Monday, October 9, 2017

Show and Tell Time

I've been writing about how to make your pieces more literary.  For the next few weeks, I'll be pairing that theme with experts' suggestions that I heard at the League of Utah Writers conference this last weekend.  This week's featured expert is McKelle George, author and editor of Flux Publishing. 

Authors are always being told to show not tell, but George says that the trick is to find the right balance.  Doing one or the other all the time gets boring.  Show can get confusing if there's no tell to pin it down and explain. If it's all dramatized, the reader can get lost.  If they have to infer everything without any confirmation they're right, they won't be sure what's going on.  Tell can get boring because it's simply narration.  Narration without action is summary and gets dull.  She described telling as the skeleton and showing as the soft parts.  One without the other is incomplete. 

I once read a novel that showed EVERYTHING.  The author described every moment in vivid detail.  It dragged.  I couldn't tell what was important.  It was all highlighted and got dull.  I've also read pieces where there is next to no description.  I put them down as quickly as possible because they're intolerable. 

George said good telling "marks a change, a physical jump in time or space or a subtle shift in mood that carries the reader from one emotional beat to another."  Those parts confirm what the reader infers, "directing emotional takeaways."  Meanwhile, show is useful in getting the reader to feel things, to have a "strong visceral reaction."  She says, "A novel is a series of dramatic scenes joined together by narration, which covers the passage off time."  If nothing is happening, the writer may be lovely, but the show isn't doing its job. 

It's your job as a writer to carefully review your writing to make sure that balance of show and tell is there.  If your story is dragging or confusing, work on paring back description, so you're narrating to avoid confusion.  If your character is eyeball deep in major events, show them.  Don't describe every detail of the ornate hallway on the way to the big combat, or your description of the combat will just blend in. Highlight what the reader should feel strongly about, not just what looks pretty. 

At that same conference, I had the first chapter of an early chapter book I wrote reviewed by freelance editors.  I found I'd told in all the places that I should have shown and was showing things that could just be summarized.  It can be hard to strike that balance, so it helps to get outside eyes to look at your work to see if it works. 

It's your turn.  Go and read your piece out loud.  Are there places it drags or is unnecessarily pretty?  Are there places where your reader might get lost?  Are there places where something interesting or important is happening that you haven't described?  It's time to fix it. 

Sunday, September 24, 2017


I've been writing about how to make your pieces more literary.  Novice writers make little to no effort to consciously shape their writer's voice.  They just put words on the page without thinking how they sound.  More experienced writers pay attention to each word, how they sound, and how they work together.  They consciously shape how their voice sounds on the page.  If your words sound like everyone else's words, they're less likely to grip and hold the reader.

One good way to work on one's writer's voice is to listen to the voice of good writers.  Any author will tell you the way to learn a genre is to read representative samples of that genre.  Those who admire spare writing can break out Hemingway and read it out loud.  Listen to how it sounds then go to your own writing and cut out any words that don't absolutely need to be there.  Those who want to write horror may do well to read aloud authors like Poe or Stephen King.  How do they shape their words?  What makes them distinct?  Someone who dreams of writing fiction for the young can read such writers as J.K. Rowling or Rick Riordan.  I've found that if I'm reading Riordan's Percy Jackson series, my writing starts to echo his snarky tones.

However, remember that an author doesn't become famous just because he can mimic another writer.  He or she needs a distinct voice.  You can also listen to people talk.  What do children really talk about?  Just listen and take notes.

Also, pay attention to the language of your piece itself.  This is often an important step in the revision process.  Experiment with alliteration, with metaphors, with turning nouns into verbs or verbs into nouns, with unique turns of phrase, with language you can make special just to you.  I wish you the best as you work on your writer's voice.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Flashing Back

I've been going over various ways an author can make any piece more literary.  One technique that an author can use is the flashback.  Flashbacks can be important to highlight the importance of current events in the story.

However, authors can bet themselves in trouble quickly with flashbacks.  Too much of a good thing is really too much.  Here are some common issues with flashbacks:

1. Problem: An author will often make the present so brief and unmemorable that the reader gets disoriented and forgets what's happening.

Example: "Jill picked up a book, which reminded her of a time several years ago when she picked up a book just like this.  It had medieval-style cursive on it and illuminated images that told her it could not have come from this century.  She'd opened it and found a knight, springing forth...."

Note: By the end of a paragraph like this, full of detailed description of things that happened in the past, the author has no memory of what led the character into all of this.  Once the flashback ends, the reader has to go back to the beginning to remember what was really going on.  Any time a reader feels forced to look back, he's been thrown out of the narrative.

Solution:  Make sure to flash back only when the current events are established firmly in the reader's mind.  Make what's happening in this moment meaningful and vivid, so the flashback merely supports and enlightens some aspect of it.

2. Problem: An author will let flashbacks pile on top of each other in a confusing manner such as a flashback within a flashback.

Example: "Jack remembered the day he led his football team to the state championship.  He'd felt so triumphant.  As he'd spiked that ball, he'd thought of all the doubt his father had piled on him, how his father would slap him around and tell him he'd never amount to anything."

Note: By the time the author is two flashbacks in, he's forgotten what was happening and has to look back.  As the above note pointed out, this is a very bad thing for the magic of the narrative.  

Solution: Keep flashbacks simple, straightforward, and sparing.  Do not show multiple flashbacks within one chapter.  Avoid the impulse to give a flashback within a flashback.  The reader gets lost quickly.  The point is the present.  Anything from the past should support it, not overtake or muddle it.

3. Problem:  The reader may not understand this even IS a flashback.

Example, "So I says, remember that time except it wasn't really that time.  It was more like this time.  Anyway..."

Note: Don't confuse your reader.  Just don't.  It's rarely helpful.  You can keep bits of information to yourself until it's critical to bring that information forth, but it's never a good idea to frustrate the reader and make him want to put your book down.

Solution: Cue the reader in somehow (through tenses, italics, clear phraseology, or a similar technique) that the author is entering a narrative that happened in the past.  Then, make it clear when the flashback ends.

4. Problem: Including a flashback in chapter one.

Example:  Chapter 1: "The Time Far Gone."  Joan loved writing in her journal.  She picked up her pen and wrote about the time she was five, when her best friend came over for a visit.

Note:  Chapter one is about establishing your character now in what they're doing.  Don't confuse that or fill it with explanations.  You'll lose your reader first thing.

Solution:  Hold off on data dumping (indefinitely, if you can manage it) and flashing back until at least chapter two, when your reader has a firm grasp on your characters and events in the story.

Conclusion: Flashbacks can be very helpful and enlightening when done well.  They can show your reader who the characters really is underneath.  However, they need to be kept short and meaningful.  They should not control the narrative but simply support it.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Choosing Your Own Adventure

I've been blogging about making any piece of writing more literary.  As any writer knows, conflict (confrontation of obstacles) is key when it comes to story.  As points out, "The absence of conflict amounts to the absence of story."  Also, conflict builds character.  Conflict types include man vs man, man vs. nature, man vs. self, man vs. machine, man vs. society, and man vs. fate.  One way or another, your character has to face difficulties, or your story will flatline quickly.  Your reader will go find someone willing to tell a real story.

But what makes conflict, and by extension, characters more interesting?  It's critical that conflict is actually challenging.  Conflict is about a character coming upon a difficulty (either posed by someone with different motives or by something else) and making choices about how to resolve the obstacle.

Remember that if your character consistently makes the best choice the reader can imagine, he or she may inch toward perfection and the dangers of being a Mary Sue, a stereotypical and perfect character.  The important thing is to know your character as you decide on a conflict.  Know what would challenge him/her the most.  Know your character well enough that you know what mistakes he/she can and will make and what strengths and weaknesses will come into play with each choice.  Don't be afraid to let your characters decide things and make mistakes. Those decisions shape your story and your character.  Make sure your reader is invested enough in your character beforehand that the risk feels real to the reader and the character's choices feel authentic to the character.  Good storytelling is all about characters meeting challenges and making choices that may make things even harder for him/her/them or may get them out of trouble.  Keep it challenging but not so ridiculously impossible that only the perfect will survive.

Let's say you're writing a story about a hero deciding whether or not to enter a darkened tunnel to save the damsel.  A darkened tunnel may become a great challenge if your hero is either afraid of the dark or enclosed spaces or both.  A hero that is too perfect will charge ahead without thinking or hesitating, facing his fear with his strong jaw set and his sword clutched in his perfect hand at the end of a perfectly chiseled arm.  Your reader may find such perfection fun at times, but it's going to wear thin quickly.  A more interesting and shaded hero may hesitate or find a way to save the lady without having to charge through that tunnel.  So what if your character is so cowardly, he decides the lady isn't worth the risk?  Your reader may fall out of love just as quickly with a character that isn't heroic enough.  Unless you can find a way to move the story forward, anyway.  What if he turns back, but the lady frees herself?  Twist.  But does such a twist fit with your story and/or advance the characters and/or story in an interesting way?  Can your characters grow this way?

Let's say it's a romance instead.  There is no challenge, no story, if the man always says and does the right things to woo the lady.  He begins to feel too much like the writer's puppet instead of a strong and interesting character.  What keeps them apart?  How do their choices play into that?

Dealing with conflict should be about characters making choices with room to make mistakes and fail.  There should be room for growth, so the character can be further developed through the choices he/she makes.  Few people have much patience for a flat character, a character who doesn't grow, who may be so perfect already that there is no growth possible.  Create conflict that is difficult, that challenges your character in all the right ways to help them grow.  Avoid predictability, cliches, and the easy answer.  If you do all that, your conflict is likely to be more literary.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

When Dialogue Runs Deep

I've been suggesting how to make any piece of writing more literary.  A big part of this is making sure your piece is meaningful.  One thing that helps is when your dialogue works on more than one level, that it suggests more than it says.  It's important that your dialogue develops the story and/or character, that it's more than just an excuse to data dump on the reader.  It's also important that the purpose of each conversation is clear, that each character within that dialogue have an understandable motive for the things they say.  You don't want the characters to be talking heads or interchangeable with the narrator, or your reader is likely to take a nap sooner than read your book.  

Nap-worthy example: 

    "Did you see that ship?  It was a Morgan 2-26,  a new kind of battleship made with cutting edge technology."  
    "Yes, I noticed that.  Did you know Mega Dark, our greatest enemy loves those?"  
    "Oh, really?  I wonder if he's on this one.  If he is, that would be bad." 

Note:  There's no drama here.  The nightly news has more tension and suspense than this kind of dialogue. 

Better example: 
     "The Morgan 2-26 is upon us, Captain." 
     "No!  You swore that couldn't happen, that such technology was beyond their grasp!" 
     "Our agents assured me this could not be." 
     "I was a fool for buying into your false sense of security." 
     "We suspect Mega Dark is on it."  
     "Then we all die here."  

Note:  There is more suspense, tension, drama, and conflict here.  The same information is shared but it is shared as part of the storytelling.  

It's better yet when not all information is on the surface, when much of the meaning is shared through texts and subtexts, through suggestions and hints.  There can still be a lot of drama and tension but with fewer words.  The reader feels clever when he/she is able to feel what's under the surface and make the connections for themselves.  It also means more and is more memorable.  

Better example still:  

"What is it?" 
"The Morgan 2-26, Captain." 
"No!  It can't be his ship." 
"We're readying the cannons." 
"For all the good they'll do."

  More is suggested here than is said.  When everything is on the surface, it can be dull and uninteresting.  The more meaning your story suggests rather than spells out, the more powerful your story for the reader.  


Sunday, July 30, 2017

Shooting down Giant Space Fleas and Big-lipped Alligators with the Rifle on the Wall

I've been making suggestions about how to make any piece of writing more literary.  In this case, I will talk about story unity. Have you ever read a piece wherein events, characters, and even climaxes seem sort of tacked on, to come out of nowhere?  A good story is well-integrated, all events planned with foreshadowing and build-up.  As Anton Chekhov tells us, "If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter, it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there."  In other words, if you're going to include some prominently displayed item, character, or symbol, it should be used somewhere in your story. It should be there for a reason, or you're wasting words and the reader's time.  Conversely, if you're going to have a major event like a rifle going off at the end, you should hint at the possibility somewhere earlier.    

There are several pitfalls to avoid, mainly with characters or events in the story that feel tacked on and poorly integrated.  The first two are often associated with video games or television. The Big Lipped Alligator Moment, or pointless and unrelated and often ridiculous side event or character, seems to exist to fill space or distract.  The name traces to a scene from "All Dogs Go to Heaven," wherein an alligator shows up for no reason in a scene unrelated to the plot.   Giant Space Fleas from Nowhere are simply major antagonists (major bosses in video game terms) that don't tie into the story.  There is no foreshadowing and no deeper meaning.  A big baddie shows up, makes things harder for one scene, then is never seen or remembered again.  Why are they there?  Often, not even the author can explain them.  If you can't justify major or minor events and characters in terms of your overarching plot, meaning, or character development, cut those scenes.

It is particularly important to build toward the climax of your story and to make meaning of it.  When an author does neither, he likely has either a Deus ex Machina or Diabolus ex Machina, which are more literary terms.  Deus ex Machina--God out of the machine--is when a literal or figurative hand of God shows up and fixes what's wrong.  Some crazy powerful new ability or character shows up and saves the day.  In The Stand miniseries, a literal big hand shows up and makes things better.  Meanwhile, Diabolus ex Machina, or devil from the machine, is where an overly powerful bad guy who has not been foreshadowed, hinted at, etc. appears and makes things much worse for the heroes.  The solution here is not necessarily to cut the character or event but to integrate it.  Hint at it in a way the reader won't necessarily catch.  If possible, make either good or bad relate to the main characters and/or come from the characters. Make it all seem possible within the world of the story.  Basically, set up for it and then make sure it enhances meaning, character, and plot in a way that makes sense.

Literary greats usually build up toward minor and major events and characters then use them to build on their deeper meaning, plot, and/or characters.  Yes, anything is possible in writing.  However, if your reader finds scenes and characters far-fetched, unrelated, ridiculous, or distracting, you've lost them.  They are thrown out of the world of the story and won't likely come back in a hurry.  Everything you do in your story should be carefully planned, integrated, and meaningful.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Yin and Yang

I've been writing about what makes a piece of writing literary.  This week, I'll address specifically part of what makes a piece meaningful.  I've watched some dark movies of late, ones that were just dark or angry or violent or whatever without a glimmer of humor, personality, joy, light, warmth, or anything that would redeem them from their merciless darkness.  They fell flat for me because they lacked what makes movies entertaining, meaningful, or fun.  I've also seen quite a few shows that are simply light fluff without any darkness, any abuse or trauma or loss or sadness, to make the characters in them feel human.  Dark without light or light without darkness lose their meaning.  They don't reflect the human experience.

A good writer needs to include both light and darkness since they define each other.  Finding the balance can be the hard part.  Part of this can be based on the genre the writer chooses.  A dark fantasy or horror writer would obviously spend more time in the dark with flashes of light to keep the reader going.  A humor, romance, or children's writer may spend longer in the light, using bits of darkness from past losses or trauma to give the characters meaning and human qualities.  This is likely a big part of why Disney writers always tend to tell stories of children who lose or have lost parents: to introduce a bit of tragedy that makes light moments in the present more meaningful and characters more sympathetic.

Shakespeare understood the need for this balance.  Hamlet is a dark piece.  It's a revenger's tragedy in which most of the characters die.  Shakespeare understood the need for the porter scene, the scene that introduced the knock knock joke in the middle of two much darker scenes.  The reader needs that kind of emotional release.  Meanwhile, in his comedy Twelfth Night, the main characters, a set of twins, start their stories in earnest mourning each other's supposed death after an accident.  Shakespeare understood even the lightest comedy needs the gravitas of loss and sadness, and even the heaviest tragedy needs moments of light.  One without the other is meaningless.

As a side note, remember to research and fully understand the kind of darkness or light you want to use.  If your story features a woman who has lost a child, but she doesn't act like a woman who has lost a child, your reader who has suffered that kind of loss can feel betrayed.  Also, if you're including a bit of light into the darkness, make sure the light doesn't fall flat with readers.  Light and dark both need to work together to create a seamless whole in order to shape your meaning.

Now, it is your turn.  Look over the pieces on which you're working.  Do you have enough light or darkness to balance out the other?  If not, look to the classics to figure out how to strike the yin yang balance.