The Essential Fiction Writing Checklist - Part 2
In part 1, we looked at a number of essential prompts that can help writers, the kinds of things we often forget about from time to time when writing, but they’re aspects which are important to achieve better writing.
So let’s take a look at some more of these essential prompts.
Show, Don’t Tell
This is the mantra all writers should know, and at its heart is a simple principle: rather than telling the reader, instead describe to the reader, show them so they are able to imagine what you describe.
The art of showing rather than telling is all to do with choosing the right scenes to show, so these should be important scenes, key scenes; the kind of scenes that love description and hidden layers. And that’s what ‘showing’ the reader does – it gives them more than words; it brings the scene to life.
The idea of telling versus showing still baffles some beginners, so this example should help show the difference between the two:-
Clouds blocked the sun and shadows moved from the doorways. The remains of buildings lay scattered all around. Someone moved forward.
Another survivor, they assumed, to join the rest of the people sheltering from the bombs...
Telling is not to be confused with ‘info dump’ - that’s covered further in the article. Instead, telling is exactly that. The example above simply tells the reader the details. It does not let the reader imagine the scene for themselves. There is little imagery for the reader to work with.
Now compare the same example that shows the reader:
Lithe spectres, shaded by toxic black clouds that blocked out the sun, tip-toed from broken doorways, as though afraid of the silence. The blackened remnants of buildings lay scattered like strewn fossils ripped open by explosions.
The smoke parted; another survivor, they assumed, to join the sickly sack of bones that cowered in the shade; people who remained muzzled by the shrill hiss of bombs and the stutter of gunfire...
This example shows the reader what is happening within the scene, the description allows them to picture it in their mind; it gives them the imagery to work from to do so. That’s what showing is all about.
Adjectives and Adverbs
Wherever possible, cut down on the use of adjectives. These are descriptive words that are often unnecessary, but are added in volume by writers on the assumption that they will beef up their descriptions. The odd adjective here and there is useful, but too many make the narrative clunky, especially double adjectives, for example:
She stood against the beautiful and exquisite, gold ornamental gate, looked at the time on her diamond-encrusted watch which matched her emerald sheer satin dress...
You can see that this example exudes adjectives, and while it may sound descriptive, too many spoil the effect. Notice that double adjectives are not constructive – the second adjective invariably weakens the first. Best to avoid them wherever possible.
The same thing applies to adverbs. Adverbs are those annoying words that end with ‘- ly’. Words like ‘suddenly’, ‘adoringly’, ‘angrily’ and ‘furiously’. Writers make the mistake of using these in order to create an effect, but in fact, verbs will do that quite well. Verbs are much stronger than adverbs, so use verbs instead.
Consider these two examples. Which one is better?
She looked at him furiously, replaying the moment in her mind and letting the rage bubble momentarily before turning away angrily.
She stared at him, furious, and replayed the moment in her mind. The anger bubbled for a moment before she turned and walked away in a cloud of silence.
The second example is better - it reads better, it keeps the structure active, it’s stronger and there’s not an adverb in sight. For better writing, stick to verbs and nouns.
The reason we advise against using clichés is because writing is, without a doubt, better without them. They have a tendency to make writing look awkward and outdated. Things like ‘All of a sudden’, ‘it was pitch black’, ‘eyes as round as saucers’, and ‘as if by magic’ really don’t help the quality of writing. There are better ways of describing something – writers have to use their imaginations. And that’s the point of writing.
Only use a cliché in dialogue, if it is something your character might say. Otherwise, avoid them.
Don’t Info Dump
A cursory glance at many self published books on Amazon is full with info-dumps. That’s because writers make the mistake of thinking the reader has to know absolutely everything about the story in the first chapter or so. Huge pages of narrative – however insightful – are never a good thing, especially when all they do is explain a heap of stuff to the reader that can’t already be woven into the story anyway.
Info dumps slow the story and they can bore the reader. If you have to impart necessary information, do so in small, subtle amounts so that it is hardly noticeable for the reader.
Summary of the Essential Fiction Writing Checklist Part 2:
- Show, don’t tell
- Cut out Adjectives and Adverbs
- Cut out clichés
- Don’t info dump
Next week: The truth and myths about Purple Prose