know your enemy (antagonists)

There comes a time when a writer has to stop their story, turn and look at their villain, and admit that they’re phoning it in on the antagonists’ performances. I simply have not given any of my (multiple) villains the treatment that I’ve given my two main heroes. I don’t know what they’re doing while I’m focusing on my heroes. I don’t know their subplots. I don’t know what problems they’ve been going through behind the scenes.

So far I have four villains to counter my two heroes: A king, a lord, a winged bully, and a high-ranking slave. I’ve managed so far, but I just invented the last on the list (Sorche du Remerdii, the man who gave that cheeky line I mentioned here), and in a high-tension scene he feels flat.

Lesson learned: know your villains. I’ve decided that June is going to be ‘Villain Month’. Each week will be dedicated to developing and writing side-stories about one of my villains. That way I’ll be ready for my second rewrite, and I’ll be posting up character exercises, collages, and notes on development. I’ll also be exploring the extent of their power, what they can and can not do to the heroes, and why.

No flat enemies allowed.

the battle of show or tell

I had an email after my last post, inquiring after the specifics of the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule. After reading it, I felt that I should clarify the difference between the two methods.

(Warning: Bad examples follow.)

The letter lay on the coffee table beside a crumb-laden placemat and a newspaper and a glossy orange piece of paper advertising oil changes partway across town. The address had been handwritten in pink ink, the smooth glossy swirl of gel-pens. He made himself a drink. He listened to music, Bach first, then Handel. Partway through the winding, disjointed verses of ‘We Like Sheep’ he stood up, picked up his keys, and slipped his wallet in his pocket. He moved partway to the door, stopped, turned, and returned to the table. His hand shook with fear as he opened the letter, the key chain still dangling on his little finger giving a metallic rattle as he tore the paper.

Showing only: this example uses nothing but visual clues as to what’s going on. There’s no blatant emotion given to the audience, it’s all imagery. It gives no explanations, no internal dialog.

He found the letter after he had arrived home, and the sight of it instilled a deep fear. Unopened responses could mean anything, the possibilities turning a once rational head to something panicked and imaginative, circumstances winding into other hypothetical circumstances born of the haunting words ‘what if’. The confidence in his first query crumbled and died, turned to salt as it looked back to the destroyed city where his hopes had once lain. Stalling didn’t help, nor did his evening drink, and he listened to classical music until finally he could take no more of the anticipation. He must face it, or he must leave, and for a moment leaving sounded like a better alternative before he forced himself back, gathered his courage, and approached the paper once more.

Telling only: This is telling. I described nothing, and gave only the barest hints of the elements in the scene, instead focusing on the cause of the shaking hands from the last paragraph. It includes details and feelings that were left out of the first one. But it also doesn’t set the scene.

Neither of these are right or wrong. They just focus on completely different ways of storytelling. One might be right and one very wrong for a particular project. But to dismiss the latter as ‘bad practice’? You can show this badly by losing the point in boring details. You can tell this badly by not explaining the fear, and subsequent courage, well enough to follow believably.

Add or remove detail as is needed.

three writing rules i loathe

Also known as: a brief list of the trends in prose that I refuse to take as my bible come hell or high water.

I should probably warn my readers that I despise hard-and-fast rules when it comes to creativity. These confines of art that are meant to guide beginners are a hindrance and put a false barrier between what is considered ‘good’ writing and writing that’s effective. The moment someone starts saying, ‘you should never do this’ I’m out the door and running. Or possibly beating them up, one of the two. Violence might not solve anything, but it sure makes me feel better. 😉

1. Show, Don’t Tell.
I don’t think you can get my hackles up faster than to quote this mantra at me. It is the speediest way to earn my undying hatred.

Showing involves imagery, in covering the things that are important by action and setting, in focusing the camera on some things and not others. Telling is information usually given in narration. Sometimes showing is better. And sometimes showing makes the most tedious, convoluted half-assed scenes that it’s been by displeasure to try to wade through. Please, just tell me, and get to the interesting parts. And who decided that narration was bad, anyway? Who said that showing and telling is inherently divorced from each other, that there is no showing in telling, or vice versa?

Try this instead. Put in the details that you need. Let the audience work a bit when you think that there’s enough in the scene to draw extra conclusions. Make your work interesting. Get test readers, and see if they have the right reactions to the right events.

2. Don’t use any narrative verbs but ‘said’.
This depends entirely on the style that you’re using and the tone of your story. There are times replied, answered, asked, repeated, and explained are perfectly valid, and more precise than ‘said’. Some people find these words obnoxious. It must be tough to be them.

3. Write for your genre, and don’t break the established conventions. It’ll make your book harder to sell.
Sometimes this is true, I suppose. I write fantasy, where the point of the genre is innovation. What’s the point of writing if you’re not going to write something new? I see this one as a cousin of the phrase ‘there are no new stories’. To those who are convinced that this is a good point, go read ‘House of Leaves’, by Mark Z. Danielewski. Go read ‘Bridge of Birds’, by Barry Hughart. Try ‘Grey’, by Jon Armstrong. I won’t read books that aren’t innovative in some way.


I think what I’m trying to get at is that these conventions are artificial. Think of writing as a craft that needs to be trained and honed, figure out what techniques work for what story. Write effectively, ignore what’s supposedly ‘good’.

Any other obnoxious ‘tips’ that I’ve missed?