“Show, don’t tell,” was what I was taught at school.
Showing is usually defined as relating the story through descriptions of the character’s feelings, sensations, perceptions, and thoughts. Telling, on the other hand, is a straight-forward (and usually far more succinct) expression of actions, characteristics, and backstory.
Here’s a simple example of “show, don’t tell”:
Show: The skin resists the blunt knife, dimpling slightly before bursting open in a splatter of red liquid. All over my hands. All over the kitchen counter. What’s inside is worse: a viscous mess of seeds and soggy flesh that oozes across my plate, and turns to a fragrant mush in my mouth. It isn’t the taste, but the texture that makes me long to spit it out. Tell: I hate raw tomatoes.
In my example above, the difference between the two approaches is marked. However, in practice, it isn’t always so easy to distinguish between showing and telling.
In this article, I’d like to explore the techniques used by 3 famous authors to blend showing and telling in order to unfold the plot, the characters, and the world. Read More
Mr. Walker’s job was to rewrite people’s backstories. He had started out forging documents, then moved on to inventing anecdotes for politicians, scripting dates and interviews, that sort of thing. Now every character was clamouring for his services.
‘The whole thing’s a fiction, anyway,’ he said.
We were in his office. It was a dark afternoon, and I was watching the raindrop shadows travelling down his face. I wondered whether he was happy.
How did I know he hadn’t made up his story? That he really was who he said he was?
‘Of course I made it up, kid. You think I waste all the good storylines on strangers? But I like you, so here’s the deal. I’ll give you the gist of it, the bare bones. You find it works, we’ll flesh it out together, and you can pay me what you like. How’s that sound?’
I couldn’t deny that it sounded fair.
‘So, what’s the problem? Nothing criminal, I hope?’
I shook my head. No, no, it wasn’t anything like that. I had always been too good for my own good.
‘Ah, a bit of excitement then? You wanna be someone who’s up for anything, someone who knows how to have a grand old time, an inspiration to others!’
Yes, that was it. A life worth writing about.
Mr. Walker laughed. ‘Anything worth writing about is worth rewriting,’ he said, descending upon his typewriter.
Naming I initially called the backstory-writer, ‘Mr. Walker’, but I changed it to ‘Walker’ during edits. Omitting the title does a few things, in my opinion:
It brings the characters closer together. The form of address sounds more familiar, which opens up the possibility of a friendship between them.
It evens up the social status of the two characters, although Walker still calls the POV character, ‘kid’, indicating that he’s older.
It makes the “applicant” sound less respectful, and therefore less needful of Mr. Walker’s services.
It may also make it less likely that the POV character will be construed as a female, although the film noir setting probably undermines this. What do you think?
Formatting While formatting the page, I thought it would be fun to indicate the aforementioned edits, to tie them in to the story’s subject. Has Mr. Walker been marking this (typewritten) page with red ink?
Dialogue Dialogue takes up a lot of room, so it’s even more difficult to squeeze a dialogue-heavy story onto one page!
For this story, I liked the way that reporting the POV character’s speech indirectly not only helps to distinguish the voices, but also feeds in to the question of whether or not this story was written by Mr. Walker. Is he purposely denying the character their own voice? Is this the ‘gist’ of the story, without settled dialogue? If you’re enrolled in How to Be the Heroine of Your Own Story, be sure to check out the Voice Matrix in your textbook for a visual representation of how these choices between direct and indirect speech affect the narrative.
I hope you enjoyed reading this story, and that you consider trying your hand at writing a one page story too!
Character flaws are an interesting topic; far more involved than I had at first realised!
The other day, I was sitting in the Lady Writers League study, drafting a Heroine Frame for myself — a Heroine Frame, in case you don’t know, is our one-page framework for character development — when Sir George appeared at my elbow.
‘What’s that for?’ he asked.
‘I’ve been feeling like a very flaky person lately,’ I said. ‘I wanted to find a story to improve myself.’
‘Why do you feel flaky?’
‘You know very well why.’
‘Yes, but do you?’
I sighed. Sir George’s questions seemed inane sometimes, but they always tended to some higher purpose. ‘I’m feeling like a flake because I’ve been neglecting my correspondence; also, I’ve promised several students worksheets which I haven’t completed yet; and most importantly, I haven’t been working on the draft for the next book.’
‘No thanks to you,’ I added. As my muse, Sir George had to accept part of the blame when I was uninspired.
‘Now, that’s not fair!’ he said, crossing his arms and leaning against the desk. ‘I’ve given you plenty of inspiration. I inspired you to finally try that chai recipe; I inspired you to order a new fountain pen; I inspired you to re-organise your index cards.’
‘That’s not inspiration, that’s procrastination!’
‘All in good time,’ he said, with the smugness of the immortal.
‘Well, I don’t like it. I want to be responsible, and timely. And I thought that while I was studying my own character flaws, I might write up a worksheet on the subject. I’m sure someone asked me for one… a while back.’
‘A character flaw? What’s that?’
‘Good question,’ I said, taking up my (new) pen, drawing a fresh sheet before me, and scribbling a title.
What is a Character Flaw?
After some consideration, I wrote down the following definition:
A character flaw is a habitual way of thinking or behaving that causes problems for the character.
‘That just sounds like life,’ said Sir George, peering at my page.
I chuckled. ‘Yes, it does rather. I suppose a character flaw is more like a pattern, or a refrain that keeps repeating.’
‘More like a Greek chorus, in fact.’
‘Oh, and the idea of the character flaw comes from Greek tragedy, doesn’t it? It was Aristotle who wrote about the hamartia in Poetics.’
‘Yes. That was a different milieu, of course. People were very interested in morality, and a divine idea of right and wrong.’
‘Did you know Aristotle?’ I asked. Sir George loved to boast of the famous writers he had inspired over the ages.
‘Of course I knew him!’ he said at once, a little offended at being asked.
‘What was he like?’
‘A bit vain, perhaps, but brilliant, and fair.’
‘That’s an interesting description,’ I remarked, taking up a fresh sheet to list some example character flaws that occurred to me.
List of Character Flaws
‘You forgot “flakiness”.’
‘And what does one do with a character flaw?’ asked Sir George.
Ever since she realised the power of her imagination, she had been doing this: thinking something up, and travelling forward in time to find it. Today it was a new novel by her favourite author. She hadn’t asked him to write it — in fact, she hadn’t mentioned her desire to anyone. She had simply thought — rather off-handedly, since these days she felt conceitedly adept at this task — that it would be a nice thing. A short trip in time, and here it was, in her hands. She decided to sit in a coffee shop and start reading.
There was a particular café nearby where she had brought about the existence of a delicious kind of sponge cake made of almond flour and rose water. She didn’t know a thing about baking, but here it was in the window, just as she’d asked. She went inside, ordered a slice, and chose a cosy armchair to settle into. There were greater things she had imagined into being, too, vaguer, more complicated dreams that had been taking shape since she was a little girl, and enveloping her in their influence… like the web of opportunities that allowed her to spend all day reading and time travelling.
She wondered whether all the things around her, the ones she didn’t remember asking for, were other people’s desires taking shape. ‘I hope so,’ she thought.
Lately, I’ve been finding that many of my little velleities are fulfilled almost instantly. I think I’d like to read a book, and a week later, there it is, in the bookshop; I think I’d like to learn more about a subject, and in the middle of a random procrastinatory Youtube-watching session, I find the cue; I think it’s time I had a pink fountain pen, and when I log in to Facebook (only because my aunt asked me to like one of her posts)… there’s an ad for one, AND a fortnight-old message from a friend I was wishing to meet.
I can’t help marvelling at all of the ideas and inventions that lie behind the things we use every day. How many people and circumstances have come together to bring you these experiences! You couldn’t have organised it all consciously if you tried ever so hard.
When I was little, the internet wasn’t yet a place where one could earn a living. Who could have imagined the lifestyles available to writers now, where we can bring projects into fruition instantly, publish our work instantly, and communicate with our readers instantly? It’s as if the friction between our thoughts and their physical manifestations is fast being worn away.
Here’s a response I received to this story on Instagram:
What a great idea!
It fills me with excitement to think of these forces coming together, and to think of the stepping stones I can put in place for future delights (for myself, AND for others).
We’re all time-travellers, after all.
This is the new challenge I’m posing you (and myself): to tell a story on just one page. And not just any story, but a story that is as interesting, as inspiring, as powerful, as paradigm-shifting as you can make it!
Click the image below for the one page story index, and feel free to share it on social media & challenge your friends!
A mystery is an easy way to add interest to an otherwise simple story. These mystery writing prompts will make you curious to know more. And your readers too!
What Creates Mystery?
A few elements are vital to keeping a mystery story moving forward:
Questions – A single question can be enough to sow doubt in a reader’s mind, and create a mystery where previously there was none.
Answers – The dance between questions and answers is what keeps readers engaged in a mystery. Every answer creates a new question until the final dénouement resolves the last loose ends… Or does it? Here’s a worksheet to help you solve a mystery (your own or another writer’s).
Suspense – Between the questions and the answers there’s… suspense.
The mystery genre often solidifies these elements around physical objects – a dead body, a murder weapon, a clue, a suspect, etc. – whereas a psychological thriller will focus on the internal, non-material aspects – a doubt about another character, the suspense created by a ringing telephone, the silence on the other end, etc.
Mystery Plots & Subplots
You can use these scene ideas in your mystery story, suspense story, adventure story, or thriller, and they can also come in handy for mystery subplots in any genre.