Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A Novel is NOT an Essay

Remember that structured essay format we all learned in high school English?

Tell them what you're going to tell them.

Tell them.

Tell them what you've told them.

In essays (and legal memos and briefs), this works for the document as a whole (Intro/Body/Conclusion) as well as for each individual paragraph (All flying birds have feathers. Feathers help them fly. Without feathers, birds couldn't fly.)

Following me so far? Good. Now forget all about that when you write fiction.

The main difference between an essay and a novel is that people read essays to learn stuff, so they don't mind it so much when you tell them the same information three different ways. They'll learn it better if they hear it more than once. This is not the case with people who read fiction.

Generally speaking, people who read fiction don't WANT to learn stuff. We want to experience someone else's life, watch someone else having the problems and struggles, and generally get taken out of our own lives for a while. If we learn something along the way, all well and good, but that's not what we're there for.

So don't tell me what you're going to tell me. Don't tell me anything. Don't tell me what you just told me.

Show me once and move on.

In short, don't do this:
(From an actual published book by an "award winning" author of more than 30 novels. 
I make no judgement as to the quality of his/her other novels.)

Telling me what you're going to tell me 
(This is part of a conversation between two people we already know):
She was informed by the housekeeper-cum-cook. "[Your crazy aunt] had that room completely remodeled about five years ago."
Yeah, I saw the passive language, too. There's very little that is right about this. Please remember that you don't need speech tags for every line. If one person just asked a question, I'm going to assume that the next line of dialogue is the answer, spoken by the other person. Two-person conversations are easy like that.

This is bad, too:
He heard himself asking, "What do I smell like?"
To his surprise, [Heroine] began to tell him. [Uninterrupted paragraph describing what Hero smells like.]
People normally don't just begin to tell things. "To his surprise, Heroine answered" would have been more than sufficient. We don't need the word "tell" to help me figure out that she's answering his question.

Telling me stuff:
He could tell [Heroine] was pleased by the compliment.
This tells me absolutely nothing except that Hero is mildly perceptive and that Heroine is a normal female. I don't know what it looks like when Heroine is pleased. Does she blush? Does she swoon? Does she hire a skywriter? Dance a jig? Blow a raspberry? WHAT?

Telling me what you've told me:
A hint of indignation surfaced in both her voice and manner. "Didn't you see the other vehicle?"
Hero stood there in the rain, feet planted shoulder-width, hands splayed across his hips gunslinger-style, thumbs hooked through the belt loops on his Levi's. "What other vehicle?" 
"The one that ran me off the highway," she stated in her own defense.
*Sigh* Say something interesting, okay? Again, there are only two people in this conversation, so I don't need a speech tag to know she's the one talking. "Stated" tells me nothing except that she's talking, which, as I might have mentioned, I already know. It gives me no clue as to her tone, her volume, or what she does while she flaps her yams. "In her own defense" is a duh-statement. I know she's defending herself. I got that. I'm pretty smart that way. I'll bet even all the readers who aren't defense attorneys picked up on that. No one wondered if she was defending someone else. No one stopped and thought to themselves "Why is she even saying that?"

This exchange would be worlds better without the speech tag and accompanying explanatory gobbledygook. It might even be improved by some sort of beat, like "she pointed a manicured finger back toward the wet road."

If you can't say something new, don't say anything at all. 

I'm going to put that in a sampler.

What do you think? Am I being too harsh, here? Anyone else notice a theme of me going off on books that assume I'm dumb?


  1. Well said! It's like they're restating things as an excuse not to just do it right the first time. After all, it's a much more emotional experience for the author and reader if you show once instead of telling twice.

    1. And why an I reading if not for the emotional experience?

  2. It's funny b/c even everything they teach you about writing stories in school is ALLLLLL wrong if you end up actually becoming an author. Great advice, as always:)

    1. Seriously. They should have separate English classes for fiction writing.

  3. No, not at all! I would bet those authors are previously published b/c no new writer could ever get away with that kind of stuff. Seriously bad. I kind of hate how critical a reader I've become since writing a novel. Sort of blows the experience sometimes. But only if the

  4. Something I learned with writing is 'Don't tell the reader something they already know.' Don't repeat facts or story beats. If your MC has to relay info to another character from a previous scene, just have them say "I told Blah Blah all about blah." Then jump right into Blach Blah's reaction.