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6. Things I Wish I Knew
We asked a wealth of Queensland writers what was the one thing they wished they had known about writing before they started. We received a range of responses, from craft, to business, to motivation. We’ve tried to distil the responses here; if you take nothing else away from this course, at least remember these points!
6.1 Show, don’t tell
If you have ever attended another workshop about writing you will likely have heard this phrase.
The advice ‘show, don’t tell’ is now so well worn it has almost passed into cliché. But it is an important skill and a solid rule of thumb for writers of all media and genre. However, as with all rules, even this one has its limitations.
The idea of ‘show, don’t tell’ is to allow your audience to experience the story through your characters’ senses, thoughts and actions. It is a way of revealing information by showing (demonstrating through dramatisation) the events of the plot, instead of by telling (summarising or describing).
Among the benefits of this technique are that it:
- conveys information without directly telling the reader
- creates excitement and action
- enables the audience to experience or empathise with the actions and feelings of the characters
- leaves room for the audience to interpret the story for themselves
- makes the point of view of your characters more intimate
‘Showing’ is hard work for the author. It requires you to explore a scene in depth as a means to convey information.
In a work of prose, you might tempted to write simply ‘he was angry’. At which point your reader may just have to believe you.
The same thing can happen in a play or through dialogue if your character simply says, ‘I am angry’. Again, the audience has to believe you or the onus falls on an actor to do the heavy lifting of demonstrating said anger.
These are examples of ‘lazy’ writing, of shifting the hard work of visualising anger onto the audience or performers.
Wherever it is important for you to get across complex emotions by a character, it is usually better to dramatise the scene through dialogue or action so readers can experience this for themselves.
But, here’s the caveat. Because of the length and detail required to achieve this, it’s impossible to ‘show’ every single piece of information in a story. There are times when it is perfectly appropriate to summarise information.
A prologue in a long fantasy series, for example, brings the reader quickly up to speed with events that happened before and orients them in the world of the story. You can also summarise when you need to skip over long tracts of time quickly. ‘Many years later…’ or ‘After a while…’ are examples of this and, used judiciously, can avoid a story becoming bogged down.
Telling isn’t automatically bad, nor is showing universally good. You need to use your judgement about when to deploy different approaches to your writing. However, remember that ‘show, don’t tell’ is a preferable way to achieve good characterisation.
If you’re going to err, it is better to err on the side of showing.
6.2 Activity: Get angry
This exercise helps you to focus on how to dramatise a scene to convey character information.
What to do:
First, let’s explore some of what we have discussed further. Above we mentioned an example of lazy writing as follows:
He was angry.
Let’s fix this sentence. Think:
- What happens when you get angry?
- What are the sensory experiences of the emotion?
- What are the behaviours associated with it?
- What is a character likely to say in this state?
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6.3 Adverbs are not your friends
A quick reminder of some high-school English.
- Adjectives describe nouns: the leafy tree
- Adverbs describe verbs: he walked slowly
Both categories of words are intended to flesh out your sentence and provide more detail. You might think that sounds like a great idea, but both also have the capacity to slow down or distract from what you are trying to say.
Adjectives don’t often set other writers’ teeth on edge unless they are irrelevant or needlessly lengthy. A great rule of thumb is to think about your protagonist’s eyes. You may know very well what colour his or her eyes are, but does your audience really have to know? Does this eye colour provide depth to the character or become crucial to the plot or setting? In most cases, it doesn’t and it’s a detail that frequently drives writers nuts when they see it in the work of others.
But that’s nothing compared to the reaction reserved for the shabby use of adverbs. Yes, an adverb provides more detail. He didn’t just walk; he walked slowly. But in the vast majority of cases there is a single superior word that can replace the adverb-verb double punch.
He walked slowly? Did he dawdle? Did he stagger? Did he tiptoe? Did he shuffle? Did he creep?
And that was just the options without the aid of a thesaurus. Each of those alternatives not only provides as much detail as the original sentence, but provides a greater depth of characterisation in the process. These are verbs that not only tell you what he’s doing, but hint at what his motivation is for doing it. In doing so you take your audience deeper into your story and you’ve done so with one word fewer than what you started with.
This is the difference between adequate and good writing.
Before we finish with adverbs, here’s a timely reminder not to overdo it. Good verbs are better than ordinary ones pumped up by adverbs, but too many exotic verbs in quick succession begins to sound absurd.
He shambled through the windswept courtyard before halting with a jolt and stooping to amass the released currency in his outstretched, craggy palm.
Huh? Welcome to the wonderful world of purple prose, something we cover in much more depth in our course Exploring Narrative, but for now, remember: everything in moderation.
6.4 Activity: Get nervous
The best way to get your head around the use and abuse of adverbs and adjectives is to practice.
What to do:
Consider the following sentences. One contains an adverb, one contains an unnecessary adjective:
Jack entered the boardroom nervously. He said an anxious greeting to his manager.
Now think about how you could rewrite these sentences in a way that takes your audience deeper into the scene. This is an extension of ‘show, don’t tell’, but this time focus on the specifics of your language:
- Use the five senses in your description
- You may not use any adverbs
- Consider how you could use strong verbs
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6.5 The hook
Deciding where to enter the narrative is important, but equally important is engaging your audience from the very first sentence.
Your first sentence, and what follows, play a critical role in hooking your audience into your story. Most readers who browse books in a shop will first be attracted to the cover, flip the book over to read the blurb and then if they’re still interested, will open to the first page and read the first few lines. Similarly, people who have paid good money to see a play or film want to be engaged from the first line.
Things are even more brutal in the online world, where attention spans are short and alternatives are easy.
Your task as the writer is to draw your audience into the world of the story from the first moment. To achieve that, your opening must do the following things:
- create intriguing questions in the mind of your reader
- engage the reader with effective language
- introduce a character or problem that is central to the story
6.5.1 Planting questions about your characters, setting and story
Creating questions in the minder of the reader is perhaps the most important of these things. That doesn’t mean that you should drown the reader in information about your characters right up front. That’s known as ‘info dumping’ and has a tendency to slow the story down.
In fact, avoiding answering questions about your characters until absolutely necessary is one of the most important ways you can create suspense and keep your reader turning the pages. When you answer important questions in your story, such as ‘who is at risk here?’ or ‘when will the character reach their goal?’, you should prompt new questions until you reach the climax.
6.5.2 Engage the audience with effective language
Evocative language or a strong narrative voice is highly appealing and will assist in hooking your reader into the story. The story you tell is important, but the way you tell it will also affect the reader’s empathy for your main characters and, ultimately, whether they’re interested enough to keep reading to find out what happens to them.
6.5.3 Introduce a character or problem that is central to the story
Remember, stories are about people. It is people with whom we readily identify and empathise, so the earlier you can connect your reader with the main character the more compelling your story opening will be. This doesn’t have to be the first sentence, of course, but everything about your opening should lead us to that first introduction to your protagonist.
There are three different ways to make a first sentence ‘hook’ the reader in.
‘Have you anything more to confess, my son?’
Michael Noonan, December Boys
The nine figures raced through the crocodile-infested swamp on foot, moving fast, staying low.
Matthew Reilly, Six Sacred Stones
Aristotle said that if you hold your farts in you die.
John Birmingham, The Tasmanian Babes Fiasco
Note that all of these lines are good examples of beginning in media res (‘in the middle of things’) These lines reveal something about the main characters of these stories, create questions and therefore suspense for the reader, and even start to build the voice or ambience/feel of the narrative.
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6.5 Activity: plotter vs pantser
This activity is less about the words you put down than how haw go about the task of putting them down.
Broadly speaking, writers tend to prefer one of two approaches:
- Plotting: taking the time to first plan and develop what you will write, organising your ideas, researching and developing plot and outlining your story, all before you put a single word down.
- Pantsing: as in ‘writing by the seat of your pants’, diving in, simply begin writing and see what kind of story develops as you go.
Plotter versus pantser can be a topic of heated debate among writers who espouse one or the other approach.
However, there is no right or wrong way to approach story planning and categories such as ‘plotter’ and ‘pantser’, far from being mutually exclusive, are more like a spectrum. Free, imaginative writing can combine well with a plan as meticulously structured as a puzzle.
And many writers adapt their approach to writing over time. Each story may demand from you a unique blend of plotting and pansting depending on its characters, setting or structure. Similarly, circumstances beyond the page may require you to change your approach. A lack of free time to spend chasing dead ends can quickly transform a pantser to plotter.
Reflecting on the way in which you work can enable you to develop a deeper understanding of your way into writing. It can also allow you to learn about other options which you might include and adapt to your method.
What to do:
- Are you plotter or pantser?
- What is your process for developing a story?
- What are your main challenges?
- How well do you fit into one category or the other?
Try to answer this with 100 words reflecting on your process (or what you think your process is).
Then: Share your responses with others.
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You’ve come now to the end of Fundamentals of Creative Writing. So what do you do now?
Continue to develop and refine your writing practice. Stick to your writing schedule for a month and see how that works for you. If you write consistently every day, or multiple days a week, you’ll find your writing improving rapidly.
Read widely and start to think about how writers do what they do. If you are interested in any of the forms discussed in part 4, try to find examples you can study. You can start with the examples listed under each form.
If you feel like you want to explore deeper into the craft of constructing a story, consider the Exploring Narrative course here on AWM. It delves much deeper into the concepts discussed in part three, and aims to help you grasp the complexities of narrative theory and turn them into engaging stories.
Get in touch with your local writers centre to find out what courses they are offering that would be suitable for you. State writers centres are non-profit organisations that offer a range of courses in different genres, forms and skills. The people there are passionate and engaged, and engaging closely with your local writers centre will help you find a community and start building professional contacts and experience.
Congratulations, you are a writer!