Today's tip is short and sweet:
When making a comparison with words like different, better, or smaller, make sure you follow it up with the right kind of preposition.
"Than" is the most common choice, although some people use "from" after the word different.
The most common mistake we see is authors using the phrase "different to." This only works in specific usages of different, such as "He looks different to me." This works because there is no comparison being made.
RIGHT: His clothes were different from the last time she'd seen him.
WRONG: Her perfume smelled different to how it used to.
RIGHT: He was bigger than me.
WRONG: The cat was better as the dog at climbing.
Happy editing, everyone!
Today, we welcome Kate to the blog with another detailed look at Show Don't Tell.
A knock sounded on the door. (1) I looked up at the old, wooden rectangle with its peeling white paint and held my breath. (2) I knew who it was before the door opened (3) but I felt panicked anyway. (4) The door opened, and I watched as Aunt Pauline walked in. (5) She was wearing a long flowing summer dress, which was what she always wore when she beat me, and her hair was shiny, gray and long, all the way down her back to her waist. (6) She looked fierce as she strode toward where I was sitting on the bed. (7) I wanted to get up and run fast, away from her and all the horrible things she did to me, but I was stuck. (8)
Aunt Pauline gave me an angry look that scared me, and a shiver ran down my spine. I was so frightened and I felt my hands starting to shake. (9) But I knew I had to be brave and deal with it (10) if I wanted to go through with the escape plan later that I made with my best friend Jarrod to meet by our tree. (11)
Now let's analyse this...
(1) A knock sounded at the door
The reader is being TOLD that there's a knock at the door, which is great as this definitely attempts to engage their hearing. But, it would be so much stronger if they were able to actually HEAR the knock. Something like: Tap. Tap. Tap. By writing this in italics, you're letting the reader hear the taps at the same time as the character.
(2) I looked up at the old, wooden rectangle with its peeling white paint and I held my breath.
Here the reader is being TOLD what they can see but more emotional depth could be SHOWN here to create tension, letting the reader SHARE the character's fear. If you simply SHOW what the reader can see in this moment the experience becomes far more engaging. Also, doors are usually rectangle in shape so maybe show some finer detail, something that might reflect how the character is feeling as well. Something like: I held my breath, my eyes traveling to the chipped, wood-paneled door, peeling white paint clinging on for its life, or maybe making its escape - I could relate to both.
(3) I knew who it was before the door opened
To know is considered a filter verb and TELLING, and from time to time it's perfectly okay to use them. In this instance, it could indeed work, but an alternative way to SHOW and make this stronger, might be to let the reader access the character's thoughts. Something like: She was here. She'd found me. Or a direct thought in italics like: She's here. She's found me.
(4) but I felt panicked anyway.
To feel is another filter verb as you're simply TELLING the reader how the character is feeling. It's so much stronger to let the reader FEEL the emotion and SEE the character's physical reaction. Something like: I squeezed fistfuls of the bed sheet, my heart kicking like a spooked horse, its hooves so loud it was all I could hear.
(5) The door opened, and I watched as Aunt Pauline walked in.
This is similar to (2) in that the reader is being TOLD how the character is watching the action, creating a certain distance. It's so much stronger to SHOW with strong verbs, again raising the tension. Something like: The door creaked, opening slowly, gradually, the outline of Aunt Pauline darkening my room. Silent, her toes pointed like a ballerina, she slid into my room.
(6) She was wearing a long flowing summer dress, which was what she always wore when she beat me, and her hair was shiny, gray and long, all the way down her back to her waist.
The dreaded "was" has infested this sentence making it really quite boring. Rather than TELL the reader what Aunt Pauline looks like, it would be so much more exciting and interesting to SEE her appearance through her movements. Something like: The hem of her summer dress, the dress she wore only for my turn, the one that infected my nightmares, caressed her manicured feet as she moved, swishing against her legs. And her gray streaked hair, loose, swinging around her waist, glistened in the moonlight seeping through my curtains.
(7) She looked fierce as she strode toward where I was sitting on the bed.
Here, you're actually TELLING the reader quite a lot - what Aunt Pauline looks like, where she's going and where the POV character is. This could all be blended in more subtly with a lot of finer details included by engaging the senses. Something like: Aunt Pauline glided toward my bed, step by step, until her cold bare toes pressed against mine. She loomed over me, her slight frame suddenly seven foot tall and two foot wide.
(8) I wanted to get up and run fast, away from her and all the horrible things she did to me, but I was stuck.
Again you're TELLING the reader what the character wants rather than letting them SHARE this need and FEEL and SEE it in the character's body language, at the same time only hinting at what horrible things Aunt Pauline did. Something like: My feet, my body, every bruise and healed bone, longed to run. Fast, away, anywhere but beside this witch and her evil hands. But as always paralysis claimed me.
(9) Aunt Pauline gave me an angry look that scared me, and a shiver ran down my spine. I was so frightened and felt my hands starting to shake.
A lot of TELLING in this short sentence, such as Aunt Pauline's look being an angry one and that the POV character is scared. And although that ending does SHOW us some physical reactions, one is a little overused and cliche nowadays. It would be so much more engaging if the reader could SEE the anger and FEEL and SHARE the fear, maybe HEAR the character's thoughts. Something like: Her face lowered until her breath kissed my nose, and Aunt Pauline's lip curled into a snarl, teeth bared. A scream blocked my airways, sinking into my chest and stomach. I had to stay calm, not move, not utter a sound. But my hands betrayed me, trembling, sliding backwards.
(10) But I knew I had to be brave and deal with it
To know is another filter verb which is a TELLING red flag and can easily be removed by allowing the reader to HEAR the character's thoughts. Something like: Come on, Sally. Come on. I urged my mind to take me away, focus on a better place. A technique that allowed me to leave the present.
(11) if I wanted to go through with the escape plan later that I made with my best friend Jarrod to meet by our tree.
This final sentence TELLS the reader everything, perhaps too much, which isn't necessarily wrong because it certainly does SHOW that this character has hatched a plan to escape her abuser, a little about her personality. But, there is a lot of room where you could be more subtle and add some voice. Something like: But tonight things were different. Tonight would be the last time I would let Aunt Pauline come near me. Jarrod, my beautiful Jarrod, would be waiting for me by our tree. My freedom called to me.
And now let's put it all together...
Tap. Tap. Tap.
I held my breath, my eyes traveling to the chipped, wood-paneled door, peeling white paint clinging on for its life, or maybe making its escape - I could relate to both.
She's here. She's found me. I squeezed fistfuls of the bed sheet, my heart kicking like a spooked horse, its hooves so loud it was all I could hear.
The door creaked, opening slowly, gradually, the outline of Aunt Pauline darkening my room. Silent, her toes pointed like a ballerina, she slid into my room. The hem of her summer dress, the dress she wore only for my turn, the one that infected my nightmares, caressed her manicured feet as she moved, swishing against her legs. And her gray streaked hair, loose, swinging around her waist, glistened in the moonlight seeping through my curtains.
Aunt Pauline glided toward my bed, step by step, until her cold bare toes pressed against mine. She loomed over me, her slight frame suddenly seven foot tall and two foot wide. My feet, my body, every bruise and healed bone, longed to run. Fast, away, anywhere but beside this witch and her evil hands. But as always paralysis claimed me. Her face lowered until her breath kissed my nose, and Aunt Pauline's lip curled into a snarl, teeth bared. A scream blocked my airways, sinking into my chest and stomach. I had to stay calm, not move, not utter a sound. But my hands betrayed me, trembling, sliding backwards.
Come on, Sally. Come on. I urged my mind to take me away, focus on a better place. A technique that allowed me to leave the present.
But tonight things were different. Tonight would be the last time I would let Aunt Pauline come near me. Jarrod, my beautiful Jarrod, would be waiting for me by our tree. My freedom called to me.
Was that helpful? Let us know in the comments!
Today's tip is about a common error we see authors making, and it will come in handy as you practice your showing skills during our summer workshops.
Blocking that is attached to dialogue typically becomes a separate sentence.
(Quick reminder: "blocking" is when you describe the action that's occurring during a dialogue scene. It's a great way to remind your readers who's talking without using dialogue tags, as well as to demonstrate emotions and conflicts.)
WRONG: "I'm tired of school," she scowled.
She scowled is a separate action from the dialogue, so it doesn't belong in the sentence.
RIGHT: "I'm tired of school." She scowled.
WRONG: "I can't do it," she stepped back.
RIGHT: "I can't do it." She stepped back.
Sometimes it can be tricky to decide if you're using blocking or a dialogue tag, since some verbs can function either way. Words like groaned, laughed, cried, sighed can potentially describe how something is said, or an action taken in addition to the dialogue. When you run across one of those types of verbs, ask yourself if it's describing the way the words were said or the action taken by the character to decide which style of punctuation you need.
Here's Rebecca to walk you through today's very first Show Don't Tell Workshop!
Mimi felt angry as the attic door closed and locked. “Please don’t do this to me, Mom, I didn’t mean to leave the bathroom light on,” she pleaded.
“When you learn how to follow my rules, I’ll stop locking you in the attic,” her mother said with spite.
Mimi heard footsteps getting further away until the sound disappeared. How could any mother do this to their child? Feeling defeated, she went crazy and demolished the room. She slumped to the ground to calm down. After a flood of tears and even more swear words, she felt a cold draft. She was wearing shorts and a tank top and had no shoes on. And it was only going to get colder with the setting sun. She would have to find a blanket or something and settle in for the evening. A smelly blanket was found in a box. There was an old couch in the corner and she decided to sleep there.
Now let's analyze this...
Mimi felt angry.
The word “felt” is considered telling, robbing the reader of the experience that one goes through when angry. Body language, visceral reaction, inner monologue, tone, and speech should be considered when emotions are expressed.
Dialogue tags are some of the most common places where telling is used. Use only said, says, etc. and use an action beat which shows the emotion instead.
Her mother said with spite.
Same as above. Keep the dialogue tags to said, says, etc. and use an action beat, showing the emotion instead.
Mimi heard footsteps.
Since we are in the point-of-view character’s head, “heard” is telling and unnecessary. Just show the reader what they heard, without using the word.
Feeling defeated, she went crazy and demolished the room.
This entire sentence is telling. First we have that “feeling” again, and then, instead of showing the reader what she does, allowing them to experience her frustration, we are told what happens, the visual scene robbed from the reader of what she did to the room and what it now looks like. Expound on this, and let the reader experience it with Mimi.
to calm down.
This is another common mistake when writing, which is the use of “to” instead of “and.” By switching out the words, it is the simplest fix to change telling to showing. “She leaned in to kiss him.” Or, “She leaned in and kissed him.” Unless the action will be stopped or interrupted, change out the words. “She leaned in to kiss him, but he backed away.” Also, show us how she calmed down.
After a flood of tears and even more swear words, she felt a cold draft.
While sometimes we need to use telling to move a story forward, this isn’t the place. Elaborate on this scene and allow the reader to connect with the emotions that should be present. Again, we have “felt” that pesky telling word which lends nothing to the scene but rather denies the writer from creating a strong setting and the ability to show the character’s reaction to the cold. As far as the swear words, add those in where it seems natural.
She was wearing
When it comes to describing clothing, this is typical telling in manuscripts. Instead, omit the “was” and give the reader the description in an active, showing sentence.
And it was only going to get colder
While this sentence is telling, sometimes it’s okay to use “was,” especially if the sentence is surrounded by active verbs and sentences. But make sure there’s no other “active” way to write the sentence before moving on.
She would have to find
Show her searching for a blanket instead of telling us she needs to find one.
A smelly blanket was found in a box.
Instead of allowing her to rummage through a box until she locates a blanket, we are told she found one. Also, what did it smell like? Maybe mildew, moth balls, etc.
There was an old couch in the corner and she decided to sleep there.
Don’t tell me what she sees and what her decisions are, show me. Again, this is an opportunity to create setting and give the reader an idea of the odds stacked against our protagonist.
Now to put it all together with the above recommendations:
Mimi’s hands balled into fists and her chest thumped against ribs as the attic door closed and locked. “Please don’t do this to me, Mom. I didn’t mean to leave the bathroom light on.”
“When you learn how to follow my rules, I’ll stop locking you in the attic.” Ice laced her mother’s tone, hateful and ugly.
Footsteps grew fainter and disappeared. How could any mother do this to their child? Her chest heaved and her body stiffened as rage flooded her veins. “Damn you to hell, Mother!” Grabbing a stack of outdated magazines, she screamed and ripped them apart, scattering the torn pages at her feet. Boxes flung from high stacks, and empty canning jars smashed against unfinished walls.
With tears flooding her face, she slumped to the ground and inhaled deep breaths. A shiver stitched her spine, and she rubbed her arms as a cold draft whistled through cracks between boards, her pajama shorts, tank top, and bare feet offering no protection against winter. The setting sun cast long shadows across the room, bringing with it the promise of plunging temperatures.
Bouncing up and down, she rummaged through an antique chest, moving aside a stack of musty letters and yellowed crocheted doilies until a faded green sleeping bag emerged, the word Slumberjack embroidered into the nylon outer shell. Mildew spotted one corner, the stench so strong she gagged. But the cover would have to do.
Careful to avoid broken glass, she inched her way to the other side of the attic and curled up on a thread-bare settee. She sighed and bit her lip, willing herself not to cry another tear. Burying her head under the bag, she blocked out the cold world and pretended to have a mom who loved her, imagination offering the only escape from the reality of having a monster for a mother.
Was that helpful? Let us know in the comments!
This is a quick blog to let you know we're going to start posting a regular Show Don't Tell Workshop every Monday, beginning tomorrow. We begin each blog by sharing a paragraph or two, highlight the parts that are telling, talk you through why they're telling, and then show you how you can easily flip them over to showing. It's so not as hard as you think!
This is such a common issue we see in manuscripts and, honestly, it's an important one to master because it makes an enormous difference to readers being able to connect and immerse themselves in your fictional worlds.
So, stay tuned!
I looked in the mirror and practiced flipping my long, blond hair over my shoulder. My blue eyes had a sea-green tint to them today--a side effect of my favorite chocolate brown sweater. When I smiled, my rose-tinted lips formed a perfect Cupid's bow.
You've probably read a passage like this before. Describing a character with a visual trick like this is tempting. For one thing, it's easy. Hopefully you can see from the (overdone) example above how false that description reads to the audience.
Generally, you want to avoid the "mirror" cliche, or anything similar, as an easy out to describe your characters. That means no mirrors, still ponds, metallic surfaces, twins, photographs, etc. But the fact that the mirror is an overused cliche isn't the only reason to skip the looking glass. The bigger problem is that it isn't authentic.
Your characters' internal dialogue needs to be realistic, just like regular dialogue.
When a character looks at themselves in the mirror and describes themselves through inner dialogue, we're riding inside their thoughts. And I don't know many people who look in the mirror and catalog their traits like this. I might think, "Wow, my hair looks good today!" But I'm not going to think, "Wow, my straight blond hair looks really good!" because I already know what my hair looks like.
(And please, if you're writing about a character who is a different ethnicity than you, don't use the mirror as an opportunity to point that out. A Black person doesn't look in the mirror and think about how dark their skin is; a Chinese person doesn't look in the mirror and think about the shape of their eyes. Because those are parts of their everyday reality.)
So, while you try to avoid cliched situations like the mirror, think about what's underneath. Dig into what your character really sounds like and how they think of themselves, and then spread the details out to develop your characters more naturally.
Tackling revisions can feel overwhelming, but if you head into your manuscript with a plan, you'll save yourself a lot of time. Everyone's revision process is going to look a little different, and that's okay. Some authors go through more drafts than others before they feel ready for querying. Some authors overwrite, and some underwrite. Find a process that works for your style, and you'll be happier when revising.
But even though authors' revision processes can look different on the outside, today's planning tip works for just about everyone.
Don't try to fix everything at once.
For one thing, you'll likely wind up in a never-ending loop of fixing one domino, only to realize you've knocked over a dozen other ones. And after you bury yourself in that mess of dominoes, finishing your revisions can seem impossible. So take a breath. Let some of the mistakes go. Give yourself permission to do multiple revision passes, and take as many drafts as you need.
Try focusing on one or two major things that need to be fixed per pass. Start with the deepest, most widespread problem first.
For example, if I'm revising a manuscript where I know I need to flesh out my main character more, I personally would tackle that before doing a dedicated pacing edit. If I want to add in more sensory details and visual scenery, that comes after dealing with bigger issues like making sure my character's voice is consistent. Because as I fix the characterization, many of the pacing problems get smoothed out as well. Nailing down the voice might deal with how the MC describes the world around her, and so I've already dealt with senses.
But if I tried to write those descriptive passages before I figure out her voice? Chances are I'm going to have to go back and revise those again, after doing the voice edit. If I alter the pacing before I figure out how my character responds to problems, I might have her reacting in ways that no longer make sense.
So before you start revising, figure out what your biggest problem is first.
Otherwise you might end up spending hours nudging random dominoes into place, only to realize that you've been building them into the wrong shape all along.
When I say rhythm, you probably think of drums and counting beats. Possibly poetry and meter. But all language has rhythm, whether it's spoken or written or signed, and you can use variations in rhythm to keep your reader interested.
Most authors have a "default" sentence length they tend to write. (I tend toward longer sentences with lots of clauses, if you hadn't noticed.) There's no one length that's right or wrong. But if all your sentences are long, you wear your reader out. If they're all short, your reader can feel like you're shooting rapid-fire sentence bullets at them.
Varying your sentence lengths is key to keeping a reader interested and refreshed.
There's a classic example of how this works, written by Gary Provost:
Isn't that amazing?
Provost could have tried to explain sentence rhythm til the cows came home, but this demonstration is so much more effective.
Now, bland rhythm can be a hard thing to catch while editing. But never fear, because we have two tips to help you.
First, READ YOUR WORK ALOUD.
Have you ever read much Dr. Seuss to kids? He did a lot to encourage kids to read, but some of those books can be torture to read, because of the repetitive rhythm. If you find yourself falling into a metered pattern while you read, or you notice that you're always breathing in the same place, you probably should tweak some sentences for length.
Second, there's a cool add-on for Google Chrome called "Highlight the Music." You can run it on any Google doc, and it will color-code your sentences by length. It's free to download, and you can find it here.
*I, assistant editor Bethany, have never had any difficulty with this add-on. However, please do always save and backup your work before using any new word processing type programs.*
Someone already ran Provost's rhythm paragraph through the Highlight the Music add-on. So this is what it looks like in use, for those of you who are visual like me:
I find it helpful in my work to be able to look at it and see where I have massive chunks of one color that I need to break up. Not every page needs to be a rainbow, but if it's all one solid color, you probably want to change things up.
So take a look at the rhythm in your own manuscript, and see what kind of music YOU can make. Happy editing!
Every Wednesday we bring you an edit tip of the day and on Mondays throughout the summer a series of SHOW DON'T TELL workshops!