Saturday, January 30

Real Life Diagnostics: Showing, Telling, and Trying to Hook Readers

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose it on the site. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Six

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through March 11.

This week’s questions:

I keep reading about "showing not telling", "making sure there are 'questions' to hook the reader" and so on, and to be honest it's all a bit confusing.

Market/Genre: Speculative

Note: We’ve got a brand-new writer here, so please keep that in mind when offering suggestions.

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Tuesday, 14.03.2006

Mark Bishop sadly arranged the urn next to the other three in his study and walked slowly to the office.

“So what’s been happening while I was away?” Mark asked as he slumped in the armchair opposite the one where Bill Marsh, his farm manager was waiting for him.

Bill explained the accountancy firm had called and the new tax accountant would be coming on Friday, “Apparently he has a farming background and is supposed to know how to get grants an ‘all.”

“Well, the last chap was bloody useless. If the idea of tax breaks or grants ever entered his mind it left at the speed of light. You’d have thought he worked for the bloody Tax Man!” Mark complained.

“If the new ‘un’s been around a farm that’ll be an improvement right there.”

“Yes, and any grants I can get will be really handy,” Mark agreed heartily.

“If yer’d not spent so much adding all them extra rooms t’ farmhouse, yer’d a’ bin better off.”

“Don’t remind me,” he grunted. “I thought I could help build a decent place to live, away from all the bullshit, where I could raise my own family.”

“Yeah, an’ we know what happened to that idea!” as Mark’s eyes narrowed and body tensed at the reminder, Bill quickly continued, “Anyroad, we’re rolling an’ fertilizing t’ fields and have a few hedgerows t’ finish an’ some fence posts to replace. So there’s still quite a bit to do before we let the girls out t’ graze and…”

“Well, it’s not going to get done if you two stay glued to them chairs all day, is it?” a short buxom woman said interrupting them. Jenny was Bill’s wife and Mark’s housekeeper, cook and, Mark often thought, the real boss at Keldthorpe Farm, certainly no-one wanted to get on her wrong side. “I thought you were going to see to that there bookcase in the basement now Joe’s finished putting up all them panels?” glaring at Mark.

“Come on, “Mark, his mood lightening, said to Bill, “Let’s get back to the barn before she gets us cleaning the kitchen.”

“If you think, for one minute, I’d let you two stumble around my kitchen making a mess, you can think again.” Jenny retorted. “Now get out of here and be useful. Go on. Shoo!” chasing them towards the front door.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Mark Bishop [sadly arranged] adverbs are common telling words. the urn next to the other three in his study and [walked slowly] try looking for a word that suggest a sad, slow walk to the office. As an opening line hook, why is this the very first thing you want readers to know?

[“So what’s been happening while I was away?”] This phrasing immediately makes me think I’m about to get an infodump, so it’s not working yet as a hook Mark asked as he slumped in the armchair opposite the one where Bill Marsh, his farm manager was waiting for him.

[Bill explained] “Explained” is a red flag for telling. In this instance it doesn’t show the conversation, it tells readers they had one and what it was about. So there’s no actual action the accountancy firm had called and the new tax accountant would be coming on Friday, “Apparently he has a farming background and is supposed to know how to get grants an ‘all.”

“Well, the last chap was bloody useless. If the idea of tax breaks or grants ever entered his mind it left at the speed of light. You’d have thought he worked for the bloody Tax Man!” [Mark complained.] Telling. It’s clear from what Mark says that he’s complaining, so you don’t need to say that.

“If the new ‘un’s been around a farm that’ll be an improvement right there.”

“Yes, and any grants I can get will be really handy,” Mark [agreed heartily.] Instead of using the telling adverb, how might you show his enthusiasm through words or actions?

“If yer’d not spent so much adding all them extra rooms t’ farmhouse, yer’d a’ bin better off.” Be wary of dialect. A few words once in a while to suggest the accent works, but too much and it’s hard to read.

“Don’t remind me,” [he grunted.] a grunt is a sound, not a way of speaking. [“I thought I could help build a decent place to live, away from all the bullshit, where I could raise my own family.”] This type of phrase is telling through dialogue. I assume both of these men know this, so he’s only saying it for the reader’s benefit.

“Yeah, an’ we know what happened to that idea!” [as Mark’s eyes narrowed and body tensed at the reminder,] tellish. This explains what Mark’s body did, Bill quickly continued, “Anyroad, we’re rolling an’ fertilizing t’ fields and have a few hedgerows t’ finish an’ some fence posts to replace. So there’s still quite a bit to do before we let the girls out t’ graze and…”

“Well, it’s not going to get done if you two stay glued to them chairs all day, is it?” [a short buxom woman said interrupting them.] Since you show her breaking into the dialogue, saying she interrupted is telling. Jenny was Bill’s wife and Mark’s housekeeper, cook and, Mark often thought, the real boss at Keldthorpe Farm, certainly no-one wanted to get on her wrong side. “I thought you were going to see to that there bookcase in the basement now Joe’s finished putting up all them panels?” [glaring at Mark.] “glaring” isn’t a way of speaking. Try “She glared at Mark.” Show the dialogue, then show the action

“Come on, “Mark, [his mood lightening,] This tells us his mood lightened, but there are no visible signs of it. said to Bill, “Let’s get back to the barn before she gets us cleaning the kitchen.”

“If you think, for one minute, I’d let you two stumble around my kitchen making a mess, you can think again.” Jenny retorted. “Now get out of here and be useful. Go on. Shoo!” chasing them towards the front door.

The questions:

I keep reading about "showing not telling", "making sure there are 'questions' to hook the reader" and so-on and to be honest it's all a bit confusing.


It can be confusing, and many writers struggle with this, so you’re not alone. Let’s talk about show vs. tell first.

Showing is dramatizing the scene in a way that lets readers figure out what the characters are doing, saying, feeling, and thinking by observing what they do, say, feel, and think. Any time the author explains, it dips into telling. For example:
Mark Bishop sadly arranged the urn next to the other three in his study and walked slowly to the office.

Two adverbs are used in this sentence. Adverbs are notorious telling words, because they explain how a character does something, they don’t show that action. Here, what does someone who “sadly arranges” urns actually do? Is he sighing as he moves them around? Does he feel sad? Is he frowning? As a reader, I have no way of knowing what “sadly arranged” means. I’m being to told the action (arranged urns) but the word used to describe how (sadly) doesn’t help me figure out what’s going on.

Same with “walked slowly,” though not as bad as tells go. I can envision what someone who “walks slowly” might look like, but I can’t guarantee that what I picture is what the author pictures. Creeping and strolling are both “walking slowly,” but they imply very different actions and emotions.

To show, think about words that would convey what the adverb is trying to do. You know that Mark is sad, so how does someone who is sad act in that situation? How does that sadness affect his walking? Someone sad will walk slowly in a different way than someone who is happy or scared. The sentence tells readers Mark was sad, but shows no signs of sadness.

Take out the adverbs and look at the sentence:
Mark Bishop arranged the urn next to the other three in his study and walked to the office.

Without those adverbs, there’s nothing to show Mark is sad or walking slowly. Nothing else he does, thinks, or says suggests sadness. Add that emotion back in and we get:
Mark Bishop sighed and placed the urn with his father’s ashes next to the other three in his study. An entire family—gone. He paused, chest tight, then turned away and shuffled to the office.

Your story would use different details of course, but now there are clues as to his sadness—he sighs, his chest tightens, he’s shuffling after thinking about losing his family. Words and details evoke sadness.

(Here’s more on how to use adverbs)

Another aspect of show vs. tell is explaining instead of letting readers figure it out by observation. Using the word “explained” is a big red flag that you’re telling. For example:
Bill explained the accountancy firm had called and the new tax accountant would be coming on Friday, “Apparently he has a farming background and is supposed to know how to get grants an ‘all.”

The author tells readers what Bill explains, we don’t see him do it. This is a simple fix, because we just show the dialogue:
“Firm called,” said Bill. “The new tax accountant’ll be here Friday. Apparently he has a farming background and is supposed to know how to get grants an ‘all.”

This sounds like a conversation these two men would have.

Often, we see telling words that are redundant, such as when we use a word to explain when it’s already clear what the action is. For example:
“Well, the last chap was bloody useless. If the idea of tax breaks or grants ever entered his mind it left at the speed of light. You’d have thought he worked for the bloody Tax Man!” Mark complained.

Mark’s dialogue is clearly him complaining, so there’s no need to tell readers “he complained.” They can see it. A simple, “said Mark” can work, or an action or gesture that further shows his frustration, such as, “Mark groaned and rubbed his eyes” or “He rolled his eyes.” Or you can just use the dialogue and not add a tag at all. You only need to tag the dialogue if it’s unclear who is speaking.

Tells are also commonly found in what’s called “As you know, Bob” dialogue, a type of infodump. This is when characters talk about things they already know so the reader can learn the information. For example:
“Don’t remind me.” He grunted. “I thought I could help build a decent place to live, away from all the bullshit, where I could raise my own family.”

If Bill was unaware of this information, and they were talking about the reasons why Mark moved there, this might be fine. But Bill knows why Mark came here (that’s why he made the comment), so stating it like this tells readers why. But with a few word tweaks to put this firmly in Mark’s point of view, you could make this feel shown.
Mark grunted. “So much for running away from the bullshit.” And his dream of a decent place for his family.

Not only does this show (and not explain things) it also works as a story question, because readers will hopefully be curious as to why Mark ran way and what bullshit he was running from. Using the family detail as an internal thought feels more natural because this is likely something Mark might think at this moment, in a way he’d think it.

(Here’s more on infodumps through dialogue) 

Telling also happens when things start to feel detached and distant, as if the scene is being described by someone who knows everything and is explaining why things are happening. Often, the order of events is out of whack because the author is explaining why something is happening before readers actually see it happen. An example here:
“Yeah, an’ we know what happened to that idea!” as Mark’s eyes narrowed and body tensed at the reminder, Bill quickly continued, “Anyroad, we’re rolling an’ fertilizing t’ fields and have a few hedgerows t’ finish an’ some fence posts to replace. So there’s still quite a bit to do before we let the girls out t’ graze and…”

The bolded section is the troublesome area. Bill is continuing because he sees Mark’s eyes narrow. But the narrowing of the eyes is due to what Bill says, so the stimulus/response of off here. The actual sequence of events unfolds like this:

Mark mentions why he moved, then Bill makes a comment that offends Mark. Mark has an emotional reaction, his eyes narrow and he tenses. Bill sees those outward signs of anger and realizes he offended his friend, and changes the subject. Put it in the right sequence and show how the actions trigger each other and we get:
“Yeah, an’ we know what happened to that idea!”
Mark’s eyes narrowed and his shoulders tensed.
Crap, Bill thought. Now I’ve gone and pissed him off. “Anyroad,” he continued, glancing away, “we’re rolling an’ fertilizing t’ fields and have a few hedgerows t’ finish an’ some fence posts to replace. So there’s still quite a bit to do before we let the girls out t’ graze and…”

Here, we see Bill speak. Then Mark reacts to what is said. Readers see the reaction, but aren’t told why (the “at the reminder” tell). They can assume the reaction is due to what Bill said. Then we see Bill realize it through internalization, and change the subject. Glancing away shows that he feels bad and is ow having trouble meeting Mark’s eyes.

The same ideas are conveyed, but instead of explaining it and telling readers everything, enough details are shown so readers can figure it out on their own.

(Here’s more on show vs. tell)

Next, let’s talk about hooks and story questions.

Hooks are the things that make readers want to keep reading. They might be the general premise of the novel, an intriguing piece of dialogue or text, a mysterious situations, etc. Whatever it is, it makes them want to know more.

Story questions are one way to so that. These are questions in the text (either stated outright or implied by the situation) that pique readers’ curiosity and makes them want to know more.

Readers read to get answers to the questions the author poses or suggests in the story. They want to know why, or how, or who.

Let’s look at the first two paragraphs in this:
Mark Bishop sadly arranged the urn next to the other three in his study and walked slowly to the office. 
“So what’s been happening while I was away?” Mark asked as he slumped in the armchair opposite the one where Bill Marsh, his farm manager was waiting for him.

Arranging urns is a little odd, as I immediately thought of funeral urns with ashes (though that might not be the case here). So I was curious about that. But after this opening line, the urns and the sadness is never mentioned again. So it could have worked as a hook, and might be a story question, there’s not enough clues to give me something to wonder about.

Since nothing happens with them, I assume the urns are just decorative and forget about them.

The next paragraph has Mark asking what’s happened. This is a flashing sign that readers are about to get an infodump, where Bill explains everything Mark has missed. Since I don’t know who these people are yet, or what they’re doing or trying to do, I don’t care about this information. It doesn’t work to hook me, because it has no story question I want to see answered.

If the new accountant is going to be a problem in the story, this could work as a hook. There’s already precedence for the new guy not working out (since the last guy didn’t), and readers might wonder, “Will the new guy work out better than the last?”

However, this will only work as a hook if readers care. And since nothing will happen if the guy doesn’t work out, readers won’t. If this person gets fired after two days, there’s nothing in the text so far to show that it will adversely affect either Mark or Bill. There are no stakes to this potential hook. Nothing at risk to make readers worry if he works out or not.

(Here’s more on hooks)

Overall, this opening doesn’t have the hooks needed to draw readers into the story (common on first drafts, so don’t worry). There’s no sense of a problem here to make me want to read on, and no questions to pique my curiosity. It’s two accountants talking about land grants and farming, and getting scolded by one’s wife.

Try working on your showing and edit out the told areas in this. After, look for ways to add hints of the problem one of these men (or both) are facing. Think about why you started the book here. What in this scene is so critical readers need to see it first? What about this situation will make them want to read on?

It’s not unusual for the real start of a novel to be farther in once we “clear our throats” with a warm up scene, so maybe you have a scene later that works better.

In general, I’d suggest spending some time studying point of view. POV is the strongest tool you’ll have to avoid a lot of common writing problems new writers face. If you’re solid in your POV character’s head, and see the world through his eyes and know how he feels, it’ll be easier for you to know what to show and what questions might hook readers.

POV is just a great foundation for a new writer to build, and it makes understanding the harder aspects a little easier.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

4 comments:

  1. start checking out books from your library on writing and study, study, study, and keep writing! I'll plug Janice's book, it's an excellent source.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I’ll second Lori’s comment, and add a +1 to Janice’s about POV. It seemed from a quick read that the author head-hopped between Mark and Bill, so consider if you’re trying to be in Mark’s POV (which I assumed [Yeah, silly me] from the opening), or in an omniscient one where the reader gets a taste of everyone’s thoughts.
    Thanks for sharing and keep working!

    ReplyDelete
  3. I third Lori's comment. Here is good place to start:Elmore Leonard: 10 Rules for Good Writing
    Elmore Leonard: 10 Rules for Good Writing
    Elmore Leonard started out writing westerns, then turned his talents to crime fiction. One of the most popular and prolific writers of our time, he's written about two dozen novels, most of them bestsellers, such as Glitz, Get Shorty, Maximum Bob, and Rum Punch. Unlike most genre writers, however, Leonard is taken seriously by the literary crowd.

    What's Leonard's secret to being both popular and respectable? Perhaps you'll find some clues in his 10 tricks for good writing:

    1. Never open a book with weather.
    2. Avoid prologues.
    3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
    4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said"…he admonished gravely.
    5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
    6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
    7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
    8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
    9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
    10.Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
    My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

    If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

    This helped me.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Great comments here; seems you've covered it very nicely, Janice. Best wishes to the writer!

    ReplyDelete