Your readers are going to want to know about your character’s past and how it has shaped the way they are in your novel. You’re most likely going to have to explain some sort of past event that’s important to the current narrative. I’m not saying that your character’s past defines them, but there will be events that lead them up to the action in your novel or explain something that’s going to happen to them in the future. As a writer, you need to learn how to integrate your character’s memories or past stories into your novels.
Bringing up your character’s memories is not necessarily the same as writing flashbacks. Your character might speak of something from their past that has had a significant impact on where your character ends up. If your character brings up something in conversation with someone else, it’s best not to reveal everything all at once. You don’t want your character to say something like—
“Yeah, well, he’s probably after me because I accidently hit his girlfriend with a car when I was seventeen. That might be why he’s after me. Oh yeah, he warned me he was going to come after me about a year ago. I guess I forgot. That could explain why he’s so angry with me.”
Not only is this dialogue a no-no, but you’re giving way too much information at once that could have been explained earlier. This is not a good way to reveal memories and it will feel like a last minute edition to your story. Your readers will think you were stuck and came up with someone the spot. While it’s not a horrible idea to come up with something off the top of your head, you can’t do it when it’s an integral part of the story.
Finding a good way to weave your character’s backstory in your novel is of upmost importance. Take your time to make it feel natural and have information revealed over time, instead of all at once. For example, the paragraph up top could be fixed if the character had genuinely forgotten about the incident with the antagonist’s girlfriend. Maybe he has memory loss from the accident or there was something that had made him forget (he blocked it out, went to therapy, etc.) Find a way to make your story compelling and keep your readers interested in why something is happening.
Showing, instead of telling, is an important part of keeping a story fresh and interesting. It helps make the story you’re telling jump off the page and the setting and characters more believable. So what is “show, don’t tell” and why is it important?
· Description is an important element when setting up a character, place, or situation. Rather than stating that a place is “serene” (Telling), show the reader. By showing you are describing the setting with language that will create a picture in the reader’s head. “Serene” doesn’t help the reader visualize the setting you are trying to create. A sentence like, “The snow floated in over the wall, light and carefree as it brushed by Sara’s red cheeks.” gives a much stronger visual image. (Sorry for the bad sentence! I hope you get my meaning.)
· The “show don’t tell” rule can be applied to more than description. It can also be used to help develop a character. For instance, if a character is angry or sad, don’t describe (tell) their emotional state as “angry” or “sad”. Show the reader what your character does when he or she is angry or sad. Do they slam their fist on something? Silently seethe? Do they sob loudly so everyone can hear them? Or do the tears fall, as if they don’t even notice? Showing these sorts of emotions not only makes reading more interesting for your audience, but also gives you the opportunity to fully develop your character.
· “Show don’t Tell” can also be used to establish conflict. Conflict is a very delicate thing to put in your writing. It should be done carefully and using the “show don’t tell” rule can help keep your conflict from being overdone. If two characters aren’t getting along, you’ll want to show us their interactions. Think about how the characters normally act with people they like and then think about how they would act around someone they don’t like. (Don’t forget to factor in why these two characters don’t like each other! This also affects how they act around one another.) Conflict doesn’t just mean two characters being angry with one another; it can also be a character upset with a situation. Using “show don’t tell” will help keep the conflict subtle and complex.
Showing instead of telling is a crucial part of building a tangible world for your reader. Use it to strengthen your writing and help your characters’ voices shout from the pages.
Is your description dull? Does your figurative language fall flat? Are you forever stating the obvious in the quest to depict your world? Never fear! Here are some resources on effective description to help you put the punch back in your writing.
- Dr. K & Dr. E
Describing characters can be a little bit of a ‘telling’ minefield. While you are almost certainly going to end up with some ‘told’ description of a character, try to keep it to a minimum, ‘showing’ things about their appearance through action and dialogue instead.
Instead of ‘She was short’, use ‘She clambered onto the chair, her legs dangling several inches above the floor’
Instead of ‘He was tall’, use ‘He ducked under the doorway’
Instead of ‘He was a smoker’, use ‘He shook my hand, his yellowed fingers leaving the scent of cigarettes on mine’
Instead of ‘She had bad teeth’, use ‘She laughed, instinctively covering her open mouth with her hand’
So you see how a lot of information can be shown to your readers rather than simply told to them.
And remember that your readers have imaginations, imaginations that they enjoy using. Let them fill in the gaps - don’t give them a detailed head to toe description laying out mole and strand of hair.
[THIS RESPONSE IS C’s OPINION]
I personally prefer to pepper my explanations of things like political systems and other setting-related topics throughout the scenes which immediately relate to them.
For example, I would look at the political system I’ve created and try to connect aspects of it to different scenes where my characters will be talking about or involved in politics and/or government. If I have three such scenes planned, I might split up the explanation thus:
In the first scene, I introduced the topic of the government from the angle that I want the reader to take; I want them to be skeptical and distrustful of the government, like my character and her friend. This is not imperative, just the strategy I used for this example.
Then I took my character to the government and showed it as a physical manifestation (the buildings) and gave insight to court proceedings. Then I introduced her father and his way of thinking which opposes my character’s ideals. I used that as an opportunity to introduce some history as well. I might also take this opportunity to reinforce my explanation of what the government is and how it works from the first scene.
Then in the third scene I put my character through the machinations of the government. She was arrested and then possibly released because of her father’s influence, thus showing that the government is perhaps cruel but also corrupt as the system may be circumvented for a sufficiently powerful character (the father). This, if anything, will only strengthen my character’s (and my reader’s) negative opinion of the government.
There are definitely other ways to split it up, but I hope that gives you an idea.
A ton of exposition and explanation at the front-end of a story can make it dull and top-heavy. People generally want to see some action pretty early on. If you’re stuck explaining things, you might miss an opportunity to hook your audience.
I have always been of the opinion that it is better to attach your explanations of setting and world-building to a character’s development. It doesn’t have to be the viewpoint character, but if a character is experiencing the world and actively participating in it, I believe the reader will care more about understanding how that world works. Just telling the reader that the government is corrupt is not nearly as effective as showing the reader how corrupt the government is.
Check out these articles for more on show, don’t tell, beginnings of stories, and imparting important information to your reader, check out these resources:
Thank you for your question! If you have any comments on this post or other questions about writing, you can message us here!
Crossword stockings were a craze in America in 1925. Not before, not after. Fashion’s a funny thing; nowadays, it changes fast.
Why do I bring it up? Because, except in rare cases, your world probably has fashion. If it’s a historical world, then you know by now you’ve got to do your research. If, however, it’s a world you made up, then you’ve got some thinking to do.
For starters, what do the people in this world value? What is their general mindset? In the 1920’s, the war was over, and people wanted to forget it had ever happened; this is when the idea of right and wrong began to be more questioned in America, when moral issues began to be probed by the common man. The old was something they wanted to do away with, as it represented war and death. This lead to exciting clothing, newly high hemlines, brilliant colors, fringes, beads, and the like.
Another important point is, who is important in the society? For instance, again in the 1920’s, leather aviator jackets came into fashion when Charles Lindbergh made the first sole transatlantic flight. He inspired a whole style of clothing for men.
Colors are also important; green stood for pacifism in the 1920’s, an increasingly popular movement. White was sometimes associated with the KKK at this point in time; black with fascists. Your colors could stand for anything, from red for the blood of those killed by war (a protest), to white for purity (a classic), to brown for the power of the working class (a party or group).
And again, most fashion is designed for a particular body type; in Victorian times, one was expected to have a waspish shape, if one was a woman, and to be able to look good in very fitted garments. At some point in Victorian times, the style for men was to have an inverted triangle sort of shape in the upper body.
Fashion also follows necessity; the length of girls’ dresses shortened during the 1940’s following the lack of cloth.
So, just a few thoughts on deciding what’s fashionable in your world and what’s not, to get you thinking. I hope you come up with marvelous things!
When you tell someone a story in person, you probably know the person you’re talking to. You will at least have a rough idea of how familiar they are with the people and places you’re referring to. And if you misjudge, they can always ask you questions.
In fiction, it’s much harder to know exactly how much information a reader needs or wants. And even if you did, it would be impossible to provide since you’ll have more than one reader, and each will have different requirements.
You can’t get the balance right, because there is no way to please everyone.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t get it wrong. You may not be able to please all the people all the time, but you can certainly piss them all off.
Hello! I’m having a hard time with my writing. I seem to be having trouble with the whole “show, don’t tell” thing. If you could help me out, I’d really appreciate it. - anonymous
Show, Don’t Tell is simply a way of letting your reader connect to your plot, your setting and your characters better. It enriches your writing, but it also runs the risk of sounding boring to some readers.
First of all, Use it only when relevant and with caution. Overusing this method might make it look like you’re trying to show off your writing skills. But most of all - and this is the real risk of using this method - it make take the focus out of the story and slow down your plot. Specially when you’re writing an action scene, there’s nothing wrong with telling instead of showing. When you need fast-paced narrative, it might be a better idea to keep Show Don’t Tell to a minimum. Also, when there is no reason why your reader needs to connect with a certain place, story or character, don’t shove too much information down their throats. It’s always better to save this method to when it’s relevant.
Now, some real tips on how to master this method:
- Ask yourself what makes you say your character is *personality or physical trait* If you’re creating a stubborn character, ask yourself what makes you say your character is stubborn. In what aspects of this character’s daily life does it show that they’re stubborn? List those aspects, and incorporate them into your scenes - when relevant.
- Appeal to your reader’s senses. This is one of the best ways of putting your reader in your setting. If your character tastes, sees or smells something, let your reader figure out what it is alongside your character. Give your readers enough information for them to perceive the setting just like your character does, instead of simply telling them what’s around.
- Symbolism. Symbolism is a subtle way of showing instead of telling that works really well when you’re trying to hint at something that is going to be disclosed in the future or you simply want to leave your readers guessing. I have a full article on symbolism, that you can find here.
- Back story. Giving your readers a glimpse into what your character’s life or personality was like before your story started is also a way of show don’t tell. It helps your readers understand your characters, their motives and goals better.
- Let your readers judge your characters or settings. To me, this is one of the key points of this method. Try to be impartial when describing a setting or a character (when appropriate), because it helps your readers to form their own opinions. If you describe a certain character’s actions to your reader and leave it up to them to decide if that makes them a reckless, angry, stubborn, prideful, etc character, they will feel more connected and you’ll be a master of show don’t tell.
Also, there are really good resources about it scattered around tumblr - and the internet in general. So I put together a handful of really interesting articles on the matter that might help.
- What The F*ck Does Show Not Tell Mean? - FYWH
- Show Don’t Tell - Personality Traits - My article.
- Show Don’t Tell: A Whiteboard Writing Lesson
- Show Don’t Tell
- Show Don’t Tell: Robert J. Sawyer
- Grammar Girl: Show Don’t Tell
- Show, Don’t Tell
- The First Rule of Writing
- Writing in Pictures using the Show, don’t tell Rule
- Show Don’t Tell - But How?
- The Secret to Show, Don’t Tell
- Writing Tips: Show Don’t Tell
I really hope this was useful! All in all, just let your characters and settings speak for themselves.
If your imagery always ends up sounding as if someone is just telling the reader what’s going on, think about these tips:
- Use literary devices.
This just might end up being the easiest way to enhance your writing. Make sure you are familiar with literary devices, including: alliteration, metaphors, similes, foreshadowing, personification, etc. Incorporate them in your writing. Just don’t say: “Flowers stood in the meadow.” Say “The flowers filled the meadow, making the vast plain appear as if it was Van Gogh’s painting palette.” Some literary devices could affect the flow or mood of your imagery, like alliteration. Others will subtly add depth to your book as a whole such as foreshadowing. The literary devices most commonly used to make imagery interesting and vivid are the ones such as metaphors, similes, and personification.
Cliches are used because they are convenient. If you are stuck on a character design, plot, or imagery, it’s much easier to write something that’s already done than take the time to figure out something completely new. Be creative. Don’t say, “She was on cloud nine.” Say, “She smiled and squealed louder than a piglet getting food.” The more original or obscure your imagery is, the more impact your imagery will have.
-Avoid using too many adverbs.
Adverbs rarely add imagery, because they tend to only state or explain what something is doing. In other words, they don’t describe the scene. While one or two is fine on occasion, if you overuse adverbs, your piece will seem very boring. If you try to write a piece without adverbs, you will most likely realize that your piece will not only have more imagery, but will be longer too. This is because you had to add more details than just writing one word.
- Use all five senses to portray a scene, not just one.
While showing what someplace looks like is often important, sight is not the only sense humans have. In fact, sight isn’t even the sense humans tend to remember most vividly (that award goes to smell). Imagery will hold more interest if you also describe what something smells, sounds, feels, or even tastes like. For example, the city may be full of skyscrapers, cars, and people, but what else do you remember about it? The stench coming off someone sleeping in a tattered jacket by the subway? The crying of a child who’s tired of walking? What does the chili cheese dog that the business man is eating taste like?
-Don’t overdo it.
While run-on sentences can be used for imagery purposes, don’t make every sentence you write one, as it can ruin impact and bore your reader after a while. Also keep in mind that if you are still describing what the outside of someone’s house looks like and you’re on page three, maybe it would be a good time to cut back on the scenery. After all, too much of a good thing can often be just as worse as too little. Find a balance between the two extremes.
lesbianpokemontrainer asked you:
Hi, I love the advice you give and was hoping you could perhaps help me with my main writing issue. When I’m crafting a story, more often than not I will get through the entire thing, type it up, and then realize it’s extremely short. (I prefer to keep my stories fast-paced and so that’s probably why). Is that an issue I should worry about? The publisher I was looking at has a minimum word count. Should I layer my story with some minor filler or bulk up description to make it book sized? Thanks!
I definitely had this same problem because fast pacing is my drug, so I feel you there.
My advice for short stories will differ from full novel-length stories, so let’s begin with short stories since those are simpler (also keep in mind that short stories are not my forte, so I have little authority when it comes to short story advice).
For short stories that end up too short, think about these things:
- What’s the overall plot arch? How many steps did your main character(s) take to get to the end?
- Did your character achieve the goal too easily? Did they fail too easily?
- Were decisions made too quickly? Were things settled too easily? Was there enough room for any tension or real conflict?
In a traditional plot arch, conflict is what drives the story. If your conflict is resolved too soon, consider making the plot more challenging for your character(s), throw in an extra speed bump or pothole in their journey.
My professor told us that short stories don’t have time for fluff that’s unrelated to the overarching plot of the story, which essentially means subplots. As soon as you add subplots, you’re dealing with something bigger than a simple short story.
That’s really all I can say about short stories (and keep in mind that short stories aren’t my thing as you consider my advice). So let’s move onto my territory.
For full novel-length stories that end up too short, think about these things:
- Do you have a novel or a novella? Novellas have an entirely separate market (and often smaller publishing presses) and an entirely different set of standards. I’ve also noticed that, nowadays, novellas seem to be growing in popularity with self-pubbed authors. Here’s Wiki’s page on novellas. This is where a literary agent and massive amounts of market research could help you find the proper niche for your story.
- Do you have any or enough subplots? One of the mistakes I made when trying fast pace for the first time was that I eliminated subplot development, thinking that only the central plot was all that mattered. Subplots thread layers throughout your story, so that when the main plot stalls, there’s still something always happening and things always changing.
- Are your secondary main characters developing as well? Or are they remaining stagnant? A good quote I’ve seen says something like treat your secondary characters as if they’re the main characters. Subplots are good for this because they’re a sign that your other characters have lives outside the story you’re telling, that they’re actively changing.
- Do you have enough unpacking of your string of events? Aftermath scenes are generally frowned upon, but scenes that unpack details are critical for development of the story, and even characters. Scenes that unpack will continue to move the story forward, whereas aftermath scenes bring the story to a grinding halt.
- How strong is your character voice? Another mistake I made when transitioning from my old model of storytelling to my present day model is that I stripped the narrative to the bone, thinking that anytime my character had any form of inner voice was bad. I thought it slowed down the story, so I shaved it all. Your character’s (or characters’) voice should be present in appropriate doses and consistency. A character that doesn’t think about things is essentially a robot.
- Make sure you read when a plot isn’t strong enough to make a full story. There you’ll find extra tips on how to bulk up your scanty piece of prose.
- Your first draft is not your final draft. Unless I outline every detail of every scene, I’ll finish a manuscript and have to go through on my revision to add bulk in. Without a solid outline (which often evolves as I write), I still write only the bones, and part of my revision process is adding the flesh.
- Ask your beta readers/critique partners if they thought anything was missing or lacking. If a reader tells me, “I wish I’d seen more of this character,” I might consider adding little bits or pieces, or even entire scenes, that give the character in question more screen time. It depends on how that particular character affects the plot, and if developing that character will add more to the story (instead of read like unnecessary fluff).
Add onto your story only if your story absolutely requires it, and the same goes for the opposite end of the spectrum: only subtract from your story if your story absolutely requires it. Victoria once critiqued a manuscript that was written as a full-length novel, but the writer found she could make a deal with a smaller press if she reduced the manuscript to a novella. She did. Her story suffered for it.
Hope that helps! Good luck!