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Monday, June 29, 2009

Show versus Tell--when to tell, examples

Camy here: Since so many people asked me to, I ran a series of blog posts with examples about when it was better to tell rather than show. This is a compilation of those blog posts. If I post additional examples, I'll just add them to this article.

Also, remember, these are not hard and fast rules about when to show and when to tell. Please do not take these examples as such. Ultimately, it's up to you as the writer since it's YOUR manuscript. Utilize whatever is best for your writing voice, the rhythm and pacing you're aiming for, or the atmosphere you're trying to obtain.

For examples of "telling," see this article.

Telling isn’t always bad. In fact, sometimes it’s preferable. However, you ought to have a darn good reason to tell.

One reason could be to telescope time. If you’re skipping from one place to another, or one time to another, that’s where telling is good.

Say Joe has been arrested and then in the next scene, he’s talking to his jailmate. It’s okay to tell in a sentence or two what happened in between. The reader doesn’t need to know all that detail, and it’s useful for letting the reader know that time has elapsed.

The police slapped the handcuffs on him.

Exactly forty-two minutes later, after being slightly roughed around by the cops who processed him, Joe turned to his bunk mate with a casual, “Got a smoke?”


Joe got on the plane, flew to San Jose, and rented a car.

Two hours and one accident during rush hour later, he arrived at Amelia’s house, ready to break some heads.

Here, we didn’t need to see everything Joe did on the plane, in renting the car, in sitting in traffic. We just need to know what’s going to happen next.

So in these examples, telescoping time and/or space is a perfectly legitimate reason for telling instead of showing.

Another reason is if the action isn’t emotionally important. The reader doesn’t need to read detail if it’s not important for the story.

For example, the reader doesn’t need to read every step as Joe walks into his bathroom, brushes his teeth, combs his hair, shaves, etc. “Joe got ready for work” is sufficient.

Another example is when a character is telling another character what happened to him. Since we as the reader already know all the events he’s relating, we don’t need to read his dialogue telling his friend.

Jason Bourne related everything to other agent as he tied him up and set the house to blow up.

In the example above, we also didn’t need to follow all of Bourne’s actions as he rigged the house, because it’s not emotionally important.

However, what if the agent has information to impart while Bourne is telling the agent what happened to him? What if the agent can explain why so-and-so shot at Bourne, why such-and-such agency never existed, etc.?

In that case, show the complete dialogue between Bourne and the agent, because the information the agent gives him will cause an emotional reaction in Bourne and influence his decisions about what to do next.

Therefore, if the actions aren’t emotionally significant to the story or plot, telling is preferred. But if there will be emotionally relevant information, then go ahead and show it.

Sometimes you want to deliberately distance the reader from the character or action. It might be a decision you make based on pacing or emotional flow or simply word and sentence cadence. In that case, go ahead and tell. But make sure you have a good reason in your own mind for telling.

Why hadn’t he asked her for her phone number? (showing)


She wondered why he hadn’t asked her for her phone number. (telling) No, she didn’t want to think about it. Too painful.

In the first example, the question is very blunt and emotional.

In the second example, I chose to keep the reader distanced from the emotion because the character herself is trying to distance herself from the emotion. The telling achieves the same sort of emotional distance or denial that the character is going through.

So, if you have a reason for telling, go for it. Sometimes it’s more effective.

One reason that people give for “telling” is one that I don’t like, although some of you might not agree with me. Some people use “telling” because they say they don’t have the word count for “showing.”

For example, many category books are shorter, and some authors say they have to tell in order to make the book hit their lower word count.

I don’t agree (but some of you might not feel the same way). While it’s true that showing often has a larger word count, there are more creative ways to show that will match the word count of a section of telling.

Also, a lot of times, the story doesn’t need that section of telling at all. I’ve seen many manuscripts with telling where the information isn’t necessary for the reader to understand and enjoy the story.

Or maybe the information can be snuck with in a phrase or sentence later in the manuscript where it's more pertinent to the current action.

My suggestion is that before you decide to “tell” something, ask yourself or your crit partners if the information imparted is absolutely vital to the story, especially at that moment. You may discover that you don’t absolutely need it. If you don’t need it, cut it. Make your word count with vibrant prose rather than prose with lots of telling.

If an editor later asks you add in more telling, that’s infinitely better than being rejected because your prose is too bland with too much telling.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The first page, part 8 - Reveal your voice

This is continuing my series on things to look for in your first page.
Click here for part seven.

Reveal your voice

When I have talked to editors and agents, they always tell me that the first thing they noticed about their clients/authors is the writer’s voice.

Voice is what jumped out at them from the very first page. Voice is what captured them and compelled them to keep reading.

If you’re not sure about your own writer’s voice, it’s really worth it to spend some time developing it. Voice is something that can be learned.

I wrote a series of blog posts with some good exercises for developing your writer’s voice. I compiled them all into one blog article here: Developing Your Writer’s Voice

Back to your first page. Utilize those opening paragraphs to showcase your unique voice. Your voice will grab the editor by the throat and make them keep reading past that first page.

The great thing about voice is that you don’t have to alter the story to add voice. It’s there in how you show the action, the character’s thoughts and movements, in dialogue, in emotional tension.

Take a good look at that first page and make sure your voice really stands out from sentence one. If you don’t think your voice is very strong yet, spend time developing it with exercises. In my article above, I mention a really good book that you can borrow from the library or buy on Whatever you do, make sure your voice is strong on that first page.

Click here for part nine.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Story Sensei Question and Answer

Hey guys,
It occurred to me that you guys might have specific writing craft or writing business questions that I could answer for you. So, comment and leave your question, and I'll address the questions in posts on this blog throughout the month of July!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Show versus Tell, examples

Many of you have seen the “Show, don’t tell” rule in writing articles and books. Basically, you want to “show” the reader the character’s emotions, not “tell” the reader the emotions the character is feeling. “Telling” tends to be distant point of view, which distances the reader from the character’s emotions.

“Showing” involves your reader in what’s going on. It’s active and also concrete or tangible. The descriptions are usually more vivid and evoke emotion in the reader. Rather than telling information, show it through the character’s emotional reactions to something that happens in real time.

Telling versus showing is a common mistake for writers because, at heart, we’re all storytellers, and that’s how storytellers “tell” a story.

However, for writing fiction, you’d rather “show” the reader the action and make the reader an active participant in the events playing out.

Put it this way: Like the audience of a play, the reader sees the characters acting and moving about on stage. There’s very little scenes where an actor will stop, turn to the audience, and explain what’s going on—this is what telling is like. Instead, the audience sees what’s going on for themselves by watching the scene.

Showing rather than telling is most important in the first few chapters. You want the story and action to move along swiftly to hook your reader into the story, and telling halts everything and risks losing your reader.

So while you can have more telling in later sections of the book, you should strive to keep telling to a minimum at least in the first 3 chapters. Try to find more creative ways to show the information rather than stopping the action to turn to the reader and “tell” him all this information about the story world or the characters—utilize dialogue, actions or movement.

Here are a few articles to explain basic show versus tell:'ttell.htm

Some books on show versus tell:

Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell (chapter 8)
The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman (chapter 11)
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers 2nd edition by Renni Browne and Dave King (chapter 1)

From contest entries and critiques that I’ve done, I’ve noticed that often people don’t quite understand what exactly is “showing” and what exactly is “telling.” So, I’m starting this series to give numerous examples so that you can see for yourself the various kinds of “telling” that can occur in your own manuscript, and suggestions for fixing it.

Update (6/23/09): It seems people are taking these examples as hard rules for when to show and when to tell. This is not the case--please do not take these examples as such. They're simply examples of telling since many writers have told me they have a hard time recognizing telling when they see it in a manuscript, whether their own or someone else's.

You cannot eliminate ALL telling in a manuscript. It's impossible. But too much telling will bog down your reading pace.

I have had editors tell me that it's better to have too little telling in a manuscript and then have your editor tell you where to insert more telling. On the other hand, a manuscript with too much telling will sometimes give the editor an excuse to reject the manuscript.

Ultimately, it's up to you as the writer since it's YOUR manuscript. Utilize whatever is best for your writing voice, the rhythm and pacing you're aiming for, or the atmosphere you're trying to obtain.

On Monday, I will be posting an article that compiles my blog posts on examples of when to tell instead of show, so stay tuned!
Click here for my article on examples of when to tell

Show versus Tell, example one

She had almost been kil—no, she had to stop thinking about it. Her hands shook as she cleaned up the spilled juice from the counter. She tended to be a little obsessive-compulsive, putting things in order, cleaning things up as soon as the mess happened. If anything was even a little out of place, she had to straighten it or she couldn’t concentrate. She used her fidgeting now to calm herself.

Everything in italics is “telling.” Rather than “telling” the reader about her personality, it would be more vivid to “show” it to them through her actions and thoughts. For example:

She had almost been kil—no, she had to stop thinking about it. Her hands shook as she cleaned up the spilled juice from the counter. Why was she doing this? Why couldn’t she stop herself? Her sugar canister had been knocked askew by half an inch. She looked away, but an itching grew in her hand until she finally reached out to realign it with the other two canisters on the counter. She also straightened the potted violet by the sink, the coffeemaker in its corner, and the container of cooking utensils by the stove. She actually felt calmer now.

In the second example, the reader is drawn into her point of view to feel her agitation, to experience her compulsive acts of orderliness, and to see her fidgeting calm herself.

Show versus Tell, example two

She looked out at the high school. Three years ago, she’d been secretary there, and now she was secretary for the intermediate school instead.

The second sentence is “telling” the reader about the character. This information is the kind of thing that could probably be more actively “shown” in dialogue. For example:

(This conversation might be something that comes later in the story)

He took her hand. “Why don’t you come work for me at the high school?”

She pulled her hand away. “Nuh-uh. I already did that.”


“I was secretary at the high school three years ago. Now I’m at the intermediate school.”

“So I’m three years too late.”

His flirtatious tone both thrilled and annoyed her. “Who’s to say I’d have stayed if you’d been Principal?”


The question to ask is: Does the reader need to know she’d been secretary at the high school three years ago right at this moment in the story? Does the reader need to know she’s secretary for the intermediate school right at this moment in the story? If they don’t, then save it for later when the information is vital to the current action.

For example, say the story goes:

She looked out at the high school. Three years ago, she’d been secretary there, and now she was secretary for the intermediate school instead.

If she’d still been there, she’d be one of the dead bodies on the lawn, just another victim of the bombing. The thought sent a spasm through her as if her innards were trying to wiggle out of her skin.

In this example, then yes, the reader needed to know she’d been the high school secretary because the scene affects her emotionally, thinking she could have been one of the bombing victims.

However, if the story goes on to talk about something else, then the second sentence in the example—talking about being secretary at the high school three years ago—is not only “telling” the reader about the character, it’s extraneous information. Delete it and save it for later.

Show versus Tell, example three

”How dare you use wire hangers?!” Mama threw one at her, and the edge scratched her arm. She flinched.

She didn’t cry as Mama yelled at her. She had learned that tears only made her scream louder.

The italicized sentence is “telling” the reader about her past experience. (Actually, the “as Mama yelled at her” is also “telling” and extraneous because you “show” Mama yelling in the previous paragraph.) There’s a more active and emotional way to “show” this. For example:

”How dare you use wire hangers?!” Mama threw one at her, and the edge scratched her arm. She flinched.

She mustn’t cry. She mustn’t. She screwed her eyes shut, but a tear squeezed out and ran down the side of her nose. Oh, no. Her stomach heaved as the warm wet tickled the end of her nose.

Mama must have seen the tear, because the volume rose to screeching that stung Clara’s ears. “Crying is for sissies!”

Show versus Tell, example four

She stared at the funeral wreath, full of white lilies. She remembered Daddy’s garden, thriving with lush red roses and golden daffodils.

The second sentence is “telling” the reader about a remembrance. The question to ask is, does the reader absolutely need to know the information about Daddy’s garden right at that moment?

If no, then cut it.

If they do need to know the info, there’s a more active and emotional way to “show” it. For example:

The cloying scent of the funeral wreath made her stomach heave and her throat gag. Daddy would have hated it. Lilies had had no place in his garden among the more stately roses and cheerful daffodils.

It figures that the worst wreath would come from Barnaby Jenkins, the slime. And she was stuck holding it for the next hour.

In the example, I’ve added more emotional reactions to the wreath (heaving, gagging, Daddy hating it) and more emotive words to Daddy’s garden (stately, cheerful). It simply makes the information more alive.

I also added the second paragraph to show why the reader needed to know about the wreath and Daddy’s garden (actually, Daddy’s flower preferences)—the information was needed to explain her emotional reaction in the current action, her holding the darn thing for another hour.

Show versus Tell, example five

She rocked back and forth on the porch swing.

Her family had moved into this house when Daddy carried Mama over the threshold. She’d broken this swing a few times by jumping on it, her brother had dug a hole under the front porch, and her sister had painted flowers along the white-washed railings. The neighbors were friendly and the tree-lined street cool in summertime. Her backyard ran against a giant meadow that belonged to some development company.

The second paragraph is all “telling” information about her family and her house.

Does the reader absolutely need to know all that information right at that moment in the story? If not, then cut it.

If you just wanted to show the house and neighborhood, there are more active ways to “show” it. For example:

Old Mrs. Tarkington shuffled past the house, staying in the shade from the trees lining the street. She raised one arm in a wave, the other arm clutching yet another casserole, probably meant for deaf Mr. Billings next door. Yup, he was already on his porch anticipating his dinner that night.

Bless Mrs. Tarkington. Would Mr. Billings—or any of the other neighbors—starve without her?

In the example, I show the trees lining the street as well as the friendliness of the neighbors with a concrete example of kindness.


She tripped a little over the threshold. Really graceful. She ought to fix that. Then she giggled at an image of Daddy tripping as he carried Mama over the threshold into the house over thirty years ago. Naw, the house had been new then—no loose boards.

In the example, I kept the info about Daddy and Mama over the threshold because she realized she needed to fix it—linking the memory with the current action.

Show versus Tell, example six

Jeannie looked Amy in the eyes. “So, tell me what your Mama told you.”

Just like Jeannie to be straight to the point. She’d always been that way, even in grade school. Sometimes her directness was a bit tactless and got her in trouble. Amy was so unlike Jeannie—tender-hearted to the point of not wanting to hurt anybody’s feelings.

The entire second paragraph is telling. What information in that paragraph does the reader absolutely need to know for the current scene?

Also, the first sentence in the paragraph is extraneous—you already show her directness by her line of dialogue.

Here’s a better example.

Jeannie looked Amy in the eyes. “So, tell me what your Mama told you.”

Amy found the violet pattern on the china cup absolutely fascinating. Why did Jeannie always have to just jump straight into it?


Amy spoke to the cluster of violets. “I’m too drained. I don’t want to talk about it.”

“But I want to know.”

Amy raised her eyes to glare at Jeannie. “Show some tact for once, will you?”

The information about Jeannie being direct is “shown” by an emotional reaction to it—her unhappy thoughts wondering why Jeannie had to be that way. Also, Jeannie’s tendency for lack of tact is “shown” with Amy’s angry line of dialogue.

Show versus Tell, example seven

Amy’s eyes were the size of her forgotten hard-boiled egg. “That’s amazing!”

So amazing that it had ruined Jeannie’s peaceful breakfast. She had a half-brother in New Orleans that she’d never even known existed before. He had written and wanted to meet her, now that their feuding parents were both gone.

The second paragraph is “telling.” Granted, it’s short—which might be a good enough reason to keep it as is—but there’s also a more vibrant way of “showing” this with dialogue.

Amy’s eyes were the size of her forgotten hard-boiled egg. “That’s amazing!”

“Amazing enough to ruin my breakfast.” Jeannie toyed with her cold toast.

“What are you talking about? I always wanted a brother—”


“Whatever, half-brother. My point is, now you have one without having the annoyance of growing up with him.” Amy winked.

Jeannie pulled his letter close to her again to look at it. “I wonder what it was like, growing up in New Orleans.”

“What I wonder is why he wants to meet now, why he felt he had to wait until both your feuding parents were gone. After all, you’re both adults.”

All the information in the “telling” paragraph is now “shown” in the dialogue, which is more interesting for the reader and doesn’t pull her out of the story world with a paragraph of “telling” narrative.

Show versus Tell, example eight

She admired the rows of Salvatore Ferragamo shoes, her only extravagance.

The italicized phrase is “telling.”

Now before you start screaming that it’s short (after all, it’s only three words), think about it—if you eliminate as much “telling” from your manuscript as possible, the vibrancy of the writing as a whole goes up a notch.

Instead of “telling” the reader about how Ferragamo shoes are her only extravagance at that point, save it for when it’s vital to the current action. For example:

She slowed as she passed the Neimann Marcus shoe section. Oh, that black leather one …

No, she shouldn’t—she’d bought a pair of Ferragamo’s only two weeks ago. She had twenty-one pairs in her closet already.

But she’d just gotten paid. And she could honestly say it was her only extravagance.

In the example, the information is part of her thought process as she justifies buying a new pair of shoes rather than tacked on as a section of “telling” in the narrative.

However, because the section of “telling” is only three words long, you could leave it in, especially if the information is vital for the reader to know for the current scene. It’s up to you.

Show versus Tell, example nine

She arrived at her parents’ home, which always reminded her of a gingerbread house.

The italicized phrase is “telling” the reader what the house looks like. Instead, why not “show” the reader her emotional reaction to the house while you describe it? It would make a more vibrant way of “showing” the same information. For example:

She arrived at her parents’ house, a great big gingerbread confection that made her want to gag at the sweetness.


She arrived at her parents’ house, a great big gingerbread confection that lifted her spirits as if she were on a sugar rush.

In the examples, the character’s emotions are incorporated in the description so that the “telling” about the house isn’t just tacked onto the narrative, but a vital part of her impressions of the scene. It’s just a tactic to convey the information in a more interesting way to the reader.

Show versus Tell, example ten

She rushed out of the elevator and bumped Sherri’s arm. “Sorry,” she mumbled.

But Sherri made an exasperated sound. “Just sorry?”

Gloria paused. She was in a hurry, but she couldn’t afford to antagonize her, because Sherri would make her life miserable.

Gloria turned with a plastic smile. “I’m so sorry. Can I help you carry those files?”

The italicized sentence is “telling” the reader about antagonizing Sherri. Granted, it’s only a sentence, and because it’s short, you could keep it in and it wouldn’t be bad.

But even a sentence can “burp” the reader out of the reading flow because it’s a sentence of “telling” narrative. This is especially true if you have several sentences of telling, in different paragraphs, on the same page or in the same chapter.

There’s a more vibrant, emotional way to convey the information if you go deeper into Gloria’s point of view. For example:

She rushed out of the elevator and bumped Sherri’s arm. “Sorry,” she mumbled.

But Sherri made an exasperated sound. “Just sorry?”

Gloria paused. Was she already late? If she just blew past … No, she got a headache at the thought of Sherri’s sour face and insolent work habits if she didn’t appease her.

Gloria turned with a plastic smile. “I’m so sorry. Can I help you carry those files?”

In framing the information as Gloria’s clicking thought process, the information is more interesting to the reader.

Show versus Tell, example eleven

She chewed on her hair, an old habit of hers that she was trying to break.

The second half of that sentence is “telling” the reader about her old habit. There’s a more active way to “show” it by incorporating her emotions into it. For example:

She caught herself chewing her hair and dragged it out of her mouth. Nasty habit. Why couldn’t she break it?

In the example, I’ve delved deeper into her point of view and “shown” the same information in a more active, emotional way.

This might seem like a rather trivial example for “telling,” but think about if you changed all these instances throughout your manuscript. The small changes made would contribute to the whole of the writing, making it just a bit crisper and sharper.

Show versus Tell, example twelve

She wanted to call her sister to cry over the phone, but she shouldn’t. Tonight was Sherri’s birthday, and she knew Sherri’s husband was going to give her a diamond pendant as a present.

Here, you’re “telling” the reader about why she can’t call her sister, but sometimes a little mystery is good for the reader, to pique their interest and keep them reading.

Also, if you’re in the character’s deep point of view, she wouldn’t “tell” herself why she can’t call her sister, she’d already know and would only mention it in a way that would be cryptic for anyone not in the know. For example:

She could call Sherri, have a good cry … No. She’d ruin everything if she called Sherri tonight.

And just leave it at that. It creates an aura of mystery that makes the reader wonder why tonight is so special, plus you’re in deep point of view, which draws the reader into her dilemma. Later, you can reveal Sherri’s special birthday gift to explain why she couldn’t call and ruin her birthday.

Show versus Tell, example thirteen

Adelaide found the housekeeper, Mrs. Long, in the kitchen. Adelaide was able to relax around her because Mrs. Long knew she was the mistress’s niece, and she had assured Adelaide she wouldn’t tell a soul.

The italics is all telling.

There are two types of telling here:

(1) When you write the deep point of view of a character, she wouldn’t think to herself, “I’ll go find the housekeeper, Mrs. Long.” She’d either look for “the housekeeper” or look for “Mrs. Long.” The additional modifiers are purely for the reader’s info, which is telling.

This is an easy fix. Use “the housekeeper” and “Mrs. Long” in the same paragraph, to make it obvious to the reader that the housekeeper is Mrs. Long. Your reader can figure out things better than you think. You don’t need extra modifiers to make sure the reader knows some piece of information.

(2) The second sentence in italics is telling the reader information about Adelaide and Mrs. Long. It’s also recapping an event that happened earlier.

The essential aspects of the information can be more dynamically shown in dialogue instead:

Adelaide found the housekeeper in the kitchen. “Do you need help, Mrs. Long?”

The woman jumped, and a fountain of peas erupted from the colander. “Mercy, you scared me, Miss Adelaide.”

“Just Adelaide. No one else knows.” She playfully nudged Mrs. Long aside, picked up a pea pod, and began to shuck.

Mrs. Long turned back to grumble at her peas, “’Tain’t right for you to help me.”

“Maids are supposed to help the housekeeper.”

“Maids aren’t supposed to be nieces to the mistress.”

This dialogue is just more fun to read than a paragraph of narrative. It also shows the relationship between the two women with more color and vibrancy.

Show versus Tell, example fourteen

This example is from my own proposal. It’s an Inspirational romantic suspense.

(From Jorge's point of view)

Jorge explained, “My brother still visits some of his old friends to try to get them to come to church with him.”

“Oh.” Her eyes skittered away as she renewed her vigor in sweeping.

She had never been comfortable talking about her faith. They’d rarely talked about God when they were dating, but she had said she was a strong Christian.

The last paragraph is all telling. There’s a more dynamic and interesting way to show this information, plus you can use this as a way to deepen the point of view.

I decided to anchor the information in Jorge’s current thoughts and wonderings, which are all in real time. It turns the paragraph into a combination of backstory information about her faith and Jorge’s current thoughts in the scene.

Jorge explained, “My brother still visits some of his old friends to try to get them to come to church with him.”

“Oh.” Her eyes skittered away as she renewed her vigor in sweeping.

Strange, she seemed even more uncomfortable talking about her faith than a month ago. They’d rarely talked about God, but she’d never actually avoided the subject like this before. She had said she was a strong Christian—was her faith wavering in the face of all the recent problems?

The boldface phrases are all current, Jorge’s thoughts in real time. It shows the backstory information mixed with the immediate thoughts so that it: (a) is in deep point of view and (b) shows forward movement in the story (c) without pausing to “tell” the reader about the heroine’s faith struggles.

Note from Camy: If I post more examples of Showing Versus Telling, I'll add to this article so it'll be updated.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Oh the Joys of Freewriting!

I talked about Freewriting and why that can help with character development over at the Seekerville blog:

Camy here, talking today about how freewriting is saving my sanity.

Yes, it’s true, I’m not being melodramatic (although Ruthy would probably differ—hush, woman!).

Usually, when I’m brainstorming a new novel, I am armed with a pen, Post-It notes, and my closet doors:

Click here to read the rest of the article

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Motivation--got enough?

Cheryl Wyatt posted on character internal motivations over at Seekerville today:

ToooT! TooooT! Chugga-chugga-chugga-chugga....

Welcome to Seekerville! Today I wanted to talk about something that I think is crucial in story structure, yet something not a lot of authors fully understand. I'm still on this learning train too by the way.

Just this week I was brainstorming a new proposal with my editors in New York the day before Book Expo America and it dawned on me that character motivation has many more layers than I had really consciously thought about before.

Click here to read the rest of the post, which includes examples!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Tips for How to Present Backstory

Even if you don't present backstory in the first chapter of a novel, you have to present at some time in the book. But there are a few tricks you can use to make that backstory as emotionally compelling as possible. I wrote this article, which originally appeared on Suite101.

Tips for How to Present Backstory

Make a Character’s Past History Compelling

Here are some good tricks to use when writing backstory in a novel so that the reader is intrigued by the information.

The key to presenting backstory in a way that is interesting to a reader boils down to one piece of advice: Make the reader want to know the information.

As a reader gets to know the characters and become interested in them, she will naturally want to know more about them. But even beyond this natural interest, up the stakes. Make the past important to the reader because it ties together mysterious threads of the current action.

Dole Out Backstory in Bits and Pieces

When information is given out slowly, here and there, the “clues” increase reader interest. One piece of information will spark the reader’s curiosity, and further bits of information will reveal a larger view of the story “picture.”

For example, a hero’s mother was killed in the library with a pitchfork, and the hero thinks his father did it.

A writer could baldly “tell” the reader this in narrative, but it’s boring and can smack of amateur writing. You also want to be more clever than disguising it as expository dialogue: “As you know, father, mother was killed in the library with a pitchfork and I think you did it.”

Instead, dole the pieces of the story out here and there. In chapter two, the hero walks past the library and can’t help shivering in response. In chapter five, he happens on an old picture of his mother and misses her. In chapter seven, the sight of a pitchfork makes his gut roil. In chapter ten, in an argument with his father, he shouts, “We both know what you did at the library that night.” In chapter twelve, a ranch hand tells the heroine, “The pitchfork has been missing since the night his mother died.”

The pieces of information collect into a horrifying whole by the middle of the book, and the reader keeps reading to find out what happened that night in the library.

Make the Information Vital for a Character to Have

A writer can make protagonist need to know a certain piece of information in order to accomplish his goal for the book.

Make the information absolutely vital. Increase the stakes so that the protagonist has more to lose if he doesn’t get that information.

As the reader follows the hero, because the hero needs the information, the reader begins to need the information, too. The protagonist’s desires infuse the reader as she turns pages, anxious to know what happens next.

Make a Character Fight to Acquire the Information

When a character struggles to acquire information, it not only adds conflict to the story, it defers resolution, which keeps the reader on the edge of her seat.

People are not typically blabber mouths, especially when it comes to secrets. Therefore, a character who simply delivers information when asked for it might not seem very realistic. It also may make the character seem unintelligent. At the very least, it’s a missed opportunity to infuse more conflict into the story.

On the other hand, if a protagonist has to struggle to pry information from a reticent character, the reader is struggling with the protagonist. The struggle makes the information eventually won that much sweeter for both the protagonist and the reader.

Keep the Reader Wanting More

Even after some information is doled out, keep some information back. Make a character be vague or refuse to say any more. Keep a thread of information dangling. Make the reader keep needing to know more until the dramatic climax.

It will keep the reader turning pages.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Save the Backstory For Later

Ever wonder why you hear that it's "taboo" to include backstory in the first chapter of a novel? I always did, too, until I discovered some psychological reasons why it's best to keep it out of the first chapter for the modern reader. I wrote an article, which originally appeared on Suite101.

Save the Backstory For Later

Why Not to Present Backstory in the First Chapter

There are three reasons why it’s usually best for a writer not to include backstory in a novel’s first chapter.

Writers often hear the advice to not include backstory or the character’s past history within the first chapter of the story.

Many balk at this. After all, a character’s backstory explains things, makes the character’s actions make more sense. Otherwise, the reader will be confused or, worse, dislike the protagonist for his actions because there’s no explanation for this aberrant behavior.

Also, backstory sets the stage for future conflict. Past secrets often cause problems for the story characters. If the reader has no knowledge of those secrets, there’s no conflict opening the story.

While all this is true about the role of backstory, there are three reasons it should not be in the first chapter.

The Reader Is Not Yet Invested

While in days past, readers would be willing to stick with a book through a chapter or two, meandering through long setting descriptions and character backstory, this is no longer true for the modern reader.

Many buyers in a bookstore will read a page or two to determine if the book interests them. If those two pages fail to do so, the buyer puts the book back on the shelf.

Two pages. Sometimes only one.

If a book has backstory within the first chapter, whether in a flashback or expository dialogue, the writer risks losing the reader’s interest.

The reason is that the reader doesn’t yet care for the characters. Since she doesn’t know the characters yet, she’s less likely to be interested in a character’s childhood or past secrets.

You don’t want to risk boring your potential book buyer.

The Past Cannot Be Changed

Readers usually are not interested in the past simply because it is not dynamic, it’s static. It happened. It can’t be changed.

Most readers expect a story to be about what is happening now. They want to see what will happen to these characters they’ve been introduced to.

They want to decide if these characters are worth spending money and time for. They want to see the characters “in action.” They want to see a hint of what the story conflict is going to be.

Writing about what happened to the characters before the story opens makes it harder to grab the reader’s interest. Typically, the reader wants to see the story “in action,” not a reminiscence about what happened “before.”

Mystery Hooks the Reader

When characters engage in conflict and a mysterious hint is given as to motivations, it compels the reader to keep reading simply to figure out the mystery.

By giving tantalizing hints, the writer forces the reader to need to know what happened. This writing technique is a surefire way to keep the reader turning pages.

This is why it’s often good to eliminate backstory from the first chapter, and perhaps only give a hint as to the character’s past, especially as it relates to the current conflict. The reader is hooked by the conflict, but she’s also hooked by a need to understand the deeper currents running beneath that conflict. She’ll keep reading to find out.

A Hooked Reader Wants Backstory

Once you open with an active scene, the reader will be more likely to need to know more about these exciting characters she’s just read about, and a bit of backstory in the next chapter will satisfy that need.

The key is to hook the reader first.

Once the reader is intrigued by a self-explanatory opening scene, with interesting characters engaged in conflict, the natural lull in the story rhythm is the perfect place for some backstory to bring deeper clarity.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Opening a Scene In a Character’s Viewpoint

As a follow up to my article about establishing the viewpoint character at the beginning of a scene, I also wrote this article, which originally appeared on Suite101, on a few tips for how to continue with the scene from the viewpoint character.

Opening a Scene In a Character’s Viewpoint

Some Do’s and Don’ts For Establishing Point of View

There are a few things to keep in mind when establishing the point of view character at the beginning of a scene.

When a writer opens a scene, the viewpoint character should be immediately established in order to slip the reader into a character’s skin.

But once you’ve established the viewpoint character, there are a few things to remember in order to keep the reader interested.

Plant and Point Deliberately

Don’t waste the reader’s time by pointing out things that are insignificant to the story or that don’t somehow establish characterization.

For example, if the hero likes the color blue, but it’s not relevant to the story, don’t have the character notice his favorite color on the walls of the cafĂ©.

On the other hand, if the pretty waitress, the heroine, is wearing a dress in his favorite color blue, that might be worthwhile to keep in the scene in order to show why he notices the waitress in the first place.

On the flip side, plant things in the reader’s mind that will be significant later. For example, if the heroine’s fear of heights is going to play a large role in the climax, then by all means show her getting a little dizzy up on a ladder as she hangs Christmas decorations on the eaves of the house.

Don’t Allow the Reader to Assume Wrongly

Help the reader to make correct assumptions about the character, storyline, setting, description, time period, etc. Establish these things early and deliberately.

Here is where critique partners can help. For example, if your critique partner is confused at the opening of the scene about the time period, you can revise to enable the reader to better understand the setting right away.

Under false assumptions is the tricky area of red herrings. While writers need red herrings to create plot twists and turns, planting only red herrings and not planting hints or clues to the truth can make the reader feel betrayed or tricked. The writer can be as clever as possible, but make sure the reader has been given all the same information as the point of view character.

Show Characterization in Action

Since you’re slipping the reader into the character’s skin, utilize that unique vantage point by having the character doing something, being in action. A reactive character does not contribute to a dynamic scene opening.

You don’t need guns and explosions, but a character in pursuit of a simple scene goal is in motion enough to carry the reader along and keep the reader interested.

“Show” the reader what the viewpoint character is like by showing the character in pursuit of something, responding to external events that thwart the scene goal. A character’s response to obstacles “shows” the reader what her personality is like.

Don’t Crowd the Scene

Try to avoid too many characters introduced in the beginning of the scene or too much information dumped at once. This can confuse the reader.

Remember, the reader is in the character’s skin. A person typically deals with things incrementally or with some sort of organizational system. Try to avoid slamming your viewpoint character with too many varied conflicts at once.

Look at your scene openings. Are you planting information and misinformation deliberately? Are you showing the character in action? Are you keeping the conflicts in the scene manageable for the reader?

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Establish the Character Viewpoint

I wrote this article, which originally appeared on Suite101, on a few quick tips for opening a scene and establishing the point of view character.

Establish the Character Viewpoint

Start the Scene Quickly in Someone’s Point of View

Utilize these tips in establishing the point of view character when opening a scene.

In his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight Swain writes this about character viewpoint:

Viewpoint is the spot from which you see a story. It’s the position and perspective you occupy in order best to savor a fictional experience.

Ordinarily, that vantage point is inside somebody’s skin.

That is, your reader will live through your story as some specific character experiences it. He’ll see and hear and smell and taste and touch and think and feel precisely what that person sees and hears and smells and what have you.

Keep this in mind as you establish character viewpoint—slip your reader into the character’s skin.

Choose the Viewpoint Character

A writer can choose absolutely any character to be the viewpoint character for the scene, but usually the character with the most to lose will give the reader the greatest emotional experience.

Be thoughtful about who your viewpoint character will be. If possible, try different viewpoint characters to see which version gives the greatest emotional impact for your reader.

Establish the Viewpoint Character Immediately

Let the reader know who the viewpoint character is within the first paragraph or the first 3-5 sentences.

It can be disconcerting for a reader to not know the viewpoint character right away. They might assume one character is the viewpoint character, and then be jolted out of the reading pace when they find another character is actually the viewpoint character.

Try Not to Head Hop

In past years, authors would go from one character’s viewpoint to another. This is referred to as “head hopping.”

Many multi-published, bestselling authors still “head hop” in their novels, but for the new writer trying to break into the publishing industry, the trend is to avoid head hopping.

Try to keep to one point of view for at least half of the scene.

If you switch to another character’s point of view:

Have a good reason for doing it. Don’t just do it because you want to show the other character’s reaction to what’s happening. The other character should have something significant at stake for you to switch point of views in the middle of a scene.

Leave the first point of view with a good ending hook sentence.

Insert a section break. You don’t always need to do this, but it’s usually best if you do. It allows the reader to know that a new point of view is coming up, and it avoids confusion.

Utilize Point of View to Establish Characterization

In slipping the reader into a character’s skin, the writer is put in a unique position of being able to show the reader who the character really is inside. Take advantage of this writing technique to “show” the reader the character rather than “telling” them what the character is like.

For example, you can “show” a character’s patient thoughts with his befuddled grandmother rather than “telling” the reader something like “He was always patient with his grandmother.”

Use point of view to show a character’s admirable qualities even if the character is doing something unpleasant at the time. You can show a cop’s reluctant feelings as he tells old Mrs. Grady to stop driving on the sidewalk. His actions seems harsh, but the reader knows that inwardly, he doesn’t like doing it.

Play around with viewpoint and see what else you can reveal when the reader is in the character’s skin.
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