Monday, April 06, 2020

Oh, That's Subtle: The Little Things Holding Your Novel Back

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Subtlety can mean the difference between a novel that works and one that falls flat. 

The smallest change have a big impact on your writing. One word change, one shift in perspective, and everything's different. Hopefully such changes result in a better story, but when they don't, spotting what's wrong can be frustrating.

Maybe you're struggling with a story right now, or submitting one that's getting good feedback, but just not quite landing anywhere, or having beta readers tell you it's good, but not great, and it's lacking something they can't put their finger on. You know you can fix it if you could just find it.

Take a closer look and see if there's a subtle reason that's holding your novel back. 

Is your premise creating the right expectation in the reader?

Are you writing a romance with a mystery subplot, or a mystery with a romance subplot? Both books can look quite similar, but what one genre expects is different from the other. There might be little things you're doing that nudge it toward the wrong side and makes it feel off, even though no one can tell you why.

Check your plot, structure, and tone. Do they match the type of story you want to tell? Are you starting out lighthearted then going dark (or vice versa)? Does it sound like another genre or type of book?

Look at the tropes of your genre. Are yours in line with the expectations for that genre? Certain genres require certain tropes, such as a Happy Ever After in romance, or finding a body in the first scene for murder mysteries.

Make sure that the story you want to tell is the one actually being told on the page. 

(Here's more on It's An Idea: Taking Your Novel From Premise to Plot)

Is your narrative moving the story or just explaining the story?

Sometimes there's a fine line between narrative that's in your protagonist's point of view and the author describing what's happening to a character.

Look at how you provide information to the reader. Is it technically accurate and well written, but feels as if anyone could have said it, or does it sound like your point of view character? Does the character sound as if they're experiencing these events as they happen, or simply relaying them as if they were describing a movie or sporting event? 

A protagonist just along for the ride can make a story feel aimless.

(Here's more on Two Reasons Why Your Protagonist Isn't Driving Your Plot)

Is there tension drawing readers in?

Since you know how events will play out, it's easy to write a scene that shows your protagonist doing all the things they need to do to succeed in that scene. This can give the scene a sense that there's no actual opposition to the protagonist's goal. All the pieces are there, but the feeling that the antagonist is really trying isn't.

You're not showing how the protagonist struggles to win, you're showing how they overcome obstacles to win. One leaves readers with a sense of uncertainty (they struggle, and they might lose), the other leaves them with the sense that the protagonist is just going through the motions (here's how they overcome this problem). 

(Here's more on Three Ways to Add Tension to a Scene During Revisions)

Are you telegraphing the text?

In an effort to foreshadow, you might be going a bit too far and telegraphing what's to come. So by the time readers get there, they're not surprised. Or, you're explaining why a character is acting instead of just showing them acting.

Check your descriptive action scenes. Are you having your protagonist state their motivations before they act? This can give the text a detached feel, as if the protagonist is explaining things after the fact and not actually participating in them. Look for sentences such as:
But when she tried to run for the door, Bob stopped her.
Make the subtle change to:
She ran for the door. Bob stopped her.
Tiny change, but see how the second example feels more active and immediate?

(Here's more on Message for M. Reader: Are You Telegraphing Your Plot?)

Are you telling, not showing?

The tiny word "to" can do a lot to steal the sense of immediacy from a line. In most cases, "to do" something is telling the reader what a character intends to do, but doesn't actually show that character doing it.
Bob stepped out on the balcony to check for zombies.

Bob stepped out on the balcony and checked for zombies.
In the first example, Bob doesn't act. The author is telling you Bob plans to act. The second example shows him acting.

There are exceptions to this and places where "to verb" is perfectly acceptable, but "to" is a good word to check on to make sure you're not inadvertently telling when you want to show.

Other telling words to check on:
Bob could see the zombies in the distance.
Try... Bob saw the zombies in the distance.
Bob was expecting zombies to come out from every corner.
Try... Bob expected zombies to come out of every corner.
Bob noticed the bushes behind the car were trampled.
Try... Bob spotted trampled bushes behind the car.
Bob watched the zombie rip George's face off.
Try... The zombie ripped off George's face.

Search for words and phrases that describe action and turn them into phrases that show action.

(Here's more on Send up the (Red) Flag: Telling Words That Often Spell Trouble in Our Writing)

Are you changing the subject?

Check your sentences for places where the subject of the sentence isn't the person you're talking about. This can make a sentence feel flat and passive.
The footprint gave Bob the feeling that a zombie was close by.
The footprint is the subject here, but the footprint isn't doing anything, so the sentence just lies there. A subtle shift to Bob as the subject, and suddenly the sentence has new life.
Bob traced a finger around the footprint and shivered. A zombie was nearby.
(Here's more on The Real Problem With Passive Voice in Fiction)

Small things can make a big difference, and we often instinctively sense when something's wrong, even if we can't say exactly what that is. Look for the subtle things in your writing and train your eyes--and ears--to pick up them and make them do what you want them to do.

Has a subtle change ever made a big difference in your novel?

*Originally published March 2010. Last updated April 2020.

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you  can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Good stuff Janice, especially since I'm in revisions!

  2. Excellent post! You give so much information and I love it, I can never get enough!

  3. Great post! Really, you've made me think a lot about how changing little things can make a huge difference.

  4. Ooo! Nice tips! I'll have to take a closer look at my WiP later and see if the portion I'm working on is striking me as mostly "flat" due to a problem with any of these.


  5. yes must take a closer view of things in future

  6. Great post. The examples were especially helpful.

  7. Hey, thanks! I've been on the lookout for another blow to my fragile ego. "Subtlety counts." *shiver*

    But seriously, some great advice here. I really like the "telegraphing" and "stating" examples.

  8. Thanks all! Atsiko, LOL, it's not meant to make ya feel bad.

  9. Yes! This is actually the stuff I'm grappling with right now.

  10. This is actually good stuff. Definitely looking out for examples in my manuscript, all thanks to you :D

  11. Thank you for a wonderful post. I am writing my first book and trying to get my head around editing. I am up to Draft #2 but from what I read in your post I have a few more drafts to go! Thanks for an insightful post - I found it very helpful!

  12. How's your hand, Janice? Read you had a little run in with a hornet. Hope you're feeling ok.

    1. I am thanks :) It got me on the thigh, but luckily not very badly.

  13. I just realized these posts weren't coming straight to my email lately! Must check into that, since I can't remember to comb my hair unless I receive email reminders (I'm not that bad, but still).

    Thanks for the great refresher. I'm cleaning this sort of stuff up right now!

    1. Oh no! You might need to resubscribe. I've been doing some behind the scenes tweaks and one might have affected you. If so, sorry!

  14. I'm just in the middle of revising my latest wip. Thanks for all this helpful information. I'm definitely bookmarking this.

    1. Most welcome :) Good luck on the rest of your revision!