Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Strong Writing is in the Details

Next to my desk is a bookcase filled with books about how to write novels. All are very good. I’ve learned a great deal from them. Three of the main rules that are quite often given have to do with “details.” The rules are 1) show don’t tell, 2) get into a scene late and get out early, and 3) don’t put the cart before the horse. Details play a part on how to apply these rules.

Let’s begin with the first one--show don’t tell.
Okay all writers are probably guilty of this, especially in the first draft. For instance a scene might start like this…

I surveyed the battleground covered with bodies. War was horrible. I hoped I’d never have to fight again.

Talk about boring. That sentence is horrible. So let’s fix it.

An eerie quiet stole over the gory ground laden with bodies of horses, men, and young warriors. I surveyed the area around me. I’d heard about the devastation of war in my own time, the twenty-first century, but being a girl of only sixteen I’d never actually seen it up close, never fought in a battle … until today. Death was cold, grisly, and unforgiving. The scent of blood snaked through the land as steam rose from the dead. Division banners lay broken and discarded. Earth mourned her burden. The engagement for Cumeni, which had been furious and long, was finally over.

Okay, now you have show without tell. The trick is in the details. Details flesh out the scene showing you what the protagonist sees, smells and feels. Details and lots of them help make this scene in the sequel to The Forgotten Warrior seem real.

Let’s look at rule number two—get into a scene late and get out early. Sometimes books start with the beginning of time, such as…

The morning was cold and bright with the sun rising over the purple sage mountains as Regi drove to Twiggs Cafe.

This is okay, but where is the hook? What would make the reader want to read more?
What’s needed is to get into the action late…

“Regi, I don’t want you to get upset or cause a scene.” Stew Rankin, the owner of Twiggs Cafe, slung a towel across his right shoulder as he looked her square in the eyes. He leaned on the counter, his nutcracker face set in a stern take-me-serious gaze. Stew was in his late fifties and grass-blade thin. His fuzzy hair fit his head like a knit cap.

This is the opening of my book, River Whispers. The reader is dropped into the scene late—in the middle of a conversation no less. Obviously something is going on and it must be pretty important or why would Stew not want Regi to become upset or cause a scene? The reader has no idea what Regi’s morning was like, but he/she does know trouble is brewing and wants to learn more.

Now for the “get out early” part of this rule. A major problem could result in ending a scene on a flat note, such as…

Regi walked up the riverbank, pulling on her fishing line. Stepping through willows she found a dead man.

What’s flat about finding a dead man? Well, where are the details? How did Regi feel about about finding a dead man? Who is the dead man? And where is the hook to keep the reader going? Let’s beef it up.

Regi parted the willows and tromped up the bank. Stumbling over rocks, she followed the line─and found it caught on the sole of a boot. Her eyes trailed up brown denim pants, over a cocoa-stained jacket, a discarded Smoky Bear hat, and a ranger patch.
Bile rose to her throat.
Gooseflesh swooshed across her skin.
She was looking into the lifeless eyes and mud-plastered face of Park Ranger Curtis Romney.

This is the end of chapter one. The reader has a hard time not turning the page to the next chapter. Do you see the difference? Details and lots of them.

Now the third rule—don’t put the cart before the horse. This is tricky. Many times even experienced writers do this.


Regi let her line fly. She cast her line backward and forward until it arced just right.

Wait a minute. The writer states an action then shows it. This results in confusion and actions become muddled. How can Regi let the fishing line fly before she casts it back and forth and before it even arcs? What the writer needs to apply is the simple abc order of how things happen.

Try this…

Regi cast her line forward and backward until the arc was just right, then she let it fly. The reel zinged as the line flew over the current and lazily floated onto the water’s rippling surface.

See how much better it is to go step by step. Again the best results are in the details.

In applying all three rules--show don’t tell, get into a scene late and out early, and don’t put the cart before the horse--the fix is usually in fleshing out the details and bringing them clearly into focus. Try it and see if it works for you.


  1. Those opening lines for show don'ttell really makes me want to read your sequel.

  2. Thanks, David! Wish I could tell you when it will be released. Still waiting on my publisher. :(



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