Writing Advice #7: Show and Tell and More

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog on MySpace devoted to writing advice for teens. Over time, it evolved into a general blog on writing advice for everyone. I blathered on and on, answered questions, etc. Since then, I’ve pointed people to that blog when they’ve sent me questions on writing, but I know that MySpace isn’t always the most, uh, reliable repository for such things. Plus, if you’re not on MySpace, you can read the blogs, but you can’t comment on them.

So once a week (probably on Wednesdays), I’ll be reprinting my writing advice blogs here on barrylyga.com. I’ll go through and edit them a little bit, too, and I might make some merges/changes, so they won’t be exactly like they were on MySpace, but they’ll hopefully still be helpful to people who are interested.

Here we go!

 


At this point in the blog series — back when it was originally on MySpace — a lot of readers were sort of desperate for me to talk about the Path to Publication. And believe me — I wanted to. It’s a fun, fascinating, frustrating topic, after all.

But I decided not to talk about it at this point. See, I think most writers (and I included myself in this group, several years back) are impatient to get to the publishing part when they haven’t yet nailed down the writing stuff yet.

In truth, the publishing stuff is EASY…once you’ve got the writing down pat.

So I’m going to continue talking about writing issues. These may seem basic to some of you, but believe me — they’re not. I spent a year or so as a freelance editor back in the day, and I saw a LOT of these mistakes in people who THOUGHT they were ready to be published.

Strap on your seatbelts. We’re going to spend a few weeks talking about the practical nuts and bolts issues of good writing. Is it sexy? Is it exciting? Not always. But the first step in the Path to Publication is good writing, so we have to start somewhere, right?

Show and Tell

The old adage for writers says, “Show, don’t tell.” You must master this particular skill.

Compare this:
“My, you look lovely today, Jane,” Mrs. Smith said.
Jane was angry. She clenched her teeth.

To this:
“My, you look lovely today, Jane,” Mrs. Smith said, her eyes sparkling with insincerity.
Jane clenched her teeth. Don’t say anything, she warned herself. If you’re lucky, she’ll step into traffic any minute now.

Now, I overdid it a little bit there, but I did so to make a point. In the second set-up, you’re in Jane’s head. You’re deep inside. You know how she feels about this, without ever saying something as pedestrian as “Jane was angry.” In the first, you can figure it out, but doesn’t it feel superficial? There’s no drama to it.

In short, don’t tell your reader “The Jeep was a mess” when you can, instead, say something like: “He groaned as he rounded the corner and saw the Jeep. The hood bowed up at the sides from the impact of tree, and smoke purled out from the engine block. Shattered pieces of headlight glittered in the grass, and the left turn signal was stuck, making it look like the Jeep was winking at him over and over again. It was like looking at some demented smoker who couldn’t stop twitching his eye and blowing his smoke in your face.”

See how that works? It communicates that the Jeep is a mess and it also tells us something about the character at the same time.

Always think of your senses. Writers often think of sound and sight when they write, but they forget about smell, taste, and touch. Don’t just say something smells “bad.” Tell us why it’s bad; tell us that when he was ten, your main character went behind the house and found a dead skunk, but the smell purling up from the ground where his mother died was a thousand times worse.

When we talk about adding details and “showing, not telling,” it doesn’t have to be a lot of details — it just has to be the right detail, told correctly. If this sounds difficult, that’s because it is — choosing the right detail and using it properly and effectively is the real work of writing.

But the result is more powerful prose that makes the reader sit up and take notice…and keep reading.

And that’s what it’s all about — keeping the reader reading, keeping the audience turning those pages. Because when the reader stops turning the pages, he puts down the book. And he might not decide to pick it up again.

Passive Voice/Active Voice

You also want to be certain to make your writing as active as possible. Whenever a character “was standing” or “was watching” or something like that, you’re probably using passive voice. Passive voice is dull and uninteresting. It describes an action instead of showing it. Are there times to use it? Well, of course! Passive voice wouldn’t exist if it didn’t have its uses! But in general, you want the most active sensation to your writing, which means active voice. Go with what gets the blood pumping, metaphorically speaking.

Here’s the test: Which of these seems more interesting and more exciting? “He was being chased” or “They chased him?”

The second one, right? It’s more immediate and it puts us right in the action. Someone is ACTING as opposed to being ACTED UPON.

Verbs

If you have any desire to write at all, then you must know that verbs are the most important words you’ll use. They fire your reader’s imagination more than adjectives or adverbs or nouns. That’s because verbs are about motion and emotion.

Nothing brings a scene to a halt faster than a lackluster verb. One to watch out for in particular is the verb to be. It’s a very weak verb. Avoid it. Find better, stronger verbs.

Here’s an example: He was afraid.

OK, nothing really WRONG with that sentence, but what if it read: He quaked in fear.

Which sentence communicates more to you? Which one is more powerful, more visceral?

Other verbs to avoid: to see, to feel, to walk. All are boring. It’s tough to kill these, I know, but it’s worth it. You can find other, more interesting and exciting words to get your point across. To glance. To swoon. To saunter.

While you’re working on those million bad words, go through your writing. Look for instances where you’re telling and you should be showing. Look for instances where you use passive voice or boring verbs. When you rewrite, do so with an eye towards fixing those problems. You’ll have taken a big step in the right direction.

OK, gang! Feel free to ask questions in the comments. I’ll see y’all again next week!

Comments

  1. Hey Mr. Lyga,
    Thanks for this advice. I’ll be sure to go over what I’ve written and see what I need to do. To add to what you’ve said earlier about writing well is a big part of how much you’ve read. I’ve read several books and series. I’ve read books by Kim Harrison, James Patterson, Cate Tiernan, P.C & Kristin Cast, David Klass, Damien Graves, Gail Giles, R.L. Stine, Stephen King, Paul Witcover, Darren Shan, Amanda Ashley, Kimberly Pauley, Rick Riordan, and a few others. I’ve also read some of your books. I think I’ve done very well in the whole reading to become a better writer scheme of things. Just the other day I caught a few grammar mistakes in a book I read by an Author I truly admire. She had in some point of the book put an I instead of an E in the name of one of the characters. I’m getting better at detecting errors and other peoples work. Once I’m better at it I’ll turn it inward and read through my own work. Maybe sooner rather than later, but no rush right?

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