Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Show Don't Tell by Bonnie Le Hamilton

How do you get across to someone they need to learn how to write well before they try to finish their story?

I have no idea but that’s what I need to figure out.

A budding author asked me for help, and sent me his manuscript. In the very first sentence, I noticed problems. Starting with the fact he wrote it in first person PRESENT tense.

Now, of course there is nothing wrong writing in first person, lots of authors do. And I particularly enjoy Dick and Felix Frances, both of whom write in first person. But, well, I don’t know if it’s a rule or not, it’s just that I’ve never read any novel written in present tense, so I found that jarring, on its own, then it gets worse.

Some time ago, I had the great luck of having a professional editor volunteer to read one of my manuscripts and she informed me I was mostly telling. Now all good writers know we need to show not tell, so I was devastated, and I struggled to reword my manuscript so I’m showing not telling. It wasn’t easy, but I’ve learned that it’s a whole lot easier to start out showing than it is to fix telling.

This is the problem I’m facing. This budding author isn’t just mostly telling, he is just plain telling. 
All of what I managed to read (and believe me it was difficult to do and stay awake) was telling.

And how can anyone lose themselves in a story, if the writer’s style is boring and so clinically precise he states the exact height of every single character as they’re introduced, furthermore, he doesn’t show relationships, he states them.

If your main character walks into a room occupied by someone this person knows, don’t state their relationship — SHOW it. Have the character greet this person in whatever manner he would whether its by slugging or hugging this other person, show their relationship, do not state it!

As for the height issue, the only time I’ve seen precise height mentioned in a novel is when a character is stating it for some important reason, like a cop giving the perps description, but to state it as you introduce the character? Okay, I find that annoying, and certainly something, which would never “draw” me into the story.

Instead of stating height, show it.

Show someone who is short trying to get something out of a cupboard or, as I’ve done before, climb into a pickup truck. Of course, seeing the world and its challenges from a short person’s perspective is easy for me. :) It is harder for me to visualize the opposite end of that spectrum, i.e. remembering that tall people have to duck through doorways or under low hanging ceiling fans. I have witnessed this stuff; I should remember it when I’m writing.

And another way to show height is show how two characters interact because of their height differences. I see this mistake too often where the author indicates the heroine is on the short side and the hero is considerably taller, yet they don’t have to make any adjustments to stand facing each other and kiss. Really? I could have sworn I either had to stand a step up or we had to do a combination of him scrunching down and me standing on tiptoe.

If there is an extreme height difference, at least figure out how that would affect your characters’ interactions before you write it.

Anyway, I still need to figure out how to get all this across to someone who isn’t willing to hear the bad news about his writing.

Happy writing everyone. :)


  1. Sorry that you have to deliver bad news to a budding writer. Just wanted to say that first person present tense is becoming popular in some YA books. I've read it before, but it's hard to do well.

  2. I find it annoying, though I think the big problem is all the telling in this manuscript.