by John Peragine
As authors, we become, over time and reputation, an ambassador of the written word. It is a place of honor, but not one we always ask for or seek.
To readers and new writers, we appear to have these mystical powers. We are these wise sages that can move words around into a magical combination with seemingly little effort. As masters of our craft, we are sought for our wisdom and help, and here is where the carefully built castle of cards falls down.
How do we give our honest assessment in a way that will help and inspire if what we read is not inspiring? In fact, it could be considered bad.
As a new writer, when I met editors, agents, and the like, I thought they were standoffish, guarded, and unsociable. In a couple of cases, they were downright aggressive and rude. But as they became friends, I realized it was merely my perception. They are pleasant human beings and very sociable once they determined one crucial thing: I was not going to ask them to read anything or to represent me.
Agents receive hundreds and even thousands of queries a month from writers asking them to read their novel. It is overwhelming, and so they make it a point to keep people at arm’s length. It is a pure survival reflex.
Other industry experts decide to monetize what they know. They do workshops, get paid to speak at conferences, and offer coaching packages. For the right price, you too can learn from a master. Again, this is a fair way to handle people’s need for assistance. Most legitimate coaches have spent years and perhaps thousands of dollars to hone and master their craft. They should be paid for that time and experience.
These coaches might answer a simple question or two, but then suggest you sign up for their next seminar. They’re not willing to give all their trade secrets away for free. For newer authors this can be frustrating, especially if they don’t have the funds to pay for the help.
I fall somewhere in the middle.
A client of mine helped me shift my way of thinking about my writing knowledge. As a finance and investment professional, he often conducted free seminars or would talk to you about anything he could help with.
When I asked why he did that, he responded, “I give away my knowledge. That costs me nothing, as it is already all out in the world anyway. I charge for what I do. If I am working, I am being paid for it.”
What an excellent concept. I do get paid to do some classes at conferences. But I tell people all the time that if they have a question or need to bounce off some ideas, they can contact me. I will even read something if it is short.
Here is what I have learned:
I can tell someone how to write all day long, but that does not mean that they don’t need help. They may still hire me as a ghostwriter or a coach. Why? Because I have already demonstrated my depth of knowledge, my generosity and, most importantly, my value.
Wouldn’t life be so much easier if everyone had skills in what they were passionate about? It's such a thin, delicate line between impossible and improbable. I am not the judge of a person’s ability to write or not. I genuinely believe no one has that power or right to make that determination.
I spent 10 years studying music, and the last five I was in a music conservatory. When I was about to graduate, the man I had seen every day, whom I respected, loved and worked my ass off for, broke my heart. He said, “John, you are a good flute player, but you are not a great one. You will never play professionally, so you might want to find a different line of work.”
I was devastated. Then I was angry. And finally, I was motivated. Within two years, before I had even graduated from college, I auditioned and made it into a symphony orchestra.
I got into my car and drove two hours back to my old school. I found my old instructor teaching a master class and interrupted. After I shook his hand, I showed him my contract. I said for his ear only, “Thank you for not believing in me; it forced me to believe in myself.” I walked out and we never spoke again.
The Talk I Dread
We know as authors that words have power and that we must choose them wisely.
If you are a writer for long enough, you will have at least one (but probably many) persons send you their manuscript and ask what you think. You will read the first page and shake your head a little and turn to the next page. Now your heart is racing, and you’re sweating as you turn to the next page, and you stop. You can’t go on and you are having a panic attack because you will have to say something to the author.
Often that early writing is terrible, and you are not sure of a fix because they don’t really have a grasp on any conventions of writing. They don’t seem to have any talent based upon what you are reading, and you are not certain classes on craft will necessarily help.
I get that text: “So, what do you think?”
I think my stomach might strangle my throat in a mercy kill. How can I be honest while at the same time not breaking their spirit? How can I tell them all that is wrong and yet be positive and inspiring?
The answer is, I am honest. I tell them where they need improvements, where they can find resources, and I use the term “good first effort.” I tell them that, like all authors, there is still so much work they need to do.
The response is mixed—excitement, inspiration, and even utter devastation. I have learned not to take it personally, because they asked me for my opinion. I am careful to sandwich—a compliment, a critique, and end with a compliment. Just a spoon full of … well, you get the point.
It is a dreadful conversation, but a necessary one.
They have a choice. Do the work, give up, or hire someone to help them. That is their choice to make. I want them to come to me someday, with their contract for their soon-to-be-published book in hand. I hope they thank me for my kind, yet honest help.
Be a mentor. Be generous and kind. But always be authentic and truthful. You are writers, pick the right words, and you can help another author, who was just like you, to grow.
Who was your mentor? Who made the difference between newbie and published writer? What advice would you give to "newbie you?"
* * * * * *
John Peragine has published 14 books and ghostwritten more than 100 others. He is a contributor for HuffPost, Reuters, and The Today Show. He covered the John Edwards trial exclusively for Bloomberg News and The New York Times. He has written for Wine Enthusiast, Grapevine Magazine, Realtor.com, WineMaker magazine, and Writer's Digest.
John began writing professionally in 2007, after working 13 years in social work and as the piccolo player for the Western Piedmont Symphony for over 25 years. Peragine is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. His newest book, The No Frills Guide to Book Marketing, will be released in Summer 2020.
Ten ways to raise the stakes in your novel.
Six steps to making your protagonist more likeable.
Twelve questions to ask your beta readers.
Much of the writing advice we encounter is offered through lists and steps. It’s not surprising; sequential formulations pervade our culture. We have shopping lists and bucket lists, rosters and schedules and manuals that provide step-by-step instructions. We’ve gotten so used to sequential formulations that it may seem as if that’s the only way to organize knowledge.
For about thirty percent of us, however, life is processed spatially, not temporally—not as a linear progression but as pattern, network, array. We see mosaics, parts in relation to the whole. If you’re not sure which kind of person you are, think about how you “know” how to get somewhere. Do you rely on a series of routes and turns or on landmarks?
Awareness of visual-spatial processing goes back to 1981, when psychologist Linda Kreger Silverman coined the term to explain the challenges—and gifts—of youngsters whose “upside-down brilliance” made it difficult for them to learn in traditional ways. Despite the work of Silverman and others, the sequential approach still dominates our educational system. That’s true for adult learners as well. Writers seeking to improve their skills—who happen to be visual-spatial processers—may find much of the available “advice” difficult to implement. They need other tools.
In fact, we all need visual-spatial tools! Some aspects of writing do lend themselves to checklists but others—e.g., organizing the relationships among characters—are best served by non-sequential techniques. A well-stocked toolkit needs both. The strategies below are for all of us, regardless of our primary learning style, and can provide an important complement to the plethora of sequential strategies that are already available.
Ironically, the only way to offer sample tools is through—you guessed it—a list! However, the tools themselves aren’t based on lists. Here are some examples.
Stories have characters, and characters have relationships to each other and to the novel’s protagonist—relationships based on affinity, aversion, power, vulnerability, motivation, history, temperament, age, gender, and so on. As the author, you need to understand and keep track of these relationships, which can be quite complex—too complex to be conveyed by a list.
Social work has a tool called an ecomap, developed by Ann Hartman in 1975, that can help. The ecomap is a diagram that shows an individual in relationship to the people and social systems in her environment. The person is placed in the center, at the hub, with people and systems arrayed around her and connected—to her, and to each other—by arrows and lines. The lines can be thick or thin (strong or weak), solid or hatched (positive or negative), with arrows indicating the flow of energy (mutual or one-way).
Writers can adapt the ecomap by placing the novel’s protagonist in the center of a circle, with other characters arrayed around her, at varying distances. The lines between the characters will illuminate patterns of isolation, alliance, dependence, and power.
A quick note: While there probably are computer programs that can help you do this, there’s something to be said for drawing a diagram by hand. If you google images for “ecomap,” you’ll find a dozen templates to choose from.
Ditto for the other techniques below. Colored marking pens, images cut from magazines, yarn, movable post-it tags in a variety of colors—make it fun!
As your story opens, your protagonist is at a particular time and place (psychological as well as geographical) on the map of her life. She journeys outward from that starting point, into territory that may be familiar or unfamiliar, zigzagging, backtracking, leaping, spiraling.
On her journey, she encounters other characters who are on their own journeys. Their turf may intersect, merge, compete, move closer together or farther apart during the course of the story. Drawing their overlapping territory maps—in different colors for each character—is another way to help you visualize the evolving relationships within the story.
The idea of a journey may call to mind the linear journeys depicted in classic board games like Candyland or Chutes and Ladders. A territory map is not necessarily “flat” or linear, however. It can have additional dimensions. For example, a “place” on the map (a literal place or a kind of experience such as jealousy or disappointment) can have third-dimensional depth as it evokes and connects with similar experiences at earlier times in the protagonist’s life. It’s a spot of special intensity on her map.
Structurally, stories contain elements or motifs: emotions like jealousy, ambition, fear, regret; concepts like sacrifice or the power of secrets; narrative movements like choices, reversals, and betrayals. Some elements are central, serving as hubs from which secondary motifs radiate. These motifs intersect, like crisscrossing trails, to thwart, divert, or reinforce each other.
To capture the interplay of these motifs, each can be drawn in a different color as it moves across the linear story. A motif can have peaks, valleys, and plateaus. Overlaying the “journeys” of several motifs will reveal their connections. When one element peaks or intensifies, another may have a valley or a corresponding intensification.
Other visual-spatial tools use grids or spreadsheets, with “cells” formed by the intersection of elements along two axes. These “cells” show you where elements occur.
For example, you can list each scene along the horizontal axis. Then, along the vertical axis, you can list the elements you want to track—who is present in the scene, where it takes place, weather, mood, key (symbolic) objects that are mentioned, and so on. That way, you can quickly see when and how often certain elements appear. You may decide that you need to spread out the occurrences of a particular element (a phone call, wind, a sudden departure) or replace an overused location. Do your characters spend a lot of time sitting at the kitchen table? Does it always seem to be dawn or dusk?
You want to look at the variation in scene openings. To do so, list the type of scene opening along the vertical axis: dialogue, a statement indicating a change of date or setting, a sensory detail, a bit of exposition, and so on. Or you might want to look at scene endings: an upturn, a setback, a surprise, etc.
A grid can give you a visual overview so you can see, at a glance, if (and where) certain devices are overused and ought to be varied.
These are just some examples of ways to think about your story that don’t rely on a list or linear outline. There’s no need to use all of them—but do try the ones that spark an aha.
The best novels tend to be both sequential and spatial, of course. They’re sequential because the story moves forward, horizontally, in a chain of cause-and-effect developments. But they’re also spatial because each point in the story has multiple layers, a verticality or “thickness” composed of the elements in relationships to one another.
Now try some of these tools on your own story.
Which visual-spatial strategies helped to illuminate elements of your story that you’d like to understand better?
When you mapped these elements, did you encounter any surprises?
Did you adapt the tools or come up with additional tools? If so, please share your discoveries!
An earlier version of this article appeared on Writers Helping Writers in July 2018.
Barbara Linn Probst is the author of Queen of the Owls, coming in April 2020 from the visionary, award-winning She Writes Press. Queen of the Owls has been chosen by Working Mother as one of the twenty most anticipated books for 2020 and will be the May 2020 selection of the Pulpwood Queens, a network of more than 780 book clubs throughout the U.S. To pre-order or learn more, please see http://www.barbaralinnprobst.com/
My name is Julie, and I'm a recovering plate-juggler.
And by "recovering," I mean I couldn't even get my 30-day chip in this program. I have serious trouble with taking on far more than I can handle, and my list of ideas and projects rivals St. Nick's naughty-nice list.
Are you in the program too? How well are you doing?
Why We Need to Say No
Most writers have more story or marketing ideas than they have time for. If we don't intentionally prioritize, the urgent or the easy or the involves-others projects will weed out what we most want to accomplish.
Last week, I was excitedly talking to someone about a new opportunity, and it wasn't until a day or two later that I realized I needed to pass. As cool as their idea was, it would take time and effort away from other projects I'm doing—projects that are more meaningful to me.
We simply have to say "no" to some projects so that we can say "yes" to others.
Do you even know how much is on your plate? You may not realize how many projects you've taken on if you haven't taken stock.
Take inventory of what obligations you currently have, what projects you're working on, what you have planned, and what you'd like to do. You can make a list, a visual map, or a spreadsheet—whatever works for you. Also consider what other daily activities engage your time.
Are you spending time where you really want? What could you offload? What could you add from your "like to do" list instead?
Get a clearer picture of where you are now to figure out where you want to go.
The Principle of One In, One Out
For the last few years, I've tried to follow the principle of "if one comes in, one goes out." So to take on a new project, I must push an existing one off my plate. That could involve finishing a current project—book published, conference over, etc.—or letting go of something I'd planned to do.
We have finite resources. There's only 24 hours in the day, 7 days a week, and you have to sleep, eat, and groom yourself in there somewhere. (Though grooming may be optional when up against an immediate deadline.) Unless and until you figure out how to clone yourself, you have to work with what you have.
If you're already up to your eyeballs, one more project will drown you. Commit to the principle of One In, One Out.
Or, for some us, it should be One In, Two Out. But let's start with a step in the right direction.
How do you decide what comes in and what goes out? What if you love all of your current projects AND the one that's just come up?
Ask yourself: What's my your overall writing goal? Why am I writing?
Not every potential idea or project will meet your goals equally. For example, if you want to make X amount of money in the next year, you prioritize tasks that could bring immediate sales—like more books out the door, marketing new or existing books, redesigning your website. If you want to publish traditionally, you might prioritize polishing your best manuscript, attending events with agents and editors, getting submissions out. If you want to develop your craft... Well, you get the point.
Look at each project honestly and ask how it furthers your primary writing goal(s). If something sounds good but doesn't make the cut in this analysis, cut it for real. Make space for what matters.
Involve Your Peeps
If you still feel overwhelmed and don't know where to say no, ask the people who support you—family, friends, fellow writers, therapist. Whoever has your back in this writing gig, request their feedback on where to focus your efforts.
My husband has been invaluable to me in this. I will often go to him and say, "Hey, I have this great opportunity!" Almost before the words leave my mouth, he's smiling but asking, "So what you going to give up to do this new thing?" Hmm. Good question, sage fellow.
Then I process through my options with him, close friends, siblings, or whomever is the best one to ask on that particular project. But I'm forced to think through the pros and cons while hearing their great advice, from a perspective often more objective than my own.
So if you're on the fence, involve your peeps. They'll help you land on one side or the other. (Even if they have to push you.)
Do you have too many projects up in the air? How do you decide what to keep and what to quit?
Julie Glover writes mysteries and young adult fiction. Her YA contemporary novel, SHARING HUNTER, finaled in the 2015 RWA® Golden Heart® and is now on sale! When not writing, she collects boots, practices rampant sarcasm, and advocates for good grammar and the addition of the interrobang as a much-needed punctuation mark.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year, the song goes, but unfortunately for many writers, it’s also the time when we’re most anxious and stressed out.
In a survey of about 1,100 Americans, over half (54 percent) said they felt some symptoms of a syndrome known as “holiday anxiety.” You can think of it as part social anxiety, part holiday stress.
Another survey by Booking.com found that over a third of people (36 percent) worried about things going wrong the first day of their holiday, and in a Bankrate survey, 6 out of 10 said they felt pressure to overspend on presents, travel, social outings, or charitable donations.
Writers are likely to be particularly vulnerable as creativity and anxiety are closely connected, according to scientists.
If you find yourself panicking at the thought of one more dinner party or worrying you may not get time to write during your vacation, read on for tips on how to cope.
Writers May Be Vulnerable to Holiday Anxiety
Anxiety can show up in many forms during the holiday season. If you’re someone who dreads attending social functions, you may suffer from a bit of social anxiety.
This is a type of anxiety many writers may experience at various times of the year, though they may not label it as such. It’s characterized by anxiety or fear of being judged, negatively evaluated by others, or rejected in a social situation. Symptoms include:
- Persistent fear of one or more social situations where embarrassment may occur
- General anxiousness around other people
- Inability or difficulty talking to others
- Fear of others’ judgment
- Anxiousness days or weeks before a social event
Other types of anxiety tend to crop up during the holiday season too. Writers may feel anxious about finances, potential family squabbles, or just being able to manage it all.
“As much as we love the holidays,” writes Arlin Cuncic, “they are undeniably a stressful time of year. Often, we find ourselves buying gifts for people we don't know that well, traveling to see people we don't like that much, and just generally doing things in a compressed manner—it feels like we need to pack in as much as we can.”
Writers who hope to have some time to write during their holiday time off may feel more anxious when that time seeps away because of other engagements or responsibilities. For many of us, the page is where we feel most at home. It is our solace, our sanctuary, and if we go too many days without it, we start to feel anxious and on edge.
By the time New Year’s rolls around, instead of feeling refreshed and restored, we can feel exhausted and resentful—feelings from which it can take weeks to recover.
7 Tips to Help Writers Cope with Holiday Anxiety
You don’t have to suffer through holiday stress and anxiety. A variety of coping techniques can help you to feel more centered while making it possible for you to get the writing done you want to do while still enjoying your favorite activities.
1. Write Whenever You Can
If you’re one of those writers who gains solace from writing, find ways to fit it in no matter what. It may not be as good as you’d like it to be, but for many of us, just the practice of writing can help us feel more confident.
Grab a few minutes in the morning before everyone else gets up, or at night after everyone has gone to bed. Escape somewhere in the car for a half-hour if necessary to get some words down. Likely the writing won’t feel as smooth as usual, and you may struggle to pick up the thread of your story, so if need be, write about something else, or simply record the thoughts you’re having.
Just the simple act of writing, whatever shape it takes, will likely help you feel better.
2. Take a Walk
Exercise produces natural feel-good endorphins in the brain and can help relieve stress and anxiety. Whenever you feel the pressure building up, take a short walk. Even 20 minutes can be enough to allow all nervous feelings to dissipate, creating space for your more creative side to return.
3. Take a Break from Social Media
Research shows that the more time you spend on social media, the more you’re at risk for anxiety. One study of over 1,700 adults found that higher levels of social media use were associated with a higher risk of depression and anxiety.
The effects can be worse over the holidays, as we see images of everyone else supposedly enjoying perfect meals, perfect parties, and perfect family get-togethers. We can begin to think our lives pale by comparison.
To stay on a more even keel over the holidays, give your social media feeds a break and enjoy more face-to-face interactions instead.
4. Practice Saying “No”
This is a difficult one for many of us as we don't want to let anyone down. But trying to make it to every party, every get-together, and every dinner, all while creating perfect memories for our families, can be too much.
Before you say “yes,” make sure that doing so won’t lead to resentment or exhaustion. Limit the events you attend each week if possible, and don’t forget to schedule in time for yourself and your writing.
5. Don’t Forget Self-Care
Sleep, exercise, and a healthy diet often go out the window during the holiday season. There’s nothing wrong with indulging in some of those ubiquitous holiday treats, but the more you can stick with your healthy habits, the less anxious you’ll feel.
- Eating high levels of sugar and fried foods have been linked in studies to increased anxiety.
- Overeating stresses the body, prompting the release of the stress hormone “cortisol” in your system.
- Sleep deprivation, according to one study, doubled the risk of developing an anxiety disorder.
Healthy habits can protect you. In a 2019 study, researchers found that participants who engaged in moderate or high physical activity had significantly lower odds of having anxiety and depression. So continue your healthy routine as much as possible over the holiday season.
6. Create Relaxation Times
While running around doing everything you need to do for the holidays, you’re likely to forget to take time to relax. Incorporating a regular stress-relieving activity into your week can help you shed the stress and limit feelings of anxiety.
Good options include journaling, yoga, meditation, daily walks, aromatherapy, or even 15 minutes with a good cup of herbal tea. Use the method that works best for you—just be sure you’re using it regularly.
7. When Going to Events, Focus on Others
If you experience social anxiety when attending events, turn your focus outwards. Symptoms of social anxiety tend to appear because we're too worried about how we are coming across and whether others will judge us.
Use your powers of observation to examine others, instead. How are they coming across? What do you think of them? How do you imagine they are feeling, judging by their behavior?
Many writers experience success by turning social events into character research. What unusual character traits might you notice while people-watching at a party? Keep a notebook or a phone app handy to jot those down that seem unique.
When you need to engage in conversation, ask questions to dive deeper into what others are thinking. Listen with the ear of a writer looking for a good story. You may soon find yourself so interested that your anxiety will recede into the background.
How do you manage holiday anxiety?
- Andreasen, N. C. (2014, June 25). Secrets of the Creative Brain. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/07/secrets-of-the-creative-brain/372299/
- Chew, J. (2015, December 22). Why Most Millennials Find Holiday Gatherings Stressful. Retrieved from https://fortune.com/2015/12/22/social-anxiety-joyable/
- Cuncic, A. (2017, October 23). How to Survive the Holidays When You Have Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/coping-with-generalized-anxiety-disorder-during-the-holidays-4153496
- Garcia, A. D. (2019, November 13). Holiday Brings Spending Stress For Most Americans, Survey Reveals. Retrieved from https://www.bankrate.com/surveys/holiday-gifting-november-2019/
- Harvey-Jenner, C. (2019, July 18). How to deal with holiday anxiety. Retrieved from https://www.cosmopolitan.com/uk/body/health/a10321989/holiday-anxiety-panic-attacks-fear/
- Heaney, K. (2018, November 28). Sleep Fixes Everything. Retrieved from https://www.thecut.com/2018/11/sleep-deprivation-makes-your-anxiety-peak.html
- Pengpid, S., & Peltzer, K. (2019). High Sedentary Behaviour and Low Physical Activity are Associated with Anxiety and Depression in Myanmar and Vietnam. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16(7), 1251. doi:10.3390/ijerph16071251
- Shensa, A., Sidani, J. E., Dew, M. A., Escobar-Viera, C. G., & Primack, B. A. (2018). Social Media Use and Depression and Anxiety Symptoms: A Cluster Analysis. American Journal of Health Behavior, 42(2), 116-128. doi:10.5993/ajhb.42.2.11
Colleen M. Story inspires writers to overcome modern-day challenges and find creative fulfillment in their work. Her first non-fiction book, Overwhelmed Writer Rescue, was named Book by Book Publicity’s Best Writing/Publishing Book in 2018, and her novel, Loreena’s Gift, was a Foreword Reviews' INDIES Book of the Year Awards winner, among others.
Her latest release, Writer Get Noticed!, is a strengths-based guide to help writers break the spell of invisibility and discover unique author platforms that will draw readers their way. Get your free chapters of both writing books here!
With over 20 years in the creative industry, Colleen is the founder of Writing and Wellness (writingandwellness.com) and Writer CEO (writerceo.com). Please see her author website (colleenmstory.com) or follow her on Twitter (@colleen_m_story).
“Show, don’t tell” might be the three most misunderstood words in a writer’s vocabulary.
Show, Don't Tell
- Why is showing so important?
- Is it always bad to tell?
- How the heck do you even know if you’re doing it right?
- And just what is the difference between them?
Start with a Definition
Summarizing for the reader.
Letting the reader draw her own conclusions.
Using action, thoughts, senses, and feelings to allow the reader to experience the story for herself.
Now let’s take this abstract idea and make it concrete.
TELLING is writing:
He was short.
SHOWING is writing:
A visual of him getting on a stool to reach the top cabinet.
You don’t even have to use the word “short.” In fact, it’s better if you don’t.
“Don’t tell us the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.” (Mark Twain)
“Don’t tell me the morning is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” (Anton Chekov)
“Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.” (E.I. Doctorow)
A word “picture” is worth a thousand word “statements.”
Examples: Delete This / Write This
He was bleeding. / Dark liquid dripped from his side.
It was snowing. / Fluffy white flakes covered the ground.
Mary loves chocolate. / Mary popped the last piece of Belgian chocolate into her mouth and closed her eyes.
Bailey was happy to see Brad. / Bailey sprinted through the crowd, flung her arms around Brad, and buried her face in his chest.
Writers, we can’t SEE the story you’ve created in your head if you don’t PUT it on the page. We can’t read your minds. RIDICULOUS, right? I mean, it would be so much easier if we could.
Active versus Passive Writing
SHOWING is ACTIVE. TELLING is PASSIVE. That’s true. Sometimes telling is lazy writing. But sometimes it’s not. You can’t “show” everything. Painting a word picture in every paragraph turns your novel into a tome.
When is it okay to tell?
- when you need faster pacing
- to show a minimal moment
- as a way to move your story forward
- if you don’t want your book to finish at 350,000 words
When should you show?
- when you want to evoke emotion in your reader
- during a crucial moment or traumatic event
- to point out a turning point in the story
- if you want to show a change in relationships or circumstances
- to highlight important information or a big decision
If something is supposed to be a BIG DEAL for your reader, it needs to be a BIG DEAL to your character, and readers needs to “see” it for themselves.
Think of it this way. In a news report, you hear the reporter say there’s been a devastating hurricane in Florida, but it’s the images of the destruction on the screen that really get you.
Want your readers to feel emotion? Make them feel like they’re actually there.
It helps if you have a plan. Write a brief summary of what needs to happen in the scene and mark what’s important—then make a point to SHOW anything you’ve marked.
Keep It Real
If your character was a real person, how would she respond? SHOW that.
Example: If a man comes home and finds his wife dead, he isn’t going to shower and have dinner like nothing happened. Unless ... he hired someone to kill her and he’s planning to admire the handiwork before he disposes of the body.
If you want to bring your characters to life, treat them like real people.
I Could Write This:
Smiling, Alek moved in to put his arm around me.
I backed out of reach.
So did I. I didn’t want to be jumpy around him, but I couldn’t help it.
Or I Could Write This:
Alek’s smirk went southern gentleman, and he moved close to put his arm around me.
A chill broke over my skin. I backed out of reach, and his grin dropped quicker than his arms. But my newly acquired auto flinch didn’t seem to care. It overrode every one of the thousand times he’d hugged me before.
Avoid Emotion Words
How do I know if I’m showing? Kill your emotion words.
Telling: John was so mad he couldn’t stay seated.
Showing: Heat threatened to fuse the collar of John’s shirt to his neck. He stood so fast the metal chair toppled behind him.
Everyone has “go to” emotion words. Make it a point to notice yours. Then make a list and do a search. Take them out in places you want to show and give us a visual instead.
If I Can’t Use Emotion Words, What Can I Use?
Her face turned an odd shade of purple.
He ground his teeth so loud I could almost hear his fillings crack.
*Sometimes it’s powerful to show what doesn’t happen.
But she doesn’t yell at me. She doesn’t question me. She doesn’t even look at me.
- Internal Thought for POV character
Forty-seven minutes of sleep was enough. Right?
A quick, bright smile went 'round the room like a streak of sunshine. (Little Women, Louisa May Alcott)
When it comes to digging into my life, my dad is Sherlock Holmes.
- Comparison with a Universal Situation
My stomach took a ride on some seriously choppy waters.
- Subtext (voice cues, expressions, body language, visceral reactions)
For in-depth info and examples, head over to Margie Lawson’s website at margielawson.com. She’s the queen of subtext!
Subtext evokes emotion. Emotion keeps your readers involved. If we don’t feel what your character feels, we don’t have a reason to care about what happens to her and ... we won’t turn the page.
One Last Thing—Consider Word Choice
Words convey moods. You’d use different words at a funeral than a wedding, even if you were describing the same church.
You’d use different words describing a friendship than a romantic relationship.
How your character perceives a situation should come across through the types of words he uses.
Where do you struggle with “show, don’t tell,” and what helps you make this idea less abstract and more concrete? I’d love if you’d share in the comments!
An encourager at heart, author, editor, and writing coach Lori Freeland believes everyone has a story to tell. She’s presented multiple workshops at writer’s conferences across the country and writes everything from non-fiction to short stories to novels—YA to adult. When she’s not curled up with her husband drinking too much coffee and worrying about her kids, she loves to mess with the lives of the imaginary people living in her head.
You can find her young adult and contemporary romance at lorifreeland.com and her inspirational blog and writing tips at lafreeland.com. Her latest release, The Accidental Boyfriend, is currently free on the Radish app.