Show, Don’t Tell Will Sell Your Stories

The First Commandment of Writing

by Deborah Owen

Show, Don’t Tell is not only the writer’s first commandment, it is the one broken the most. This strange phrase, Show, Don’t Tell, means we must learn to paint pictures of emotions instead of telling them outright; however, some things must be told. Examples of works that tell are:

  • Newspaper articles: The robber was last seen heading south on Main Street.
    • Most magazine articles: Joseph Hanson resigned his position with the GOP on March 26.   
  • Advertisements: When you have a stain, Shout it out!
  • Journals: I had a lousy day today.

You’ll notice one common denominator in the statements above. Every statement is flat and descriptive. That’s what telling is. It’s very shallow writing. Cut and dried. Matter of fact. Dull and boring. A listed description is always telling.

Don’t say, ‟Roberta was jealous,” or “She had coal black hair, dark brown eyes, long lashes, and the cutest rosebud lips you ever saw.” Instead, release descriptions a little at a time, in one or more scenes. For example:

Lisa sighed and pushed her coal black hair out of her eyes.

My boyfriend virtually drowns in her chocolaty eyes. I’ll bet she wears false eyelashes,Roberta said. 

Nah. They’re hers, alright. I have brown eyes. That’s no biggie, but I’d give my arm to have rosebud lips like hers,” Eleanor replied.

The first thing you’ll notice is that telling the facts took only 15 words, but showing them took 52. You may notice that we have two writing laws in conflict. The first says to show all emotions, but the second says to cut down on words. The more important of these two laws is showing, which always takes three to four times more words than telling. Don’t worry about the added verbiage.

Let’s look at more examples:

Instead of writing this flat statement, “He works out at the gym and has a great physique,” we could show his muscular form with dialogue. A girl could see him and text her friend, saying, “Wayne just came out of the gym wearing one of those tight muscle shirts. Wow! What a hunk!”

Another way to show is by using internal dialogue ([thoughts] – although editors don’t like internal dialogue these days). Let’s say you have a scene in the kitchen where a woman is angry. She could throw pots and pans to express her temperament, or she could think, I could literally place my hands around her skinny little neck and slowly squeeze the life out of her. Notice that some types of showing still have a little telling in them. (By the way, internal dialogue is always expressed in italics.)

Or we could view the woman through another character’s eyes, like this:

She stood stock still, right hand on her hip, and one foot patting the floor. Blood engorged the vessels in her neck and temples as a crimson flush crawled from her collar upward. We knew it was time to get out of Dodge.

More ways to learn showing:

  • Read stories printed within the last five years and pick out showing sentences.
  • Review your own work and look for telling sentences.
    • Observe people and make a telling statement about them, then change it to showing.

Learning to show emotions and attitudes is an advanced technique that takes months to learn. Be patient. It will come in time.

For more helpful insights, go to www.CreativeWritingInstitute.com and learn more about our fantastic creative writing courses!

Twist that Ending and Twist it Again

The Art to Twisting an Ending

by Deborah Owen

We all know a surprise ending when we see one, but how do you write it? Read on to find out.

Wikipedia defines a twisted ending as an unexpected conclusion or climax to a work of fiction, which may contain a surprising irony, or cause the audience to review the story from a different perspective by revealing new information about the characters or plot.

In other words, a twisted ending is the conclusive form of plot twists. This literary device is also referred to as a surprise ending.

Alfred Hitchcock was the first master of twisted endings in film. In only 30 minutes, he could develop a plot and mislead the viewer. His technique was something akin to the game of “Clue,” allowing the viewers to draw their own faulty conclusions. This type of twisted ending is called a “red herring.”

In the movie Moby Dick, Captain Ahab spends his life searching for the white whale that bit his leg off. The twist comes when Ahab becomes ensnared in ropes attached to the great white and the whale drags him to his drowning death.

Examples: Let’s suppose a man has murdered a woman and her husband is out to catch the killer. Just as hubby catches the murderer, the police arrive and take the man into custody. How can you twist that ending? There are many ways and none are right or wrong. You have literary license to do as you please, but do follow one rule: satisfy your reader. Here are a few ideas:

1. The husband’s vendetta is to see the killer die, but when the murderer goes to trial, he begs for the death penalty. Now the husband wants him to live a miserable life in prison.

2. Suppose the killer became a Christian and begged the husband to forgive him? Think how that would change the parameters of this case.

3. Suppose the murderer was sentenced to life without parole? The husband of the dead woman is delighted with the verdict, but an inmate kills the murderer on the first day in prison. Oops.

4. Or… the killer could escape from the courtroom, dash into the street and be hit by a semi.

5. The judge sentences the man to death. The dead woman’s husband is happy, but his grief drives him to his knees and he becomes a Christian. He changes his mind about wanting the killer to die and instead, leads a campaign for a stay of execution.

The best ending is when you twist the ending, and then twist it again. For example, let’s make this murderer a really evil man. In prison, he killed two people but wasn’t caught in the act. Eventually, he gets paroled and is promptly hit by a car. The reader thinks justice has been served… but the man doesn’t die. He’s paralyzed from the neck down for the rest of his life.

The secret to twisting an ending is finding the point where you can veer off to an alternative resolution. Exactly what you do with it from that point is up to you.

Your turn. Think of a scene and how you can twist the ending and share it with us.

And don’t forget to head over to www.CreativeWritingInstitute.com and check out our privately tutored writing courses. Sign up for monthly writing tips at http://www.cwinst.com/newslettersignup.php.

What is Speculative Fiction?

An Awesome New Look at Traditional Fiction

by Victoria Pakizer

Speculative fiction contains every awesome genre of entertainment available. It is fantasy, horror, science fiction, different realities, alternative history, superhero fiction, utopias (a wonderful society), dystopias (a terrible society), steampunk (updates of Victorian era), cuberpunk (where virtual reality and true reality are difficult to separate), magical realism, fairy tales, etc. or a mixture of any of the above. The easiest way to summarize speculative fiction is: any story that takes place in a reality that is different from our own.

These movies, shows, and books are examples of speculative fiction: The Matrix, Dawn of the Dead, Dollhouse, Clockwork Angel, Smallville, The Sixth Sense, Brave New World, Shiver, and The Lord of the Rings.

One major component of speculative fiction is science fiction. If you read a story about aliens, alternative universes, advanced technologies, futuristic settings, time travel, or something similar, you’re reading a science fiction novel. Science fiction deals with the more plausible side of make-believe. As the saying goes, science fiction may not be fiction forever. Examples of this are Star Trek, Back to the Future, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Firefly.

Another genre included in speculative fiction is paranormal/horror. This genre is stuffed with creatures you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley, such as ghosts, vampires, serial killers, demons, and zombies. When people think of horror, they usually think about a group of teenagers with an IQ below 30 getting lost in the woods, chased by a cannibalistic family, and death scenes that involve blood, guts, and gore. While that certainly counts as horror/paranormal, so do stories that involve werewolves, such as Teen Wolf, or ghosts like Hamlet. Other examples of horror/supernatural are Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dracula, and Silent Hill.

Speculative fiction also includes fantasy. Some elements of fantasy are dragons, wizards, elves, King Arthur, and Zeus. Fantasy usually has a “medieval” feel to it and may envelop myths and legends, but “urban fantasy” can take place in a realistic setting like New York City. A Song of Fire and Ice, Merlin, and Enchanted are all examples of fantasy.

So, if we have science fiction, horror, and fantasy as separate genres, why do we need speculative fiction? We need it for TV shows like Supernatural, a story about two brothers who hunt monsters. We assume the show is mostly horror/paranormal, but it features demons who create alternative dimensions, angels who travel through time, and ghosts who cause fairy tales to come to life.

Supernatural has horror creatures comprising both science fiction and fantasy elements, and that’s where speculative fiction enters. Whenever a work involves more than one genre, you can call it speculative fiction.

There’s an unspoken rule in creative writing that states don’t mix genres. For example, if you’re writing a science fiction novel, it’s best to stay away from fantasy elements. It could be jarring if, in the middle of Star Wars, Lancelot showed up riding a dragon to save the day, but we’re finding more and more authors who are smudging the dividing line between genres.

The TV show Angel features a vampire who travels to alternative dimensions on occasion. Thor is a stereotypical superhero movie that relies heavily on Norse mythology. Mixing genres can result in magic.

Authors who don’t understand speculative fiction may find themselves stuck in a box, afraid to let Athena fight zombies, but speculative fiction says – why not?

If you’re a good enough writer, you can write about aliens meeting King Arthur. Writers are trained not to break the rules, but with the genre of speculative fiction, feel free to do so. This genre opens countless creative options! Good luck and have fun breaking the rules.

Have any crazy ideas for Speculative Fiction? Let us know in the comments below! Also, don’t forget to go to the www.CreativeWritingInstitute.com to find out more about our creative writing courses!