The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

Show V Tell

Show v Tell is the most ethereal craft concept to learn for new writers. Show v tell is so elusive that even a search on Amazon for books on the topic brings up very few results, and few of those results appear to be promising. Even Writer’s Digest only has one title available (Showing & Telling by Laurie Alberts, which I have not yet read). There are a few blogs that try to explain show v tell. Some are good, some seem vague. In an attempt to clarify this ambiguous concept, I have put together a few short posts. I hope they will be helpful.

What does Show v Tell mean? In its simplest explanation, it is the comparison of writing styles, one of which is written in a way where the action is shown to the reader while the other is written in a way where the action is told to the reader. It might be helpful to think of watching a movie and compare that to sitting around the campfire while hearing a story (oral tradition) on the same topic. Both options can convey the same information, but the information is expressed very differently and the watcher/hearer interacts with the information very differently.

Stories that show the reader are visual stories. The words used to describe events are dramatic, expressive, evocative. Stories that show draw an image for the reader to see in their mind. The reader feels as if they are in the story. All the physical senses are used so the reader can believe the experiences of the characters. The writer is able to convince the reader through detail that what the characters do and say is real, as if the events really happened, and the character really lived.

Back to the movie vs campfire idea. The topic is The Hunchback of Notre Dame. At the campfire, the speaker just tells you, flat out, that that Quasimodo is ugly and that he has a hunchback. But in the movie, nobody says, “That dude is hideous.” But when you watch the movie you know that Quasimodo is ugly because you can see it for yourself. It’s the same information but presented differently.

Showing is visual. Stories that show are interactive in that they force the reader to become involved in the story. The reader participates with the characters and actively judges facts for themselves rather than just passively take information in. But this is just one part of the equation. And how the hell do you do it? I’ll get to that.

Next: More Show V Tell

The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

Scene Setting Continued

When you think about Scene Setting, you are usually describing a place. I say you in the plural sense in that you are the writer, the narrator, the POV character, the hero, the villain, everyone. So it is possible to get confused on which “you” you are at any given moment. Consequently, it might be helpful if you ask yourself some questions.

Who is doing the describing? Each character will have a different personality (ideally) and will notice different things in their surroundings. You have to make sure that your description matches the character. If you are writing in the POV of your villain, would that character notice the hero’s body language? Would your heroine notice things which are out of place? If  your POV character is a teenager would they notice dirty socks on the floor? If you are stuck on your scene setting, take some time and describe the scene from each character’s POV and see what each character notices. Or doesn’t notice. Doing this exercise can help you become aware of elements in your scene you hadn’t thought of, or show you problems you weren’t aware of.

Is your reader learning about your fictional world from your POV character or from the narrator? If the narrator is doing the description then the scene setting will be factual and objective, while the POV character could influence the description with opinions and emotions.

How detailed do you want to be? The POV you are using in your novel will determine how your show the details that you set in your scene. In 1st POV only your main character’s senses will be used to describe the setting, so they can’t see the villain hidden on the third floor of the building. 3rd POV may be the narrator, who can see much more than the 1st POV character, and who probably will notice the villain hiding on the third floor of the building. Sometimes the narrator will shift to become the 3rd POV character and the view will shift a bit too. It just depends on who you are when you are describing your scene.

It may help to view your setting as a character. A place can have personality. Santa Monica Pier will have a very different feel than New Orleans. A bedroom has a different feel than a bus station. What mood do you want to create for your reader? What mood do you want to create for your characters? Setting can incite reactions in the reader. Setting can be a driving force behind your character’s motives. Setting can show that something important is missing from your character’s life, which alters your character’s thinking. Setting can include time which also affects your character. Think about waiting around during some urgent moment. It create’s stress for your character and your reader. How does the scene setting create conflict and tension, or calm, or lust, or whatever is necessary for your POV character?

For newer writers, it is important to remember that just because you can visualize your scene perfectly, this does not mean that you have communicated this onto the page. Show your pages to someone and ask them what information they gather from your description. You may discover that the information you provided to your reader has been incorrectly assumed. For example, your fictional world is set in a desert, and you set your scene with fabulous description. You reader assumes sand for miles, hot wind, and mind-bending thirst. Ooops! You actually meant the Patagonian desert, which is a very cold desert, and where your character is in danger of freezing to death. When your character reaches for a coat, your reader is confused. After all, why would your character want a coat when it is so freakin’ hot? They throw your book in the recycle box. Not good.

Take the time to go through each scene with a fine-toothed comb. You may have significant revisions to do. What is relevant to the action of the scene? To your character’s motives? To the overall mood? What is relevant to each character? Does that differ from what is relevant to the narrator if the narrator is describing the scene? Is your description boring? If you describe your scene in the Patagonian desert, and you tell your reader that it is snowing, is that boring? Probably. Show your reader the setting instead of just telling them about it. Make the setting a visible background that your characters interact with. Show your character brushing away snow flakes from their hair instead of just telling your reader it is snowing. Make your scene setting dynamic, active, vibrant, scary, smelly, or whatever it needs to be for your character’s sake. It will make for a better reading experience. And a good reading experience translates into sales.

Setting your scene is more complicated than just simple description. But if you work it out in advance, take your time, think about what you are really trying to express and how to express it, your readers will love you for it.

The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

Scene Setting

Why do you need to worry about Scene Setting? It is one of the most important elements in fiction writing. If your readers don’t know when and/or where the story takes place, they will become confused and put down your book. Given the short period of time that readers will browse through your book before deciding if they like it enough to purchase it, this means a confused reader of your book is a buyer of someone else’s book. Good for them. Not good for you.

Consequently, it is of utmost importance that you place your characters within the scene (each scene) in a way your readers will understand. Scene Setting expresses where your characters are in your fictional world. Scene Setting allows your readers to visualize what your fictional world looks like, smells like, tastes like, feels like, sounds like. Scene Setting may also clarify when a scene takes place. Think flashback, or dream sequence, or historical era. Note that each new scene which is a change of location, or a change in time, or a change of POV, requires some Scene Setting.

As a reminder set off your new scene within chapters with a scene break. A scene break looks like this:


You can have several scenes per chapter. But for each new scene you will need to create some degree of Scene Setting. Think POV for example. One character sees the other character and what that other character looks like. Then there is a scene break. You then write in the POV of the second character who will see different things than the first character. Use only one POV character per scene. Writing multiple POV characters in the same scene is head hopping and will give your readers whiplash and confusion. Remember your confused readers above? They are now reading someone else’s book.

You can also write a complete chapter with only one scene. Whether  you write one scene per chapter or several depends on your personal writing style, story structure, plot, characters, POV, etc and is a choice that only you can make. There is no rule for the number of scenes per chapter. Just remember to establish place and/or time in each new scene.

You can establish time and place in several ways, including naming the specific place, such as Rome, Italy, or the YMCA pool. You can describe the location using the five senses. Sometimes your scene will be set inside some event like the Olympics, or the Civil War, and you will use some specific information which will help your reader become immersed in that event. If your scene is set in a specific time you can also mention that time, or day, or date when you set up your scene.

Do consider sketching out your setting for each scene, and each chapter as you write. Even if you think your reader doesn’t or won’t need it, do it anyway. It is much easier for your editor, critique group, and/or beta readers to delete too much information deemed unnecessary than it is for them to imagine a setting that isn’t there.

For a good visual example of Scene Setting, watch Gladiator. Maximus  and his fellow gladiators enter the Coliseum for the first time. The crowd is overwhelming. As the view of the stadium circles around it becomes clear how many people are in attendance. This scene is set to provide a clear understanding of the Roman Empire’s popular view of brutality, and also to show the place where Maximus must conquer death.

Next: More on Scene Setting

The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

Writing Productivity

I was intending to write on Scene Setting this week but was distracted by a productivity question over the weekend. The question was something to the effect of, “I can’t seem to finish my draft. Can you help me?” This is one of those questions that generate a bazillion How-to posts like you’ve seen everywhere on the web. You know, the 10 Ways to blah, blah, blah.  The bare bones of the answer are that you have to sit your butt in the chair and write. There’s NO other way. But for the sake trying not to sound snarky, I’ve put together a brief and hopefully helpful list and a tool to use. If nothing else, snag the tool at the end of the post.

Remember That Your Process is Your Process
No one writes in the same way. How someone else manages their writing practice is irrelevant. Compare yourself to yourself. Do what works for you. You can try out ideas that you hear about from other people if you want to, but if it doesn’t work for you, that is okay. You are you, not them. Do what does work for you.

Create Your Environment
Find a place to write. You can write at your kitchen table or at a coffee shop or sitting on the toilet. Wherever you choose to write, make sure it is a calm, distraction-free, and comfortable. Make this your writing place and use it regularly. If that means that  you have to make a special cat bed so your moggie doesn’t sleep on your keyboard, then do that. If you have to lock your kids outside the bathroom door and write while in the tub, then do that. It’s all good. Just find some regular and consistent place to write.

Give Yourself Permission to Write the Crappy Draft
It is okay for this draft to be bad. Really, really bad. Give yourself permission to write horrible sentences and stupid dialogue. Let go of the worry of writing the perfect novel. Allowing yourself to write the crappy draft will let you write faster and get the story on the page. You might actually write several crappy drafts before your novel is ready for editing. It’s okay to stink right now. Really. Write the crappy draft.

Do Not Edit
Writing time is writing time. Writing time is not editing time. Do not stop writing to create a better sentence, change a word, or correct punctuation.  Just get your words down (see Write the Crappy Draft above). Worry about the spit and polish later.

Research is not Writing. Don’t do it.
Doing research for your novel is not writing. Writing is writing. Research is a separate process. If you write something that needs research, make a note of it to research at another time. Don’t stop writing. Research can be a distraction to keep you from writing.

Turn off your phone, WiFi, Internet access, TV, or anything that will distract you from writing. Distraction is the foil of many a writer and will eat away at your scheduled writing time.

Use Writer’s Math
Use writer’s math to realistically figure out how long it will take you to write your novel, and then give yourself a deadline. For example, if you are planning to write a 100,000 word novel, divide that number that by 250 (the average number of words per double-spaced page) to know the number of pages you need to write. In this case, you will need to write 400 pages. If you plan to write 4 pages per day (1,000 words) it will take you 100 writing days to complete your draft.

Use Your Calendar
On your calendar plan out your writing schedule including your begin date and your deadline date based upon the number of writing days you need to complete your novel. Be sure to allow for non-writing days (travel, vacation, schedule conflicts, hangovers, whatever). Stick to your writing schedule and by your deadline date you will have a completed manuscript. I know it sounds weird, but it’s true. If you schedule yourself to write one page per day, and you actually do that, at the end of they year you will have written 365 pages.

Schedule Your Writing Time
Writing time will become your daily ritual if you do it consistently. Block out an hour (or whatever amount time you choose) on your calendar and sit down at that time and write. Don’t get out of the chair until your time is up, or your number of written pages is completed. Jack London wrote 1500 words per day. Ernest Hemingway wrote 500. Do what works for you. The key word here is do.

Use a Production Tracker
After you write your pages, use a production tracker to watch your progress. Seeing the pages completed compared to pages remaining can be just the thing to keep you motivated to write and finish your manuscript. Here’s a free one for your use: Production Tracker