Monday, July 26, 2010


Updates: I'm now the proud recipient of an award for the top 45 mystery book blogs. I never applied for it, so it came as an out-of-the-blue surprise.
As for the house, the contractor hooked up the kitchen sink, garbage disposal, water line to the fridge and most of the dishwasher Friday. I'm hoping that by the time you read this, he'll be well on his way to getting the stove installed, and the bathroom sinks plumbed. The end--at least of this phase--is in sight.

When I began writing, my crit partners would often return my pages with passages labeled R.U.E.--Resist the Urge to Explain.. I think it's a common "beginner's" mistake and I thought it might be worth a mention.

Anyone who's undertaken writing has heard "Show, Don’t Tell"—probably more times than they've wanted. This isn't a hard and fast rule, because often telling is more efficient than showing, and done well, gets the point across. But too much telling, especially when it comes across as author intrusion can put the brakes on the pace of your story, and can do exactly the opposite of what the author intended.

For example, "Mary laughed so hard, she was afraid she'd pulled a stomach muscle. Susie had just told the funniest joke Mary had ever heard." The second sentence isn't needed; it's explaining something the reader would be able to figure out in context.

The goal of any fiction writer is to get readers to care about the characters. We want there to be an emotional connection, so we often tell our readers exactly what the character is feeling. However, saying "Mary was depressed" doesn't pull the reader in as effectively as showing Mary's actions. Did she stay in bed until noon? Eat a box of chocolates? Not eat anything at all? How did being depressed affect Mary's actions? That's what you need to show.

Another pitfall—telling something, then going on to show it. Let's say you're beginning to understand the "show don't tell" and you do put the action on the page. For the sake of example, a simplistic passage might be written as follows:

After Bill canceled their date, claiming his aunt was sick, Mary was depressed. She took one bite of chocolate cake, then pushed the plate away.

The second sentence shows what the first tells. If you find this in your writing, use your delete key on that first sentence. A better approach:

Mary had been looking forward to her date with Bill for weeks, and he'd cancelled, giving some excuse about a sick aunt. She moved the chocolate cake around the plate with her fork, then pushed it away.

The reader gets the information, and can see that Mary's depressed without having to be told. You can use the same to show other emotions. Maybe Mary was angry, not depressed, after Bill canceled. Maybe she throws the whole cake against the wall.

What about this?

Mary's feet felt like lead. She couldn't run fast enough to escape the man chasing behind her.

Cut the first sentence. You don't need both. What about: Mary ran, but her feet refused to move fast enough to escape the man chasing her. Or, Mary's feet moved as though encased in lead shoes.

Sometimes, we tell the reader too much.

Mary twirled up two strands of spaghetti and waited for the excess sauce to drip onto her plate. Leaning forward, she manipulated the fork into her mouth, then wiped her mouth with her napkin. She was a very careful eater because she hated getting stains on her clothes.

Don't insult your reader with the last sentence. No need to explain. We can see for ourselves Mary is a meticulous eater.

Another common place writers need to Resist the Urge to Explain is in dialogue. Too often, we tack on tags or beats that tell the reader what the dialogue has already shown. Are you adding adverbs to your dialogue tags?

"I'm sorry," Tom said apologetically.

Those adverbs are usually signals that you're telling something the dialogue should be showing. They're propping up your dialogue, and if it needs propping, it wasn't strong enough to begin with. All that 'scaffolding' merely calls attention to the weak structure beneath.

Will your reader notice these differences? Probably not, but they might not enjoy the read even if they can't explain why. However, agents and editors are tuned into them, and if you're submitting, you don't want to send up any red flags.

Check your manuscript for 'emotion' words, especially if they're preceded by "was" or "felt." Are you describing your character's feelings? Don't tell us how your character feels. Show us.

Check your dialogue tags and beats. Are they consistent with the words being spoken? If so, you don't need them. If not, your readers will be confused, trying to reconcile dialogue with the action.

Readers are smart. Don't patronize them by 'talking down' to them.

Tomorrow my guest is Jacqui Jacoby, who's talking about moving forward. Don't forget to come back. And don't forget about my ongoing contests. There's a tab at the top that lets you know what the current contest is, how to enter, and what the prizes are.


Mason Canyon said...

Congratulations on the award. It's especially nice to be surprised sometimes.

Thoughts in Progress

Linda Leszczuk said...

Congratulations and thank you for the excellent writing tips. But, as much as I hate to reveal my ignorance, what does R.U.E. stand for? (I'm going to hate myself for asking when it turns out to be really obvious, aren't I?)

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Congratulations on your award! And...great tips.

Terry Odell said...

LOL, Linda - guess I should have explained. Actually, I thought I had. Just proves how hard it is to proof your own writing. We see what we expect, not what's there. I've fixed it, but it's Resist the Urge to Explain. Guess I resisted that urge too well!

Su Halfwerk said...

Congrats, Terry.
This is a great post, I especially liked the last two paragraphs; they summarized the rule (and how to avoid that pitfall) perfectly.
Great job!

Terry Odell said...

Elizabeth - thanks on both counts

Su - glad my tips were helpful. Specifics are always more helpful to me than generalizations--although I tried not to explain too much!

Stacey said...

Congratulations on the award, Terry. What a great surprise! Show, don't tell was a concept I never thought of as a reader only. But once I started writing professionally, I realized how important your tips are. Thanks for the reminders.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on your award Terry. Your advice is excellent! I've written a book for teen writers and your advice is perfect for them. I'll be linking to this article at I wish you continued success with your writing!

Carol Kilgore said...

Congratulations on your award!

This is a great post about showing vs. telling, and it "shows" by example. Good job :)

Terry Odell said...

Stacey - we all need reminders from time to time, don't we?

Wrightwriter-thanks for the link!

Carol - Yep, always better to show when possible

Jemi Fraser said...

Good post - I always have to go through my first drafts and eliminate all of these insluting extra tagged-on explanations. My first drafts are littered with them. :)

Patricia Stoltey said...

Such a lot of good advice here, Terry. Going to tweet you post now.

Patricia Stoltey said...

I don't know why I'm having so much trouble with my "r" on "your." I keep doing that.

Terry Odell said...

Pat - thanks. Don't worry about the 'r'. I'm sure I have plenty of spares. But if you have any extra question marks, I'm always forgetting those.

Terry Odell said...

Jemi - it's all about the rewriting. :-)

Elspeth Futcher said...

An excellent post, Terry, filled with good advice and examples.

Terry Odell said...

Elspeth - glad the examples made sense.

Cricket McRae said...

Congrats on your award, Terry! And R.U.E. is always good advice -- thanks!
Hearth Cricket

Donna Fletcher Crow said...

Congratulations on your award! and the launch of your new book. Keep going, Terry!

Terry Odell said...

Cricket, Donna - thanks to you both.

Terry Stonecrop said...

Congratulations on the award!

More great tips, as usual. The examples are always a help:)

Maryannwrites said...

Congrats on the award. Well-deserved!!

And thanks for the reminder not to explain everything. Holding back can really build reader interest. What is happening? Why? What's next? Those are all questions that will come to a reader's mind when details are withheld. Keeps them reading, and that is what we want to happen.

Liana Laverentz said...

I never heard of this before. I do it, (resisit the urge to explain) but didn't know it had a name. Thank you for that tip! And congratulations on your award...what a lovely surprise!

Terry Odell said...

Liana, I can't tell you how many times I've discovered I've been doing something that actually had a name. I do think good writing can be organic, and you know when something works. But there are also a lot of things we need to learn along the way.

jean hart stewart said...

Congratulations, Terry. And I always spell check for was... RUE is one of my faults, I know, and it doesn't hurt to be reminded.

April Ash said...

Congrats on your've turned your blog into a great writing source.
Love the RUE info...don't we all fight that every time we write a scene?

Terry Odell said...

Jean, April - thanks, and yes, we have to remember that our readers can figure stuff out without being bonked over the head with explanations.