Monday, November 30, 2020

3 Ways to Make Your Writing Come Alive

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Quick—what’s your favorite book from your childhood?

The first novel I remember sweeping me away and capturing my imagination was The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I don’t remember how old I was, but probably around ten or so. It was magical, filled with adventure and mystery and characters I cared about. It’s a story I love to this day.

Other novels came after that—A Wrinkle in Time, The Black Stallion, Earth Times Two, The Haunted Cove, Trumpet of the Swans. All novels I loved as a child, and these were the first titles I thought of when writing this post. They’ve stayed with me for decades.

The best stories are the ones that come alive in a reader's imagination. They pull them into the story world and sweep them away in the struggles and dreams of the characters.

Bring a book to life for them, and you’ll keep that reader forever.

For writers, envisioning our stories is the easy part, and the trick is getting what's in our heads onto the page. When we don't, we get a story that falls flat and dies—and who wants that?

One of the best ways to bring our tales to life is to show them, not tell them. Sadly, this is also one of the hardest things for new writers (and some experienced writers), to do. "Showing" is a moving target that varies by which point of view you use, the narrative distance, and even the genre. What works for a first-person literary journey might not work for a multiple third-person thriller. What one reader considers bad writing is different from another.

Luckily, there are things you can do to better show your scenes no matter what perspective or genre you write in:

1. Create a Strong Point of View

One of my 
favorite books.
Point of view (POV) is the silver bullet of writing. If you master this, 95% of the common writing problems will vanish. A solid point of view puts you (and your readers) firmly in a character's head, seeing the world through their eyes, and experiencing that world as they would naturally experience it.

This lets you to decide which details to use when describing, what actions the character would take, and what they'd think about as they struggle to solve their goals.

Seeing the story through a character's eyes means you'll write it as that character sees it, not as you see it. It helps keep you from pulling away and describing (telling) the scene from afar.

For example, a solid point of view changes a detached, flat sentence into something alive:

Weak POV: Sara was so upset that John forgot their anniversary that she threw a vase at him.

Strong POV: Sara heaved the vase at John's head. "Does twelve years mean nothing to you?"

The weak POV explains the situation—it tells what Sara did (throw the vase) and why she did it (she was upset). The strong POV shows how someone in this situation would act—it shows what Sara did (she threw the vase and voiced her unhappiness) and lets readers figure out how she feels by watching her actions.

Writing the scene from inside a character's head allows readers to watch and guess why the characters are acting and how they feel. It's makes them part of the story, not a spectator on the sidelines getting a detailed play by play of the action.

Look at your current story:
  • What point of view are you using?
  • Do you have one POV character per scene?
  • Do you show the scene through their eyes?
  • Are you describing things that POV character wouldn't know or be able to see (common in weak or unfocused POVs)?
Pick a POV style you're comfortable with and write the story with that POV. For new writers, it's much easier to pick one or two characters and write from their POVs only. Trying to show the entire story from multiple characters or an omniscient narrator is difficult to do until you get the hang of it.

If you're not sure which POV style you prefer, try writing a scene from both a third person and a first person perspective. Odds are one will feel more natural for you, and for the story itself.

(Here’s more on Point of View Basics: Through My Eyes. Or Your Eyes. Or Somebody's Eyes.) 

2. Control Your Narrative Distance

Narrative distance is how close readers feel to the story. A close narrative distance makes them feel inside the narrator's head (such as in first person), while a far narrative distance makes them feel as though they're standing off to the distance watching (such as in omniscient third person). A closer narrative distance feels more immediate and intimate, as though the story is happening in the moment as the reader reads it. The farther the narrative distance, the more detached and impersonal the story feels.

Where you put your narrator determines how close readers feel to your story. If you're inside the head of a character seeing the world through their eyes, readers will feel a part of the narrative. If you're explaining the story from a distance, readers will be kept at a distance and not connect to the characters the same way.

For example:

Far narrative distance: It's over, Bob thought, realizing she'd never forgive him for hurting her.

Close narrative distance: He sank to the floor, numb. It's over. She'll never forgive me for this.

Or another close narrative distance: He sank to the floor, numb. It was over. She'd never forgive him for this.

Narrative distance is closely linked to point of view. The farther the narrative distance, the more detached the point of view feels. The closer the distance, the more personal the POV. The two work in tandem to dramatize (show) the story.

Look at your current story:
  • What narrative distance are you using?
  • Does it feel like the characters are living the story, or like someone outside the story explaining what's going on?
  • Does it jump around from close to far depending on what's happening?
Revise for consistency. Pick a narrative distance you're comfortable with and keep everything in the story at that distance. Watch out for these red-flag words—they often mean you're telling more than showing: realized, knew, decided, because, and felt. If you see a lot of these words in areas that also feel a little distant, odds are you're telling from a far narrative distance.

If you're not sure what narrative distance you prefer, try writing a scene from both a close and a far distance and see which one reads better, and which is easier for you to write.

But remember—the goal isn't to tell readers everything and explain the scene, it's to show them enough details so they can figure out the what and why by observation.

(Here’s more on Keeping Your Distance: How Narrative Distance Works in Your Novel) 

3. Show What the Characters Do, Not What They Intend to Do

Once you have a solid understanding of point of view and narrative distance, you'll be able to show what the characters do and bring the story to life. Stories are about interesting people solving interesting problems in interesting ways. Show what they do, not what they plan to do.

One of the most common "tells" is to explain motive. My favorite example is simple, yet something writers write every single day:
She reached over to pick up the cup.
Here, we see the action (she reached over) but then the reason why is explained (to pick up the cup). We never actually see her pick it up, because the action isn't described—just the intent to do it. To turn this from told to shown, we'd change one word:
She reached over and picked up the cup.
Now we see the action. We see her reach and then pick up the cup.

While this is a small tell no one will really care about (writers do it all the time), it's a great example of how easy it is to explain motive and not actually show the action in the scene. Some common red-flag words for explaining motive include: to [verb], when, decided, because, in order to, and tried.

(Here’s more on What You Need to Know About Show, Don't Tell) 

Not only will showing the action make scenes feel more immediate and alive, they'll keep readers invested in what's going on, because they won't be told everything ahead of time.

For example, if your character thinks, "All I need to do is sneak past the guards and slip out that window and I'll be able to escape," and then you show them sneaking across the room, you lose all the tension. Readers already know the goal (to get to the window and escape) and they assume it'll happen, because you just told them it would. So there's no suspense and no reason to keep reading.

But if you just have the character start sneaking and working their way across the room while guards patrol mere feet away and readers aren't told why...then readers will wonder what they’re up to and why they’re risking getting caught. They'll keep reading to find out. Tension stays high and there's something they want to know—does the character escape and how.

Look at your current story:
  • How often are your characters thinking about what they plan to do instead of actually doing it?
  • Are they "deciding" to act? "Trying" to act? Moving to "do something" but are never shown physically doing it? 
Revising these simple explanations turn a flat scene with nothing happening into a scene with lots of action.

And don't forget—"action" doesn't mean the life or death explosion-heavy scenes from a summer blockbuster movie. Action is just characters physically doing something. If they're interacting with the external world they're acting, and that keeps the story moving. If they're thinking and describing what they plan to do, they're internal and not doing anything at all.

(Here’s more on Why "Start With the Action" Messes Up So Many Writers) 

Make the story and the characters real for your readers.

Bringing a story to life is all about making it real for readers. Half the fun of reading is figuring out what's going on and why the characters are behaving as they do. The more we explain those reasons, the less reason readers have to read our stories. But when we show characters acting in intriguing ways and readers have to work to figure out why—they can't stop turning the pages.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Rework any scenes that feel too internal with the characters thinking and musing instead of acting. Look for ways to dramatize those plans.

What do you struggle with in your writing? What's keeping your scenes from coming alive?

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. Thanks especially for the reminder about show what they do, not what they plan to do. I have to watch for this slip up in my writing.

    1. Most welcome. That slip is such an easy thing to do, too. A good thing to check for during revisions.

  2. Thanks for this article, Janice. Very helpful

  3. I found your article helfpul, too.

  4. Sasha Anderson12/03/2020 3:26 PM

    "Pick a narrative distance you're comfortable with and keep everything in the story at that distance."

    I thought narrative distance was supposed to be like a camera, which can zoom in and out?

    1. It can, but if you shift too much it can jar the reader. For example, if you're doing omniscient, you can zoom in and out all you want because your narrator is outside the story. But if you're doing a close third or first person POV, zooming outside the narrator feels like a POV shift.

      So if you're doing omniscient, stay with that omniscient narrative distance. If you're doing a tight third, stay with that. Don't shift from tight third to omniscient willy nilly.

  5. Good points well illustrated. Thank you.

  6. Hello Janice.
    I enjoyed this article very much and found it most helpful.
    I've also shared it onto one of my groups which is an extension of my online magazine and hope it helps some new writers there as well.

    1. Thank you! Glad you found it helpful and entertaining.

  7. I'm always looking for new material to use to educate myself and my clients. This was useful. Have a good day.