Write Prose Like the Pros: Show and Tell

There are a few ways for a writer to show more in their prose. One option is to describe a character’s action versus telling the reader about their emotions. It’s easy to see that someone is angry based on their behavior. To say they’re angry and move on is a lack of creativity. Mentioning any emotions outside of dialogue is unnecessary. The easiest way I’ve been able to show more is by adding more dialogue to my narratives. I try to have my characters tell the story instead of the narrator.

I have an advantage over other writers when it comes to writing dialogue. I studied theatre for my undergraduate degree. I’ve read many plays and scripts. I am already comfortable with the idea of telling an entire story with only dialogue. This also gives me an advantage on how authentic the dialogue sounds. Whether for playscripts or novels, dialogue must be spoken aloud when revising. Sometimes a phrase doesn’t sound genuine once it’s said aloud. Also, if a character is said to be not well educated, using legal terms or other big words would be out of character. Writing great dialogue requires practice like everything else.

For my undergraduate minor, I studied creative writing. One exercise I did for a fiction writing class was to eve’s drop on a conversation and transcribe the dialogue. The instructor suggested recording the audio then writing it later. We were to study how people spoke in a normal, casual conversation. Then we were to compare that with dialogue we had written and look for differences. The goal was to write genuine, authentic dialogue. I encourage others to try this exercise. Then they should ask themselves, “Does this sound the way people actually talk?” Deciding how a character talks is another part of character development. 

People say things differently depending on where they grew up. In the Northern United States, when referring to soft drinks, people might call it ‘pop’ or ‘soda.’ Maybe even ‘soda pop.’ In the Southern United States, most soft drinks regardless of brand are called ‘coke.’ This is not true of everyone from these regions. So, does the character say ‘trashcan’ or ‘waste basket?’ Would that person say ‘dinner’ or would they say ‘supper?’ All this doesn’t have to be figured out when writing the first draft. Many of these little things are worked out and cleaned up in editing.

The best place to learn how to improve one’s writing is with Renni Browne and Dave King’s “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print.” If I were teaching a class on fiction writing, this is the book I would use as the course textbook.

Writing & Revision: My 4 Steps

Everyone has a different way for doing anything and everything.  When discussing the writing process, some prefer typing over handwriting and vice versa.  Which is better for someone starting their writing career?  You must figure that out on your own.  Some people type faster than they write.  Others cannot type at all.  Try both and decide which one works best for you.  You will eventually have to type your work, but the first step should feel easy and natural, so you can get your thoughts out quickly before you lose them.  These steps are my process and may not work for you.  This is just a guide to help you find your own process.

1.  Write the Rough Draft

I prefer writing by hand.  I always have.  I can ink out the words on paper faster than I will ever type.  My hand can keep up with my brain and before I know it, I have written four pages.  I am not against typing the first draft, but I save that for short blog articles or lists.  Long form fiction; I am writing that by hand and will not type until the short story or chapter is finished.

2.  Type the Rough Draft

When I finally go back and read what I wrote, I am shocked at how many grammatical mistakes I made.  Things are misspelled or missing letters (seriously); it looks like a jumbled mess.  Fortunately, I know what I thought when I wrote those terrible sentences, so I correct them as I type.  Sometimes I forget to write down a thought I had.  I do not know how I missed it but I add this in as I type.  If I had typed the rough draft first, I would spend more time correcting mistakes as I go than getting the words out.  This is why I handwrite first.  I get everything saved on my computer, fixing the minor grammar and spelling errors.  The 2nd draft is finished.

3.  The First Revision

I consider this the first real revision.  I print the document; 12 pt. font, Times New Roman, double spaced.  The focus of this revision is to flush out the ideas and expand the details.  Depending on what the story needs, I will add dialogue and build better character descriptions.  I make sure there are no plot holes unless I want to have plot holes.  I remove the passive voice in every sentence.  I remove the words “is” and “was” and rewrite the sentences so everything still makes sense.  Some sentences I delete all together.  I make the notations in ink and then I make the corrections on the digital file.  The 3rd draft is finished.

4.  The Show & Tell Revision

I always heard people criticize my writing by saying, “Show me, don’t tell me.”  The annoying aspect of this criticism; they never offered any examples.  Plainly put, I did not know what they were talking about.  I had to learn this on my own.  This is the most difficult part of revision for me and can result in multiple drafts during this step.  You revise and have a fourth draft, but you have more to show so you write a fifth draft; and so on until you have the best story ever written.  An easy out with this is using dialogue to describe things in the story.  Otherwise, you have to find ways to describe the anger in a character without saying, “This character felt angry.”  The writing process never ends and will always take longer than you prefer.

As I mentioned before, everyone’s process is different.  Experiment.  Try new things and learn what works best for you.  There is no right or wrong way.  Some things to remember; if you want to get published in a magazine or have a book traditionally published, you need to eliminate all the passive voice and always show not tell.  The more writing you do, the better you become.  Keep writing.  Keep revising.  Keep submitting to online journals.  The difference between successful people and everyone else is successful people have failed more times than everyone else has tried.  Never give up; never surrender.