Beware the Writer’s Trap Door!

The Writer’s Trap Door. You never see it coming, then “Swoosh”—you are down in the writing dungeon and your words are lost forever.

“Right?”
“Oh, so very right!”
“Well, hurry up and give it to me!”
“What? the lost words?”
“No, stupid, the trap door! What is the trap door?”

It is…hmm, should I really be telling you this? OK, it is falling into the trap of showing, rather than telling.

First, a definition: “Show, don’t tell is one of the most frequently given pieces of advice among writers. But just like “write what you know” and “write every day,” it can be difficult to follow — especially if you don’t really know what it means! Luckily, we’re here to show you exactly what this involves. We’ll explain the various benefits of “showing” in writing, and provide plenty of helpful examples.

Show, don’t tell is a writing technique in which story and characters are related through sensory details and actions rather than exposition. It fosters a style of writing that’s more immersive for the reader, allowing them to “be in the room” with the characters.

In his most commonly repeated quoted, Chekhov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

In short: showing illustrates, while telling merely states. Here’s a quick example of showing versus telling:

Showing: As his mother switched off the light and left the room, Michael tensed. He huddled under the covers, gripped the sheets, and held his breath as the wind brushed past the curtain.

Telling: Michael was terribly afraid of the dark.” [from the reedsy blog here]

But, why am I telling you this? Because, even though I have written two full novels, I still have to watch out for the “showing, not telling” trap! No writer is immune and, after many rounds of editing and beta reader feedback, I still missed un important chapter ending that…you guessed it…fell down the trap door! I am ashamed to share it here, but you can work out which is better:

A. There was a disturbance among the ranks and Boreas went pale.. He rose from his makeshift throne and thrust out his trident, defending himself.
“Sailor, you can’t do that!” he yelled. But it was no use.

vs

B. What happened next shocked them all.

Yes, A is a better “showing” than the “telling” example in B! I hope you don’t mind me telling you all this?

Characters make your book, but only if the readers are invested in them!

What makes for a good thriller?

Author Brad Taylor says, “Without a doubt, characters. Characters, characters, characters. One could write a scene where a car bomb is placed in an empty parking lot, set to go off in two minutes. The buildup is intense, with a “Day of the Jackal” feel of finding components and creating the device, but at the end of the day, do readers care about the empty parking lot? No. They only care if that bomb is going to harm someone they’ve invested emotional energy in — and that is the character of the story. Setting, pace and trajectory are important, but they’re irrelevant without the reader’s emotional investment, and that is driven by characters.” Read more on thrillers from the NY times, here.

Characters in Search of an Author

Six Characters in Search of an Author, is a play in three acts by Luigi Pirandello, using the device of the “theatre within the theatre,” the play explores various levels of illusion and reality.

I saw this play once and it began with workers putting final touches to the theatre set. They were in a panic to get it ready for the play and asked the audience for some help. The audience soon discovered that they were part of the play.

Pirandello’s device is very clever and it has a lesson for authors—you need to introduce your characters from the get—go! My first manuscript for book #2 fell into this trap. While focusing on a setting builder in Chapter 1, I had left out the main characters until Chapter 2. This left the reader guessing where the protagonist, antagonist were. This begs the question—do all successful books require the main characters to appear in the opening chapter? 

The bible is regarded as one of the most read and most important books of all time. In it, the first chapter—Genesis—describes the main actors (God, Adam and Eve, etc. appearing on the stage (the earth). So, take it from the top; don’t forget to put your main character(s) in the first chapter!

Great Feedback from Overseas Readers

It was great to have this feedback from a John, an overseas reader: “Have just finished your book Spy Chase. Was a great read and had me on the edge of my seat. Rosie read it before me. She loved it too.Great suspense and story line. In 2019 Rosie and I did a cruise from Barcelona to Rome so we could picture the setting of your book. Great places to visit on the Meditteranean.”

When to Introduce Your Main Characters?

A good question. When is the best time to introduce your main characters in your novel? I made a big mistake on this in my second novel—the draft did not feature the main character (the protagonist) and antagonist until later in Chapter 2 and Chapter 3. When I reworked the script to have these characters appear in Chapter 1, along with a strong hint of the conflict between them, it produced better tension and moved the plot along with more pace.
Definitions (from here):

PROTAGONISTS

The definition of a protagonist is basically “the main character”. Here is the Wikipedia definition:

“A protagonist (from Ancient Greek πρωταγωνιστής (protagonistes), meaning “player of the first part, chief actor”) is the main character in any story, such as a literary work or drama. The protagonist is at the center of the story, makes the key decisions, and experiences the consequences of those decisions.”

ANTAGONISTS

The Wikipedia definition of antagonist is the following:

An antagonist is a character whose motivations, goals, desires or opinions are opposed to those of the protagonist.

The important aspect in this alternative definition is the lack of hostility. Remember, I am in favor of tension to drive a story, but not in favor of (instant) trouble. Hope this helps your writing; it sure helped mine!

 

Refreshing Agency Submission

It was refreshing to come across a literary agency who requested, along with my query letter, the full manuscript. Why so? Because, how often only the first few chapters or, say, 50 pages is asked for. By asking for the full manuscript an agent can flip through a few different chapters to get a better sense of the author’s style, etc. From a personal perspective, my early chapters are important to  give the setting and introduce characters, while later chapters add more depth and increased tension, etc. By asking for the entire book, it saves time. The agent can skim through a book that they are considering without going back to the author and asking for it, and perhaps raising false hopes for representation.

Well done to this agency for a full request!

Getting Through the Slush Pile

Your Query lands on the Literary Agent’s desk and you hope for representation? No, that’s wrong. Your Query lands somewhere in a pile of Queries like this…
So, what are your chances of having your <great, edited, beta-checked, fabulous) novel accepted? From my research, I would guess about one chance in a pile of Queries this tall. Some calculate that the chance of making it through the Slush Pile is 1 in 100; then 1 in another 100 to have it accepted by a publisher. Others put the chance at 1 in 6000. It all depends upon which literary gatekeeper you refer to.

I had a non-fiction book accepted my Macmillan Publishers and it did very well (with four reprints). Then I self-published my first thriller and it received great reviews, yet these did not translate into spectacular sales. I wonder if the title—3 WISE MEN—put off the non-religious readers, even though it is hardly religious at all?

My latest novel awaits representation from a literary agent and I believe in the book enough to pursue this route until I find the right one. Plus, I want a wide audience to enjoy a contemporary novel that addresses global imbalances in wealth in a post-COVID world, along with Cold War drama and high-tech espionage. My new novel aims to be current and intriguing, with enough tension to keep you awake, and enough humour to enjoy the literary journey. In the next few posts, I will use extracts from the book to wet your appetites. And, if you are keen, I am looking for a few more Beta Readers to give me feedback.

Getting to Know Your Characters

Here’s a question I have to ask myself often—how well do I know my characters? Yes, I can describe them (features like hair, makeup, dress, etc.) but do I really know them? A few years ago I met a long-lost half-brother. We talked and he was quiet, reflecting on a father he hardly knew. But, I never understood him until he told me about a letter he had written to his father. The response he got, and the way he reacted, gave me clues about the depth of his feelings. When I saw my half-brother walk away, he had the same gait as my father and my eyes were opened fully to his character. In writing, there is that elusive search to reveal a character by his or her actions, rather than through description. They give away their true identity with a gesture, body position, speech and response. In my latest novel, many of my characters are build upon people I know quite well, but others have to be fabricated from observations, etc. My goal is to have none of my characters appear flat (as in this cartoon). And, here’s a secret, one of the key characters in my book is a little like me—Oh, very well, a lot like me!

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