In fiction writing, the technique of “show-don’t-tell” is a tool with the power to bring your stories to life. The basic idea behind show-don’t-tell is that instead of simply telling your readers what’s happening, you should show them through descriptive language, action, and dialogue. To do this effectively, keep the following in mind:
Use descriptive language to show-don’t-tell
Show-don’t-tell is all about using descriptive language to create vivid imagery and bring your story to life. Instead of simply telling your readers that a character is feeling sad, for example, you might describe their body language, facial expressions, or the way they speak.
Describe the action
Action and dialogue are powerful tools for showing your readers what’s happening in your story. Instead of telling your readers that a character is angry, for example, you might show them having an argument or physical altercation, describing the action blow-by-blow as it occurs.
Focus on body language
Show-don’t-tell is about allowing the reader to experience the story for themselves, rather than telling them how to feel. Avoid using words like “sad,” “happy,” or “scared” to describe a character’s emotions. Instead, let the reader infer the emotion from the character’s actions, body language, and dialogue.
Use sensory details to show-don’t-tell
The inclusion of sensory details—alluding to smell, taste, sound, and touch—creates a more immersive experience for your readers, creating a more vivid picture of the scene, helping your readers feel as if they are right there alongside your characters.
Don’t forget subtext
Subtext refers to unspoken thoughts, feelings, and motivations that are implied but not stated outright, allowing readers to infer a character’s feelings, motivations, and thoughts based on their actions and dialogue.
Show-don’t-tell is a storytelling technique that takes practice to master, so don’t shy away from investing time to perfect it. The more you write, the more you’ll learn about how to use descriptive language, action, dialogue, and other techniques to bring your stories to life.
In fiction writing, the technique of show-don’t-tell is a powerful tool that can help to bring your stories to life and make them more engaging for readers, creating vivid, immersive stories that will be sure to capture your readers’ imaginations.
Scene (aka section) and chapter breaks are important structural tools, indicating to the reader that something in the setting has changed. They can also indicate flashbacks and signal changes in time, location, and point of view. Using scene and chapter breaks is a good way for authors to control the flow of their stories. Chapter breaks are usually indicated by starting a new page and assigning a chapter number. Scene breaks can be indicated by an extra line between paragraphs, asterisks, or some other symbol.
Use scene and/or chapter breaks to
Indicate a change in the narrative.
Scene and chapter breaks indicate the passage of time, a location change, or introduce a shift in the point of view character. They can also introduce new characters or plot points. For example, you might use a chapter break to indicate a change in point of view or narrative style.
Fallen Angel is mainly written in first person limited point of view using Braelynn as the point of view character. However, some chapters show the reader what is happening in the world of Samael, the antagonist, before they meet. These chapters are written in third person omniscient point of view.
On the left is the last page of one of Samael’s chapters.
On the right is the first page of chapter 2. Note the difference in point of view and narrative style. As the two differ significantly in tone and voice, so a chapter break is a good way to let the readers know to expect something completely different moving forward.
Scene 1: the beginning of the chapter. It begins after one event has concluded (the girls go up against the leader of a gang of greaser vampires and survive). Because the girls must attend class or get into trouble for skipping, they cannot debrief.
Scene 2: time has passed. The girls are now in the middle of class. The author inserts a section break and skips all the irrelevant stuff that has happened since the last section, helping the story to move quickly forward. The girls hatch a plan to fake a bathroom break and meet in the stairwell.
Scene 3: the setting changes. The girls are now in the stairwell instead of the classroom. There is no need to show Braelynn getting up from her desk and walking down the hall to the stairwell, so the author uses a section break to show the change in setting.
Scene and chapter breaks also signal a change in tone or point of view. For example, the shift from one point of view character to another can be indicated by a section or chapter break, allowing the reader to follow the different perspectives of the story easily.
You can also assign different section breaks for different purposes. In a single chapter, for example, you can use “soft” section breaks to show a change in setting or the passage of time. Indicate this with an extra blank line between sections. “Hard” section breaks might show a change in point of view. For example, showing the same events from two different characters’ points of view. Indicate this with asterisks or some other symbol between sections.
Scene breaks are transitions between scenes. Use a scene break to get the characters from one plot point to another. Your book does not unfold in real time. You can speed up or slow down the narrative with your sentence, paragraph, and scene structure. Scene breaks help speed up the narrative by telling your story and skipping the boring stuff that would otherwise transition your characters from one plot point to the next.
Experiment with different types of breaks, such as flashbacks, flash-forwards, and cliffhangers, to add variety and interest to your story. By using chapter and scene breaks effectively, you can tighten up the structure of your story, making it easier for readers to follow the action of your carefully constructed plot.
The next time you write, think about how you can add scene and/or chapter breaks to your writing to help structure and control your narrative.
One of the most significant decisions you must make is whether to self-publish or pursue a more traditional publishing route. It is essential to weigh the pros and cons of each carefully before making a decision. What follows should help you to make an informed decision.
Self-publishing gives you complete control over the final product, from the contents to the cover design to the price.
When you self-publish, you can publish your book immediately. There is no red tape or working on someone else’s schedule. Self-publishing is the way to go if you want to get your book quickly out into the world.
Self-published authors typically earn a higher percentage of royalties than traditionally published authors. As you are the author and publisher, there is no one to share your royalties with.
You are the one who builds a direct connection with your readers, increasing your fan base and getting immediate feedback.
Self-published books often have limited distribution compared to traditionally published books. This means that you may be limited to online sellers. Most won’t have connections with brick-and-mortar stores.
Some readers may be less likely to take self-published books seriously, affecting your sales. Self-publishing your work and building your credibility as a reputable author can sometimes take years.
Traditionally published books carry more weight and credibility in the industry. Traditional publishers have connections with agents, who are gatekeepers when it deciding what gets published.
Publishers provide professional editing, cover design, and marketing services. Though you still must be active on social media, publishers assume some responsibility for getting your book out there.
Traditional publishers have established distribution channels, making your book available in more places, both online and in bookstores.
Traditional publishing cons:
Traditional publishing can take a long time, from querying agents to getting your book on shelves.
You’ll have less control over the final product. Your publisher may make changes you don’t agree with about the editing, the cover, or how it is marketed.
Traditional publishers often offer lower royalties. All stakeholders in the process (from editors, cover designers, agents, and publishers to bookstores) receive a percentage of the book’s earnings.
Pros and cons: the conclusion
Ultimately, self-publishing or pursuing traditional publishing comes down to your personal preferences, goals, tech-savvy, and the amount of time you have available. Consider these pros and cons when deciding what’s important to you. Don’t hesitate to seek advice from other authors and professionals in the industry.
Dialogue allows readers to get inside the minds of your characters. As an editor, I have realized that many authors struggle with how to punctuate dialogue correctly. Here is a primer that explores the basics of punctuating dialogue in fiction with tips for making it more effective.
Dialogue is set off by quotation marks. Each time a character speaks, what they say should be enclosed in quotation marks. For example,
“Hello,” said John.
When a character speaks, their dialogue should be followed by a tag that identifies who is speaking. Tags can be a simple (“said” or “asked”) or more descriptive (“yelled” or “whispered”). For example,
“Hello,” said John or “Hello,” John yelled.
It’s important to note that punctuation in dialogue comes before the quotation marks and not after them. For example,
“Hello,” said John. NOT “Hello”, said John.
When a character speaks for multiple sentences, the sentence before the tag ends with a comma unless it is the last sentence of the character’s speech, in which case it should end with a period. For example,
“Hello,” said John. “How are you doing today?”
If your character speaks in paragraphs, changing the subject one or more times in a long speech, the convention is to omit the close quotation marks from the first paragraph, begin the next paragraph with an open quotation mark, and continue in this manner until the character is done talking. At that point, end the speech with an end quotation mark.
When a character’s dialogue is interrupted by another character or an action, use a comma to separate the dialogue and an em-dash to indicate the interruption. For example,
“Hello,” said John, “How are you do—” Before he could finish his sentence, the phone rang.
Use an ellipsis to show a pause in a character’s speech (“I just…I don’t know.”) or when the character trails off before finishing their sentence (“I just can’t believe…”).
It’s also important to consider the context of the dialogue when choosing punctuation. For example, if a character is shouting, you could use an exclamation point to indicate this (“Get out!” he shouted.), but the fact that the tag says he shouted is enough (“Get out,” he shouted.). Try to use exclamation points sparingly, as people rarely shout entire paragraphs. Try to use the character’s words to show they are enraged instead of ending every sentence they utter with an exclamation point. Also, avoid using multiple punctuation marks at the end of a sentence (!?).
By understanding the basics of punctuation in dialogue, authors can write conversations that are clear, believable, and engaging. Remember that good dialogue is not only about what is said; it is also about how it is said, and the right punctuation can make all the difference.
According to The Cambridge Dictionary, information dump is defined as “the practice of giving too much information at the same time, or a piece of writing that does this.” It is also a common writing mistake made by many new and independent authors. Bombarding the reader with a character’s entire life history all at once may help to introduce a new character in the story, but it also serves to slow down the narrative. To be more precise, it drives the action to a complete halt because nothing is actually happening to advance the story while you’re giving the reader all of that information. This will likely cause your reader to question what’s happening and forget where they are in the plot.
As a reference, here is an example of information dump I’ve composed expressly for this blog post:
Braelynn chose that exact moment to enter the room. She was no stranger to danger, having inherited her grandmother’s ring the year before. The lawyer reading her grandmother’s will tricked her into putting it on, and now it was stuck. At first, she didn’t want to wear it, but then she mellowed to the idea. It seemed to come in handy when she realized that her first boyfriend was a vampire. She dusted him when he tried to bite her in his car. Then, she killed her boyfriend’s best friend (who just happened to be the leader of a gang of supernatural creatures) and threatened to vanquish the bugbear who was stalking her. Braelynn had only been fifteen at the time. She was sixteen now and still living with her parents, but they were over-protective and frequently got on her nerves. Her mother had inherited her own grandmother’s ring when she was Braelynn’s age, and she spent a good deal of her youth and young adulthood hunting supernaturals, but once she was married and had Braelynn, she retired and became a sort of life coach. Braelynn’s father was okay with her mother’s line of work now, but he wasn’t always sure he wanted to marry into a line of supernatural hunters. Her parents had cut ties with Braelynn’s grandmother when she was born, hoping it would prevent her from catching the family curse, but even in death, Braelynn’s grandmother—who was a crotchety old woman in both life and death—had circumvented that plan from beyond the grave…
From “Braelynn’s Birthright–Book 2: Fallen Angel” by Elise Abram
Lots to unpack there.
And all of this from Braelynn having entered the room.
If this is Braelynn’s introduction in the book, it is bound to leave the reader questioning why they are being given all of this information at this point in time.
Rather than dump all of this on the reader at once, it is much better if you mete out the information as the reader needs it to understand the story.
Braelynn chose that exact moment to enter the room. She scoped the room for danger. Satisfied that there was nothing supernatural within her bubble (her grandmother’s ring was still room temperature, the sapphire in its centre still dull), she tried to blend in as best as she could. Still, she reached into her messenger’s bag to feel for the stake she kept there. Ever since her boyfriend, Seth, had turned out to be a vampire and she had to stake him, you never knew what might be lurking in the shadows.
“Camille,” she exclaimed, removing her hand from her bag and using it to touch Camille’s shoulder; it was warm to the touch. Hunting supernatural creatures was a given after she’d inherited the family’s curse, and she was relieved she wouldn’t have to count Camille among those she’d vanquished.
By working in the information as the reader needs it, they get the same backstory only it is spread out, intertwined with the action that builds suspense and ushers your reader toward the climax. It is also more descriptive. In the second example, we still learn that Braelynn is a supernatural hunter, that she inherited her grandmother’s ring, and that she’d vanquished her one-time boyfriend along with other supernatural creatures. The stuff about her mother and father might be brought into a scene including her mother and father. Her approximate age can be revealed in a scene that takes place at her high school. She might hear the house settling and have a flashback to the bugbear incident. If her parents prevent her from going out one night, the narrator might let the reader know that she hates how overprotective her parents are, and so on.
The narrator isn’t the only one who can dump loads of information onto the reader. Characters can also do this in their dialogue. This is the equivalent of meeting someone and having them tell you everything that has happened to them from the second they woke up until the very moment they are talking to you. In other words, they overshare. A little character info dump is usually considered acceptable, used, for example, at the end of detective novels when they inform the other characters how they figured out who the murderer was, but other than that, information dump should always be avoided.
Here is an example of a character dumping information from my soon to be published book, Braelynn’s Birthright—Book 2: Fallen Angel:
“And who, exactly, is Samael? I mean, besides being a fallen angel who may or may not be the actual devil.”
“That depends on your system of beliefs,” Percival explains. “The Talmud says he’s an archangel, a high-ranking angel with destructive powers who is also one of the main angels of death. He is said to have opposed the creation of humankind and descended to earth in the form of the serpent that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden. He also slept with Eve to produce Cain.
“In Christianity, he’s a fallen angel with parallels to Satan, although he’s also known to destroy sinners, which could be construed as a good thing—”
“Unless you tempt the person into being a sinner like he did with Eve,” Piers interjects.
“Yes, well, he’s also known as a seducer because he tempts people toward evil. He’s also credited with bringing death and disease to the world, and due to his function in the pantheon, he may also be the antichrist.”
“So, he’s powerful,” I say.
In this snippet, the characters are about to smoke out the fallen angel at a crossroads. The information is given in small bites and worked into a conversation in which one character (Percival) assumes the role of “expert” and he is informing the less experienced character (Braelynn, the point of view character) about what she will need to pull off the next phase in the rising action. This technique prevents the narrator from dumping all of the information at once and dragging on for a page (or pages), essentially teaching the reader everything they need to know about demons at crossroads.
To avoid information dump, ask yourself:
Is this information is really important for the reader to know at this particular point in the narrative? If not, move it to a better place and time.
Will it ever be important for the reader to know this? If not, eliminate it. In the first example, will it ever be relevant that her grandmother was crotchety? Probably not unless Braelynn’s mother compares her gentle approach to Braelynn’s grandmother’s more my-way-or-the-highway one. Will it ever be relevant that her father almost didn’t marry her mother because of their curse? Probably not unless Braelynn’s father resents her mother, and their relationship is failing because of it.
If there is a lot of information that the reader absolutely needs to know at this particular point in the narrative, is there a way to make it a part of the scene, or can you write a scene around it? For example, can you work it into a flashback? Can you have the character briefly recall a similar experience that is mentioned in passing?
Is there another way you can get this information across? For example, rather than tell us that Braelynn is still living with her parents, have her walk through the door of her house and say something like, “Mom, I’m home.” Her mom might respond with something like, “I thought I told you to do the dishwasher and clean your room before you left.” This would show the reader that she lives with her parents because she walks in unannounced. That she is a teenager might be evidenced by the fact that she has been assigned chores she does not do. To hit that fact home, her mother might also ask her if she had any homework.
Avoiding information dump will help engage your readers. Without it, the action in the story and the ongoing tension building toward the climax will keep going, and the reader won’t be left with useless information to sort through, wondering where it fits into the narrative. It will also make your narrative more creative in that you must now figure out ways to cleverly and surreptitiously impart this information without dumping a truckload of disjointed facts in your reader’s lap.
Point of view is one of the most essential elements of fiction. When done correctly, it helps the reader walk miles in your character’s shoes. When done incorrectly, it affects the flow of the narrative and will turn most people away from reading your manuscript to its conclusion and climax.
The best way to write is to choose a point of view and stick to it throughout, although chapter and section breaks represent opportunities for shifts in point of view and/or point of view characters. Deciding on which point of view you will use in a work of fiction might take some consideration. Some characters don’t feel right as point of view characters, and some points of view might not do your narrative justice. When in doubt, try on a few, writing and re-writing some of your scenes from different points of view to see which one fits best.
Again, the secret sauce of point of view is to be consistent.
There are five main points of view, but the three most common are first-person limited, third-person limited, and third-person omniscient (the other two are second-person and third-person objective). Here is an overview of the three most common points of view.
First-person point of view
First-person point of view selects a point of view character as the narrator of a story. The story unfolds based on what the point of view character sees, hears, feels, smells, tastes, and knows. In first person point of view, the narrator cannot report on what other characters see, hear, feel, smell, taste, and know as they cannot assume to have access to this information. As the point of view character, I can surmise what the other person is sensing, but I cannot know for sure. The narrator doesn’t have to use phrases like “I thought” because the whole narrative details the character’s thoughts and motivations. Giving the reader a peek into the inner workings of the point of view character’s mind helps the reader bond with the character, putting themselves into the character’s shoes so they will understand and come to identify with the narrator of the manuscript.
First-person point of view uses first-person pronouns (e.g., I, me, my, etc.) in the narrative. It is best if the narrator avoids second-person pronouns (like “we”) as I cannot know for sure that if I am cold or I hear something, my partner in the scene will, too.
Because first-person point of view may be limiting in that the narrator cannot report on anything that happens when they are not there, you might want to switch up the point of view character or point of view itself in different sections or chapters. For example, if my story is written from Character A’s point of view, but I want to show Character B scheming against them, I might choose to show a few scenes using Character B as the point of view character. To really differentiate the viewpoint, I might choose to write Character B’s scenes in a different tense or in third-person omniscient.
Here is an example of a narrative in first-person point of view;
We order and sit at a round bar table in the back corner. There’s music playing in the background and people talking, and he has to lean over the small table for me to hear him when he speaks. Social distancing protocol alarms go off in my head—some habits are hard to break—but if he is a supernatural, I have nothing to worry about as they can’t transmit the virus. That begs the question: do I really want to date another supernatural? Granted, I didn’t know about Seth until he tried to take a bite out of me, but would I have willingly dated him if I’d have known beforehand?
from my upcoming NA novel, Braelynn’s Birthright—Book Two: Fallen Angel
Third-person point of view
Third-person limited point of view is similar to first-person in that it selects a point of view character and sticks with them. The narrator of the story—which unfolds based on the information the point of view character is likely to have—is a disembodied voice that is not a character in the story. All of the parameters given for first-person hold true for third-person limited, with the exception of the pronouns, which are also third-person (e.g., them, they, he, she, etc.). Also similar to first-person is that the narrator should give the reader an intimate window into the point of view character’s thoughts, feelings, and motivation.
Avoid placing the point of view character’s thoughts in italics, working the inner monologue into the narrative.
Here is an example of a narrative in third-person limited point of view:
Nigel thought about it for a moment. Though Daniel was only his lab assistant, their academic rivalry was known throughout campus. He’d always thought of Daniel as somewhat of his muse. The more Daniel pushed, the harder Nigel worked to best him. He’d always planned to be the first human through the arch to explore other times—was he willing to compromise that dream for Daniel of all people? More importantly, could he allow himself to compromise that dream?
from Chicken or Egg: A Love Story?
This is the most difficult of points of view to do expertly.
In contrast to the other two points of view, third-person omniscient regularly dips into the heads of multiple characters. For this to be recognized as third-person omniscient and not an error in first- or third-person limited, the point of view character must change regularly and consistently throughout the manuscript.
Like third-person limited, third-person omniscient uses third-person pronouns (e.g., them, they, he, she, etc.). The narrator is disembodied and God-like in that they are all-seeing and all-knowing.
Here is an example of a narrative in third-person omniscient point of view:
“Please,” Balor begged. He jumped from his seat, leaped across the room, landed in front of Samael on one knee, and bowed his head. Had the man’s hands not been pinned behind his head, Balor would have gladly kissed a ring on any of his fingers. In absence of a ring, one of his knuckles. “Not now.”
Samael sighed. They all pleaded to break their deal in the end, but a contract was a contract. He’d held up his end of the bargain, awarding them their most coveted desires—was it too much to ask for them to hold up their end as well?
from Braelynn’s Birthright—Book Two: Fallen Angel
Whatever point of view you select, be sure to use it consistently throughout and mark all shifts in point of view with a “hard” section break, such as a symbol (***) or chapter break, to avoid confusing your reader. Once you have learned the particulars of each point of view and how to use it correctly, you are sure to forge a bond between your characters and readers that will transcend the pages of your manuscript.
If you are in doubt about your manuscript’s point of view, why not contact me for a manuscript evaluation? I would love to work with you to put your hard work out into the world. Please click on “Contact” in the menu at the top of the page or send me an email.