Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Writerly Wednesday: And then what happened?

A couple of months ago, I wrapped up my umpteen millionth rewrite of Long Road. Of course, I was excited.
Hooray! This is finally it! The final draft.

I was even more excited when my critters described the story as "heartrending" and "gripping." One even told me the emotion "ripped her guts out" and induced "shoulder-shaking" cries. (So, it makes me happy to make people cry. Does that make me a bully?)

This must be it. Right? I must be ready to query now. Right?

Weeelll, not quite. Not when one of those readers -- Rosslyn Elliot -- shot an e-mail back to me with the best piece of advice in the history of writerdom: Show, don't tell.

Yeah, okay. Every writer knows that piece of advice. I did, too. I knew to avoid (for the most part) words like tasted, saw, felt, heard and -- to a lesser degree -- smelled. But this woman -- who by the way is a great writer and has an agent -- took it a couple of steps further.

First, she pulled the first sentences from Long Road to use as an example:

With nowhere else to turn, I traded the sleet pelting my face for the uncertainty of the passenger seat in a stranger's car. He told me to call him Nick, and when he asked if I was okay, I nodded.
But the bruises on my face exposed the truth.
I wouldn't tell him what happened. I couldn't; the words outweighed me by tons.

And then she pointed out my folly: Kat, you have a tendency to start chapters and scenes with that narrator voice. That's telling. Instead, try jumping into action with your characters first and see where it takes you.
So, I tried it, and this is what I came up with:
The car rolled to a stop just inches from the curb where I stood. Its exhaust glanced off the glistening pavement and curled into the amber glow of the streetlights above. I lowered my head and peered through the passenger window. The driver was young. He didn't look like a freak or a murderer. Maybe I didn't care.

Is it better? That's subjective. It has more clarity. Apparently, the original opening gave some readers the idea that the driver was the one who put the bruises on her face, and the MC was in danger because of him. That's not the first impression I wanted readers to have of my MC's hero.
But that was only one benefit.
More importantly, jumping into action (by showing) at the start of a scene gives the character a "physical base" from which to launch the reader into the story, whereas using narration (er, telling) only gives the reader a play-by-play of the character's thoughts or a blow-by-blow report of what has happened. That makes it hard to snag the reader because it doesn't establish a question of then what happened?
And honestly, sports fans, which would you pick -- a sportscaster "telling" a Husker (or insert your favorite team here) play-by-play on the radio or having the game "shown" on TV?
I think we all know the answer.
So, I took this advice and applied it to all of the scenes where "Heather" narrated the opening. The impact was incredible. It managed to draw the feedback for which I'd been looking from critters: the inability to put it down.
Start scenes showing action. Hmmm...Who would have thought it would be something so simple?
By George, I think Rosslyn is onto something there.
Now, I must tell everyone. :-)


Anonymous said...

Thank GOD for crit partners! And to have a few of them helps as well. They catch different things.

Woo-hooo!!!! Write on, Kat!

Cole Gibsen said...

I agree! I wouldn't be anywhere without my crit buddies!!!

Crimogenic said...

Kat, your novel sounds just wonderful! I do like your rewrite. It really puts the reader on the scene. Bravo a million times!

I struggle with showing not telling, quite more than I would like. I hope that in my new novel, I will be one step closer to showing only.

Kate Karyus Quinn said...

Kat, great advice:) I love seeing the two examples side-by-side - it really illustrates your point perfectly!

ElanaJ said...

Great post, so insightful. Now I'm going to scour my MS, cuz I know I start out my chapters with narration every. single. time. *headdesk*

christine said...

Best writing advice I ever got was "end every chapter with a cliffhanger, and start with tension" - so that is what I try to do!

christine said...

Best writing advice I ever got was "end every chapter with a cliffhanger, and start with tension" - so that is what I try to do!

KM Wilsher said...

Great post! I love my crit nits!!!

Rosslyn Elliott said...

Kat, I love your new opening. And I am so honored that you cited me! :-)

I've been out of the loop for a couple of weeks, first because I was finishing my own novel. Then I spent two days this week with *no email or cell phone* (can you imagine?) while camping. It's such a pleasure to get back and see how you're doing.

KM Wilsher said...

Just wanted you to know, I stopped back by to reference this :)
Thanks for telling!