Category Archives: Mary Pletsch

When to tell, not show

When to “tell, not show”

Most writers know the maxim “Show, don’t tell.”  And, like many such catchphrases, there’s a good reason for it.  Narration informing a reader that two characters are best of friends isn’t going to be as effective as a scene that illustrates their friendship.   Multiple pages of description can be dull to read if the description has nothing to do with the ongoing action.  Few people enjoy being preached at by the author through the medium of the book.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only writer who’s been bitten by this rule.

The fact is that I’ve discovered there are some times when telling is more appropriate than showing.  There are some times when too much show makes for long, rambling, wordy novels that range far away from the main plot.  These are times when entire chapters are devoted to showing a single thought, idea, or plot point that could be conveyed in a paragraph, or sentence, of tell.  The main storyline gets lost amongst all the digressions that show, show, show everything.

I think of my first serious novel attempt, where I made certain to show the reader who my characters were and what events had shaped them as people.  80,000 words in, I was ready to start Chapter One.  That’s when I stopped working on the book.  Not just because I’d planed a 120K novel, not a 200K one, but because the 80K words had little to do with the story I actually wanted to tell.  They were just the foundation.

I once read a novel draft in which the writer was preoccupied with character location; any characters separated from the main group got individual scenes showing where they were.  Sometimes this information was relevant (under attack by an enemy) ; too often it was not (shopping for groceries, going to the coffee shop).   This novel has since been edited with some tells-if the writer was certain that readers would wonder why a character wasn’t with the group, another character  saying “Joe’s at the grocery store” took the place of a wholly unnecessary scene.

Another pitfall of showing is too many flashback scenes.  Flashbacks need to be handled carefully so the story doesn’t come across as fragmented.   I don’t want to pepper my novel with flashback scenes of my character at age eight…at sixteen…at twenty-one…at twenty-five…particularly not when a paragraph of tell can take the place of an entire flashback scene’s worth of show.   Unless the flashback scene is necessary to the story,  I want to look for other ways to convey what happened in my character’s past that shaped them into the person they are at the time of the story.

Show, don’t tell is a good maxim for writers who want to develop their characters, draw readers into their world, and allow their readers to draw their own conclusions from their characters’ actions.  But for those of us writers who tend towards the wordy, the overwrought, and the irrelevant, a plot can be tightened up considerably by some judicious usage of tell.

Filing Off the Serial Numbers: Part One — Fan Fiction

Filing Off the Serial Numbers:  Part One

Fan Fiction

There’s a lot of buzz surrounding E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades” trilogy, an erotic romance series that originated as a “Twilight” fan fiction.  Beyond the discussion of the series’ spiciness (too much for some and not enough for others) are the raised eyebrows over the trilogy’s leap from a derivative of a popular series into a popular series in its own right.

I’m not a copyright lawyer, and therefore not an expert in “how much change is enough” to turn a fan fiction into a marketable story.  But if you’ve got a hard drive full of fan fiction epics, and are debating following in the footsteps of “Fifty Shades,” here are some things to consider:

Can I create an original setting and still have the story work?  Your lead character is a witch?  Fine.  Your lead character is a teenage witch attending witch school?  Okay.  Your lead character is a teenage witch attending witch boarding school and wins fame by participating in a witches-only sport played while riding on brooms…  If your story falls apart without Quidditch-or any other signature elements of the franchise that inspired it-it’s not going to work outside of fan fiction.

How much can I change the characters and still have the story work?  I suspect “Fifty Shades” would have been a harder sell if the romantic lead had remained a vampire-but the central themes could still be conveyed with a human character.  This is nothing against vampires and everything about the amount of flexibility a writer would need to change her lead from a direct import of someone else’s character into a unique character in his own right-particularly a character who would logically fit into the new setting.  If your tale of star-crossed lovers absolutely demands that the beleaguered couple be giant shape-shifting robots, or if your story is an in depth character study of Captain Kirk and therefore dependent on the personality remaining exactly the same, it might not be possible to make it work outside of fan fiction.

Wait, isn’t this going to involve an insane amount of editing?  Yes, yes it is, more than just swapping out every “Mal Reynolds” for  a new name of your choice.  At this point, you might be asking yourself if it’s worth it, and if you couldn’t write something new in the amount of time it takes you to do that editing.

I can’t answer that.  I can’t answer how much passion you feel for the story you’ve written or how much confidence you have in the quality of the end result.  I can say that I’ve seen a writer (Christine Morgan) build an excellent novel (“Black Roses”) out of what was originally a fanfiction short story; the novel took the central plot from the fanfiction (a woman gets a supernatural stalker in the form of an incubus, which begins to murder her past lovers and now threatens her current love) and retold it with original characters and expanded details in an original setting.  In this case the author’s passion for a plot concept-an idea that was not irrevocably tied to someone else’s characters or world-spawned a strong original story.

Part 2:  What if I’m not borrowing from fan fiction, but from real life?

What I Did (and Didn’t) Learn from Writing Fan Fiction (Part Two)

My fandom years writing fanfiction helped me a great deal.  By providing me with an audience of fellow fans, and the inspiration to write regularly on a subject about which I was passionate, I grew from a juvenile writer into a teller of stories.  However, when I changed my focus from fan fiction to original novels-something I could publish-I realized there were certain aspects where my fan fiction experience had not helped me.

Worldbuilding from scratch.  In fan fiction, you’ve got a setting already laid out for you.  This is more than just physical locations; it’s the “rules” of what is possible in that world.  How does magic work?  What technology is, and isn’t, available?  What is the major conflict?  What are the central themes?  Building an internally consistent set of rules isn’t easy, and it’s vitally important:  a poorly designed set will leave readers wondering why something previously impossible is suddenly possible, or why the hero struggles under restraints that don’t bother the villain, or why the hero is at odds with the villain to begin with.

Character introduction.  In fan fiction, a writer can assume his readers are going to know who Naruto is, or who Spock is, or who Bella is, and all the important details about the character’s appearance and personality.  In an original work, writers need to remember that if they don’t convey it, their readers won’t learn it-and better yet if they can convey it without the old “my character looks in the mirror and describes what she sees” trick.

Cast dynamics.  In fan fiction, even if you make up your own characters, you’ve also got a main cast of canon characters to work with.  There’s a difference between adding a new character into an established cast, and building, from scratch, a group of characters with believable group dynamics.  In short, every group has a “character” of its own.  A group comprised of five dynamic leaders-or five timid wallflowers-isn’t going to last, or convince your readers of its believability, unless at least some members of the group begin evolving and changing to fill different roles.

Professional discipline.  If you get bored with a fan fiction story, you can go do something else.  Or turn your originally-intended romance into splatterpunk horror.  You’re not getting paid; you can do as you please.  It’s entertainment.  This isn’t the case when you’re under contract to produce something on a certain subject in a certain time frame.

When to walk away (Internet fame vs long term career); or, If you don’t want to be an amateur forever.   About three years ago I was getting a lot of positive feedback from my fan fiction.  Writing quick short stories, posting them on the internet, and enjoying the response was a thrill; putting another 5000 words on a novel was a long slog in comparison.  In the end, though, a complete novel-something publishable-will be a bigger accomplishment, and with this goal in mind, fan fiction is now an occasional treat for me, not the focus of my writing.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with amateur writing-writing for pleasure.  It’s a state of mind where people can explore and experience, hone their craft, and learn to love the act of creation.  Nor do I think there’s anything wrong with the choice made by several fan fiction writers of my acquaintance who, although they have story telling skills equivalent to professional authors, choose that they would rather pursue something else to earn a living, and reserve writing for a hobby-something they do for entertainment.

Creating original work for publication is a different experience from the fan experience.  It requires privacy-putting samples of your original work up on the Internet may disqualify your work as being “previously published,” or open you up to having your work plagiarized.  It requires you to create something that will excite and interest you, through the long hours of crafting something that’s not already a pop culture phenomenon.  It requires a dedication to persevere and a consideration for the desires of your readers and potential publishers.  It requires the groundwork to build a coherent world for your characters to inhabit.  These factors have nothing to do with the quality of the work itself, and everything to do with the creation of a professional writing lifestyle, as opposed to an amateur’s hobby.

What I Did (and Didn’t) Learn from Writing Fan Fiction (Part One)

Fan fiction has a mixed reputation because it is amateur writing.  That’s not a judgment of its quality, which can range from juvenile  to truly excellent, depending on the individual writer’s skill.  Merriam-Webster defines “amateur” as “one who engages in a pursuit… as a pastime rather than as a profession” ( and that’s exactly what fan fiction is:  writing for pleasure, rather than for hire, or with the expectation of selling the finished product.

Fan fiction will always be amateur writing because, for legal reasons, it’s usually not sellable.  Fan fiction writers are borrowing other people’s characters and worlds, typically without permission, so fan fiction exists in a legal “grey area.”

One of the hardest things for me when I began to write with an eye towards publication (as opposed to for my own entertainment) was to largely give up fan fiction.  I simply don’t have enough writing time to be able to make good progress on my professional projects while supporting ongoing fan fiction series.  And, when I made that switch, I found there were some aspects where fan fiction hadn’t helped me develop as a writer, as opposed to other areas where I benefited greatly from what I learned while creating my reams of amateur stories.

What I did learn from fan fiction?

Voices and characterization.  As I borrowed others’ characters, I began to recognize when phrases or actions seemed out-of-character for them.  This skill helped me develop more individualized original characters.  Different people have different manners of speaking, different standards of behaviour, different motivations; once you know these things about a character, you can extrapolate what the character will do in any given situation.

Change comes gradually.  If you want to take a character in a new direction, or portray a relationship that’s not explicit in canon, you need to show the changes evolving in a manner that seems natural and logical.  Similarly, in my own writing, changes of heart needed to take place gradually and believably.

Tone, mood and theme.  When I made up original characters, I discovered that some fit the already-established tone, mood, and theme of the universe, and others really didn’t-even though they were great characters on paper.  Some of them even found homes in other stories, where they fit much better.

The value of a writing community.  In my early days when I was writing drek, I benefited from having a community of fans willing to take the time to read the drek and offer feedback.  I also shared tips with other fan fiction writers.  I saw how much more difficult it was to get an audience for original fiction by a beginner author.  Having a shared interest in a TV show, manga, movie, or other fictional universe gave me something in common with my earliest readers.  The feedback gave me motivation to keep writing until what I produced wasn’t exactly drek any more-at least, not all the time.

What I didn’t learn from fan fiction – coming next post.