. Strange habits or mannerisms make people human. Give your characters an idiosyncrasy and watch them emerge into real life (almost).

Character goals are a must. Everyone has goals, desires, ambitions. As with flaws, giving your character a goal or ambition is the easiest way to make your character relatable and those goals push your plot forward. Make every character want something, even if it’s just to be left alone.

Know your characters’ histories, but don’t bog down your story with backstory. Your story is in the present so you don’t want to slow down your action by putting too much unnecessary information in, no matter how tempting it is. Only give information that helps drive your present story forward.

Let them fail, let them struggle, let them work for it. This not only creates suspense, but it also shows off every aspect of your characters’ personalities. Are they graceful under pressure? Or do they snap?

Know POV and each character’s point of view. Each character has a unique personality, way of thinking, and upbringing and just like every person has a different perspective on things your characters should as well. So make sure each character’s perspective is defined and on display. Know your character inside and out.

Pay attention to how they speak, use diction, use slang, etc. This means dialect, grammar usage or lack thereof, mannerisms and gestures, and accents are all ways to showcase your individual characters as their lovely, unique selves. Figure out how each one speaks and keep them distinct from one another. Readers should be able to identify each character based on how they talk. Also keep in mind things like sarcasm and sense of humor.

Finally, focus on character development. How do your characters change and grow from the story’s conflict? How do they redeem themselves from unforgiveable acts? What epiphanies did they have along the way? Who are they now? These questions should be clear by the end of your story if you have well-rounded, fleshed-out characters. That’s why it’s so important as authors to be able to answer them before we write (or as we write if you’re a pantser). Think and develop your characters and you’ll add always beneficial depth to your story.

Not every character needs to be fully developed, you will have minor characters, but every character that affects the story does need to be. That includes your antagonist. A fun exercise in characterization we did in my writing group was to choose a personality type from the Myers-Briggs types, choose a character flaw, choose a character goal and write a full character sketch from that. The personality types are great for writers exploring characters that are completely different to them. They really give a lot of depth to characters so play around with the Myers-Briggs types.

Hope these tips helped, if you have any sage advice I neglected, share it in the comments. Happy writing!

Introductions

Hello and welcome to my blog. Somehow you’ve found your way here and I hope you’ll find it worthwhile to peruse. I’ve been learning a lot about writing, the writing process, and getting a novel out into the world. I will be organizing this information here where I hope it will help more than just me. I’ll also be including my personal struggles and talking about my book. You can find out more about me on the about page. Thanks for visiting.