Welcome to Day Eighteen of Fiction University’s Month-Long Revision Workshop. As we enter this stage, we should feel pretty good about our plot and characters, and understand what and why they’re doing all those exciting and interesting things in our novels. We’ve been focusing on the what and the why for a while, so it’s time to give a little attention to the where.
We’ve been doing a lot of description work these last few days, and any time there’s description or stage direction, there’s the risk of telling, not showing.
Today, we’re rolling up our sleeves and getting rid of any unnecessary told prose.
We’ll be using the search function of our writing programs heavily this session, looking for the common red flag words often associated with told prose. But remember, just because you find one of these words doesn’t mean you have to eliminate or rewrite it. If the word is doing its job and the sentence says what you want it to say, in the way you want to say it, leave it. Looking for these red flag words is just the easiest way to find told prose in a manuscript without reading the entire thing one more time.
With luck, some of these told moments were cleared up when we checked for stimulus/response back during the POV sessions, but it’s not a bad idea to check again with telling in mind—especially if we did a lot of rewriting or added additional description since then.
1. Check for Motivational Tells
Motivational tells explain motive, frequently before the character has even exhibited the action. For example, “To stop the mugger, John threw a rock at the guy’s head.” This tells readers why John threw the rock, explaining the action instead of showing it.
Look for ways to rewrite any motivational tells in a way that readers can guess the motivation by the way the character acts, thinks, or speaks. “John threw a rock at they mugger’s head. The man yelped and crashed to the sidewalk.” We can guess he threw the rock to stop him.
Common red flag words: to (verb), when, as, causing, making.
2. Check for Emotional Tells
Emotional tells explain feelings or say the character is feeling an emotion, but readers never see that emotion exhibited by the character. If you’ve gotten feedback like, “I’m just not feeling it, even though the character says she upset,” this could be the reason why. For example, “She screamed in anger and flung a rock at his head.”
Look for ways to convey the told emotion by using details that evoke that emotion. “Gritting her teeth, she screamed and flung a rock at his head.”
Common red flag words: In (emotion), and with (feeling).
(Here are more articles on show vs tell)
3. Check for Descriptive Tells
Descriptive tells explain actions. These are trickier because they often feel just fine until you notice that you're telling readers what they should be able to figure out by how the character is acting or how the scene is described. For example, “She sneaked across the room, trying not to be seen” or “the sound of a gun echoed across the stadium.”
Show the action and let readers figure out what’s going on by what they see. “She sneaked across the room, scurrying from chair to chair in the shadows” or “a gunshot echoed across the stadium.”
Common red flag words and phrases: Realize, could see, the sound of, trying, because, making.
4. Check for Placeholder Adverbs
When you see an adverb, there's a good chance you can improve the sentence by using details that show what that adverb means. How would someone who did something “adverb-ly” actually look and sound like? For example, “She said angrily” or “He walked nervously.”
Examine each adverb and decide if the sentence would be stronger without it. “She yelled” or “He scurried.”
This session ends Stage Three, and we should have all the missing or weak pieces of our novels fleshed out. The big macro issues have been taken care of, and the next stage is all about taking a step closer and tightening the draft on a text level.
Tomorrow: Check the Narrative Focus
New to the At-Home Workshop? Find the current list of revision steps and earlier prep work on the introductory page.
Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook.
A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue 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. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.
Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).
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