I’ve been doing a lot of beta reading lately, and thought I’d do a quick five minute post on some easy solutions for frequent problems I’ve been running into in my reading;
- Tell not show
- Character reactions
- Action sequences
Of all the things I pull people up on these are the ones that I come across the most and today I wanted to give you the tools to help get around these things by letting you know what I use to avoid these horrible things.
When I first started writing the “Repetition Stick” from my editor started out as a light touch and ended up as a bludgeoning stick.
I quickly found an excellent tool in Rhymezone.
It allows you to look up rhymes for poetry (yes, I write a lot of poetry, I have a project about that I’ll be sharing at the end of the year), but what Rhymezone also allows you to do is look up synonyms!
So all of a sudden the dark cave that’s super dark becomes the gloomy cave that’s inky depths stretch on into the dark.
I have also recently found Power Thesaurus which appears to be another excellent resource for these issues.
Tell not Show;
I recently beta read this absolutely lovely little story involving a scene scape and the author really captured my fascination with the ocean floor in one sentence and then lost it in another.
We hear this all the time; show, don’t tell!
HOW? What witchcraft is this!?
There are heaps of blogs out there but where this one crops up a lot is in scenery and action sequences, and I’ll get to action in a moment but for scenery what I recommend is a little writing exercise… that doesn’t involve writing!
Imagine you’ve crashed on an alien planet, there’s only one space suit, and you’ve got to go outside and see what’s out there. There are no windows, and no cameras, so out you go, and now you’ve got to tell the shipmates what you see…
What do you see? Tell me, out loud, describe the above for me. Yes, do it, I’m not here to stuff around. You may think I can’t hear you, but believe me I am going to be sitting here listening. DESCRIBE IT TO ME, SOLDIER!
If you’ve just said you see an alien city, the first question from the shipmates is going to be; is their life? What does I look like? They will have questions. Answer them.
Chances are you struggle to find the descriptive words you want to use when saying it out loud, so now try writing what you see, as though recording for future generations, not missing a single detail, you are the first person to find the ruins of an abandoned alien city. What do you see?
Here is what I see;
Spires of silver strike the sky, the grasping clasp of the jungle wrapping around the throat of each building to strangle the life that doesn’t exist within.
You do not need to spend a lot of time on a description, even a single sentence will convey a landscape well. Picture what you want to convey, remove the story and characters and focus purely on the single scene.
This is one thing that I run into a lot, and its usually for a very fundamental reason; the writer is focusing on the plot, and not the character.
The reactions your characters have to the plot points, such as the emergence of a stranger in town, is both in dialogue and in reactions.
I was reading a romance once where a character quite literally abandoned her friends to follow a stranger down a dark alley, because he was hot. There wasn’t even a supernatural aspect such as feeling they were bound together. She followed him down a dark alley because he was hot.
EVERY WOMAN’S SELF PRESERVATION INSTINCT IN REAL LIFE WOULD BE; LIKE, NO.
It made it completely unbelievable. I lost so much respect for the character, and while the writer made an excellent follow on scene out of it, I had already lost a lot of believability for the character and thus the story.
So, when you need your character to walk down an alley, look at why. Is it a shortcut? Would you do it? Ask around for better natural reactions, say to a spouse or friend; hey, why would you walk down a dark alley? Chances are its not the alley, but something on the other side.
This is true in dialogue too.
What people say to convey the greater story elements should be in character to their personalities.
You are not going to have a cautious self-protective friend let the protagonist walk down a dark alley after a stranger. But you can’t have her, go with them either, it’d run the moment with said hot guy.
So what to do?
“Call me when you get to your bus stop.”
“Take my pepper spray.”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to go with you?”
But above all, it shouldn’t be something like this;
“Wow,” she said, “he’s hot, go follow him and see if he’ll take you home.”
But especially from the over protective friend who wanted to get her friend a cab home with her.
Our protag is not a stray dog…
If you are questioning the actions of your characters but aren’t sure how to get it across, put yourself in their shoes, don’t force them into situations that aren’t feasible or you will lose a lot of believability in the characters, and that will lose you the reader.
One of the easiest ways I see writers lose action sequences is with succinct specifics and order.
There is a lack of spatial awareness, as the writer becomes focused on telling you what’s happening that the details get missed.
A sequence I read recently (in my own damn writing), had a character the MC was fighting suddenly disappear for several moments. They vanished from the script while the MC fought someone else.
What were they doing? Standing there?
Think of yourself as a sports commentator if you will, you want to relay the sequence of events in tight punchy lines to better relay to the reader (who is a listener too), what you want to convey;
Player one kicks the ball to player two, who kicks it into the goal. The ball rolls as though shot out of a cannon.
Really? That’s it?
The sequence should be as follows;
Player one kicks the ball to player two. Player two kicks the ball hard enough it’s as though its shot out a cannon, and scores the goal.
This seems simple enough but check your actions sequence for flow and look at breaking them down into single action sequence.
Sometimes I’ll do this, especially with fighting, by watching videos of the action sequence and doing a small exercise in describing just what I observe, the same as the above section with the landscape. It doesn’t need to be lengthy, but it does need flow through, so the action sequences make sense.
Ultimately, you’ll find that you make these mistakes, it’s the whole point of revising and editing.
But if you can teach yourself not to make them as you go you can make doing these things much easier. Sometimes its hard to tell, and that’s where getting beta feedback and good editors are going to pick these up for you. The more you can get this feedback, you can better focus on where you fall down as a writer and how to help improve not just that story, but you as a writer in whatever you are working on right now.