In my experience, distinct dialogue comes from distinct motivations. – Deborah Biancotti

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I suppress in my prose any language which calls attention to itself. – Jerzy Kosinski

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Show don't tell in your story's descriptions

Most writers 9jwHJB25zNdxap9u2HQg--1--5dm71are fairly good at writing descriptions of places and characters. Their better than average vocabulary and love of word play usually result in interesting paragraphs that give the reader a good idea of what a location or the protagonist look like.

Unfortunately, most of those descriptions also tell rather than show.

Places

One way aspiring authors unintentionally introduce telling into their writing is through their descriptions of places, especially when establishing setting. Consider the following example:

He found the city ominous. There were many tall buildings, yet it was deadly quiet.

The example tells because it states facts – the city is ominous, it has tall buildings, and it is quiet. It also overrelies on adjectives – tall and deadly – to carry the description.

Rather than state facts, to show an author should use five senses to infer. Rather than letting the adjectives do the heavy lifting, instead offer revealing details.

Your viewpoint character should experience the world through his five senses. He then would capture revealing details that infer background information the reader needs to know. For example, if you need to describe the physical makeup of a world, give a tour of it through the viewpoint character’s five senses.

Thus, the description could be rewritten as:

The skyline rose like a bank of gray clouds on the horizon. Despite all of the buildings, nothing but silence met him – not a single car, not a single light, could be seen anywhere.

This description gives concrete details, sensed by the viewpoint character, that shows he finds the city menacing. This makes for a more engaging story.

Characters

For many writers, such showing runs contrary to what they were taught in school. All of us had to write descriptive paragraphs; most of today’s authors did a great job of writing them and received praise and encouragement from their teacher. What was great motivation then, however, is poor writing today.

Descriptions shouldn’t be written using a string of adjectives, whether it be places or characters. Yet, that’s what we’re taught in school.

For example, if you wrote Claire had beautiful hair and eyes, the teacher would say “Tell us what kind of eyes Claire has! Give concrete details!” So you’d write Claire had curly, blonde hair and bright blue eyes.

But that’s still telling because it states facts.

Instead, weave those details into the story’s dramatic action. For example, you might write:

I hated that to get ready for a date all Claire had to do was brush her curly blonde hair and apply just the lightest amount of liner, as her bright blue eyes were in no need of assistance. 

This retains the concrete details but plants them into the story as part of a conflict between the narrator and Claire. The character description now becomes relevant because it actually is a key element of the story. If it’s not important to the story, the detail can be cut.

Show sounds

One other form of description where authors often slip into telling is when a sound occurs. For example, they might write There was a loud noise.

That also states a fact and rather vaguely at that. Instead, use concrete details to describe the sound while inferring it was loud. So, instead you might write A bang sounded from upstairs.

The reader now knows the noise was a bang and that it was loud because it occurred on another floor but still could be heard.

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Fiction sets any conversion rate, then changes it in a syllable…I needed 125 pages to get from Labor Day to Christmas vacation. In six more words, here’s spring. – Richard Powers

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Avoid Using Exposition for Emotional States

One area A7xEmoY8Ap8Kxz3FbhEV--3--a35l8of exposition that novice writers often overlook is emotional states during character descriptions.

Describing a character’s gestures and body movements allows the reader to infer that emotional state while adding a level of detail to the text that helps the reader better imagine the scene and become more engaged in the story. So rather than writing They grew sad upon hearing the news, instead show their sadness with They hung their heads low upon hearing the news.

A simple guideline is that telling states a fact. In fiction, however, telling means the reader doesn’t have to infer what the actual fact is. That sounds like it would be a good thing, but it actually limits the reader's participation in the story. Consider this example of telling a character’s emotional state:

We pulled into the parking lot of The Pink Pony. I was more than a little nervous.

“I was a little more than nervous” is a perfect example of telling rather than showing. It states a direct fact – the narrator is nervous – rather than lets the reader infer that she is.

To resolve this, you want to use an evocative image – usually a physical gesture – that allows the reader to conclude the narrator is nervous. You might instead write:

We pulled into the parking lot of The Pink Pony. My hand shook, as I grabbed the door handle.

“My hand shook, as I grabbed the door handle” doesn’t directly state that the narrator is nervous, but the reader easily can deduce this. When showing a character’s emotional state, selecting just the right physical detail is vital. After all, varying degrees of a general physical gesture infer quite different emotional states. For instance, if something humorous is said, a chuckle shows a stronger response than a grin but less of a response that an all-out laugh.

In addition, the description of the physical gesture must be balanced against its importance in the rest of the story. You can’t be too spare in description but can’t be long-winded, either. Learning exactly what is appropriate is a matter of mastering the craft of writing.

Finally, you’ll have to be consistent with the details. For example, two jokes of equal humor should generate the same response each time from a character. With a little creativity on the writer’s part, this physical tic even can be a marker that becomes associated with a specific character; consider that whenever Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame finds something interesting, he raises a lone eyebrow.

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Ways to Show a Character's Personality

All too 2 - closeup of a zipper on a jacketoften, novice writers make the mistake of telling us a character’s personality. Rather than tell her personality, the writer can more successfully raise reader interest by showing it – that is, inferring the character’s personality through a concrete detail.

Authors generally tell a character’s personality in one of four ways – motivations, emotions, thoughts, and age.

Motivational tells are when the author states why a character wants to do something. For example:

I decided to go out because I didn’t want to be alone anymore.

Rather than tell readers why a character is motivated to do something, instead show it. In the above example, simply have the character already going out – to a nightclub, a bar, a concert – and show them having a good time in contrast to them being alone. To wit:

I laughed as he twirled me around the dance floor. This sure beats watching a late show by myself, I thought.

Telling a character’s motivation usually sucks the tension out of a scene. Inferring motivation is preferable because once we leave readers without anything to ponder or determine, we reduce a story’s entertainment value. You usually can identify motivational tells as the words because, to and well are used.

Emotional tells give the emotion a character is feeling. An example is:

She enjoyed the long walk through the forest.

The emotion instead could be shown by describing the character’s body language, such as a facial expression or gesture, or by showing them doing something that infers their emotional state:

She whistled a happy tune as walking through the forest.

Showing rather than telling a character’s emotional state enrichens the story. It offers details that helps the reader better picture what is occurring.

Mental tells occur when the author summarizes a character’s thoughts. For example:

Jack had hoped for more, but all in all, it was a fair trade.

Rather than state he wanted more but ultimately found it acceptable, infer it:

Jack’s lips pressed tight, then after a moment he raised his hand and accepted it with a gentleman’s handshake.

Sometimes editors and writing instructors refer to mental tells as “internal tells.”

Age tells are when the author states the character’s age. Often writers think slipping in the age won’t harm the story:

Daniel was 13 years old.

It probably doesn’t hurt the tale, but such writing does feel clunky. Instead, the qualities of a young teen can be shown:

Daniel wondered if Missy was interested in anime, too, then as she headed his direction, he turned toward the lockers, hoping she wouldn’t see him or the big zit that somehow had grown into Mount Everest on his chin overnight.

A number of specific examples in the showing sample suggest that Daniel is a young teen – his interest in a girl and anime, the lockers indicating they’re in school, self-consciousness, and acne problems. Showing the qualities goes farther because it gives the character depth rather than hoping the reader shares with the author the same understanding of what a 13-year-old is like. 

Often the difference between great and so-so writing is the use of these many tells. Great writing lets the reader experience the character’s life. So-so writing summarizes it.

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Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke. – F. Scott Fitzgerald

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Don’t Overdescribe in Text Surrounding Dialogue

Too many Don’t Overdescribe in Text Surrounding Dialoguedetails in the text surrounding dialogue can distract readers from what the characters say. This common dialogue mistake may seem to have less to with what is spoken than the words around it, but that’s not exactly the case.

In fact, the problem usually a sign of poorly written dialogue. For example:

He held out the drink for me, stood there arrogantly. “What’s your name, pretty lady?”

Readers don’t need to know how he stood, which is arrogantly. Instead, the words the character spoke should suggest his stance. So instead of telling by writing arrogantly, instead show by changing to dialogue so the passage reads:

He held out the drink for me, stood there. “So what’s the name of the pretty lady I’m taking home tonight?”

A cousin to this dialogue error is explaining every detail about what a character is doing during a conversation. This actually slows the story. For example:

He handed me the drink. I took it, and he smiled, sat on the sofa cushion next to me, took a moment to settle in, then faced my direction. “Did you have any luck with your family?”

My eyes went to the floor, then I shook my head, smoothed out the crinkle in my dress, then sipped my drink. “I’ve already borrowed money from everyone.”

The reader doesn’t need to have that much explanation. While not exposition, the blow-by-blow account is overwriting. Instead, pare it down to the actions that absolutely are necessary for moving the plot forward and those that show the character’s emotional state. This keeps the dialogue moving. For example:

He handed me the drink then sat on the sofa. “Did you have any luck with your family?”

My eyes went to the floor. “I’ve already borrowed money from everyone.”

The story requires that he hand her a drink and sit next to her (otherwise later the reader will ask, “Wait, when did he sit down?”), but that’s the only information that needs to be conveyed to the reader. My eyes went to the floor shows her shame, and that’s a relevant emotional state that needs to be conveyed.

The point of dialogue is for the conversation itself to reveal characters’ intentions as they try to achieve their goals. Dialogue cluttered with extraneous information distracts from that and diminishes the conversation’s effectiveness.

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Avoid Speeches and Soliloquies in Dialogue

Rarely in real Depositphotos_162617486_XL life do people get to give long speeches during conversations. When people talk to one another, there are frequent questions that “interrupt” or exchanges of brief stories to show the other that you share a similar experience. After all, you’re not really in a conversation if one person is doing all of the talking. And if they are, they ought to be darn interesting to listen to or you’re going to start tuning them out.

Likewise, when writing dialogue, you should avoid speeches and long soliloquies.

If you find that a lone character in your story is speaking for page after page, then you probably need to do some revising.

Info dump
If you character needs a lengthy speech or soliloquy (a speech in which one person speaks aloud to himself) to explain a character’s motivations or their perceptions of the world, then that probably has not being adequately weaved into the story. A reader should pick up on a character’s motivations from the start through their actions and a line or two of dialogue. Ditto on their views about the world.

A speech or soliloquy that delivers such information usually amounts to an info dump.

It also risks bordering on the dull. At the very least, it can exhaust the reader.

Of course, there are instances when this might be okay. A character could be reciting a memory or telling a fable. So long as those remembrances and fables are stories with their own action, then you’ll be fine.

Likewise, you don’t want the opposite in which dialogue pops back and forth like a ball in a tennis match. This usually occurs when each character simply respond to one another in a short sentence. Instead, vary the length of responses and the sentences. For example, Character A might say one sentence, Character B responds in two sentences, Character A then says two sentences, Character B responds in one sentence, Character A answers in three sentences, and so on.  

Mime conversation
While dialogue in fiction ought to be tight and punchy, sometimes when penning or editing it, writers go overboard. The result is a choppy flow to the narration as well as text that is robbed of its emotive powers. This problem is known as a mime conversation (Cambridge SF Workshop’s David Smith coined the term.).

At first glance, such dialogue looks like it’s really ominous and significant. It’s all pretend, though.

Consider the following example of mime conversation: 

“But I heard what–”

“And that meant she would!”

“But…but…how could I have been–”

“Wrong? You weren’t. You just weren’t ri–”

“Of course. It’s all so clear to me now.”

But it’s probably not so clear to readers. That’s because the facts readers must know to understand what is meant are neither stated nor inferred. The convoluted flow of the characters’ statements even is laughable. The result is that the author robs the reader of the emotional conflict that is a key underpinning of good fiction.

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Show don't tell when writing story dialogue

All too Depositphotos_32595551_XL often, new writers fall into the error of telling instead of showing. This occurs, for example, when the narrator states how character feels rather than using concrete details from which the feeling can be inferred. So instead of saying, Suzanne was feeling naughty infer it by writing Suzanne ran finger along his arm.

When writing dialogue, writers also can fall in the trap of telling instead of showing, For example, instead of writing “I’m feeling tired, Alvaro,” Suzanna said instead write Suzanne yawned. “Let’s go to bed, Alvaro.”

Among the problems of a character telling what he feels is that it doesn’t sound realistic. Many characters, as with people in real life, often to know exactly what they’re feeling but have only a vague sense of it.

But people often do express what they feel. Because of that, body language is the perfect way to convey their emotional state.

Sometimes new writers will claim that their reader won’t get what they’re saying and so need to be told what to think about the character. That viewpoint not only underestimates the reader but actually takes the fun out of reading. It’s akin to handing a puzzle lover a new 1000-piece set and then putting it all together for them.

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