Tag Archives: ‘tells’

Gabriella Brooke’s THE WORDS OF BERNFRIEDA: A CHRONICLE OF HAUTEVILLE

I loved the frame of this story. Bernfrieda, an illegitimate daughter of aristocrat Mauger de Granville, sits down in her old age to write a biography of her half-sister Senda. Thus the beginning is imaginatively cast as a medieval chronicle.

As one reads, one gradually realizes that Senda is Fredesenda, the second wife of Tancred de Hauteville and mother to such luminaries as Robert Guiscard and Roger I of Sicily.

Unfortunately, the novel continues throughout to be too much like a medieval chronicle, replete with tells. The consequence is that the characters remain remote and shadowy. So we learn that Senda’s mother Mathilda is cold, and her sister Adeliza spiteful, but there is nothing that motivates these attributes. We learn that Senda is in love with the man who will later become her stepson. But this all-too-common tragedy typical of the 1100s – when young women, especially second or third wives were closer in age to their stepchildren than the elderly men they were forced to marry – is muted, because we haven’t been given the opportunity to come to know Senda or her beau Guillaume.

And so it continues. I was going to say that it never fails to amaze me that legacy publishers could publish books that are not likely to sell, when I checked the back of the book and discovered its provenance to be murky. It was published by EWU Press, but I cannot see who published the current edition. Strangely, Amazon also doesn’t know. Whoever produced the book did a wonderful job, because it is beautifully done. And I can see that this book was a labor of love on the part of the author, who must have spent hours poring over medieval chronicles in order to render this tale. What a pity that she didn’t use some dramatic flair to bring it to life. Two stars.

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Watch out for those ‘tells’ in your prose style

“Show, don’t tell,” is a common thing that you hear writing instructors say to their students during workshops on craft. And there are obvious things you can do to heed that advice, such as putting all of the emotional high points of a novel into scenes, rather than summarizing them.

But there are subtle ways in which tells show up in prose style, that also need to be watched. Today, I am going to share what some of those problems are, something I didn’t realize about my own style until it was pointed out to me in the Self-Editing and Revision course I’m taking from Writers Digest.

Here is an example of what I mean. I have put the ‘tells’ in block caps:

Dominick Rossi had fought in the Great War from April 1917, when the United States declared war on Germany, until April 1919, when he’d finally returned home to Chicago. His war had been over for little more than two years and still his experiences haunted him. He brushed away  unpleasant thoughts, TELLING himself that he must  help free the world of the evils of war, and make this new decade, the twenties, happy and peaceful. He looked around, NOTING that dusk was beginning to fall, and REMINDED HIMSELF that he was on his way to his lodgings in Georgetown, Washington D.C.

Here is how I re-wrote the excerpt, getting rid of the ‘tells’:

His war had been over for little more than two years and still his experiences haunted him. He brushed away such unpleasant thoughts. He must help to free the world from the evils of war, and make this new decade, the twenties, happy and peaceful. He looked around. Dusk was beginning to fall. He was on his way to his lodgings in Georgetown, Washington D.C.

Why would you want to do this? The problem with too many ‘tells’ is that it has the effect of distancing the reader from the characters. If the point of the craft you deploy is to make your novel un-put-downable, you don’t want to do that. This is why you look over your writing and eliminate these mistakes.

I am very grateful to the instructor for pointing out these subtle errors in my prose style.

Next: I participate in a self-publishing webinar.

Image: The elegant spire of Healy Hall, Georgetown University, Washington D.C. Dominick Rossi is staring at that tower in the scene I excerpted.

–Cynthia Haggard writes novels.  She is currently seeking representation for ONE SEED SOWN, TWO MURDERS REAPED, the Richard III story told from the point of view of his mother. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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