Your character needs backstory, but don’t dump it

I want to take some extra time to go into one point on the Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist in detail:

Personal histories are brought into the story organically

Backstory is usually a bad word among writers. But the truth is, it’s necessary—to you. Knowing your character’s history is good. What’s bad is dumping all that history in one big lump at the beginning of your novel.

This is a common new-writer error. Continue reading

Is your infodump backstory, or is it research?

Last week we talked about the kind of infodump in which the character’s full history is dropped in one big block. Often this information—or pieces of it, anyway—does belong in the story. It just needs to be winnowed down to the minimum, and it needs to be woven organically into the story.

One of the best ways to incorporate this kind of history is through dialog. Notice how Joss Whedon slips the Hulk’s backstory into just a few lines in The Avengers: Continue reading

What does ‘show don’t tell’ mean, anyway?

Writers are forever being told “show don’t tell.” I even put it on my Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist:

The author is showing and not telling.

But what does this mean? And with every writing instructor in the business teaching this all the time, why do we still see vast numbers of manuscripts—and not only novice writers’ manuscripts—with gobs of “telling” in them? Continue reading

Use Narrative Summary Appropriately

Last time, I said Inappropriate Narrative Summary was one of the main “telling” problems I see in manuscripts.

Sometimes summary is appropriate. When your hero has to make a long journey, but the journey itself isn’t what’s important to the story, you could put “he traveled across the Atlantic that spring, and arrived in Boston…” and get on with the Boston story. But if his ship is attacked by pirates, then you don’t put “he traveled across the Atlantic that spring. The ship was attacked by pirates, but he fought valiantly beside the ship’s crew. The pirates were defeated, and a week later the ship arrived in Boston.” Continue reading

The difference between Storytelling and Dramatization

In his excellent book The Art & Craft of Writing Christian Fiction, Jeff Gerke urges novel-writers to stop seeing themselves as storytellers and instead think of themselves as filmmakers.

As you’re examining your manuscript for telling consider this: If your book were a movie, what would the camera record?

In a lot of novice manuscripts (and, frankly, in some published manuscripts from experienced writers who should know better) the opening scene, if the book were a movie, would be a person sitting in a chair.

For half an hour. Continue reading

When is it OK to open your novel with “telling?”

Over on Facebook, I got some pushback to last week’s article “The difference between Storytelling and Dramatization.”

One Facebook commenter noted that the “before” examples given in show vs. tell articles like mine are “often deliberately and obviously poor by any standards.” She’s talking about examples like the one I gave:

I did not want to drive to work that day. The storm was fierce, and the preschool was closed, and all I really wanted to do was stay home…

But seriously, I see writing like that all the time in novice writers’ manuscripts. I’m not exaggerating. I just can’t give you an actual example from an actual unpublished manuscript because that would violate the writer’s privacy. Continue reading

How to Go Deeper into Characters’ Emotions

One of the most frequent comments editors make on new writers’ manuscripts is to go deeper into characters’ emotions.

Readers come to narrative stories for an emotional experience. So authors, both of fiction and of narrative nonfiction, need to go beyond telling the reader how a character feels. The goal is to make the reader feel what the character feels.

If the character sees a snake and the writer puts “she was afraid,” the psychic distance will be distant, as if we’re watching the character through a camera. This is telling and not showing.

Using a metaphor or simile—Fear constricted her heart like a boa—is better, although it still labels the emotion. This technique is occasionally useful. A relevant simile does ramp up the drama. But for maximum emotional effect, we can go even deeper.

Natrix. Black Snake crawling through sand.

Photo by vav163 via

People experience emotion on two levels. First emotions are felt in the body, and then they are processed in the brain. New writers tend to skip the first step and go straight to the brain’s conclusion. This generates a label like fear. But if we stay rooted in the viewpoint character’s body and record their visceral response, we get a more emotionally resonant result.

Dense bushes lined the walkway leading to the front door. As she walked along the path, something long and black leapt out of the bushes. She shrieked and jumped backward, every muscle tense. A black snake slithered across the walkway into the bushes on her right. She froze, unable to proceed.

If we describe the stimulus and the physical response, the reader will conclude fear without our having to use the word.