Unfortunately, some writers are writing a synopsis while thinking that they are writing a novel. More and more, I am receiving novels that read like an outline or a movie treatment.
As an agent, I know that I’m not alone in spotting this basic story-telling error. If you suspect that your writing is flat, or more like a blueprint than a finished product, don’t worry. There’s an easy fix, though it will take some practice and dedication to make it a habit.
First, repeat to yourself the adage:
Show don’t tell.
If you can embrace this concept, you will transform your writing. You’re never too experienced to remember this advice and apply it when a scene isn’t working.
I’ll take my own advice and show you the kind of thing I’m talking about.
“The apartment was a mess and nothing worked, but John had to rent somewhere. His mother was relying on him to find somewhere for them to live.
The landlord was a miserable slob and he couldn’t believe that John was willing to pay the asking price, but John had no choice.
That was how John and his mother moved to Shady Lane. He knew straight away that he’d made the wrong decision.”
I’m almost intrigued by this, but there’s no atmosphere. It’s more synopsis than storytelling. Even a synopsis benefits from an atmosphere to convey the storyline to an agent or publisher. While I can follow the story and what happens when, I don’t feel like I’m there.
Now let’s look at how that passage might be improved.
“The landlord tried to turn on the light, revealing a sweat stain under his arm.
“Power must be out,” he grumbled, flicking the switch again and again with no effect.
The only light in the room came from the setting sun, visible through the dirty, cracked window. In this glow, John saw the damp wallpaper sliding down the walls, attempting to escape the mold.
The landlord wheezed as he put his cigarette out on the gray carpet, grinding the butt under his boot heel.
“So?” he snapped.
“We’ll take it,” John said, choking on the words.
The landlord regarded John icily, licked a dirty thumb, and counted his deposit in front of him. He even held one note up to the brown window to make sure it wasn’t fake.
Later, John used his cell to call his mom.
“I found somewhere,” he said. “We won’t be on the street.”
On the wall of the apartment across the street, someone had written: “WELCUM … 2 HELL!”
“Everything’s going to be okay,” he said.
This still needs work, but now I’m in the room with the narrator. I’m feeling itchy and claustrophobic. I even feel for the protagonist, who has character now. And the writer is still moving the story along.
Here are 6 tips to help you show instead of tell.
When writing descriptive passages:
• use your imagination, so that the world you create is as realistic and solid as it can be.
• use metaphors and similes. Comparing one thing to another is a good way to bring your descriptions to life.
• use the actions of your characters to give the reader information about character and setting, as well as to move the story along.
• use restraint to avoid intrusive narration. Consider allowing your voice to take a back seat, while your characters take the wheel, providing readers with insights into their viewpoints, thoughts, and feelings.
• use your remote to turn off the television; just long enough to read some more. Pay attention to how your favorite stories are told. How do your favorite authors develop characters and scenes?
• use your discretion. There will be times when you think it’s better to tell than show. The choice is yours. What is important is that you make it a conscious decision. Note also that the scene might not be relevant at all. You may be able to write the hell out of it, but if it’s got no business being in your book, that’s wasted time and effort.
If you want to be noticed by an agent or editor – for the right reasons – demonstrate that you understand your craft by showing not telling.