The developmental editor I’ve been working with suggested I had a problem with telling and not showing in Legend, my current WIP. So I ended up going back and rewriting those parts with more dialogue than I intended, which meant going back a third time and finding the balance. This is after all the revising I’ve already done over the years. I’m happy to report that I made it through the process and am now in the grammar check stage before turning it back over for another round of reads and edits.
This whole painful, time-consuming, infinite circle approach to both Spirit and Legend made me realize that things need to change, especially if I want to write as many books as I do. Ideally I want to do at the most three passes on a book before I’m done, hand it off for a proof, and then only worry about minor changes. It’s the only way I’m going to get anywhere with my grand plan.
Putting tell in front of show and vice versa
By its very nature dialogue is another form of telling, since it’s one person telling something to another person. In a weird way, I was using the dialogue to explain something that I thought needed explaining when it really didn’t. Or worse, my characters were being really philosophical at the wrong time. I’ve come to realize that in both cases, it was my own internal dialogue spilling over into the manuscript as my way of making sure I was covering everything that needed to be covered.
The telling and extra dialogue are fine during the draft stage. In fact, a blog post from October 2012 suggests the first draft is meant for an author to tell the story to themselves and get it out of their head by any means possible. The second one is where they tell others the story.
I’ve actually already started using that technique as it was similar to the one proposed in Tell Don’t Show. In the Scrivener file that has all my books in it, there are chapters with nothing more than a sentence or two, maybe a paragraph, describing what I want to happen there. There are others with bits and piece of dialogue and more details, yet they are still more telling than showing. I do this when I have the idea, but I’m not sure how it’s going to happen yet or I want to skip ahead to the part I’m more certain about. When I get back to writing, I’m going to expand on this if it makes getting the first drafts done faster without sacrificing quality.
Four questions to ask when editing
When a book gets into the second draft stage show don’t tell becomes the priority. Everything must be relevant, embrace the senses, and include the how, what, and whys a person would ask in real life. How does one decide what is relevant when logic has to fight against the sentimentality of favorite characters or passages? The objectivity needed for editing comes down to four simple questions:
- Will the audience really care? – Another way to phrase this is “Will the audience miss out on something if this detail is not included?” Writers have to think about their audience. Yet, in thinking about them, it’s easy to assume they know more than they do. Or worse, there is this strange compulsion to overload them with details to make sure they know as much, if not more, than they need to. Thing is, readers want to use their imagination and fill in the details. Writers are supposed to be their guides, not their babysitters.
- Does this sound like a report? – Emails, tweets, letters, texts… Every time we write something that tells someone something we are writing a report. If an author is writing about a report in their prose than it needs to sound like a report as well. Everywhere else might indicate a serious problem with flat characters. Remember, they aren’t puppets on a string, but living, breathing (in whatever form they do) entities. They have to act that way. As a reader, I rather see a character do something than be told what he did. For me, it’s words that end in ed (or s) and indicate action. How many of those can I eliminate or expand on to encompass not only the action, but the feeling behind it?
- How does this move the story along? – There is a rule in web design, two seconds to make a good impression or the customer is lost. It might be down to one, or even half, given how much information bombards people on a daily basis. Books are still meant to be savored, but sometime people can’t wait for the layers to build. They want to see resolution (or know it’s coming) in the short chunks of time they are dedicating to reading. As authors we have to take that into consideration and decide are we adding trivial stuff that will play an important part later or are adding feel good fluff that’s just their to make us happy.
- Do your characters sound like themselves? Or better yet, “Do they sound like the are supposed to sound?” Characters love to be sentimental and speak their minds. That’s fine. It’s the how they do it and when that requires attention. A prominent figure can’t sound like a little kid, especially in uniform. Rambling on about things? Only if there is room and it’s relevant (see point #3).
Now that I know what they are, I’ve been asking myself these questions and having wonderful results. I can almost spot a tell or an area that needs improvement before I read it.
What do you do to help yourself write and edit quicker? Let me know!