What’s He Look Like, Again?

Today’s topic comes from the NaNoWriMo forums, namely, “How do you work in description in novels without making the story come to a stand still?”

When it comes to getting information across in a story, it can often be a struggle. You don’t want to give the reader nothing to go on–so they are confused/have no idea what anything looks like–but you also don’t want to hit pause in the middle of action to go “hey, by the way, this is what this room looks like.”

Excuse me while I take the next two pages to describe this generic hotel room. (Source: William Warby/Flickr)

WriMo Se.Ka.Ya. describes the struggle well, posting:

[My worst writing habit is] I don’t even do description, The reason I started leaving description out was that I started with too much of it. It’s like describing a picture in class – I had a character, room or whatever, and the story stopped while I explained what was there and how it looked and what material it was etc. – and then the story continued. So I started consciously leaving those parts out, which made me end up at the other side where I can’t even get the colors of [my characters’] uniforms right, because I [didn’t] think to mention something I have no plan for.

As with most things in writing, writing description is a balancing act, and it is very simple to swing too far to one extreme or another. The good news, though, is that there tends to be an easy fix when it comes to getting in some description without pausing action to give a laundry list of everything in a room/a character is wearing/etc. And that is:

Work in description while your character is interacting with the items being described.

There are very few people who walk into a new room and consciously begin to list off everything they are seeing. Therefore, it is both more interesting and more natural to start with one or two descriptors and then move on from there. For example:

Boring/Laundry List Description: John walked into the old, dusty room. It didn’t look like anyone had been in there for years. A red carpet sat on top of wood floors with a set of old chairs on top of the carpet toward the wall to John’s left. A canopy bed with matching red curtains was off to is right and looked just as dusty as everything else. On the far wall, a large window mostly covered with curtains let in a ray of light that let John see the deep green wall paper that was peeling off the wood walls. 

Description mixed with action: John walked into the old room, coughing as dust few up out of the thick red carpet under his feet. He batted it away as he tried to force his eyes to adjust to the dark room. It didn’t look as though anyone had been there for years. With any luck, he wouldn’t have to be in there much longer himself. Glancing around, John moved for the canopy bed to his right. If he had had to hide a treasure map, that was where he’d have put it. Pushing the equally dusty curtains out of the way, he scanned the frame for anything out of the ordinary…

As shown in the second “description” it is possible to get in much of the same information as the first laundry list all while keeping the action of the scene moving (John looking for a treasure map). As he continues his search around the room, he can move to the chairs, pull open the curtains, interact with the space as the reader gets a more and more complete picture of what is there with him. Just like with backstory, it works best to make chunks of information “bite size” and work them in as the reader goes along so things are never pulled away from the action too long to tell the reader chunks of information.

So, if you are struggling working in description, remember:

  1. Not everything needs to be described at once (start with the big things you would notice when you first enter a room first; the rest of the information can likely wait)
  2. It is possible to work description in while the action is still happening “on screen”

From there, with a little practice, you should be in pretty good shape.

Tense Slips

When it comes to narration, there are several choices to make based on what tone you’d like for your book. The one people tend to most talk about is if the narrator speaks in first or third person, but with present tense becoming more popular, Narrative Tense is becoming a hot topic.

(source: verbix.com)

(source: verbix.com)

For the most part, past tense has been the standard in story telling (“She walked down the street and looked around). With the popularity of present tense novels like The Hunger Games, however, the present tense is becoming more common (if not yet the standard). There are plenty of pros and cons to writing in either (some people find present tense more engaging, others find it distracting…) but the main writing rule when it comes to narrative voice is to be consistent.

One more than one occasion, I have been asked what to do in past tense narratives for facts that are still true after the telling of the story. For example:

My sister was named Sally.

Unless Sally is now dead, she is very possibly still named Sally. Wouldn’t you then want to say, “My sister is named Sally”?

Not unless you have a present tense framing device.

For, you see, the fact that you are using past tense in a story doesn’t mean that everything written is only true in the past. It is simply the narrative tense you are using to tell your story. As a coworker of mine once described it, “If I were describing my trip ten years ago to Germany, I might say, ‘It was beautiful. There were all these tiny streets and medieval buildings.’ It’s likely it’s still beautiful with tiny streets and medieval buildings. I just happen to be describing what it was like in the moment I was there. That is my narrative tense.”

For example Hirschhorn, Germany (Source: journey-to-germany.com)

For example, Hirschhorn, Germany (Source: journey-to-germany.com)

Similarly, unless you have a present tense narrator who is covering things in the past as a clear framing device (“I didn’t know it at the time, but…”) it is important to stay in a consistent narrative voice, even if that means you’re saying “John was a tall man” when John might still be a tall man after the story.

Similarly with present tense, everything in the story should be in present tense, unless you are actually describing something happening in the past (these would be sections that would be in past perfect in a past tense novel). For example:

In present tense:

I walk down the street, looking at the spot Jack and I went on our first date.

“I walk” is in present tense, meaning everything happening in-story should be in present tense  (e.g. you shouldn’t have something like “I walk into the building and looked around” but “I walk into the building and look around”) but as the narrator and Jack’s first date happened in the past, that verb is properly in past tense.

In past tense:

I walked down the street, looking and the spot Jack and I had gone on our first date.

Here, the narrative is already in past tense (“I walked”) meaning everything happening in-story is related in past tense. To show something happening before the story, you then switch to past perfect (“had gone”).

Once you have decided the narrative voice of your story, you should stay consistent in either using present for in-story and past for the past, or past for in-story (including things that remain true after the story) and past perfect for the past. Slipping between tenses once one has been established can at best be jarring, and worst look like sloppy writing.

Dialogue-Strong vs. Narrative-Strong

As far as art forms go, creative writing is a bit of an interesting one. Just like painting or sculpting it can take a while to become skilled at it, but not everyone seems to expect that. I can’t say I have looked into any psychological studies about it, but what I am always reminded of is one school trip I made to a arts/theater festival in high school. While at dinner that night, I was complaining to a friend that I didn’t seem to be as good at acting as some of the other classmates we had come with, and at 15, I had determined that obviously I wasn’t “naturally” as talented as they were. A teacher nearby asked how long I had been practicing–not just my scene, but acting in general stating, “You wouldn’t expect to pick up a brush for the first time and be a brilliant painter, would you? Why would you expect to be a brilliant actor?”

It didn’t fully make sense to me at the time (what was acting, really? Standing in front of people and talking! I talked in front of people all the time!) but it always stuck with me. And it’s true. Art forms, even ones that seem easy in their simplest form (talking to people, writing words down) still require a certain skill set to progress from novice to professional.

As I hinted to above, writing is very similar. With most people learning to write in some way or another by first grade, putting words on paper isn’t difficult. We are taught how to form letters, go through spelling tests, and are forced to write hundreds of school papers by the time we graduate high school or college. Therefore, many people think of writing creatively as just another part of that progression. They could write good papers in high school so this is just doing that but while also telling an awesome story. At its heart, the skills that seem necessary to write a novel don’t seem very hard at all.

Of course, if writing (or writing well) were as simple as that, I wouldn’t have this blog. There really wouldn’t be much to discuss. You’d think of a story idea, write it down in your native language, and move on with your life. After over a decade of writing, and editing, and learning it as a craft, however, I’ve realized it isn’t quite that simple. Different people have different levels of natural talent when it comes to any art form. There might be someone who has never held a pen before who can draw or write at professional levels straight off the bat. There are Mozarts of every generation. If that doesn’t happen to be you, however, that doesn’t mean that you will never write or draw (or act) at the same level as them. It just means that you need to practice. Because for all the ways you could learn to go from being an okay writer to a great writer, the best is to read and write as much as possible.

The other part to going from okay to great is to figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are as a writer.

If you don’t happen to be a literary Mozart who comes to the table with all your writing skills sharply developed (I know I wasn’t) I find that writers tend to start out as either dialogue-strong or narrative-strong. It’s generally pretty simple to pick this out looking over your writing based on what you end up writing the most of in your first novel, but as a general outline:

Dialogue-Strong Authors tend to:

  • Prefer “discussion” scenes to “movement/action” scenes
  • Have long stretches of conversation, often either without tags or with very short tags (he said, he nodded, he asked, etc.)
  • Introduce characters with very little or no description but have well-developed “voices”
  • “get into a flow” when writing dialogue/not have to think too much as to how characters would naturally respond to each other

Narrative-Strong Authors tend to:

  • Prefer “movement/action” scenes to “discussion” scenes
  • May have long stretches of description without any dialogue or summaries of dialogue rather than actual discussion.
  • Provide great descriptions of characters but not feel comfortable with unique “voices”
  • “get into a flow” when writing narrative/develop brilliant action, but struggle to make conversations sound “natural”

These lists aren’t exact or all inclusive, of course, but they at least give a quick snapshot if you aren’t sure what your strength might be. If you still aren’t sure, look over whatever you’re writing and see if you are defaulting to one or the other.

I, personally, have always been a dialogue-strong writer. My struggle, therefore, has been figuring out how to insert narrative in a way that doesn’t feel clunky in the middle of dialogue. I know several authors who started out narrative-strong and have had to figure out how to make their dialogue sound natural. It doesn’t matter which your strength is, part of going from “okay” to “great” is learning how to do your weakness just as well as your strength. And that means practicing even if those parts seem awful and strained compared to what you’re naturally good at. Furthermore, when reading, pay careful attention to dialogue/narrative that you find well written and critically try to determine what about it works and what doesn’t. By identifying your weaknesses, you can become better as a writer overall, rather than just making what you’re already good at better.

Just a Pretty Face

As I’ve said before, I am a dialogue person. For whatever reason, dialogue is more fun (and plainly easier) for me to write than pretty much anything else. Of course, for novels, narrative, description, and all of that fun stuff is just as important, so my biggest challenge has always been slowing down enough to be sure to write down just exactly how these things I’m seeing in my head actual look (since for some reason, readers aren’t yet able to see exactly what I’m seeing when I write without me actually writing descriptions…odd that).

Of course, when trying to write description, it’s important to have a clear picture of characters and places in your head. There are only so many times you can give a character blond/brown/red hair and blue/brown/green eyes before even your own characters begin to lose shape in your head. When asked a while ago what a character from a book I wrote years ago looked like, I admit even I couldn’t remember. Not generally a good sign.

So while some characters might spring to mind very clearly, what do you do when you come up to a roadblock as to what a character looks like other than tall/short/average with X hair and X eyes?

I’m sure there are a number of solutions people have come up with, but mine, personally, is simple: Look at peopleWhile the first things you might use to describe someone in real life might be the same things you already had for a character (height, weight, coloring) studying a face, a real face, will give you a better picture in your head as to what actually makes a person rather than a person-shaped blob (am I the only one with blobby characters to start with? maybe?)

As for finding faces for inspiration, there are three different ways to generally go about it:

1. Watch people around you. Assuming you don’t live in some remote cabin/underground/in the Australian outback, most people come into regular contact with other humans on a day-to-day basis. By watching the people you interact with, it’s possible to start compiling features that shape your character. The man at the bakery’s hair, the girl on the metro’s chin, looking at what makes a person unique will help you move past X hair and X eyes. Of course, the downside to this can be the creepy factor. Staring at someone next to you at the bank will no doubt make you look odd/suspicious. “I’m a writer” only works so many times as an excuse.

2. Look at celebrities. Since staring at people on the street can get you weird looks, a lot of my writer friends prefer this route. After all, you’re supposed to stare at TV and Movie stars for long chunks of time. Some writers even prefer to “cast” their novel as they go along (Jane would be played by Jennifer Lawrence, Sam by Ryan Reynolds, etc. etc.) By picturing the “movie” version of your novel, it makes it really simple get more about your characters than just hair and eye color (and can serve as some good motivation to keep going when you hit a crisis of confidence–who wouldn’t want to see their story on the big screen?). While I do use this tactic from time to time (one of the characters in my WIP would totally be Darren Criss in my head…) I personally find I still can’t use this solution that often. While you have more of a chance to study celebrities than people in your every day life, you also have more of a chance to get used to their personality (or at least the personality you see on camera). While you might not have meant it to be, basing a character off how Natalie Portman looks in Black Swan might end up giving you a character slightly more psychotic than you originally intended–simply because you start writing that character, not your own.

3. Use Google Image Search to look up headshots. And so we get to my personal favorite solution when it comes to finding faces for characters–using Google Images to look up pictures of random people. While you might still have a little bit of the creep factor (staring at random people online…? Okay…?) it isn’t quite as bad as staring at people on the street.  And while you can spend a long time studying the picture, you don’t also know who the person is and have that coloring your perception (added bonus, you can also find much more “average” people in these kinds of headshots than you can in Hollywood. Not everyone wants the “nerd” in their story to look like  Rachel Weisz in glasses). To use this method, you can just go to images.google.com, type in what you’re looking for (headshot girl red hair, headshot old man) and you will come up with pages of faces to look at without looking like a creep to anyone but the people at Google recording your searches (but if you’re a writer, they probably already think you’re a druggy serial killer based on those searches anyway, so who really cares?)


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Googled Questions

One of the things I have to say I love about WordPress (the host for this blog, if you missed that in the URL) is that they give you a stats page about your blog. It might be a little more addicting than it should be (I really want someone from Russia to read this blog one of these days to get that country filled in on the “where your readers are” map) but it’s very handy when it comes to seeing how you’re reaching your readers, and what posts are the most popular.

What can be interesting about the stat page, though, is that it will sometimes show you search terms that brought people to your page. For example, if someone searched “Jessica Dall” and then clicked over here from Bing or Google or another search engine, it might show “Jessica Dall” as a search term on my stats page. Of course the page isn’t going to let me know who’s doing the searching (or even what country they’re in) since I’m sure that’s some sort of privacy violation, but it is interesting to see what people are trying to find out when they make it to this blog.

So, for anyone who’s Googled something and haven’t found the answer they wanted here, I’ll do my best at answering some of those questions. (Questions edited for spelling mistakes/coherency)

Q. Is 300,000 words a long book?
A. Yes, it is, but hardly the longest out there.
– Likely article(s) they were interested in: Why it’s harder to get longer books published , or tips on cutting down word count.

Q. When writing in third person, can you say what several characters are feeling?
A. It depends. There are two different ways of writing third person: Third Person Limited and Third Person Omniscient. In the first (currently more popular) narrative, you are telling a story through the point of view (POV) of a character, just describing them as he/she/it rather than I. In third Person Limited you should stay in the head of your POV character (thus you can only say what they feel/what they observe. If they don’t know Character B is upset because she had a little sister POV Character’s age, the narrative can’t explain that while still in POV Character’s head). In Third Person Omniscient, the story is being told by an all-knowing narrator. It is generally uncommon to find true Third Person Omniscient stories at the moment (the style seems to have been most popular in the 19th century) but if the story is being told by a narrator who knows everything it is possible for that narrator to say how all the characters a feeling (just make sure you aren’t writing in Third Person Limited and then decided you’re going to call it Third Person Omniscient randomly just so you can jump back and forth with how characters are feeling).
Likely article(s) they were interested in: Head Jumping

Q. Should you use contractions in query letter?
A. Sure. I’m not sure there is a set protocol for it (I never knew one when I worked in submissions) but I don’t believe there’s any reason to sound overly formal in a query letter and (at least to me) you sound more natural as a writer if you use contractions, which is a good thing in my humble opinion.
– Likely article(s) they were interested in: I don’t think there’s one directly related, but I do touch on why you should use contractions in creative writing here.

Q. How much narration do I need in a novel?
A. Depends on your novel. There are reasons to use narration some places and dialogue others. It’s about weighing the pros and cons to each. The big thing is not to worry too much about having a perfect ratio of narration to dialogue in your novel, it’s to make sure you’re telling the story the best way it can be told.
– Likely article(s) they were interested in: Pros and Cons to dialogue and narrative in Too Much Dialogue

Q. What’s the poison thing vampires have?
A. I don’t know, Googler, I don’t know… Apparently rather than turning someone into a vampire by feeding them your vampire blood (a la Anne Rice) in some books it’s “vampire poison” ( though I suppose it would be “vampire venom” if you’re going to be technical on the poison vs. venom thing) that turns a human into a vampire (the bite infects them or what not and if they don’t die the poison/venom changes them into vampires). Of course, it’s fantasy, so your guess is as good as mine.
– Likely article(s) they were interested in: One of the many where I talk about writing problems where Twilight just happens to pop up…

Q. Is it ok to use song lyrics for writing prompts?
A. Absolutely. I’ve used a couple of different songs as the original inspiration for characters, plots, or even entire stories that have now been published. What you don’t want to do, however, is quote the song lyrics in your story (you can get into a whole host of problems with copyright infringement then).
– Likely article(s) they were interested in: Writing Prompts

Q. What’s the shortest word count a publisher will accept?
A. It depends on the publisher (look at their submission guidelines as to what they accept before sending a query). It also will depend on if the publisher only publishes novels (generally considered to be over 50,000 words, but many publishers put novels in the 70,000+ words range) or if they also publish novellas and short stories. Of course, word counts are generally guidelines. One novel I have coming out this summer is around 51,000 words and the publisher generally doesn’t publish things that short, they just liked mine and made an exception. If nothing else, and you have an awkward word count, try searching for a publisher on a site like Duotrope which will let you search based one word counts accepted rather than just “novel/novella/short story”
– Likely article(s) they were interested in: Word Limits

Q. Why do people say “dahlin'”?
A. Regional accents (in this case Southern US more than likely). If I remember my history of language class, that exact morphing of “darling” come from the fact that a US “Southern” accent is actually closer to an old English accent than many other US accents (supposedly Shakespeare would have sounded sort of Southern to us?) and thus it shares the same ‘h’ sounding ‘r’ as a British accent today (“dahling”). As to spelling it like that in a novel, “dahlin'” might be one you can get away with for phonetic spelling of accents (people generally will know what the word is without struggling) but as always, I’d be wary of trying to go overboard with “fonetik” spellings.
– Likely article(s) they were interested in: Wy I Hayt Fonetik Axsents

Q. When are info dumps necessary?
A. Never. Ok, ok, probably not never, there’s always an exception to all writing advice and times you can do things that aren’t suggested amazingly, but as a general rule? Stay away from info dumps unless you’re parodying a Bond villain. There are almost always better ways to get information into a story than info dumping.
– Likely articles(s) they were interested in: Tips on how to get information in without info dumps in Info Dumps

Q. Is J. K. Rowling a bad writer/J. K. Rowling bad writing examples/examples of awful writing in Harry Potter/[and the list goes on]?
A. It’s interesting to see just how many different people are looking for examples of what makes J. K. Rowling a bad writer. Honestly, I enjoyed the Harry Potter series as some light reading as a teen, but no writer is faultless, so for those looking for some of J.K.’s weaknesses:
Over uses adverbs
– Clichéd plots/characters/etc
Flat Prose
Contrived Plot Points
And I’m sure there are more that people will point out (believe me, if you were a best seller, people would be picking apart every little problem you have in your novel too) but those are some major ones. Just remember, no author is infallible.
– Likely article(s) they were interested in: But They Did It… about why best sellers aren’t always the best role models.

Q. Some real stories on why you shouldn’t use i cant believe it’s not butter?
A. All right, not really a question, and I don’t have an answer for it, but some how it linked someone to my blog. I really have no clue how. Still amuses me enough I felt the need to end with it. If someone has some sites with stories on why you shouldn’t use “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” (other than that meaningless “margarine’s a molecule away from being plastic” myth) please let me know, since obviously a search engine thinks I can help people with that.
– Likely article(s) they were interested in: …um…I really have no clue…

Info Dumps

In a recent blog post, I briefly touched on the topic of Info Dumps, that is, a long section of text that gives a ton of back story all at once. In that post I was suggesting to look at chopping down info dumps as a way to decrease the word count of an overly long novel. Now, since then, I have gotten the question:

Could you elaborate on how to turn info-dumping into story-telling?”

It’s a good question. After all, in any story there is going to be background information a reader needs to know. This is especially true in stories set in other worlds (be them fantasy, sci fi, alternate universes…) where the reader can’t know everything already (who’s in charge? how do they live? what is the weather like?) but it also happens in modern-day stories. Perhaps the majority of your readers will understand it being cold in winter, but who is your character? Who are their parents? How did they end up doing what they do? Depending on the story, all of that could be important. So how do you get all of that in without falling into an info dump?

1. Figure out if the information is actually important. As I pointed out in my earlier article, we authors tend to know the entire history of a character/world (or at least we should since it helps in writing a story). Perhaps you even know what the character’s favorite color is and what time they get up for work in the morning (depending how in depth your planning is and if you’ve filled out character questionnaires). All of that is important to you as a writer, as who your character is shapes a story. All of that might not be important to the reader, however.

Did your character have a pet they really loved as a child? All right. Does that pet come up in the story? Is it still alive and mentioned? Does the character not want another pet because of its death? Did it’s death strongly influence how the character is acting now? If so, you can bring it up. Does the pet never show up? Did its death not really affect the character at this point? If so, it might be an interesting bit of information to you, but it probably doesn’t need to be in the story.

2. Figure out if the important information needs to be known now. Perhaps the aforementioned pet is going to be important later in the story (it turns out that the mild-mannered pet your character’s had for 14 years can actually talk and will lead them into Never-Never Land) do you have to get all of the information about the pet innow? Of course you always want to mention important things before you actually need them in a story (otherwise you risk sounding something like, “Oh no, what’s that sound? I can’t go outside for whatever reason, so I’m going to send the dog I’ve never mentioned before but had for years! That’s totally not a cop out!”) but you don’t generally have to put in everything all at once. In one scene you can mention the pet. A couple scenes later your character can say something about how long the pet’s been around. You probably don’t need to give a long paragraph of all the information at once.

3. Figure out other ways to get the information in. The end of point 2 touched on this a little. Just like spreading information out, information doesn’t always need to be given in a chunk of narrative. Rather than starting a story:

“Jennifer was an average looking 17-year-old girl with blonde hair and brown eyes who went to school at Centerville High, the school she had been at for the past three years with her best friend Maya…”

You can work all that information in throughout the story. Even in the first chapter if you need it there.

“Jennifer pulled up to Centerville High and sighed. She’d already suffered through three years of the place, but obviously that wasn’t enough….

“Her best friend, Maya, ran up to her, ‘Happy Birthday! How’s it feel to be 17?’…

“Jennifer tossed her long blonde hair over her shoulder…”

And so on and so on. All of the information makes it in, it just isn’t all one large chunk.

4. Don’t rely on narrative. Narrative is meant to tell people things, so it’s completely understandable that it’s easy to fall into an info dump when you’re using a lot of it. You’re talking about the Main Character’s job, and, Oh! How did they get the job? You should probably put that in…but if you do that, you really should talk about college…and…and…

Dialogue is a good way to stop yourself from info dumping if you’re finding it a problem, since it feels more awkward to do (people don’t generally give their entire back story in one long monologue when meeting someone–except perhaps Bond villains). But even with dialogue, you still have to be careful. Good dialogue sounds natural, trying to force information in doesn’t make for any better dialogue than it would narrative.

Try to say away from “As you know, Bob”s (“It’s been 11 years since we last talked, Bob, as you know. So why I’m saying so makes no sense, but I thought I’d say it anyway” “Indeed, I’m glad, after 11 years, we’ve been able to meet in San Jose, as you know, a town on the coast of California…”) and don’t force lead in questions (“Hey, Tony, how long have you had that dog?” *End of what can fit in a plausible answer* “Oh yeah? Well where did you get it?” “It really is special to you, isn’t it?”) It sometimes takes practice, but you definitely shouldn’t feel like a character is interviewing another to get necessary information in (Tip: Remember you can space it out. You don’t need to get everything in all at once).

5. Trust your readers not to be idiots. This could be joined with the first point, but personally, after years of editing, I think it bears repeating. You definitely don’t want to lose readers, but also trust that people reading your book tend to have a basic level of intelligence. If there’s something important put the information in, but don’t feel the need go too far in depth, especially if it’s something the reader is likely familiar with.

For example, perhaps not everyone has a bed, or has slept in a bed, but it is likely that the vast, vast majority of people reading your book will at least be aware of the basic concept. You do not, therefore, have to give a ton of information about it (“The bed has been made five years ago out of panels of wood that had been nailed together to make a frame, with slats between them and a mattress placed on top…”)

You can also tend to trust most of your readers to be able to draw some conclusions without spelling it out. “Jennifer walked to class as the first bell rang” will let people know that Jennifer is probably a student. “The teacher added a final 4 at the end of the equation before turning around” will tell people that Jennifer’s probably in math class (or at least a science class). Bits of detail that come naturally in a scene can serve just as well to get information in, you just have to trust your reader not to need things spelled out.

War on Was

This blog post actually comes from an in-person request to talk about the old “Showing vs. Telling” discussion.

Hands up, how many people rolled their eyes at the thought of hearing “show, don’t tell.” Congratulations, you have probably been part of a creative writing class (or at least an English class that did a section on creative writing). I admit I don’t remember a lot of my Senior English class in High School, but for the creative writing section towards the end, I do remember that being said over and over again. “Show, don’t tell.”

Eye rolling aside, as overused as that advice seems to be, it is a good piece of advice overall (I make it often as an editor). As a reader, it’s much more interesting to be shown what’s happening than being told. I mean, which one of these seems to be more interesting?

A: “It was raining. It made Tim angry.”

B: “The rain fell down the window. Tim watched, clenching his fists.”

Votes? I’m going to guess at least the majority say B. Why? Because A tells us what’s happening (It’s raining. Tim’s angry) B gives an image of the rain falling to picture and shows what’s happening to let us know Tim’s angry. It’s just not as interesting being told as it is to be able to picture things.

Obviously, this is a pretty common problem people have. As a writer, you have a picture in your head. It sometimes slips away that your reader isn’t seeing what you’re seeing. Also, it’s easier to just say what’s happening in your head than explain every movement. You can see your character’s angry, so why wouldn’t you put “He was angry”? The problem is well known enough that it’s even spoofed in the Futurama episode, “The Devil’s Hands are Idle Playthings“:

Your lyrics lack subtlety! You can’t just have your characters announce how they feel. That makes me feel angry!



Like getting past “Hey look! I’m a Writer!” Syndrome, I think learning to show rather than tell is something many writers simply start to grow out of as they read and write and edit more. After enough time, you get more comfortable and stop trying as hard, and that makes for better writing (in my opinion at least). The note I generally leave in manuscripts I’m editing is, “What is he/she doing? How would we know they’re sad/angry/happy/etc.

Of course there are suggestions to help weed out telling. Unfortunately, I think many suggestions are far too often abused. The one I hear most often is Don’t use To Be verbs.

Now, I completely understand that piece of advice, and I often point out places not to use them in manuscripts I’m editing. “To be” verbs (is, are, was, were, am, been…) are weak. They don’t have an image associated along with them. Picture “She ran.” You can see what’s happening, right? Now picture “She is.” The fact that “she” exists is all you get from the second. Not thrilling reading if something’s supposed to be happening. If any other verb is possible for an action, you probably shouldn’t use was, “It was raining”? “The rain fell.” “She was running”? “She ran.” Just by taking out the to be verb the sentences become stronger, and are showing, not telling.

This “to be” verb problem is well know (This site, for example, has an entire article about it) and generally easily correctable. The problem starts, however, when this tip is abused. “Don’t use to be verbs when you don’t have to” is good advice. “Don’t use to be verbs” isn’t.

Going back to that English class Senior Year of High School, the teacher actually gave us the task of writing the entire assignment (a 10-page short story) without using any “to be” verbs. Now, I can understand you try to make a point in English classes about things, and taking things to extremes help some people switch out of problem writing entirely, but what most people I know took away from that exercise was that “to be” verbs are evil and should be avoided at all cost. I admit, I spent a good portion of class trying to figure out how to switch out all my “was, weres, and be’s” and it took me a long time to feel all right using any sort of “to be” verb in any of my writing a while after that.

And that’s why I classify it. “Don’t use to be verbs when you don’t have to.” If there’s a better, stronger word you can use, use it. Don’t spend time, however, avoiding “to be” verbs at all costs. Some times you need them, and trying to take them out just makes the writing awkward.

Is Main Street a sleepy part of town? It’s ok to say “Main Street was never busy.” You don’t have to try to finesse the sentence to “Main Street sat in the center of town, never busy.” If you prefer the second, all right, but “to be” verbs are normal. People speak with “to be” verbs. Things can be described with “to be” verbs. It is important to not bore people with a lot of telling in your work, but it’s also important to keep your writing sounding natural.

So, as with everything, don’t take every rule as gospel, ask for help/critiques, and trust yourself.

“Hey look! I’m a writer!” Syndrome

And we’re back. Hopefully everyone had a good weekend! Let’s start this week with a quick pop quiz:

Q: What is wrong with this sentence?

The golden sun rose as a burning orb from the emerald green that carpeted the horizon into the azure blue sky.”

A: Well, perhaps there are a couple of things wrong, but the main one I’d hope people caught is the purple prose.

Again, like much of what I talk about on this blog, purple prose is a term that’s relatively well known in the writing community, but for those who don’t know, I believe this man (calling himself Bob Dole interestingly…) might have put it best, “I’d say that purple prose is a passage that is so needlessly ornate and wordy that it takes away from the meaning of the passage.

I think anyone who’s read enough has probably come across at least one example of purple prose. The sun can’t rise, it’s a golden orb lifting magnificently. A woman can’t have red hair, she has hair the color of a burning ember that flows like torrents over her shoulders.

Now, of course, we’re writers, we want to describe things vividly. After all, it’s a good thing to help readers see what we’re seeing while writing. But as our good friend Bob says, “The more wordy the passage gets, the harder it is to get the point across.” And that’s always a bad thing. I might be old fashioned, but isn’t part of being a good writer, I don’t know, writing things that people understand? Sometimes you can get away with borderline purple prose, but more often than not, it just obscures what you’re talking about in the first place.

Think about it, if the sun is a golden orb, rather than “the sun” and your main character’s eyes are “emerald orbs” rather than green eyes (people writing purple prose have an odd attachment to the word “orb” for some reason I find more than often) all of a sudden, the readers is having to work to keep track of what orbs are floating where and what they’re supposed to represent.

“But don’t we want the reader to think about our story?” someone may be asking. The keyword there is “story”. Having a reader engage with your story, having them want to read more, is a good thing. Having a reader confused with what you’re saying is the exact opposite. No one wants to be focusing on trying to understand the wording when they should be focusing on the characters and plot. And, truly, which is easier for you to understand/picture? Her green eyes, or her emerald orbs? At least for me, the first I’m picturing, well, green eyes, and the second I’m picturing her holding glass balls that are dark green. It doesn’t make for a powerful image. It makes for an overly poetic, confusing one.

Maybe you agree with me, maybe you don’t, but having just read a book for review where my main complaint is that the language takes away from an otherwise touching story, I feel completely safe in saying that purple prose not only obscures what the author is trying to say, but it makes it look like they really don’t know what they’re doing.

And thus, that is why I almost always personally refer to purple prose as “Hey look! I’m a writer!” Syndrome. Though this is one thing I never had a problem with in my early writing (unlike all the other problems I’ve more than willing to admit to) it seems far too often that people who have just started writing feel the need to prove they’re a real writer, and so what do they do? Prove that they are amazing wordsmiths of course. Anyone can write about someone’s green eyes, real writers obviously can embellish to the point where the person reading will weep picturing the detailed world they have created. That’s how they prove they’re a real writer. Right?

Now, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know exactly how I feel about this idea that there are “real” writers and, I don’t know, fake writers(?) but purple prose nearly always seems like an extension of that idea, at least to me. You might be new to writing, but you are a “real” writer, dagnabit, and a good, nay, great one at that. Look how skillfully you craft descriptive words. All those fake writers out there can’t do that.

I don’t know first hand, but I imagine that that isn’t even a conscious thought. You aren’t sitting at your computer or there with a pen thinking, “I’ll show them all. I’m a writer!” but from what I’ve seen, that is the motivation for “Hey look! I’m a writer!” Syndrome. And that’s why it has the exact opposite effect. It doesn’t make you look like a good (or “real” writer) it makes you look like someone who has no idea what they’re doing trying too hard. If you look at the definition of “prose” (courtesy of Wikipedia), “Prose is the most typical form of language, applying ordinary grammatical structure and natural flow of speech rather than rhythmic structure (as in traditional poetry).”

What I want to focus on there is “natural flow of speech.” I don’t know about anyone else out there, but I have never heard any of my friends refer to eyes as X orbs (X=chocolate, emerald, cerulean, lilac, etc.) I’ve never heard someone talk about the golden orb rising into an azure sky.

Of course, as writers we have some leeway when it comes to discriptive language, I’m not saying to be bland with your writing either, but still, being a good writer isn’t about obscuring your story with flamboyant prose. It’s about making the normal interesting. A good writer is someone who can maintain a rhythm in their writing that not only reads well, but is completely natural. A good writer can produce beautiful, beautiful prose to the point where casual readers don’t even notice how good it really is.

And so, please, new or established writers, resist the urge try to prove something with your writing and don’t throw so many frills on your prose that it’s hard to even keep straight what you’re talking about. It doesn’t make you look like a good writer, it makes you look like a bad writer who’s trying too hard.

Especially if you’re sending me a book to review, because I will call you out on it.

Too Much Dialogue

Today’s News: Read an interview I did with An Innovative Pursuit here about writing, Grey Areas, and upcoming The Bleeding Crowd.


Another topic courtesy of the NaNoWriMo forums: How much dialogue is too much dialogue in a novel/short story?

For anyone who’s read my work, you’re probably assuming that my answer is “there’s never too much dialogue.” I’ll be the first to admit that I am a huge fan of dialogue. In fact, regarding my last short story published (“Frankincense” for those of you who don’t want to pop over to my biography), the acceptance letter for the anthology literally started:

” Well…normally when I read a manuscript that consists of 95% dialogue, I stop reading after about two pages and prepare a decline letter.  Yours, however, kept me reading…which is what a good story should do.”

She went on to compare it to Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, so I’ll take it overall as a compliment, but you know you write a lot of dialogue when someone accepting your work feels the need to point out that it’s nearly all dialogue (personally, I think 95% is overestimating, but still…)

Every author I know has a different take on dialogue. Personally, I find it the most interesting (and generally easiest) thing to write. Many people find it the hardest  (I’ve more than once heard people complaining about how poorly they do dialogue). Editing, I can see that. For some people, dialogue comes naturally. For some it sounds stilted and unnatural. Based on our skills/preferences, it’s completely understandable (at least to me) that we each lean one way or another. We write more dialogue or more narrative.

More and more, though, I hear people talking about being worried they’re using too much/not enough dialogue in their writing. For example, this post in the NaNoWriMo Forums this morning:

So my novel is 75000 words and pretty much done.  Problem is, the last 1/3 is alot of dialogue…I dont think I can cut much of it without losing the vital information it posesses.  Is there something I can do to fix this problem?  I am trying to add alot of movement between words and descriptives to break it up but I still find myself worrying…HELP.

And on the other side:

Do you think it’s either bad style or very off-putting to readers if there are whole pages (or 2 or 3 pages at a time) with no dialogue? I often find I’m following events involving one person on their own, and I realise it’s been three pages since anyone actually SAID anything.”

Now, I admit I’ve been trying to put a little more narrative into my writing, but then, personally I don’t like reading too much narrative, so I probably (read: definitely) still lean on the dialogue-heavy side.

So, when should you worry that you have too much dialogue (or too much narrative)? Or should you even worry?

Based on the odd compliment for Frankincense, it seems too much dialogue could hurt you when it comes to submitting your work. Though I never had a problem with a ton of dialogue in submissions (it would be a bit hypocritical to…) I’m sure others in acquisitions and agents might dislike it. While that can come from just about any part of your writing style (it’s why you should expect those rejects I was talking about in yesterday’s post) you definitely don’t want to find yourself in the reject pile before the agent/publisher of your choice has actually had a chance to look at your work.

So, like everything else when it comes to writing, it comes down to weighing the pros and cons.

Dialogue Pro:

– Dialogue tends to move more quickly due to its quick back and forth nature. It’s simple to explain things without taking too much time and losing the reader’s attention

Narrative Pro:

– Narrative moves slowly (or more slowly than dialogue) and gives you a chance to really dig in to important things. People don’t tend to get into long intricate explanations (unless they’re Bond villains) and thus you can do things with narrative that will sound awkward in dialogue.

Dialogue Pro:

– Dialogue gives you a chance to develop multiple characters at once. One of the quickest ways to tell who someone is is to hear them talk. What kind of grammar does the character use? What words? Is he/she polite or swear like a sailor? A couple of lines and people can tell a ton without long-winded paragraphs about your character’s back story.

Narrative Pro:

– Narrative gives you a chance to see the world through your POV (Point of View) Character’s eyes. Of course this doesn’t work so well in omniscient third person, but as that style hasn’t been popular in the better part of a century, generally you’re relating the story, or at least each scene, through one character. This is especially true in first person. Dialogue has to be more truthful than narrative. You write what is said. How your POV character interprets things, however, shows up in narrative. Are they the type to take every little thing as sarcasm? Do they think the way their boss just winced means they’re getting fired? You can show how they react much better with narrative.

Dialogue Con:

It’s easy to get into “As you know, Bob” situations with dialogue. For those of you who don’t know/don’t want to risk the time black-hole that is TV Tropes, “As you know, Bob” is a term that describes those awkward bits of a dialogue where it’s obviously the author trying to get information in the reader needs to know, but what the characters would never be talking about, since they both know what’s going on. For example:

“How is Cathy, your sister, doing?”
“Just fine. As you know, she fell off a building lately, but fell on a circus tent and thus didn’t get as hurt as she could have.”

1) Why would the first speaker need to clarify that Cathy is the second’s sister? The second speaker knows that. And 2) Why would the second speaker need to explain something that the first speaker already knows (Cathy’s fall)? It’s awkward and could be taken care of with a line of narrative along the lines of “It had been three weeks since his sister, Cathy’s fall…”

Narrative Con:

It’s much easier to fall into “laundry lists” with narrative. For example:

“Tim and Nancy went to the store. It took about 15 minutes. They walked up and down the aisles. They found milk. Then they checked out…”

Now, part of that example’s problem is the repetitive sentence structure and what not, but hopefully you see where I’m going. There’s no need give a play-by-play account of what’s happening, but it’s so easy to do when writing narrative. Unless one of your characters is supposed to be long-winded and boring, it will just feel awkward for something along the lines of:

“How was your day?”
“Well, I went to the store. It took me about 15 minutes to get there. Then I walked through all the aisles…”

And the list goes on and on. Will I keep trying to add narrative to my writing? Sure. But I’m not going to worry about the proper ratio for it. At least in my opinion, the genre of your novel and the situation of each scene is going to dictate how much narrative is needed just as much as my preference for dialogue. Rather than worrying about a ratio, or if people aren’t going to be happy with this much narrative or that much dialogue, weigh the pros and cons of each for what you want to happen in the scene. After all, if Frankincense is any indication, good writing will come out above any ratio of dialogue to narrative. It’s just about getting it to be good.