Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Holy Crap. Too Much Jalapeno.

My eyeballs are sweating.

For anyone who's interested, this is a fabulous dip:

Nouli's Dip
200 g tofu
400 g sharp feta (I prefer Bulgarian feta)
2 or 3 jalapeno peppers (three gives a very nice flavour, but is pretty damned fiery)
1 tsp. salt

Throw everything in the blender and puree until smooth. Serve with raw vegetables, chips or crackers. Makes 2 cups of dip.

Yoghurt may be substituted for tofu and dill or baked garlic may be added according to tastes.

Note: This is an innocent-looking green dip. If you're taking it to a party, you might want to warn people...

Tuesday, June 26, 2007


Every eleven years, there is a peak in the number of sunspots observed on the Sun. No one knows why.

Currently, we're in a trough. For the past week, there have been NO visible sunspots. This is a problem if one's astronomy students are supposed to be measuring the rotation rate of the Sun via the motion of sunspots; oh my, yes. Thankfully, a lovely zit on the face of Sol rotated into view yesterday. Hurrah!

If you focus the Sun's image onto a piece of paper, such that the image of the Sun is magnified to about 10 cm across (4 inches), this sunspot looks the size of a pinhead.

This sunspot is actually slightly bigger than planet Earth.

Which brings me to the idea of scale. My first draft of my novel didn't hold together as a book. The scenes were fine, but the overall plot wasn't.

I've read books that had this flaw also. One in particular was - if judged scene by scene - freakishly brilliant. The world was vivid and exotic, the author rocked at the "show, don't tell" principle, and everything flowed beautifully.

For most of the book, the plot was great too, but in the last third, it became insane. The individual scenes were still wonderful, but they added up to something distressingly bad.

I've also read books that had the opposite problem (particularly in science fiction); the plot was good, but individual scenes weren't. Maybe the characters were cardboard or the dialogue flat, but the details of execution all seemed carelessly spackled onto an otherwise solid idea.

Which problem do you tend to have? Are your scenes little gems, but you struggle to make the plot logical? Or do you crank out solid stories that are marred by how desperately rough everything is in the first draft?

In other words, are your sunspots well-formed - or artfully arranged? What do you have to do to make them both?

Friday, June 22, 2007

Take me back, Sweetheart! I've changed my ways!

I'm finding blogging every day challenging and I'm afraid I will have to give that regularity up.

I have learned surprising things from the experience of daily blogging, however. I've learned I can come up with a good idea (with effort) by forcing myself to it. I've learned I'm too persnickety about making sure I say exactly what I meant to say and that every character, every comma is typed correctly. (Even short blog posts took me about an hour to write; even this one is starting to stretch itself out.)

I also learned I could sit down on evenings when I felt tired and out of ideas and write something. Something I felt pleased with.

Which means I should sit down, even on evenings when I feel tired and out of ideas, and write my freakin' novel instead of my steenk-ing blog. No more whining about how I'm a slow writer, either. Apparently, I'm just making excuses.

I shall attempt to blog once or twice weekly from here on in. Adieu for now, my pretties; my literary sweetheart awaits me tonight.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Freecycling Ideas

I just joined Freecycle. This is a program where, if you have something that is perfectly useful but which you don't want anymore, you can offer the item on your city's Freecycle newsgroup. If someone wants it, that person will arrange to come get it from you. The only stipulations are that the item be legal and that it be offered for free. (I'm getting rid of an aquarium.)

This got me thinking about copyright, idea-poaching and genre.

Ideas are free. If you tell me your great idea for a novel, and I then steal that idea and write the novel myself, I get all the money because the work of art is mine. The idea was yours, but lick it up: ideas have no intrinsic worth. It's what you do with them that matters. The art is mine, therefore the money is mine.

Nobody likes an idea-thief, of course. However, we all borrow ideas from one another. It may be part of why humans are such successful beasties.

I've noticed that if, when I'm demonstrating equipment to my students, I do some simple thing that makes the experiment run more smoothly, all my students will emulate that technique. If I don't do that thing, virtually none of my students will think the method up on their own. I'm not telling them to do it - they just recognise it's a good idea when they see it.

Good ideas are hard to come up with; this is why ground-breakers are so revered. Recognising a good idea, however, seems to be something humans are uniformly clever at.

Which leads to genre. Someone thought up the monster called a vampire, but no one considers themself an idea-poacher for writing stories about vampires. At worst, we recognise we're using a stock character. We also note, however, that vampires are a good idea, and popular. It would be difficult to come up with a new monster that would resonate with our audience quite so well.

And I'm sorry, but it's bedtime and I don't think this post is going to wind itself up in a coherent fashion. I've been trying to find my point for several fruitless minutes now. The questions I'll end with are:

How hard do you try to be creative? How often do you use stock characters and stay within the boundaries of genre? How often to you try to build something completely new? Do you try to have the best of both worlds by taking a genre and turning its conventions on their head? What's your diabolical plot when it comes to world-building for a novel?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Know Thy Character's Default Emotion

My cousin once used the term "default emotion" to describe how people react under pressure.

Stress someone a bit and their default emotion starts to show. Perhaps they become aggravated. Perhaps morose. Perhaps fretful. Perhaps they become inhumanly efficient and focused.

Characters in art also reveal their true selves under stress. You will know the hero's fine character by how he conducts himself in a bad situation, and you will know the villain to be a jerk by the same.

A plot is all about stressing your protagonist. You give them a problem, let the problem snowball out of control, and then document all the sad, desperate flailing your main character does as they leap from one attempted solution to another.

Your protagonist's qualities should be revealed by their flailing. If they're intelligent, they should come up with clever solutions, if they're courageous, they should do something brave, etc. The resolution of the story's plot should be something only the protagonist - with all their personality quirks - was equipped to bring about.

Which gives rise to an interesting dilemma - do you come up with the character first, and let their personality dictate what the story's resolution has to be, or do you come up with the climactic scene first, and let it dictate what sort of person your protagonist must be?

Which method do you prefer to use, and why?

Monday, June 18, 2007

Zombie Monday

In honour of zombie Monday (when I am a zombie; this has nothing to do with the zombie apocalypse that happened last week), I present fluff.

Fluff takes little brain power on my part and is thus perfect for zombie Monday. Here is something that amuses me every single time I watch it. Turn off your brain and enjoy.

You Are a Pirate!

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Backstory as Ammo

I was sick yesterday, so I'm blogging today, now that I feel human and am dependably spending longer than an hour at a time conscious.

One of more interesting points in Story by Robert McKee is how to handle backstory.

Inserting backstory is always tricky. A big dump of it bores the reader. It also shows a lack of effort on the part of the writer.

I still struggle with this. I prefer to insert backstory bit by bit. Important things get mentioned in dialogue and I trust the reader to put the big picture together themselves. The problem then becomes crowbarring everything I need in without the conversations beginning to sound like "As you know, Bob, ..."

McKee stresses throughout his book that a story is created by consistently opening a gap between the result the character expects to get from their actions and what they actually get. (The audience should be surprised by these gaps also.)

Mr. McKee then says the best way to insert backstory is to use it as ammunition. Let it take the form of a revelation - Character One says something, expecting a certain response from Character Two, and instead Character Two drops a verbal bomb on Character One.

The example Mr. McKee uses is when Luke Skywalker accuses Darth Vader of killing his father and Vader replies, "Luke, I am your father."

Ka-boom. Now the audience's minds go racing back through everything in the films prior, putting together the backstory and feeling shocked and elated by the sudden surprise. It's a very satisfying moment for a film-goer.

This strikes me as a really neat technique, and it's one I've never used before. I wonder if it would be sufficient for the world-building needs of the average science fiction or fantasy writer, however.

I'd love to start a discussion of this in the comments. What do you think of this method of handling backstory? Do you think it's practical? Do you use it?

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Ego v. Crushed Ego

Thanks to everyone worldwide who helped with the zombie smackdown. There's always more students to be found, so no worries about my job security, either.

I mentioned on Monday I'd found a clutch of bum chapters in my novel. Today on the bus - despite my tendency toward motion sickness - I scribbled down quite a lot of good ideas for dealing with them. I'm quite pleased, not that I was distressed before.

That lack of hysteria is notable. I do still oscillate between thinking my writing is brilliant and thinking it's a big reeking pile of poo, but the euphoria and despair are both better-tempered now. I have faith in my ability to think through problems and awareness that nothing I write will ever be perfect.

I think all writers go through these cycles. When you get done writing a novel, you think it's gold. And you're quite wrong. (Although hopefully not completely wrong.)

The egotism that accompanies this euphoria gets in the way of improving that piece of writing. It can also lead to unfortunate moments of Being An Ass; for example, you may request people read your work, smug in your expectation of praise, only to end up in a snit when you get constructive criticism instead.

Once you recognise your work's imperfections, you can start improving it. However, at that point, you're also so depressed about your lack of talent and immense capacity for self-delusion that you question the wisdom of bothering.

It's a weird tightrope to walk. On one leg of the chicken, you can't write a hundred thousand words without believing you (and your writing) are awesome, but on the other, you can't make the writing awesome until you notice all the myriad ways it isn't.

I have gotten mellower about my writerly equivalent of a menstrual cycle, and it is simply experience that gave me that mellowness.

How do you handle your ups and downs? What do you do when self-doubt sets in, and how do you keep yourself from querying your work the millisecond you finish it?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

My Students Are a Bunch of Zombies


I teach in the summer. Of course my students are occasionally brain-dead and unmotivated. Sure, they're sometimes even a little hostile to me. All the same, I've never had a day like today before.

I always start my labs on time, so I was already talking when the majority of the class begins to shamble in at 2 o'clock. It's not my problem if another instructor keeps them late, so I just waved everyone to the front (spectrometers are best demonstrated when the students can see which bit I'm pointing at) and kept talking.

No one was hurrying, let me tell you. I started talking about how to calculate the angle of one's spectral lines correctly, an exercise that requires hand gestures.

And someone tried to bite my finger off.

He didn't get me, or I wouldn't be typing this right now. I jerked away from the kid (I think his name was Toby) and that's all that saved me from the one who was going for my neck.

Now I understand. Now I see why I hadn't been able to get into the prep room earlier - Bob, the technician, had barricaded the door and is probably still in there, safe and sound. Trust an engineer to know precisely how deal with the zombie apocalypse.

I managed to shove Toby into, um...her last name is Sandhu, but I can't remember her first name - and then I grabbed the overhead projector and brained both of them.

I feel bad for my timely students - they had their backs turned and thus, rather rapidly, became untimely. That kept most of the horde off me, however, although I couldn't make it past them to get to the exit.

Thank goodness I work in a physics lab. We warn the students about the high voltages in the discharge tubes and I already had one plugged in for the demonstration. I snatched it up and as zombie fingers reached toward me, they met the business end of the socket. Although this didn't kill the shamblers, it made them temporarily uncoordinated and also set a few on fire. Apparently even zombies find that distracting.

I also had the class set of ten digital calipers. If you've never seen a pair of calipers before, they resemble a slide rule with a set of metal jaws on one end. If wielded like a hammer, they do a lot of damage. I soon had about eight blind zombies. Blind zombies are very ineffective zombies.

That left five effective zombies and these, unfortunately, had realised I was a problem that needed to be dealt with prior to feasting on the flesh of their dead classmates.

However, I was unstoppable. You think I've never considered how to kill my students before? Please; I've been teaching for ten years already. I was in my element.

I danced by the shamblers, hopped up on the side counter and - Bob is going to kill me for this, because he only just installed the new monitors yesterday - I started flinging computers and cathode ray tubes around.

I'm now locked in the physics lab with a lot of zombie corpses, and no, there isn't any food in here, but there is clean water, electricity, and lots and lots of geektastic school property just begging to be inventively turned into weapons.

Really, I haven't had this much fun in years. You all knew physicists were a little bit crazy, didn't you? This is great. I've already rewired the van der Graff generator.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A Writer Gets Veryveryvery Subversive

While doing my daily round of blogger-jogging, I came across a short lament about The State of Things - or perhaps the lament was actually about The Lowering of Standards. Personally, I thought it sounded like a variation on The Problem With Kids Today.

The woe-and-gnashing-of-teeth was over the idea that - thanks to the internet, video games, television, etc. - society as a whole has a poor attention span and vocabulary. The implication is that we've been dumbed down relative to some golden yesteryear.

I think this is a case of applying outdated (if only by a few decades) standards to a new world. Humans are humans; we have not been dumbed down. We're just smart about different things today.

Given the popularity of blogs, chat forums and interactive gaming, the current generation is more inclined to communicate via the written word than their parents were, and probably even more than their grandparents were, given that email and text-messaging are so much faster than posting a letter.

Does this generation (of which, by the way, I am far too cranky and unsupple to be considered a member anymore) communicate at a lower level than previous generations? Definitely. But they do more of it, so what's so surprising about that? Their focus is on accurate communication and the subtle art of virtual socialising, rather than strong vocabulary and the ability to write a grammatical sentence.

Although I cringe to see grown men and women who never capitalise anything (Don, from work, I am lookin' at you), I don't think this is a sign that society is crumbling about our ears. It isn't fair to criticise the young for doing what makes sense in today's world. Face it: for email and internet chatting, emoticons are as important as punctuation.

Sure, we're losing something - liek lettrs n stuff, ppl - but this is because the world has gained something else. Every day, ordinary people build tight-knit and personal communities that span the entire planet. How beautiful! The ease and speed of informal communication is what made this possible.

I love words, and I want society to be properly literate, but for a lot of very intelligent and productive people, taking the time to learn to write perfect English is impractical and unnecessary.

If what I just said left you sputtering, consider this:

There is an algorithm for working out a square root by hand, on paper. Do you know how to do it?

No? So why aren't you willing to spend half an hour to learn this very basic math skill?

Perhaps because - for you - it's impractical and unnecessary?

Monday, June 11, 2007

Zombie Monday

I can see Mondays are going to be an unsafe bet for me blogging about anything worthwhile. I get home late and lack of food/energy tends to lead to a lack of ideas/interest.

Vaguely writing-related news? I've discovered a small clutch of chapters in my novel that need to be reworked extensively. Le woe. However, I at least know what I need to do, if not exactly how I will accomplish it. The problem seems tractable.

'Though not tonight. *ZZZzzz...*

Friday, June 08, 2007


In what follows, I really don't know what the hell I'm talking about. I'm just saying what sounds plausible to me, but my style is to speak as if I'm stating facts. I'm not. These are my opinions and I'm no expert. Feel free to agree, disagree, or point and laugh! As always, I'd be delighted to hear your thoughts, even contrary ones. :-)

Marketing. I've read a lot of literary agents' blogs, and some really stress the importance of marketing your novel.

Do book signings! Hand out book plates! Speak at conferences! Network! Brand yourself! Get hustling; don't you want a writing career?

I don't believe this is as important as they think. I'll explain why in a moment.

First, let me say I think the publishing industry is delightful. Hype does not create a bestselling novel and advertising does not create a bestselling novel. Only merit creates a bestselling novel. What turns a mild-mannered work of fiction into a roaring beast of ka-ching-ka-ching! is word-of-mouth endorsements. People wander into bookstores and browse for whatever looks good. If they buy and read something fantastic, and love it enough to start telling others, those others will actively seek the book.

All marketing can do is inspire curiosity in the initial "I'll take a chance on it" buyers. If they remember the writer's name or the cover art from somewhere, then they might pick the novel off the shelf where otherwise they would have walked by.

Marketing won't convince them to take the book home, however. It will only convince them to take a look at it. They'll buy the novel only if they decide - there in the bookstore - that it looks enjoyable or worthy.

Marketing also won't convince them to talk about the book with anyone. That's a spontaneous phenomenon brought on by the quality of the novel itself (which is why such endorsements carry weight.)

So marketing your book can only make people give your novel a chance; it can't generate appreciable sales. Only the quality of the novel can do that.

And if you don't market at all, but have a great book? As long as it's in the bookstores, it will probably do fine. Dark horse bestsellers happen every year.

In other words, don't stress about marketing; that's putting the cart before the horse. To quote my hero, just write well.

Well? Am I a blithe fool? An idjit who makes a decent point? Let me know your opinion!

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Mary Sue: The Writer's Sweetheart

Definition: A "Mary Sue" character is an impossibly good, cool or powerful character in a work of fiction. Often, she is an authorial self-insertion character or wish-fulfilling fantasy. A "Gary Stu" is the male equivalent of a Mary Sue.

(For your entertainment, subject your protagonist to the Mary Sue Litmus Test!)

I think Mary Sues (I use that term in a gender-neutral way) are a stage all writers go through. We start by creating self-insertion characters - reflections of ourselves - and eventually learn to create very warped and unrecognisable reflections.

The main character of my novel-under-construction started out as a Mary Sue (aeons ago). After I realised she was, the fix was simple - she became two characters. My protagonist now has a side-kick, and both women are more realistic for being less powerful. (They're also more interesting, because bifurcation didn't agree with them - they don't get along. Yay! More conflict!)

As I mentioned a few posts ago, I'm reading Story by Robert McKee (which is now overdue at the library... Oops...) Chapter 14 has the following: "A protagonist and his story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them."

In other words, your hero is defined by your villain. The way to make your protagonist more compelling is to make your villain a better foil for him.

Writers of Mary Sues get this backward. They try to make the character compelling by giving the Sue attributes like superpowers, exceptional beauty, and the obsessive interest of everyone the Sue encounters. Even worse, they often make the villain weaker, or more evil than believable, in order to give the Sue opportunity to shine.

The problem with Sue is that she's just too powerful. If she's obviously never going to lose, the story has no tension because it has no stakes.

In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass says your main character should have "stature". He then describes attributes that lend stature to a character, and some of these could be called attributes of the dreaded Sue.

I don't think these two books are giving conflicting advice; I think it's a matter of balance. Your protagonist can be a goddess, provided the antagonist is her equal (both in power and depth of personality.)

*cues the violins* Do you remember the first Sue you ever wrote? What was she like? Sexy? Powerful? Charismatic? Ridiculous? Was it true love, or did you manage to get over her?

*kills the violins* More importantly, what was your Sue's villain like?

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

What's in a name? Genus and phylum, if you're lucky.

Fantasy authors are particularly horrifying about naming their characters. Either you get Slewethellinythlinne the elf, or Slud Brainbiter the barbarian, or Kn'rth'n Qu'rf'thnx the...whatever. Likely as not, the author also wants you to believe these three people grew up together in the same isolated 62-person village, and none of them has ever acquired a knick-name. Not even Slewethellinythlinne.

If a character's name is too complex, my brain doesn't process it. I have read entire books with my noggin identifying the protagonist as Tre-*mumblemumble*, because the hero's name is too hard to decipher. And the author probably worked really hard to come up with such a cool name, too.

If a character's name is too weird, my brain has trouble remembering it's a name, and that means I have trouble attaching the name to its character. In The Bone Doll's Twin by Lynn Flewelling, the first character you meet is the wizard Iya. However, every time Iya showed up, I had to pause and puzzle out who she was again. I knew the character's identity - I just couldn't remember her damned name. My brain refused to attach it to her.

I love George R. R. Martin's approach in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. He uses names that are misspelled or simplified versions of names that are familiar, like Jaime, Eddard or Cersei. He also uses simple names that are easy for your brain to latch onto and which sound like names, such as Bran, Davos or Tommen.

The name needs to be pronounceable, and it needs to be easily identified as a name.

Now. Whenever I have need to name a character, I usually end up rubber-necking my apartment in distress, hoping my eyeballs will latch onto something I can use. I have only once named a character "Orchid", but you see the danger here.

I've learned to just give the blighters a name and get on with the writing. By the time I'm done my final draft, I'll have come up with something better.

If you're a writer, how do you come up with character names? Do you pull a nice collection of sounds out of the air? Use family/friends/coworker's names? Try to describe the person's character with their name? Or do you try to give them a "cool" name (such as our teenaged-selves coveted, like "Raven" or "Steel")?

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Ban the Love Song!

About half of all novels sold are romance novels. Half.

Le whoa. Romance kicks buttock.

However, romance novels get no respect. Movies, popular songs and literature of almost any genre feature love and sex ubiquitously, and yet the one type of novel that focuses solely on love and sex is vilified.

I assume this is because half of all novels sold are romances - anytime you've got that kind of demand for product, a lot of garbage is going to wind up on the market. That tends to give everyone in the field a bad reputation.

I don't like romance novels, but that's not a reason for me to sneer at them. I also don't like horror novels. It's just a matter of taste.

Verily, I am at peace with the romance novel.

Verily, what really annoys me is all the stuff that isn't billed as romance, yet which is packed with gratuitous love and sex.

Every movie has to have a love interest; every song has to feature the word "baby". The vast majority of people I deal with in life will never wind up in my bed, so why does romance have to be inserted into all my art? Why does sex have to sell so well?

Yeah, yeah; because of that biological imperative stuff. I know.

I'm not actually allergic to love stories at all; it's just there's too many of them around. I want to read/hear/watch art that deals with all the other amazing stuff human beings do, also. Love and sex have their place, but holy Hugo Weaving - ban the love song! I want to find out what else the lyricists have to talk about!

Do you adore romance? Erotica? Or do you disdain them? Either way, can you explain your love or hate?

And what do you wish there was more of in literature? What are you glad there's plenty of? What's your guilty pleasure?

Monday, June 04, 2007

A "thank you" echoes forth from the goblin mines

First of all, thanks to all who popped by my blog on the weekend and commented; that was a lot of fun! Thanks also to Elektra for linking to my last post via The Crapometer.

Today is blog-lite, simply because I've had the kind of day that inclines a person to whine. I haven't the energy to be anything but crabby right now.

Food is forthcoming; I'm sure all will be well again shortly. In the meanwhile, crabby goblin-smooches to you all.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Handbook for How to "Show" Rather Than "Tell" in Writing

This post ploinked into existence thanks to my attempts to give a critique on Elektra's Crapometer (a site whose (other) critters consistently hand out some of the most intelligent and helpful critiques I've seen anywhere on the internet.)

And let's face it: my love of yabbering as if I know what I'm talking about played a role too.

I hope this is helpful to you. Feel free to leave constructive criticism on the ideas discussed.

Goal 1: Notice how many times you use the "SUBJECT was SOMETHING" construction.

Examples of "SUBJECT was SOMETHING" construction:
"He was wet."
"Things weren't going as planned."
"The cat was half-starved."

The "SUBJECT was SOMETHING" construction is the most common method of "telling". You, the author, are stating a fact, and the reader's imagination doesn't need to engage for them to understand you. That means you've failed to draw the reader into your story.

For the reader, telling is dull. Telling will never make them care about what's happening in the story. I'll explain why in a moment.

However, telling saves a lot time. You can get your detective out of the house and over to the crime scene in a single sentence. If you showed that sequence of events, by painting his actions vividly in words, then it might take several paragraphs to accomplish the same thing.

Be aware of when you're telling, and do it sparingly. It's far better to use a paragraph where a sentence would suffice, rather than lose the reader's interest entirely because the story is dull. Telling is a useful writing tool, but don't use it as a crutch.

Goal 2: Strive to make the reader's imagination engage.

You want the reader's imagination engaged. As soon as it is, you've succeeded in pulling the reader in - the story comes to life inside their head and your writing has thus risen above simply being words that are comprehended.

To engage the imagination, paint the scene vividly with your words. You want the reader to see images, hear sounds, smell smells, and feel sensations. You want them to empathise deeply with the POV character because their mind is so tightly coupled to what the character is experiencing. This is called "showing".

The way to do this is to precisely and accurately describe sensations that the POV character experiences (including those due to emotion), rather than merely stating what is true for the character.

Example 1:
Telling: "He could smell Marcia's cloying perfume.
Showing: "Marcia's perfume crawled up his nose and clung to the back of his throat."

In the first case, the word "cloying" is an accurate term, but it's also the writer telling the reader what the perfume is like. It's far more powerful if you describe the sensation of breathing perfume so perfectly that the reader decides for themself, based on the description, that the perfume is cloying.

In the second case, the focus is on the sensation. The writer lets the description do the work of letting the reader know what the perfume is like.

One caveat: it's important that the description used gives the reader a sense of familiarity - they should be (unconsciously) thinking, "Yes, breathing in perfume feels exactly like that."

If your words describe a sensation that isn't familiar to the reader (e.g. "Marcia's perfume made the cavities of his nose try to expand"), the logic centres of the reader's brain become engaged. The reader thinks, quite consciously, "What does that mean?"

And that's a problem. We tend to use only one part of our brains at a time. When a burst of problem-solving occurs in a reader's brain, their imagination disengages to make way for that logic. This means that if your reader has to stop and puzzle something out, the story just died for them. They have been "kicked out" of the narrative - or more accurately, the story has been kicked out of the reader's imagination by their need to temporarily think a different way.

Goal 3: Work hard to avoid phrases that are commonly used, as the reader's mind is trained by familiarity to gloss over them.

Example 2:
Telling: "The sunlight reflected off the river and dazzled her."
Showing: "Sunlight smashed against the river's surface and its shrapnel lanced into her eyes."

Slightly purple, that second one. Sorry.

The verb "smashed" is a more unusual choice for talking about sunlight on water than "reflected" is. "[L]anced" is also more unusual than "dazzled".

The brain tends to slide past words that are used in a very typical way, because no imagination is required to understand what the writer meant. Unusual turns of phrase are more likely to make the imagination engage, simply because the brain has to work a bit harder to "see" the image. It's okay if the imagination goes into puzzle-solving mode, as long as the logical mind does not.

Obviously you can go too far with being unusual; your meaning has to be perfectly clear. You can say anything, provided it succeeds in making the reader imagine what you mean, rather than think about what you mean.

So What's Wrong With "Telling", Anyway?

The simple answer is that when we human beings are logical, there's no emotion attached to that process. And what makes a novel seem great to most people? The novel's ability to make us laugh, cry, and prickle with horror. The novel's ability to make us feel.

We want that emotional roller-coaster - an intellectually stimulating article can enliven us, but it has to be utterly brilliant (or obviously flawed) to get a stronger emotional response than that. We demand that novels grab us by the heart; it's what makes fiction potent.

When you "show", you engage the reader's imagination, which forces them into empathy - into feeling what the POV character feels.

When you "tell", you only communicate information to your reader. It's fast, but leaves the reader only passively involved in the story.

To make the reader believe your writing has power, you must make them feel something. That is the only reason why showing is preferable to telling.

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