Tell Your Story, then Show It

I wrote the opening chapter to a novel and had one of my critique partners look it over. “Make it grab faster,” the critiquer said. As I reread what I submitted, my mistake stared me in the face. I’d used a too slow opening because I was telling myself the story. Writing Tip for Today: Many novel beginnings, especially early drafts, start too far away from the actual story. My theory is that at first we must tell ourselves the story. Tell. But the reader doesn’t want to be told. Readers want to be shown. If a reader pronounces your draft “telly” then it’s not a criticism as much as it is a natural second step to convert the telling into showing.

  • Words are Like Doritos. When you draft, try not to be too attached to the actual words of your first couple chapters. Understandably, you want to protect your words. Chances are that your first (few) tries are really info for YOU not for the reader. Use these drafts as blueprints to write the scenes (showing) which readers crave. It’s very common to need to axe these chapters and replace narrative with scenes. Words are like Doritos: you can always make more.
  • Are We There Yet? This one snares many a novelist. If your opening is all about a character going to or from someplace, the story really starts after the character gets there. Avoid Driving to the Story. Remember that rule about starting in media res, or in the middle of the action. If you need to show “ordinary time” before the action heats up, keep it brief.
  • What’s Your Genre? Different types of novels will have different types of readers. A fast-moving mystery, romance or thriller reader won’t sit still for a lot of narrative (telling) at the beginning of the story. A very literary story may take more license with narrative, but not if it’s just a lazy excuse to tell not show. The narrative must be controlled and purposeful. And you must intuit the point at which the reader cries out for action and not keep telling beyond this point.

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About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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