To Tell or Not to Tell

Last weekend our Mantle Rock team met to discuss several book proposals that had been submitted for publication. Most were from authors who had never been published as that is our target group. Among the proposals, we had a historical suspense novel and several romantic suspense novels. At the end of the day, we decided to return them all to the authors with some comments for improvements. The theme that ran through all the books was “too much telling, not enough action.”

Telling is a common mistake beginning authors make. They are so excited to introduce the new character that they feel inclined to do a massive dump of their character’s back history. Sometimes, it takes the shape of a prologue. Sometimes, it becomes endless paragraphs of thoughts or memories. Either one is most unnatural and sometimes, boring.

Let’s take a cue from our day to day life. I’m a church secretary by day so I’ll use an example that has been happening over the last few weeks.

A new couple has started coming to church. I introduced myself at our mid-week fellowship meal. They are Jeff and Karen Smith. I told them I was the church secretary and would be glad to help them if they needed questions answered or pointed to the right person. That ended our first encounter. I knew nothing but their name and that they were visitors. And that was enough.

The next day, I inquired from one of our ministers if he had met Jeff and Karen Smith. He told me he had and that they were from a community near the church and were church shopping.

A few days later, Jeff showed up at the church building and pressure washed our parking lot. Another coworker told me he was a handyman by trade and enjoyed helping out where he could.

Now stop and think. You probably have a pretty good mental picture of what Jeff looks like. But in reality, I have told you very little about him. In fact, I know very little about this couple. As time goes on, I suspect I will learn more, but for now, that’s fine. Our actual relationships are usually built from these small beginnings. We may know casual information but the deep back history comes much later in our relationship. We may go years without learning a couple lost a child in a house fire or that their divorce was scandalous. Those things drip out over time. That is how we should treat our back history in a novel. Only tell what is necessary, when it is necessary.

Speaking of what is necessary, did you notice what I did not tell you. I didn’t tell you his age, skin color, hair color or what kind of clothes he was wearing. In this little short story, those details aren’t important. Jeff is just a handyman. He wears handyman clothing. That’s all you need to know. But I’ll throw you a bone. “Jeff wears a baseball cap that covers his receding hairline. He takes it off periodically to wipe his forehead while he pressure washes.”

But, Diane, my main character needs to be fully developed so you’ll understand why things happen or mean so much to them. Yes, and no. If you started your novel with an action scene (and you should have), that action will carry the storyline for a while. Then the backstory can be dripped in as we get to know the character. No one enjoys meeting someone who drops a load of problems at their first encounter. So why do we as authors think readers would enjoy it when our character drops all their life history at our feet in one dump?

Don’t forget about anticipation. Cue song from the recesses of my memory. “An-tic-i-pa-a-tion, it’s making me wait.” Thank you, Carly Simon. Sometimes, anticipation can fuel the tension your character brings. “Jeff’s grooming was a little superior to that of your average handyman. Just the fact that he knew how to properly wear a belt with his pants made him two steps above average. Perhaps handyman was not his first occupational choice.” Now the story has turned on a different angle. Could the nice helpful man have a darker more sinister past? Don’t tell me now, let it simmer and build.

Hopefully, this little rant will be meaningful for some of you. LOL. It’s really not a rant, just an observation from our weekend meeting. It’s meant to be read with love and care, so please don’t interpret it any other way.

Now, back to designing covers, which is really what I do best. 🙂

3 thoughts on “To Tell or Not to Tell

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