The saying ‘show, don’t tell’ is one of the most abused and misused pieces of writing advice. As Ursula K. Le Guin states, if taken to heart it can inhibit you from describing at all. Says Le Guin: ‘Thanks to “show don’t tell,” I find writers in my workshops who think exposition is wicked. They’re afraid to describe the world they’ve invented.’
The truth is that some telling is necessary: Tell your reader what your world looks like. It’s neither better to show nor tell: It depends on whether action or description is best suited to your particular story at any particular point in your narrative. As Le Guin says, ‘dread of writing a sentence that isn’t crammed with “gutwrenching action” leads fiction writers to rely far too much on dialogue, to restrict voice to limited third person and tense to the present.’
When you’re worried that you’re telling too much and showing too little, ask: Is this information crucial to the story? Does it illuminate anything important about my characters and their world? If the answer is ‘no’ to both these questions, it’s not that you’re showing or telling too much but that the passage is irrelevant to your story. So cut it.
Are there enough active verbs? Instead of using adverbs, use verbs that carry descriptive power. Instead of ‘she stared bewilderedly’ say ‘she gaped’, for example. Sometimes you are too close to your own writing to know whether you’re striking the right balance.
Writing a good book also requires skilled characterization. Some genres do allow characters that resemble cardboard cutouts. In a typical James Bond story, a bond girl is always a bond girl. A suave assassin is always the typical suave assassin. More interesting installments in Ian Fleming’s franchise have been those where the hero displays a surprising vulnerability or the ‘bond girl’ is more than a sex symbol. The story doesn’t only peddle worn out tropes.
To make your characters diverse and well-developed, do at least some of the following: Give your characters flaws: Nobody’s perfect. Your hero might be brave in some circumstances but irrationally fearful in others. Sketch brief backstories for each important character: Real people have histories. They have upbringings, triumphs, disappointments, aspirations.
Create contrasts between characters: Characters who all talk the same, look the same or think the same are dull. Find interesting differences. Give your characters identifying attributes: Think of someone important in your life: Do they have odd sayings that nobody else uses? A distinct way of pronouncing a certain word? How do they walk and carry themselves? Give each character a signature detail or two.
Grow your characters: How do your characters change as the events of your novel unfold? A major event such as the discovery of a hidden superpower or a death in the family creates cause-and-effect ripples.
What do many of the best-loved movies of all time have in common? Memorable dialogue. If you pay attention, characters in great novels and movies don’t talk as we do in real life. We might say ‘um’ a lot, or repeat ourselves, or make small-talk that would be completely mundane to anyone listening in.
Writing a good book demands that even incidental dialogue serves the story. So what does script-worthy dialogue do? It: Tells the reader something about your characters and their relationships; Adds to tension and conflict; Furthers the plot by letting the reader piece together a larger picture.
This third point is the ‘subtext’ of dialogue – the reasons, feelings, suspicions (and so forth) underlying characters’ conversations. Thinking about detail such as this and incorporating it in your dialogue sometimes will add depth and dimension. Why does a character not look another in the eyes while telling them an extremely important fact? What does the combination of speech, gesture, posture, movement tell your reader?
Strong internal story logic
One of the most common features of ‘bad’ writing is that the story makes no overarching sense. Maybe the heroine’s actions completely contradict her psychological description and backstory. Or else there are sequences of scenes that don’t seem to contribute cohesively to the whole.
To ensure your novel has strong inner logic make sure that the bulk of your story answers the central questions you set up: The narrative purpose of a scene (why the author is sharing this event) should make sense when examined alongside the whole arc of the story.
Make sure your characters’ actions make sense: In the greatest novels, characters’ actions are a mix of inevitable (according to their motivations and personal histories) and surprising. If characters act completely against the personalities and backstories you create, they may seem inconsistent and confusing.
A good balance of tension and release
Whatever you want to call it – rising action and falling action or build-up and climax – tension and release keeps readers invested in the outcome of your novel. Because balancing action and tension release is key: Create a suitable amount of conflict and suspense for your genre: Your reader will naturally expect a greater amount of tension and suspense if your novel is a classic thriller.
Have mini-resolutions along the way: It could work to have your story just keep building to a single epic showdown between protagonist and antagonist. But you can create variety and interest by having mini-conflicts and resolutions on the way to the central conflict resolving.
Combine different types of tension: Your story might pit your protagonist(s) against other characters, the environment, or an internal struggle. Alternatively, tension might arise more out of plot uncertainty rather than direct hostility.
A sense of originality
Many of the landmark novels of the last few centuries have built on their predecessors but also offered something new. Even though Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) tells the story of a secondary character from Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre, Rhys uses this to tell her own story about gender and racial politics.
In doing so, Rhys recombines existing characters and existing worlds into something entirely her own. To stay original make sure that you: Avoid common story clichés; Give borrowed characters or plot structures a personal twist: What matters to you?; Put your own unique background, history and points of reference to use. Nobody shares both your history and perspective so draw on both.