Tag Archives: setting

Glints of Light on Broken Glass: the Art of Showing in Writing

Some of the first things new writers are told is to write what you know, and to show, and not tell. Russian playwright and author Anton Checkhov is credited with having said “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass,” underscoring the latter. Showing can be a powerful tool when used with discretion, but all too often new authors forget to do this, preferring instead to paint their word pictures with broad strokes rather than choose a finer brush.

I’ve often written about how writing is a construct, something artificial made to seem real. Everything authors do, from creating and recreating setting, penning plot, and/or developing character and dialogue is not real. Everything about any given scene is there for a purpose; the trick is to add them subtly so they seem happenstance .

One mistake many new authors make is in how to express the physical appearance of a character. Having the character stand in front of a mirror and take stock, making note of his or her own hair and eye colour, and the shape of his or her jaw, lips, and nose doesn’t work. How many times have you looked in the mirror and taken stock? When I look in the mirror, the bow of my eyebrow is only important to me if it’s time to get a waxing. I notice my eye colour if my clothes make them pop. I may make note of my hair colour, but only if it’s time for a dye job.

Here’s another mistake. When I flip my hair back from my face, I don’t think that my hair is brown with red highlights as I’m doing so. I might be cognizant of the fact that I’m flipping too many times in a day and am due for a cut. I might get frustrated and sweep it back into a ponytail, but I don’t take note of the colour. Your characters shouldn’t either.

When you get into your car to go to work in the morning, do you take time to contemplate that it’s a 2010 slate grey, four-door Toyota Camry?  Isn’t it more likely you might think that it’s a beater, or that it’s nearly half-a-decade old and still looks like new? Might you think it needs a wash? Would you rub at a patch of dirt to make sure it wasn’t a scratch? Be annoyed that the neighbourhood kids wrote “Wash Me!” with their finger on the trunk again?

If I describe the car, my reader will know a lot about the make and model of the car, but little about the driver. If I get into the driver’s head and show what he’s thinking, I’m building character. If my reader drives a middle-age Camry, s/he might find a small point of identification with my character. If I show my character as either taking pride in the car or neglecting it, I’ve given my reader a more precise point of connection.

The next time you show detail, consider narrative viewpoint. If you describe something your character wouldn’t normally see, think or hear, then change tack.  For example, if I smile, I can’t see my white teeth gleam in the sunlight. I might feel my cheeks ache, the cold air I let in when I part my lips might hurt my overly-sensitive teeth, or I can imagine I must look like a grinning idiot (but I can’t know for sure).

Never forget your job as a writer is to construct an immersive version of reality.   Paint your word pictures with fine detail, and texture with character, dialogue and setting, using only the palette colours limited by your narrative point of view.

Have you noticed these errors in the books you’re reading? Maybe you’ve made some of these errors yourself? Share your experiences in the comments below!

Same plot, different setting

I watched last week’s premiere of Z Nation with some trepidation. I mean, did the world really need another post-apocalyptic television show featuring zombies? I already watch The Walking Dead–need I say anything more?  I was left with mixed feelings after watching, unsure if I liked it. Turning a baby, though reminiscent of Chucky, was a nice touch, but there was something that didn’t sit right about it (the show, not the zombified infant).

It took a few more days and a bout of in-class free association with respect to themes in literature for it to hit me.

Z Nation and The Last Ship are essentially one and the same.

[Tweet “#ZNation and #TheLastShip are essentially the same #tv show. Here’s how…”]

Let me explain…

The Last Ship is about a navy ship sent on a top secret mission to gather the primordial strain of a flu virus that is killing off most of the world’s population. They engage in war-lord-type power struggles including one with a Russian ship before finding a girl who is immune to the virus. They synthesize a cure for the virus from her blood and must rush the girl and the cure to a lab somewhere in the U.S.

Z Nation is about a group of people on a secretive mission to take a prison inmate to a lab in California. After being bit by zombies, the prisoner is seemingly immune to whatever it is that turns people into zombies. They need to take him to the lab so they can synthesize a cure for the zombie virus from his blood. So far there have been no war-lord-type power struggles, but you can bet they are sure to be on the near horizon.

I will be watching more of Z Nation, if only to compare it to The Walking Dead (in which, coincidentally, the characters are also sort of on a quest to take a scientist who claims to have a cure to a lab somewhere in the U.S. to create a vaccine) and other similar post-apocalyptic tales.

Did you watch Z Nation? Do you watch The Last Ship? Do you see a connection? Let me know what you think in the comments below.

Literary Devices from A to Z – Brought to you by the letter M




is for Mood




Mood (often called “atmosphere“) is the feeling a piece of writing evokes in the reader. This is often done through narrative tone, description and setting.

After Molly finds Stanley’s body in Phase Shift, she goes into shock:

At the foot of Stanley’s driveway. In the rain.  Police offer me hot drinks and dry blankets. Refuge from the drizzle in a cruiser. They think they’re helping. Won’t help take the chill off.

Three police cars. Two fire engines. One ambulance. Yellow police tape on the property line. Surreal. Like I’m on television. A TV crime show. Waiting on the coroner. Where’s Palmer? Time passes in waves. Folds in and around itself. Inconsistent.

In this passage, the use of short sentences and sentence fragments as well as confused observations help to demonstrate the shock Molly experiences.  Because the narrative has changed in this chapter, the goal is for the reader to experience Molly’s disorientation. In this case, the mood is set using narrative tone.

If the death of Stanley represents a sort of mini-climax in the story, the chapter that follows is a falling action of sorts. The chapter begins:

The rhythmic patter of the rain on the windshield has a calming effect. In spite of the fact we’re out of the weather, I can’t help but shiver. I can sense Palmer considering me, wet puppy, licking her wounds. Stanley’s dead, my mind repeats and repeats again, needle stuck in a groove. Stanley‘s dead and I killed him. Palmer wriggles out of his overcoat and then his suit jacket. He drapes the jacket over me and wriggles back into his overcoat, gifting me his woollen warmth and spicy scent.

In this chapter, a calmer, comforting mood is evoked in the patter of the rain, and the warm comfort of Palmer’s jacket. The reader should experience a respite from the tense shock of the previous scene and be lulled by a sense of security before thrown back into the fray as the climax of the novel nears.

What novels or short stories do you remember as most effective? “The Monkey’s Paw” by WW Jacobs comes to mind for me. Record your thoughts on mood and/or atmosphere in the comments below.