by Karin Beery
“You look good … for someone your age.”
Left-handed compliments. Those comments that start off well but end with an insult. You’re expecting one thing but get something completely different. That’s recently become a trend—and a problem—in fiction. I call it the Active Telling syndrome.
Here’s what happens: the chapter opens with the hero skipping up the front steps of his home after a morning jog. He paces the porch, cooling off as sweat soaks through his shirt.
But then he sits down to stretch and thinks about everything that happened the night before. He remembers being embarrassed when his truck wouldn’t start and he showed up late for his first date, but he also remembers how understanding the heroine was. She looked amazing as she talked about the upcoming Christmas dance at the school, and somehow the hero found himself agreeing to build decorations and chaperone the event.
Well, it’s time to get a shower so he can make it to work on time.
HOLD THE PHONE!
The hero and the heroine had their first date? Why isn’t the reader seeing that??* And now there’s an excuse for the boy and girl to spend more time together? How does he feel about that?? Why is the author telling all of this instead of showing the reader what happened??
That is the trend of Active Telling: when a scene/chapter opens with the character doing something, but then quickly drops the reader into the character’s head, where it’s nothing but memories and reflections.
The easiest way to spot this is to check for white space at the beginning of a scene. If it starts with several paragraphs, there’s a good chance the author is actively telling. There are two main ways to handle Active Telling:
- Show it. If the told information is important enough to the story that the author has to include if for the reader to understand what’s going on, then it needs to be shown. Let the reader experience the first date with the characters, not just think about it after it happened.
- Delete it. If the told information is not important to the story (or if it’s repeated information), cut it. The reader doesn’t need to see everything the characters think about throughout the day. If the Active Telling isn’t moving the story forward, it can go.
When you know how to identify Active Telling, you can help your authors create stronger scene openings that will keep readers engaged, which will keep them reading!
*I’m not advocating for the use of multiple question marks at the end of a sentence; I’m merely hoping to convey how frustrating this type of scene opening can be.
A lifelong resident of Michigan, Karin Beery writes contemporary fiction with a healthy dose of romance. Represented by literary agent Steve Hutson at Word Wise Media, her first book releases September 15 from Elk Lake Publishing. When she’s not writing fiction, she edits at Write Now Editing. When she’s not doing either of those, she teaches Substantive Editing for Fiction and Romance Editing through the PEN Institute. You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or at her website, www.karinbeery.com.