Monday, November 19, 2012

Those Evil Sequence Words

I love the English language. Don't you? There's a hundred ways to say the exact same thing--which is what makes every writer's voice so unique. But, often I find myself pulled out of the scene by the way the story's written. In fact, there's only been one or two books in the last couple years that didn't distract me with language. (Throne of Glass, and anything Dean Koontz.) So what is it that pulls me out?

Telling words.

So often we hear about "telling" vs "showing". The idea is to immerse the reader so thoroughly in a literary experience that they forget they're reading. Successful authors suck the readers in by the senses--all five, and keep them feeling the whole journey long. We've all had the experience. You're on page one, and suddenly you're on the last chapter, gasping for breath and reliving the final scene against the back of your eyelids.

Telling words smack readers in the face and remind them that they're holding a book (or e-reader). My advice? DON'T USE THEM!

Easier said than done, right? Today lets look at one example of things to avoid.

Sample (bad): First Marty picked up the mirror, then stepped out onto the back porch. Finally, he lifted it toward the sun...

Problem: Sequence words--listing the order in which he did things. Why not just use bullet points, eh? There is nothing that screams, "I'M TELLING YOU WHAT'S HAPPENING" worse than listing them. Ax sequence words before they ax you.

Sample (better): Marty picked up the mirror. He stepped onto the back porch and lifted it toward the sun.

Analysis: Right to the action. This is stronger. Is it the best thing out there? No, but you can see for yourself how listing sequences is unnecessary and distracting. PLEASE avoid them.

Ready to go WAY beyond this simple little lesson? If you truly want to suck your readers into the moment, help them FEEL it through the five senses. Isolate the emotion you want the reader to experience and create an atmosphere through simile, metaphor, imagery and word choice.

Example (immersive): Marty's fingers slipped around the cool plastic hand mirror. His grip tightened as he shoved through the swinging door. Fractured light danced off the reflective surface, coating the splintered porch in puddles of light. He heaved a breath and lifted it toward the sun.

Suddenly we have a hint he's got some trepidation. We experience the lack of heat in the mirror, the tension in his movement, the roughness of his surroundings, the contradiction in smooth puddles of light. If I were reading that paragraph, I'd want to know why he's anxious and what's going to happen next.

Alright, writerly friend, what words of wisdom can you add?


  1. Starting. When reading I see a lot of starting "he started to run." Starting isn't so bad, just be sure that the reason we're being told that a character is starting something is so they can be interrupted or blindsided, or something that makes the action of starting or beginning a process important.

  2. Wonderful way of putting this. I actually have a list(a long list) of words that are "telling" words. I'm adding these to it.

  3. Beautiful description! I agree. I have only read an odd few books where telling worked, but I personally love being sucked in. Who doesn't? So the more descriptive the flow, the better it will be :)

  4. Great point - the difference between those first two examples (the "bad" and the "good") is very striking.

  5. I so agree with you Crystal.
    The trick is to suck the reader into the action... he/she must "live" the story...
    Easier said than done. I suppose it comes with practise.

  6. I would suggest that if the whole book were written in this way, it would be very long and very boring. You would never get your character off that porch! I think these slower 'showing' passages (I don't think the word is terribly useful) should be reserved for the key passages, when you want to draw the reader in closer, slow the pace, build the suspense etc. There are places where pure 'telling' (again, I don't think the word is very useful) is appropriate. There are also an infinity of gradations in between these extremes. Part of good writing is to vary the pace and style as needed. All 'showing' is as bad as all 'telling.'


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