);

Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Tagged: show don’t tell

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Mike Licht
Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Mike Licht

As an editor I have some pretty standard red flags I look for, but a REALLY common blunder is the dreaded information dump. Some genres are more prone to this than others. Science fiction and fantasy can be particularly vulnerable. How DO you keep the pace of the story and still relay about the prophecy, the starship, the dragons and the dragons prophesied to have starships?

It’s tough.

Once again we have Alex Limberg guest posting with us. And if you’re already tired of him? Suck it up, Buttercup, because I LIKE HIM. He’s helping me through the holiday season so I can dig out of the pile of work that buried me when I got the flu.

So Alex is here to share ways to help fold in information so that you (the author) don’t inadvertently shatter the fictive dream. He’s here to give you some tips on how to relay the information required so the reader isn’t confused, but also maintain the spell you’ve cast.

Definitely check out his free ebook that lists and explains “44 Key Questions” about any narrative– if you get them right, you will have an awesome story. Aaaaaand, here we go. Take it away, Alex!

*****

Some parts of storytelling are way more exciting than others.

For example, you get to page 724 of your grand novel, and finally Richard the Lionheart faces the seven-headed hydra right in front of the abyss and sends her to hell once and for all.

It’s the absolute peak of your story, nail-biting suspense, unbearable tension, action, risk, fear in the middle of a breathtaking scenery. Everything you have worked for so long, it’s all coming together.

Plus, Richard and your readers don’t even know yet that the seven-headed hydra can spit fire too. Boy, that’s gonna be some BIG surprise…!

On the other hand, some parts in fiction writing we hate.

For example, weaving in the personal history of Richard, so we get to know him better and root more for him.

Or bringing in very unobtrusively 200 encyclopedia pages of background knowledge about medieval England, to establish realistic background.

And where should you discreetly slip in the fact about the hydra’s failed gallbladder surgery?

Hydra 1

Bringing information into your story is like forcing healthy vegetables down a kid’s throat: It’s necessary and the right thing to do, but the work sucks.

When it becomes obvious the author just wanted to insert information, that’s an information dump. What an ugly word!

But it seems like the word exists for a good reason.

Think about it: Somebody took an information dump. That’s when the information comes out and it’s too concentrated, and you can smell the author’s intentions 100 miles against the wind.

Imagine Tracy telling her husband over dinner: “I don’t love you anymore like I loved you 16 years ago when we married. Me and our son Philipp, who is 15, has outstanding grades and dreams of a career as a professional hockey player, lost all our respect for you when you drunkenly caused that car accident. I like cooking and painting and I’m afraid of being alone, that’s why I’m still with you, but I have an affair with our neighbor who is a certified animal trainer.”

The hand of the author becomes really visible here…

Fiction shouldn’t list facts like a newscast. If we wanted to read the news, we would go on the New York Times website (and some of us would actually buy a newspaper, or borrow one from the waiting room of our favorite doctor). In fiction, the reader wants to be gently taken by the hand and led into the carefully woven illusion.

But how can we do that?

They say Don’t give them fish, give them a fishing rod!, and so it shall be. There are a million ways to discreetly distribute some pieces of tasty sushi amongst your readers– you can and should be very creative with it! But start with these five basic ways to avoid an ugly pile of information:

1. Let Your Characters Say It

No, you, the author, got nothing to do with it; it’s your characters who are spreading all that good information like wildfire. Keep in mind the key rule though, so your readers don’t feel cheated on: Your character needs to have a reason to mention the information!

The two most natural reasons that come to mind are:

  • He has to pass his info on to another character who doesn’t know about it.

Imagine a colonel who has to report some military information to his general about what just happened in battle.

  • The character’s emotions are boiling over.

Imagine the accusation of an overworked co-worker to a lazy colleague: “I’m so sick of this! You never get your tasks done on time!” Or take enthusiasm: “Jim, you will never believe what just happened! I won the lottery!”

It’s a very natural and discreet way of smuggling some high-octane info into your story.

2. Don’t Tell the Show

Here it comes, the old Show, don’t tell!

While in some cases it is okay to say “Uncle Albert was tired,” it’s generally much more literary to let the reader discover herself how tired Uncle Albert was.

Describe the “dark circles” under his eyes, his constant yawning and how he forgets his keys at the office. Often it’s much more elegant to not tell about a condition or past events, but to show a couple of clues that hint at them.

3. Spread Your Info Thin

Small chunking over many pages or chapters makes your info a lot more unobtrusive than serving it in one big indigestible cluster.

It’s often convenient to let your reader have the info a little while before she actually needs it; in any case, make sure she doesn’t get it right before she needs it, because that would really look constructed.

Sometimes, a piece of info isn’t absolutely necessary to understand the story, but it gets the reader more involved emotionally. Because it’s not vital, you have more time to nicely gift-wrap it with a ribbon on top– but on the other hand, the longer you wait, the longer you leave out an opportunity to engage your reader further.

For example, we don’t have to know that Walter White has terminal cancer in Breaking Bad. We already understand that he is producing meth and can follow the trouble he gets himself into.

But when we learn about his cancer, it lets us empathize and identify with him more– his decisions become easier to understand, he becomes a more multi-faceted character and thus the story engages us more.

You have more time to bring in information like this.

4. Harness the Power of the Media

From where does the most overwhelming flood of information descend upon us unsuspecting characters?

From the mass media, of course: TV, radio, newspapers and internet. You can let your readers know much just by letting the character watch TV or read the newspaper out aloud to his wife; and any info mankind never wanted can be found on the internet (except for why girls are so much into Justin Bieber). Just make sure your character has a reason to look for the info.

Likewise, make sure the info is available to the media and it’s interesting enough for them to broadcast or feature it.

That’s not too hard to do, because as author David Mamet famously said:

“The audience will not tune in to watch information. You wouldn’t. I wouldn’t. No one would or will. The audience will only tune in and stay tuned in to watch drama.”

So don’t be shy about letting the media rule even over your little yellow press scandals, man-bites-dog style.

Humanity

5. Plain description: Just Say It!

Sometimes it may be acceptable when the author simply states information.

How well this works will depend on the overall style and tone and the point of view of your story; it’s basically a question of distance between the author and his narration.

Look at the beginning of Suskind’s Perfume, for example: “In the eighteenth century in France lived a man (…) His name was Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (…) not because Grenouille was second to these more famous villains in pride, contempt for mankind, immorality (…)” Plainly stating how it is, upfront.

This style reminds of some short stories, in which the narrator assumes a more zoomed-out position, because there simply aren’t enough pages to carefully spoon-feed information to the reader.

In general, this position is less elegant and artistic, but you can make a virtue out of a vice: If the large distance to your character seems believable and fits into your story, your readers will just accept it as “your style of choice”– a choice of speeding things up, that is.

Just be aware of your choice, should you decide to use this technique.

Alex Limberg, Photo

Alex Limberg is blogging on ‘Ride the Pen’ to help you boost your fiction writing. His blog dissects famous authors (works, not bodies) and he is now tired of talking about himself in third person. Create intriguing stories with my free ebook “44 Key Questions” to test your story. Shakespeare is jealous. I have worked as a copywriter in Hamburg and also lived in Vienna, Los Angeles and Madrid.

Ok, that was nice.

Now it’s your turn: How do you stuff that stupid information in there? Are your characters helpful or couldn’t they care less? Isn’t it a good feeling when the reader finally gets what he should know? Do you like information about information?

Remember that comments for guests get double love from me for my contest!

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of DECEMBER, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel.

And YES, I AM BEHIND. I will announce November’s Winner on Monday. Holidays and all that jazz. Also, remember to check out the new classes listed at W.A.N.A International. Social Media for Writers, Blogging for Writers, and Branding for Authors.

Original image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Sodanie Chea
Original image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Sodanie Chea

Kristen has foolishly graciously handed her blog over to me today while she is recovering from the flu and is locked up in her NaNoWriMo cave.

But Marcy! I don’t want to go on the cart! 

*swats Kristen*

If she hits her word count, we can slide a gluten-free brownie to her through the bars later to get rid of the taste of that horrible Mucinex.

But I feel HAPPY! I think I can go for a walk!

Um, one minute. *hushed voice* Fine, you don’t have to go on the cart but get off Facebook and back to writing and let me do the blog for you so you can rest and write. Okay?

But I just—

Cart? *stern face*

Yes ma’am. But could you please get Jami Gold to stop tweeting BRING OUT YOUR DEAD! It’s freaking me out. I think she has it automated with my name in it.

If you would get off Twitter and write, Jami wouldn’t be bothering you, would she?

*sticks out tongue and slinks off with blankie* I WANT BROWNIES! *slams door*

Oh, sorry about that. She’ll be fine. Where were we?

Since Kristen is in captivity, that means no one is around to stop us, so I think it’s time to pull back the wizard’s curtain and reveal a secret to POV. For those who may not know, POV stands for point of view and almost always should be limited to one character at a time or things get very confusing.

Why POV is vital for your story is this is how you are going to slip your reader ever so subtly into the skin of your characters. Get your readers so comfortable they never want to leave. When we make POV errors? It shatters the fictive dream. That is why getting really good at POV is vital. We must maintain the magic.

Here’s the secret that a lot of writers don’t realize about POV.

Many point-of-view errors are simply the flip side of telling rather than showing.

What is telling when we’re writing about our viewpoint character becomes a POV error when we’re writing about a non-viewpoint character. So if we understand the difference between telling and showing, we’ll be better prepared to also spot point-of-view errors.

It’s almost as cool as being able to juggle plates while circling a hula hoop. (Actually, I’d settle for being able to do either of those alone. Tips anyone?)

Let me give you a little refresher on showing and telling first before I explain how telling and POV errors are dopplegangers.

Showing vs. Telling

Showing happens when we let the reader experience things for themselves, through the perspective of the characters. It presents evidence to the reader and allows them to draw their own conclusions, while telling dictates a conclusion to the reader, telling them what to believe. Telling states a fact.

Bob was angry dictates a conclusion. It’s telling.

But what was the evidence?

Bob punched his fist into the wall. (This is showing.)

The Black Plague ravaged the country dictates a conclusion. It’s telling.

But what was the evidence?

We could describe men loading dead bodies covered in oozing sores onto a wagon. Our protagonist could press a handkerchief filled with posies to her nose and mouth as she passes someone who’s drawing in ragged, labored breaths. Either of those details, or many others, would show the Black Death ravaging the country.

(If you want to learn more about showing and telling, you might want to take a look at another post I wrote for Kristen about How Star Trek Helps Us with Showing Rather than Telling.)

So How Does This Help Us Catch POV Errors Again?

POV errors happen any time we’re in a limited point of view where we’re supposed to stay inside one viewpoint character at a time and we write something that our viewpoint character couldn’t know, wouldn’t have experienced, or wouldn’t be thinking about.

At first this doesn’t sound like it has much of anything to do with showing vs. telling. Which means it’s time for some examples so we can see it in action. I’ll put the POV error/telling parts of our examples in bold.

Eric was too angry to listen to any more.

When Eric is our viewpoint character, this is telling. We’ve told the reader that he’s angry. We haven’t shown his anger.

When Eric isn’t our viewpoint character, this is a point-of-view error. Our viewpoint character can’t know that Eric is too angry to continue to listen.

Let’s look at another one.

Kate realized she’d locked her keys in the car.

When Kate is our viewpoint character, this is telling. We’re dictating a conclusion to the reader. What do you experience? We can’t see “realized.” We don’t know how she knows her keys are locked in the car. There’s no picture here.

If Kate isn’t our viewpoint character, this is a point-of-view error. How does our viewpoint character know what Kate is realizing?

A version of this that I see all the time in my editing work is something like:

He thought about that for a minute.

If he’s our viewpoint character, we’ve told the reader he’s thinking, but we’re not showing them the content of his thoughts.

If he’s not our viewpoint character, there’s no way the viewpoint character can know what he’s thinking about or even that he’s thinking at all.

Final one.

Elizabeth went to the woodshed to get the axe.

When Elizabeth is our viewpoint character, this is telling. We’re told why she planned to go to the woodshed, but we don’t see her actually get the axe.

When Elizabeth isn’t our viewpoint character, this is a point-of-view error. Our viewpoint character can’t know for sure why Elizabeth went to the woodshed. Maybe she was going in there to cry. Or maybe she planned to crawl out the back window and run away.

One of the things I love most about writing is how everything we learn works together. When we get better at one part of writing, other parts start to slide into place as well.

*COUGH COUGH COUGH*

Yes, it’s Kristen. Just give me a sec before Marcy boots me out. As an editor POV is a HUGE deal. So many new writers screw this up and if you mess up POV your reader will be left feeling like she’s been strapped to Hell’s Tilt-A-Whirl. What is REALLY insidious about POV is, unless you get some training? You won’t see it because you are the creator.

So what often happens is we end up with a bunch of bored or ticked off readers who couldn’t keep in the story but even they can’t articulate WHY. Guarantee you very often the problem was POV. It one of THE most COMMON blunders even I see when I edit.

So please check out Marcy’s book and class because she is a ROCKSTAR at teaching this stuff. And now I am going back in my hole.

I WANT BROWNIES! *slams door*

Need More Help With Point of View?

Check out my book Point of View in Fiction. Point of view isn’t merely another writing craft technique. Point of view is the foundation upon which all other elements of the writing craft stand or fall.

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 7.26.00 AM

In Point of View in Fiction, you’ll learn how to choose the right POV for your story, how to avoid POV errors, how to choose the right viewpoint character for each scene, how to know how many viewpoint characters to use, and much more.

Itís available in print and ebook format and most places (so you can grab it from Amazon, Kobo, Apple iBooks, or Barnes & Noble).

Add some LIVE teaching to go WITH that book. I’m running a W.A.N.A. International Webinar How to Master Point of View on Friday, November 20 so sign up and learn how to make story MAGIC!

The webinar will be recorded and made available to registrants, so even if you can’t make it at the scheduled time, you can sign up and listen later at your convenience.

Click here to sign up for How to Master Point of View.

Thank you Marcy!

I LOVE hearing from you, especially when I have guests which is why all comments on guest posts get double-suck-up points. Hey, Marcy is doing me a solid because yes, I am on the mend from the flu, but I still had/have the flu and Hubby is lucky he is cute for getting me sick.

To prove it and show my love, for the month of NOVEMBER, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel.

Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 9.36.04 AM

So last time we talked about the basics in regards to dialogue and once we grasp the fundamentals—like proper punctuation—we then can focus more on elements of style. How we deliver the dialogue.

We can tell a lot about people by the way they speak. What people say or don’t say speaks volumes. As the writer, it is our job to understand our characters and to know who they are and how they think. We have to master the art of empathy. If we don’t, our dialogue will all sound like US talking. Writing, in many ways is a lot like method acting. We have to crawl inside the head and the psyche of our cast.

Not as easy as it might seem.

Dialogue done well is the stuff of legends though. Think of favorite movies. Why do we love them SO much? Very often…dialogue.

My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.

Social Roles—The Broad Strokes

I live in my apron only usually no makeup and hair in a scrunch-ee

Whether we like it or not, most of us will fall into some kind of social category with the way we speak. The way we speak will tell others a lot about who we are, our job, our background, level of education and even where we exist socially.

Don’t believe me?

How many of you were once young and wild and free and swore you would never be like your parents? Then one day you heard, “Because I said so, that’s why” fly out of your mouth?

“Why can’t you just do it the first time?”

“I didn’t ask you if you wanted to do it.”

I am bee-bopping along and suddenly hear my mother….

“Well, Spawn, when the mind is stupid, the body suffers.”

Shoot. Me. Now.

No matter how much we try, we are helpless in the face of mimesis. But, that isn’t such a bad thing. This actually makes it easier to do what we do. Since we’ve been around moms, we know how they talk. We can emulate the lingo. We know how teenagers, grandparents, grouchy neighbors, picky librarians, and con-artist family members all talk.

Through these “roles” we gain the broad strokes of what a character should “sound” like. This will help our characters ring true in the mental ear of the reader. There is nothing wrong with having characters who fit into a tidy box. They can still be interesting and unique even in that role.

Yes, I am a mother and I say all the stuff I swore I would never say.

No is just a part of life. 

I also play XBox with Spawn and say things like, “Burst-fire! Conserve your ammo!” “You can’t kill a zombie like that!” 

Screen Shot 2014-01-30 at 9.16.38 AM

Thus, even though a lot of what I say would be very prototypical “Mom Talk” there are elements of how I speak that make me unique within that subset. Not all moms shoot for sport, practice Jiu Jistu and randomly quote Monty Python. Spawn’s mom, however, DOES.

But this is is when we get into the…

Character—The Fine Strokes

Moms say things many other moms say, but each mom is unique. That is the case with most characters. If we don’t take time to really think about who each character IS, we can run the risk of a character sounding like a stock character.

Recently I read a YA and only finished it because I paid full-price. But the biggest reason I had a tough time getting into the story was that all the characters were blasé.

Each character talked like a stereotype. The broad strokes were there, but there was no nuance. Thus, I was left with a cast of characters who were utterly forgettable.

How do we get fine strokes?

Can we buy some on eBay?

This is a tough one to answer. The fine strokes can take years to master. We have to learn to be excellent listeners. We have to learn how to look beyond what people are saying. We have to become masters of empathy and we must study people. Beyond this, though, what is it that transforms a plot-puppet into a 3-D person?

I believe it is in our idiosyncrasies and our contradictions.

Idiosyncrasies 

An Idiosyncrasy is a peculiarity that is specific to one person. For instance, last time I mentioned the no-no about having every character speak in full sentences. Most of us don’t speak in full sentences so it rings untrue when everyone is using full sentences. BUT, some people DO speak in full sentences. That would be an idiosyncrasy and it’s one that is used regularly to convey highly intellectual characters—Ie. Dr. Sheldon Cooper.

A character who is foreign might not use contractions. A character who has OCD might always repeat verbs. A character who is advanced in years might never answer directly, but always answer in colorful parables.

I wrote a really funny character who constantly used malapropisms.

You just don’t cheat on your wife. When you get hitched, you promise to be faithful. You know. Monotonous.

We all have sayings and filler words that are unique to each of us. But adding these subtle details, now we have characters who are far more dimensional.

So we might have a mother who is saying all kinds of mom-like things…only she is unique because she is bad about smashing words together and speaks in hyperbole.

Eat your vegetables and don’t correct me. It’s very condensending.

Condescending.

I know what I said, Mr. Smarty Pants. Hurry up before I trade you to the Jones family for a puppy. At least the puppy would have some respect.

Add Some Layers

Remember that most humans are actually a unique blending of experience and roles. Yes, we might have a mom who is talking like a mom, but what else is she? A mom who is a Japanese violinist would probably talk differently than a mom who is a cop and grew up in Brooklyn.

Culture

Culture impacts a lot more than we might realize. I was born in Texas, but reared by a Yankee mom who is very direct and no-nonsense. I have run into all kinds of trouble with Southern women who feel I am rude. Conversely, I get short with Southern women because I am aging and don’t have time for all the niceties.

My roommate in college was from Georgia and we went round and round and round. She’d say:

Roommate: Kristen, do you think the trash needs to go out?

Me: Nah, looks good to me *keeps going*

Because her culture dictated it was more polite to hint and suggest? I missed most of what she wanted because I was always direct. If I wanted someone to take out the trash, I simply asked.

But here is an extra lesson in dialogue. Just from this example, can you see how conflict can arise simply from expectations? She believed she was asking me to take out the trash and believed that I was ignoring her. Conversely, I couldn’t figure out why she wanted an opinion on the state of our garbage so often. Why didn’t she just ask me to take it out? I would have happily obliged.

Self-Image

How does your character feel about him/herself? A low self-image might make a person a people pleaser. Maybe she is always agreeing with everyone and terrified to have her own opinion. Maybe the character talks too much, tries too hard, never asks about others.

If a character is selfish, he might brag all the time, or have to outdo everyone else in the conversation.

That’s great you caught a fish, but you were on a lake. Now go deep sea fishing. That’s real fishing. I once struggled with a fifteen foot shark for three hours….

Maybe the character is always interrupting others. Maybe the character uses profanity or quotes bible verses all the time. Or both.

Contrast

Sometimes we can use dialogue to make contrasts. Contrasts are very interesting and say a lot about our character. A great example would be Elmore Leonard’s character Boyd Crowder (refer to television series Justified). Now, Boyd fits into a broad-stroke category of a hillbilly. He has a deep southern accent, works with his hands, drives a ratty truck, wears boots, and drinks like a fish.

But what makes Boyd a fascinating character study, especially for dialogue, is he is unexpected. He is a fascinating contrast. Though he is a redneck (and plays this up for his own ends) he uses a twenty-dollar word when a ten cent one would do. He speaks very colorfully. If you ask him the time, he will tell you how to build a watch.

Not only is his speech idiosyncratic, but it is a very unique contrast. One usually doesn’t expect a hillbilly to use words most of us would have to look up in a thesaurus.

Show Don’t Tell

Dialogue is HUGE, HUGE, HUGE for Show Don’t Tell.

Instead of telling us a character is a certain way, SHOW us by how she talks and what she says.

A gossip.

“Now, for the record, I’ve never seen her drink, but she always looks so tired. My brother-in-law always looked that way because he was throwing them back in secret.”

A self-involved jerk.

“Sure, Babe. After I meet with my client, how about I meet you for that cute little college thing you’re doing. What was it again? Art history?”

Y’all get the gist. Now go have fun with it!

All of this is to say that dialogue is one of the most powerful tools for showing who a character is, who they are hiding and maybe even who they could be with a little help from us (Writer-God). Next time, we will dig a bit deeper into dialogue. Who knew there was so much to this? What are your thoughts? What other suggestions do you have for authentic-sounding dialogue?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of SEPTEMBER, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel.

August’s WINNER is lonestarjake88. Please send your 20 pages (2500 words) to kristen at wana intl dot com in a WORD document. Double-spaced and one-inch margins and CONGRATULATIONS!

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

lonestarjake88

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Sally Jean
Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Sally Jean

We have been discussing Deep POV, and yesterday I mentioned hating flashbacks with the power of a thousand suns and promised to explain why next post.

Yay! Here we are.

So you want to be a writer. Okay. I’ll be blunt because that’s my superpower. Check your conscience at the door keyboard. Writers are not civilized humans. In fact, we are the opposite. We are the reptilian brain to the power of a million. We probe and prod and poke the weak places.

Great storytellers are nothing short of sadists. We take a perfectly empathetic/likable person, toss their life in a Vita-Mix and blend, churning that mixture from Level 1-1000.

That is called conflict.

Stories are about people with problems to be solved. Everything else is a travel brochure.

One of the reasons I LOVE teaching craft is I get to see the work/stories of other writers. Last time I held my First Five Pages class (which there is a NEW ONE open *wink, wink*), I could hear the collective groans when I said, “NO FLASHBACKS. EVER.”

But, I am a benevolent dictator and instructed those submitting pages, that if they believed they positively-absolutely-must-have the flashback and had no idea how to extract it? Send it anyway.

One of my students sent her pages and they were the best example I have seen about WHY I hate flashbacks. Fabulous story and the flashbacks absolutely killed it.

***And, so you know the student was cool with me using this example and later fixed the story per my suggestions and it was successfully published.

😀

HOOK

We’ve talked before about how to hook readers. It doesn’t have to be a bomb, a car chase, a murder. In fact, some of the best tension is in the everyday and it is even more intense because regular people can relate. Most of us can’t relate to a bomb ticking down but two words—Family Reunion. One word—WEDDING.

This writer’s story began with a poor wedding planner trying to herd badly hungover bridesmaids to a wedding (in Mexico). She is trying to repair dresses, cater to a prima donna maid of honor, and placate a bride who is passive and used to others walking over her.

Between trying to get enough outlets in a hundred-year-old church, bridesmaids barfing on their shoes, and a meddling mother of the bride, we have the perfect STEW of DRAMA and a FANTASTIC HOOK! Perfect understanding of in medias res.

We feel compassion for the poor wedding planner and worry if she will get these sick-half-drunk girls to the wedding without using a stun-gun on someone.

I was RIVETED…and then the author went back and explained how the wedding came to be held in Mexico.

ER????

NO, I WANT TO SEE A BRIDESMAID PUKE IN THE FLOWER ARRANGEMENTS!

This sample of writing was fantastic, but she did two things that undermined her piece.

NOTHING Should Work

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Juha-Matti Herrala.
Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Juha-Matti Herrala.

When the wedding planner gives the bridesmaids Pepto, it makes them feel better. Okay, I will go with that. But to enhance this? It makes them feel better…moments before at least one of them (or ALL of them) barfs pink all over the wedding planner’s bag, or the bride’s veil, or the bouquet. Now, the problem isn’t only the sickly maids and bride, but how the heck can the wedding planner get out of THIS?

Character is demonstrated by solving (or not solving) problems REAL-TIME. We do not need to go back in time to explain or tell what kind of person the protagonist is. She didn’t need to go back and tell me about the protagonist’s character when she could easily show me in the current timeline.

Since wedding planner is the protagonist, maybe she has been through this before and just as the bride is about to have a breakdown because her veil is ruined? Wedding planner pulls out…a spare.

She always orders two after that wedding she put together in Oklahoma where the chain-smoking bride set fire to her own veil (showing she is calm and resourceful).

Whatever.

So when you put your characters in any scenario, ask, “Can I make it WORSE?” Then make it worse. Then ask that question again and again until you can’t make it worse without making it weird (I.e. sudden alien abduction in a Women’s Fiction).

Part of becoming a writer is to train out any human sensitivity. When we make life easier on our characters, we are doing it because WE feel tension and are seeking to alleviate that. Ah, but TENSION is the fuel of fiction, so do the opposite of what civilized humans would do and MAKE IT WORSE.

Flashback Fizzle

I could tell this writer was doing a SUPERB job of winding our nerves tighter than a Hollywood facelift. How? She backed off to explain…using a flashback.

When we feel the need to use a flashback and go back in time? Often we are reacting to tension we’ve successfully created and now y’all might see why I feel flashbacks are bad juju. Fiction is all about conflict. No conflict no story. No tension? Good place to stop reading.

How many of you have jerk friends, family or acquaintances? Or all of the above? Or maybe you’ve had a moment where you’ve shown your butt? I have all of the above. What do we do to ease others? To make them relax?

We explain.

Sorry about my Mom. She’s not been the same since my father died. 

Ok, so we leave out the part that Dad died 15 years ago. It works. It makes others give grace to Mom for acting like a horse’s behind.

I apologize for blowing up like that. I had a flat tire, migraine, no sleep, allergy medicine overdose, etc.

EXPLAINING is what civilized humans do to break the tension. STOP IT! CUT! CUT! CUT!

Original image via Flickr Commons courtesy of Mark Coggins
Original image via Flickr Commons courtesy of Mark Coggins

All of us will feel a NEED to explain why a character is moody, angry, broken, bawdy, whatever. DON’T. Resist the urge to EXPLAIN. In fact, if readers don’t know WHY, they will want to turn pages to find out WHY.

Frankly, as writers, we are GOD, so we really don’t have to explain ourselves anyway. Let the readers suffer until the very end, when you finally allow resolution. Suffering is good for readers (and book sales).

***And, like anything, I am sure someone somewhere used a flashback and it was AWESOME. Like any writing “rule” we can break this one, too. But, we have to know the rules to break the rules 😉 .***

Flashback Fodder in Real-Time Adds Mystery

When this writer flashed back to explain how the wedding ended up in Mexico instead of Mom’s choice (Napa Valley), she inadvertently missed two opportunities:

1) Increase tension.

2) Show character.

If she’d had this flashback information revealed real-time, Mom could have come in, seen the sea foam green bridesmaids (faces and dresses matching) and thrown a fit. “THIS is why I wanted to have this in Napa. It’s Montezuma’s Revenge. I told you wine country was a better choice. Why don’t you ever listen to me?”

The poor bride, who never stands up for herself is defeated and losing ground on what should be HER day. Wedding planner can come to the rescue and usher Mom out with the skill of an ambassador in a war zone (or try and fail). Either way, we LIKE her for trying.

THIS is “Show don’t tell.” Having critical information from a flashback in the current thread of time allows readers to see people act and react. It makes us wonder. It makes us tense. We want to ease the pressure and the only way to do that is to KEEP READING and HOPE it will eventually all turns out for the better.

Most Backstory CAN Be Told Real-Time…I Promise

One major reason new writers rely on flashbacks (aside from a possibly weak/flawed/nonexistent plot OR as a tension release) is that there is something that happened earlier the writer wants to share. Backstory.

A lot of writers don’t give readers enough credit. We believe we need to travel back in time to explain the backstory or the reader won’t “get” what’s going on. They will.

Let’s take a quick look at one of yesterday’s hastily assembled examples of Deep POV.

Fifi clutched the baby picture, the one her daughter had given her a week ago for Mother’s Day when they picked her up from rehab. Ninety days clean. At least that was the lie she’d packed along with her swimsuit and the hairspray can with the secret compartment and the only pills they hadn’t found.

The pills that were now gone.

They should have already been at the resort, the one staffed with eager friends willing to help her out. Friends with first names only who took cash and asked no questions.

Fifi scratched at her arms. Millions of insects boiled beneath her skin, invaded her nerve endings and chewed them to bleeding bits. Pain like lightning struck her spine, the section crushed then reconstructed. Pain like lightning spidered her brain, frying her thoughts. She glanced again at the baby picture, then at the fine young woman in back. Her daughter Gretchen.

What am I doing?

Maybe she would be okay. Maybe she hadn’t had enough pills to completely undo her. Maybe she could ride this out. And maybe I’m the Queen of England.

Gretchen bent between the seats and kissed her on the cheek. “I love you, Mom. You okay?”

Tears clotted her throat. She nodded. “Yes, I’m fine, Honey.”

“You mean it?”

She hesitated then smiled. “Yes. Yes I do.”

She tucked the baby picture in her shirt pocket, close to her heart and opened the van door. She needed air. She also needed to change their plans. Visit somewhere with no friends. With no one who took cash.

Look at ALL the stuff we learn without having to go back in time. We learn the time of year. That Mother’s Day was a week ago. That the family picked up Fifi from rehab. We learn she has an addiction to pills that is bad enough she has special drug-hiding containers. We later realize she has suffered a serious injury that crushed part of her spine.

You guys get the idea. We don’t need to go back to her being picked up from rehab. We don’t need to go back to the car accident or the fall or the ambush by ninjas wielding large sticks to see HOW Fifi was hurt. None of that is salient to the current story problem aside from fleshing out the character.

In fact, if I have my addict stranded with a broken down car and STOP and rewind to explain how she injured her back? Odds are it would just confuse you.

The story is about a family breaking down on the way to a vacation destination. Taking side trips back in time is distracting, redundant, confusing and makes the conflict fizzle.

Now y’all know why I take away your flashbacks. I am being mean, but it’s good for you. Flashbacks will ease your nerves, but is it worth losing the reader? And we often don’t recognize we are doing this. Even I have to go back through my writing and hunt for places I backed off the throttle because I was uncomfortable.

We will talk more about flashbacks in the coming posts because, as I mentioned yesterday, often what folks believe is a flashback is actually unorthodox plotting (I.e. parallel timelines).

What are your thoughts? What makes you tense? Do you find you fall in love with your characters and go too easy on them?

Before we go, y’all asked for it so here goes. I have two classes coming up. The class on log-lines Your Story in a Sentence—Crafting Your Log-Line is $35 and as a BONUS, the first ten sign-ups get to be victims. IF YOU ARE QUERYING AN AGENT, YOU NEED A PITCH. I will pull apart and torture your log-line until it is agent-ready for FREE. 

Beyond the first ten folks? We will work out something super affordable as a bonus for being in the class so don’t fret. I’ll take good care of you. AND, it is two hours and on a Saturday (June 27th) and recorded so no excuses 😛 .

I am also running Hooking the Reader–Your First Five Pages.  Class is on June 30th so let’s make Tuesdays interesting. General Admission is $40 and Gold Level is $55 but with Gold Level, you get the class, the recording and I look at your first five and give detailed edit.

Our first five pages are essential for trying to attract an agent or even selling BOOKS. Readers give us a page…maybe five. Can we hook them enough to part with cold hard CASH? Also, I can generally tell all bad habits in 5 pages so probably can save you a ton in content edit.

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JUNE, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Remember, for MORE chances to win and better ODDS, also comment over at Dojo Diva. I am blogging for my home dojo and it will help the blog gain traction.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

Kristen Lamb, WANA, We Are Not Alone, social media writers
Image courtesy of Melinda VanLone WANA Commons

Social media is an amazing tool, and it is a wonderful time to be a writer, but, I am going to point out the pink elephant in the room. We still have to write a darn good book. If we don’t write a darn good book, then no amount of promotion can help us. Sorry. That’s like putting lipstick on a wildebeest.

Not only am I here to help you guys ROCK building an author platform, but I’m also here to train you to be stronger writers…and make you eat your veggies and sit up straight. You, in the back. Did you take your vitamins this morning? Posture! Did you floss? They don’t call me the WANA Mama for nothing, you know ;).

Many times I am asked to expound on the difference between showing and telling. Setting is a great tool to do exactly that.

Kristen Lamb, WANA, We Are Not Alone, WANA Commons
Debbie Johansson WANA Commons

Today we are going to talk about setting and ways to use it to strengthen your writing and maybe even add in some dimension. Setting is more than a weather report. It can be a magnificent tool to deepen characters.

Setting can help your characterization.

Setting can actually serve a dual role in that it can be not only the backdrop for your story, but it can also serve characterization through symbol. We editors love to say, “Show. Don’t tell.” Okey dokey, here’s where setting can help you do just that.

Say you have a character, Buffy, who is depressed. You could go on and on telling us she is blue and how she cannot believe her husband left her for the Avon lady, or you can show us through setting. Buffy’s once beautiful garden is overgrown with weeds and piles of unopened mail are tossed carelessly on the floor. Her house smells of almost-empty tubs of chocolate ice cream left to sour. Piles of dirty clothes litter the rooms, and her cat is eating out of the bag of Meow Mix tipped on its side.

Now you have shown me that Buffy is not herself. I know this because the garden was “once beautiful.” This cues me that something has changed. And you managed to tell me she was depressed without dragging me through narrative in Buffy’s head.

She couldn’t believe Biff was gone. Grief surged over her like a surging tidal surge that surged.

Kristen Lamb, Author Kristen Lamb, WANA, We Are Not Alone, WANA Commons
Laurie Sanders WANA Commons

Writing is therapeutic, not therapy. Some of that introspection is great, but after a while you will wear out your readers. Setting can help alleviate this problem and keep the momentum of your story moving forward. We will get that Buffy is depressed by getting this glimpse of her house. You have shown that Buffy is having a rough time instead of being lazy and telling us.

Buffy needs to get a grip.

We judge people by their environment. Characters are no different. If you want to portray a cold, unfeeling schmuck, then when we go to his apartment it might be minimalist design. No color. No plants or signs of life. Someone who is scatter-brained? Their house is full of half-finished projects. An egomaniac? Walls of plaques and pictures of this character posing with important people. Trophies, awards, and heads of dead animals. You can show the reader a lot about your character just by showing us surroundings.

Trust me, if a character gets out of her car and two empty Diet Coke bottles fall out from under her feet into her yard that is littered with toys, we will have an impression. It’s Kristen!

Probably the single largest mistake I see in the work of new writers is that they spend far too much time in the sequel. What is the sequel? Plots can be broken into to main anatomical parts–scene and sequel. The scene is where the action occurs. A goal is declared and some disastrous setback occurs that leaves our protagonist worse off than when he began. Generally, right after this disaster there is what is called the sequel. 

The sequel is the emotional thread that ties all this action together. Yet, too often new writers will go on and on and on in a character’s head, exploring and probing deep emotions and nothing has yet happened. The sequel can only be an effect/direct result of a scene. Ah, but here comes the pickle. How can a writer give us a psychological picture of the character if he cannot employ the sequel?

Setting.

An example? In Silence of the Lambs how are we introduced to Hannibal Lecter? There is of course the dialogue that tells Agent Starling that Dr. Lecter is different, but talk is cheap, right? Clarice goes down into the bowels of a psychiatric prison to the basement (um, symbol?). She walks past cell after cell of the baddest and the maddest. All of them are in brick cells with bars…until Clarice makes it to the end.

Hannibal’s cell is not like the others. He is behind Plexi-Glass with airholes. This glass cage evokes a primal fear. Hannibal affects us less like a prisoner and more like a venomous spider. Setting has shown us that Hannibal the Cannibal is a different breed of evil. This is far more powerful than the storyteller poring on and on and on about Hannibal’s “evil.”

Setting can set or amplify the mood.

Either you can use setting to mirror outwardly what is happening with a character, or you can use it as a stark contrast. For instance, I once edited a medieval fantasy. In the beginning the bad guys were burning villagers alive. Originally the writer used a rainy, dreary day, which was fine. Nothing wrong with that.

I, however, suggested she push the envelope and go for something more unsettling. I recommended that she change the setting to sunny and perfect weather. In the heart of the village the ribbons and trappings of the spring festival blew in the gentle breeze, the same breeze that now carried the smell of her family’s burning flesh.

Sometimes it is this odd juxtaposition in setting that can evoke tremendous emotion. This is especially useful in horror. Dead bodies are upsetting. Dead bodies on a children’s playground are an entirely new level of disturbing.

Setting is a matter of style and preference.  Different writers use setting in different ways and a lot of it goes to your own unique voice. Some writers use a lot of description, which is good in that there are readers who like a lot of description. But there are readers who want you to get to the point, and that’s why they generally like to read works by writers who also like to get to the point. Everyone wins.

Whether you use a lot or a little setting will ultimately be up to you. I would recommend some pointers.

Can your setting symbolize something deeper?

I challenge you to challenge yourself. Don’t just pick stormy weather because it is the first image that pops in your mind. Can you employ setting to add greater dimension to your work? Using setting merely to forecast the weather is lazy writing. Try harder.

In Shutter Island, Dennis Lehane’s story is set on an island at a prison for the criminally insane. What the reader finds out is the prison is far more than the literal setting; it is a representation for a state of mind. The protagonist, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels is imprisoned by his own guilt and need for justice.

Like the island, he too is cut off from the outside world emotionally and psychologically. Now an island is more than an island, a prison is more than a prison, bars are more than bars, cliffs are more than cliffs, storms are more than storms, etc. Shutter Island is an amazing book to read, but I recommend studying the movie for use of setting as symbol.

So dig deeper. Can you get more out of your setting than just a backdrop?

Blend setting into your story.

When I teach, I liken setting to garlic in garlic mashed potatoes. Blend. Garlic is awesome and enhances many dishes, but few people want a whole mouthful of it. Make sure you are keeping momentum in your story. Yes, we generally like to be grounded in where we are and the weather and the time of year, but not at the expense of why we picked up your book in the first place…someone has a problem that needs solving.

Unless you are writing a non-fiction travel book, we didn’t buy your book for lovely description of the Rocky Mountains. We bought it to discover if Ella May will ever make it to California to meet her new husband before winter comes and traps her wagon train in a frozen world of death.

Keep perspective and blend. Keep conflict and character center stage and the backdrop in its place…behind the characters. Can you break this rule? Sure all rules can be broken. But we must understand the rules before we can break them. Breaking rules in ignorance is just, well, ignorant.

In the end, setting will be a huge reflection of your style and voice, but I hope this blog has given some insight that might make you see more to your use of setting and help you grow to be a stronger writer. What are some books or movies that really took setting to the next level? How was setting used? How did it affect you? Share with us.

I love hearing from you!

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

Since it was such a HUGE success and attendees loved it, I am rerunning the Your First Five Pages class SATURDAY EDITION. Use the WANA15 code for 15% off. Yes, editors REALLY can tell everything they need to know about your book in five pages or less. Here’s a peek into what we see and how to fix it. Not only will this information repair your first pages, it can help you understand deeper flaws in the rest of your manuscript.

My new social media book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE. Only $6.99.

WANACon, the writing conference of the future is COMING! We start with PajamaCon the evening of October 3rd and then October 4th and 5th we have some of the biggest names in publishing coming RIGHT TO YOU. If you REGISTER NOW, you get PajamaCon and BOTH DAYS OF THE CONFERENCE (and all recordings) for $119 (regularly $149). Sign up today, because this special won’t last and seats are limited. REGISTER HERE.