Grace's Mosaic Moments


Saturday, February 16, 2019

Show, Don't Tell - Warning Words

Only in Florida. Hard to believe, but that's an alligator riding a swim noodle.

If you're not sure what an oxymororn is, this chart ought to do it!

Grace note: Why English is a Challenge

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SHOW, DON'T TELL - WARNING WORDS

For the past eight years (the life of Grace's Mosaic Moments), I have refused to write a post about words that warn an author he/she is straying into "Tell" not "Show." But while struggling through the second book in the series that inspired my most recent rant against using Storyteller Mode, I found myself scribbling down a list of words that jumped out at me. So, after explaining why I've been reluctant to make a list, I'm finally going to do it—give you a partial list of the telltale signs that scream, "You're slipping into "Tell" Mode"!

THE DANGER OF CREATING SUCH A LIST.

Over the last twenty-plus years, I have judged over 450 writing contests, and the saddest entries I saw were from eager-to-please authors who had been told the verbs "was" and "were" were signs of "Tell not Show," and they were so terrified by this admonition that they left out those verbs completely, which sometimes meant they wrote full sentences without any verb at all—sentences with nothing but a big hiccup between the subject and the predicate. Painful to read, painful to judge. How to tell these authors that omitting "was" and "were" would not miraculously convert their work to "Show," that, in fact, they had shot themselves in the foot, creating work that was almost unintelligible?

So, right up front—DO NOT TAKE THE FOLLOWING LIST VERBATIM! It is nothing more than a guideline. Every good author uses these words. In fact, I wrote an entire post giving examples from a number of well-known authors in which they use "was" and "were" as they were intended to be used, creating marvelous descriptions of people and settings or using them in other vital ways ("To Be or Not to Be" - 5/27/17). The same is true of the other words listed below. Each has a time and place where it can be useful. DO NOT TAKE ONE LOOK AND SAY:  "Ooo, I have to eliminate every one of those words, never use them ever again, and then I'll be perfect, I'll be a best-selling author, I'll make oodles of money!"

IT DOESN'T WORK THAT WAY!

An author must develop a "feel" for the concept of getting right inside the heads of the persons with the Point of View and letting them show the reader what they are seeing, what they are doing, what they are thinking. You, as author, must NOT stand on the outside and TELL us what your characters are doing. That is the heart of "Show, Don't Tell."

HOWEVER, if you find yourself using a lot of the words below on a regular basis, then you might want to read over what you've written with a critical eye. Are YOU telling this story? Or are you letting your characters tell the story. The first is passive and boring. The second is active and reader-grabbing.

Which is why I've called this a list of WARNING WORDS. Not no-no's to be avoided  at any cost—just words to flash a yellow light, saying "Watch out! Don't fall into Passive 'Tell' Mode."


WARNING WORDS

1.  Was, were.  Perfectly good verbs, if properly used. But if you find yourself writing a lot of
     There was . . .
     There were . . .
     It was . . . 
     Or sentences like: Betty was afraid . . . John was happy . . .
     
     Those are Warning Signs that you're staying OUTSIDE your characters' heads instead of getting right INSIDE and writing from the Character's Point of View, not yours.

2.  She/he thought . . .  Again do not TELL us what your character is thinking. Identify the character, then give that person's thoughts directly. Example:
TELL:  "She could not like him, Betty thought."
SHOW:  "Betty frowned at Nick. Well aware he was a cheat, she could not like him." (Also note the perfectly acceptable use of "was.")

3.  He/she felt . . .

4.  He/she knew . . .

5.  He/she realized . . .

Numbers 3-5 are similar to Number 2—all perfectly good on occasion, but if you find you're using them often, consider them Warning Words. You're on the outside again, looking in, rather than on the inside, looking out. You are TELLING us about your character, rather than have your character speak directly to the reader.

6.  Then . . . Yet another perfectly good word that becomes a Warning Word only when used too often. 

And no, I'm not just speaking to newbies. I stumble over these words nearly every time I sit down to write and have to ask myself:

Is this the best way to say what I want to say?

Is there a combination of words that will better express what I want to say? And do it more actively? In a way that will better resonate with my readers. A way that will keep them turning the pages rather than sigh and put it aside for another time?


In rebuttal - Acceptable Author Point of View

Yes, there are successful authors who use Author Point of View throughout their books. An example from recent times would be Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern series. But in general, most successful fiction authors of the new century are careful to keep Author POV to a minimum in order to give their stories a more active feel. I strongly encourage you to follow the advice of "Show, Don't Tell."

SUMMARY.

"Show" means getting inside your main characters' heads. Let your readers see what they see, hear what they hear, feel what they feel. But NEVER jump on those Warning Words and say: "Oo, I can't use these. I have to avoid them at all costs!"  "Was" and "Were," for example, are essentials of the English language. They cannot be dispensed with. Instead, understand the reasoning behind the admonition "Show, don't Tell." Understand that it is advice to keep your writing ACTIVE, not a wholesale ban against the infinitive "to be."

SHOW, DON'T TELL =  Keep your writing Active, not Passive. Use interesting details, not a dull recitation of facts. Give at least 90% of your writing the personal touch of your characters and not more than 10% of you*. (Well, of course you wrote the whole thing, but it shouldn't SOUND like it!)

*"ballpark" figures - again, not an absolute but a guideline.

NEVER FORGET:  Author (or Omniscient) Point of View is frequently used in physical descriptions of both people and settings, to summarize events in passage of time, and on variety of other occasions. But since Author POV is "passive," in order to capture your readers' attention, you need the majority of your sentences to be "active."

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 CONTEST - February 23, 2019

Get your copy of The Ghosts of Rushton Court now.

  


For a link to Ghosts on Amazon, click here.

For a link to Ghosts on Smashwords, click here.

Ghosts is also available from other online vendors.

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For a link to Blair Bancroft's web site, click here.

For Blair's Facebook Author Page, with background info on
the writing of Ghosts, click here. 


For a brochure for Grace's Editing Service, Best Foot Forward,


email: editsbyBFF@aol.com 
 

Thanks for stopping by,
Grace  

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Examples of How Not to Write

February 16, 2019:  Show, Don't Tell - Warning Words

February 23, 2019: CONTEST - Questions about 
The Ghosts of Rushton Court 


  
Contest prizes:










EXAMPLES OF HOW NOT TO WRITE

As frequently happens, a book I just read inspired this week's topic. It had a unique plot, well-drawn and unusual characters, so why was I finding it slow-going? Why was I so willing to put it down? Why did I almost consign it to Archives by Chapter Five?

You would think that after all the articles I've written on Writing and Editing that I would have recognized the problem sooner, but I did not. I suspect this was because the book had so much going for it that the problem slid by, not quite recognizable for what it was: another case of a new author mistaking the ancient art of storytelling for what modern readers want in a book. A case of what spawned the expression: "Show, don't Tell."

The author of this book was telling the story from her point of view. Not from the points of view of her hero and heroine. Yes, she often teetered on the brink of getting it right, which is why I may read the next book in the series, but for the most part she told us what her characters were doing or thinking, instead of getting right inside their heads and letting them show us what they were doing and how they felt about it. 

Since I have expounded on Show vs. Tell several times in the past, I am going to add only a little today (Dates of previous blogs on this subject may be found below.) 

What is "Tell"?
An author "telling" a story instead of "showing" is like a storyteller of old but without an opportunity for inflection. No sign of emotion. No intriguing whispers, no sly looks, no sudden shouts to dramatize the tale. The words are, in fact, more like a Narrator for the Blind, describing the action in a TV series—monotone, droning on and on with no ups and downs.

What is "Show"?
When "showing" a story, the author gets inside the hero's and heroine's heads (perhaps the villain's as well), letting the characters reveal not only what they are saying but what they are doing, what they are thinking, what they are feeling. The AUTHOR does not tell us these things. The BOOK'S CHARACTERS do.

When is "Telling" acceptable?
"Tell" mode is frequently used in Prologues, even in some first chapters, as I did in Chapter 1 of The Notorious Countess*, posted last week. There are also places—brief places—within a book, particularly in Historical Novels, where Author Narration is used to catch up on a passage of time. Another excellent example, which I've used before, is Nora Roberts's opening description of Tucker Longstreet in the novel, Carnal Innocence. Even though this style is no longer advocated in Romance, it is one of the finest character descriptions ever written. And believing no "rule" should be absolute, I find myself sneaking in Author Point of View more freely these days. Nonetheless . . . Writing an entire book in Author POV is the deadly dull I warned about above.

For this week's examples, I selected two sections of my Regency Historical, The Lady Takes a Risk, and rewrote them with a variety of mistakes, hoping the extreme contrast would not only help authors understand what it means when someone says: "Show, don't Tell" but would display other writing no-no's. You will find a note at the bottom of both Bad Examples, pointing out some of the errors.

*FYI, The Notorious Countess is being renamed as someone just published a book with that title. Sigh.

Grace note - from the Archives:
     Show vs. Tell - 7/21/13 & 7/28/13
     Point of View - 6/8/12 & 12/9/17

***

BAD EXAMPLE 1
(rewritten from the opening paragraphs of The Lady Takes a Risk)
   
   Her father was a despot, Lady Amelie thought. Yes, there were likely many other nobles in England quite as despotic as her father, the Duke of Wentworth. But that was little comfort. The duke was forcing her into marriage with Cedric, Earl of Penhurst, and somehow she must find a way to stop it. Cedric might think himself God’s gift to women but he was, in fact, a vain, pretentious man who considered women nothing more than ornaments.
   Yet here she was, waltzing with him, her father’s angry words still ringing in her ears—the duke was determined to marry Lady Blanche Furnival, and Amelie must be gone from the house before the lady would consent to enter it.  Therefore, Amelie must marry Penhurst, a close neighbor who was in want of wife. Problem solved.
   As much as the thought of marriage to the earl appalled her, Amelie had no viable answer to the duke’s argument. So here she was, dancing with the Cedric when—
   With a final flourish, the orchestra stopped playing. “Shall we go in search of a breath of fresh air?” the earl asked.
   Although well aware of the dangers of wandering in the garden with a gentleman, Amelie agreed.

What is wrong with this Bad Example 1? 

 
Answer: Just about everything. More specifically, this is case of: “Just the facts, ma’am.” Yes, the classic plot is clearly laid out, but it’s all “tell.” There is nothing “active” about the writing. No colorful details, no perky sentence fragments. No “cleverness.” Just an age-old story told in the dullest possible terms.
                                           
Please contrast Bad Example 1 with the opening of the original manuscript.


 From Chapter 1 of The Lady Takes a Risk - told from the heroine's Point of View


   It is not easy to be the daughter of a despot duke. For that matter, Lady Amelie Sherbrooke was forced to concede, there were likely earls, barons, tavern-keepers, farmers, soldiers, sailors, tinkers, and tailors whose daughters considered them quite as despotic as the Duke of Wentworth. Which did her no good at all. Misery might love company, but as for finding a way to prevent her betrothal to most the most pretentious, fatuous, unbearable idiot in the ton . . .
   Just because his coffers rivaled King Midas . . .
   His face and figure put Adonis to shame . . .
   He set the fashion for gentlemen’s clothing . . .
   His manners were impeccable . . .
   But could he converse about anything beyond fashion, balls, routs, the latest on dits, and the dissection of fribbles of equal pretentiousness?
   Did he have any concept that some females—indeed, a great many females—were far cleverer than he?
   Did he, in truth, see females as anything more than ornaments . . . or walking, talking wombs?
   Lady Amelie very much doubted it.
   Yet here she was, waltzing with him, her father’s words still ringing in her ears: “I have indulged you far too long, young lady. I have been refusing offers for you since you were sixteen, but you no longer have a choice. I am marrying Lady Furnival, whether you like it or not. And she has no desire to share her household with the headstrong female who has been its chatelaine for the past seven years. An impossible situation, you must admit. Penhurst has an ancient title, more blunt than he knows what to do with. He is young, handsome, a scion of the ton. What more could you possibly wish?”
   What more indeed? Put that way, Amelie could only see herself as churlish. So here she was, feet flying to three-quarter time, while Cedric, Earl of Penhurst, imparted a running commentary—frequently derogatory—on each of the dancers, and more than a few chaperons, ranging from imposing dowagers to wilting lilies.
   No matter how waspish her suitor became, Lady Amelie kept her perfectly polished social smile firmly fixed in place. Cedric—a neighbor and childhood playmate—could not help being born to the most frivolous diamond of her day, or growing up without a father whose passion for hunting put him in his grave when Cedric was but four years old.
   And yet . . . Amelie fought back a sigh of despair.
   As the orchestra went into a final flourish, Lord Penhurst twirled his partner in a broad circle, forcing two waltzing couples into fast, and ungainly, footwork to avoid a collision. “My lord!” Amelie exclaimed.
   The earl, ever insouciant, ignored her concern. “Ah, my dear, I do believe the musicians are taking a rest. Shall we go in search of a breath of fresh air?”   Amelie, anxious to avoid the darkling looks being cast her way by the displaced couples, readily agreed, her customary cool and contained manner slipping slightly as she placed her fingers on Penhurst’s arm. Truth be told, it was she who rushed headlong toward the tall windows opening onto the terrace. Cedric, except when waltzing, never moved faster than an elegant meander.
   She was supposed to marry this heedless buffoon . . . ?

                                  --------------------

BAD EXAMPLE 2
(rewritten from Chapter 3 of The Lady Takes a Risk)
    
   Colonel Trevor leaned back in his chair. His face was rigidly immobile as he surveyed the proud duke’s daughter, a woman who had just given him such a surprise. He had sometimes dreamed of moments like this, but since he was an honorable man, he found himself about to reject this tempting opportunity.
   “Tell me, Lady Amelie,” he said, “what does the village say about my household?”
   After a swift glance, she said, “Many things, Colonel, and all rather strange. But I am sure you know that.”
   “Do they object to our not attending church?”
   “Of course,” the lady replied. “But I fear they are more disturbed by your all-male household.”
   “Mrs. Towner does not count?” the major asked.
   “Emily Towner has been housekeeper at Kirkwood Farm since before I was born, and I’m sure all agree it was good of you to keep her on. But how she manages in an all-male household without the support of another female is, I fear, the subject of considerable gossip. As, I might add, is the subject of your men.”
   “Explain,” the major said.
   Lady Amelie steepled her fingers in front of face and took a deep breath. “The majority nod wisely and blame your reclusiveness on the war. But other opinions are less sanguine, some even suggesting devil-worship or plotting revolution.”
   The colonel considered Lady Amelie’s words. “Lady Amelie, you should know that my household is not all male without a reason. The men here are soldiers all. Some are gentlemen, some boys from the country, others from the stews of London. Some once had perfect manners; some cannot even define the word. But all came back savages. And I include myself.”

What is wrong with Bad Example 2?

Among other things, the above is an example of Dialogue (rather than Narration) that is “Tell not Show.”  I.e., it is too pedantic, too colorless, contains too many “tags” (he said, she said). It recites the facts without bringing the scene to life. In short, it is dull and lifeless. In addition, some sentences are just plain awkward—first draft quality, out of place in a polished manuscript.


From Chapter 3 of The Lady Takes a Risk - told from Colonel Trevor's Point of View:

   Colonel Trevor leaned back in his chair, his face rigidly immobile, and surveyed the proud duke’s daughter, who had just surprised him straight down to the depths of his soul. The dreams he had indulged only in his weakest moments in the dead of night had burst into imminent reality, yet here he was, an honorable man, about to blow his dreams to Hell.
   “Tell me, Lady Amelie, what does the village say about the household at Kirkwood Farm?”
   She offered him a swift glance from under her lashes. “Many things, Colonel. Conflicting and fanciful. But I’m sure you already know that.”
   “That we roast and eat children for breakfast, no doubt.”
   The lady returned a rueful smile. “Not quite that bad, Colonel, but you must agree that an all-male household is most unusual, and therefore subject to . . . shall we say, the most dire imaginings?”
    “Mrs. Towner does not count?”
   “Emily Towner has been housekeeper at Kirkwood Farm since well before I was born—and all agree it was gracious of you to keep her on—though how she manages without any other female to support her no one can understand. I must admit the village finds it quite shocking.”
   “Ah.” Lord, she was like a queen sitting there, head high, shoulders straight. Defying him to find reason to turn her away, even though she must have heard most of the rumors about his  highly irregular household. “And the remainder of the residents at Kirkwood Farm, my lady?”
   “We know little of them, Colonel. But gossip has it that some of the men living here are gentleman; therefore, it seems odd that in a year and a half only you have ventured into society.”
   “And the opinions about that?”
   Lady Amelie shook her head. “Believe me, Colonel, you do not wish to know.”
   “Tell me.”
   Lady Amelie steepled her fingers in front of her face, shut her eyes, and took a deep breath before looking the colonel straight in the face. “The majority nod wisely and blame your reclusiveness on the war—which I suspect is the truth of it. But other opinions range from a nest of devil-worshipers to traitors stripped of their rank and exiled to the country, to anarchists planning a French-style revolution.”
   “Good God! I didn’t realize it was as bad as that.”
   “You might wish to coax your men into an occasional visit to church, Colonel.”
Bless her, but there was the voice of the autocratic duke’s daughter, born to tell everyone short of her father and the  royal princes what to do.
   Marcus softened his stoic soldier’s stance, head bent over clenched fists, his thumbs propping up his chin. Silence emphasized the awkwardness of the moment. This was it. He had to tell her. Had to risk sending her running for the door.
   “Lady Amelie, you should know that my household is not all male without reason. The men here are soldiers all. Some are gentlemen, some country boys, others from the stews of London. Some once had perfect manners; some cannot even define the word. But all—I emphasize all—came back savages. And I include myself.”

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For a link to Blair Bancroft's web site, click here.

For Blair's Facebook Author Page, with background info on
the writing of Ghosts, click here. 



For a brochure for Grace's Editing Service, Best Foot Forward,


email: editsbyBFF@aol.com 
 

Thanks for stopping by,
Grace