Show, Don’t Tell–What Does That Mean, Anyway?

I was sitting onstage taking questions one year at our annual fall writing conference, and a woman I knew asked me to explain the opt-quoted concept of Show, Don’t Tell. “That sounds great,” she said, “but this is a novel and sometimes you just have to tell people what’s going on. Don’t you?” I didn’t have a ready answer, but that’s always good, because when I actually have to think about something hard enough to explain it, I usually end up understanding it much better than I did before.

I eventually suggested that my questioner distinguish character from plot. Yes, to move the story forward, you will eventually have to tell the reader what’s going on, perhaps fill in a little background, and not all of it can always be shown. When writers talk about Show, Don’t Tell, though, they are usually referring to revealing what’s going on inside the viewpoint character’s head, what they’re thinking, or even more importantly, what they’re feeling. The idea is that, instead of saying, “Sally was mad,” you say, “Sally raced up the stairs, slammed her bedroom door, flung herself down on the bed, and pounded the pillow.”

Not a subtle example, but you get the idea, right? There are legitimate reasons for writing this way. For one thing, words expressing emotional states tend to be flat and to have little impact on the reader. If you portray the emotion, however, it will come to life and have far more impact on the reader. This is closely related to the all-important concept of viewpoint. You want to keep the reader inside your characters’ heads, experiencing the story through their eyes and ears. Few readers get wrapped up in a story that is narrated to them, but if they feel as if they’re inside the story, as if it’s happening right before their (inner) eyes, they are much more likely to be engaged. When you just tell the reader about a character’s emotional state, it feels as if the story is being narrated. After all, no one really stands around thinking, “Grr. I’m mad.” On the other hand, if you show their emotional state by describing their actions, you’ve kept the reader inside the character’s head.

This so-called rule is usually attributed to the playwright Anton Chekhov, who wrote in a letter to his brother, “In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.” He was writing about description rather than emotional states, but the core idea is just the same.

Hemingway is renowned for what he left out, not just adverbs and adjectives but anything he thought the reader could figure out for themselves (the theory of omission). One of his most famous stories is “Hills Like White Elephants,” which is simply a few pages of two characters not talking about what is uppermost in their minds. The clues are sufficient to allow an attentive reader to figure out what it is, though, and it strikes with much more impact because the reader is led there rather then being hit over the head with it. For the same reason, Chuck Palahniuk has recommended a ban on what he calls “thought verbs,” such as “thinks,” “knows,” “understands,” “realizes,” “wants,” etc.

By the way, there’s still room in some of my summer writing retreats. More than two dozen of my students have been published, and three of them are up for awards this coming weekend. Is this the year you should join us? For more info:

What Should I Write Next?

Many times throughout my life (including this weekend at my writing conference), I’ve heard people ask what book they should write next. What genre should they pursue? Should they chase the latest trend? Should they write this idea or another? My reply is always the same: Which idea do you care about most?

If you don’t care about a book, if it doesn’t mean anything to you, there is no point in writing it. This past weekend, I heard the wonderful Katherine Center advising people to write a book they would want to read. Excellent. Why write an idea or genre you don’t care about? Don’t tell me you’re doing it for money. That book will not turn out well, so you’re not going to get rich off it. Of my forty-three published books, only one was based on someone else’s idea–and it’s by far the worst book I ever wrote. (No, I will not tell you which one that was.)

Chasing the latest trend is even stupider–because by the time you get a book written, the trend will probably be over. Fads come and go (legal thrillers, chick lit, dystopian YA, you name it). How long they last is impossible to predict, but imagine your poor agent being stuck with a book that he or she can’t sell because the fad has passed. Worse if you spent a year writing it, never liked it, didn’t care about it–and now no one will ever read it. A year gone for no good reason.

The marvelous David Morrell always advises people to write the book that matters to them most. (That’s the one that will likely turn out best, too). David’s theory is that even if the market turns against you and you can’t sell it, it was still worth doing, because it was important to you. David only rarely has written a non-thriller, but when he did, you can be assured it was for a good personal reason.

Which brings me to my most recent novel, Challengers of the Dust. I am aware that some of my readers would much rather have another Ben Kincaid novel, or at least a thriller. But the truth is, I’ve written eighteen Ben books and they no longer represent a challenge. I hit a round-number birthday and started to envision a tombstone that only said: HE WROTE A BUNCH OF BEN BOOKS. I wanted to do more, so I left the series behind and focused on other characters and other forms. I don’t regret this decision in the least.

I love my two poetry books and the reviews they have received are the best I’ve seen in my entire life. These books will not put my children through college, but I am very glad I wrote them. This most recent novel was a shot from the heart, a chance to bring some Oklahoma history to life with two eccentric characters unburdened by thriller elements. It’s not boring, but don’t ask me what genre it fits into, because I don’t think it does.

I also think it’s the best book I’ve ever written. Thank goodness I took time to write it while I could.  I wouldn’t trade the praise I’ve received for these last three books for all the royalty checks on earth.

Are you planning a book? Heed my words. Write from the heart.

Link to Challengers of the Dust

To Outline or Not to Outline

I just learned that the first book in my Red Sneaker Writers series, Story Structure, is highly recommended in another writing book (Structuring Your Novel, by KM Weiland). Praise from your peers is always pleasing…and causes me to think about structure. One of the biggest debates on the writing-conference circuit these days is whether to be a planner or a “pantser,” that is, someone who outlines or someone who writes by the seat of their pants.

Those who have read my books, especially Structure and the new one, Excellent Editing, know that I advocate planning, specifically pre-writing and outlining, if your goal is to produce something of publishable quality. (If you’re just writing for fun or therapy, I suppose you can do whatever you want). I think the reality is, many people are not outlining, not because they believe this will produce better work but because outlining is a lot of work and they’d rather start writing on this brilliant idea they’ve had. The problem is that the idea peters out in a hundred pages or so, and then they have no idea what to write next.

Outlining does take time, but it isn’t really that hard. Here’s a streamlined version of how to do it (the more detailed version is in Story Structure):

Purchase 60 index cards.  Break them up into (3) acts, approximately: Act 1 – 15 cards, Act 2 – 30 cards, Act 3 – 15 cards. Each card should contain one scene.  Each scene should contain 5-6 beats.

Notes about Act 1:  The inciting incident takes place early in Act 1.  The protagonist must be introduced.  The antagonist should probably be introduced.  All viewpoint characters typically will be introduced.  Perhaps a subplot or two will be introduced.  Supporting characters may be introduced.  The Act will end with the first major Turning Point, which sets the protagonist decisively on his or her journey.

Notes about Act 2:  A character turning point (a glimmer of an indication that the character might change) should appear mid-Act 2.  Plot twists are recommended to keep the story from losing energy and sagging in the middle.  The main plot and subplots should be advanced.  Viewpoint characters should be carried forward, as well as any other important supporting characters.  The protagonist should be faced with progressively more difficult obstacles or challenges.  Act 2 ends with the second major Turning Point, the ‘dark moment” or “crisis,” when the conflict has escalated to its highest point–often by becoming more personal to the protagonist.

Notes about Act 3:  The protagonist undertakes difficult steps to overcome the obstacles or challenges.  The climax is a large sequence, the largest and most dramatic in the book, and appears toward the end of Act 3.  Denouement follows to wrap up any loose ends or character business and give the book emotional resonance.

Finally: Once you have all the scenes mapped out and in the correct order, type up your outline from the cards, or pin them to a bulletin board.  Save it in a safe place. You will undoubtedly add to or subtract from it as you actually write the book.

Pretty simple, right? Give it a try next time you start a writing project. I think you’ll be glad you did.

Story Structure:

Excellent Editing:

Excellent Editing: The Writing Process

You will probably not be shocked to hear that today’s blog is an excerpt from my new Red Sneaker book, just released, titled Excellent Editing: The Writing Process. The book discusses how to edit, revise, and proofread your books to perfection (or as close to perfection as we humans can ever aspire). But the book also emphasizes that editing is a part of the entire writing process, so it covers the steps for taking a book from the initial idea to the final product. Too often people have terrific ideas but can’t convert them into a polished book, or they start books but run out of steam and never finish. This book is designed to prevent that from happening, to help you create a book that is successful and published, a book you’re proud to see bearing your name.

I do not, however, recommend that people try to edit themselves while trying to get a first draft down on paper. Here’s an excerpt from the book on that subject:

It’s important that you don’t try to revise while writing the first draft. The time for revision will come later. Right now, you want to keep the flow flowing. Don’t lose your momentum. I’ve heard one writer compare premature revision to applying the clutch while you’re still driving up the hill. Don’t throw out your clutch! Keep the pages flowing! George Miller wrote, “Polishing at an early stage is usually a complete waste of time.”


The truth is, regardless of how much thought you’ve put into your project, no matter how smart you are or how much research you’ve done, you never really know what you have till you’ve completed and read your first draft. After that, you can read the whole thing and understand what you’ve got and not got, what works and what doesn’t, what are the strengths and weaknesses. That brilliant denouement that only occurred to you as you wrote it may have changed the tone or focus of the entire project. Perhaps you stumbled across your theme as you wrote and realized that it required a scene to be added or subtracted, a character to be added or given a gender change, a motivation to be altered. Only after you’ve finished the first draft can you see the big picture.

To put it more succinctly, I hope you didn’t spend a week revising and perfecting chapter three, only to realize that chapter three has to go.

You’ve probably heard people say that writers must “kill their darlings.” What this usually means is that if you’ve composed a turn of phrase that’s particularly clever or lovely, it calls attention to itself. And if it calls attention to itself, you need to cut it, because readers should be immersed in the story, not thinking about how ingenious the writer is. Similarly, if you get to the end of the first draft and realize the tone or direction or focus of the book has altered, you’ll have to do some cutting and revision, perhaps more than you anticipated. That’s fine—do the work that needs to be done. But I don’t want you to waste a lot of time during the first draft beautifying language that will end up on the cutting room floor. Save the revising for later.

Here’s a link to my new book, Excellent Editing:

Reading Your Work Aloud

Here’s another excerpt from the next book in the Red Sneaker series (soon to be released), Excellent Editing, in which I address the controversial topic of whether you should proofread your work by reading it aloud:

Remember that the point of proofreading is to catch errors and to improve your use of language. It is not meant to be fun. It is not meant to be entertaining. It is not meant to give you another opportunity to glory in the magic of your prose, which I suspect is sometimes the true reason people read their work to themselves. You’re not supposed to be rehearsing for your first book reading. You’re supposed to be perfecting your work.

In his book on writing, David Morrill, a writer I respect enormously, argues strongly against reading your work aloud when proofing or editing. His argument is that when you read work aloud, you can “improve” it subtly or subconsciously by using vocal inflection, speeding or slowing your pace, perhaps even adding facial expressions you see with your mind’s eye. These are all ways of sweetening the text that do not exist on the printed page.

I agree with David. Your readers will not have the benefit of your vocal mastery. They must read it silently to themselves based upon what is actually on the page. Therefore, the only reliable way to edit is to attempt to reproduce the experience of your future readers—by reading it silently to yourself. Try to forget all your authorial insight into who these characters are and where the plot is headed. Read it remembering only what has actually appeared on the page so far—and see if it works.

Now if we were talking about poetry, that might be a little different…

When to Edit–and When Not

Sneak Preview! Here’s the first-ever excerpt from my forthcoming Red Sneaker book, Excellent Editing:

Don’t try to edit yourself while writing the first draft. The time for editing will come later. Right now, you want to keep the flow flowing. I’ve heard one writer comparing premature editing to applying the clutch while you’re still driving up the hill. Don’t throw out your clutch! Keep writing!

The truth is, regardless of how much thought you’ve put into your project, no matter how smart you are, and no matter how much research you’ve done, you never know what you have till you’ve finished the first draft. Then you can see for what you’ve got and not got, what works and what doesn’t, what the strengths and weaknesses are. That brilliant denouement that only occurred to you as you wrote it may have changed the tone or focus of the entire project. Perhaps you stumbled onto your theme as you wrote and realized this new idea requires a scene to be added or subtracted.

To put it succinctly: I hope you didn’t spend a week revising and perfecting chapter three, only to realize later that chapter three has to go.

You’ve probably heard people say writers must “kill their darlings.” What this usually means is that if there’s a turn of phrase that’s particularly clever or lovely—it probably calls attention to itself. So you need to cut it, because readers should be immersed in your story, not thinking about how clever you are. Similarly, I don’t want you to waste a lot of time beautifying language that will end up on the cutting room floor.

Wait until you’ve finished the first draft to revise or you may find yourself wasting an enormous amount of time, or worse, never getting to the end. This project will take a long time even if you work with maximum efficiency. Don’t make it any worse than it needs to be.

How Do You Define “Book?”

If you’ve followed publishing news this week, you know there are a host of new fiction forms in cyberspace. As a writer, you can decry change or embrace it, but I see little downside in new opportunities for writers, especially opportunities that involve innovation and equal access. The Big Five largely control the books that go into bookstores, but they do not control the digital universe.

Here are a few of the new forms “books” are taking:

  1. Apps. Several new phone apps that are basically novels in disguise are getting media attention. The most successful is The Pickle Index, a SF dystopian novel that also pushes pickle recipes to your phone (to get you to return to the app). Other similar apps are The New World and The Silent History (the best of them in my opinion, discounted to 99 cents as I post this). And apps aren’t just for novels. A writer named Prerna Gupta has created an app called Hooked that provides short fiction for young adult readers. According to Gupta, 80% of all YA novels are read digitally.
  2. Phone Fiction. If you’re thinking no one would ever read a book on their phone, think again. Phone fiction is huge. The most successful platform is Wattpad, which has over 35 million users and publishes 100,000 new stories per day, primarily romance, SF, and YA. Despite the glut of material, some works have broken out, such as MJ Gary’s Flawed, a SF YA thriller compared favorably to Divergent, and Brittany Geragotelis’ Life’s a Witch, whose Wattpad success led her to a three-book deal with Simon & Schurter.
  3. Twitter Fiction. Same idea, different format. Yes, Dickens serialized many of his novels–but not in installments of 140 characters. Of course, you can post more than once a day to maintain interest. Phillip Pullman and Margaret Atwood have both done it. David Mitchell has built a strong following for his work on Twitter. Poets have done it successfully too.
  4. Serialized Fiction. Serial Box offers readers original fiction in digitalized installments (eBook or audiobook format) delivered directly each week. An online HBO for book readers.
  5. Red Sneakers App. I would be remiss if I did not mention that we have a Red Sneakers iPhone app. It’s free. Put it on your phone and you’ll be notified every time I post to this blog, add a new writing seminar or retreat, post updates on the fall writers conference, etc.

Here’s a link for the Red Sneakers app:

Serial Box: