All posts by Cornell Deville

And then what happened?

Writers love to write.

And it’s a good thing they do, because they certainly do a lot of it. In fact, they love to write so much (literally) that they seem to possess a burning desire to tell their reader everything they can think of in order to inform them of each fact and every tiny detail of the story, the setting, the characters, etc. There is also a tendency for new writers to keep everything they relate to the reader in chronological order, which is not always necessary for an intriguing story.

The writer’s generosity in sharing everything, and start at the very beginning, often includes immaterial information that has no bearing on the story and serves no real purpose other than increasing the word count of their manuscript. And many times, all of that meaningless and useless data occupies the high rent district of the beginning pages of the book.

But writers love to write. It’s what they do. And they can write until the cows come home before getting to that important place in the story where they finally reveal that single, magical, strange, unusual, and critical event that sets everything in motion. That’s usually the point where they capture the reader’s interest. Ideally, this event should be revealed sooner rather than later.

Unfortunately, in some cases that incident is located at a point in the story that lies a bit beyond the reader’s patience. Placing this most important event too far into the story can be cause for the reader to close the book and look for something else—something that doesn’t drone on and on while meandering aimlessly in a circuitous route toward something (hopefully) more interesting.

Here’s a short video that gives an example of how this concept changed my story and gave it a more interesting opening…

Naturally, some backstory is important to your plot. However, it is rarely—if ever—the most important aspect of the story, and it doesn’t need to occupy the first few pages of the narrative. More important than telling everything that’s happened so far in the main character’s life is to grab the reader’s attention from the outset. If you can do that with a narrative hook in the first few paragraphs—or better yet, in the first sentence—you can lock your reader in for another 50 or 60 pages while they read on with great interest in learning what happens next.

Providing them with a situation that places a question in their mind keeps them reading until they discover the answer. That gives you, as the writer of this epic, some breathing room that you can use to weave in the important parts of your backstory so the reader can become intimately more familiar with your characters as the events unfold. This way, you can let the plot play out while your eager reader anxiously turns the pages.

Here’s a quick and simple exercise you can use to evaluate your own work. First, take a few minutes to read the opening of your current WIP or a finished manuscript that you’ve had no success in placing with an agent or a publisher. Then ask yourself the following: Does the first sentence get my attention and make me want to read more? If not, does the first paragraph grab you?

If you answered negatively to both of those questions, just how far into your story does that situation-changing event take place? If it’s over a few hundred words, you may need to do a little rearranging. A casual reader, especially a middle grade reader, isn’t going to read much further than the first couple of paragraphs before they decide if this is a book they want to spend time with.

The most important lesson to be learned here is that it is critical to get the interesting bits up front so your reader can discover them early on. And once they do, they’ll keeping asking that question:

And then what happened?

 

SHOW vs. TELL

We’ve all been advised, many times, to “Show, don’t tell.” It’s become a repeated mantra from members of critique groups—like a broken record. Many consider it one of the most important rules of fiction. New writers are continually advised to let the reader discover what they are saying by watching the action and listening to the dialogue instead of reading a descriptive narrative.

Well, brace yourselves for this writer’s opinion. Although it’s good advice, “show, don’t tell” is not a universal truth that transcends every other rule of writing. While it is true that showing can help to instill more life into your characters and scenes, it’s not necessary to “show” all the time. Some things need to be told rather than shown. Telling provides a shortcut. It can offer a better solution for moving the reader quickly from one dramatic scene to the next, keeping the pace accelerated and holding the readers’ interest. If a writer uses showing all the time, their words can blur into monotony with the same rhythm and tone. Worse, the important parts—the dramatic parts—won’t stand out, and you will end up wearing your reader out unnecessarily.
In addition, by its very nature, showing requires more words. If you try to write a novel using only showing, it might end up being ridiculously long. In my opinion, telling is not the horrible taboo some writing instructors and critique group members claim it is. Contrary to the previous advice you’ve been given, there are many places in your novel where telling is actually more appropriate. Your objective as the writer is to find the proper balance between telling and showing. The next time you’re given the advice of “show, don’t tell” don’t blindly follow the suggestion without considering the purpose of the words in that portion of your work.

I’ll end with the advice of novelist Francine Prose: “…the warning against telling leads to a confusion that causes novice writers to think that everything should be acted out.”