Hi Friends! Today I’d like to discuss a writing tip that I think needs some attention. This is basic Writing 101, so why do I feel it necessary to discuss it? Yesterday I downloaded a sci-fi romance that sounded intriguing, so I gave it a try. While the story is fun and I’ll most likely finish the book, the writing irks me. Most writers who study the craft at all are taught one basic lesson:
Show. Don’t Tell.
What does it mean? I’ll show you:
Adam was mad. Adam was furious.
I give this example as an almost word for word example from the sci-fi romance (with names changed.)
Why doesn’t this work?
For one, when we read, we see pictures in our head. At least, we should see pictures in our head. When the author tells us someone “was mad,” what sort of picture does that paint? For me personally, none. I fail to see any picture at all. In fact, I’ll probably skip to the next sentence to try and make sense of how this character is mad.
What can I do to fix this?
First, a dead giveaway of a passive sentence is the “to be” verb. Is, was, and were, are all part of this. So, in the sentence, “Adam was mad,” we can spot the “was” and take it out. “Adam mad,” doesn’t make much sense. In this case, simply rewriting the sentence won’t do us much good. If we can’t rewrite it, then what?
Show. Don’t tell.
But how do we show Adam being mad?
How about these?
- Adam pounded his fist on the table.
- Anger made Adam’s blood grow hot.
- Rage seethed through Adam’s veins. Anger made his thoughts evaporate. He wanted to scream or throw something. Instead, he punched the wall. The sheet rock and plaster cracked under his knuckles, but he couldn’t feel the pain.
In the first example, we get a visual example of Adam being mad. We see him punching a table. Good. But not great. Why? We’re only introduced to one sense. Sight. It may be the strongest sense to us here in the physical world, but in the land of books, it’s the weakest. Books, unlike movies, have the ability to use all our senses. And writers must take advantage of this!
In the second example, we’re told that Adam’s blood runs hot. Again, good, but not great. We’re given a better sense to focus on. The sense of touch is one of the most powerful senses to focus on in literary land, but we’re not given much detail. Can we really feel Adam’s anger? Or could this be made stronger?
What about sentence three? We’re given several senses: sound when he punches the wall, indicated by the word “cracked.” Touch when he punches the wall. Sight when we’re given a visual of sheet rock and plaster.
Smell is also a powerful sense to use, but be careful of using too many senses all at once. In the above example, Adam probably would have been too mad to stop and focus on how delicious Mom’s cherry pie smelled. Plus, it would have detracted from the scene. Be sure you use the senses most appropriate for the setting.
Notice in sentence three the small details… He didn’t punch the wall, he punched through the sheet rock and plaster. Because he was angry, his adrenaline masked the pain, which would be realistic in this situation. Adrenaline has the ability to tell our brain not to focus on pain. If Adam was truly as mad as we’re led to believe, then would he have felt the pain? I don’t think so.
Attention to details can propel your reader into the novel. Conversely, if I’d written, “Adam punched the wall and his hand hurt,” it would be far less effective. Can you feel the pain along with him? I can’t.
To sum up, if you want to take your writing to the next level, remember to show don’t tell. And for goodness’ sake, if you want your reader to feel something as they read, never use those pesky “to be” verbs. I’m not saying don’t use them ever. Let’s be honest, there are places where it’s perfectly okay. Just be careful of where you place them.
For me personally, I read to feel something. I want an emotional response. I want to get away from my daily drama and escape into a world where I can feel something else.
And “Adam was mad” just ain’t doing it.
***Are you a writer or reader? Leave me a comment and tell me your pet peeves when it comes to writing style. Or maybe nothing bothers you? Let me know!***
Live long and dream on!
I have to agree about the typos. Big turnoff.
Very interesting article.
As a reader I don’t have many pet peeves.
I am a reader and not too critical but I do like a good story that draws you in and has you displaced for a moment when you finally put the book down. The one thing that really pulls me out of a book is typos or when you can tell a word is missing from the sentence and you sit there and try to fix it in your head until the world that has been created just dissolves around you. You are very good at creating a world and keeping the reader wanting more.
My pet peeves are descriptions that drag on and on forever. Some scene-setting is wonderful and necessary; in excess, I lose track of plotlines!
I am an avid reader and entry creative writer. Nothing bothers me more than a poorly edited book and undeveloped characters!
As a reader and a writer I understand vivid and detailed discriptions are necessary. However, if a discription goes on and on and has no significance to the story I get board and skip ahead to where characters are actually speaking or doing something. I then feel like I’ve missed partof the story. It’s very frustrating.
My pet peeve would be typos & improper grammar. I can take one or two things wrong but after that I think an author needs to reconsider their editor. Also sometimes when going between times in a book It has to be done seamlessly. I don’t like when I have to read back over several paragraphs to figure out where/what is going on.
One of my peeves: when the characters don’t have their own voices– the 75-year-old lighthouse keeper born and raised in Maine speaks exactly the same as the 25-year-old surfer from California.
As a reader, my pet peeve is characters who are TSTL.
Very interesting article. I am not a writer but can see how big a difference it makes.
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Show don’t tell because just reading a book always telling everything is so boring. I’ve read a few like that. It never felt like anything was really happening and there was no emotion.
I am a reader, but I do have to write papers for school and sometimes a nicely turned phrase will separate one’s paper from the pack. So I appreciate helpful hints like the one noted. What bothers me in a book? When the author uses words like “gonna”, “ain’t”, “seen instead of saw” — If the character must use poor grammar — even if it is ‘real-life’ — I lose interest.
My pet peeve are series sold in short chapter length sections with a cliffhanger at the end of each section. First they are too expensive and second I lose interest before all parts are published. They make me feel like the author wants to cheat the reader out of the ending of the book.
I’m not sure what to write so hi and am reading as fast as I can lol.
I am a reader, not a writer. I really dont have any pet peeves. I just love to read.
I don’t have many pet peeves as a reader. Typos, misspelled words, wrong word usage…those things really don’t bother me unless they are present like every other page. As long as I can read it and understand it, I’m ok with it because the human brain fixes so many of these things for us. Nobody is perfect. But if the story does not form a picture in my mind like you mention, then I’n not going to really get into the story either, so I totally agree with your blog. I guess the thing that drives me crazy is, when someone receives an ARC from an author in exchange for an honest review, and in their review they blast the author for all those things I said above, but don’t note all those things and email it to those authors. WTH!! You are getting a FREE book! If your going to rake them over the coals for things like that after they GIVE you a book for nothing and you should know that it WILL most likely contain issues, now is your chance to do something for them. That’s like someone b!tching about the President but they never took the time to vote. Pay it forward people. It only takes a few minutes to do. Put a smile on an author’s face and just give it a try.
When I’m reading a book, typos stand out like a sore thumb!
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Pet peeves as a reader …
Inaccuracies. …historical events, speech, clothing, landscape ….it makes me want to pull my hair out.
such musings send me to spasms of non-interest.
I wish people who write, would take the time to check for typos, and use proper English, and quit misspelling words so often, because they think it’s cute! How on earth is my teenager going to learn how to write proper English intelligently, when people use, “text talk,” on their phones, and in their books.
I wouldn’t be about to write a book at all but I love to read them.
I am a reader and an editor…great post. One of my pet peeves as a reader is multiple typos in published works.
Yeah, that one irks me. Typos are probably the number one way to pull any reader out of the story. You don’t have to be an editor to find them.
I love to write. I like to write poetry and I free verse so I don’t really run into pet peeves.
I don’t have a pet peeve on writing styles. As long as the story is written well, I pretty much don’t care what the style is.
As a reader who has no writing talent what-so-ever I find it hard to find fault with others efforts.
It’s called the writer’s curse. In order to learn how to write, you have to learn how not to write. Ignorance is bliss! Sometimes I wish I could read a book without my editor brain.
Pet peeves? Hmm. Well, one pet peeve I can think of right of the bat are very modern expressions in historical romance books.
I agree! It takes me right out of the book.