Show and Tell
Fiction can be written as either a narrative summary (NS) or action scenes. NS simply tells what’s happening in the story. Showing through scenes uses an action like character interactions, dialogue, and description to convey the same information.
NS is bad since it pulls the reader out from the novel, making them more aware they’re reading something by giving them a lecture. Some NS is needed at times, but most times it can be replaced with scenes that engage emotions rather than intellect.
Uses for Narrative Summary
- It can vary your writing’s rhythm. Constant scenes can get exhausting, and NS lets readers breathe.
- It keeps basic scenes from stretching too long, so a two-hour event doesn’t take two hours to read.
- It can capture events occurring a long period of time without dragging too long or having a clunky flow.
- Summarize repetitive actions so they don’t blend together. The different or important ones can act as scenes following the NS.
- Not giving scenes to unimportant plot events.
Avoid telling your character emotions, since their actions are often enough and the telling makes it repetitive. Using actions that show disgust is enough, and don’t need to be followed with “they felt disgusted.” Characters should show emotions in their unique ways.
A scene can mix small amounts of NS with scenes for texture, but the balance should normally be mostly showing.
Characterizations shouldn’t be told to readers upfront. Characters should be introduced with a few key physical details (enough to get an image in their minds), and let their personality be shown through their actions, words, and interior monologue. It’s more enjoyable to gradually see their depth revealed naturally through the story, and develop their own judgments of them. Throwing in a full characterization from the start risks boxing them into that, leaving no room for intuitive growth.
Flashbacks should be used scarcely, and only for crucial pieces of the past. Otherwise, past information should be brought to light in the present. Extensive character histories can help flesh out a character but are often irrelevant to the reader.
- Have one character characterize them through their perspectives and opinions
- Dialogue and action beats
- Share the character’s views on other topics
Exposition should also be unobtrusive, and be given in smaller doses only as the reader needs them. Background info should be worked into the story in pieces so it doesn’t choke the reader, and be woven naturally into the story.
Dialogue is great for giving exposition, but characters shouldn’t talk this way solely to give information (like answering many questions over the phone, or bland interior monologue). These can work with the same showing strategies as used for characters.
Expositions that introduce readers to a new culture can be handled the same way. Dropping readers into the culture and hooking them with other story elements (like a powerfully emotional scene) can keep them going even though they won’t learn everything right away. Finding answers is part of what keeps them reading, and the readers are trusted to keep up with the story.
Point of View
Three basic points of view, or POVs: first-person, third-person, or omniscient.
Written in the “I” voice. Gives more intimacy with the Lead and their internal world (assuming they’re just interesting enough). But you lose perspective outside of what they know. This risks them missing out on plot elements. You can avoid this by showing the first-person perspective of many characters in turn.
Not written from anyone’s perspective, but is akin to “the voice of God.” It knows everything and can give any details it chooses to. You could go as far as chatting directly with the reader but don’t. You can still withhold details to draw out the suspense but are not limited to needing one character to be aware of it all. However, you lose much or all of the intimacy you’d gain from the characters’ heads. Omniscient narrators can get around this by peeking into their characters’ minds.
If you want, you can start omniscient and gradually move in and out of the third person.
The third person tries to strike the balance between intimacy and perspective of the past two POVs. It acts as a continuum between the two and the author can choose the balance they want based on their language choices.
- You can still look into characters’ heads but not as directly, and the author can also fine-tune this.
- Objective descriptions can be indirectly colored based on the character you’re focused on. Great for adding extra layers of information and character depth to descriptions. Description becomes a tool to vary pace, texture, and emotions without disturbing the flow.
- In most cases, more intimate perspectives are better for your characters.
- Narrative distance is better for action scenes. Also when characters are feeling distant or uninformed about a situation.
Whatever you choose, stick with a single viewpoint in every scene! If you must jump, keeping more narrative distance between them and the reader makes the jumps less jarring. Also, add line spaces to clearly mark the change. Establish the POV as fast as possible, hopefully, sentence one, so the emotional connection can build.
New writers often fill a scene with too many details and blow-by-blow accounts so readers see things exactly as they did. But this often comes across as patronizing and leaves nothing to their imagination. This is an example of passages or scenes being written out of proportion, which hurts the pacing and connection to the reader’s imagination.
This can also happen when a writer loads passages with too many specific guides and details. An inside look at certain worlds and expertise makes it authentic, but explaining the mechanics of one thing over several pages is too much.
Avoiding proportion problems can be as easy as paying attention to them. Don’t spend too much time on relatively insignificant plot points or characters, or sprawling exposition and explanation. Just don’t cut so much it damages the atmosphere. Just make sure all side plots and musings mix well with the main plot. A good way to do this is getting outside opinions, or rereading the story after a long break from it. Remember your readers usually have different interests than you, so don’t let your enthusiasm for them bias you too much.
If what you enjoy doesn’t advance the plot, the plot may need changing.
Proportion also helps shape readers’ responses to the plot. Shrinking the proportion of the plot leading up to a surprise can make it more surprising. Adding proportion to other plotlines can mask others you want to reveal as twists. It’s great since it’s subtle and hard for readers to notice.
Characters can help manage proportion decisions. What the character focuses on, and how much, can directly influence what has proportion and how much. This also helps create a subtle sense of who your characters are. Otherwise superfluous details can become hints to a character’s personality.
There are many hacky tricks that can (fail to) prop up bad dialogue. Don’t use them, since they distract from writing dialogue good at its core.
Don’t explain dialogue to readers by taking emotions or reactions to dialogue, such as “they said in amazement.” Good dialogue needs to explanation, so adding one doesn’t help. Every explanation means the reader can’t gradually understand the character’s hidden depths more enjoyable or see them come to life. The less you need to explain dialogue, the better.
- Take special care to avoid adding adverbs to dialogue lines, like “she said excitedly.” Virtually all can be cut. The only exceptions are modifiers for the word “said” itself, but these are likely unneeded too.
Don’t write dialogue that requires an explanation either. The dialogue must show the intended emotion or effect somehow. Characters express emotions in different ways, so there are many ways to do this.
Descriptions will often describe emotions, but make sure they don’t describe the dialogue. Otherwise having them both together makes things repetitive.
Speaker attributions should virtually always be “he/she/they said” with nothing else attached. They identify who is speaking and nothing else, without slipping in explanations. It’s easy for newer writers to dislike this. Resist the urge to change them, since they pull readers out of the story.
Structure attributions as “X said,” not “said X.” In paragraphs of dialogue, attributions can be added in the first natural break in the dialogue. Then it can continue uninterrupted for the rest of the paragraph. Keep the name or label in the attribution as consistent as possible for each scene. Changing labels should be done as more info is learned about the character, or as the relationships between those talking changes.
When the speakers are clear, you can remove attributions entirely. Make sure each line of dialogue doesn’t include a direct address or name drop though since it reads unnaturally.
If there are lots of “said,” you can replace some with character action beats, like something they’re doing as they’re talking. It’s especially useful for dialogue between a group of characters, as long as the balance still leans more in favor of “said” attributions so they don’t get too distracting.
Use dashes instead of ellipsis for interruptions. Ellipsis is better for trailing off, or gaps in a one-sided conversation (only seeing one side of a telephone call).
Each new speaker should start in a new paragraph. Leading with an action beat before the dialogue can help break up lots of sequential dialogue paragraphs.
See How it Sounds
A common error with dialogue is it sounding too formal. It’s tough to catch since all written dialogue is formal to some extent, as too-realistic dialogue is boring. All dialogue has a touch of formality, so we read it as normal, as long as it doesn’t go overboard.
Some easy tricks to avoid this are:
- Use more contractions in dialogue.
- Use more sentence fragments (as one would in real speech anyway).
- Join two short to medium length sentences with a comma, better reflecting the rhythm of real speech.
- Avoid stuffing too much info in dialogue. Characters need a really good reason to explain things at length.
- Avoid longer words with more syllables unless it’s really the right choice for that character.
A strong dialogue technique is misdirection. People speak with layered intentions, indirectly asking and answering questions. They may ask something when they really mean something else or hedge on saying what they mean. They lie, disagree, talk past each other, and are stubbornly evasive. People speak more to what they’re thinking and to false understandings than words being clear-cut transfers of information. A person may have a few particular ways of agreeing and never use the word “Yes.” Write dialogue to reflect all this variety.
A simple way to test dialogue is to read it aloud, as the character. See if your natural reading of it has you automatically changing the words you use. That’s a sign it was written too formal. Or record yourself reading it and play it back. Read a scene with multiple characters’ dialogue and get a feel for their speech patterns, style, and mannerisms. Make sure each one isn’t just a mirror of the other.
All the rules about formality also apply to narration and description! Try reading everything aloud and see how it sounds.
Don’t rely on dialectical spelling to show a character’s background or personality (like Jim in Huck Finn), and only use it sparingly. Instead rely on word choice, cadence, and grammar. It should capture the rhythm of how someone like them would actually sound.
Two places for emotion are the dialogue itself and descriptions from a point of view. Another is interior monologue (IM). IM gives a window into exact thoughts and feelings, unlike movies. It’s powerful and intimate, but also prone to overuse. Don’t interrupt too much action with a peek into the Lead’s mind. Don’t use it for thoughts already expressed in other action, like dialogue.
IM can be too scarce when there’s info that can’t be shown well or naturally through other actions. A character’s emotional reactions not shown in action like dialogue can be fleshed out and paired with what’s shown in IM. Plus, sometimes certain emotions should be shown through contextual action and IM as well, depending on how subtle one of them is.
Balancing IM and action is tough, and depends on factors like:
- What the characters feel
- How important their emotions are at that point
- The scene’s flow
- How evident their feelings are through other action
Good IM is unobtrusive, like dialogue mechanics. Also, never use quotes with IM. Ever. This includes mumbling under one’s breath. Otherwise, the style can vary greatly. It relies on the character’s voice and distance from the reader. Most often you won’t need qualifiers like “they thought” unless written from a very distant POV. It’s not needed when writing from a single POV. Also, try to avoid italics.
With long passages of interior monologue, breaking it into a separate paragraph is helpful. Also, IMs with flashbacks may need some distinguishing between what they think now and what they thought before, through a change in voice or slight acknowledgment by them.
Since IM is so intimate, there’s no real need to set it apart from the description. The line between the two can blur as readers jump between the character’s eyes and mind.
Remember to vary the level of intimacy in IM as needed. For instance, if a character has a psychotic break, lowering the intimacy and increasing the distance lets the reader catch their breath.
Lastly, don’t focus so much on showing over telling that your novel is bare-bones dialogue and descriptions. IM is one of the best ways to add depth and interest. Balancing the amount to use properly is well worth it.
Beats are the bits of actions interspersed through a scene, similar to stage cues in a theater. A character moving to a window is considered a beat. They can be physical actions or IM. However, beats can get in the way of good dialogue, slowing down the pace or acting like a heavy-handed commentary on character emotions. With this, beats can be classified as external (physical actions) or internal (monologue).
Even if beats are interesting, if they constantly interrupt the dialogue then it gets irritating. On the flipside, too few beats can create an onslaught of dialogue that’s too tough to follow and not anchored in reality. The key is the right balance of dialogue and beats.
Good use of beats is to tie dialogue to settings and characters. Less-confident writers may overuse them since it more clearly conveys exactly what the author sees (at too high a price). It limits their imagination and possibly alienates them. Using less lets them fill in the blanks themselves and isn’t as condescending.
Beats are also great for conveying your characters and can be even better than long passages of the detailed description. Make sure they’re not cliched or repetitive though, like looking into eyes or at hands. Each beat should reflect a character’s uniqueness, even in otherwise common actions. Practice by observing others, in real life or in movies, to see what little gestures express their personalities.
Principles for finding the right beat/dialogue balance:
- Make sure the details are just enough to anchor readers in the scene and jump-start their imaginations.
- The number of beats depends on the dialogue’s rhythm. Fewer beats usually mean more tension.
- Longer beats in intense scenes can draw out more tension, slowing things at critical moments. Or a breather between tense emotional moments.
- They act as a counterpoint to the dialogue, giving needed info the dialogue doesn’t.
- Beats help when the dialogue changes emotional directions.
Read passages aloud to get a feel for the right rhythm.
Breaking up is Easy to Do
Long, dense paragraphs are an instant turn-off for many reasons. Breaking writing into shorter paragraphs, and avoiding any paragraph larger than a half page, make it more engaging right away.
This is also great for dialogue. Real-life dialogue is rarely longer than 4-5 sentences before an interruption. Make sure dialogue has a good amount of white space and give-and-take. Sometimes speeches are justified though, as long as you don’t get stuck in them.
Shorter paragraphs and sentences also add more natural tension to a scene. Shorter sentences often signal negative emotions, and they allow a faster reading time. On the flipside, do this too much leaves most readers weary and tired. Paragraphing less relaxes the reader, and even lulls them into a false sense of security. A good strategy is springing important moments, or sudden action and revelations, in short paragraphs following longer ones that set it up.
All this can even apply to the length of entire scenes and story chapters.
This ultimately comes back to balance and control your writing’s rhythm. Controlling it to match the desired rhythm, and varying it to keep readers going. Matching how you vary paragraph and lengths with the other ways you vary tension elevates the story even further.
Once is Usually Enough
Repetition happens with more than just words. The same effect can be repeated, like the effects establishing character traits or establishing plot points. There’s also an unconscious repetition of the same words being too close, even if they mean different things in their contexts. It’s especially common with novices, who lack the confidence to trust their point came across the first time.
Repetition usually winds up weakening effects too. Readers get distracted by the least-effective effect technique, weakening each one slightly. Even when the repetition happens on a larger scale, like between chapters. Using the same action or event to show the same effect anywhere can quickly tire and alienate the reader.
It even carries for characters themselves. Characters with repetitive roles or purposes can be cut or combined to avoid diluting their effects. Or villains that have too many evil or egotistical effects piled onto them they’re more cartoons than villains - good villains are ones readers can identify with to some extent.
This is all especially common in IM, since thoughts tend to go around in circles when we’re upset. This sometimes works, but in most cases, it comes across as rambling and excessive.
Not to say repetition is always bad. But these accidental or unneeded repetitions should be removed to make room for more purposeful repetitions.
- Especially powerful plot or character points can be approached in different ways, which amplify rather than weaken them.
- Different approaches to the same point can offer new insight or perspective.
Greater awareness of repetitive elements also helps you track when story beats or events accomplish multiple tasks. This is good since a “one event is one thing” approach feels fake. Single events having multiple, blurring meanings better reflects real life.
Several writing techniques add or remove more value than others. This section looks at which ones to avoid and which ones to aim for. It’s not a black and white of “never use” or “always use,” but stay aware of their drawbacks and when to try for alternatives. Especially if the bad ones happen too often, which amplifies the negative effect fast.
These are sentences with dependent clauses which start with ‘as’ or an ‘ing’ verb. Two simple examples are
As he read, he let out a yawn and
Reading his book, he let out a yawn. The frames the action in the dependent clause as less important, weakening the writing. Also many times the two actions can’t happen at the same time, like reading and yawning.
They were clever once, but have been overused to the point of death. Even smaller, but still overdone, turns of phrase like
she tossed her head. Or character cliches, especially for minor characters.
Cliches can sometimes work for summarized complicated situations, but try subverting them in subtle ways to keep the effect but read to better fit your story.
Too many ‘-ly’ verbs
First drafts often contain common verbs we spice up with adverbs afterward, which gain dilutes your word’s power. Fine for a first draft, but these ‘verb adverb’ pairs should be replaced with more focused, detailed verbs later.
Angrily set works better as
Sometimes adverbs are needed for more unusual descriptions, like a character’s uniquely positive or negative response to an otherwise mundane action. But consider other approaches first, like using IM to better convey the uniqueness of their perspective and why.
Marks of Emphasis
Don’t use them to highlight the importance of a word. They only really work when you need to reference a specific word that was used or said, for whatever reason.
Italics and exclamation points shouldn’t be used unless a character is physically shouting, or their IM is the psychic equivalent of it. Otherwise, it shows insecurity by the author, artificially adding tension and energy to passages that lack it.
Overly Flowery Language or Metaphors
Flowery language can quickly draw more attention to the words than the story or characters, which is a mistake. Keep them limited in times of intensity or dialogue, and avoid awkward phrasing that “sounds” poetic since it may just be distracting.
Unusual Comma Usage
Trains and thought, and dialogue, rarely follow a strict “start and stop” format. Stringing two to three thoughts together via commas adds some realistic, modern punch to writing (especially dialogue). Just don’t overdo it either.
All writers want a distinct, authoritative voice. This can’t exactly be taught, but it can be brought out by not concentrating too much on doing it. Focusing too much on achieving one specific style can create accidental sameness, like all characters sounding too similar. A voice high in tension can ramp the tension up too high and make the novel exhausting. Trying too hard to copy or reach a specific literary voice is a common sign of an amateur.
Plus, capturing a writer’s style isn’t the same as capturing their voice. Plus the style should focus more on matching the story’s genre and other aspects. The style shouldn’t overshadow the story.
On the flipside, don’t like the fear of this amateur mistake remove your voice altogether. Just focus your efforts on more expansive sections for style and voice to the more important moments, like major plot points or character revelations. Just don’t overdo it, since that risks drowning the character’s voice and exhausting your readers. Don’t seesaw too often between this elevated language imbued with your voice, and a more straightforward voice meant to capture other elements. Be gentle and sparing when using it.
To encourage finding your voice, highlight passages from what you write that give you the most pleasure. Reading all these lines together and absorbing their rhythm (and other qualities) helps you more conscious of your most effective voice without a need to focus on it too much while writing.
Do the same for lines you don’t like and look at why they fall flat for you. Make sure there’s varied sentence structure with surrounding lines. Check the balance of abstract and specific details, especially if your lines are too vague. See if there are awkward explanations you can replace with show methods.
Doing all the above boosts your sensitivity to writing voice as a whole.