Novelists Should Watch More Films

I know, I know. It’s been awhile. I’m a bad planner, and that’s probably why I have yet to finish any of my seven half-written novels collecting dust in my hard drive. But you know what I have been doing?

Netflix. Lots of it.

Most of us are guilty of the occasional binge (though for many of us, it seems to be a more… frequent thing). I love watching movies. I could do it all day long, forever and ever. In fact, I’m guilty of liking them more than books. Oops. Isn’t that a cardinal sin of writing?

I hear a lot that the best way to be a better writer (besides writing) is to read. And that’s true. I will not refute that you can learn bountiful things from reading other writing. However, I think a lot of people overlook the things you can learn from watching films.

Movies are assembled a lot like novels. They have all the essential elements, just in different ways. You set the scenes, develop the characters, you make them think, speak, and act. But you paint the picture just a little more clearly for the reader. Sure, it takes away the “imagination” of it, but movies can transport us to different worlds just the same as novels. They also illustrate a couple things much more clearly than novels do.

  • Story Structure

In the world of writing, story structure is the all-important roadmap that takes you from the beginning of the journey to the end. Without it, you’re nowhere. You’re lost. Your readers are lost. You can’t plot without structure.

Remember that triangle diagram every English teacher uses to teach this stuff?


Yeah, that one. There is no better way to see this spelled out than on a giant, movie theater screen. While a lot films follow this three-act structures, movies can also show you how to play with structure. Why limit yourself? Try something nonlinear and dreamy a la David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Try something that jumps back and forth like Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.

They also show you what not to do. For example, the James Bond films are often terribly structured and predictable, but we stay for the action sequences.

Look at movies to learn how to stop meandering in your stories. The moment your story seems aimless, readers will get bored. Speaking of meandering…

  • Cut to the Chase

If you really want to stop meandering, take a page out of a screenwriter’s book. In the screenwriting world, one page of writing equals one minute of screen time. Most movies range from 90 to 120 minutes long, and screenwriters are limited to just that many pages.

Of course, this isn’t exactly the same for novels. You’ll need more description in a novel than a screenplay, so don’t take this exactly to heart. However, it is a good lesson to get you to trim down, at least for the wordy writers out there.

Readers and agents make decisions within mere pages if they want your story or not, just as that opening few minutes in a movie makes it or breaks it. In other words, don’t waste your words.

  • Make Compelling Characters

You know why movies have such great characters? Because they have to. Nobody is going to waste an hour and a half in a theater watching a movie about a character they don’t care about. If there’s no emotional connection, the viewer is out of there. We tune out. The exact same applies for a novel.

Regardless of plot, characters will often be the driving force of your novel. You can have a great plot with twists and turns, but if I don’t care about your characters, it’s a safe bet I’m not going to waste what little free time I have reading about them. Characters are ultimately what keeps the page turning.

An easy example? Everyone in Star Wars. Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia Organa. Everyone knows them. Why? Ask any writer (or even just Harrison Ford) and they’ll tell you what an awful writer George Lucas was. Why do people love Star Wars so much? The characters. We care about them. We want them to vanquish the sith and take back the galaxy. But logistically, the plots of Star Wars tend be downright awful.

  • Keep Your Scenes Important

In the same vein as not wasting your words, you have to make sure every single scene in your story keeps the plot moving. We’ve all seen movies where nothing happens. Did you get bored watching Gravity with Sandra Bullock? I know I did.

That movie is a sterling example of how nothing can replace a good story. It doesn’t matter how much flash and bang you throw in there. It can be as pretty as you want it to be, but if the story sucks, I’m probably going to sit there and laugh.

Movies like that teach novelists how to keep the action flowing. Everything needs to have forward motion. The story needs to evolve, and actions need to incite change. We can’t just throw our character off in space and expect our readers to watch her have a bad time for two hours.

  • Make the Reader See It

Screenwriters don’t have the luxury of being able to show instead of tell. They don’t have the space to describe things to the readers, to imply, or to foreshadow with description. Instead, they have to rely on nuanced dialogue and set designs.

Novelists have all the words in the world, but they, like screenwriters, also need to learn how to make their story more than just some dialogue uttered back and forth. They need to balance action and dialogue, just like screenwriters. They need to make their readers see what’s happening the way you can with a movie.

But at the end of the day, trust your audience. They’re smart. The viewers will pick up what you need them to. Don’t tell them the character is nervous. Instead, have the character stutter when they speak. See my previous post for more ways to show instead of tell.

Get out there, kids. You now have an excuse to watch three seasons of the Walking Dead this weekend.

5 Steps to Conquering Your Doubt

We're always doubting our doubts. Time to stop.

Writing is an art that comes with many obstacles. It is a highly technical art form with rules, guidelines, and lots of unspoken laws. It would be impossible to remember every single one of them, and many writers would argue that rules were made to be broken. I’d argue, however, that rules aren’t your biggest obstacle. For many writers, especially new ones, it comes down to doubt.

Self-doubt is what will keep you from finishing that story or what will hold you back from starting that script. Unless you can cast that doubt aside, you will never be able to send your work out to publishers, and you will never find success. While self-doubt is normal, large amounts of it will scare you from ever setting foot into really honing your craft as a writer.

For those of you still struggling, wondering “Am I good enough?” I have five little tips to help you out.

One: Stop caring about what others think of your work. If you get caught up in this, you will never make it as a writer. Do you like every single person that you meet? No. Nor will every reader like every single story that they read. That’s okay. Don’t try to please everyone because it is quite literally impossible.

Two: Ask yourself: do you believe your story needs to be told? At the end of the day, you’re the one who really needs to be convinced. Once you believe in your story, that will show in your writing. It will rub off on readers because your writing will feel genuine and confident. Tell your story, and whatever you do, don’t hold back.

Three: Prepare yourself. You’re going to get feedback, and a lot of it will probably be negative at first. Doubt feeds on your insecurities, so don’t waste energy by fixating on negative feedback. This does not mean you’re a bad writer. It means you have areas to improve upon. We all do. There is no such things as perfection, especially in this industry, so keep working to make yourself the best writer that you can be. You just need to be ready to hear the truth and not crumble if you don’t like what you hear.

Four: Write. Yes, it is that easy. Don’t think about anyone else or anything else. Just sit down and write. Write for yourself, not for an audience, not for a publisher. Write for yourself and you will be astonished at how pleased you are with your work.

Five: Share your work. You don’t have to get ready to shout it out to the entire world, but sharing your work on a site like Scribophile, where you can get feedback for your work, would be a good place to start. If you share your story with someone who will give you honest feedback, you will be one step closer to being a better writer and building your confidence up.

Easy? It should be. Remember, the only thing getting in the way of your writing is you.

How to Write a Stellar Opening Line

Andy Weir, The Martian

I’ve been sitting in front of my laptop, backspacing, rewriting, and editing my opening line for at least an hour now. My currently untitled in-progress novel is still fresh in my mind, and I can’t wait to get started. But I don’t have a good opening line, and it is absolutely killing me. The hardest part of every story I’ve ever written has always been the opening line. I seem to slave over it for hours, and even after I find something to settle on, I still feel unsatisfied.

When you think about it, your opening line is truly the most crucial point of your entire story. It doesn’t matter how the rest of your story goes because if the opening line isn’t enough to hook your readers, they won’t even get to the rest. Your first sentence captures the entire mood of the story, and it gives the reader a clear picture of what they’re getting themselves into.

It basically acts as a one-sentence summary for your entire story. If that isn’t daunting, I don’t know what is.

Luckily for those of us that struggle, there are a couple tried and true methods available for our inspiration.

1. A Statement of Principle. Think Austen or Tolstoy. This technique was rampant throughout European classics. However, in order for this to work, the principle must be confirmed throughout the course of your story, otherwise it just seems irrelevant. Michael Hrostoski has a great post inspired by Hemingway’s “write one true sentence” advice.

2. Stating a Fact. This is sort of in line with the principle statement, but ultimately, it is less complex. It can sum up the story and get you launched into the narrative with something as simple as, “I have a dog.” Okay, maybe something a little more profound, but you get my point. This method is just the facts and nothing more.

3. Using the Character’s Voice. You can use your opener to really get your character’s voice out there for the reader. This type of opener doesn’t do much to confirm setting, characters, or plot, but it can showcase your distinctive writing style. I use this type of opening in my short story, Watch Dog.

Mama always said that an eye for an eye would just make the world blind. If you’d have asked me, I woulda told you that an eye for an eye just ain’t enough sometimes. Sometimes you gotta take a life for a life. And even then things ain’t always square.

Right off the bat, you get an idea of the narrator from the way that he speaks and the way that he thinks.

4. Establish the Mood. You can use your opening line to establish the mood of your story. Doing this well can really set the tone for what is to follow. In George Orwell’s 1984, he wrote, “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” This doesn’t give you any concrete ideas about the narrative or any principles to work with, but it absolutely gives you an idea of what’s coming.

5. Use a Vivid Description. Nothing hooks a reader more than a simple, vivid statement that immediately starts playing the good, old movie in our head. Cormac McCarthy, a highly cinematic writer, is great at this type of opening.

Perfect opening lines take on a multitude of forms, and these are just a few examples of what has worked throughout the vast history of literature. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t find it right away. Sometimes, these are the kind of things we think of halfway through our first drafts. Don’t give up. When you find it, you’ll know.

What’s the best opening line you’ve ever read?

6 Reasons Dealing With Rejection Isn’t a Bad Thing

Dealing with rejection is just part of being a writer. Just last week, I received my first ever rejection from a literary journal. While they enjoyed my story, it just wasn’t right for their journal. Oddly enough, the rejection didn’t get me down. It stung for about a moment, but I realized shortly after that dealing with rejection is a rite of passage. Sure, I was being rejected, but I was also joining a club.

If you’re a writer who writes and puts their writing out into the world, you’re going to face rejection. You’re going to face a lot of rejection. Industry experts will tell you over and over that dealing with rejection is simply part of the job. If you plan on making it in the industry, you’re going to get rejected for a long time before you start to find your successes.

But rejection isn’t a bad thing, and here’s why:

1. It Reminds You to Grow. With every rejection, there is something to learn. It forces us to take another look at our writing, to fine-tune our craft.

2. Literary Darwinism. Survival of the fittest applies here more than you think. The more you can persist in the face of rejection, the better your shots at making it in the writing industry. The weak will get weeded out when they fail to adapt and overcome.

3. Rejection Brings Us Together. You’re not going to a meet a writer who hasn’t been rejected. Unless they’ve self-published every single thing they’ve ever written, every writer knows what dealing with rejection feels like. We’re bonded, that way.

4. It Hardens You. Rejection will toughen you in the best ways. Trying to make it in the creative industry isn’t for the faint of heart. Just because you’ve been rejected doesn’t mean you should rip up the manuscript and call it quits. Real writers will forge on.

5. Rejections Are Proof that You Tried. Yeah, the “you tried” medals and participation trophies are bullshit, but rejections are in an entirely different league. You put yourself on the line, and you took a step that some will always be too afraid to make. Wear your rejection like battle scars. Talk about them. It is better to have tried and failed than to not have tried at all. Sylvia Plath shared a similar sentiment.

6. It Makes You Face Your Fears. Ever heard of exposure therapy? Exposure therapy is this therapeutic technique where people with phobias are exposed, incrementally, to their phobias so they can realize that what they fear is ultimately nonthreatening. Over time and exposure, they begin to stop fearing it. The same goes for rejection. The more you face it, the more desensitized you will become to it. Just don’t let it stop you from writing.

So, fellow scribes. How many rejections have you collected? How do you handle rejection?

How to Never Offend Readers

As writers, many of us seek to comment on current or past events, often big events, often traumatic events. Writing involves drama. It involves trauma. Whether it is something as minor as a trip to the dentist or as major as a natural disaster, a traumatic event is necessary to conflict.

While my heart goes out to the victims and families of the shootings in Orlando, it got me thinking: what’s the right way write about something like a mass shooting? How do you capture the truth without offending anyone who may pick up your story?

The only real answer? Don’t write it.

The Impossibility of Universal Pleasure

One of the first realizations you need to have as a writer is that you’re going to offend somebody, somewhere, some day. It doesn’t matter how careful or careless you are. Somebody’s going to read something that offends them. Maybe you’ve written satire and someone didn’t get the joke. Maybe your story is violent. Maybe you cover heavy topics like racism or mental health.

In my opinion, these are things writers should be looking at. Do we need to teach everyone a lesson? No. Unless you’re writing a fable. Otherwise, your story should standalone, as any piece of good art does, and allow the viewer to interpret it on their own. It goes without saying that not everyone is going to arrive at the same conclusion.

I’m a people-pleaser myself, so I know how difficult this is, but you need to stop caring about the reader’s feelings. There isn’t a single thing you can do to please every single person that picks up your work.


If You Still Aren’t Convinced

Or aren’t ready to make the jump to completely uncaring, perhaps slightly sociopathic writer, there are some options.

  1. Use a pen name. If you’re really concerned about controversy, then you can always publish the work under a pen name. Then, if it does blow up into a massive debate, you won’t have this attached to your personal life. This might be especially helpful if you have a career outside of writing.
  2. Use Beta Readers. Have beta readers to look at your story as you go. You’ll start to see when they get offended or upset with the story if you ask them for commentary. Try to find someone who will be honest and thorough.
  3. Pick and Choose Your Details. Randy Ingermanson has a great post about basing characters on real people. Be choosy about your details. Mask the story. You obviously don’t want to get sued for libel.

On the other hand, you could always go all out, get your book banned by the government, and achieve infamy forever.

Fellow writers, what are your tips for covering particularly sensitive issues? How much do you worry you might offend a reader?

Are Outlines Killing Your Story?

Anyone that knows me knows that I’m a terrible planner in every aspect of life. Outlines and lists were never my strong suit.  It was too much effort for my taste, and my scatterbrained nature made it damn near impossible to organize all my thoughts (though it probably would’ve helped me). The idea of being organized always appealed to me. The concept of having an outline always filled me with this sense of ease–this idea that yes I knew where this story was going. But I never stuck with it.

Even for school assignments, when teachers demanded outlines for essays, I tended to write the essay first. I just went back after the fact and scribbled out an outline so I had something to turn in (sorry to any former teachers that may be reading this). Sure, having the outline could make me feel at ease, but that was only once I had my ideas. But in order to have the ideas, I needed to let my mind run buck wild.

Do you see my problem here?

Outlines have their place in fiction. So does flying by the seat of your pants. But over my time as a writer, I’ve discovered a happy medium. I like to call it flying by the seat of your outlines.

Planning vs. Pantsing

The main difference here is that planners think first and do later. Pantsers are the opposite. They’re the kind of people who go “What a great idea! We’ll figure out how that fits… later.”

I like to compare this a bit to people shopping at Target. Planners can walk the whole store, list in hand, identifying exactly what they need and picking only those things. Pansters, on the other hand, are the ones walking out with carts stuffed with about $100 worth of impulse buys because they just needed to have that $5 DVD and how could they pass up the Christmas decorations at those prices?

I’ve flip-flopped between planning and pantsing throughout the entirety of my writing life (and my real life, but that’s a talk best saved for me and my therapist). Sometimes, I really benefit from planning. I have an entire novel that I outlined so heavily that I even bought timeline software to make a timeline of events in the story. Other times, I just start writing and stop when it feels right. Yeah, not every idea is golden, but that’s what revisions are for.

My point is that both methods take you about the same amount of time, and they get you to the same place. It’s just two different methods of arriving there.

There’s a Little Bit of Planner in All of Us

Relating to my previous point, you need to plan your novel. You might not plan it beforehand as most planners tend to, but without planning at all, you won’t have structure. You need to know your characters, your setting, your plot, etc. This is all planning. The difference, really, between a planner and a pantser are how much planning you do and how well you stick to that plan. You’re going to plan at some point, whether it be before or after.

The “Before” Planners (aka True Planners)

The biggest perk of being a planner (or at least a before planner) is that you know exactly what’s coming. You know where you’re going and how to get there. The real upside here is that knowing all of your key events before they happen allows you to really balance your narrative and make sure the pacing stays exactly where you need it.

However, before planning can almost give you too much control. Sometimes, planners face the problem of restriction. Unlike pantsers, Planners are unlikely to follow an impulsive idea, which ultimately limits their own creative freedom. Planners risk getting to attached to their outline, to the point where sometimes they won’t budge, even if a better, more exciting idea comes along.

My advice on this con? Try going off-plan. Writing is one of those arts where you can always go back and change what you’ve created. You haven’t painted the canvas the wrong color–or maybe you have, but the point is that this isn’t permanent. You can change whatever you want, whenever you want. Even if your impulsive little idea doesn’t fit your story at the time, writing it anyway may benefit you, as you never know when you’ll have that blissful light bulb moment where it all falls into place.


Post-Plotting (aka Pantsers)

Pantsing, though a bit controversial, is pure freedom from an authorial stand point. You can move freely without worrying about more complicated details in your story. For instances, Pantsers may dream up a brilliant new character to base their story around, while a Planner will focus more on a series of events in the plot.

The con with Pantsing, obviously, is the complete lack of structure. Pantsers often fall victim to plot holes and pace issues. If you’re dedicated, there’s nothing you can’t fix, but they’re often problems that could have been easily avoided with a little pre-planning.

The Style of Success

When it comes down to it, the easiest way to avoid the pitfalls of Planning or Pantsing is to simply combine the two methods. There’s nothing wrong with taking the bare bones of a plot and developing that into something more structured as you go. In fact, that tends to be what I do, and sometimes I find entirely new stories along the way. It feels like a journey of self-discovery in a story, and I love the thrill of knowing I could twist and turn the plot around at any second, should I choose to.

There’s also nothing wrong with outlines. You can outline to your heart’s desire, if that’s what you need to get started. Just remember to cave to your impulses from time to time. Don’t get caught up and restricted.

Ultimately, you need to choose a style that compliments your own personal writing process. It will be a trial and error process to find it, but when you do, it will feel more natural than you could ever imagine.

So, where do you fall on the spectrum? What side of the coin do you prefer? Are you into outlines? Or do your pants fly?

Talking is Hard: Plot-Advancing Dialogue

I’ve worked in retail for about eight years, and it would suffice to say that I’ve had my fair share of spoken exchanges with people. My conversations with the customers have actually turned out to be one of my favorite parts of the job. However, nothing frustrates me more than an irrelevant conversation when the store is busy.

Yesterday, I was going about my business as I would any other day, offering help to anyone circling the jewelry counter, telling them to flag me down if they needed any assistance. About ninety percent of the time, customers are prompt to point out exactly what they want to see when they call me over. But when an elderly customer motioned to me and smiled, I didn’t quite know what I was about to get myself into.

I was expecting her to point to which piece of jewelry she wanted to see, already preparing the sales pitch I’d spent nearly a decade perfecting. Instead, she proceeded to tell me about how she got a gift card as a present. For fifteen minutes.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a nice story and a lovely sentiment. I stood there, nodding and smiling along with this sweet, old woman the whole time. But for the love of god, I couldn’t stop wishing she would just get to the point already. There were other things to be done, other customers waiting to be helped, and I was trapped in a conversation that dragged on for far longer than it ever should have, with no end in sight.

And this, my friends, is exactly what you don’t want readers to think when you write dialogue.

Move It Along

Dialogue, just as anything that occurs in your writing, should advance the plot in some fashion. Whether it exposes something about a character or sets the scene for an upcoming action, it needs to have relevance. Otherwise, your readers will feel stuck, unaware of the destination, and most likely will lose interest.

All of the spoken word in your writing must exist for a reason. This isn’t to say that your characters can’t engage in idle chatter or small talk–they just have to do so with purpose. My favorite tip for writing purposeful dialogue is to remember that each character in the scene has a motive, and each thing they say should apply to their motive in some fashion.

Picture Word is Worth a Thousand Words

A lot can be said of a person based on the way they speak or what they’re saying. Dialogue advances the plot but can also be used to reveal character. Ultimately, character reveals through dialogue are more of a secondary goal, and a writer should tread carefully here. Never reveal just to reveal. These pieces of new information must also move the plot along, first and foremost.

Dialogue needs to be written thoughtfully, and when this is done, it can be a great characterization tool. Is your character the kind to point out the obvious? Are they the type to say whatever they think without holding back? Do they speak with an accent? All of these things and more can add up to give readers information about your character without having to be spoon-fed.

For a bit more information on dialogue, check out my earlier post about showing instead of telling.

Au Naturale

Humans fumble, stutter, and misstep constantly. We rarely come up with that perfect comeback to an argument when we want it, only to find it days later when it no longer applies. We misinterpret. We overreact. We have knee-jerk reactions that we don’t expect. To err is human, and your dialogue should feel as human as possible.

As conflicting as it is, this means that you must write purposeful, important dialogue with the natural, boring air of our every day conversations. You don’t want your characters to feel scripted. I like to think of it as a movie in my head, as many readers will. If the dialogue flows and feels like a conversation you may overhear in your local coffee shop, library, bar, etc., then you’ve probably hit the nail on the head.

In fact, one of the best ways to learn how to write natural-sounding dialogue is to listen to it. Overhear it, write it down, and think about it. Eavesdrop in a public place and really hone in on the subtle complexities of human speech.

But above all, just make sure you have a direction. You don’t want to leave your readers trapped behind the jewelry counter for twenty minutes.

Harambe & Death in Fiction

The death of Harambe, an endangered Silverback Gorilla, has been making waves across social media for the last week. This incident is nothing short polarizing and has quickly cut society into two opposing sides. People are conflicted about the death, often questioning whether or not there was another way to deal with the agitated animal without killing him. Some blame the mother for not keeping an eye out. However, what I want to talk about is the emotional response to Harambe’s death and why this is the exact response you want to illicit when killing off a character in your writing.

I think I can speak for most writers when I say that we love a good fictional death. Killing off characters is a sadistic pleasure that many writers revel in,  though not all of us rival George R.R. Martin’s apparent homicidal urges. We don’t do it for the thrill of getting away with murder. We do it for the tug on the reader’s heartstrings. We do it for the emotional response we get from the readers. We love to put them in a conflicting position: mourning the loss of a character however necessary the death was.

Ultimately, that’s what it comes down to. When people get mad about senseless fictional killings, it comes mostly from the fact that they feel the death was unjustified. Justification occurs when the death is necessary to advance the plot. If the death is deemed unnecessary (as some argue Harambe’s death to be), you get a major outcry in response. But not in the way that you want.

Other instances a death is justifiable in fiction? If the death completes a major character’s goal, it can be justified. If your character has been seeking vengeance and the only way they can get that is to murder the one they deem responsible, then the death is necessary. If the death motivates another character, like Uncle Ben’s death motivated Peter Parker to really become Spider Man, it is justified.

Has your character been self-destructive all their life up to this point, and the only logical next step is their death? Justifiable. Does death emphasize the theme you’re going for? Justifiable. Would your story world be unrealistic without death in some fashion (i.e. a war-torn setting? Apocalypse?)? Justifiable. Death is also considered a way to get rid of an extraneous character, but there are other methods of getting around killing them off in many scenarios.

However, you want to avoid things like killing off a character just to get a shock response from your audience. You can kill a character for the above reasons and make it shocking, but don’t kill them purely for shock and nothing else. There is nothing that will piss your readers off faster. The same goes for killing someone just for the sake of making your readers sad. No bueno.

With all this out on the table, there’s still quite a bit to consider before making the final decision to kill a character. Just as Harambe was a vital member of an endangered species, the character slated for death fills and important and specific function in your story. If they have no function, you probably should consider why they exist at all. Once you determine their purpose (if they have one), you have to decide who is going to fill their purpose after their death.

A character’s death doesn’t mean you have to leave his role open for the rest of the story.

Now that you’ve considered everything there is to consider, do you still kill the character? Sometimes, death is necessary to move the ordinary into something special. If you can justify the death, why not go for it?

Those of you who have killed off a character, why and how have you done it?

5 Easy Ways to Show, Not Tell

Remember how when we were kids, we used to have show and tell? We’d bring in prized possessions to display in front of the class and explain their meaning. In hindsight, it kind of seemed like a contest to see who showed off the coolest thing, the thing that would make the whole class erupt into “ooh” and “aah.” This kind of thing only works on kids. The tell aspect is necessary for a child to understand the context. They simply don’t have the comprehension to infer the importance of an object the way an adult might.

See where I’m going with this?

“Show, don’t tell” seems like an age old critique mantra, the kind someone would scribble in the margins of your rough draft over and over again. It can be easy to fall into the trap of telling without realizing it. Sometimes, you get caught up in the action and forget that there are better ways to describe things besides, “He was angry.” Sure, that is true. But that kind of writing falls flat and bores the reader. “His heart pulsed with rage, and a scowled was etched into his face” is much more exciting, no?

Showing takes a lot more effort and a lot more practice, but I have five easy tips to really make your characters, scenery, and plot leap off the page and come to life.

  • Body Language. Body language is a wonderful tool to show instead of tell. Body language encompasses not only a person’s positioning but also their facial expression and gestures. I’m also a huge fan of pairing internal sensation and a character’s thoughts into this to pack an even stronger punch. Body language is a perfect tool to describe someone’s reaction to an event, which can be very telling about a character. Do they flinch, freeze, or flee at the sight of a gun? Or do they stand their ground? This alone can speak volumes. Add their internal feelings and thoughts on top of that, and you’ve given them the depth of a thousand leagues.

“With the gun in his face, he straightened up and puffed his chest out. Never mind the way his heart was pounding away in his chest. Never mind that he was nearly certain he was about to meet his maker. To turn his back would ensure his death. To face his accuser gave him a fighting chance.”

See all the things implied in this sentence? You see his courage but also his fear. You see his motivations. It gives you a solid picture of this man, and we know very little about him.

  • Dialogue. Have you ever overhead someone speak and immediately could infer something about them? Perhaps you’ve noticed someone’s accent and knew they must not be from your town. The same goes for fiction. People speak as individually as they behave. You can play with this, and in fact, dialogue is one of my absolute favorite tools for several different things in writing. Look closely at word choice. Look closely at the grammar–do they follow normal speech patterns, or do they speak with chopped up syllables or drop the -ings off their words?”I reckon you’re lost, little lady,” the woman said. “This here part of town ain’t no good.”


    From just two lines of dialogue, you can infer that this woman is likely a) southern and b) uneducated due to the use of appropriate slang and speech pattern.


  • Appearance/Possessions. The way a character lives and dresses gives off an immediate impression. Whether we like to admit it or not, humans judge people instantly by the way they look. Behavior and personality are a secondary impression. These can easily trump the initial judgement we make, but if we see someone wearing name brand clothes and driving a Ferrari, there’s a pretty good chance they have money.If a character is wearing clothes with stains or holes on them, or wears the same couple of outfits over and over again, it can likely be inferred that they are poor. If a character spends a lot of time sitting on a street corner, they probably appear homeless. If they own a Rolex, on the other hand, they probably have some dough. See what I mean here? Take some time to throw in some detail here and there. Be careful not overload your reader.

    “Fine,” she said, hoisting her Michael Kors handbag higher on her shoulder. “I guess we have a date.”

    Something simple and brief like this works well in repetition.

  • The 5 Senses. I cannot stress enough how important this is. Engage the reader by paying attention to what they would sense were they in the scene. What does the air smell like? By the ocean, it would be salty. In an alleyway, you might say it smells of rotten food and must. A dirty fridge may drudge up smells of spoiled milk and mildew. There are so many things beyond what our eyes see, and even picking up on just a few things can really heighten the reader’s senses, too. Touch, taste, smell, and hearing are a bit underutilized but are vastly important when it comes to showing instead of telling.
  • Cut “Was” and “Is” from your vocabulary. I’m stealing this one from Vonnegut, who has a great piece about cutting words to make yourself a better writer. It includes many beyond just is and was, but these are a great starting point if you’re looking for easy ways to improve your description. Using “was” and “is” are tell-tale signs of telling, and avoiding them will likely improve your writing as a whole as well as your ability to “show.” Instead of “Jenny was sad,” you could write, “Jenny’s eyes stung with tears as she looked at her phone. Was it true? Had her boyfriend really cheated on her? Her arms began to quiver as the tears rolled down her cheeks.”

    The second is far more relatable and gives the reader a better connection to the story. This is a prime of example of why everyone says to show, not tell.

Of course, there are plenty of times that telling is more appropriate than showing, but those are few and far between. So, fellow writers, what are your go-to methods to show instead of tell?


Solving the Plot Puzzle

This has happened to every writer. You’re writing away, the words are flowing, and suddenly, you come to a stop. The plot is really boring, you think to yourself. When did your story become so dull? Just moments ago, you had ideas and excitement. Now, when you reread what you’ve written, it all feels so… blah. You seem to have lost your direction and are in the middle of unorganized chaos with no idea how to save a plot you think can really become something.

Start From the Beginning

What initially gave you this idea? What started it all? Why was this concept so immediately exciting for you? What compelled you to write it down? Think of these things. You should be able to write down why your idea is worth reading, worth writing. You need to know this just as much as your readers need to be able to infer it.

Try Reading It Out Loud

This is one of those tried-and-true suggestions for several different problems in writing. Have you ever heard of being “too close” to your work? Well, nine out ten times, that’s completely true. Reading it out loud will make it sound a bit fresher, and you’ll be able to identify any mistakes in the grammar as well as pin point where the story makes you lose interest. Once you can spot it, try to summarize the events of the plot and figure out where the action lags.

The Final Destination

Even if you didn’t quite have an exact ending mind, it works well to have some kind of idea where your story should end up. Even if your idea is vague, you’d do well to have it. In fact, if you’re anything like me, you might change the ending a few times before you actually get there. That’s okay, too. The ending keeps you focused on a goal, which will help keep your momentum going. You can even work from a mid-point instead of an ending. It depends on what works better for you.

Work in Small Steps

Write a sentence. Any sentence will do, so long as it moves you toward the end goal. Work in small steps. All the sentence has to do is push your story toward your ending. You don’t have to be a planner to do this, so feel free to be sparse on the details. You can always go and revise later. Working in baby steps until you get to your mid-point or ending will keep you trucking along. This will keep you on track until the end.

Seeing as all writers have faced this dilemma, what are your tried-and-true methods of saving a lost plot?