Showing, Telling, and Paddling Ducks

“Show, don’t tell.”

That’s the mantra that gets hammered into the head of every beginning writer. If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class or attended a writer’s conference, you’ve probably heard something along the lines of, “Don’t say ‘Sally is sad.’ Show us Sally being sad.” This leads to painting a picture of Sally’s sad expression, describing the teardrops streaking her face, and detailing Sally’s posture and movements in a way that makes it clear to readers just how unhappy Sally is.

That’s good advice, as far as it goes. The problem is that for most people, external emotional responses are just a tiny part of their actual reaction. Indeed, one of the most important things we learn as we grow from childhood to adulthood is to hide our emotions.

It’s like that famous quote, usually attributed to actor Michael Caine: “Be like a duck. Remain calm on the surface and paddle like crazy underneath.” If your characters are to come off as real people, most of their emotional reactions are going to be entirely internal. And if we only ever describe the tranquility above the surface, our readers might never guess at the frantic paddling that’s going on down below.

My Own Achilles’ Heel

I’m blessed to be in a writing group with three perceptive readers who are diligent at reminding me when I’m not telling enough. We submit our chapters to each other using Google Docs, and we use the platform’s commenting feature extensively. When my group reviews my writing, the most common response I get from them is something along the lines of, “Where’s the emotional response?”

Okay, I’ll be honest. Sometimes I just forget. What happens, I think, is that I get lazy and assume that readers will take their own emotional response to the story and project it onto the POV character. This usually falls flat. Just as often, though, I’ll write a character’s physical response but forget to dig into the inner reaction to help carry the story along.

So I submit my chapters. The next day, I’ll open up them up to see a comment from Kris: “How does she feel about what just happened?” Mike has responded to Kris with something like, “I was wondering the same thing.” Inevitably, Kelli has added, “That makes three of us.”

That’s how I know I need to go back and revise.

Show and Tell

In a guest post on WritersDigest.com, author Joshua Henkin calls “show, don’t tell” the “Great Lie of Writing Workshops.” As he explains:

“A story is not a movie is not a TV show, and I can’t tell you the number of student stories I read where I see a camera panning. Movies are a perfectly good art from [sic], and they’re better at doing some things than novels are—at showing the texture of things, for instance. But novels are better at other things. At moving around in time, for example, and at conveying material that takes place in general as opposed to specific time…. But most important, novels can describe internal psychological states, whereas movies can only suggest them through dialogue and gesture (and through the almost always contrived-seeming voiceover, which is itself a borrowing from fiction).”

Showing is good. We have to show. But the best writers also embrace telling as a technique that allows them to provide much better insight into what the duck is doing down there with its little webbed feet.

As author Lee Child says, “We’re not story showers. We’re story tellers.”

Balancing Show and Tell

I’m still learning how to use both showing and telling effectively in my own writing. Honestly, it’s been difficult for me. From my work with my writing group, though, I can single out four suggestions that have really helped me improve.

1. Keep your POV character(s) in mind.

If you’re writing in first person, you’re telling pretty much all the time. The conceit of first person is that the reader is getting a direct feed of the point-of-view character’s inner monologue. This can lead to a vivid, unique voice that’s difficult to achieve from other points of view.

Stories in third person unlimited aren’t as common as they used to be. With this POV, the narrative voice drifts in and out of heads, reading the thoughts and emotional reactions of whatever character makes sense at the moment. In contrast, with third person limited the inner voice comes through a single character who is the focus of the book, chapter, or section.

Regardless of how you deal with points of view, it’s critical to consider how your characters would react to everything happening around them. Knowing your characters—their wants and needs, strengths and weaknesses, goals and regrets—is the easy part. Translating those character traits into genuine human reactions is where things get really tough.

2. Take an “all of the above” approach.

We usually start by showing. Your characters say and do things. They act and react. Even the “stage directions” that accompany your dialogue can go a long way towards portraying realistic human responses. A sidelong glance, a cock of the eyebrow, or a sudden intake of breath all say something to the reader.

Beneath all the “camera and microphone” stuff is the internal dialogue. You can present your characters’ direct thoughts (“Geez—what’s her problem?“), or you can report their thoughts in third person (“Gwendolyn wondered what Julie’s problem was.”). The things your characters notice and internally comment on can go a long way toward rounding out your POV characters’ responses.

If you do this enough, you’ll often find yourself monitoring your own thoughts and feelings, gauging your own private reactions to things as they happen to you, so you can use your responses later in your writing. Inevitably, you’ll find yourself wondering whether your personal reactions might be a little different if you weren’t watching them like a fly on the wall of your own brain.

Yeah, Heisenberg is kind of a jerk.

3. Do an “emotional response” edit pass.

My experience with my writing group has told me that I need to spend more time crafting my characters’ reactions to emotion-inducing events. As I’m getting my chapters ready for review, I set aside time to go methodically through each section, noting response-worthy moments and checking the narrative for appropriate reactions.

There are so many things to consider as you do this. Aside from your characters’ actual reactions, you have to figure out the right way to couch them in the voice you’ve chosen. In fast-paced action sequences, your characters may not have much time to respond to things. It may take a beat or two (or the end of the action) until your characters’ heads and hearts can catch up. If your story uses a “scene-sequel” structure, you may provide an immediate reflex to the emotional high points and then amplify your characters’ reactions in the scenes that follow.

However you choose to do it, explicitly tying the big moments in your story to specific reactions in your characters can solidify the impact these moments have on your reader.

4. Ask readers for help.

No matter how much effort I put into fine-tuning my characters’ responses, I always miss something. Usually multiple somethings. The amazing people in my writing group know me well enough that they instinctively look for off-key or absent reactions in the chapters I submit for review.

If you have similar challenges in your own writing, you can ask your readers to be specifically on the lookout for areas where characters’ emotional reactions don’t seem to meet their expectations. Give them a shorthand comment or a specific highlight color to use to indicate particular passages where a little telling could supplement what you’re already showing. Once others have helped identify the problem passages, go back to your characters to find out what their inner (and outer) responses should be.

My own writing has benefited from this process. I hope yours does, too.

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David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, shoots guns, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play is published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at blog.bakerdavid.com.

Writer Beware: Speed Bumps Ahead

There are moments when a writer feels blocked. No words come. The story stalls. You’re staring at a brick wall. Every writer needs their own bag of tricks for overcoming Writer’s Block. (One of the best: a deadline.)

Speed Bumps

You might not have heard of another writer condition, one similar to Writer’s Block, but it differs in a significant way. I call it Writer’s Speed Bump, and knowing how to treat it is critical. Continue reading

Feedback

We are so excited to welcome John Scovill as our newest contributor! 

I have many different identities, like many of you who read this. If you were to check out my Twitter, you would see those identities listed. First, I am a father of three awesome and rambunctious kids, but after that, I am a teacher.

Before my current position, I taught sixth grade language arts for two years and was able to read a plethora of writing. I also gave feedback to thousands of students. Educational researcher John Hattie says that, “feedback is one of the most powerful influences on learning and achievement, but this impact can be either positive or negative.” Can you think of a time when feedback given to you was either negative or positive?

As writers, we give feedback to our peers in our writing groups or just friends who asks, “Can you read this?” But do we really know if one, our feedback is effective and two, if our feedback is moving the writer in a positive or negative way? Just know that feedback is a “consequence” of performance.

Children and adults need three positive contacts to erase one negative. This could also be true for feedback.

I have had many instances being on the receiving end of feedback. As a new writer, it is always comforting to know that my published writing friends have self-doubts about their writing. I know that I am not alone.

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Recently, I was given two “rounds” of feedback on two different pieces of writing. I even paid for this feedback. These were my two pieces of feedback:

Feedback One: The reader read two pages (I could tell because there were no scribbles on the remaining three pages), asked me a few questions (I admit, I have a hard time talking about my writing), and said, “you aren’t going home and rewriting, you are going home and outlining.” Okay, thanks for the direction at $40. How do I outline? Where do I start? What should I ditch? What should I save? Where is my starting point? Is there a nugget of hope in this writing? No answers. I was disappointed.

Feedback Two: After a few weeks, I get an email with corrections and a few thoughts in parts. All were negative. Again, no little nugget of hope.

After this, I felt like giving up. My writing is horrible. Why even try. I am not going to any more writing conferences until I can figure this out. These were the thoughts I was having.

I talked to a friend recently who has been on a long road to publication and has shown that perseverance is key, said, “I don’t let people read my writing. Too many cooks in the kitchen. I write. And maybe I will show it to at least two other knowledgeable people that know me. That’s it. When too many people look at your writing, it doesn’t give you any direction as to where to go.”

I loved this and have taken it to heart.

Many people don’t know how to give proper, helpful, useful feedback. Many people don’t have the time, nor are invested in the story you are writing to truly care about the feedback they give.

Effective feedback must answer three major questions: Where am I going? (What are the goals?), How am I going? (What progress is being made toward the goal?), and Where to next? (What activities need to be taken to make better progress?)

Some ideas to think about with each question:

Where am I going?

How is the character reaching his/her goal? What is the goal of the character? What is my goal as a writer? What problem does the character have?

How am I going?

What progress is the character making towards reaching their goal? What is my progress in reaching my goal? How is the character going to reach their goal(s)? What shifts do I need to make to enable the character to reach the end goal, or little goals along the way?

Where to next?

As the writer, what plot holes or lagging areas do I need to address? Does a twelve- year-old actually say this or think this way? How can I fix it? What goals can I make as a writer to fix these mistakes and move the story forward?

Feedback shouldn’t discourage the writer from writing, but move the writer along with their writing. If you don’t have the time, energy, or you’re not invested in the writing or the writer, please don’t offer feedback (even for money), because feedback should offer answers and hope for the writer.

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John Scovill is originally from Iowa and has since lived in Arizona, Texas, and now Utah. He is a father, a husband, a teacher – now school administrator, and a writer. He hopes to hear from you at lit360degrees@gmail.com or on Twitter @johnlit360

Use Small Details to Strengthen a Story

“It’s amazing, in this game played on a 120 yard field, how many times inches make games.”

This is the statement Cris Collinsworth said during the Sunday Night Football Game I was watching last night. The Packers were playing, down, and almost out of opportunities to tie up the game. It’s not the first time that I have heard such statements, but as I was thinking about writing and habits, craft and successes, I became quite aware of what this really meant.

In order to make the big things really happen, there is a necessity to make the small things happen too.

Yes, you have to be able to draft and think up characters and outline settings. Yes, there is a necessity to finish – all the way – and then do some large, sweeping revisions and edits and layering. But, to take the writing from a good story to a great story, it is the small details that really need to be solidified.

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Tip #1: Hone in on the Senses

Last year, Orly Konig shared some great ideas on how to utilize sensory details in a story. If you have someone who is naturally musical, their preference is probably going to be sound. Knowing how they interpret that is what will make the character development stronger. If it makes sense in your story to rely on sight, consider the character who is seeing: a cop walking into a room for the first time will notice different things than an interior designer or a professional cleaner/organizer.

Tip #2: Use Rhetoric

One of our contributors, Rosalyn Eves, has a PhD in rhetoric, and from this post, you can tell she knows her stuff. It may seem like a silly thing, but the ebb and flow in and out of sentences can make or break a full story. This is what makes readers forget they are reading through a story and, instead, get immersed in the language and the voice, which, I think, is the goal of most writers.

Tip #3: Speed Up & Slow Down

There are certain times in a story when the pacing needs to pick up a little. This is when the story is jumping ahead, when someone is driving from one place to another because they need to be in a different place. Or when there is nothing until the end of a day. Unless there is serious character issue involved with lunch, we don’t always need to see it.

But there are also times when the plot needs to slow down. This can be detected by staying tuned into the emotional arcs that are weaving into the fabric of the plot, by noticing the way that the emotional pacing is moving the story and the character forward.

What times have you used the small things to make a story great? Any tips you’d like to share with our readers?

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Tasha

Tasha Seegmiller believes in the magic of love and hope, which she weaves into every story she creates. A co-founder of Thinking Through Our Fingers, she is the managing editor of the writing-focused website as well as a contributor to Writers in the Storm. She is passionate about helping women nourish their creativity and is a member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, where she serves as a board member. The former high school English teacher now assists in managing the award-winning project-based learning program (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. Tasha married a guy she’s known since she was seven and is the mom of three teens. She is represented by Annelise Robey of Jane Rotrosen Agency.

The Time & Place for BIG WORDS

We are excited to welcome our newest contributor Patricia Friedrich! 

In a recent workshop with the wonderfully talented Lisa Cron, whose book Story Genius I had read, I learned something about my love of big words. It turns out that, whereas my big words had helped me in my academic career, they were at times hurting me in my fiction one. It all had to do with anesthetizing the brain!

You see, my academic work often takes me to the analytical side of things. When I am writing research, I explain my claims, provide examples, and then introduce evidence from studies I have conducted. In that context, I will have succeeded if I wake up the analytical areas of the brain of my readers to have them consider whether they agree with me or have counterarguments that challenge my claims. It is all very logical, and big words, the ones I have cultivated over a lifetime of loving and studying language, feel right at home in that context. I am a linguist by training, and few things make me as intrigued as finding a new word and then as content as using it in context myself—discovering its place and time of origin ranks pretty high too.

The problem started when I brought my over-analytical mind and big words into fiction, and this is where Lisa Cron’s amazing insights came into play. Lisa describes how stories speak directly to our survival instinct, how they provide us with experiential knowledge for future reference. However, I first approached fiction through the lenses of my command of language and not my understanding of story or human beings’ innate instinct to use stories as roadmaps in their own lives. I could write great, grammatically accurate sentences. I could access a large vocabulary. For crying out loud, I write linguistic theory! All I had to do was put it all together in stories, and I would dazzle everyone with my command of the English Language.

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Only they weren’t dazzled. They were pulled from the story by all the big words I chose and complex sentence structures I created. Lisa’s work taught me that great fiction works because it anesthetizes the part of the brain that performs analytical tasks, the very ones I was waking up with my words as powerfully as if I was using a big alarm clock. The part that should light up instead, is the one hungry for story, the one that experiences story as if it were real. The one that allows you to smile, cry, and feel empathy while the words in front of you disappear. When I used too many of my big words, I caused my readers to fall out of total identification with my characters. They could not be in 1920s Brazil or Victorian England if they were trying to figure out what argute or ineffable meant. Shrewd and indescribable would have done just fine (or better yet, I could have just shown them shrewd and indescribable in the first place).

It turns out in fiction, as in life, sometimes less is more. I redirected my love of language to creating beautiful description and vivid imagery that can be both simple and elegant at the same time. I learned the power of everyday words and sentences of different lengths. I started feeling joy at focusing on the story and letting language serve it rather than the other way around. And when the pull of old habits, as well as the thrill of a new complicated word, takes me to lexical items or multi-subordinated sentences, I apply them to my analytical writing where they can shine.

 

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Patricia Friedrich is a Professor of English (Linguistics/Rhetoric and Composition) at Arizona State University. She is an expert in the spread of English throughout the world, a researcher of peace in relation to language, and the author/editor of six books, including The Sociolinguistics of Digital Englishes and award-winning The Literary and Linguistic Construction of Obsessive-compulsive Disorder. She has written many chapters in other books and articles in such periodicals as Harvard Business Review and World Englishes. Her short fiction has appeared in literary journals such as The Linnet’s Wings, Birkensnake, and Gray Sparrow. Her novel manuscript, The Art of Always, won first prize in the “Realizing the Dream” competition as a mainstream fiction work (RWA’s Desert Rose Chapter). She is represented by TZLA Literary and Film Agency and lives in the greater Phoenix area with her family.

The Road to Perfection

My successes as a baker have been very hit and miss. I can make one recipe and a month or two later, when I try to make it again, end up with a failure. Same cook, same products, same mixer and house and stove and attention and . . . flop.

I was reminded of this a week ago when I made a family favorite – Blondies. This single pan of cookie joy is my favorite because I don’t have to stand in the kitchen for two hours putting in and pulling out baked goodies. I’ve made it so many times that I don’t have to flip through the book to find it, I just feel for the flour covered pages (I’ve never claimed to be a clean cook either).

When I checked on the cookies in the oven, the looked perfect. Golden goodness, chocolate chip gooey-ness, a little bit of crust on the outside, the smell made everyone ask when they’d be done.

At first, they were okay. Warm sugar usually is. But as they cooled, the top got hard, the inside stayed gooey and they literally fell flat. I let them stick around for about five days – after all, I have teenagers and they like food. But these didn’t even make the teen appetite cut. Finally, yesterday, I threw them all away.

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Coming from a family, particularly on my mom’s side, known for their cooking, there are times when this feels like a massive slap in the face. I can read and follow instructions. I’m using the exact same recipe they are. Theirs turn out amazing, mine turn out amazing to meh. But the real slap in the face (besides killing the whole idea that I’ll be “that mom” who has yummy treats whenever friends come over) is that these mistakes create disappointment AND cost money. I know, it’s not a lot – ingredients that I mostly have and the sacrificial bag of chocolate chips. The sting lingers longer, though, right now as I’m both gearing up for back to school (and my kids have all grown out of their clothes and two need new glasses) AND saving for a trip that I’m very, VERY excited about. Okay, there’s a little bit of disappointment from the kids I have to deal with too.

And still I bake. Or at least try. Because I like the taste of the yummy treats. I like when things turn out well and my efforts are rewarded. I like showing my kids that just because something doesn’t go right the first time, doesn’t mean I get to quit.

Why, then, do so many of us think that our writing is going to turn out well the first time? Why do we think our efforts to create character and setting and story are actually going to turn out the first time? Those of you who read the first part of this cringing because your cookies have always been awesome would probably, very quickly, tell me to try this next time or that, something that comes intuitively to you as a baker. Would you offer the same suggestion to someone (maybe yourself) when you are in the midst of writing a story? Because when you are writing and you make a mistake, you didn’t tease with the essence of goodness. You didn’t have to mourn the chocolate thrown away instead of eaten. And tossing words can be painful, I’m not saying otherwise. But it is absolutely, unequivocally part of the process if the desire you have for your end product is something that you will feel good about and, maybe, will even have the honor of having others feel good about too.

The reason why we utter “Practice Makes Perfect” so many times, in so many situations, isn’t to insist that each practice is going to BE perfect. It is acknowledging the road to perfect is paved with lots and lots and lots of imperfections.

But as far as I can tell, it is the only way to build such a road.

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TashaTasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as a board member for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.

Puzzling Out Your Revisions

I did it! I finished my draft! And now . . . ohhh boy, is it a mess.

I’m not talking about awkward sentences and sparse details—though there’s certainly plenty of that. I’m talking about huge plot and character shifts part way through, characters I introduced, then ghosted on, a beloved pet dog that appears in the first chapter only—that kind of a mess.

I have chapters I wrote, then moved, that now need to be rewritten so they’ll make sense within their new context. I have location shifts, missing parents, siblings that I may or may not add in. . . .

Basically, I have a TON of work ahead of me. When I look at everything that needs to be done, it’s overwhelming.

As writers, one of the most prevalent pieces of advice we’re given is to get the words down. Just get them down, finish that draft, worry about the mess later. We can’t revise what isn’t there, right? This is great advice; however, once we’ve followed it . . . what do we do next?

Puzzling

First, take a deep breath.

Then another.

Ok, just one more.

Now that you’ve calmed down a bit, open your document back up.

You might even want to go so far as to print it out so you can physically go at it with a red pen. Or, if you prefer, you can use the comments option in your word processing software program of choice. Do whichever feels easier for you when it comes to wrapping your head around the monumental task ahead.

First, read your manuscript and take notes—any and all thoughts that come to mind—but resist making any changes at this time. (I know, it’s hard.) If you make changes as you go though, you might find later that the changes you made at the beginning still aren’t going to work with the changes you end up needing to make at the end. Think of this as the Intel-Gathering phase. Right now, you’re a detective figuring out what best needs to be done to your story and how best to do it—how to fit the pieces of this messed up puzzle together in a way that makes the most sense.

Ok, so you’ve done that, and . . . you’re still feeling super intimidated, aren’t you? Maybe you should take a few more deep breaths.

Better? Good.

The next thing you need to do is categorize your notes. Just like separating out puzzle pieces into groups—grass pieces over here, sky pieces there, what looks like maybe the hull of a wooden boat? Maybe it’s a house . . . over there. I find organizing and separating the different types of fixes that need to be made in my draft, helps me break things down into more manageable tasks that make the entire process feel less daunting. Rather than go through the manuscript one time, tackling each note one by one, I’ll make multiple passes focusing on one problem at a time.

Big stuff comes first. (It’s ok to take another deep breath here if you need to. Ready? In . . . out . . . good.)

What is it about your draft that needs the most work? For me, it’s usually characterization. For you, it could be setting, or filling in plot holes, or smoothing transitions. Take the biggest task and go through only focusing on that. Trust me, you’ll feel so much better once you get that bit out of the way. Next, move on to the second biggest issue.

And keep on moving down the list this way. I haven’t finished taking notes on my current draft, but I’m guessing my big focus areas for example, in order from messiest to least messy, will end up being characters, setting, plot holes, transitions, dialogue.

Once you’ve finished these big picture tasks, move on to the nitty-gritty things, like grammar, punctuation, varying your sentence structures, and finally, removing unnecessary filler words (like, very, really, that, etc.) and adverbs.

And that’s it! Keep in mind, you might need to go back and adjust areas you’ve previously focused on after you’ve made some later changes, but it should be much easier now. And then, of course, you’ll absolutely need to go through the entire process again once you’ve let your critique partners and/or beta reads get a hold of it. But the hardest part should be over. Congratulations! You’ve now turned your huge, jumbled up, intimidating mess into something you’re actually willing to let people read! The puzzle is now complete.

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File Jan 15, 5 15 03 PM.jpegWhen she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.