Less Is Always More.

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Don’t tell anyone. Please. This is a tremendous secret that, as an author, I could be judged harshly for:

I love editing. I love having word limits. I love going through and finding things to cut. To me, it’s like taking an ugly, clumpy blob of clay and cutting and shaping it until it’s something beautiful you can set on a book shelf with pride.

But I didn’t always feel this way. I’m naturally a very detailed person when it comes to verbal or written storytelling. When I first began writing the manuscript for my Sophia’s War series as a newbie writer when I was 19 years old, it was 303,300 words and the sequel was 245,034 words. I remember thinking, “If anyone ever tells me I need to cut my word count, I don’t know what I could possibly cut! Everything I’ve written is absolutely necessary!” That’s a very immature, inexperienced outlook to have.

However, if this is the stance you currently have on your own work, take heart! Give it time! With more writing under your belt (and more reading. Don’t forget the reading!), you’ll come back to that manuscript in a few months or years and you’ll be astounded with how merciless you become. You’ll hack through those excessive words and superfluous details with glee to find the well-groomed story underneath.

I’ve begun taking the approach that if I even think I should cut it, I cut it. (If I’m on the fence about it for any reason, though, I have a document titled “Spares” that I paste these lines or dialogue onto just in case it fits better somewhere else later). Something that helps me is, I read the sentence or dialogue with and without the line or words in question. 99% of the time, it sounds more concise and less contrived without it.

Another thing we have to keep in mind (and something I struggled with for years) is to trust your readers. They aren’t stupid. You don’t have to point out why something is funny or why a character makes certain decisions. That was one of the most liberating things for me to discover as a writer. I felt it improved my writing by a tenfold. There is a way of doing this without making it feel as if you are rushing through or skipping necessary transitions.

So don’t balk at word limits or being unsparing during the editing process. These restrictions can be your best friend, if you let them. To me, these limitations make your editing process more liberating than encumbering.

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What is your opinion on word limits? On cutting sentences or whole paragraphs from your works?

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The Art of “Show, Don’t Tell.”

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The whole idea of “Show, don’t tell” was one of the most intimidating concepts for me when I started writing my first novel nine years ago. Now, it excites me; I see it as a challenge. It’s too easy to just say “Mary was angry,” and much less interesting.

What do you envision when you read that? “Mary was angry.”

The throbbing temple?

The clenched fists?

The red face?

Why not just say that instead? It’s those little details that are going to jump out at the reader and paint a picture for them. That’s what makes readers feel like they are in the character’s head, seeing and experiencing emotions and events firsthand.

Show, don't tell!

Show, don’t tell!

And that’s the goal. You want your book to be written in such a way that the reader forgets they are even reading. You want it to play like a movie in their head. The way to do this is with vivid, seamless description.

I am about to break a cardinal rule by using an example from a film rather than a book, but that’s only because this was the first time the “Show, Don’t Tell” technique began to click in my head. It happened while watching the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice.

Aside from fact that it was not proper etiquette for the time period for a woman’s bare hand to touch a man’s bare hand in such a manner (which I didn’t know until researching glove etiquette for this article), there was something so significant to me about this scene. Watch it here:

From the moment I saw this movie for the first time, I loved this scene, but I wasn’t sure why. Now, as an author, I do. It’s because no one ever says out loud what Darcy and Elizabeth feel for each other. Darcy and Elizabeth don’t even say what they are feeling; we see what they are feeling, the way Elizabeth’s lips part and she stares in surprise upon feeling the bare touch of his hand on hers. She doesn’t yank it away, showing us that she’s not embarrassed or scandalized by it. Even more revealing is the way Darcy turns around, as if he’s not even sparing their physical contact a second thought. In contradiction, though, we see the way he stretches his hand at his side as if in discomfort, conveying to the viewer that he’s feeling an ache he isn’t comfortable experiencing.

There are little tidbits like this throughout the film before they declare their feelings to each other, but this one was always the most striking to me. These little “showing and not telling” moments are stepping stones in a novel or film, a buildup that allows the climax to really pack a punch. This is why Darcy’s proposal to someone he purportedly views with condescension (Elizabeth) doesn’t come out of left field for the viewer. If we weren’t given these little signals beforehand–if the tension wasn’t being built under the surface–the big reveal wouldn’t have such a potent, memorable effect later. If we weren’t already primed for the possibility that Darcy and Elizabeth were falling in love, we would feel nothing when he finally proposes to her. It would just seem implausible.

However, there is a very fine line we authors must walk. Yes, we must drop hints, but we have to be careful not to come right out and say it. It’s okay for the readers or viewers to assume or hope, but we don’t want them to know for certain until we are ready for the big reveal to actually occur. Showing–and not telling–is definitely an art that must be perfected over time.

So it’s okay if you feel you haven’t mastered the skill yet, or if you feel you don’t even understand how to do it properly yet. Just keep trying, and most importantly, keep writing. What I’ve discovered–for myself at least–is that I improve a little and grasp the concept a little better with each sentence, each novel I write.

So don’t give up! We’re in this together! You’re doing great!

sunset skies

For more great articles on the art of “Show, Don’t Tell”, check these out!:

Helping Writers to Become Authors: The Secret to Show, Don’t Tell

The Write Practice: The Secret to Show, Don’t Tell

Five Incredibly Simple Ways to Help Writers Show and Not Tell