Storytelling isn’t as easy as it seems
by Anne R. Allen
Making mistakes is how we learn. Some beginning writer mistakes are so common they’re almost a rite of passage. Here are five I see all the time. I think I did every one when I was starting out.
Taking “Show Don’t Tell” to Extremes
It’s drummed into every beginning writer’s brain: SHOW DON’T TELL.
But the truth is that storytelling actually involves a whole lot of telling.
Yes. “Show Don’t Tell” is generally a wise piece of advice. When we’re starting out, we need to learn that instead of telling the reader, “Uncle Brewster was not a nice man,” it’s better to show Uncle Brewster knocking that scoop of Rocky Road off a kid’s ice cream cone or kicking a stray kitty.
But the show-don’t-tell rule can lead to some snoozifying storytelling.
The beginner can be so terrified of “telling,” he keeps everybody in the dark for pages. Readers may have to plow through half a chapter of description of a character’s high visibility Nomex jacket, Phenix helmet, SCBA mask, and red suspenders before they find out the guy’s a firefighter.
The reader just wants the protagonist and the kitty to be saved from the burning building already. It’s okay to tell us the fire department has arrived to put out the fire. Yes, that’s telling. But it’s necessary for storytelling.
For more on this, see my post on Why Show Don’t Tell is Bad Advice.
Too Much Dialogue
This was a biggie for me early in my writing career. I’d spent decades in the theater, so I thought in terms of a script. I also thought scenes with dialogue “showed” more about the characters, so I was following the old “show don’t tell” dictum.
But too much dialogue can slow a story to a crawl.
Agent Noah Lukeman wrote in his classic book The First Five Pages, “Dialogue is a powerful tool, to be used sparingly…it is to the writer what the veto is to the President…if you overuse it, people will resent you for it.”
So instead of giving us a whole chapter of dialogue between an arsonist and his mother, arguing about whether he needs therapy, you can tell us “Freddy liked to start fires, a habit which greatly upset his mother.” Then he can get on with setting fire to the building where our protagonist is trying to rescue that kitty that Uncle Brewster kicked.
More in my post, Do Your Characters Talk Too Much?.
Thinking Worldbuilding Equals Plotting
This is especially a hazard for new writers whose chosen genre is fantasy or science fiction. They’ve got this fabulous idea of a planet inhabited by all of Earth’s pagan gods. The gods are furious because Earth people don’t believe in them anymore, so they’ve decided to invade Earth and replace humans with a race of cat people.
Only two intrepid archaeologists can save the human race after they translate a prediction of the invasion in an ancient runic text that’s been buried for decades in the bowels of Harvard’s Weidner Library.
So the author spends the first half of the book writing about the history of the pagan god planet Elysium and all its different countries and the dress and architecture of each, and how Thor and Zeus and Quetzalcoatl totally hate each other.
Unfortunately, they may forget about getting back to the intrepid archaeologists in the bowels of Weidner Library.
I know it’s fun writing all that description of the planet Elysium and its inhabitants. But if the conflict between the gods and humans is your actual story, don’t leave it hanging there.
If the process of worldbuilding develops into a different story, with characters and a plot, then you might want to rethink. If that budding attraction between Thor and the Egyptian cat goddess Bastet develops some tension, you might make that your story and edit accordingly.
For more on what to do and not do with your worldbuilding, here’s a great post from epic fantasy author Will Hahn.
Withholding Information Instead of Storytelling
This one drives me bonkers.
I realize there’s a certain kind of jokey storytelling that withholds information as part of the fun. Like where Brianna and Stanley are found dead on a mound of broken glass surrounded by a puddle of water and you’re supposed to figure out how they died.
What you need to figure out is that Brianna and Stanley are goldfish. The storyteller has withheld that tidbit of information.
But withholding crucial information throughout a novel only makes your reader furious.
They read page after page of mysterious goings-on in the bowels of what might be a university library, trying to figure out where the *&%# they are and why these two intrepid archaeologists think they have to save the human race from cats.
It’s not until you’re halfway through the book that you find out you’re in some kind of future Cambridge, Mass. that’s been invaded of by the inhabitants of the pagan god planet Elysium.
This may explain why intrepid Harvard archaeologists Briana and Stanley, who were both having a thing with a catty visiting lecturer named Bastet, are now afraid their ex-girlfriend plans to exterminate everyone in Massachusetts, and maybe the tri-state area.
And we still don’t know why Bastet ran off with that big Norwegian lout with the hammer.
And at this point readers don’t really care. They’re tired of being kept in that dark basement.
If you’ve got a good story, tell it. The conflict should be between the characters, not the reader and the author.
Confusing Violence with Story Conflict.
This is probably the most common mistake of all. I ran into it often when I was working as an editor. It’s especially a problem with fantasy and thriller authors. They hear that readers want conflict on the first page, so they start a story with a huge battle or street fight involving lots of sharp, pointy weapons and mayhem and gore.
But sharp, pointy weapons and mayhem and gore do not equal storytelling. Until you introduce characters we can care about, we’re not just in the dark. We don’t care.
Readers need to form an emotional connection with the characters before they care about whether they survive the battle between the Harvard Professors and the Cat People from Outer Space. Otherwise they might as well root for the Cat People, who are better looking (and fuzzier.)
Conflict doesn’t have to be physical. Violence is not conflict. A couple of archaeologists shooting cats in Harvard Square is violence. Bastet and Thor arguing whether they should exterminate tenured members of the Harvard archaeology department is conflict.
By Anne R. Allen (@annerallen) February 21, 2021
What about you, scriveners? Have you ever fallen into these storytelling mistakes? Or thought you should be doing these things because they seemed to follow the “rules” more than your own writerly instincts? What part of storytelling is hardest for you?
BOOK OF THE WEEK
THE LADY OF THE LAKEWOOD DINER
A comedy that pokes fun at the myth of a Golden Age, making parallels between the Grail legend and the self-mythologizing of the Baby Boomer Generation.
Someone has shot aging bad-girl rocker Morgan Le Fay and threatens to finish the job. Is it fans of her legendary dead rock-god husband, Merlin? Or is the secret buried in her childhood hometown of Avalon, Maine?
Morgan’s childhood best friend Dodie, the no-nonsense owner of a dilapidated diner, may be the only one who knows the dark secret that can save Morgan’s life. And both women may find that love really is better the second time around. Think Beaches meets Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.
“A page turning, easily readable, arrestingly honest novel which will keep you laughing at yourself. Who doesn’t remember crashing on a mattress at a friend’s apartment with the stereo blasting Iron Butterfly and no idea where you’ll stay the next night? A cultural masterpiece for the discerning reader.”…Kathleen Keena, author of Adolescent Depression, Outside/In