We’ve all heard we should show and not tell, but my advice is to decide where you want to show and where you want to tell. If you feel the story’s bogging down and slow, look to see if you can change a few paragraphs into a sentence by telling instead of showing. If, however, the section is all telling, it likely means you’ll need to make things even longer by showing feelings and emotions. I once spent three paragraphs describing a doorknob and the character’s feelings about opening the door because that section had felt slow and tedious. I drew the reader back into the character’s emotions while giving more importance to what happened next, so they couldn’t wait to turn the page / open the door and experience it along with the character.
Your first paragraphs should almost always open with showing. Love scenes and climactic scenes should also be full of showing and very little telling. However, if the first three chapters cover the events of the first month of college, but you want to quickly speed through the next two months, it’s fine to take a few paragraphs to tell the reader what happened during this time before you dive back into showing them what happens next. Often, it’s best to start a new chapter before speeding through a long passage of time and then slowing the story again. The important point here is how showing everything bogs your story down. Be selective in what gets told versus what gets shown, but then listen to beta readers if they tell you they wish you’d told them how a character feels about something.
The following points involve ways to tighten your writing and/or give your prose more punch.
- Search for every instance of the word that. Odds are you can delete most of them, or at the very least replace them with who or how. In my first book accepted by a publisher, I went from nearly six hundred occurrences to around forty. My first editor actually highlighted them all and sent the manuscript back to me with instructions to send it to her again when I’d deleted at least ninety percent of them.
- Ditto with then. There are places it’s needed, but beginning writers tend to use it when the meaning stays the same with or without it. You may find you can easily delete of at least half of these.
- Search for directional words like up, down, and around. You don’t need to say, “He stood up,” when saying, “He stood,” is all we need to know, as up is the default direction. Same with “She sat
downin the first chair she came to,” and “He turned aroundto look at me.”
- Clean redundant phrases like, “She shrugged
her shoulders,” and “He whispered softly,” and, “She nodded her head.”
- You can often tighten things when you have, “is/was able to,” wording. Instead of “She was able to find her keys,” you can simply tell the reader, “She found her keys.”
- Words and phrases you should use sparingly, if at all: very, so, quite, extremely, really, absolutely, just, sort of, quite, somewhat, usually, always, never.
- Don’t use ‘seemed to‘ when it actually happened. Not, “The motorcycle seemed to bounce on the gravel road,” but, “The motorcycled bounced on the gravel road.”
- Clarity — unless you’re fixing an echo and can’t come up with another word, you should generally stay away from it, thing, and something.
- Echos — don’t use the same word or form of the word within about three or four paragraphs (other than the basics like he/she/the/is/said/etc.). The thesaurus is your friend. Find another word, or change the phrasing so finding another word isn’t necessary. Echos sometimes tell us we’re being redundant and can slash half the paragraph without losing anything. Other times, they just mean we need to find different words. Sometimes, echos can be used in a pattern to get a specific point across, but use this sparingly.
- Pay extra attention when you start a sentence with an ing word. “Jogging down the alley, he saw Angie and her sister fighting at their back door,” could be better worded as, “He jogged down the alley and saw Angie and her sister fighting at their back door.” Yes, I’m aware the second is longer, but unless you need to mix your sentence forms up to give a paragraph the right rhythm, the latter is preferred.
- Rhythm — mix up your sentence lengths and patterns, and read your work aloud to make sure it feels right. A string of five word sentences almost hurts to read — don’t do it to your readers unless you have a specific reason for doing so.
- Felt / heard / saw / watched / knew / realized / started to / decided to / going to / began to — overuse of these words is a clear indicator you’re telling and not showing. “She watched him walk across the street with a sense of dread,” is clumsy writing, but “Her heart fell into her stomach as he walked across the street,” is much better. Caveat: you can’t use as every time you get rid of one of these trigger words. I’ve been guilty of this because it’s often the easiest way to reword this type of sentence, but it can quickly feel repetitive. Other options include but aren’t limited to, “He walked across the street and her heart fell into her stomach.” Or even, “Terrified, her heart sped faster with every step he took towards her, but no matter how much she might wish for it, a car didn’t come along and run his ass over.”
- In the phrases: ‘buildings in the distance’ is sometimes better written as ‘distant buildings’.
- Other random substitutions: be able to be = be | to be able to = to or the ability to | go get = get | going to = will | not going to = won’t | off of = off | was going to = planned to | came back = returned
- Consider replacing being/helping verbs with action verbs when possible. “She is a fast runner,” is clumsy, but “She runs fast,” is concise and turns run into your verb. Likewise, “He was able to fix…” can be said, “He fixed…”
- Pay attention to your verbs and take the time to find the right one for your needs. Everyone says not to use ly words, but they don’t take the next step to point out you won’t need adverbs if your verbs have enough punch.
- Avoid using names in dialogue. Most people don’t call the person they’re talking to by name unless they need to get their attention or make a point — or unless they’re the boss and just being an asshole.
- Careful with dialect. Many of my characters are southern, and I’ve chosen a few dialect words to show southern speech: ya’ll, gonna, and fixin’ to. If I wrote entire sentences as southerners speak, everyone not from the south would need a translator. Peppering these three into dialogue gives enough of the feel of the southern accent without beating the reader over the head with it.
All of the above have exceptions, of course, but if you think you need that exception a few dozens times in your manuscript, you may want to consider stepping back to regroup.
I wrote about tense a while back, and it’s a long explanation so I’ll point you to it: candaceblevins.com/2016/09/tense/
I hope this has been helpful. I offer a few editing services if you’d like me to assist you in making your story the best it can be.