“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” – Stephen King, Novelist
A few days ago, I made my first appearance at a local literature festival (Trent Academy Lit Fest 2017), where I held a question and answer session at a student book club and held four creative writing workshops for young enthusiasts. As well as watching incredible, fresh imagination at work, I was intrigued to observe the writing technique of some of these aspiring authors.
As I set my writers a variety of fiction exercises, I soon began to notice a recurring technical pattern that often prevented their prose from breaking into the realms of excellence. Interestingly, it was the same mistake I myself had struggled to overcome throughout my early teenage years. That is, the mistake of telling, not showing.
What do I mean by this?
I’m talking specifically about the way an author portrays an element of the plot to their reader. This element can range from a protagonist’s characteristic to a scenario. For example:
You’d like to let your reader know that your character is a psychopath
DO NOT mention the word ‘psychopath’ in your narrative or character’s speech.
DO NOT fill his/her description with emphatic adverbs like “creepily” or “formidably”.
CONSIDER writing a scene in which the character in question makes an irrational decision or action, thus giving the impression that he/she’s deranged. You could have them smiling at a harrowing news bulletin, for example. This would allow the reader to see that your character is psychotic, without the adjective itself or the word ‘psychopath’ being written on the page. The same applies for any characteristic you may wish to portray…let your reader work it out for themselves!
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You’d like to let your reader know that there is great suffering in your scene
DO NOT mention words such as ‘sad’ or ‘pain’, or adverbs such as “sadly”, in your text.
CONSIDER setting the scene with effective imagery, similes and other techniques that depict suffering. For example, let’s say you’d like to let your reader know that your character is in a financially difficult situation. Instead of explicitly stating so, why not introduce this character via a scene in which you describe their ’empty fridge’ and ‘cold oven’? This provides the necessary evidence for your reader to sense the challenges your character is facing, without being bombarded by buzzwords.
Hopefully these bitesize tips have given you the confidence to attempt to conquer once and for all the dreaded black pit of telling, not showing. It is often easy to forget, as a writer, your reader’s ability to piece a complex set of circumstances together. By doing so, you run the risk of producing a story that is inconsistent with elegance and heavy to read.
However, once you do find success in presenting a three-dimensional situation through your narrative, as opposed to a long list of statements, you will have mastered the art of showing, not telling. Only then can your quality of writing truly take off.
Georgio Konstandi is a student, author and blogger. Publishing his thriller novel, NEA: Dawn of an Era, last year, Georgio has gone on to be interviewed by various literary blog sites, websites and local newspapers. You can follow all his latest news, giveaways and appearances on his Facebook Page, Goodreads, or his website and blog.