WRITING DIALECT

by

Eugene Orlando

If you have a foreign character who speaks with an accent, capture their sentence patterns, slang, colloquialisms, word substitutions, word omissions, and speech mannerisms. Don’t write every speech sound phonetically. Not only does it obfuscate your dialogue and confuse the reader, but it is extremely difficult to maintain formatting consistency — and what a nightmare to spell check. Try it once, and you’ll never want to try it again—but avoid the “once” and dodge the headaches.

Phonetics in Dialect

If you wrote the Irish dialect phonetically, it would be:

Example: “Top o’ the marnin’ to ya’, me little darlin’.”

In word substitution, nineteenth-century Irish used me for my, and it’s okay to substitute because contextually, the reader should figure out the substitution if they are not already familiar with it.

Phonetic spelling can be difficult to understand because the reader has to “translate” each one, and it ends up a distraction. Most readers are familiar with the basic dialects (Cockney and Standard English, Irish, Scottish, German, Italian, French, Russian, etc).

Better example: “Top of the morning to you, me little darling.”

Sentence patterns can give the feel of the dialect without confusing the reader. For instance, in a refined Victorian English dialect, capturing patterns like “I haven’t the foggiest notion” work better than a plain “I don’t know.”

Danger, Will Robinson!

Don’t use everything you’ve researched. Though accurate, some findings may be incomprehensible to the modern reader. Many readers not familiar with Regency England (Jane Austen’s era) may stumble over something as simple as “Would that I came sooner, I may have been of some assistance.”

For an extreme case, try the rhyming feature of the English Cockney dialect (started about 1840). Unless you’re Cockney, you won’t stand a chance of understanding the following:

“I told her I ain’t got no bees and honey, and she told me that I’d have to go off and do bird lime-time then. I stole a butcher’s hook of her Bristol City and went off to get Brahms and Liszt.”

Translation: “I told her I ain’t got no money, and she told me that I’d have to go off and do jail time then. I stole a look of her breasts and went off to get pissed (drunk).”

Don’t Take My Word For It — Please!

It’s not just me warning you. Okay, guys, you’re my backup. Have a go at it:

Oakley Hall in How Fiction Works states, “Phonetic spelling is a crude device for indicating dialect peculiarities, and if used at all, should be employed sparingly.”

The Gotham Writers’ Workshop’s Writing Fiction says, “Writing dialect is like walking on eggshells—tread carefully. It’s tough to do well, and if it is done well, it still can be distracting.”

James V. Smith in You Can Write a Novel states, “Don’t write dialects. Readers don’t like dialects, and editors hate them … Better to hint at a dialect in the vocabulary and sentence construction … let the reader supply the interpretation of slurring, drawling, singsong speech patterns instead of trying to re-create them on paper.”

So, don’t take my word for it. Are there any questions?

And Another Thing

You will save yourself tremendous headaches with trying to be consistent in using apostrophes to indicate dropped final consonants, like the g in ing (rewindin’, comin’, and cruisin’ for examples). And it’s extremely difficult to start a truncated word with a smart apostrophe as in ’sides, ’stead, and ’bout because M.S. Word wants to make them single quote marks.

Dialect vs. Lazy Speech

Many novice writers treat lazy speech as a dialect. We all sometimes speak leaving off the g in ing words. We all use wanna, gonna, coulda, woulda, shoulda, etc. from time to time. There’s no need to portray phonetically lazy speech. Assume we talk plainly, though we don’t; but your characters must because the first job of a writer is to communicate.

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PORTRAYING CONVERSATION ON THE TELEPHONE

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Photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As a writer, you’re supposed to write scenes like they’re straight out of a movie. Think about the movies you’ve seen. Telephone scenes can be depicted in two ways, but one of those ways only works in the movies. I’m referring to seeing both characters on the screen either in split-screen effect or by cutting back and forth between them. Split screen is an effect I haven’t seen since the 60s.

The above method is not acceptable for novel scenes. Each scene should be in the viewpoint of one character. If the protagonist is talking to the antagonist, the protagonist cannot see the body movement, facial expression, or body language of their adversary. POV (point of view) is all about seeing the action from one character’s perspective.

One Way of Portraying Telephone Conversations

A second movie method can be depicted in novels. During the phone conversation, the movie-going audience can’t see the off-screen character, but can hear their responses coming over the phone. In novel writing, that translates into allowing the reader to read the responses of the unseen character but without any body movements, facial expressions, or body language (stagnant). That would look like this:

Dolores picked up the receiver. “Hello?”

“Dolores?”

“Hi, Lois. I was thinking about you today. And I was also thinking—”

“Please. Let me tell you what I just found out.”

“Sure.”

“Do you remember Carol?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, she just broke up with Harlan.”

“You’re not serious.”

“I’m going over there this afternoon and tell her exactly what I think.”

“No, Lois, I wouldn’t do that if I were you. Carol’s a real loner when she gets depressed.”

Example of another Way

Another method for the novel is to print only one side of the conversation. However, if you took the above dialogue and removed Lois’s part, something would be missing. Here’s how it would look:

Dolores picked up the receiver. “Hello? … Hi, Lois. I was thinking about you today. And I was also thinking— …  Sure. … Yeah. … You’re not serious. … No, Lois, I wouldn’t do that if I were you. Carol’s a real loner when she gets depressed.”

The reader won’t have a clue what Lois is telling Dolores. A little context needs to be thrown into Dolores’s dialogue. Here is the acceptable method:

Dolores picked up the receiver. “Hello? … Hi, Lois. I was thinking about you today. And I was also thinking—” She stretched out one arm. “Sure. What’s so important? … Yeah, I remember Carol. ….” Her eyes bulged. “You’re not serious. Did she really break up with Harlan? ….” Dolores gasped and drew a hand to her chest. “No, I wouldn’t go over there if I were you. Carol’s a real loner when she gets depressed.”

Do you get the picture? We can see Dolores’s gestures and expressions, so that gives the conversation some life. She’s at least animated. Dolores’s replies to Lois act as context helping the reader determine what Lois said.

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WRITING: HOW HARD CAN IT BE?

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Image by digitalart, FreeDigitalPhotos.com

Is writing a craft?

Why don’t many writers master their craft? It never dawns on them because they don’t think there is a craft to master—and that’s because they don’t realize how difficult it is to craft a good work of fiction or non-fiction. At some point, if they get involved with a credible writing group or organization, the realization will hit home that there is a craft to master.

Master of none …

I remember going to the 2003 Florida Writers Association’s conference thinking I had mastered it all. After hobnobbing with fellow writers—and professional agents, editors, and publishers, the rude awakening sent me home determined to fix my chasm-like deficit. In 2004, after a hard year of studying writing, I returned to the conference thinking again that I had mastered the craft and again went home realizing I still had a long way to go.

Of course, there is the writer that attends such writing gatherings and remains oblivious to her or his lack of writing mastery. They plod on and on staying at the same rudimentary level. The lesson in that should be: the astute writer has a desire to improve, and not only to reach a level but to always seek improvement. For, if anything, going to conferences should instill that mastering the craft of writing is a never-ending, lifelong quest.

There is a certain satisfaction in every new thing the writer learns. Each new bit of writing knowledge will make the writer’s fruit-of-mastery that much riper.

What if we compared writing to …?

Let’s apply this phenomena to another craft—carpentry. And let’s pretend there is a character that interacts with this new carpenter-to-be. We’ll call the interacting character CS.

Carp jerks straight up in bed one morning. “I have a scathingly brilliant idea!”

CS rolls over next to him and yawns. “What’s with you? You’re up early.”

“I’m going to do something I’ve always wanted to do.”

“Go back to sleep?”

Carp smacks CS’s thigh. “No. I think I want to build my own house. It will be the house of my dreams, built to my exact specifications.”

CS laughed. “So, what makes you think you can build anything?”

“There’s nothing to it. You slap pieces of wood together and fasten them in any number of ways.”

“That’s it? How absurd.”

“No, it’s not. For every problem I encounter, there’s probably more than one way around it. I’ll just jump right in and improvise my way around any difficulties.”

CS sits up and stretches. “There must be more to it than that.”

“What’s to know? I can hammer a nail into a piece of wood. I know how to use a level. I know how to measure with a measuring tape. It’ll be a cinch.”

CS yawns again. “Famous last words.” She lies down. “Just forget it and go back to sleep.”

The disaster begins …

By now you may have guessed that CS stands for Common Sense, which our would-be carpenter lacks. He talks himself into how easy the task would be to build his dream home by looking at it in an oversimplified fashion. In the world of special education, teaching the handicapped, there is a concept known as task analysis. Each special education teacher learns to take everyday skills and break them down into individual tasks ordering them by prerequisite steps. This is what writers should do to master their craft, not just grab pen and paper, or computer and keyboard and start writing.

Task analysis for writers …

Task analysis in writing does not deal with creativity—only the mechanics of writing. The mechanics are the tools, like the measuring tape, hammer, and nail for the carpenter. It still takes creativity to assemble the final product through the utilization of the tools—and creativity can only be developed and not taught. We all have a certain amount of creativity within us, and it must be exercised along with the study of writing technique to increase both.

Creativity is like a muscle deep within us. If we “work out” employing the proper use of our tools, it will develop to the fullest of its potential. I believe that most of us have enough writing creativity to produce a decent and worthy novel, if developed properly. However, that is my optimism.

Show me your credentials …

There is one big difference between carpentry and writing. In carpentry, there is a whole licensing aspect to becoming a master carpenter. There is an equivalent in writing—the MFA (Master of Fine Arts). When you master the craft of carpentry, you are licensed and can practice your trade, build good houses, and have them purchased by happy consumers. If you want to be a writer, you don’t need an MFA—and there’s the rub as Shakespeare would have said.

A writer can study the craft of writing over years without being degreed. A reader doesn’t check the credentials of a writer. The writing speaks for itself. If the writer takes the effort to learn the craft and has the requisite, intangible talent, they will turn out well-crafted works of writing; but most writers don’t do that.

Most writers know how to write words, sentences, and paragraphs—so what’s to know, right? When Carp said, “I can hammer a nail into a piece of wood. I know how to use a level. I know how to measure with a measuring tape,” he meant that he had the rudimentary knowledge of how to do the individual tasks involved in building. Wouldn’t we all expect to cringe when Carp finished his house and showed it off?

Do writing novices read …?

It never fails to amaze me when some would-be writer gives me a peek at their “dream house” of writing and it strays drastically from anything resembling a properly formatted work of writing. It’s as though they never read a book in their lives—nor seen the interior of one.

Their paragraphing, use of quote marks, indentation peculiarities—I want, but don’t dare ask them, “Have you ever read a book before?” It seems to me, and I did this when I first started writing descriptive works back in 1998, that if someone wanted to write a book, they’d look over a real one to determine things like—there is a standard indent to paragraphs, the terminal punctuation in dialogue most always goes inside the end quotes, and there is usually no line skipped between paragraphs. Almost any book is a model for that kind of problem solving—and I won’t even go on about a beginner’s books written in text message or Internet formats.

Even if a writer masters the mechanics of writing, there are the intangibles; and it seems as though not everyone is gifted in them. These include: shaping a plot, representing and manipulating the internal psyche of a character, the ability to jump from head to head during dialogue, managing the character movement and gestures, applying body language, building a scene to a climax, the perspective of the reader, arriving at a logical, yet surprising conclusion in the story, and meting out the appropriate amount of exposition in just the right places.

Do it right!

So—be a good writer—a properly skilled writer, and realize that there is a craft to master; and that it will take some time and a great amount of effort. Oh—and when you do achieve a high level of mastery, you should be duty bound to pass it forward—because that is how you learned.

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SHOWING VS. TELLING: A MORE DETAILED PERSPECTIVE FOR THE BEGINNER

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Photo by “Kadun” Workshop

Writing Advice

You don’t have to pursue writing for very long before you hear the most common advice given to novices— “show don’t tell.” It sounds like it’s easy to understand, yet it is the most common mistake new writers make. For some odd reason, most new writers believe they have to tell their readers lots of information for the story to be understood. Nothing can be farther from the truth. They don’t realize what a turnoff it is to readers.

Nuance

There is an important nuance here: technically, everything you write in a story is telling. You are telling the reader what is happening, what is being said, what the setting is like, what the characters look like, and so on.

Beginners get frustrated, throw up their hands, and say, “Isn’t it all telling?” Yes, it is. “So, what’s the difference?” The difference is in the images your telling creates or doesn’t create in the heads of your readers. Generalities don’t create images, specifics do.

An Example

If an author writes, “The warrior woman from the kingdom of Orien jumped to the rescue of the fleeing Lysentia. She defeated the Excubian guards and whisked the Princess away to safety.” What images are created? Nothing! It’s too general. The writing industry calls this telling.

But these “telling” specifics from my book The Blue-Haired Princess: The Birth of the Republic make images spring to life in the readers’ minds and are rightfully referred to as showing:

       The ineffectiveness of the pudgy guard fighting with his injured arm enabled the Orien warrior to concentrate her attention on the tall guard. She whipped her blade left and right, high and low, and then caught his blade halfway down the shaft. In three times the speed as it happened to Lysentia, The Orien circled her blade in rapid, three-hundred-sixty-degree arcs while sliding down the tall guard’s sword shaft. Whipping it upward separating it from his hand, she drove her sword point through his heart.

       The pudgy guard backed away. Tersius had pulled himself to his feet and limped into the fray again. The Orien spun and feigned a high thrust with her Lamina sword. Tersius swung to parry but found her slender Medius Ensis sword sticking through his mid-section under his chest armor and slumped to his knees.

Feed the Reader Small Bites of your Story

Readers are smart. They want to figure things out on their own. Never let them know more than they need to know in order to turn to the next page. Duhhhhhh! It’s what keeps them turning pages. And don’t “tell” it—”show” it.

Anyway—new writers think they grasp the concept of show don’t tell immediately upon hearing it. But it is one of those concepts that you really can’t learn without making the mistake of telling without showing many times. Then after many failures, the little light bulb turns itself on, and voila—it becomes clear what it is all about.

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AN ECONOMY OF WORDS

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Here’s a piece of advice about A Strategic Path to Writing Mastery or any book on writing mastery: “Do not ignore professional advice.” If you are lucky enough to get help from professional writers, don’t ignore their suggestions. If you disagree with something at first, think about it for a while. In the end, you may see that the professional is correct. Sometimes a professional’s advice may not be right for you. You can tell by researching how many other professionals agree or disagree.

An economy of words is what fiction/nonfiction writing is about, so—it is one of the main concerns of editing. Get your story across, develop your characters, and describe your settings—with as few words as possible. There is one necessary contradiction, but far more is gained with more words. Showing usually takes more word space than telling—but it is worth it. Showing provides the reader with an experience. Telling reduces the reader to a listener.

Script-Tightening Rules

You can think of this book as a manual of script-tightening rules. Who are they for? They are for the new writer, amateur writer, and the self-published writer mostly. These three types of writers usually have not mastered the craft of writing, and some probably don’t realize there is a craft.

Who Can Break the Rules?

Look in many books published by long-established writers and you will find several of the writing rules that are in this book broken to pieces. They can break the rules because they have what the new and self-published writers don’t have—an established following of readers. One of the wealthiest authors on the planet allowed initial books in a series to be professionally edited. Then, when that author’s following grew huge, the author took over the editing task. The quality of the work suffered. However, it didn’t matter because the readership had already been established.

Reality Check: The Publishing World

Writing is a creative process enjoyed by writer and reader. Unfortunately, there is one major obstacle separating the two: publishing. Unless you go the self-publishing route, you must jump through the commercial hoops of a business whose first interest is profit. They usually take a toll on your creativity, but they are doing what they think is best to turn the highest profits. That is our publishing world whether we like it or not.

From the Reader’s Point of View

If someone reads your book edited by the script-tightening rules, the book ‘feels’ right to them. They don’t understand why, because they are not accomplished authors who have mastered the art of writing. When they read a book that violates the script-tightening rules, they ‘feel’ something is wrong. They’re uncomfortable reading it. If you are a first-time novelist making the reader uncomfortable, they will probably not finish your first book and skip reading your second. The truth, as I suspect it, is that readers are not nearly as discriminatory as agents and editors are.

Self-Satisfaction

Then there is the satisfaction you get knowing that, in following the script-tightening rules, you are providing a ‘quality’ experience for the readers; and that your book is technically better written than most—even those by some of the biggest names in ‘Authordom.’ Let’s equate it to acting fame. The movie Speed launched Sandra Bullock into stardom. Being a little-known actress at the time, she probably had little creative input in the movie’s production, as you will have little input with your publisher on your first traditionally published book. Years later, in a movie like Miss Congeniality, Sandra probably had a lot more creative control because she had established a large audience following—she had box-office draw. You need box-office draw for your book to have more creative influence.

So—look at every phrase, sentence, and paragraph, and throw out all those excess words. It will make your message simple and lucid.

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TELLING vs SHOWING Part 3 of 3

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When Telling is All Right

Excerpt from A Strategic Path to Writing Mastery

Showing presents evidence to the readers allowing them to live the experiences of the characters and draw their own conclusions.

Showing respects the reader’s intelligence to come to their own conclusions.

Showing evokes emotions in the reader.

Telling dictates conclusions without providing any evidence. The reader must listen to the authority of the writer and take their word for it.

Telling assumes that the reader is not smart enough and must be led by the hand step-by-step through the process of discovery. The telling author is literally like your annoying movie-goer friend who saw the movie already and jabs you in the ribs every few minutes and lets you know what’s happening next.

With telling, all you get is a news report of what’s happening.

When is Telling All Right?

When you want an unimportant fact to be known:

Let’s say your female starship captain (Janeway?) is set to go down to an alien planet to meet with its leader. She wants to inform the ship’s cook about the planetary leader she’s bringing back for a dinner and his special food preferences. It’s not necessary to play out a scene with the cook, so telling is all right here, but tell it with as much brevity as possible. Perhaps a single sentence: I dropped by to let Bernard know what the leader of the Denebians likes to eat. I’m sure our sophisticated chef will love sautéing cockroaches and slug worms. That’s it. It’s telling, it’s fast, and I threw in a little humor to make it more palatable.

When transitioning:

Sending a character from one place to another does not require presenting an entire scene. Simply put, “tell” it and “tell” it briefly. Like, The next day, Captain Janeway beamed down to the planet again. We don’t need to witness a process we’ve all seen a hundred times—unless something very unusual and interesting happens in the transporter room. In this case, it is routine. “Tell” the routine and “tell” it quickly.

Two hours later, the Denebian hovercraft arrived with Captain Janeway at the mining site. If nothing significant happened on the way, and there was no real substantive dialogue either, then “tell” it. There’s no need to show two hours aboard a craft that is taking the principal characters from point A to point B.

When compressing time:

If a character is doing something repeatedly without success, there is no need to show it many times. Let’s say Midas Welby (brother of Marcus) has been trying to see his no-good lawyer for over a month. You wouldn’t want to show every failing attempt Midas made when he showed up at the law offices, so “tell” it like this, After a month of being offered every reason ever concocted that Gavel Docket was never in his office, I conducted a little research on where he liked to hang out. That is brief and you can move on to “showing” again.

When one character recounts something that the reader has already witnessed:

Let’s say Katina was accosted and roughed up by a bunch of tough kids from her high school as she was in my book, The Last Days of Camelot: The Legend of the Black Satin Knickers. When she meets with her boyfriend, she wants to tell him about it. It would bore the tears out of the reader because they already lived it through her. It’s okay to explain it like this: Katina related the whole scene with Ricky Mason and his gang. That’s it. The reader already witnessed it, so you “tell” the reader she told her boyfriend. Short (maybe not so sweet) and it gets it out of the way so you can move on to show the boyfriend’s reaction.

Opening sentence of a chapter to evoke questions (setting a hook):

“Telling” can be used as a hook by setting a question in the mind of the reader—a question they must keep reading to find the answer. Here are some examples:

My mother was eight years old when I turned fourteen. It even has a was in it making it passive—yet it sets a question in your mind. How is it possible to be six years older than your mother? In science fiction, anything is possible.

I was as nervous as a mouse that hears a cat through the wall—but the time had come.

 My life nearly ended the day someone forced me to wear it in front of Miss Kornbaugh’s last period class.

 Opening sentence of a chapter that restates the last scene:

When modern-day readers finish a chapter, they may not get back to the book for a week or more. It’s the sad truth about our super-busy lives. Sometimes they will stop at a scene break and do the same thing. At any rate, the author must have an opening line in a new scene or chapter that contextually clues the reader in on what happened just before they quit reading on their last visit to your book.

In my book General Samantha Lee: A Tiger’s Heart the first chapter is about Samantha riding her horse hard, frustrated over her family owning slaves in 1862. She rides up to her plantation house and sees the overseer whipping a slave. She physically thrashes the man and the slaves thank her. Here is the opening paragraph of chapter two, the next chapter:

The Negroes broke up and left Mr. Jarvis to recover from the beating I had given him. Lucas and Annie walked toward the slave quarters. I reached the stables, led Katie inside, and then into her stall. I had removed the saddle and started brushing her when a noise caught my attention—a faint, muffled moaning.

The first sentence is pure “telling” and puts the last moments in the chapter before it in context so the reader will remember the entire chapter.

Here’s another example from the same book: In another chapter where Samantha has it out one-on-one with her father over abolitionist philosophy, it ends with him slapping her. Here is the opening paragraph of the following chapter:

My eyes opened to Esmeralda staring at me; and I remembered that I still lay sprawled on the parlor floor, my face burning with the sting of Papa’s hand.

 It’s pure “telling,” but the reader’s memory has been jogged, and we’re ready to move on.

Between scene beats: (See Beats: under SCENES.) Each beat stands alone as having a beginning, middle, and end. “Telling” between scene beats insures that the flow of each beat will not be interrupted.

Setting a hook: At the end of a chapter or scene “telling” the reader information that hints of action to come will set a hook and act as a page turner encouraging the reader to keep reading. Make it a single sentence, like this last sentence in the following example:

“You may climb aboard.” Raygun said.

“Do I have a choice?”

He aimed his blaster at me. “I suppose not.”

I climbed aboard thinking what would happen when I told Karmak what Raygun had done.

Something that will happen in the future is being “told” to the reader, but it sets a hook and makes us turn the page to find out how Karmak will react to the news.

How Do You Know If You’re Telling?: When your narrative creates images in the heads of the readers, you are “showing”. When it creates none, you are “telling.”

 

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TELLING vs SHOWING Part 2 of 3

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Excerpt from A Strategic Path to Writing Mastery

 TELLING: I call this the art of “Tellography.” An author “tells” the story rather than allow the reader to live it vicariously. The advice goes: “tell” as little as possible in your story (very little.) Though it sounds simple, it’s a hard lesson to learn. Here is an example of two ways of “telling” the same incident, and then the right way … “showing”:

Here are some examples of ways some authors boringly “tell”:

Adverbs that end in “ly”: Adverbs ending in “ly” “tell.” “Shut up!” she said angrily. “Angrily” “tells” us how she said it. The “telling” word angrily can be shown with the added advantage of making the tag unnecessary. With the above example “Shut up,” it may be contextually enough to project anger without “telling” the reader how it was said. It depends on what comes before it. If not, “show” it like this, “Shut up!” She slammed her palm against her thigh (an angry action).

Description: Writing description like, “A wave of fear swept over her” (pure “tellography”) is stagnant. The cure is to “show” it. An author can show the fear in the character’s face, write about the changing demeanor, the change in the gait, looking around, stuttering speech, any number of physical descriptors to “show” us the fear washing over her. Here is an example that illustrates how much more interesting a line of dialogue that “shows” is over one that “tells”:

Passive:

“Land sakes!” Myra said in shock. “Dead fish? You brought dead fish?”

Active:

Myra’s jaw dropped open. “Land sakes!” She clasped her throat with one hand while the other splayed across her chest. “Dead fish? You brought dead fish?”

The active example above has more words, but it is far more interesting. When the reader is told that Myra’s in shock, the reader is left to conjure up whatever image comes to mind for shock. However, they don’t have the time because they are continuing to read taking in more language for processing. The active way creates an immediate image, and since it is using body language, Myra becomes animated (and therefore real) in the reader’s mind.

Exposition: There are two kinds of exposition. One comes in little spurts, and is part of the ongoing action or tension in a scene, invisible as exposition. The reader “learns” something about backstory, the character, or the setting without interruption. Then there’s the kind of exposition that is intrusive. It completely stops the story to “teach” the reader something the author thinks the reader should know. Imagine watching the start of a play and this happens:

JOHN

(Enters stage left and crosses to MARY who has her back to him.) Where were you last night, Mary?

MARY

(She spins to face him.) Don’t give me that. I waited as long as I could.

PLAYWRIGHT

(Enters stage left and runs downstage center facing the audience.) John hired a private eye and had her followed. He hasn’t trusted her since he saw her kissing his boss at the company picnic. (He exits stage right.)

And the playwright enters again and again explaining things to the audience until they understand everything about John and Mary the playwright thinks the audience should know.

Felt: If you’re using “felt,” then you’re “telling.” Avoid it.

Preceded by “in”: When an author writes, “He said in agony,” we are being “told” that he is in a state of agony. If it is written like this, “He writhed,” the super-active verb “writhed” implies “agony”—and we can see him in our minds thrashing about. He comes to life.

Redundancy in Telling and Showing: Sometimes authors “tell” what a character is about to do before “showing” us. I call that, “Tellegraphy.” Since “showing” is far better than “telling” … just drop the “telling” part. Therefore, “Jason stepped toward her and said, ‘Count me in.’” becomes, “Jason stepped toward her. ‘Count me in.’”

Sometimes they “show” us and then “tell” us the character did it, as in, ‘“What planet are you from?” I said out loud.’” The quotes “show” the reader it was said out loud. There’s no need to tell the reader what is already shown.

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TELLING vs SHOWING Part 1 of 3

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Excerpt from A Strategic Path to Writing Mastery

TELLING: I call this the art of “Tellography.” An author “tells” the story rather than allow the reader to live it vicariously. In my workshop sessions with my Reno Writing Clinic, I use this example to best illustrate “showing” versus “telling.”

TELLING THROUGH DESCRIPTION

In walking around the Union army encampment, I had to be very careful to act in every way like a man. Dressed in his baggy uniform, my curves hid well. It helped to bind my breasts, too. I had to be careful not to display any female mannerisms. Smoking a cigar and shaving with a dull blade helped project a male persona. In observing my brothers before purchasing my commission, I studied every nuance of their movement. For instance, when they sat with crossed legs, I noticed they were incapable of doing it by placing one knee directly on top of the other. They preferred to lay one calf across the knee. In uncrossed fashion, they never sat with their knees or feet together; and if someone should throw an object in their lap, they would clamp their knees together and dart their hands in front of their groins to catch it.

(This sample created for illustration purposes)

TELLING THROUGH DIALOGUE (“TALKING HEADS”)

Sally and I walked past a line of encamped Union Soldiers.

“Sam, how do you keep the men from discovering your real sex?”

“I bind my chest, but I really owe a lot to the baggy uniform. It hides my curves well.”

Sally stopped and watched two men playing cards on a makeshift table in front of their tent. “That cigar you smoke sure helps dissuade the men from guessing you’re really a woman.”

I pulled it from my mouth and blew a smoke ring. “It took some getting used to. My shaving with a dull razor really helped, too.”

“I’ve never noticed, but men must move different, sit different … how did you master all that?”

We started walking again. “Well, Sally, I studied my brothers carefully before buying my commission. When they sat with crossed legs, I noticed they were incapable of doing it by placing one knee directly on top of the other. They preferred to lay one calf across the knee.”

“Wow, Sam, I never knew that.”

“In uncrossed fashion, they never sat with their knees or feet together.”

“I’m glad I’m just the Daughter of the Regiment and don’t have to think of all that. They accept me as female.”

“Oh, and if someone should throw an object in their lap, men clamp their knees together and fly their hands in front of their groins to catch it.”

“You were smart to figure all that out before coming. I don’t know that I would have done half as well.”

“You do what you must to get what you want. I really wanted to fight in this man’s army.”

(This sample created for illustration purposes)

SHOWING THROUGH ACTION

I turned and glared at the two privates. Striding forward, I yanked a chair from my map table and smacked it down in front of them. I plunked myself down and crossed my legs by laying one ankle across my other knee and lit a cigar. Uncrossing my legs, I planted each boot firmly on the ground a foot apart while leaning my knees outward so they spread at least eighteen inches from one another.

I spoke as Samantha. “Every move you saw me make was distinctly male. Those moves came about because I studied my brothers for years with what I thought at the time was a fool notion of joining the army pretending to be a man.”

They froze, their eyes nearly bulging beyond their noses.

I puffed on my cigar, blew a smoke ring, and smacked my right hand on my right knee. “By God … just look at you.” I pointed to the crossed legs of the private on my right. “Few men are built in such a way as to cross their legs placing one knee upon the other.” I pointed to the other sitting with her feet and knees drawn together. “And you. The only way a man can sit with knees together is through concentrated effort, for they cry out to fly apart.”

I snatched a capped inkbottle off the table and tossed it at the tight-kneed private. She flew her knees apart and the bottle hit one inner thigh and fell to the ground.

“Now, Private, pick that up and toss it in my lap.” She did. When it arrived, I clamped my knees together and held my hands out palms up over my groin. “With men, it’s all about protecting the jewels of the crown.” I sat back and crossed my legs like a man again. “You forgot you weren’t wearing a skirt.”

I rose, walked behind the table, and sat down. “I have the remedy for you … ladies. If you want to stay as male soldiers in this army, I’ll have to transfer you to Company ‘C’. Report to the regimental Daughter of the Regiment, Sally McAllister. She knows about me and will teach you the moves of a man. I’ll also see to it that you share a tent.”

NOTE: It takes more words to “show,” but it is far more alive and interesting.

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