Tell me, don’t show me your characters’ emotions.

I have written other posts criticizing common bits of advice given to writers, and I have in fact hinted that I believe the emperor to all of them is naked, so here it is: Show, don’t tell. What is it good for? Not much really.

There are also some elephant-in-the-room-sized clues hinting that all this Show, Don’t Tell thing may be, at best, platitudes, and at worst, nonsense. First of all, the entire history of human literature. Pretty much everything written before the last 100 years was 90% Telling, with Showing sparkled here and there to enhance or highlight certain key passages.

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To fictional characters and minions: please, stop charging to your deaths.

You know you are reading fantasy because everybody is a suicidal lemming with no self-preservation instinct. In fact, you know you are reading modern fantasy because everybody (especially the bad guys) cares about his survival as much as the random pin-headed monsters that populate video games: “Oh, look, here’s that guy who has killed hundreds of [insert enemy] like me. Let’s attack him! I’m sure this time will be different!”

Knowing that the writer of a story is drawing most of his (probably unconscious) inspiration from movies or video games —worse, that he is not aware of that and believes he writes “realistically”— has been for a long time my #1 source of reading wrath and frustration. And there’s hardly a better place to see that in action than when characters are trying to murder each other, and since I’m talking about fantasy & adventure stories here, that seems to happen quite a lot.

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November 12 post: the participial phrase (-ing verbs) pandemic.

This post has been in my draft folder for a long time. It’s one of the most common issues I see in texts I read or proofread, and it’s also the one that more easily sets me off. I’m talking about the overuse of participial phrases or, as you probably know them, -ing verbs. They are everywhere, and although they can be used correctly, they usually aren’t.

This is the pattern, and once I mention it, you’ll probably recognize it: “Character A did X, Y-ing something else,” or “Protagonist said, twirling his mustache.” The participial phrase is the entire, well, phrase, “twirling his mustache,” not just the word twirling. Grammatically, they usually work as an adjective, modifying a noun or pronoun (like the subject.) I was surprised when I discovered that because I had intuitively thought they worked as adverbs, saying how something was done (How did he say it? Twisting his mustache) but in fact, they modify a noun, here, “Protagonist.” Basically, it’s like saying “The Protagonist, he-who-is-twisting-his-mustache, said.”

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November 11 post: the writing of old bestsellers vs. contemporary writers, a comparison.

If you have read some of my posts, it’s no secret that I can’t stand most contemporary fiction. The last few posts have been an attempt to explain, mostly to myself, why I rarely can’t get past the first paragraphs of most books I open. Some of those posts have been quite successful and a few people have told me they have had similar experiences, so I guess I’m not the only one.

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November 9 post: Deep POV is shallow (and harming fantastic fiction)

I don’t feel like writing a story today so I’ll make a post on writing. This post will pull together different issues I have hinted or referenced in other posts, focusing on what I believe has become a serious problem in fiction literature, especially what is known as ‘genre writing’: the death of the narrator. I blame what is known as Deep Point of View, although perhaps a new term would be needed for what I will talk about, perhaps Character-Only Narrative, but Deep POV will have to do because nobody would know what I’m talking about if I start talking about CON.

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November 5 post: STELLAR characterization

For today, a writing post.

I’ll show you a trick to help you with indirect characterization. Well, actually, I will tell you why you shouldn’t do that — or not as much as is common nowadays.

If you have spent some time looking up writing guides and the like, you might have come across something called the STEAL method. I don’t know original the source of the ‘method’, I guess people take the acronym very seriously, but it’s relatively popular. Basically, it’s a mnemonic to help you remember some ways to, indirectly, shape a character according to its Speech, Thoughts, Effects (on others,) Actions, and Looks.

It’s not a bad method, but keep in mind that it’s indirect characterization, which is a bit overrated anyway. In fact, indirectness is a common trait in contemporary fiction, and I’d say it’s even a fad, and a harmful one. From the obsession of showing over telling, or deep POV/narrator vs. a freer one, it seems people are terrified of just stating things directly and using their authorial/narrative voice and superpowers. This is direct characterization, and pretty much all telling over showing, with a mostly omniscient narrator who knows things nobody else does:

“Mr. Pricklebotton was a cantankerous old man, bitter of the new world he didn’t understand and longing for a past he misremembered. His only living object of affection was a stray dog he sometimes fed, but not very well. And in the non-living category, he loved all the garbage he had accumulated during his long life, a habit that had gone from amusing pastime to fire and health hazard as he grow older, the trash piled up, and he began to straddle the line between eccentricity and senility.”

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The sneaky “there was” and writing filler & crutches

I was going over a piece I had written when I found this seemingly innocuous sentence: “He talked to them in his crude Japanese and told that there was a group of Chinese civilians, around twenty, that was coming in their direction.” I usually do two or three proofings of the stuff I write, and this is why the second one is so important, to catch stuff like that.

Now, the sentence may not be awful, but it made me cringe a bit because I felt I heard it scream something like “I have been written by an amateur! Come and take a look!” Without much effort, I rewrote it into this:

“He talked to them in his crude Japanese and told them a group of twenty Chinese civilians was coming their way.”

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Bad Writing: Amazon bestsellers edition

The original goal of this post was to write a mini-essay on something that annoys me about contemporary writing. As far as I know, it has no name, and I struggled to find one, so I had to settle for something as cumbersome as “mid-action or mid-description beginnings.” Essentially, the story starts in media res, but not in the middle of the plot, but in the middle of a scene, with people (sometimes a lot of people) doing, sometimes exciting or action-related, stuff… for no reason we can discern. No goals, context, purpose, or meaning are given. It’s just a picture, like a movie scene (and in many cases, it shows the writer imagined it as such.)

The protagonist can be fighting another person (and we know nothing about them so we have no reason to care,) sweating profusely from some equally strenuous activity, engaging in a heavy dialogue with a character we know nothing about, or sometimes it’s a cliché-ridden description as the character prepares to do one of those things (the standard in fantasy until a few years ago was to describe, for some unfathomable reason, the sky – usually a sunset or dawn- and how that light reflected on the local vegetation.)

The opposite, of course, is to start like all stories have always been written, with a small, perhaps only a single sentence, explanation about the why, where, and when so we can contextualize what is happening and will happen.

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