2. Show & Tell
4. General Tips & T...
Now we are ready to move a few steps up the textual ladder. We’ve learned how to craft beautiful sentences, which will be put to use for creating paragraphs and chapters – which will ultimately lead to a finished book or story.
Any story is a collection of paragraphs. Every paragraph should have a point to make, and one point only. They break up a story into digestible chunks, give the reader some breathing space, and help separate different events or ideas for the reader. There is not one recommended length for a paragraph, but it’s always recommended to make not too long, meaning there should be at least a few paragraphs per page.
- Short paragraphs bring readers to a sudden, dramatic stop. Paragraphs in newspapers are usually short.
- Long paragraphs are for developing an argument, building part of a narrative or giving lots of related examples. Paragraphs in books are usually long.
- Balance form with content: the way a paragraph looks is just as important as its content. When you see a page, the elements that stand out most are the paragraphs and their shapes. Paragraphs with an ugly shape or look – too little sentence length variation, too much special characters, whatever – will make any writing look unprofessional or just ugly.
- The more you read and write, the more paragraphs will be forming on their own. Paragraphs are the beat of the story instead of the actual melody. You can only create a good beat yourself if you’ve heard a lot of good (and bad) beats.
Show & Tell
In the section on rhythm we already discussed the ladder of abstraction. Good writing constantly move up and down that ladder, back and forth between concrete and abstract language.
This directly ties in with one of the most common writing advices: show, don’t tell. But, it’s an often misunderstood one-liner. Let’s first see what ‘show’ and ‘tell’ actually mean:
To show: explaining or giving information by displaying action. You don’t tell the reader how someone feels, but you show it through their actions.
Mark put his fist into the wall, causing several paintings to drop down. He kicked the door open and slammed it shut less than a second later. They could still hear him grumble and stumble down the hallway.
To tell: explaining or giving information by simply telling it to the reader. You, as a sort of God, stand above the story and all characters and can tell the reader exactly how someone feels, what has happened, what will happen, etcetera.
Mark left the room angrily. or Then Mark left the room. He was angry. (don’t do this)
In real life, there isn’t a person standing beside you all the time that knows all. Telling is therefore an unnatural way of displaying action, and it’s preferred to show. However, when giving a description of a landscape for example, there is nobody around to display all the landscape’s properties through action. That is when showing would be extremely weird, and it is better to tell.
Knowing this, we can rewrite that advice to: whenever possible, show. Otherwise, tell.
It’s easy to relate this to the ladder of abstraction. Showing means low on the ladder, while telling is high.
Most people only know cliffhangers as interesting actions happening at the end of a TV episode or movie, to make you watch the next.
While this is certainly true, cliffhangers can be found everywhere, even more so in stories. You want a reader to continue reading, but why should he or she? Feed the reader small internal cliffhangers every now and then to keep the story and reader going.
At the end of a chapter, write a cliffhanger. At the end of a long, descriptive paragraph: write a cliffhanger. Give the reader rewards for continuing to put time and effort into your work.
General Tips & Tricks
There are two things that I couldn’t quite place anywhere else, so here they go:
- Word Territory: Avoid unintended repetition – it can be used for rhythm or emphasis, but nothing else. This is true for distinctive words, but also for key words.
- Distinctive Words: Words you don’t see or use very often, words that may only appear once or twice in your book at all. For example: silhouette, ornament, jingle.
- Key Words: Most important building block of sentence, usually verbs or subjects. For example: said, that, create
- For example, I initially wrote the first sentence of this paragraph like this: ‘Avoid unintended repetition, unless you want to use it for rhythm or emphasis, but don’t use it for anything else’. As you can see, multiple instances of the word ‘use’ and repeating the basic meaning of the sentence really messed up that one.
- Serious or Funny: There’s a general rule to apply when it comes to most serious and least serous topics.
- Back off when talking about serious topics. Write exactly as it happened or is, be honest, don’t use fancy words or phrases, understate.
- Show off when talking about topics that are not serious at all. Go wild with your language and imagination, exaggerate.
I’m just going to say it: endings are way more important than beginnings. Beginnings are not what makes a reader eager to read on – endings are. They should bring up new questions and new developments, and the reader thinks the next paragraph might contain all the answers. The only beginning that matters, is the very first paragraph of your story, from that moment on every paragraph and chapter needs a finishing sentence that makes the reader stay up at night.
There are lots of ways to create endings, but I’ve included a list of the most common ones:
- Closing the Circle: The ending reminds us of the beginning by returning to an important place, re-introducing a key character, using the first paragraph again but in a slightly different way.
- The tie-back: Tie your ending to some element in the body of your story. If that element is odd or off-beat, it is usually used for comical purposes.
- The time frame: The writer creates a tick-tock structure with time advancing relentlessly. To end the story, the writer decides what should happen last.
- The space frame: the writer is less concerned with time than with place or geography. To end, the writer decides our final destination.
- The payoff: The longer the story, the more important the payoff. This does not require a “happy ending”, but a satisfying one, a reward for a journey concluded, secret revealed or mystery solved.
- The epilogue: The store ends, but life goes on.
- Problem and solution: The writer frames the problem(s) at the top and then offers readers possible solutions and resolutions.
- The apt quote: Often overused. Character speaks in endings, capturing in their own words a neat summary or distillation of what has come before.
- Look to the future: What do you think will happen next? What is the likely consequence of this decision or those events?
- Mobilize the reader: Point the reader in another direction. Attend this meeting, read that book, send an e-mail message to the senator, donate blood for victims of a disaster.