Pub Rants

Beginning Writer Mistakes (Take 2)

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STATUS: First day back in the office after being away is always a bit busy. There’s just a lot of catch up to do.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? WHAT YOU NEED by INXS

Tonight I was reading some sample pages (this time from material requested) and I hit on yet another newbie writer mistake. Actually, I need to clarify. This writing mistake isn’t relegated to just new writers. I see this error happen for seasoned writers as well. Writers who have enough talent on the page to keep me reading for a100 pages or so before I finally give up in exasperation.

Curious as to what it is?

It’s the mistake of telling instead of showing but in the guise of dialogue that seems to revolve around in active scene but if one analyzes what is actually unfolding, there isn’t any real action happening.

In other words, the characters are basically sitting around talking about their past actions or research or a discovery but the reader is getting privy to that information after the fact rather than having the writer write the scene where the discovery is made.

I’ll tell you right now that this is a tough error to spot as dialogue SEEMS to be moving the story forward but if you look closely enough, the dialogue is simply recapping an event or a discovery that happened off stage. Once the writer has fallen into this trap, it’s hard to break from it and ultimately the whole manuscript ends up suffering despite the occasional really fine bright spot or two in the narrative where a scene unfolds as it should.

And I wish I could share actual examples but I can’t. My clients don’t make these kinds of mistakes and the materials I’ve requested are private (proprietary info) and can’t be shared without permission. I can’t imagine too many writers would want to volunteer for that “honor” on this blog.

And will I try and point this out in my letter to the author? Sure but since I’m not going to dissect a scene where this occurs, I’m not sure how helpful my general commentary will be. I can only hope these writers seek external help from critique groups and/or already established writers to pinpoint this pitfall.

It’s definitely a writing foe worth vanquishing!

29 Responses

  1. Kristin Laughtin said:

    This is definitely a tough thing to avoid. I have one scene in my current MS that I know does this–it’s recapping a past event through dialogue, an event that took place fifteen years before the story. The event had been alluded to earlier in the story, and the characters are confessing and reflecting on their past actions and bonding over it so it’s not *just* a recap, but it’s still bothering me. I had originally tried writing it as a straight flashback, but it was pretty awkward and didn’t fit well. I still haven’t quite figured out how to get this scene/information in the story smoothly. *sigh* This is why I’m not querying with that MS yet.

  2. Sheila Connolly said:

    But, but… I understand your criticism, and I think often it’s just the writer trying to summarize what has happened, for benefit of not-so-bright readers (or maybe just for herself).

    But what about those situations with a larger cast of characters, when it’s necessary to bring the others up to speed on rapidly changing events, and also generate “aha!” ideas for the next step?

  3. Amy Nathan said:

    Thanks for the excellent insight. I’ve had critique recently that a bit of dialogue “didn’t move the story forward.” I had no idea what that meant — but with your explanation — now I do.

    Characters ruminating about what was, isn’t nearly as good as characters doing and readers figuring it out. I knew that, but being able to detect flaws in a scene or chapter is really key – as I like to show even my CPs my best first draft.


  4. Julie Weathers said:

    “I can only hope these writers seek external help from critique groups and/or already established writers to pinpoint this pitfall.”

    Bingo. I think that is the most important thing a writer can do. The good thing about a talented crit group is different people have different talents. One will pick up on one thing, while something else stands out to another. The drawback is one person may absolutely hate something that isn’t actually wrong, just a personal taste.

    I made the mistake of taking out a flashback because someone hates them. Now, I’m finding the flashback was the best way to impart this knowledge without it looking like an obvious info dump such as it did the new way. I was giving this information, as you pointed out, that happened offstage. The best way to do it really was the flashback as it was more exciting and immediate.

    I surely don’t know all the answers and still make a lot of mistakes, but a good crit group is worth their weight in gold.

  5. ilyakogan said:

    I cannot imagine a writer who would _NOT_ want his example analyzed. Why don’t you ask?

    I remember the same day you rejected my partial you had an analysis of what didn’t work in a hypothetical partial, except everything was spot on about my book. I still feel eternally grateful.

  6. cc said:

    Re: I can’t imagine too many writers would want to volunteer for that “honor” on my blog.”

    Like heck they wouldn’t — how quickly we forget Miss Snark’s famous Crapometer!

  7. JES said:

    The terror of writing honest-to-God good dialogue: if anything brings on night sweats for me, it’s that. I’d like to believe that this paranoia can only make those passages better; but, well, I don’t. 🙂

    It’s the one thing that continues to make “creative non-fiction” feel a more suitable calling than fiction.

  8. Anonymous said:

    I’m going to argue and say just because the beginning is like that, I don’t think the conclusion should be reached the whole manuscript is like that. There are so many ‘RULES’ on the best way to begin a book, I get lost. For me, make it interesting, well-written and make the blurb on the back of the book intriguing and I will read. I don’t like dry, narrative backstory but if it’s engaging, I’m game.

  9. Michael Natale said:

    First, I really enjoy your blog and like this series of posts – THANKS.

    Do you think you could post a made up example of this? Just for the N00Bs in the audience (ie, ME) who are having a difficult time picturing what you are saying?

    If you don’t have time, I understand…thanks for this series of posts, its very helpful.

  10. sesgaia said:

    I have a scene where the protag is describing a past event to another character, but the dialogue (I hope) advances the story because the character reacts to what the protag is telling her, which in turn changes the nature of their relationship. This seemed more effective to me than having the protag recall the past event in her own mind, which would the reader more about her history and motivation but would not change the present dynamic between her and the other character in such a direct way…

  11. Kristin said:

    I always find advice for writing so interesting. Especially when I pick up a book by a very respected author and get pages of TELLING in the first chapter. I mean, LOADS of it. And a weird omniscient narrator style that leaves me wondering. who’s the protagonist here?

    But yet, the book is readable.

    These are the things that leave an unpublished author scratching her head. When do ‘mistakes’ = voice and when do ‘mistakes’ = amateurish? I really think there is no answer for this….which is more than frustrating.

  12. RK said:

    Question: Isn’t “conversation” between characters a way to reveal backstory, which is important but maybe not deserving of a scene?
    Is it okay in that instance or still a mistake?

    Thanks for the writing insights!

  13. Kate H said:

    Kristin, would you have the same objection to this technique if the content of the dialogue were backstory? In the book I currently have making the rounds, one character tells another about something that happened many years before–a story that covers several years and is not germane enough to the main story to be directly depicted (it would be another novel in itself!). And the character who’s hearing this tale really needs to hear it, not just the reader. Surely there are times when this kind of filling-in is appropriate?

  14. SLING WORDS aka Joan Reeves said:

    I always enjoy your posts designed to help writers with their narrative skills. I started wondering if beginning agents or beginning editors have their first-timer mistakes too.

    I mean, most agents and editors I read or have met in person seem incredibly polished and smart. Do you industry pros make boo-boos when first starting out, Kristin?

  15. Anonymous said:

    I am always amazed at how much I learn from your blog. An entry that takes you fifteen or twenty minutes to write will send me to pore over my MS for hours. Thank you for this kind service.

  16. vera said:

    Although I know you normally don’t answer questions from your blog, but please permit me to ask you one.
    What if,yes, the characters are talking about an event that happened several months before the beginning of the story, but said event was meaningless until “a moment ago” in the story, when something more significant occurred and tied both occurrences. In other words, the main character just put two and two together, but the audience was not privy to the first incident.
    Yikes! I hope this makes sense. Sorry if it doesn’t.

  17. k said:

    When my students write me particularly crappy stuff, I often ask them if I can have a copy to use (with a slight possiblity of this “using” turning into–hopefully good natured–*mocking*) in future classes.

    No one has ever said “no.”

  18. Stephie Smith said:

    I just have one question. Is this mine? When I read Monday’s blog I was sure that was mine. Now reading Tuesday’s, I’m sure this is mine. Can I just say I used to have the actual scene in the ms where the heroine is given the ultimatum by her greedy uncle, but people said take it out and start after that? I’m sure this is mine. This is so frustrating!

  19. Jana said:

    I think people who are already published get away with the kinds of mistakes Kristin’s been detailing in these blog posts. I see these things CONSTANTLY in published fiction, from large NY houses and epublishers alike. If this stuff goes on in published fiction, it’s no wonder that agents and editors see it in submissions, too.

    One of the key facets of a writer’s training is READING, and if she sees these “techniques” used in half the books she reads, she may come to believe that this is how it’s done. Just think how many of the old groaner mirror scenes were in romances of the 70s, 80s, even 90s. I’ve seen contest entries as recently as this year that still have those scenes, and I suspect it’s because the writers in question cut their teeth on those novels and have gotten the idea that that’s how to reveal what the heroine looks like.

    I guess I find it hard to be too critical of unpublished writers when they’re doing exactly the same thing their published brethren are.

  20. MissJane said:

    It’s the mistake of telling instead of showing but in the guise of dialogue that seems to revolve around in active scene but if one analyzes what is actually unfolding, there isn’t any real action happening.

    In other words, the characters are basically sitting around talking about their past actions or research or a discovery but the reader is getting privy to that information after the fact rather than having the writer write the scene where the discovery is made.

    I find this confusing, myself. I am not sure of what you are discussing. Could you create an example?

    Are you talking about using dialogue as an info dump?

  21. Anonymous said:

    I think you’re all over-analyzing way too much.

    ‘How do I do it?!?!?! Please tell me! Oh that’s what I thought!’

    It’s like a wannabe brain surgeon walking into a hospital and asking an administrator to tell him how to perform neurosurgery. You gotta go to school first, kids. The agents have a general sense of what works for the current market (ostensibly some of them do, anyway), but most of them aren’t even novelists themselves, which means that even they don’t know how to actually do it.

    What it comes down to is that if you have to ask, you haven’t read enough, and thought about what you’ve read. The answers to what you seek are on the shelves of the chain stores. Then it’s up to you to have the fortitude and persistence to continue marketing your ms. until you get your YES, instead of changing your manuscript and/or technique because of the latest blog advice, which is in effect akin to perpetually chasing the latest fad, always a year or two behind.

    Sorry, that might sound negative. But I can’t help but think some of the frequent commenters are actually doing themselves a disservice by coming here instead of reading more and writing more.

    It’s one of those pseudo-timewasters that seems like it might be productive, but in the long run it’s really not.

    Write on.

  22. Anonymous said:

    I can offer what I consider an example of this in a published book. In The Bridge to Terabithia, the little girl dies trying to swing across a swollen stream (she drowns).

    But the MC is away at the time, so he has to learn about the death from other characters.

    Completely ruined the book for me.

  23. Lucy said:

    One thing that struck me was Sesgaia’s comment on the dialogue resulting in a change in the relationship between characters. I think that if the focus of the scene is on the person who is hearing the story or the news for the first time and is reacting to it, and that reaction develops the character and/or moves the novel forward, then we’re not dealing with a simple off-stage battle rehash here.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, Kristin, but I think what you are pointing out is a tendency to use a common playwriting technique to bring in events that can’t conveniently be enacted on stage, and which is not usually necessary in the novel. I say usually, because I know that somebody somewhere has done it, or will do it, brilliantly, and sell a wildly popular novel.

    As far as backstories are concerned: If they don’t work as flashbacks, there still needs to be something else going on in the scene, or it’s most likely going to feel static. Somebody, or some relationship, or some element of risk needs to advance/grow/change/move up a notch because this conversation took place. Rather than simply explain the past, use the scene to raise the stakes in the present. Then you have action. 🙂

  24. Beth said:

    I think what Kristin is referring to is when the writer chooses to inform the reader of an important/interesting event by having characters discuss it after the fact, rather than showing the event real time. And the writer does this not just once, but repeatedly. It’s a shortcut, IOW, but makes for a dissatisfying story. The reader feels left out.

    I’m reading a book like that now, where the author skips over hugely important, exciting, life-changing sequences of events happening to certain characters, and reveals them only after the fact, when I’d much rather have read about them when they happened. And then she spends an inordinate amount of space on scenes where the characters sit around and talk and nothing much happens. She is otherwise a very accomplished stylist, but this quirk of hers makes me gnash my teeth sometimes.

  25. Shayne said:

    If I understand what Kristin is saying, you can find a really great example of this kind of dialogue on the CSI shows. One of the CSIs will explain something to another CSI that that character should already know, because they need the audience to know it, too.