Friday, October 11, 2013

The #1 Rule for Writers

Now that we know some of the basics of getting the layout of the story it’s time to actually start writing the story itself. Way back in 2006 I wrote my first novel, Karl’s Last Flight. I was excited. I knew I had achieved the dream and was going to make millions when it sold, which would of course be immediately. I started submitting it to agents and publishers and got nothing but dozens of rejections. I couldn’t figure out why. Then one agent, who had requested the manuscript to read got back to me with the most confusing statement I’d ever heard.

“Learn show, don’t tell.”

As writers we tend to like to describe things with words. Flowery descriptions of beautiful landscapes, or character’s bodies, or the scene in a room seem to sound natural to us. When reading classical literature, or even modern ‘literary works’ (more on the difference between literary & commercial fiction in another post), we often find ourselves stepping into such descriptive texts.

The problem with overly describing a scene is that we are taking the reader out of the story and sitting them in a lecture hall. We are telling them what they are seeing, instead of letting them see it by engaging the visual part of their imagination.

Here’s an example of Telling:

Stressed from a long day at the office Bill opened the door and cringed at the sound of the hinges creaking as it swung inward. He thought about the need to fix that awful noise as he stepped into the house. The hallway was long and straight, stretching all the way to the other end of the house where he could see through the back screen door into the yard where his kids bounced on the backyard trampoline. Next to the door stood a tall wooden coat rack with a hat and an umbrella on the other hooks. He took off his coat and hung it on the nearest hook. Next to the coat rack was a dark wood table with a scratched surface on which he put his keys next to a china vase filled with porcelain replicas of roses. He stepped down the hallway, shoes clicking on the marble tiled surface as he made his way toward the kitchen. The smell of his wife’s cooking filled the air around him causing his stomach to gurgle in hunger.

And here’s the same story being Shown:

Bill cringed at the creaky hinges of his front door. The wrinkles in his brow deepened.

Gotta get that fixed.

He dropped his jacket on the empty hook of the old-fashioned coat rack between the hat and the umbrella that kept it company. A flick of the wrist and his keys skidded across the nearby wooden table adding a couple new scars to the surface as they chinked to a stop against a china vase, the vibration eliciting a tinkly song from the porcelain roses packed into it. A draft snaked down the long hall from the screen door at the opposite end, snatching the scent of his wife’s cooking from the kitchen and sending it swirling around his head. Reflected shadows rose and on the polished marble floor as the lowering sun back lit his kids’ wild bouncing. Their gleeful laughter vibrated the length of the house, erasing the stress that followed him home from the office. That trampoline was the best thing he’d ever bought.

See the difference? The key to writing a story people can get immersed in is letting their imagination build the pictures by showing action rather than describing the scene. This is something that takes a lot of time and practice to learn, but as you get it down it becomes the natural way to write.

There are many great resources out there that can help you get a really solid grip on how to do it, such as those written by my friends James Scott Bell and Jodie Renner that can help immensely. The biggest and best tool though is to read good authors who make it zing. Some of my favorite examples of well written fiction that hits the mark are the works of Ken Follett, Frederick Forsyth, Louis L’Amour, and Nelson Demille. Oh, and how could I forget the inestimable Terry Pratchett? Pratchett is able to paint wonderful pictures with actions of his characters that will have you alternately in awe and rolling on the floor laughing.

What about you? What authors have you found that hit the style that paints the pictures best in your mind?
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  1. Basil: I just plowed through a book that was 99% tell. So sad. Even the "exciting" opening--chopper attacking M/C's car on winding road in France on the edge of a giant cliff that drops onto the rocks and roiling surf was ruined. That was the "Action" part--the only action part.

    So what can I say? I mean, the book is already written. Printed on actual paper, even.

    So why am I the only one commenting here? I just "know" there must be millions of readers/writers stopping by to pick these pearls of wisdom. (Not kidding.)

    Well, lucky me. I'll just keep reading and commenting.

    See you at TKZ.


  2. Oh...and I forgot to comment on your comment.

    I know what you mean about books that drag. In my narration work I sometimes run into those but don't have the luxury of putting it down when the suckiness reaches epic levels. I recently finished one that was so tedious to read I kept finding myself literally stopping and shaking my head as I tried to figure out what the writer was trying to do. The hardest part is trying to make things like that sound good in spite of the horrible writing,

    On the plus side via the narrations of good and bad alike I am fast learning what works and what doesn't when it comes to my own writing.