active characters, breaking rules, character depth, dialogue, editing advice, internal reflection, show verses tell, Transmundane Press, writing advice, writing rules
Oh my, yes, that title does make one pucker, doesn’t it?
Well, it’s not quite what you think. I’m not here to provide a long list of things you should or should not be doing. Instead, I want to talk about making characters act (do) rather than telling the reader what they didn’t do. See? Super simple.
Dialogue, or a lack thereof, is typically where I find this problem creeping up, often to indicate silence. Like so:
“I’m pregnant,” she said.
He said nothing.
Or He didn’t reply.
This is telling because if we don’t see him say anything, we know he didn’t say anything. This is a wonderful opportunity to create character and drop a detail, which I have a habit of referencing. In case you didn’t notice, it’s one of my favorite pieces of advice.
“I’m pregnant,” I said.
Blank shock widened his eyes before his brow crinkled, and the worries I’d been holding inside pinched his features in a frenzy.
I hope the difference is evident, but I want to point out how we both see the emotion on his face as well as get an internal reflection from the POV character. An active interpretation of his reaction creates more depth for them both.
Now, let me clarify. Every so-called rule has an equally valid reason to break it.
This also comes with creating an internal reaction by allowing reflection to pause between pieces of dialogue. For example:
“I’m pregnant,” I said.
I expected him to swear, to ask me if it was his, to call me a whore and stomp away, but he reached for my hand instead.
“Just tell me what you need from me.”
Besides the cheese, this creates expectations from the POV character and sets up the shock of reality when he actually responds.
Less commonly—although commonly enough—we see this happening in action, too.
Anthony even drew me this lovely reference picture during one of our meetings with:
I think it’d been the fourth or fifth story we’d seen this happen in that night.
And the example was something along the lines of: She didn’t spare a glance backwards, running with long, practiced strides. (Sorry if this is from your story and I butchered it).
Of course, we’d edit it down to: She ran with long, practiced strides.
If we don’t see her look back, we know she didn’t do it.
One of the others that creates a similar show/tell issue is silence. Man, this one gets a lot of authors.
They were silent. He remained silent. There was nothing but silence.
I’ve seen it in a lot of ways, and we have plenty of options to transform this into showing instead. My favorite, of course, is personification: Every second of silence sliced another layer of confidence away.
But any form of dropping in sensory details or an internal reaction will improve on this silence.
So, there’s an editing tip from the Transmundane Press style book.
Got any don’t do scenarios in your WIP? Show me your changes in the comments below.