Creating Your Perfect Story Arc, Personal Anecdote, Writing 101

The Write Way to “Show; Don’t Tell!”

Have you ever had a writing coach/professor or perhaps an editor/publisher tell you something like this: “Good writers tell the reader what’s happening, but [great] writers show the reader?” Most of us have, and, if you’re like me the first time I heard it, you may have held back a cacophony of expletives. What does that old adage, “show; don’t tell,” mean? And what, if anything, does it have to do with the elementary school tradition of bringing your puppy or a cool seashell from the beach to school?

Let’s keep it simple:

The puppy and the seashell have something in common. They’re powerful visuals. Students can absolutely fumble their way through the “Mommy said YES to the puppy” speech or where they found the shell, but the honest truth is that by showing the class their puppy and seashell, the other students were able to fill in most of the blanks and tell themselves the rest of the story.

Keynote: To show in writing means to use strong imagery and effective scenarios so that audiences don’t require much narrative to fill in the blanks.

Example:

Telling: Elizabeth was sad, therefore uninterested in conversation with her friends.

ShowingElizabeth did not make any of her usual stops on the way to her desk this morning. She bypassed Tom’s raised hand, ignored Mary’s offer for raspberry donuts, a first, and cut straight through the advertising team without joining them for a customary Monday cup of Joe. When she sank down at the computer, Elizabeth hoped no one noticed the one tear escaping her eye.

There’s a stark contrast, right? The same information is conveyed in both examples. However, one of them is stronger and more engaging, which is always your goal. Let’s notice that showing took a much higher word count, 10 words as opposed to 59!

Be aware that “showing” often requires the use of more expressive language, so it will generally not help you cut from a story that is too long. However, it can be the magic maker when your project doesn’t have enough words.

 

CAUTION: Even though writers hear this particular literary critique often, please be careful. The unspoken truth that many other writing coaches and editors don’t want to tell you is that “showing” can make your work drag. You never want to make your reader feel like they’re wasting time. Sometimes brevity is just as, if not more engaging, than verbosity. So, there are times when I encourage you to get to the point.

Example:

Telling: Elizabeth hated Monday and all the crazy that came with it.

ShowingElizabeth knew it was the detestable first day of the work week by the way her alarm clock seemed so much louder than on other days and further away from her previously resting form. Once she’d silenced the menace, she sat up in bed and contemplated calling in sick from work so she could avoid all the cat-callers at the construction site in her neighborhood, the weird religious nut who rode her train every morning, and the annoying new assistant at her job who jabbered on until lunch.

 

This type of mellifluous prose sounds pretty, but it is not adding to the story. If these minor details are important enough for me to want to convey them to my readers, then I can show these details in action as my character moves throughout the day, or I can add them in as I write over time. Writing over time is the art of creating time progression in your piece. When done masterfully, it can allow you to slip in little details about your characters without throwing them at the reader all at once. It is a great tool for showing appropriately and telling moderately.

How do you learn how to write like that? Easy! I keep a checklist: Verbs, Adverbs, Characters/Dialogue, Setting. These are the 4 key places most writers can focus on to improve their “showing” and “telling.”

 

STRONG, SPECIFIC VERBS:

Rule 1: Choose the right verb for the right sentence. There are so many ways to express an action in English. Sometimes the easiest method to “show” versus “tell” comes just by choosing a more specific form of the verb you’ve already written.

Example:

Telling:    The dog ate his bone.

Showing: The dog devoured his bone. 

                  The dog nibbled his bone.

                  The dog gorged on his bone.

You can immediately tell the difference. Sometimes the fastest way to improve your writing is to just grab your closest thesaurus and jump in!

 

ADVERBS ARE NOT YOUR FRIENDS:

Rule 2: Use adverbs as a last resort. I guarantee that every show and tell slipup is connected in some way to adverb use. I, too, like the occasional modifier for verbs (not so much for my adjectives). However, most editors frown upon adverbs because they are rendered unnecessary by Rule 1. Correct verb choices often limit the need for adverbs. It also helps to give the reader a scene or situation that illustrates the moment being described.

Example:

Telling:    Her heart beat steadily with fear. 

Showing: Her heart quaked with fear. Each time she opened her mouth, shallow breaths stuttered in and out. Her palm was sweaty, so the microphone in her hand didn’t have a chance. Therefore, it came as no surprise when the poor girl ran offstage.

 

LET YOUR CHARACTERS/DIALOGUE DO THE WORK:

Rule 3: Use your characters’ unique voices to evoke emotion from readers. Every feeling and detail does not require explicit explanations for readers to understand your meaning or gain depth. There is a lot of information that can be expressed through character actions and interactions as well as dialogue. Allow your characters to bring us into their story.

Example:

Telling:    It was obvious to Brian that Emilia and Jarvis were an item, or at least used to be, and the atmosphere of the room became subtly discomforting as they exchanged passive-aggressive pleasantries. Brian wanted to crawl out of his skin in his desire to get out of there as quickly as possible.

Showing: Brian looked between the two, wondering if this was what Alex had tried to warn him about. He cleared his throat, “So, now that we’re here–“

                  “That’s a nice jacket,” Emilia cut Brian off without taking her eyes off of Jarvis. Her lips lifted at the corners, but the smile didn’t reach her eyes.

                 “Thanks. It was a gift.” Jarvis didn’t bother with the smile.

                 “Interesting,” she replied, “From Belgium, I presume?” It sounded more like a statement.

                 “No. Morroco.”

                “I thought you’d never been to Morroco.” Her tone might have been sharper than she’d intended. Her lips flipped in the other direction.

                “Not with you.” Jarvis’s smile did come to his eyes.

               “Well! Look at the time!” Brian pulled his sleeve over an empty wrist and tripped over his shoelaces trying to grab the doorknob. “It’s been a great meeting everyone. Same time next week!”

SET THE SCENE:

Rule 4: Let your setting say more than you do. Think about how you can utilize the five senses in your story and try to draw them out as much as possible. Don’t simply describe the scene; take us there with you. Reveal to the reader what you see; play the sounds you want them to hear; and give them a sweet or sour taste in their mouth from having visited.

Example:

Telling:    It was a dark and stormy night as Allison made her way to the castle.

Showing: Allison no longer felt the shivers traveling through her long cloak. Everything from the long dark hairs on her head down to her toes in the leather, riding boots was numb. The reins in her hands slipped several times from wet, and she’d long since given up hope of being able to see past her horse’s head. She could only trust the mount to have better eyesight than she in this heavy wind and unforgiving onslaught. All around she could smell mold and mildew and leather as her party pushed forward towards their journey’s end. As they continued, a vast shape in the distance broke through the dark night at last. The familiar towers with their rising parapets rose like hands of God to tear the sky. Allison sucked in cold rain and bits of ice, but it didn’t matter. She could see the end. Home.

 

There you have it! I hope you enjoyed today’s post! I also hope that you take these steps into consideration during your current or next project. If you have other rules for “showing vs telling” or alternative feelings on this topic PLEASE leave a comment and help educate our growing community here. Please link us to some of your work or your blogs!

As always:

I’m excited to read what you’re writing!

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Personal Anecdote, Writing 101

How to Write from Your Past [Happy Mother’s Day!]

Writing is a deeply personal experience that, when done correctly, pulls a lot of you as a creator. You are required to be an archaeologist of your own mind and heart. What does that mean you ask? Glad you did. An archaeologist doesn’t just dig up old dirt and bones. They are detectives whose ultimate goal is to find the truth in the past. Each piece of history they pull out of a mountain, a desert, the underground, or the ocean is another part of the larger puzzle of an ancient mystery.  Writers have to be like that. You can’t just take a cursory glance at the surface level of your feelings and tell us that you’re hurt. You have to dig to a place that you forgot existed and piece together the mystery that you couldn’t see the in past.

The better you get at it, the more difficult it can be. I can always tell the difference between writers who are playing in the sand and those who are digging deeply and asking the hard questions.

This is something…I’ll admit…has been an ongoing challenge for me. It is only with great difficulty that I’ve been able to get through my current project, “A Memoir.” It’s my first collection of poetry, but I think of it as a nonfiction collection of stories, moments, and reminiscences of people that heavily influenced me to become the person I am today written in the poetic form. I chose to write my memoir in the form of poetry because that is the most honest medium for me to write about my own life. I’ve always expressed myself best in poetry, however, that does not mean that it’s been the easiest way for me to tell my feelings.

Taking hard and honest looks at yourself, your mess, and your pain requires many moons of personal introspection and dissection. Don’t take it lightly! Childhood traumas, first heartbreaks, abuse, past failures, loss….these are just some of the events that you’re going to have to relive. Most of us don’t want to think about them, and even if we choose to write about them…our hope is to be able to do it from a safe distance without the fear of being pulled back in and eaten by the monster under the bed known as “Regret.”

Unfortunately, [great] writing requires that we conquer fears. It demands that we face who we are with honest and accepting eyes, so that we can tell our truth. Not only because the hidden, ugly truths of our hearts will greatly influence and possibly even bring relief to others who are experiencing or have experienced the same tragedies, but also because sharing those truths will bring relief to us.

There’s a burden that is lifted the first time you can express the deepest, darkest parts of yourself without fear or reservation. There’s a weight that immediately dissipates and is replaced by a breath you had no previous knowledge of holding. Truth is a beautiful, magical, and powerful thing that can wage wars and host tea parties all in the same afternoon. Let it wash over you like a spa, not like an avalanche. Be honest in who and what you are and what you’ve experienced.

And honesty…..should not just be with the hard truths…but with the fun ones as well. Tell us the joy you’ve experienced; share the blessings that have been made manifest in your life. The easy truths offer hope where the hard truths offer redemption. We need both. We need your story. The real story.

Anything else…just creates more barriers and pain.

Your truths will hurt people you love. Expect that. But it will free them too…even if they don’t see it that way at the time. You can’t allow yourself to stay locked up inside to satisfy the needs of another person. Other than unfair, it is also unwise. When you choose to remain in bondage, you are justifying the bondage of others. But when you allow yourself freedom, you are justifying the right for others to be free as well.

So…have faith, take courage, and hold to the truth. There’s only one. And it demands to be spoken.

In honor of the special occasion of Mother’s Day here in the United States, I am going to debut a piece from “A Memoir” written in honor of my mother. I pray that you hear the truths behind the words, and that it encourages you to find your own.

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Froyalt8713%2Fvideos%2F10156346099199450%2F&show_text=0&width=560

 

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Creating Your Perfect Story Arc, Uncategorized, Writing 101

Always Remember: Side Characters are Main Characters

I read a lot of romance [more than I care to admit family…even to you], and my favorite trope of long-running romance series is their tendency to give every character mentioned their own title role in a book. Some authors, like JR Ward in her Black Dagger Brotherhood series, do this masterfully. You read the novels demanding to understand how it’s possible that every Joe Blow that walks across the page from the star-studded hunk to the introverted janitor can find love, but you’re still chilling on Saturday afternoons with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and these love novels. [And you believe it!?]

 

Unfortunately, not all writers can do this. Some of these series are contrived at best, insulting to your intelligence at worst. But why? Same trope…same flavor of Ben & Jerry’s? Right? Well…not exactly.

 

Many authors treat side characters as though they’re just that…only relevant to what’s going on in the sidelines. They give no thought to the important purpose these characters and their personalities bring to the story or how they can influence the greater scope of the work. Most importantly, they forget that side characters are the main characters of their own unique and individual storylines. They should be treated with the utmost care and respect.

 

For a great example, look to the graphic accompanying this article. Originally Robin was an afterthought that took root in Bob Kane’s and the other writers’ minds as a way to tract younger readership and create a “Holmes-Watson” dynamic for the Caped Crusader. Pretty soon, however, the character AND title of Robin became their own movement. Whole comics, teams, TV shows, and movies would be centered on or heavily feature this character or a character with this role. He’s not only considered as one of history’s greatest sidekicks, but he’s also repeatedly documented in the top 20 comic book characters/heroes of all time.

 

So how do you protect yourself from falling into the trap of sidelining side characters? Easy! Take time to develop a short backstory or history for the characters you plan to mention more than twice in your story. Even if it’s only a few notes about their origin or motivations, have a solid understanding and appreciation for who they are and what they bring to the overall plot line. This will help you to not only have a stronger voice when you write these characters, but it will help you have a better sense of the entire story you plan to write.

 

And you never know… They could show up later as having a larger role than you originally intended. The person you mention in passing in the first paragraph could be the key to your plot resolution in the last chapter. So, [great] writers, take care: the side characters you threw in to carry your plot line today could become the leads in your bestseller tomorrow.

 

Do you have any great tidbits or tips when it comes to character development? How do you create engaging personalities for your work? What should we talk about in our next article? Leave a comment below, and don’t forget to subscribe to our page and follow for more great insight!

 

As always, I can’t wait to read what you’re writing!

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Book Reviews, Personal Anecdote

“Children of Blood and Bone” – A Review

Children of Blood and Bone (Legacy of Orïsha, #1)Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was an EXCELLENT piece of writing, and I am so proud of Ms. Adeyemi for her fearlessness in presenting the voice of the instantly classic female heroines, Zélie and Amari. It often boggles my mind that, as open, far-reaching, and stereotype-pushing as Fantasy and Science Fiction wants to be, this beloved genre often falls prey to the same institutional biases that it rails against. I’m speaking specifically to the issues of race and culture. There are not enough SF/F novels based on or inspired by the civilizations outside of Western (Anglo/Euro) culture or influence.

Warriors still have codes that mimic the tenets of European “chivalry” during the Middle Ages, wizards are still old, mottled, grey-haired white or pale-skinned males, and a protagonist can come in every color but brown, red, or black. And there will never be enough female representation, even though on that front we are FINALLY making gains.

No longer. This book is a war cry that sets itself apart from the typical SF/F read while also holding true to the best parts of the genre that we love: magic, intrigue, star-crossed love, war, epic battles, and the power of one’s destiny.

You are IMMEDIATELY pulled into the world of Orïsha, and despite its MANY faults, by the end of the novel, you want to burn your passport and claim your citizenship. The images are so vibrant and effortless that the people and places leap off of the pages and tell you their story face to face.

I also love the many cultural references to Africa and the African Diaspora. The attire, the languages, the names, the perspectives are all beautiful.

But more importantly, her message in this novel is timely and relevant. We are in a world where marginalized voices can no longer remain in their corners while injustices flood our streets and news channels. We live in a world where hashtags can be conflated with oppression, and that same oppression is force fed to us in media outlets and by political pundits/talking heads. THIS NOVEL rallies against all of it. It is our anger, it is our frustration, it is our fear, it is our shame, and it is our hope. It is our faith.

I can’t wait to reread it (took me 2-3 days the first time). I devoured it the first time, so now I want to savor every syllable. I’m so thankful for the inspiration this novel has given me to finish my own. And I’m even more thankful for this novel (upcoming series!) for giving me the RIGHT to stand in my truths. Our truths.

Because this isn’t about some of us….when you read this book, you will understand that is about ALL of us. As Zélie, Amari, Tzain, Inan, and many others learn in this great fantasy: We are all “Children of Blood and Bone.”

View all my reviews on GoodReads

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Personal Anecdote

What Disney & Marvel’s “Black Panther” Means for Marginalized Voices

If you’re a writer (or ANY creative talent from a marginalized community tbh), thank the creators and actors involved in this amazing film for blowing open a door that’s only had a small wedge in it for decades.

I personally have so many #FEELS after watching (and rewatching!) the film that seems destined to redefine the landscape of the “superhero origin story”. I wrote on social media that I had so many thoughts and reactions as a woman, a nerd, a person of color, as well as a black female nerd (because each of those realities has been a different experience growing up!). Each of one those consciouses is at war for dominance right now.

But the writer is winning.

Here’s why:

While television has been known, especially in recent years, to break the boundaries on marginalized voices: Hollywood is still notoriously #whitewashed and #maledominated. Those stories, those heroes (and villains) are still the loudest, most publicly recognized and most awarded on the big screen.

We’re all familiar now with the tropes of a blockbuster movie, so I won’t take the time to spell them out. Let’s just remember #OscarsSoWhite is still a relevant movement, not only due to institutionalized prejudice, but also to the belief that marginalized stories are only important to the communities telling them. Women go see chick flicks, nerds go see sci-fi, LGBTQ+ communities watch gender identity/”alternative” sexuality movies, etc.

Of course many of you (being the beautiful people that you are) are thinking, “Hey I watch movies with casts that don’t look or live the same way I do. And I know lots of popular movies like that.” But remember: popular does not always translate to lucrative.

We remember films we thought would break the barriers, but unfortunately, fell short at the box office:

Milk (2008) – $54.6 million, Birth of a Nation (2016) – $16.8 million, Fences (2016) – $64.4 million

And there have been a few films featuring marginalized groups, cultures, or lifestyles that met or exceeded our expectations:

Brokeback Mountain (2005) – $178.1 million , Hidden Figures (2016) – $236 million , Sex and the City (2008) – $415.2 million [Because proper any portrayals of sexual liberation for women is still an issue!]

But I would argue that no recent (or long past) films have been popular, have been lucrative, have been critically-acclaimed, and have been able to engender such poignant conversations on race, cultural representation, feminism, and historical narratives as this film as done ALL while featuring a predominantly non-white, mixed gender cast.

If you disagree, I dare you to call me out with a better example at any time in film history.

Black Panther is shattering box office records left and right. At the time of this post, it has already grossed a projected $235 million opening weekend debut, breaking at least seven records and landing in the top 10 of at least nine more! That’s amazing for any movie, but it is especially incredible for a film with a lead actor wearing a big-cat-themed leotard.

Director Ryan Coogler [Fruitvale Station (2013), Creed (2015)] and his amazing, star-studded cast accomplished by staying true to their mission of using the fictionalized nation of Wakanda to create an authentic, honest Afrocentric perspective. The creators and cast pulled no punches whatsoever in their dialogues. This movie tackled some huge issues that are relevant topics of discussion: colonialism, contemporary effects of slavery, cultural representation, global politics, and familial value systems.

It is also featured some glorious, underrepresented features of African culture: scarification, lip plates, masks, tribal garments, colors, ancestral worship, dancing and drums! Be still my beating heart.

It was fun for the whole family, no matter what your family looks like. It created an inclusive atmosphere for sharing the story of millions of people whose voices have traditionally be shut out without mixing words or downplaying solid, historical truths. It also did that without sacrificing great writing for good jokes. We took these characters and their world seriously the entire way through the film. And we were forced to consider not only their decisions and world purview, but our own as well.

I say thank you to everyone who contributed to this film. I know there are so many more posts I can (and probably will!) right about it. However, it was most important for me to go on record as saying, if you come from a culture, a lifestyle, a birthright that has been largely ignored or marginalized in the past, this film should excite you. Even if it did not represent your unique truth, it offered proof that our voices are all capable of creating something valuable and lucrative.

Our voices are all relevant. And our voices don’t have to labeled “marginalized” anymore. We’re just waiting on writers like you with the boldness and daring of these creators to give us the next record-shattering, truth-giving narrative.

 

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