Fundamentals: Telling and Showing

You may have heard the phrase “show don’t tell.” It’s a subject that permeates nearly all aspects of writing, and it is important to understand so that you can clearly communicate with the reader while also crafting an entertaining, emotional, and thought-provoking story.

What’s the difference?

Telling is explaining or summarizing something literally, which is common in non-fiction writing. For example,

Telling: William ate a sandwich.

Showing is detailing an event to deliver the experience to the reader including all of the sights, sounds, smells and emotions of the characters. Showing almost always requires more words than telling. For example,

Showing: William picked up the BLT. The smell of fresh sourdough reached his nose and his stomach rumbled. With the first bite, the crunching bacon and lettuce brought him back his childhood, when his mother would fry scrapple for Sunday mornings before church. You can’t praise the lord on an empty stomach, she’d say.

Both of these examples communicate the idea of William eating a sandwich. The first one summarizes with a quick, generic statement. The second one dramatizes with specific, unique details.

Showing is important because it provides an experience for the reader and creates an emotional connection with the characters by allowing the reader to live in the character. It also helps a reader visualize and imagine your story, which is crucial to keeping a reader engaged.

Audiences who grew up on TV and movies often expect 100% of the story to be shown to them, and not narrated to them (the scrolling text intro to Star Wars excluded). In the last century, English literature has shifted to include much more showing rather than telling.

There is nothing wrong with telling, assuming you can tell it well. Whole books have been written as essentially a story told by a narrator, with virtually no showing. In some cases that narrator is even a character within the book, such as in Moby Dick or Lord Jim.

However, if you are writing contemporary fiction, the important parts of your book should usually be shown to the reader, not told, as this is what most readers have come to expect, and it is often easier to write interesting passages of “showing” versus interesting passages of “telling”. Be careful though—a book that is all showing, with no telling, can become tiresome to read.

When to show versus when to tell

On one end the the spectrum, you have pure telling. Phrases like “he drove his car to work” explain literally what happened, and can be very useful for summing up boring parts of a story quickly.

The other end of the spectrum is pure showing, where every bit of action is detailed extensively, revealing the experiences, thoughts, emotions, and actions of characters. Pure showing is useful for extremely dramatic scenes, such as a critical turning point in a story.

Most successful modern creative writing is primarily showing with a bit of telling mixed in. You could skip over ten years with one line of telling, or have a whole book that spanned five minutes, but covered everything in extreme detail.

The general guidelines are:

Tell (summarize) when it’s boring and you need to get through something for the story to make sense, or when you want to fill in the reader on a backstory, a description, or a piece of information without taking the extra pages to fully dramatize it.

Don’t: Stan got in his car, turned the key, and warmed up the engine. Backing out of the driveway, he glanced in the rear-view mirror and sighed. It was another boring Monday. He turned onto Maplecrest Drive and headed for the freeway, just like every other day. He flipped through the radio station but nothing good was on. He pulled onto the freeway, and after forty-five minutes in moderate traffic, he arrived in his usual parking spot, right on time. As Stan walked into the building, Jimmy bumped into him and spilled boiling coffee on Stan’s crotch.

Do: Stan drove to work. He walked up the steps, and as he reached to pulled open the heavy oak door, it flew towards him, knocking him down and there were papers and coffee and pain that shocked through his genitals like fire and ice. Someone was on top of him, Jimmy, that new intern, trying to dry the coffee with his shirttails and only mashing the boiling liquid in deeper.

Show (dramatize) when it’s interesting and you’re writing the good stuff.

Don’t: Billy stabbed his brother in the heart. The end.

Do: Billy raised the knife over Carl’s sleeping body. It was time to put an end to this damned werewolf curse—even if it meant the end of the family. Candlelight flickered off the silvered blade. Come on, man. Do it. Do it! Beads of sweat formed on Billy’s brow. It had to be now, it had to be tonight, before Carl took someone else. Do it!

Billy bit his lip and slammed the knife into Carl’s back, forcing the ten-inch blade between two ribs and twisting the tip into Carl’s heart. Carl’s yellow eyes shot open and Billy let go of the handle and stepped back, staring into the animal eyes of the older brother who had saved his life a dozen times or more.

Carl reached out to Billy for a moment, then slumped against the nightstand. Billy took a deep breath. It was finally over.

Point of View considerations

Show versus tell is a nuanced decision. It will affect the tone of your writing, the pacing, and the style. Here is a quote from bestselling, award-winning author Ursula K. Le Guin:

“Thanks to “show don’t tell,” I find writers in my workshops who think exposition is wicked. They’re afraid to describe the world they’ve invented. … This dread of writing a sentence that isn’t crammed with “gutwrenching action” leads fiction writers to rely far too much on dialogue, to restrict voice to limited third person and tense to the present.”

One point here is that eliminating all telling from your story can lead to a story that reads like an action movie script (many Young Adult novels are like this). Another observation is that there is a connection between point of view and showing versus telling. Specifically:

The closer in to the character’s POV you are, the more you’ll likely be showing, and the less likely you’ll be telling. 

For example, if you are in a deep third-person POV or first-person POV (the reader only sees what the character sees, and only knows what the character knows), then it will be difficult to step back and “tell” parts of the story—for example, to fill in the background of a place or person that the character doesn’t know about.

A deep POV can lead to a “white box” story where settings aren’t described enough, it can cause lengthy conversations to get another (non-POV) character’s backstory out in the open, and it can lead to a story that gives its reader no room to pause (lack of sequels after scenes).

You can avoid these “over-showing” problems within deep POV by writing tight dialogue, switching POVs from scene to scene, using “telling” within the deep POV (e.g. “John told me about the strained relationship with his father” to summarize it instead of dramatizing it with a page of dialogue), and remembering to include all the POV character’s senses in the scene.

On the other end of the spectrum, a narratorial voice with an omniscient POV can alternate freely between telling (narrating/summarizing the story to the reader) and showing (dramatizing the action in detail through the eyes of a character or a as a fly on the wall). This type of POV is more complex to write and to read, but done well it is transparent and and can be beautiful. It can also create an intimate connection between the writer and the reader, as in many works by Charles Dickens or Alexandre Dumas, where the reader feels that the story is being told by a master storyteller who has a persona of their own.

Author Kim Stanley Robinson has a good essay in defense of telling in Wonderbook, a writing guide by Jeff VanderMeer. However, I personally have struggled with some dull exposition dumps (usually research dumps) in Robinson’s novels. Learning to write a story that includes significant amounts of telling without showing is an art form, and is likely best studied reading pre-1900 fiction.

Exposition and Info Dumps

The general rule: only include details that matter to the story. Weave them into the scenes and action, don’t just info-dump on the reader.

Info dumps can take many forms, and are one of the most common over-uses of “telling.” Some writers will spend pages detailing a character’s clothes. Others will drone on about the scenery when a few well-chosen sentences would have been fine. Some will have a “prologue” chapter that is essentially a line-by-line history of the story world. Sometimes, writers will “research dump” and spend pages on a subject that they researched (or one that they are fond of) even when it doesn’t matter much to the story. If the information you want to convey is important, weave it in—don’t dump it.

There are exceptions to this rule, even whole books written in telling exposition, but unless you are particularly good at crafting interesting, well-written, and thought-provoking exposition, it’s better to stick to the story, rather than the research behind it.

Don’t: The Destroyer-class Hand Operated Plasma Cannon (HOPCAN) operated on 1.29 Gigawatts of energy, fueled primarily by a barium-ion nuclear fusion generator (contained in a gallium-carbide water jacket) as well as a radio-invisible solar cell array and an inverted plasma recycler.

Do: Dirk wrenched the plasma cannon out of the dead soldier’s hand. A peeling sticker read “Now with 1.29 Gigawatts!” Dirk grinned. It was time to melt some moon worms.

Don’t: Faldruun was founded in 435 by King Griupl, who was then succeeded by his son King Griupl II, who was murdered by the usurper Hurea Euwoeneo in the year 498 … blah blah blah and a 40 page “prologue” that’s really just worldbuilding notes.

Do: Hurwitz pushed his way through the overgrown cemetery, and stopped at the crumbling statue of Hurea Euwoeneo, the Usurper. The Griupl clan had a sense of humor at least, having made the statue of Hurea exactly as he had died—hung by the neck.

Hurwitz set the tattered grimoire on a nearby headstone and cracked his knuckles. It was time for another usurpation, and there was only one man for the job, even if he’d been dead for a hundred years. Hurwitz unwrapped his shovel and began to dig.

Info-dumps can also occur in dialogue:

Don’t: “As you know Susan, we’re all police detectives hunting a psycho killer who has been exploding expensive chihuahuas all over Beverly Hills for the last four years. Now that you’re our new boss, we’re all looking to you to lead our department and catch this guy once and for all.”

Likewise, info-dumps can occur in an internal monologue:

Don’t: Susan sipped her coffee. How was she supposed to catch a guy that these police detectives hadn’t caught for four years? Sure, they weren’t the best and the brightest, but still. And what kind of psycho killer would go around exploding chihuahuas all over Beverly Hills? Well, it was up to her to lead this rag-tag group of misfits to victory and rid the city of the puppy-popper. She was going to need a lot more coffee.

Both of the above examples dump information on the reader, explaining everything. Your reader is smart! Resist the urge to explain.

Do: Susan sipped her coffee as the sergeant fumbled through the ending of his slideshow. The puppy-popper. These numbnuts were pathetic. Crawford must have put her on this ridiculous assignment because of that joke she made at the Christmas party. She smirked. She’d catch this jerk and be back in her old desk in a week. That’d show him.

Again, you must resist the urge to explain or dumb things down for your readers. Readers are reading to find out what happens next and to unveil the characters and the world you have created. That is, every book is a mystery. If you explain everything from the get-go, there’s no reason to read on. The reader should always have a question they are waiting for an answer to. If you answer a question, you must raise a new, bigger question immediately!

Don’t: Roxanne was a prostitute. She worked hard for the money, but her clients didn’t treat her right, nor pay her enough. She came from a broken home too. Her pimp, Upgrayedd, was coming by soon, and he would want his pimping money. She didn’t have it, so she was going to run away to her cousin’s in Canada and start a new life.

That’s all telling, and basically ruins the story. Do we really need to explain everything?

Do: Roxanne shuddered in the dank doorway. The rain kept business away, and tonight had been light. She listened to the patter of rain until the familiar blare of a novelty car horn playing La Cucaracha made her jump. Any other night, she would have taken it, but not tonight, not after what had happened to Misty. She took off her heels and ran down the rainsoaked alley.

This passage, while not perfect, at least only hints at what Roxanne does for a living. Further, it raises the questions of what happened to Misty, where Roxanne is going to go, and who, exactly, is after her?

A final problem caused by info-dumps is proportionality. Is the amount of writing appropriate relative to the importance of the subject/character/theme etc. in the story? Or is there too much detail on unimportant things and not enough on good stuff?

If you spend a lot of words on a subject in your writing, readers will assume it’s important. For example, if you detail a character for a page, and then he never shows up again, it’s not only a waste of space, but likely to disappoint your reader. This is related to the show-versus-tell decision—write the details for the important stuff, and minimize the unimportant stuff.

Cause and Effect

Cause should precede effect when you are showing action. When an event occurs, an emotional reaction or conscious thought follows, then a physical reaction or speech.

Don’t: Bob hit the brakes. In the headlight beam, a jackalope tried to cross the road. “Oh great,” Bob muttered. The jackalope thumped under Bob’s car. The hiss of a flat tire filled the warm summer night.

Do: In the headlight beam, a jackalope tried to cross the road. Bob hit the brakes. The jackalope thumped under Bob’s car. The hiss of a flat tire filled the warm summer night. “Oh great,” Bob muttered.

These are sometimes called “motivation-reaction units” or MRUs, where you have a motivation (jackalope crossing the road), and a multi-stage reaction (action, thought, then speech).

Linking verbs tend to tell

Linking verbs are the verbs “am is are was were be being been” and a few others (essentially, the conjugations of the verb “to be”). There’s nothing wrong with using them, but the overuse of them often leads to repetitive prose, passive voice, and telling rather than showing.

Make your verbs specific and interesting! Search your documents for “was were wasn’t weren’t” if you’re writing in the past tense. For present tense, search for “am is isn’t are aren’t” etc. In the example below, the verbs are highlighted.

Don’t: She was red-haired and slim. She was in her bedroom, and there were a dozen empty whiskey bottles there. There were no lights on, and the room was stuffy and smelly.

Do: Messy red hair fell around her narrow shoulders as she lay on her bedroom floor. A dozen empty whiskey bottles scattered the sty she called home. Shadows played across the filth, and the heavy musk of stale cheese pervaded the air.

There’s nothing wrong with using “to be” as the verb, but don’t make it the only verb you use.

Adverbs tend to tell

Adverbs are words that modify a verb. They often end in -ly. For example, “The dog bit his leg viciously.” and “He walked slowly to the hospital.”

By themselves, adverbs aren’t bad. They serve an important purpose in the English language. However, if you can swap out your verb + adverb into a more specific, dynamic verb, you should. Doing so will create a cleaner and more visceral story.

Don’t: “The dog bit his leg viciously.”
Do: “The dog ripped into his leg.”

Don’t: “He walked slowly to the hospital.”
Do: “He limped to the hospital.”

Particularly, adverbs that follow “said” shouldn’t be necessary: the dialogue that you’re writing (and any accompanying actions) should show the emotion and leave no need for an adverb.

Don’t: “I can’t believe you slept with her,” she said angrily.
Do: “You cheating bastard. I hate your goddamn guts,” she said.
Do: She threw the panties in his face. “You cheating bastard.”

Note that there are a few exceptions for adverbs that actually modify the verb “said” (by changing the way someone speaks words with their mouth), such as “softly” or “slowly”.

Said-isms tend to tell

Similar to adverbs, the same goes for most verbs other than “said”—they are usually telling when you should be showing, or at worst, they are ridiculous.

Don’t: “You never have time for me,” he replied/countered/announced/etc.
No need for the weird verb. The fact that he’s replying is obvious.
Do: “You never have time for me,” he said.
Do: He shrugged. “You never have time for me.”

Don’t: “I guess I killed him,” she snarled/growled/barked/groaned/etc. at the prosecutor.
No need for the weird verb. Make her dialogue or action show the emotion.
Do: “Yeah. I killed him. He deserved worse,” she said.
Do: She glowered at the prosecutor. “Yeah. I did it. So what if I did?”

Don’t: “Everything will be OK,” the priest consoled/reminded/soothed/etc.
The consolation is obvious from the dialogue, no need for the weird verb.
Do: “Everything will be OK,” the priest said.
Do: The priest patted her hand. “I asked the governor for a stay on the execution. He’s had an unfaithful wife, and I think he may understand.
No need to console twice – the hand pat is enough to communicate the consolation to the reader. We can move on with the plot.

Vagaries tend to tell

One of the most important parts of showing being specific. This means avoiding vague, generic statements and using concrete details.

This advice may seem at odds with resist the urge to explain. Being specific is about zooming in on details (and moreso as you point-of-view gets deeper). Resisting the urge to explain is about not dumping backstory, research, and outline notes on the reader.

Don’t: Sheila glanced at the woman at the end of the hotel bar. She was beautiful, with gorgeous hair and a perfect body.
That’s not very specific: it could be anyone at that bar. Let’s zoom in and show what she looks like, and how the point-of-view character responds.
Do: Sheila glanced at the woman at the end of the hotel bar. She was short, a bit heavyset but very curvy, and her curly black hair nearly fell just far enough to brush her caramel shoulders and the top of her strapless, pale green dress. Sheila had to know her name—and get her room number.

Don’t: Her bedroom was quaint and charming, and outside the window was the forest.
That’s nice, but it doesn’t bring the scene to life and help the reader hallucinate the details.
Do: Her bedroom was packed with hand-me-down, roughsawn furniture, each covered in patchwork quilts, throws, and threadbare pillows. Three worn-out rugs were piled on the floor, barely enough to prevent splinters from the weathered floorboards, and the plaster walls were spattered with dried flower arrangements, pages from water-stained books, and bundles of hawk feathers. A pile of old birds nests filled the only windowsill, which looked out onto the dark pines of the Blackmire Wood.

Note that as with all showing, being specific must be subject to proportionality. If you go on for a page about this person’s room, and then it doesn’t matter for the plot and doesn’t reveal details about an important character, then you wasted a page.

Cliches tend to tell

Cliches are phrases that are overused. There are many types of cliches, including:

  • Sayings and idioms like “It’s raining cats and dogs”
  • Common ways to describe emotions, like “clenched fists” for anger
  • Descriptions, like “jade green eyes” or “bustling market”
  • Metaphors, like “love is war” or “cold feet”
  • Similes, like “dumb as a post” or “sharp as a tack”

Cliches became popular because they are shortcuts to get a point across to the reader (also known as synecdoches). The problem is that when you shortcut, you’re typically telling the story (summarizing it) rather than showing it (dramatizing it).

Most of the above issues and examples can be viewed as shortcuts as well (e.g. using “she said angrily” is a shortcut for showing her anger through dialogue and actions, or using “beautiful” instead of describing what something looks like).

Don’t: John thumbed through the affidavit. This case was going to be an uphill battle. But he couldn’t get down in the dumps. He would need to be tough as nails, strong as an ox, and stubborn as a mule if he was going to win this hands down. No pain, no gain. He set his jaw, clenched his fists, and barged into the courtroom.

Oof, that’s a lot of cliches. Let’s see if we can get the same idea across with something more relevant to the story and characters, while creating a visual scene for the reader to imagine.

Do: A single sweat drop rolled off John’s nose and splatted on the affidavit. He’d missed this one, and now it was too late to follow up on it, too late to do anything—the trial started in twenty minutes, and this document would put his client in the hole for life. He set the paper on top of the case file and wiped his face with the palms of both hands. If he faked stomach flu, maybe he could get a few days.

He looked down and next to the leg of the chair, in the shadow of his old oak desk, he caught the tip of his brown oxford shoe, the ones grandpop gave him. They’d been a bit loose until he put inserts in them, and even then he had to wear thick socks, but he always wore them for good luck on court days. What would grandpop have done with this? What would he say to him now?

John sighed. “He’s say, grab ’em by the balls and then twist like a bitch. And that’s what I’ve gotta do.” He grabbed the case file, cinched up his tie, and headed for the courtroom.

Showing Emotion

After reading all that, you’re probably getting the idea. Showing is about being specific, and not just taking shortcuts (which come in many forms!). Showing is all about helping your reader visualize the story in their head while they read, which is what makes reading fun. If you keep that in mind—that you’re writing to help your reader hallucinate your story—you’ll do well.

That’s all well and good for showing settings, characters, and actions, which can be seen/heard/smelt/felt by real people, but what about showing inner things like what a character is thinking or feeling? These aren’t detectable by the five senses—how do we convey them to the reader?

Whole books have been written on this subject, but it’s actually very simple. Emotions and inner thoughts can be communicated to the reader on a show-tell spectrum too! Just like with the senses, sometimes you want to tell it straight to get the point across, especially as you get into lower-reading level audiences, like pulp commercial fiction, young adult, and middle grade. For example, most Dan Brown books are packed with phrases like, “he said thoughtfully” or “She was furious.” or “I’ll get you for this!”

However, most of the time it’s better to show emotions with a bit more subtlety than with adverbs or direct statements of fact. You can still hammer the point home, but with a few taps of a jeweler’s hammer instead of a whack with a twenty-pound sledge. The most common approach is to use action beats combined with your PoV character’s inner thoughts to assess and summarize the thoughts of the other, mystery character. We may not have access to Chuck’s mind here, but we do have access to Bob’s:

Chuck sipped his beer. “But what happened to the diamonds, Bob?”
Bob glanced at his own empty glass. His mouth was dry as toast and he needed to pee. Chuck was going to go ballistic when he told him. Hopefully he wouldn’t piss his pants.
Chuck set his glass down hard, shaking the table and nearly sloshing his beer. “The diamonds, Bob. You didn’t rip me off, did you?
“The police horse ate them,” Bob said. “I swear. I swear! We just gotta get them out somehow.”

So we know that Chuck is mad due to Bob’s thoughts, and from Chuck slamming his glass down, and from Chuck’s dialogue lines. Chuck is mad, three times. We also know from Bob’s thoughts and dialogue that he is feeling scared and nervous. Using the PoV character’s perceptions along with little actions (slamming the glass) is easy and it’s the bread and butter of showing emotion in fiction writing.

Now let’s assume that this isn’t good enough for you—you want to be even more subtle in how you show emotions, never stating them outright as above (“going ballistic”), and not giving away too much (we did show Chuck’s anger three different ways, after all). Maybe you’re writing for an erudite audience, or maybe you’re writing a cinematic or omniscient PoV and you don’t have access to character thoughts. Or maybe your PoV character just isn’t much of an empath or isn’t very observant!

The key is subtlety is to focus on those action beats and use roundabout dialogue. What a character looks at, touches, or talks about often betrays what they’re thinking about, or is related to what they’re thinking about. People often won’t talk about what a conversation is actually about, but instead will talk around it.

“I don’t see why you can’t do something about it,” Ron said. “This is going to ruin me. And you.”
Charlene fingered the cross pendant on her neck. “They said they don’t have any open appointments in time.”
Ron wiped his hands on his napkin, and his gaze fell upon his bloody steak knife that the waiter had forgotten to collect. “Maybe there’s something else we can try.”

Now we don’t name emotions here, and we are heavily resisting the urge to explain, but it’s clear from first line that Ron is only thinking about himself. The cross tells us that Charlene isn’t going to have the abortion because of her Christian beliefs, not because of any actual issue at the clinic. Finally, the last line implies that Ron wants to wash his hands of this matter and is thinking of either murdering her or sending her to a back-alley abortion clinic. Rather dark, and maybe a bit over the top, but you get the idea.

If you want to dig deeper on emotion, there are books like The Emotional Craft of Fiction, which is heavy treatise on all this stuff and pretty heady. Another way to study emotion is to watch videos and read materials about how to spot emotional tells. For example, this TED talk on how to spot a liar or the many videos on how to read body language. Then, take that knowledge and use it to study people you interact with, or talented actors in movies, and see what works and what doesn’t.

You should also take a look at some of your favorite books and favorite scenes that have high emotional content and study how they’re written. You will probably find that they primarily use point-of-view interpretations and little action beats to show/imply emotions, and then set the mood with the particular, specific words they use to show the setting, characters, and actions.

For example, a group of trees can tower, it can loom, it can invite, it can bask in the sun. What specific words you choose for your showing can have a big impact on the emotional reaction of the reader as well, and should sync up with (or perhaps directly oppose) the emotions you are conveying in your characters (whether you choose symmetry or balance between setting and character emotions is up to you). The same is true about your choice of metaphors, similes, and other comparisons.

There you go, that’s all I know (at the moment) about show and tell. Hopefully you know a lot more than you did when you started too!

Fundamentals: Word Choice

Word choice issues don’t fit in as grammar or punctuation problems, as they may not be “technically” wrong. However, many word choice problems will bore, annoy, or confuse your readers. Here is a rundown of the most common issues.

Repetition of words, phrases, or ideas

Writing takes longer than reading. Writers often repeat themselves because they don’t realize that a reader will have read the same thing only seconds or minutes beforehand. Repetition can also happen when working on a piece, quitting, and picking it up later.

The easy way to solve this problem is read your story aloud before you post it. Don’t just read it in your head—actually read it aloud. You might also try word cloud generators or other tools that list the frequency of all the words in your manuscript.

Don’t: He walked out of the room. He walked down the hall. He walked into the bedroom, then walked to the window, then climbed out.

Do: He walked out of the parlor and crept down the hall. He tiptoed through bedroom, past the sleeping rottweilers, and climbed out the window..

This applies to repetitive ideas as well as words.

Don’t: Beneath John’s hat brim, his face bore the creases of long days working in the sun. He smiled and grabbed my butt, wrinkles turning his browned face into an aerial view of eastern Utah. When I slapped him, his face fell like an old leather handbag full of doorknobs hitting the floor. I wasn’t going to take that kind of behavior from any man, much less a man with skin like a crumpled paper bag.

OK, got it, he’s got a wrinkly face. Is there anything else interesting about him?

Do: Beneath John’s hat brim, his face bore the creases of long days working in the sun. He grabbed my butt, grinning with jagged, rotten teeth. I slapped him, and his shoulders fell with his smile as he jerked away from me. I wasn’t going to take that kind of behavior from any man, much less a creepy old circus magician.

Repetitive sentence structure

When all sentences are the same length, the prose becomes boring to read. Vary the structure.

Mix short sentences with long, flowing sentences. Short sentences have impact. Long sentences are wonderful when you have a clear idea to communicate to the reader and want them to follow it through to the end. Sentence variety is another issue that can usually be discovered by reading aloud.

Don’t: “She was a thief. You got a belief. She stole my heart. She stole my cat. Then we broke up. I met someone new.”

Do: “She was a thief. Believe me, she stole my heart and my cat. I ended up leaving her, and eventually I met someone new.”

More examples

Passive voice

Passive voice is caused by a reversal of the verb and subject from the more conventional active voice. Nothing is technically wrong about these sentences, but passive voice results in extra words, and typically an over-use of the verb “to be”, often in the form of “was” or “were”.

In passive voice, the object (the gold medal) comes before the verb (won).
Don’t:
A gold medal was won by the snowboarder.

In active voice, the subject (the snowboarder) comes before the verb (won).
Do: The snowboarder won the gold medal.

Don’t: The laser gun was fired by the solders.
Do: The soldiers fired the laser guns.

Passive voice can also result in misplaced modifiers, resulting in nonsense (Robert didn’t drink the fridge, he drank the beers).
Don’t: There were beers in the fridge that Robert drank.
Do: Robert drank the beers from the fridge.

More examples

Overuse of filler words

The fact is, the list of words that don’t really need to be there is very long indeed.
Wait.
The fact is, The list of words that don’t really need to be there is very long indeed.
Wait.
The fact is, The list of unnecessary words that don’t really need to be there is very long indeed.

Filler words and phrases muddy your prose, making it hard work for your reader to wade through. Besides obvious phrases such as “due to the fact that,” “the fact is,” and “in order to”, there are countless other filler words that sneak by more easily. In general, if you can remove one of these words, and the story still makes sense, you probably should:

a bit, a lot, actually, all, almost, anyway, apparently, basically, definitely, especially, essentially, even, honestly, just, like, literally, obviously, only, perhaps, probably, quite, really, seriously, simply, so, something, truly, very, well

Use stronger, more specific words if you can:

If someone is very tired they are exhausted
If someone is really sure they are convinced
If someone is suddenly attacked they are ambushed

Be specific rather than approximate:

If someone is about six feet tall they are six feet tall
If someone is perhaps forty years old they are forty years old
If someone is a bit under the weather they are under the weather

Overuse of vague words and phrases

Closely related to filler words, vague words add meaning, but often not enough. Look out for vague adjectives like “beautiful, nice, good, kind” etc. Look out for vague nouns like “thing, something, somewhere, somewhat” etc. That’s not to say you should remove these words altogether, but be aware of them.

Don’t: The Mona Lisa was a beautiful painting.
What makes her beautiful?
Do: The Mona Lisa’s soft, knowing smile, blushing cheeks and deep eyes struck a chord in my soul.

Don’t: Something about the room troubled him.
What was this ‘something’?
Do: In the bedroom, a velvet painting of a clown family loomed over the bed.

Don’t: He leaned against a tree and began to smoke.
It’s descriptive, but it’s not specific. The more specific, the more real it will be to the reader (as long as it’s not ridiculous). Compare the different images here:
Do: He leaned against the rough bark of a bristlecone pine, pulled out a Marlboro, and lit it with a match in his cupped hands.
Do: He leaned against the gray trunk of a weeping willow, packed some tobacco in a corncob pipe, and lit it with a stick from the campfire.
Do: He leaned against the bigleaf maple in the shade of its red canopy, carefully positioned the brass hookah, and lit the bowl with a miniature blowtorch.

Overly realistic dialogue

Everyone wants their dialogue to be realistic right? The problem is that no one actually wants to read realistic dialogue. Small talk, throat-clearing words (“Well,”) and pauses (um, uh, y’know) are normal in real life, but reading it is dull.

In the distant past, long-winded and relaxed conversations were the norm in literature, but if you look at the classics that are still widely read (from Pride and Prejudice to Tale of Two Cities to Huck Finn), you’ll find that they keep the plot and dialogue moving briskly. Today, readers are so used to prose and dialogue without fluff, they will be annoyed or bored by it.

Don’t: “Well, the thing is, um, so, you know, the other day I saw my ex-wife at the bookstore.”
One of those openers is more than enough to convey hesitation, or you can leave them out entirely.
Do: “The other day I saw my ex-wife at the bookstore.”

Don’t:
Bill waved to Dan as he approached. “What’s up?”
Dan took a seat at the cafe table. “Not much. Nice weather though.”
“Yeah, sunny and warm. Did you see the big sportsball game?”
“Oh yeah, our team scored so many points. Good game.”
Bill squinted. “Anyway, here’s how the diamond heist is going down.”

There’s no need for all the filler! Just get straight to the good stuff.

Do:
Dan glanced around and joined Bill at the cafe table.
Bill squinted. “Here’s how the diamond heist is going down.”

Stilted Dialogue

Another common issue with dialogue is that it can be “stilted” meaning that it is robotic, stiff, or awkward, much like walking on stilts when compared to natural walking. The best cure for this is to read your dialogue aloud, because your ear will know (if it doesn’t, study some award-winning books and see how they write tight dialogue). Overall, you’ll find that stilted dialogue typically doesn’t use enough contractions, has too many opening and closing phrases, and doesn’t sound the way people actually talk.

Don’t:
“How are you doing today, Mr. William B. Williams?”
“How am I doing today? Why, I am very well, thank you, Ms. Joan Rutherford. And how might you be on this fine evening in May?”
Good grief! Unless this is for comedic effect, we need to tighten that up.
Do:
“How are you, Will?”
“Good enough. You?”
Do:
“How are you, Mr. Williams?”
“Very fine, Ms. Rutherford, very fine indeed.”

Purple Prose

Purple prose is a name for overly-complex writing that distracts the reader and breaks their immersion, rather than immersing them deeper in the story. Typically the author is trying to show off or trying to seem smart and poetic, but they end up working against these goals.

Purple prose typically includes overwrought ideas that could be more simply communicated, long-winded descriptions, mixed metaphors, and unnecessarily large/complex words, all of which distract the reader and break the immersion such that the reader is paying attention to the words and not imagining a story.

I’m not going to try and write purple prose, because I don’t want it polluting my brain. Here’s an example from this article:

The mahogany-haired adolescent girl glanced fleetingly at her rugged paramour, a crystalline sparkle in her eyes as she gazed happily upon his countenance. It was filled with an expression as enigmatic as shadows in the night. She pondered thoughtfully whether it would behoove her to request that she continue to follow him on his noble mission… 

Let’s take a stab at rewriting it so it’s not ridiculous.

Jane glanced across the table at Jack and brushed her long brown hair behind her ear. She blinked her eyes slowly, trying to make them sparkle in the candlelight, a move that her sister had said “always worked.”

Jack drained his mug of brown ale and wiped the foam and slop from his grizzled, squared-off jaw. “I’ve been thinking you should get going.”

She fumbled her wine goblet, sloshing a bit over the rim. Get going! He was trying to give her a brush-off? She fingered the stiletto concealed in her dress. If he wasn’t going to take the bait, she’d have to find another way to get those jewels.

Fundamentals: Grammar

Grammar is invisible to a reader, up until it strays from the standards of the English language. At best, poor grammar will confuse your readers; at worst, it will annoy and frustrate them.

In the same way that you need to know traffic rules to successfully drive a car, or you need to understand music notation to be a successful composer, you need to understand grammar to be a successful writer—no matter what your definition of success is!

Participle phrase misuse

By far the most common grammar problem we encounter in critiques is participle phrase misuse. It’s so frequent that we have a separate article on it.

Sentence fragments

Sentence fragments are also known as incomplete sentences. Sentences can be as short as one word, but they need to have a verb and a subject. It may be tempting to write without using complete sentences because. It. Feels. Dramatic. but it will quickly annoy or confuse your reader.

One-word sentences, like “Move!”, have only a verb (action word), and the subject (usually “you”) is implied.

Don’t: Bob pushed Tim away from the soda machine. Hard. “Move!” he yelled.
“Hard.” is a sentence fragment—it is not a complete sentence. Only verbs can be one-word complete sentences.

Do: Bob pushed Tim away from the soda machine. “Move!”
“Move!” is a complete sentence—it’s a verb issued as a command.

Two-word sentences have a verb and a subject.

Don’t: My dog Barfy ate his dinner. Super fast. Then Barfy barfed.
“Super fast.” is a sentence fragment.

Do: My dog Barfy ate his dinner super fast. Barfy barfed.
“Barfy barfed.” is a complete sentence because it contains both a subject (Barfy) and a verb (barfed).

More on sentence fragments.

Subject/verb agreement

This is very simple stuff that can usually be caught by reading your story aloud. Most people know this stuff intuitively because it will “sound wrong”.

Don’t: “I were running in the woods. I thought monsters was chasing me.”
Do: “I was running in the woods. I thought monsters were chasing me.”

Long sentences with large separations between subject and verb can still be troublesome.

Don’t: “The gray dog, that is, the oldest one of the hundreds of sled dogs, were resting inside his dog house.”
Do: “The gray dog, that is, the oldest one of the hundreds of sled dogs, was resting inside his dog house.”

More on subject/verb agreement.

Pronoun antecedent problems

Pronouns are words like “he” and “she” and “they” and “it”. They are used as placeholders for another word (usually a person, place, thing, or idea). When in doubt, play it safe and re-use the original word rather than the pronoun.

Don’t: “Stan and Bill went fishing. He caught a red snapper.”
In this case, we don’t know WHO caught the red snapper.
Do: “Stan and Bill went fishing. Stan caught a red snapper.”

Don’t: “The Bloods and Crips were ready to rumble. Then they ran off.”
Which gang ran off?
Do: “The Bloods and Crips were ready to rumble. Then the Bloods ran off.”

More on pronoun reference issues.

Mismatched verb tenses

A verb is an action word. The “tense” of a story is usually past or present. The tense affects the form of the verb that you use. Make sure to be consistent throughout the story and stick to one tense unless you need to change it to be clear about when something happened.

Past tense: “The judge sentenced me to twenty years. I swore my revenge. I broke out of jail, found the judge, and threw a pie in his face.”

Present tense: “The judge sentences me to twenty years. I swear my revenge. I break out of jail, find the judge, and throw a pie in his face.”

Future tense: “The judge will sentence me to twenty years. I will swear my revenge. I will break out of jail, will find the judge, and will throw a pie in his face.”

Note that the past perfect tense is used when describing an event that happened before the current point in time in a story.

Past tense: “I took my dog outside to poop, and he dropped a big one.”
Past perfect tense: “I had taken him out to poop the day before, but he didn’t go.”

More on tenses.

Using the wrong word

We can all think of examples that sound foolish, but we’ve also all been guilty of either mistyping or misunderstanding words. There are so many of these, but here are a few of the most common:

Affect – a verb (action word). – The movie didn’t affect me.
Effect – a noun (a thing). – I loved the movie’s special effects.

Could of, would of, should of – these are wrong
Could have, would have, should have – these are correct

i.e. – means “that is”. – He was a moldy soul, i.e. he never bathed.
e.g. – means “for example”. – He was rotting, e.g. mushrooms grew on his toes.

It’s – a contraction of “it is” or “it was”. – It’s cold out today.
Its – a possessive pronoun. – The dog chased its tail.

Lie, lay, lain – to recline or to rest.
I lie on the couch. I lay on the couch. I had lain on the couch.
Lay, laid, laid – to put something down.
I lay a new asphalt driveway. I laid a new asphalt driveway. I had laid a new asphalt driveway.

Lose – a verb meaning to misplace something. – Don’t lose your marbles over this.
Loose – an adjective meaning sloppy or untied. – His necktie was too loose.

To – specifies a direction, or is used with an infinitive verb. – I flew on my dragon to the castle. It is nice to have a dragon.
Two – the number (2).My dragon burnt up two soldiers at the gates.
Too – meaning “also.” – The king and queen got torched too.

Their – indicates possession. – Their house is falling down.
They’re – a contraction of “they are.” – They’re the weirdest people I know.
There – a place. – Don’t go in there, honey.

Then – indicates what happens next. – We went in the mausoleum then the crypt.
Than – used for comparison. – The zombie was nicer than the mummy.

Weather – what the climate is up to. Hey Larry Bird, how’s the weather up there?
Whether – indicates a choice. – Larry couldn’t decide whether to ball or retreat.

Your – indicates possession. Your dog is ugly.
You’re – contraction of “you are”. Therefore, you’re ugly too.

Here are a longer list and another list of commonly-confused words.

Fundamentals: Punctuation

Punctuation is invisible to a reader, up until it strays from the standards of the English language. At best, poor punctuation will confuse your readers; at worst, it will annoy and frustrate them.

In the same way that you need to know traffic rules to successfully drive a car, or you need to understand music notation to be a successful composer, you need to understand punctuation to be a successful writer—no matter what your definition of success is!

Dialogue punctuation

This is by far the most common punctuation issue in fiction writing. English has standard methods for punctuating dialogue.

In nearly all of the world, dialogue is set off with double quotes “like so” and not with single quotes.

You should always create a new line (hit enter on your keyboard) for each new speaker or actor. This helps prevent the reader from getting confused as to what is happening or who is speaking.

If you have a speaker tag (“he said” or similar) then you need to end the dialogue line with a comma. Don’t capitalize the speaker tag—it’s all one sentence.

Don’t: “Put down the rocket launcher.” He said.
Do: “Put down the rocket launcher,” he said.

Even when ending with an exclamation point or question mark, don’t capitalize the speaker tag.

Don’t: “You put yours down first!” She replied.
Do: “You put yours down first!” she replied.

If you don’t have a speaker tag, then use a period (or !/? mark) and capitalize the next line.

Don’t: “I want a divorce. To the max,” she pulled the trigger.
Do:
“I want a divorce. To the max.” She pulled the trigger.

If you have a speaker tag in the middle of a line (as often happens), don’t break it into three sentences.

Don’t: “Once I find my organs.” He muttered. “you’re gonna be sorry.”
Do: “Once I find my organs,” he muttered, “you’re gonna be sorry.”

If you’ve got a long paragraph of dialogue, put the speaker tag as close to the beginning as possible so that the reader knows who is speaking.

Don’t: “You see, there’s no way out. Now let me explain my villainous plan. <several more lines of dialogue>,” Goldmember said.
Do: “You see,” Goldmember said, “there’s no way out. Now let me explain my villainous plan. <several more lines of dialogue>.”

The modern convention is to write dialogue tags with the speaker first.

Don’t: “Ahoy,” said Jim.
Don’t: “Ahoy,” said he.
Do: “Ahoy,” Jim said.
Do: “Ahoy,” he said.

More on dialogue punctuation.

Overuse of exclamation points

One exclamation or question mark per sentence is enough, and exclamation points should be saved for when they are truly necessary.

Don’t: “You lost the launch codes?!!?! Dammit!! We’ve got to nuke them first!!!!”
Do: “You lost the launch codes? Dammit! We’ve got to nuke them first.”

In general, exclamation points should only be used for exclamations, which are sudden cries or remarks that express a feeling or reaction (e.g. “Hey!” and “Stop!” and “Get him out of there!” and “Dang it!”)

More on this subject.

Comma splices (run-on sentences)

When you have two complete sentences that can stand on their own, they must be joined in one of three ways: a new sentence (1), a coordinating conjunction with a comma (2), or a semicolon (3).

Don’t: “That dog is vicious, he bit my grandma.”
Do (1): “That dog is vicious. He bit my grandma.”
Do (2):
“That dog is vicious, and he bit my grandma.”
Do (3): “That dog is vicious; he bit my grandma.”

(1) Usually splitting into separate sentences is the best approach.

(2) Coordinating conjunctions you can use include the “FANBOYS” – for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. For example, “That dog is vicious, so he bit my grandma.” Note that these can change the meaning of your sentence.

(3) In general, you should avoid the use of semicolons (and colons) in contemporary fiction writing. Unless the reader can parse these esoteric punctuation marks automatically, they will break the reader’s immersion in the story.

More on run-on sentences.

Too many commas, or not enough

Use commas only when needed to make the meaning clear. Comma use is a broad topic, but in general use commas for the following purposes: to separate items in a list, to join a dependent clause to an independent clause, and to separate absolute phrases.

Don’t use too many commas
Don’t:
“I put on my black, wool, ski mask, and walked, into the bank.”
Do: “I put on my black wool ski mask and walked into the bank.”

Use commas to separate items in a list
Don’t:
“I robbed the bank with a gun a knife and a T-shirt cannon.”
Do:
“I robbed the bank with a gun, a knife, and a T-shirt cannon.”

Use commas with introductions or endings
Don’t:
“Well I don’t believe you.”
Do: “Well, I don’t believe you.”
Don’t: “That bank story is a joke Billy-bob.”
Do: “That bank story is a joke, Billy-bob.”

Use commas for interjections and non-essential bits of info
Don’t: Billy-bob who was rather tired today sighed heavily.”
Do: Billy-bob, who was rather tired today, sighed heavily.”

These are the most common issues, but there are many more rules on comma use.

Hyphens versus dashes

Fiction writing typically uses three sizes of dashes and they all do different things:

Hyphen (-) is used for certain compound words, such as compound adjectives and compound adverbs. When in doubt, use a dictionary to look up the compound word to see if it’s hyphenated. More details here.

Don’t: I am twenty one years old today, and my stupid ass friends are coming over to party
Do: I am twenty-one years old today, and my stupid-ass friends are coming over to party.

En-dash (–) is wider than a hyphen (the width of the letter N) and is used in specific situations: separating numbers, and showing opposing sides. You can make an En-dash with Alt+0150 on your keyboard (Option+0150 on a Mac). More details here.

Don’t: The score of the Brazil-Germany soccer game was 7-1.
Do: The score of the Brazil–Germany soccer game was 7–1.

Em-dash (—) is very wide (the width of the letter M) and is one of the most versatile punctuation marks. You can make an Em-dash with Alt+0151 on your keyboard (Option+0151 on a Mac). They are typically used with no spaces on either side, as shown below. More details here.

Em-dash in place of a colon
Option 1: My family only eats one thing: stale beans.
Option 2: My family only eats one thing—stale beans.

Em-dash in place of parentheses for emphasis
Option 1: Ronald lit a cigarette (the one I had poisoned) and took a deep drag.
Option 2: Ronald lit a cigarette—the one I had poisoned—and took a deep drag.

Em-dash in place of commas for emphasis
Option 1: I returned to the scene of the crime, ten years later, and dug up the jewels.
Option 2: I returned to the scene of the crime—ten years later—and dug up the jewels.

Em-dash to show someone being cut off by another speaker
Option 1:
He got down on his knees. “But honey, I’m sorry, I…”
She cocked the revolver. “Shut your face!”
Option 2:
He got down on his knees. “But honey, I’m sorry, I—”
She cocked the revolver. “Shut your face!”

Note how the use of the em-dash changes the effect of each sentence.  Also, while em-dashes are fun, make sure not to over-do it. Like exclamation points, make sure to use them sparingly so that their impact isn’t diluted.

Colons versus semicolons

In general, you should avoid the use of semicolons and colons in contemporary writing unless you absolutely have to. Many readers can’t parse these esoteric punctuation marks automatically, so a colon or semicolon risks breaking the reader’s immersion in the story. Writing is often stronger and easier to read if it’s broken up into separate sentences instead of joined with colons and semicolons.

That said, here’s how to use them correctly.

Use semicolons to link together related ideas.

Join two related sentences (independent clauses):
Don’t: Clifford bent down the branch, he wanted to launch the trapped cat.
Do: Clifford bent down the branch; he wanted to launch the trapped cat.

Connect list items that contain commas to avoid confusion:
Don’t: Watch out for hazards, namely, potholes, children, pets, and animals, zombies and ghosts, and angry police officers.
Do:
Watch out for hazards: potholes; children, pets, and animals; zombies and ghosts; and angry police officers.

Use colons only after a complete sentence to define an example or a list.

Don’t: I dislike: dogs, frogs, logs, and bogs.
Do: The things I dislike all rhyme: dogs, frogs, logs, and bogs.
Do: I dislike dogs, frogs, logs, and bogs.

More on semicolon and colon use.