How the Ultimate Novel Writing Course is changing my perspective

How the Ultimate Novel Writing Course is changing my perspective

We’re delighted to have Bob join us again to chat about his Ultimate Novel Writing Course journey. If you missed the the previous instalments in his blog series, catch up on them here.

Show, don’t tell is probably the first piece of advice you’re given when you learn to write stories. It certainly was for me.

For such a long time, I didn’t really know what it meant. Perhaps it was how my literal mind worked. I would think to myself, how can I show you something with words? Surely, I can only tell you. But as my skills developed and my understandings evolved, it began to make sense. In the end, we all have our own interpretations. But for me, showing is dramatising the action. I imagine myself as a movie director on a set, or as an invisible character in the room, watching everything unfold. Then I relay back what I see to the reader. And I try not to miss any details. All that’s then needed is a pair of scissors to cut away the fat.

But that’s great for descriptive writing. Emotions and senses, I believe, require a slightly different approach, or maybe just a different perspective.

For my own novel, I knew I had the physical action all taken care. I’m a visual writer, and I know what my strengths are and where my own confidence lies. The flip side of this, however, is that I know my weaknesses. And those are emotions and senses. Just so happens, the Ultimate Novel Writing Course had a whole month dedicated to this.

Determined to overcome this and grow as a writer, I took another look at my main character. Now that I knew him, having fleshed him out in previous months, I wanted to dig deep and imagine all the emotions he would be feeling. He’s physically strong, seemingly fearless, or so he would have you believe, and he hides his weaknesses, even from the reader. But his emotions will be there, fighting to get out, and this will make him react in certain ways, and it will make him pick up on certain things. These emotions will drive him through the novel. I just had to show them, even hint at them—especially if my protagonist was feeling particularly stoic.

Early on in my novel, my protagonist meets a woman. At first, he doesn’t give it much thought. It is something to pass the time, and he suspects she feels the same. But it made me think about what he would actually do. He liked this woman. He wanted to see her again. But he had a past that made that complicated, while he had a present that made that dangerous. Yet actions unfold that impact on her, and he decides to help. Not just because she is a damsel in distress, but because he feels it’s the right thing to do, perhaps the only thing to do. Through his actions, and his own internal thoughts, such as missing her, worrying about her, his anticipation of seeing her again, I had him behave true to his emotions.

But to really sell this to the reader, I focused on the nuances of emotions. My protagonist spends a lot of time in a fight for survival. Early on, he maybe doesn’t feel the threat as being a threat to his life, but he knows there is a lingering danger. His mood reflects this while keeping true to his character. Yet there has to be a change when the situation changes. I played with this by altering the dialogue when he meets this woman, making it more excitable, more jovial, more relaxed. And I altered his observations. For example, instead of seeing the dark clouds ahead, he saw a sky full of energy and excitement. Suddenly he’s an optimist! Changing the tone and texture of the writing can let the reader know of the shift in mood, too. To seasoned readers, it will be obvious. To light readers, it may only be felt. But when it all comes together, I hope the emotions are shown and not simply told.

Time will tell if I have solved this puzzle. But this month has helped start the process of cracking this particularly tough nut.

As always, I wasn’t alone in this. I had two group tutorials, a written report, a one-to-one session, and a monthly lead tutorial to help me get through it. So, no excuses, really.

We’re not currently accepting applications for our Ultimate Novel Writing Course but you can find out more here.

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  1. Imagining oneself as a film director may be helpful, but it’s important to remember that a book is not a film. The author of a novel can describe much that a screenwriter cannot show. Exposition is often tiresome and is sometimes a result of not trusting the reader to whom we feel the urge to overexplain. But it is possible to underexplain.

    Generic writing advice is dangerous because each writer has their own style, and good advice in one context can be bad advice in another.

    1. I agree, as Bob puts it it’s ‘great for descriptive writing’ but he goes on to say that to involve a character’s feeling, their emotions and senses, a different perspective is required. It’s interesting how simple advice like ‘show don’t tell’ can lead us into new ways of thinking, new ways of writing, helping us develop our own styles. How do you approach description, and has it changed over time?

      1. I don’t have a simple answer to my approach to description. It depends on the narrative voice, and there needs to be a reason for the narrator to notice what they describe. For example, let’s say we’re writing in the first person, and the narrator is a woman whose husband has a beard. If they’ve been married for, say, twenty years, and he’s always had a beard, there’s no clear reason for her to notice or remark upon it. She’ll notice if he shaves it off. She might notice if it’s gone a bit grey, and that might get her thinking about ageing and even prompt her to reappraise the last decades.

        1. Unless she’s thinking to herself and all these years I have hated that grizzly mop or maybe she’s thinking “heck, I don’t even remember what he looked like without facial hair.” For the record, my husband recently has grown a beard. I now call him Professor or Captain depending on the day and mood. Is he being preachy/teachy then he’s Professor but if he’s using a lot of imperatives with his First Mate… well, you know the answer to that!

  2. Description has always been a challenge for me, and Bob really reminded me that it is something every author must work on until he can show, not tell. When I write, I always imagine my scenes unfolding, but since I think impressionistically, it is hard to pin down exactly what things look like and describe them in a way that readers can understand. I’ll keep description in mind as I’m editing my MS. Thanks!

  3. Nota bene: “All that’s then needed is a pair of scissors to cut away the fat.” What’s needed is an eagle-eyed editor. Clearly, spellchecker alone is insufficient.