writing advice

The Epidemic of Showing AND Telling, and How You Can Avoid it

As a newbie editor, I’ve come across my fair share of errors and faults in writing. Usually, when I pick up a piece of writing, I’m on the look out for grammatical errors: spelling mistakes or words used in the wrong context. Sometimes I’ll pull up on a sentence that could be structured differently to make it easier to read, or a paragraph that doesn’t make much sense within the story. But there’s something I’ve been coming across recently that’s been bugging me a lot, something that I just can’t help but notice in most of the first-drafts I read, a little something called the ‘Epidemic of Showing AND Telling’.

What Does ‘Show DON’T Tell’ Mean?

Well, to put it straight, it means that instead of simply telling the audience something that’s occurring in your story, you describe it. That might be describing the actual events, or it could mean describing the effects of the events. Lets start with this basic example:

‘Sarah was afraid.’ 

     Sure, this sentence does the job. Anybody who reads it is going to know immediately how Sarah feels, but it’s vague. Simply telling readers how a character feels probably isn’t going to resonate with them. It’s a ‘blank statement’; something people read and attach virtually no feeling to, akin to reading a fact. So how can you make it resonate? Show!

‘Sarah’s legs began to tremor. A tingling sensation crawled up her spine.’

     Again, it’s short, but rather than telling readers exactly how the character ‘Sarah’ feels, readers are asked to work it out for themselves. It adds an element of trust between the reader and the author; the author trusting in the reader to put two and two together rather than spoon-feeding them everything, and the reader trusting the author to put together a description comprehensively enough for them to be able to put two and two together. Although both examples mean the same thing, one tells the reader what the character feels, and the other allows the reader to connect to the character through a description of feelings that they too have probably experienced before and can therefore relate to. And, as every author knows, relatability is everything.

What is ‘Showing AND Telling’?

To be fair, there is a lot more ‘showing’ these days than there used to be. Ever since the ‘show don’t tell’ phrase got attention, people have been taking notice and adapting their writing to fit the rule. However, although people have started to take the ‘showing’ aspect into account, there’s been quite a few that haven’t wrapped their head around the ‘don’t tell’ part of the phrase. Instead of just showing, they’re both showing AND telling. Here’s our example again, this time showing AND telling:

‘Sarah was afraid. Her legs began to tremor and a tingling sensation crawled up her spine.’

      It doesn’t take a genius to see the author’s lack of trust on this piece. They’re showing the reader that the character of Sarah is afraid, but they add the ‘telling’ in fear the reader won’t get the picture. As pretty much any reader will notice, it’s not necessary. Everyone knows what it feels like to be afraid. Readers know that wobbly knees and a tingle along the spine mean fear and, with the context of the story’s events added in, it doubles the reader’s awareness. They know what your describing, so there’s no need to tell them.

Curing the Epidemic

So, how exactly does an author cure the ‘Showing AND Telling’ epidemic? Well, it’s pretty easy: if you find yourself using both, get rid of one. Sure, telling is still an important part of writing. There will be times when telling is necessary for your story, but for the most part, showing should always take priority, especially when it comes to vital emotionally-driven scenes (which should be a pretty big majority of your writing if your novel is fiction). If telling is necessary, such as in a fast-paced fight scene, make sure you aren’t including any long, droning descriptions or ‘showing’ that might slow down the scene’s pace.

The best way to deal with the issue is to look at each event, page or paragraph, and look at how certain elements are described. If there’s a ‘show’ and a ‘tell’ describing the same element of the story and the ‘show’ suits the story’s pace, get rid of the ‘tell’. Not only will it make your story ten times less demanding to read, but it’ll cut down your word-count, too.

Last but not least, if you’re still not sure, consult a beta reader, editor, or (come on, you saw this coming), myself. Using the ‘contact me’ page, any author who’s still confused can send a message through requesting a free five-page trial edit on their writing, meaning I can pick up on all those ‘showing and telling’ moments and give some advice on how to fix it up.

writing advice

Five Bits Of Reassurance All Writers Need To Hear

Ok, so you’re a writer. You’ve just finished writing a book or a short story or maybe even just a chapter of your latest work in progress. Adrenaline flows through your veins as you print it out for the first time and place it on your desk. It’s your baby, your beloved, your life, and it’s right there in front of you all in paper form. You stare at it, feel the weight of it in your hands as you inhale the luscious scent of fresh ink set on a wad of new paper. It’s beautiful. It’s all you’ve dreamed of. You sit down and you start to read.
But no.
Oh God no.
No… it’s… it’s terrible!

Sound familiar? Trust me, you’re not alone. Almost every writer feels like a bad writer at some point in their life. Most of the time, it’s completely unjustified, but no matter how much you tell yourself its all in your head, there’ll always be that little nagging voice at the back of your head telling you to give up.
Well, ladies and gents, I’m here to tell you that voice is completely full of it. Honestly. If that voice was a person, it’d be that weird uncle that always tells you about his wild adventures running from the CIA or that one time he was hired by the Mafia to run errons… yeah, it’s that full of it.
But, if you’re anything like me, no matter how unreasonable you know that voice is, you’ll still get disheartened; you’ll still feel like it’s all not worth it. So, I’m here to give you five pieces of reassurance that’ll keep you battling that voice during those tough times. Because there’s nothing more reassuring than receiving advice from a complete stranger on the internet, right? Right!

You’re Comparing it to Other Authors

Chances are if you’re a writer, you’re probably also an avid reader. Like most readers, you’ve got a preferred writing style. You might not notice it – a lot of people don’t – but almost every reader will be drawn to a certain type of writing. Maybe you like fast paced books. Maybe you read books that have shorter sentences. Maybe you like books with flowery wording and intensive world building. No matter what kind of reader you are, you’re always drawn to a certain type of writing.
But did you ever think that the reason you’re criticising your writing so much is because it doesn’t fit in your preferred reading style box?
Most writers will compare their writing to their favourite books, but there’s a hazard to that practise. The more you compare, the more similar you get and the more similar you get, the worse it is for your writing career. Yeah, it might sound fantastic to you, but sounding like another author is an instant no-no from not only readers, but agents, publishers and editors alike. Having a different writing style from what you normally read isn’t just right, it’s sought-after by publishers. So, before you put on your critical eye and go over your writing, make sure you’re not looking at it from the eye of your favourite author first.

You’ve Given it… What?… A Day?

Every professional author knows that reading through a piece straight after you’ve written it is a cry for bad editing. Not only does it mean you’ll probably skimp over a lot of the mistakes, but it can also mean you’ll pick up on a lot of mistakes that aren’t really there, too. This doesn’t just mess with your head, but it can be disastrous for your writing project, too.
The best advice? When you’ve written something, give it at least a day’s break. If you find you’re still being too harsh on yourself, give it a week, maybe even a month before coming back to it. Not only will you find it easier to read it from a reader’s point of view and pick up on inconsistencies more easily, but you’ll also find a lot of your doubts about your writing will disappear, too. Remember, nothing is a disaster beyond fixing. Nothing is worth giving up.

There are Successful Writers Who are Worse Writers Than You

Yeah, that’s right. I’m going there.
Believe it or not, it’s not all that difficult to get published these days. With publishing platforms getting bigger and bigger and a lot of them moving online, it’s really never been easier to publish a book. With a few dollars and a click of a few buttons, basically anybody can get published, and although this is usually a little alarming for most writers, it can also be a source of comfort for you, too. Because, yeah, with the amount of published writers out there, there’s always bound to be a few just…. terrible books for you to find. Funnily enough, there are also a lot of terrible books that’ve done pretty well financially, too.
So, if you’re ever feeling down about your writing, pick up a terrible book, read through it’s cringey dialogue and disastrous plot devices and let yourself think: well, at least I’m not that bad. Trust me, it works.

Most People Will Never Write a Book in Their Life

There was an old survey in America a few years back that showed that about 80-90% of Americans think they have a book in them. It’s common knowledge to most serious writers that almost everybody thinks they could write a book if they had the time or the patience or… whatever other excuse they can think of. But chances are, they won’t. Chances are, these people will never in their life actually write, finish and publish a book.
So why are you so hard on yourself? You’ve written something, for god’s sake! You’ve taken time out of your life and you sat down and you hand typed every damn word that you’ve printed out. Every single one of those words are yours! Do you know how impressive that is? Compared to the rest of the world, you’re already a rarity.
Calm down, put that critical thinking had down on the table for a second, and just let the reality of it all sink in. You wrote something. And what you’ve written, you can always fix!

Edit! Edit! Edit!

This should be a given, but to a lot of people it’s not. When you finish writing a book or a chapter or… whatever it is that you’re writing, your work is now ready for editing. It’s not just ready for editing, but it’s waiting for it. It needs it. Every single piece of work needs an editor, no matter how good that person might be at their craft. First, you self-edit. Go through all the things you think you should be fixing up. Then, send it out to other readers and get their opinions on it and finally, send it out to a professional.
These are the steps every single writer goes through. Don’t skimp out on them and don’t expect to have to skimp out on them! No work is perfect and no work will ever be perfect until it’s had an editor’s eyes on it – a few editor’s eyes in most cases.
You’re not a bad writer, you’re an unedited writer!

 

So, if you’re ever feeling down about your writing, remember, you’re not alone. Oh and also the Fifty Shades of Gray books are making billions of dollars and getting movie deals so there’s always hope for you.
Now stop procrastinating and get back to writing!

writing advice

Jordan Peele, Taika Waititi and the Art of Cliches

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably come across the idea of story ‘cliches’ before. In this media dominated era, it’s pretty hard not to. We’re a people captivated by stories and desperate to delve into new worlds and universes that differ from our own. After so many centuries of stories, I guess it’s not really much of a surprise that Hollywood’s been stated as having no ‘new’ ideas. Everybody’s on the look out for original stories, but to this day, not much has turned up, and most of what has been deemed as original content has been a box office flop compared to films like Doctor Strange – a film that utilises a majority of previous Marvel film plot points (hint, hint, Iron Man). So, if cliches are seen as bad, why are they doing so well? And why do stories that actually break these cliches so often fail?

One of the first movies that come to mind for me when the topic of ‘original stories’ are mentioned, is Jordan Peele’s 2017 directorial debut ‘Get Out‘. The film, centring around a young black man who meets the family of his white girlfriend for the first time, was a huge success both in the box office and in the eyes of critics. However, there’s one feature of this film that’s never really talked about: the fact that it is completely riddled with cliches. With jump scares (granted not many), an evil hypnotist and a house out in the middle of the wilderness, there’s really no denying this film’s unoriginality, but it’s this unoriginality that makes Get Out not only a memorable movie, but also a boxoffice hit.

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Jordan Peele, using his knowledge of horror audiences and their expectations, manages to do something that’s rarely done by many directors today: manipulate common cliches. Instead of avoiding these cliches altogether, as many writers are told to do, Peele uses these cliches to his advantage, creating a predictable plot and an emotionally jarring central character.
The moment that Chris turns up at the house of his girlfriend Rose’s parents, we know something’s wrong. They live in an isolated country side, have some suspiciously odd helpers around the house, Rose’s parents are far too friendly and Rose’s mother is a hypnotist. It doesn’t take long at all for the audience to realise Chris is in for a double dose of horror, but it’s these expectations that make the film all the more satisfying when we find out the truth. It’s also what makes the plot twist so shocking. By reusing and slightly twisting old cliches, Peele hides the truth right under our nose – Rose was the bad guy all along. There were so many predictable cliches in the first half that our sense of ‘who-done-it’ is stripped away and we watch the film without question until it’s finally revealed that Peele has been playing us the whole time.

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In a way, Get Out was also the perfect way to introduce ‘Indie’, more original films to a mainstream audience. Audiences can all identify these cliche story points. They’re in all the big modern horror hits, allowing for Get Out to slip among the greats with gusto. We’re expecting your average horror film and predictable horror films sell. Get Out manages to bring something new to horror, wrapping it in a coat of predictability in order to attract mainstream audiences.

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However, Peele isn’t the only director that has used cliches to their advantage. Starting off as a relatively unknown Indie director, Taika Waititi became a name to be reckoned with in after his work on the Marvel blockbuster Thor: Ragnarok.

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Thor: Ragnarok is a pretty good example of twisting cliches in itself, using the well known ‘superhero’ trend to add something new and fun to the genre, but there’s another less known film of Waititi’s that has perfected the art of using already established cliches to a tee, and that film is What We Do In The Shadows.

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What We Do In The Shadows is one of Waititi’s finest comedies and arguably one of the best comedies to come from New Zealand cinema to date. Centring around the lives of a group of vampires that happen to live in the New Zealand town of Wellington, the film takes on a mocumentary style, making use of cliches to tell a ridiculous and absurdly heart-warming tale of friendship. It also, as expected, makes use of a lot of cliches.

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From the Twilight series and The Vampire Diaries tv show, to old classics such as Dracula and Nosferatu, the media has always been littered with vampires. In fact, the mere mention of vampires among horror writing communities will usually result in eye rolls. What We Do In The Shadows, even though a modern day vampire film itself, has become a critical and commercial success over the years. Why? It all comes down to Waititi’s incredibly smart use of cliches.
Waititi’s film is far from original, but it uses this unoriginality to create a level of comedy that has rarely been done before: it uses known and predictable plot points to create unknown situations. Waititi uses cliche vampire situations – such as drinking blood, turning into bats, romance between humans and vampires and wars between vampires and werewolves – to explore what it would really be like to live as one of these Wellington vampires. From bloody dishes to a romance between an undying vampire and a ninety-year-old woman, everything in this film is ridiculous and if it weren’t for the use of these cliche situations, What We Do In The Shadows wouldn’t be anywhere near as hilarious as it is.

 

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So, yeah, cliches aren’t always necessarily a bad thing. When done right, they can be just as interesting, if not even better, than some of the original cliche material. All they need is a little twist!