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Tuesday 14 July 2009


"Show not tell" we're always being told. "Told", not shown, you notice. Well, tough - I'm going to tell you how to show not tell.

1. Go easy on the adverbs. Adverbs, used lazily, are an immature writer's stock in trade. Yes, they roll off the tongue, but so does dribble.

"Listen," she whispered conspiratorially.

"What?" he interrupted eagerly.

"Nothing," she replied, hesitantly, deciding that she was not going to tell him after all.
She leant towards him, her hair brushing his cheek. "Listen. I ..."

His pulse quickened. "What?"

Carmelle took a breath. She paused. What if her informant was wrong? She shook her head, looked down at the stem of the glass pressed between her fingers. "Nothing."

2. Don't just tell us what someone is like: show him doing something. If you tell me what Fred is like, I may not trust you. See, you might have judged Fred differently from me. If you tell me he is cruel and callous, I'm struggling to understand what your definition of cruel and callous might be. But if you show me him ripping the legs off spiders and making a collage with them for his sister's birthday card, then I'm getting the picture. Thing is, you may be the author but I am so not interested in what you think and I don't want you to mediate more than necessary - I'll make my own judgements, thanks v much.

3. Go easy on the dialogue tags. They feel clunky and repetitive when over-used. And, as with adverbitis, it's so easy to tell the reader how the speaker spoke, but harder for the writer and often more satisfying for the reader when the attitude is revealed in action. Here's an example of horrible over-use of dialogue tags:
"Do you want to come in for coffee?" she suggested.

"Is coffee all you mean?" he wondered.

"What else would I mean?" she scoffed.

"Well, just that I thought you might have some biscuits as well," he responded.

"Aye, right!" she laughed.
Think about it: do we really need any of the words outside the speech marks? We can manage perfectly well with just the speech. Or, if you don't want the dialogue to speak, literally, for itself, how about this:
Carmelle looked straight at him. "Coffee?"

"Just coffee?" He stared back, streetlight shadowing his jaw.

"As opposed to?"

"Well, biscuits. I was thinking you probably do a mean chocolate digestive." How did he manage to make the word digestive sound so desirable?

"Aye, right!"
Do I make my point? Would you like a short writing exercise? I thought you would. Imagine you are me (buy some better shoes, eat more chocolate and learn to appreciate sparkly wine and you'll be more than half way there) and imagine you are writing this blog post. But imagine that you respect the rules of copyright and therefore can't use my words. So, come up with your own examples of dialogue to illustrate my points in 1 and 3 above.

Then, ask yourself how much longer it took you to write the example of good practice than the example of crappy writing. See, not easy being a good writer, is it?

Oh, I should probably say something very important about covering letters too: in your covering letter, don't tell us how brilliant you or your book are/is. Please, please, please. If you tell me it's wonderful or that it's told in a fabulously original voice, I will immediately not believe you. Let me be the judge of your quality. You're just the writer; you're not your own reviewer. So show me how good you are and then I'll tell you how good you really are.

Often, telling not showing is perfectly acceptable. No, forget that: it's never acceptable. When it's necessary and right, it's necessary and right, and therefore perfect; when it's neither necessary or right, it's crappy. All you need do is think precisely about every word and phrase you write and analyse why you are deciding to put it there, and then your writing will be just wonderful.

"All you need to do" - so easy! Trust me, though: thinking about every word is the only way to learn to be a great writer. If you don't think about every word, your readers certainly will and then they'll tell you all about it; and the thing about readers is that they both show and tell. Ruthlessly.