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 I just can’t give you an actual example from an actual unpublished manuscript because that would violate the writer’s privacy.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

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

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

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 a voice that’s appropriate to your genre

If, like every good writer, you are reading a lot in your genre, you should have a good feel for what kind of voice is typical. But good writers also read widely. If you have done so, especially if you’ve read a lot of the classics, an “antique” voice can work its way into modern fiction, and you may run into trouble.

The narrative voice is appropriate for the genre and the target audience.

One of the more common errors I see along these lines is novice writers who are fond of Dickens or Tolstoy or Tolkien and try to emulate that lofty style, with its formality, verbosity, and grandiloquence. But this is probably not the way you normally speak, and it’s probably not the way you write if you’re writing in your diary or penning a letter to your mom. You are putting on an inauthentic “author” voice. Modern readers can easily spot that, and the younger your readers are, the less tolerance they have for a lack of authenticity. Continue reading

Use an engaging narrative voice

Whether the narrative is written from the POV of a character or a narrator, it must be engaging. Narrative is everything in the novel that’s not dialogue or interior monologue. So it’s a big chunk of the work, and it must grab the reader. That’s why I caution against Generic Narrator Voice and why this item appears on the checklist:

The narrative voice draws the reader into the story.

Novice writers who have done most of their writing in school or business environments sometimes produce narrative that reads like a term paper or interoffice memo. It’s good, but not great.

It was December. Snow had fallen in the morning, and by afternoon the streets of Detroit were covered in brown slush. Tyler walked home from the bus stop. His feet hurt because his old shoes were too small.

Continue reading

Voice in fiction is different

A fiction writer has a personality, a style, that carries across books. But the voice in a particular piece of writing may differ from others by the same author depending on the point of view. Which is why I have two different items on my checklist. The appropriate one for the work will apply.

If using Deep POV, the narrative voice reflects the education, culture, and personality of the character.

I am educated and have a rather large vocabulary. I’ve even been known to stump my critique partners with words they were unfamiliar with. But if I write a story in Deep POV, and the POV character is uneducated and has a limited vocabulary, I have to curb my personal style and get in character, as an actor would. On the page, I have to play the part of the POV character. Continue reading

What voice is and why an author needs one

In the writing business, we often speak of a writer’s voice. This is a complex topic, but it’s simpler for nonfiction writers. Your voice is your personality on paper.

Writers are often told “write as you speak,” but that is an oversimplification. What we mean when we say that is that you ought not to reach beyond yourself for some lofty “writerly” style. A sure way to get yourself into trouble is using words outside your normal vocabulary or attempting elaborate Faulknerian sentence structures. Continue reading

Give characters distinct voices

Editors talk a lot about voice, and it’s a tricky thing to get a handle on. For one thing, there is an authorial voice; that is, each particular author has their own writing style that comes through regardless of the setting or topic of each novel. I prefer to think of that as writing style—though there’s got to be a better term for that—and preserve voice for talking about characters and narrators.

If you are writing in deep POV, your narrative should carry the same voice as the POV character. If you are not writing in deep POV, avoid generic narrator voice and give the narrator a distinctive voice of its own. (See The difference between your voice and the character’s voice.)

Each character has a distinct voice suitable to their temperament.
Continue reading

The difference between your voice and the character’s voice

Voice, like art, is one of those things that, being hard to define, often falls into the category of “I’ll know it when I see it.” It’s a quality that writers strive for and editors look for, precisely because it’s so hard to accomplish.

There are two kinds of voice; authorial voice, which is what writers bring to their overall body of work, and character voice, which is how each individual character sounds to the reader.

One of the great advantages of Deep POV is that, if your characters are well developed, their voices will pervade the narrative. In Deep POV, the main voices one notices are those of the characters. Continue reading