Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Action, Reaction, and Time

Reading others’ works-in-progress makes me ask the writers questions about characters such as: “What are they doing?” and “When is this happening?

The fix for the first? Add character actions during dialogue. There are two types.

People are rarely totally still. We scratch an itch. Shift in a chair. Cross or uncross our legs. Bump against the counter when handwashing dishes. (I often get water on my clothes when I do so.) During allergy season at our house, there’s sneezing, throat clearing, and occasional coughs. These are mostly involuntary or unplanned actions. They can be great tools to:

…sneak in what a character is wearing. E.g. She sneezed into the sleeve of her faux fur coat. He scratched his knee through the hole in his ragged jeans. The girl tripped over her untied shoelace.

…show someone’s discomfort with the conversation. E.g. Matt cleared his throat and hoped his mother would get the hint to change the topic. Theresa flinched. The boy let out an exclamation of disgust.

…show a character’s interest. E.g. He inched closer. She rested a hand on his arm. They drew in their breaths in unison.

What is your character choosing to do? Be specific about it. If she’s drinking a cup of tea, it’s not just any tea, but a British blend with milk. He’s into sports. What kind? Anything with a ball or rowing? The child is playing. Playing what? Pretending to be a police officer, or a cowboy riding the range? A kid isn’t just doing homework, but math homework. These specific details of what the character is actually doing will help ground the reader.

Conversations often take place during mealtimes. It really annoys me when characters on a TV show receive some great food, but never get to take a bite. If your characters are having a conversation during a meal, by the time it is done we should have some idea that they have eaten. For example: Jane swallowed her mouthful of orange soda before answering. Ben lathered butter onto his wheat roll. Cassie took the last bite of rare steak and angled her knife and fork across the paper plate.

Include character reactions to others (including animals). Our youngest daughter used to communicate that she was bored with a parental explanation by twisting her hair. A woman came to my door to deliver a package and backed off when my friendly dog appeared. How does that boy act when he sees a cute girl? Or what does he think? Someone hard of hearing may ask others to repeat. Or sometimes we’re concentrating so hard on what we’re involved with, we don’t hear someone speak.

Action can also provide subtext. Another benefit is that action can show the lie to the words said. It can carry on a separate conversation from the dialogue. It can illustrate what’s really going on in the character’s mind. Look at this movie example, No. 3 from Sense and Sensibility on this page. You may enjoy others too.

I love what Becca Puglisi says, “Nonverbal vehicles are like annoying little brothers and sisters, tattling on the dialogue and revealing true emotion.” Her whole article is great—read it here.

The fix for the question, “when is this happening?” Don’t neglect time. Is it midday or midnight? Let the reader know. A scene from the middle of the day moved to the middle of the night might have an intimacy that two o’clock in the afternoon wouldn’t. Is he eating a cookie at seven am? That’s probably more unexpected than dessert after dinner. A ramshackle abandoned cottage looks very different in bright sunshine than at dusk. Spring or fall? It could be humid during one season and cold during another—both will affect your characters.

Sometimes, all that is needed is a simple transition. E.g. Later that afternoon… After breakfast… Nothing happened until two weeks later. An actual clock or calendar can be used. E.g. Kasee checked the time. 10 pm. Where was he? – Sean opened his journal. Friday, May 1st.

Editor Beth Hill says, “References to time and day (or month or season or year) are necessary to keep readers linked with story events and hold them deep inside the fiction.” I like how she says setting props can help indicate seasons. Plastic Easter eggs scattered on the lawn is very different look from the rotting pumpkin left on the front stoop. Read more of her article here.

I’ve found it helpful to create a written timeline as a guide for my stories stories. I enter scenes and indicate when, where, what, and who. It helps me not have two Wednesdays or a six-day week. When a character refers back to “last Thursday,” I can check and make sure that really was the day the scene happened.

Help your reader keep track of when your characters are and what they are doing and your stories will feel more real.

Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Showing Versus Telling

“Show don’t tell,” writers say. But what exactly does that mean? “Telling” is talking about what happened in a story. “Showing” is putting the reader on scene. We are there while it is happening. It’s like being at the theater and watching the monster break through the screen compared to hearing a news reporter tell about the incident.

How do you do it? By using the following. Not all will be used all the time, but a mixture can definitely help your reader be on scene.

Show the reader what is happening. Let them know what the character is doing. It might be some repetitive action he or she does–a habit–or just what they are doing at the moment and how they are doing it.
Not: Stephanie was nervous.
Instead: Stephanie ran her curled hand down the leg of her jeans and back up. The scrape scrape of her fingernails sped up along with the rate of her breathing.

If you can’t come up with active verb, use a thesaurus to help you find just the right one. The right verb can even give a sense of the mood of the action. We don’t usually stomp when we are happy!
He raced or sprinted…
instead of
He walked hurriedly… OR He went quickly

OR the passive form He was walking

Let us know what the main character is thinking. Give us insights into the main character’s thought processes.
Not: Jared thought he should apologize. OR Jared knew he should apologize.
Instead: I guess I’d better tell her I’m sorry, Jared thought. If I don’t, she won’t let me go to Matthew’s house. And then, I’ll really be . . .

Let us hear the characters talk. It will add life to your story. Three different people will say the same thing three different ways.
“What’s up?”
“Hey, how’re you doin’?”
“How are you this fine morning?”

Let us feel what your main character is feeling. This can be done with action, dialogue, thoughts, or a combination of the three.
Not: Elaine was sad she didn’t get to go.
Instead: Elaine pouted. “It’s not fair. I worked as hard as she did! Why don’t I get to go?”

Let us see where and when your scene is happening. Don’t forget to include other senses besides sight: tactile, taste, smell, hearing. Is this a contemporary story or historical? What you describe will let us know.
The boy shivered in the cold morning air. Ice had formed on the watering trough. In the barn the cow lowed. If he didn’t get her milked right away, Pa would take the switch to him. He hoped Ma would have some of the salt pork fried up when he got back to the cabin.

Make it clear what you are talking about by using specific nouns. Three people squeezing into a Ferrari gives a different picture than three people climbing into an SUV. Even in simple sentences being precise is better.
She fed her iguana.
instead of
She fed her pet.

Not white snow, because most everyone knows it is white. Instead dirty snow, waist-deep snow, packed snow all create different pictures. Don’t go overboard here either. One well-chosen adjective is usually better than a series of weak adjectives:
The humongous dog
The very big dog

Examples using the above suggestions:

I was alone in the house and a noise upstairs scared me.

The house was quiet. Too quiet. The only sounds were the ticking of the living room clock and the pounding of my heart. I glanced over my shoulder as if I thought someone might be there. Of course, no one was. Why should there be? I knew I was alone. And then I heard it. A thump. Someone had knocked something over in the attic.

Jeff broke his mother’s antique vase and was in trouble when she saw it.

Crash! Jeff stared at the shattered glass on the hardwood floor. Oh, no! He slapped his palm against his forehead. Mom’s going to kill me! She’s always telling anyone who will listen how the vase came from Texas in a covered wagon. And now I bumped it with my stupid backpack and broke the stupid thing.
Jeff bent down to see if there was anything worth saving, then jerked upright at the
tap, tap, tap of approaching high heels. “I’m sorry, Mom, I’m sorry,” he said. “It was on accident.”
Mrs. Winsted’s mouth gaped open the moment she saw the ruined antique. “Jeffrey Andrews Windsted! Do you realize what you’ve done? That vase was passed down from my great-grandmother!” She grabbed his shoulder and squeezed.

Is there a time to tell? Yes. We often use telling for simple transitions.
There wasn’t anything else I could do, so I left the room.

  • Here, we don’t want a blow by blow of how the person got out of the room.

After Leanne showered and put on her nightgown, she crawled into bed.

  • The details of her shower and her nightgown are not important.

Winston explained his secret plan.

  • If we’ve already heard his thoughts about his plans, we don’t need a rehash as he tells his friend. Or perhaps this simple telling is to keep the reader in suspense; the reader will learn as the plan unfolds before them.

However, if you find yourself telling something important, such as a fight or the danger the character is in, resist temptation and share the gory details. Your readers will appreciate it.