Tag: writing

Correctly using Author Intrusion

Correctly using Author Intrusion

Correctly using Author Intrusion can create another layer of storytelling to your novel, but unintentional intrusions jar the reader, create distance and make your writing sound amateurish

Most Common Mistakes in Opening Chapters

Most Common Mistakes in Opening Chapters

Common mistakes that will ruin your opening chapter and how to fix them.

Changing Telling into Showing

Changing Telling into Showing

Transforming telling into showing in writing

Telling is a quick, efficient way to relate lots of information to a reader in a short amount of time. It works for writing transitions or other places where you need to move the timeline ahead, or where showing mundane details would bore readers. Despite its usefulness, “show don’t tell” is probably the most commonly given advice in writing. So why is it so hated?

Telling stops your story cold.

Every sentence spent telling your readers about something is time not spent moving the plot along. Imagine meeting someone for the first time over coffee and the entire conversation is her talking about people you have never met and her deepest darkest life experiences? You’d probably think she needs some serious counseling, but so many of the manuscripts I see begin this way.

Telling creates distance from your characters.

When readers don’t experience important parts of the character’s story with the character, they feel like they are hearing the story second-hand. Readers want to live the character’s life. This includes important events. Telling prevents the reader from discovering important information with your character.

Telling is boring to read.

Nothing is happening to your character. And no one likes a lecture.

Does the reader even need to know?

Before you spend your time trying to rewrite all your telling into showing, you must first decide if the reader even needs to know the information. Unnecessary information falls into two main categories: backstory and research.

Backstory

Backstory is a critical piece of building your character, but not all of it is important to the reader, or it isn’t important at the time. Are you trying to slip in unrelated information where it isn’t needed?

He smiled at me showing his perfect white teeth and handed me the helmet. I took it reluctantly.
“What’s the matter?” he said.
I can’t ride a bike. I haven’t been on one since I was seven. The bike was a gift from my grandmother. She saved for an entire year to get it for me that Christmas.

You can see the exact point where the telling crosses over into information the reader doesn’t need to know. The author may think she is laying the foundation for something significant about the bike later, but the grandmother line is too much. The reader has no connection and, therefore, doesn’t really care.

Research

Yes, you should do research for your novel. No, you should not dump all your new found knowledge on your unsuspecting reader.

Rather than spell things out, let the characters naturally use vocabulary and cultural norms specific to their world and leave enough context clues for your reader to understand what is happening.

“You are risking our position, our future, our lives for this girl. What happened during your huakaʻi? You were supposed to return a grown woman, but you’re obviously still a child.”
Allani throws another bunch of nama into the bucket, punishing the food for my stupidity. I reach toward the pile to help her, but she snatches it away.

Here we have two unfamiliar terms, but there is enough information in the context for readers to understand what is happening.

How do I know if I should turn telling into showing?

When you come across telling in your manuscript decide if the information is worth keeping or if it should be cut entirely. To keep details off the chopping block, they should meet two conditions:

1. Readers must want to know the information

This can be subjective, but the following questions can help increase reader interest.

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Ask- Does the reader have a strong connection to the character?

This is why info dumping at the beginning of a story never works. Readers aren’t connected to the character, and they don’t have the opportunity to make a connection because the character isn’t doing anything but sitting at a table thinking big thinks. So no page 1 sob stories.

Ask: Does the information affect the character in a meaningful way?

In other words, is it relevant to their current conflict? If a character has an arrow sticking out of his chest, that affects the character in a meaningful way. Knowing that the arrow is made of ash wood and eagle feathers really does not.

 

2. The reader cannot understand what is happening in the book without it.

 

Either the reader must need to know the information for the plot to continue (set-up), or the reader needs to know the information because she would not understand the significance of a current event in the scene (backstory).

Once you have established the information is interesting and relevant we need to change the telling into showing.

Changing telling into showing

Identify the information the reader needs.
When did the character learn this information? (backstory, description, or transition)

1. Backstory (Sneaky telling)

Unless you are willing to resort to a flashback, (which may or may not work) you may have to cheat and sneak it in. (Which means you are still resorting to telling, but you will be doing it a more interesting way) A few suggestions.

  1. Have your characters argue. This will move the focus away from the telling and toward the tension between the characters. Something is still happening in the scene, and you get to throw information bombs at your reader.

    “Do you have any idea what you are walking into?” That sounded a lot smarter in his head.
    She rolled her eyes. “What? It’s a house. One that I’ve been invited to, I might add. And what are you doing here?”
    That was a great question. One he wasn’t sure how to explain. “Look, I know what’s in that house, and it’s a little out of a Ghostbuster’s league.”
    “Ghostbuster?” She poked a finger into his chest. “Listen, I don’t care what you think of me, but I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’m perfectly capable of handling myself, and how would you even know why I was here?”
    Her head tilted to the side. It wouldn’t take her long to figure it out. “And don’t lie to me, that was you in the shop. Were you spying on me?”
    The shop was a little occult bookstore that she ran. Mostly useless trinkets and New Age nonsense, but a few things had surprised him.
    “Look, this has nothing to do with you. I’m asking you to walk away,” he said.
    She clicked her tongue. “Why should I do anything for you? You left. I don’t owe you anything. Not now, not ever.”

    Through the argument we learn that she’s a paranormal investigator, the pair had a previous relationship, and he left her, all without resorting to an info dump.

  2. The second interesting telling strategy is to use subtext in your dialogue and context clues to help your reader puzzle out the information (see example above.)
  3. The final strategy is to drop a one line bombshell. In the following example the author spent an entire chapter showing how much the MC hates “outlanders,” then she closes the chapter with a bombshell. While it still counts as telling, it works here.

A shimmery glow that only I could see surrounded the woman.. It was blazing red, meaning she was a fire elemental, an Outlander traveler from the realm of Muspelheim.
I skirted around her like the flames I saw could actually burn me. Judging by the frown she gave me, she thought I was a weirdo. I didn’t really care. I just needed to get out of there before I choked on my own hypocrisy.
I feared and distrusted Outlanders. I also was one.

2. Setting/description

Rather than have your characters sit and describe what everything looks like, have them interact with the setting. Usually, this is enough to ground your characters in their world. The reader doesn’t need to know what the hairbrush looks like, but that the character used it to brush her hair exactly 100 times and that she nudged it until it was straight on the nightstand before clicking the light off and on and off again. By showing how the character interacts with the setting, you keep reader’s attention focused on the main action.

3. Transition

If you’ve summarized information and forced the reader to skip something the character experienced off camera, you’ve created a transition. While there are times where this is appropriate, important experiences should be shown to the reader. When you find these, expand them into a scene. Letting your reader discover the information with your character will creating a meaningful shared experience.

The simplest advice to change showing into telling is to treat your novel like a movie. If the reader can’t see it on the screen, (in novels the other senses count too) then you are telling.

Transforming telling into showingMake sure you don’t fall into the telling trap. By changing showing into telling, you create a more engaging, living story that readers will never want to put down. Don’t let telling kill your story. Transform those passages and give readers the story they want.

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Correctly Using Beats in Dialogue

Correctly Using Beats in Dialogue

Use beats in your dialogue to anchor your characters in their settings, control pacing, and tell the complete story.

Evaluating Writing Feedback Advice

Evaluating Writing Feedback Advice

Bad feedback will ruin a wonderful story. Learn to recognize bad advice.

What’s the deal with Passive Voice?

What’s the deal with Passive Voice?

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We’ve all heard the writing advice, “Avoid passive voice,” but many writers seem to be confused about what passive voice really means. Rather than waste time demonizing “was” and “is” writers need to know what passive voice really is and when to use it correctly. (Yes, there is a place for it!)

What is Passive Voice anyway?

I’m a member of several Facebook writing groups. In one of these groups, members like to post two sentences and ask which one sounds better. I find this practice to be useless, since, without the surrounding context, it’s impossible to determine which sentence works best. At its worst, this has inspired lengthy commentary of compounding bad advice that, if heeded, would lead an unsuspecting writer down a horrible path.

One of these recent discussions was a writer asking for advice on rewriting her sentence in active voice.

The room was cold and drafty.

This isn’t passive voice.

The verb was/is does not automatically mean the sentence is in the passive voice.

Passive voice is a sentence whose subject does not perform the action.

“John was attacked by wild dogs.” -passive. John is the subject, but the dogs are performing the action.

“Wild dogs attacked John.”– active. Dogs is the subject and the dogs are performing the action.

Use the zombie test to check for passive voice

Definitive guide to using passive voice

One of my favorite ways to check for passive voice is to use the “by zombies” trick. (If anyone knows the original inventor of this device, please let me know in the comments so I can credit it.) If you can insert “by zombies” after the main verb and the sentence makes sense, then you have passive voice.

John was attacked (by zombies) Passive voice. John is the subject of the sentence, but he is not performing the action “attacked.”

John attacked (by zombies) Active voice. John is the subject and he is performing the action.

However, this test is not fool-proof

John was annoyed (by zombies) Not passive.

In this instance, annoyed is functioning as an adjective. Annoyed describes John’s emotional state making this a linking verb rather than passive voice. This is an exceptional case because annoyed can be either an adjective or a verb depending on context. If the sentence were “John was annoyed by zombies,” the word’s function in that sentence is unclear. Is John feeling annoyed about zombies in general, (in which case annoyed would be an adjective and the sentence: active voice- linking verb) or are the zombies actively antagonizing poor John? (Which would indicate passive voice.)

Was/is doesn’t always mean passive voice.

Every time I see someone post on Twitter that they are removing every instance of the verb “to be” from their manuscripts, I shudder. There is nothing wrong with these verbs. They are an important part of the English language.

Active vs. passive voice and action vs. linking verbs

Most of the confusion seems to come from the close association of action verbs with active voice. These are not synonymous. Active voice is a sentence whose subject performs the action. Action verbs describe what a subject does: run, jump, stand etc.

Active voice sentences can use either action verbs or linking verbs.

John smelled the flowers. (Active voice-Action verb)
John smelled like flowers. (Active voice-Linking verb)

Notice that some verbs can function as action or linking verbs. In the first sentence John is performing the action: smelled. In the second example smelled connects to subject (John) to the words that describe him (flowers).

Linking verbs are those that connect a subject to the word or words that describe the subject.

The most common linking verbs are forms of to be: am, is, are, was, were, being, been. Other linking verbs include, appear, become, feel, grow, look, remain, seem, smell, sound, stay, taste, and turn.

John is angry
John feels sad
John looks tired.

These are all active voice but use linking verbs.

Another important usage of forms of “to be” is the progressive tense.

Progressive tense combines a form of “to be” with an action verb.

John was sitting in a chair.

Eliminating the helping verb (was) in this case would change the meaning of the sentence.

John sat in the chair.

In the first example, John was already in the chair when the scene began. In the second example, John began the scene standing and then sat at some point during the scene. Blindly eliminating every “to be” verb from your manuscript is a recipe for disaster.

So why do so many writing advice blogs seem to hate the verb “to be?”

The problem comes in amateur usage.

Correctly using Passive voice

As a normal rule, passive voice should be avoided because it confuses the subject and action creating a weaker sentence. However, there are times when the use of passive voice is necessary to create a desired effect.

For example, this is the opening sentence from my query letter

18-year-old Koa only has a few months left to complete a year-long solo tour of her oceanic kingdom when she is attacked by pirates who want to steal her water dragon.

In this sentence, I chose to use passive voice to keep the focus on Koa, rather than switch to the pirates. I could have broken the sentence into two, but that would have changed the weight of the paragraph. Since the first two sentences of the query introduce the two POV characters, I wanted them to have equal weight. Giving one character more sentences would have thrown off the balance between them.

Using passive voice is acceptable if you want to keep the focus on the recipient or if the party performing the action is unimportant or unknown.

John was mugged. Passive voice. We don’t know who mugged John.
The papers were lost. Passive voice. We don’t know who lost the papers.

Correctly using Linking verbs

Overuse of linking verbs can lead to pages of static descriptions and characters who do nothing.

Writing bloggers will tell you to combat this with “active settings” or similar devices. For example,

The wall was tall. becomes The wall loomed over us.

However, active settings can also be overdone. Consider:

It was raining the day they brought John’s body home.

The amateur rewrite might try:
Rain poured from the sky the day they brought John’s body home. (Which sounds ridiculous, where else would rain come from?)
Rain soaked into our bones the day they brought John’s body home. (ick, overly dramatic and sounds like writing pa-twey!)

There’s nothing wrong with “It was raining.” It sounds natural because this is the way people actually speak. Avoiding all linking verbs will leave your prose sounding overworked and unnatural.

Correctly using Progressive tenses

Unless you are overusing this construction, there is no reason to eliminate progressive tenses from your writing.

Everyone has a demon. Mine is sitting in a beat up leather recliner smoking a menthol.

In this sentence, the demon is already sitting in the chair when the narration begins. Eliminating the “is” would change the meaning of the sentence. Again, there is nothing wrong with using forms of “to be.”

Stop demonizing was and is

Forms of the verb “to be” have a place in your writing. Progressive tenses, linking verbs, and even passive voice are tools in your writing arsenal. All three are useful and should not be thoughtlessly eliminated. Examine each instance and see if you are using them correctly, and that you are achieving the desired effect. Rather than demonizing “to be,” master its use and take your writing to the next level.

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Creating a Killer First Line

Creating a Killer First Line

The first line is the most examined line in your entire book. Make sure your’s is selling your story.

Give Your Scenes a Purpose with Scene Goals- author toolbox

Give Your Scenes a Purpose with Scene Goals- author toolbox

The secret to increase tension, raise the stakes, and propel your readers to the very last page.

Opening Lines: Indie Tidbits Podcast

Opening Lines: Indie Tidbits Podcast

A rare bonus post to announce I was interviewed on the Indie Tidbits Podcast by Dawn Husted. You can listen to me talk about opening lines and cliche’ beginnings.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1220229563

Most of the information came straight from the post Engaging Readers from the First Sentence, so you can scan that and literally listen to me read off the page. (Because I don’t trust myself to go off script.)

Enjoy

Motivation-Reaction Unit

Motivation-Reaction Unit

Despite being decades old, Dwight Swain’s motivation-reaction technique is still relevant. Every time something feels off in the prose, the improperly constructed MRU is usually to blame.