“Show, don’t tell” is probably the most commonly given advice in writing, but there are places where telling is the right choice.
Tag: writing advice
Writing by Committee
When betas take control of your novel and how to get it back
Beta readers are one of the biggest issues beginning writers have. Either they don’t have any, or they have too many. Having too many beta readers swamps the new writer with advice, and that isn’t always helpful. Too often the new writer will become trapped in an endless loop of rewriting by trying to incorporate every piece of advice. In this process, the writer loses her own voice and ends up with a bland mess. While getting some feedback is a crucial part of revisions, don’t let your novel get stuck in this phase.
How to know you’ve lost control
Endless revision loop- While it may seem like revisions take forever, there is a point where they need to end. If you have been revising for a year or more, then you may need to reevaluate your process.
Eventually, you will reach a point of diminishing returns. If the novel still isn’t working after several rewrites, then you may need to scrap the idea.
Conflicting advice– The problem with beta advice is that it is just advice. I always tell clients that half of what I say will be helpful and half will not. It’s up to you, the writer, to decide which pieces of advice will help you reach your story’s goals. Everyone has their own preferences. Can you think of a novel that everyone else loved, but you were just so-so? Because preferences vary, you will get conflicting advice. This does not mean that one is right and one is wrong. It is simply subjective.
Lack of interest– This is a symptom that you are getting frustrated with your process. If the prospect of getting feedback from a new beta is more dreadful than exciting, then you may need to move on. Once you begin to lose interest in a project, this is your warning that it may be time to either put this project on hold or abandon it.
Changing something “because a beta said”– As an editor, I have frequently seen the same manuscript in various stages. Almost every time I see a revision, something that I really loved from the previous version is gone. When I ask about it, the conversation usually goes,
Her: “Oh a beta said I should change it.”
Me: “Did they give a reason why?” (pacing, plot, foreshadowing?)
Her: “They didn’t like it.”
The problem with this scenario isn’t because the author didn’t follow my advice, but because she didn’t follow her own. The author created the original version the way she liked it. There was nothing actually wrong, but the moment someone else criticized it, she gave in just to please a beta. Surrendering your story to beta readers will not get you a story that you love.
Evaluating Writing Advice
There are three types of writing advice: correct, subjective, and wrong
Correct advice is anything that fixes a mistake. Plot holes, consistency errors, POV errors, etc. These are things that can objectively be considered wrong.
Subjective advice is anything that falls under personal taste: pacing, levels of description, overall narrative distance, likability of a character, etc.
Wrong advice is anything that conflicts with the writer’s intention or is simply wrong (for example, never use “was” is a great example of terrible writing advice.)
How to evaluate writing advice
When you get feedback from a beta, you need to decide what advice to use in your revision. Yes, you can (and should) ignore some advice. Not all advice is good.
Question 1: Who is giving the advice?
Even if your beta is a published writer, that does not mean she is qualified to give you writing advice. Imagine a horror writer giving you feedback on your middle-grade feel-good adventure. Or an erotica writer giving advice on a Janette Oak-style Christian romance? All writers will have preconceived ideas about what makes a good novel based on their preferences. So try to get feedback from writers who read what you write.
Secondly, try to get feedback from another writer over a family member or friend. The average reader will be able to say whether they liked something, but won’t be able to articulate specific issues as well as another writer.
The friend: This part was boring
The writer: The pacing in this scene begins to drag. There is too much backstory that isn’t relevant to the character’s current conflict. Also, the stakes aren’t clear. Tighten up the sentences by eliminating extra description to increase the tension.
Which feedback would you prefer?
Question 2: Does the feedback match your vision?
Your beta says the main character should be nicer so she’s more likable, but you were planning a redemption arc. Following this advice would weaken your character arc and take your further from your story’s goal. When you decide which advice to implement, make sure you keep your personal vision of the story as your goal. If the advice is counter to that goal, it won’t help your story.
Question 3: Does the feedback improve the story?
Too often writers change things and the results are no better than the original. Before you make a change, decide if the new is actually better than the old. Positive changes are those that increase tension, clarify characterization, clarify motivation, increase the stakes, fix mistakes, etc. Switching the setting from the football field to the soccer field does nothing. Make sure you can identify a reason for the change.
Question 4: Am I chasing trends?
Nothing will date your story faster than writing to trends. So if you are making a change because something is more popular, think twice. There are certain exceptions. Genres like romance and urban fantasy have conventions that readers have been trained to expect. For example, many romance lines are written in 3rd person point-of-view, while urban fantasy is almost exclusively written in 1st person deep. There are exceptions, but if you are expecting to write for a specific publisher’s line, you will have to follow the conventions of that line.
Taking back control
Before you make any change ask:
- Why am I making this change?
- How is it improving the story?
- Do I like this version better?
If you can’t answer these questions, then reconsider whether you really need to make the change. Change for the sake of change isn’t progress.
Writing is subjective. No two people will agree on what makes it great. Don’t let beta feedback trap you in an endless editing loop. Learn to evaluate writing advice and take back control of your story.
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What’s wrong with slipping backstory into dialogue?
Simply put: people don’t really do that in real life. When you listen to conversations, (and if you aren’t, you should be) you will notice that people never restate things both parties already know. Dialogue needs to reflect this tendency, otherwise, it will sound stilted.
Good morning, Joan. Looks like you have been here all night. What are you working on?”
She rubbed her eyes. “Just finishing up the calculations for the teleportation ray. The test is scheduled for this morning, and if we don’t get this right, the department of defense will take the contract to our big rival, Trademartin.”
You’ve probably already figured out that Sam and Joan both already know who their biggest rival is, when the big test is, and what the project is, so there’s no reason for Joan to restate that. Notice how it makes the conversation feel false.
This type of dialogue is called “as you know,” because you could easily insert this phrase at the beginning of the line. The entire point of Joan’s speech is to relay information to the reader. It does nothing to increase or resolve the tension between the characters. It does not move the plot forward. This is why info dumping in dialogue never works.
The purpose of dialogue must be to relay information to another character. When you write dialogue, keep the reader out of the equation. What would Joan really say to Sam if she only needed to Sam to understand?
Good morning, Joan. Looks like you have been here all night. What are you working on?”
She rubbed her eyes. “Just finishing up the calculations on the defense project.”
I feigned shock. “You ran them again? I’m insulted.”
She turned the monitor toward me. “Better insulted than unemployed.”
Now the conversation has subtext. This forces the reader to engage in the conversation and use the implied meaning to puzzle out the context.
The importance of subtext
People rarely say exactly what they are thinking. Most conversations are not exchanges of literal statements, but the implied meaning behind those statements.
Joan slid the glass across the table.
I raised my eyebrow at her. “That was your fourth.”
“Dammit, Sam. If I wanted a nanny I’d just build one.”
From this conversation, we can see that Joan is under stress, that she drinks heavily, that Sam cares enough about her to protest, and that Joan is in some sci-fi tech field: either robotics or cloning. None of this is stated outright. Readers are capable of extrapolating information from subtext. Stating it overtly, rarely works.
Subtext is the most important component of most dialogue.
To make dialogue sound realistic, keep your focus on creating subtext. Look for ways for your characters to talk around what they really mean, rather than state it directly.
“Good morning, Joan. Looks like you have been here all night. What are you working on?”
“Morning, Joan. Same outfit, I see.”
Just by looking at Joan’s clothes, Sam realizes she’s been working all night. Both characters know this, so there’s no reason for Sam to say it. What he does instead is acknowledge her dedication through playful banter.
The second thing this accomplishes is to establish that Joan and Sam are not just colleagues, but friends. We don’t need any overt backstory to establish this relationship. It’s already present in the subtext.
Using argument to tell backstory
A second technique for correctly adding backstory to dialogue is the argument.
The argument is the only realistic place where two characters will state what both of them know (or should know, but one of them isn’t willing to admit to.)
The reason the argument works where the straight “as you know, Bob” doesn’t, is conflict. In an argument, the purpose of the conversation is rooted in conflict. The tension between the characters becomes a reason for the reader to engage. In straight “as you know” dialogue there is nothing at stake. The writer is simply using the device to relay information. This information does little to affect the conflict in the scene and, as a result, readers are not interested in the information.
“Hey honey, where’s the clothes?”
My husband looked up from the campfire. “What clothes?”
“Our clothes.” Who did he think? “They’re not in the boat or the tent. Do you have the bag?”
“No, this is the food. Did you put it in the boat?”
I’m gonna kill him. “No, I told you to put it in the boat.”
“No, you didn’t.”
I bit my lips. “So what you’re telling me is, I have to spend the next three days in the same pair of underwear?”
While not earth-shattering, we learn how long the couple plan to be on their boat ride while keeping the conversation natural. It also gives us a pretty good indication of how the rest of their trip is going to go.
“Sarah is my choice.”
My mother doesn’t even look up. “Why did you bring back such a useless wife?” I start to speak, but she doesn’t pause to take a breath. “She can’t even dive. Who’s going to feed her? You selfish fool of a girl. What were you thinking? We are ruined. No one is going to call for you. No one is going to call for a selfish king.”
This is pointless. “And what if no one does? Mahawai isn’t going to win against a full-grown dragon and no one can beat Kamakani.” My father’s black smoker is unstoppable.
My mother stops punishing the seaweed and glares at me. “What happened during your huakaʻi? You were supposed to return a grown woman, but you are obviously still a child.”
My chest clenches. “With or without Sarah, if the race were tomorrow, there would be no chance. So what does it matter?”
Her face drops. “And after tomorrow?”
In both these examples, we have instances where the characters both make statements that the other character already knows, but in the argument, it works.
Dialogue should always be between characters
Once a writer starts using dialogue to speak to a reader the scene no longer works. “As you know” and other types of info-dumping can ruin an otherwise excellent story. By keeping the reader out of the conversation, the characters become the focus and their story becomes real.
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Breaking your plot chain will turn your novel into a series of random events
There are plenty of great articles about how to construct a good plot. Rising/falling action. Three act structure, etc. With the amount of information available, novice writers can easily get overwhelmed. So take a moment and put your spreadsheets, charts, and bubble diagrams aside. The most common problem I see in plotting is breaking the plot chain.
What is a plot chain?
For a plot to work, it has to be a sequence of related events set up like dominos.
The first event must cause then next one, and if any of the events are removed, the story stops.
Let’s take the movie Inside Out. (If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. Not only because it’s a great movie, but it’s a textbook example of a perfectly constructed plot.) In this movie, the conflict between Joy and Sadness begins right away and is the catalyst for the first plot point. Their fight over the console is the cause for the loss of the core memories, which is the cause for them leaving headquarters, which is the cause their journey back. Every event in this chain is necessary for them to finally return to headquarters.
But what about subplots?
A subplot must relate to the main plot, i.e. it must either spin out from the main plot or (better) begin as a parallel and then tie in. For example, in Inside Out, the character Bing Bong begins as a subplot. His interaction with Sadness isn’t part of the main action. It exists to teach Joy an important lesson, becoming a part of her character arc. If that had been the end of Bing Bong’s story, it would have been ok, but Bing Bong’s subplot eventually ties into the main action at the movie’s climax, making the subplot critical to the main structure and enriching the story.
If a subplot does not relate to the main plot, it doesn’t belong in the story.
It’s fine to have twin plotlines, but they must interplay with each other. A strong character arc (like Joy’s) can also work like a separate plot. Her transformation in the story also follows a chain of causation. What makes it so effective is how her transformation alters the action plot, and how the action affects her character arc. These work as twin plots, but the interplay between them is what makes them effective. If Joy’s transformation didn’t affect her ability to solve her external problem, the story wouldn’t work.
How do I know if I have broken my chain?
The easiest way is to make a list
Plotters/architects should already have one as an outline, but pansters/discovery writers will need to do this step as part of their editing process. Once you have an outline/list, look for cause and effect. In order for the chain to continue the effect must be the cause for the next event.
Joy and Sadness disagree about what’s best for Riley
They fight over the console
They create a sad core memory
Joy tries to stop the new core memory from taking effect
Sadness tries to stop her.
The fight accidently sends Joy, Sadness, and all the core memories to long-term storage
Notice how the effect of the previous event is the cause for the next one. There is a clear chain of causation that leads us from the beginning of the movie to the inciting incident. The other parts of the story: the missing moving van, broccoli pizza, etc. all support the main action by giving context and explaining the reason for the climax of the first act: the formation of a sad core memory. Without the supporting action, we wouldn’t know why Reily is having a hard time in her new environment. These small subplots tie into the main plot. The first act works so well because the main plot chain is never broken.
Once you have your plot chain mapped out, you will easily see common plot problems:
- Plot holes
- Places where the action slows
- Subplots that don’t go anywhere
- Starting in the wrong place.
Once you have streamlined your plot, then you can go back and make sure the action continually rises, has strong pacing, and the plot points fall in the correct positions. (Now you can get your spreadsheets, charts, and markers back out.)
Don’t let a break in the action be the reason a reader puts your book down. Making sure you keep your plot chain intact will keep your reader engaged through your entire story. A good strong plot chain will keep a reader turning the pages. It will keep your characters focused on their goals and make them more compelling to your reader.
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