by Karin Beery
Today I didn’t go to the zoo. I didn’t jump out of an airplane. I didn’t compose a symphony, skip stones across the lake, commit a crime, build a snowman, get married, draw a picture, or milk a cow. I didn’t even buy a new pair of shoes. I could fill pages with details of all the things I didn’t do, but that’s not very interesting, is it?
Then why do novelists continue to talk about what their characters didn’t do?
One of the things I often see when I’m editing is an explanation of what’s not happening. For example,
The red-head walked by, her skirt swaying. Bobby wanted to ask her out, but he didn’t.
Sue stared out the window. She thought about going outside, but she didn’t.
Mr. Smith pulled into the driveway and sighed. He could have driven to Canada, faked his death, and married a nineteen-year-old cocktail waitress, but he didn’t.
I understand the motivation behind this kind of writing—to show the struggle between the characters’ desires and their realities—but it doesn’t actually help readers connect with the characters or reveal information about them. In fact, it pulls readers out of the moment to tell them something they can already see (we know Bobby didn’t ask her out because we see that he didn’t).
Instead, show what the characters are doing. Bobby’s not asking the girl out, so what’s really going on in his head?
The red-head walked by, her skirt swaying. Bobby wanted to ask her out, but instead he smiled, plotting his next “accidental” meeting.
Sue stared out the window. She thought about going outside, dreaming of the cool breeze tickling her skin. But the thrill of the fresh air couldn’t push back the panic rising in her chest—she needed the security of four sturdy walls.
Mr. Smith pulled into the driveway and sighed, forcing the wedding band back onto his finger.
Not only do these alternatives show what the characters are doing, they encourage the reader to keep reading so they can find out why the characters did those things! How many times has Bobby “accidentally” walked by the red-head? Why is Sue afraid to go outside? What’s going on in Mr. Smith’s life that he takes off his wedding ring when he’s away from the house?
When you show what the characters are doing instead of telling what they’re not doing, you pull the reader deeper into your story. You strengthen that connection and give readers a reason to keep reading! The next time you edit your manuscript, look for those places where you focus on the “didn’t.” By quickly refocusing to the “doing,” you can strengthen your story and keep your readers engaged!
Owner of Write Now Editing, Karin Beery also writes contemporary fiction with a healthy dose of romance. When she’s not writing or editing, she teaches Substantive Editing for Fiction and Romance Editing through the PEN Institute, as well as serving as Managing Editor for Guiding Light Women’s Fiction. You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or at her website www.writenowedits.com.
Marilyn A. Anderson
Great job as always, Karin!
Oh, yes! I am always correcting this problem when I edit. Great post!
Super advice…thanks for the tip! Your redesign of the described setting did exactly what your tip proposed: it kept me involved in understanding what was going on and why.