#58: What Telling and Showing Really Mean

This question came from the priority request queue for my Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

Hi Story Nurse,

After reading your recent post on showing vs. telling, and the examples you drew from Jane Austen (in addition to your many past Austen references) I know you’ll get what I’m going for in my writing! I’m a natural teller, and I love tell-heavy novels. But at some point I have to show SOMETHING, right? That’s where I’m stuck.

Background: After a couple years’ break from writing, I’m attempting a novel. I’ve started novels before (i.e. a few chapters written and then abandoned) and I wrote some very short (and some half-finished) stories in school, but never in my life have I finished a fiction project with a target length of more than five pages. I don’t think this means I’m a short-form writer by nature. I don’t have much interest in writing short stories and only ever wrote them when assigned to in school. In my imagination, I’m drawn to premises that cry out to be novels. In reality, I’ve never successfully executed any of these ideas, maybe because I never had a clue how to go about structuring one of the literary novels I was taught to want to write. (I mean, I do have a literary novel premise I genuinely want to try someday, but I no longer consider lit fic the Holy Grail.)

I decided some months ago to first plan and then write a commercial-ish romance set in the Georgian/Regency period because it’s a genre and broad plot type I know I can imitate (I’m familiar with period writers like Austen, Fanny Burney, and Mary Brunton, as well as the modern Regency romance genre). Initially it was supposed to be sort of a fun, low-stakes practice project—just to prove to myself that I *can* write a novel from start to finish, and to get some down-in-the-dirt *experience* writing one, experience I’d one day apply to writing literary or general fiction. I planned to spend more energy on plot and character development than on prose style. I already know I can make a nice sentence; it’s the structural elements I need to master. So I came up with a premise and sketched a rough plot. But as soon as I started drafting the thing, I realized a) I don’t want or need to choose between awesome prose and awesome plot, duh, and b) oops, this is a passion project. I fall asleep at night tweaking the plot and character relationships in my head. The problem is that now I know what I want to create, I’m still having trouble forging ahead with the execution, just like always. I’m stuck in the first chapter. I do know where the story is going after that, but the draft keeps stalling at the point where overture meets act one. This is exactly the situation I wanted to avoid. I feel so frustrated and afraid of failing yet again.

Things go beautifully when I (or my third-person narrator) am telling instead of showing. It feels right, like singing! The voice comes out pretty close to what I’m striving for (think Austen and Wharton as stylistic influences). Stuff happens. There is conflict. But when I try to shift from having my narrator tell/summarize to writing a real scene, where the pace is supposed to mimic “real” time and characters start acting/speaking onstage, the voice goes stiff and cold. Anything I force out sounds dull, cliché, and anachronistic. To test out my protagonist’s voice, I had her write a letter to a friend, and I love the results. I guess a letter is essentially still “telling,” only in first-person. The same character won’t come to life when I try to put her in a scene with dialogue. For now I’ve fallen back on writing synopsis, which at least gets the words flowing again.

Any idea why my brain is resisting actual scenes? Have I simply not outlined the book thoroughly enough? Maybe my narrator isn’t done setting things up yet, and I’m trying to thrust the characters onstage at the wrong point in the story? I’ve looked for reassurance and inspiration in the writers I admire. There’s no dialogue in Sense and Sensibility until almost 1900 words in. The Age of Innocence logs more than than 3500 words before any true back-and-forth dialogue appears. My draft is in that range. I know I shouldn’t narrate or summarize forever, and at some point the characters have to talk to each other, but how do you know when to employ one technique or the other?

—Eternal Narrator (she/her)

Today is the fifth Tuesday of the month, which means that my answer to this heartfelt letter is available exclusively to my Patreon patrons. If you’d like to see today’s post—and future fifth Tuesday posts—become a Story Hospital Patreon patron at any level, even just $1/month. If that’s not an option for you, enjoy reading through the archives and salivating with anticipation for next Tuesday’s column. I’ll be back before you know it.

Cheers,

Story Nurse

Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

#57: Second-Guessing Revisions

Hi Story Nurse,

I’ve completed a full draft of my romance novel with a political/dramatic twist (yay!) and i’m staring on the first round of editing (boo!). It’s my understanding that a lot of editing is about cutting, and I don’t deny there are a lot of sentences that could be shorter and a lot of stuff that is not required to be there. Usually, the cutting feels pretty good – especially when I catch hanging threads I meant to do something with, and dropped.

However, I do have some anxiety with cutting some of the longer threads of the story. When I wrote the story and read it in the earlier processes, I really like them. On this edit pass, they don’t seem that great – kind of awkward and not flowing as well as I remembered. However, the next day, they seem wonderful, and the story is really lacking something without them!

Anyway, the summary of the question is: How do you tell what to cut? Is cutting more better than less, or should you cut less the first time around so and come back and trim again, when you’re more sure?

Now I’m thinking that I should leave it in for now, because it will be hard to put it back if I change my mind. (Unless you have some amazing editor software that allows themes to be matched like Photoshop layers.)

Thanks again,
Confused Editor (she/her)

Dear Confused Editor,

Congratulations on finishing your draft! I’m sorry revisions are stressing you out so much. I promise you and your manuscript will come through them just fine. Here are some straightforward suggestions to help you find your way out of your mental tangle. Continue reading

#56: Showing, Telling, and Tension in Romance

This question came from the priority request queue for my Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m doing Camp NaNo this month with a goal of 30K words which translate to about a thousand words a day. I’m writing a romance novel, but the problem is I’m having a hard time developing romantic tension. I’ve thrown my heroes in a perilous situation, so right now I’m filling the word count with them planning on their next move, and worrying about the situation back home. How do I develop the romantic angle when they have moments to breathe and aren’t running from danger?

To add a layer of complexity, Hero B has been badly burned in the past and is in denial about his growing feelings for Hero A because he doesn’t want to get hurt. How do I show rather than tell that?

Finally, do you know of any good examples of this romantic tension building that I can be inspired by?

Thank you for all you do!

—Hopefully Romantic (she/her)

Dear Hopefully Romantic,

I’m sorry I didn’t get to this letter during Camp NaNo, and I hope you found your way through and made your goal! But romantic tension is one of those things that’s often better managed during revisions, because it’s all about pacing, so I think this advice will still be relevant to you.

Continue reading

#55: Writing for Five Minutes at a Time

This question came from the priority request queue for my Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

Dear Story Nurse,

I almost always work in short little bursts of a few minutes. Even when I clear out my schedule and sit down to have a long writing session I get the most done if I work in bursts on a few different works at a time. And, I also tend to have a lot of little 2–5 minute breaks in my day while I’m between tasks at work, or waiting for things. I’ve been frustrated with my lack of writing time lately, so it seemed totally natural that the obvious solution would be to try and write during the breaks I usually waste on the internet.

And for some reason I can’t.

My attempts at writing during my downtime currently just involve me staring blankly at an open document for a few minutes and giving up.

On the rare occasion I can get started in a timely manner I can write a little segment of text then go back to work and it feels really good, but getting started as soon as I open the document is REALLY HARD.

The type of writing I do doesn’t seem to make any difference; it’s equally difficult for fanfic, original fiction, and work-related science writing.

How do I stop needing a ritual 15-minute staring session before I start writing?

Thanks,

Dendritic Trees (she/her)

Dear Dendritic Trees,

Thanks for writing in again—I love answering your letters! (And if any past letter writers are wondering, yes, you’re always welcome to send me another question.) I appreciate that this time you gave me a nice easy question to answer. The answer is: you can’t.

Every writer has a different process. Your process appears to require you to idle your brain for a bit before getting it in gear. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, except that it’s inconvenient to you given your other constraints at the moment. Alas, sometimes creative work is inconvenient.

I totally understand you thinking that “do work, write for five minutes, go back to work” is the same as “sit down, write for five minutes at a time on a bunch of different things for a few hours, get up” but it really isn’t. You’re discounting the crucial transition from the work or everyday life mindset to the writing mindset. That transition takes time (apparently for you it takes about 15 minutes) and is very difficult to rush or skip.

In my experience, a lot of the transition time between not writing and writing is spent getting your intuitive, creative side and your intellectual, designing side (or your conscious and subconscious or left brain and right brain or whatever metaphor you like) to work together, like getting two high-spirited horses to draw a carriage. If you simply don’t have time to do that, here are some writing-related things that mostly rely on one type of thinking or the other.

Intuitive tasks:

  • Doodle. Free-associate. Let your intuition run wild. You can try to do this with relation to a particular plot or character issue, or just meander. Maybe you’ll come up with the ideas for your next six stories. Maybe you’ll get a page full of meaningless scribbles. Both those outcomes are fine.
  • Make a list of title ideas.
  • Come up with some questions about your story or characters that you can’t immediately answer. “Why” questions are particularly good. These two nations are at war when the book starts—why? Lisa has an inordinate fondness for milkshakes—why? Don’t try to answer the questions for now; just ask them.
  • Come up with some ridiculous ideas for fanfic of your work. Coffee shop AU! High school AU! One character throws another a surprise birthday party! Or match your cast up to the cast of a book or movie or show: which Avenger or Crystal Gem or member of the Ring Fellowship would your protagonist be?
  • Take a quick online personality quiz as if you were one of your characters.

Intellectual tasks:

  • Draw a quick sketch of a character or a scene. This can be especially useful if you’re trying to figure out who’s standing where in an interaction where physical proximity is important.
  • Do a little bit of research. It might help to plan ahead for this so you stay focused and get the most out of your short breaks: “On Tuesday, I’m going to see what I can learn about medieval sheep farming.”
  • Outline the next scene you want to write, or work on the outline for your whole story.
  • Create a timeline of significant story events.
  • Try to answer some of the questions you came up with in another day’s question-generating session.

You may try a few of these things and realize that you need your work downtime to be downtime. If trying to get anything done during your breaks ends up frustrating you, take them as breaks. The time isn’t wasted, any more than time spent sleeping or eating is wasted. Your brain can’t keep going at top speed all day, and valuable, important things happen when you let your mind wander and ruminate. If you’re not a fan of staring off into space, try reading a book or working on a handicraft project or playing a silly phone game. Give yourself permission to rest.

Separately, see what you can do to carve out more writing time that includes the 15-minute staring session and whatever else you need. Your innate writing process is what it is. Work with it rather than against it, and you’ll be much happier and more productive.

Happy writing!

Cheers

Story Nurse

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon. Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

Happy First Anniversary, Story Hospital!

Dear friends,

One year ago today, I took a deep breath and told everyone I knew to check out my new advice column for writers. In my personal blog, I wrote, “I am very nervous and excited! I’ve never done a Patreon thing before. And this project relies heavily on people sending in questions—if they don’t do that, I’m kind of sunk. But people are becoming patrons already, and tweeting lots about it… and I am optimistic.”

Today Story Hospital has 58 advice columns posted, and 59 patrons are contributing $162 a month toward its upkeep. I’m so proud of my little site, and so grateful to all of you for helping to keep it going.

If you’re a regular reader of Story Hospital, or if my advice has helped you, will you consider becoming a Patron today? Just $1/month—not per post, per month—gets you access to the priority request queue and quarterly patron-only posts (one of which is coming up at the end of this month), and you’ll get posts delivered right to your email inbox two days before the rest of the world sees them. If Patreon’s not your speed or you haven’t got the funds to spare, please give Story Hospital a shout-out in your personal social media spaces, or share a link to your favorite post from the archives. Every signal boost helps.

I had grand plans for an anniversary celebration; alas, personal matters have taken up all my time and energy lately, and I wasn’t able to see them through. In lieu of that, I’m opening my comments to all of you for an anniversary party. Please share a link to a piece of your own writing on the theme of kindness or satisfaction or joy or celebration. If that’s not the sort of thing you write, link to a piece of your writing that you feel good about and proud of. If you don’t have anything to link to or would rather not, leave a kind comment on someone else’s work. And tell me what tasty food or drink you’re bringing for the virtual potluck!

I hope this is the first of many, many anniversaries. Thanks for coming along for the ride.

Cheers,

Story Nurse

This site is brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon. Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

#54: Feeling Guilty About Spilled Words

Dear Story Nurse,

I am in the middle of writing a fantasy novel (target length 120k). The story breaks down into three major sections and I’ve got a solid enough plan that I’m comfortable with it; I’m currently mostly finished with the first section. I’ve already had to start it over once to fix concept problems—fortunately that bit’s taken care of.

However, recently I realized a major subplot wasn’t working; I have the solution, which is to rip it out and replace it with a different subplot, which is intended to both address the reasons I needed the subplot there in the first place and also, you know, be a valuable part of the story in its own right (which is where the original failure was). So, okay, I know what I need to do.

The problem is, as I actually do the thing I’m feeling… really bogged down, like I keep retreading the same old ground. I would love for nothing more than to just get out of this same damn section of the story and actually move on to new ground but if I just move on and leave the replacement for later, a) that’s just making work for future me and b) I feel like I’ll have less of a handle on what actually happened in the bits that I’m scrubbing/replacing.

I feel like the answer is probably ‘suck it up and finish rewriting these bits’ (and that’s been my operating assumption as I’ve kept at it) so I’m not dealing with vestigial remains of dead plot lines but I’m hoping maybe for some guidance or ideas as to What To Do When Cleaning Out Stuff That Didn’t Work When You Still Need To Move Forward. Or maybe some way to make it feel less like I’m in a rut.

—neongrey (they/them)

Dear neongrey,

Your answer is, alas, correct. Some parts of writing are slogs and chores and there’s no way around it. When you’re doing plot tectonics there is a long slow grind and it grinds on forever. But one day it will push up a beautiful volcano that will spew drama-lava all over the place and you’ll be glad you stuck it out.

That metaphor got away from me a bit.

Continue reading