Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of The Healing Wars trilogy and several books on writing, including her Foundations of Fiction series and Skill Builders series. For more advice and helpful writing tips, visit her at www.fiction-university.com or @Janice_Hardy.
Where did your inspiration to write Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting it) start?
This was a topic that really wanted to be a book. It started out as a handout my Show, Don't Tell workshop (I'd done a little booklet for that one) and even conference goers who hadn't been in my workshop asked me if I had extras to spare. Earlier this year, I decided to do a newsletter for my site and started prepping that booklet to use as a thank you gift for signing up. In a few hours of tinkering, I realized I had a lot more to say about it, and "show, don't tell" was the perfect topic to launch the new Skill Builders Series I'd been planning. I'd wanted to do smaller books that analyzed and dug deep into various writing techniques to go with my larger planning and revision books. Since this is something writers struggle with the most, it made sense to write this first.
What was the hardest thing about writing Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting it)?
Keeping it small. "Show, don't tell" is connected to so many aspects of writing that I kept wanting to add chapters to discuss those as well--such as point of view, filtering, and narrative distance. I do talk about how those aspects affect show, don't tell, but I could do (and will) a whole book on point of view alone. I wanted to keep this book (and series) focused and manageable for new writers. It's easy to get overwhelmed when too much is thrown at you.
In your years as a writer and blogger, what common mistakes and challenges have you seen writers struggle with most?
Show, don't tell, obviously. Point of view (which causes most of the show, don't tell issues) is something that trips up a lot of writers. I often see stories that describe an idea and how a character gets from Point A to Point Z, but it isn't actually a compelling plot with a strong protagonist solving problems to achieve a goal (so that would be a goal-conflict-stakes issue).
Generally, a lot of early drafts focus more on explaining the story idea and get in their own way, preventing the characters from living that story. It's not about saying, "Look at this cool idea I had," it's about interesting people solving interesting stories in interesting ways. Half the fun of reading is figuring out everything along with the characters.
You explain “show, don’t tell” better than anyone else I’ve found. Can you break it down for readers who haven’t found your blog yet?
Aw, thanks so much! Basically, it's when we explain things to readers they ought to be able to figure out by watching the characters experience the story. If we see characters cry, we can tell they're sad or hurt. If they're snapping at loved ones, we can assume they're unhappy or distracted in some way (or just mean). If everyone puts on gloves before they leave the house, we can surmise that gloves are a vital part of this society for some reason.
I've also created a list of what I call red flag words that are frequently found with told prose that people can search for in their manuscripts. They don't catch every instance of telling, and they don't always mean it's told prose, but they do give you a solid place to start looking. A few examples, are "to-verb" phrases (such as, to pick up) and "when" statements (such as, when she went for the gun ... ).
What can writers do to safeguard their work against “telling”?
Understanding what it is and how to spot it. The problem with it, is that it's subjective and depends on so many variables, so there are no hard and fast rules. You can't just "do X" every time and have it work. The same sentence can read fine with an omniscient narrator, but feel told with a first person narrator. Keeping a list of my red flag words handy will certainly help find told prose, but just cutting those words or rewriting sentences using those words doesn't always solve the problem. My favorite chapter in the whole book is an in-depth analysis of this, actually.
When editing ourselves, what can writers do to look out for “telling”—and turn them into “showing”?
Keeping an eye out for red flag words is a good start. Once you get used to looking for them they jump out as soon as you use one and you can stop and revise. After a while, you train yourself to avoid them. It's also helpful to consider if what you're writing is something the character would say, do, or think, or what the author is explaining. If it feels like an author explanation, it's probably telling.
How do you protect your own work against “telling” and fix it in your own drafts?
I do an edit pass for my red flag words. This catches most of my slip ups, and anything I miss my beta readers and crit partners usually pick up. The nice thing about telling, is once you get used to avoiding it, you do it without thinking, so there isn't that much telling in your work.
You also write fantasy fiction! I have to talk to you about your fiction a little too, before I can let you go.
Writers block: How do you beat it?
I don't use the term (grin). That sounds flippant, but I'm serious. I think getting truly blocked is rare, and most of us just get stuck. We have a story that doesn't want to be written, a problem we have trouble solving, personal issues that are sapping our creativity--but all of these are things in the way, and once we figure out how to go around them, we're okay. So "writer's block" to me means there's something in my story (or life) I need still to work through to move forward.
When this happens, I walk away from the keyboard and let my subconscious work. Taking a hot shower helps more often than not. I think the brain massage of washing my hair does it. Doing tasks that take the focus off the writing also help a lot, so I'll do chores or exercise--anything that involves my hands and activity and doesn't use my brain.
For those who are truly blocked, take a break. Forcing yourself to write when you can't only puts more pressure on you and adds to the problem. Do things you enjoy, forget about writing and let the creative juices refill. When you feel ready to go back and write, do it for the fun of it for a while. Don't go back to the same project that blocked you. Rediscover the joy of your writing and remind yourself that you can do this, and then tackle that tough project.
Do you have a favorite book or author? What do you love about them?
Harlan Ellison. I love his voice, the way he organizes his sentences, his story ideas. He breaks all kinds of conventions and rules and it just works.
What do you absolutely need in order to write?
Focus. And by that, I mean the ability to pay complete attention to what I'm working on without distraction. So no email, no internet, no people coming in and out of my office, no cats jumping on my keyboard (this is the hardest one to get in my house). I need to cut out all the things I know will draw me away from the work. Quiet is nice to have, but I found I can get a lot of writing done at a coffee shop, so if the noise is more white noise in nature, that works just as well.
What do you love outside of writing and reading?
I'm a huge movie buff, so I see a lot of films, and I especially LOVE cheesy movies. I'm also a gamer (from old-style card games to pen and paper RPGs, to computer and console games), and I can lose myself for weeks with a good city builder or MMO. I met my husband scuba diving, and though we stopped diving when we moved to Georgia, now that we're back in Florida, we plan to get back into it. I love the water, so that will be fun to do again. I've missed it.
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It)
Do you struggle with show, don't tell? You don't have to.
Award-winning author Janice Hardy (and founder of the popular writing site, Fiction University) takes you deep into one of the most frustration aspects of writing--showing, and not telling. She'll help you understand what show, don't tell means, teach you how to spot told prose in your writing, and reveal why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work.
With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) looks at what affects told prose and when telling is the right thing to do. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.
This book will help you:
- Understand when to tell and when to show
- Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
- Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
- Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
- Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.