Show, not Tell

There are 3 rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

Thanksgiving Exercise 2

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Devin and I think writing outside of your story really helps improve your writing. We thought we’d change up the routine this week for Thanksgiving and show our thanks to our readers by offering short exercises to improve your craft.



Today’s Thanksgiving Exercise is on sentences. It seems like a stupid focus; we all know how to write a sentence. However, in reality, sentences trip up a lot of people. The Query Shark sinks her teeth into a lot of people who pack their sentences full with too much information. The funny thing is this: long, complex sentences tend to be confusing and sloppy.

It’s true. Pick up any of your favorite book and count how many words are in each sentence. The average tends to be anywhere from nine to fifteen. Amateur writers and writers who don’t tend to focus on the craft of writing tend to write long and convoluted sentences. I can quote you some of the sentences I was writing months ago as an example, but that would be really embarrassing…

So, why are sentences important? Sentences are the tools we use as writers to get our story across. We can’t tell a story in a string of unrelated words. We also can’t tell our story in a string of unrelated sentences. Every sentence must flow into the next; every paragraph must flow into what follows.

Here’s the exercise:

1. Read the first few pages of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. In the first 895 words of his novel, the average sentence length is 9.3 words. I’m not even kidding! How does he do this? Complete control. This is the goal of this exercise: to gain control of your craft.

2. You must have all of the following things: high stakes, intriguing events, sympathetic characters, stable point of view, reasonable exposition at reasonable times. Come up with a scene in a story with two or more people with those things in mind. The scene must have a believable action or sequence of actions that will put your readers in the story. These characters must have some sort of relationship. Brainstorm what you want to happen. (Don’t use characters and a situation from stories you’ve already developed. Create something new!)

If you’re having a difficult time coming up with a situation, why not use Thanksgiving? Put some characters in the kitchen together making food for dinner or put them at the dinner table.

Here’s the writing part:

3. Write your story using at most nine words per sentence. This restriction includes dialogue. Writing short sentences can be choppy, yes, but the limit should help you gain control over your sentences. It’ll teach you exactly what you need to say to get your point across without being confusing.

Adding extraneous words is often what gets us writers in trouble, so learn to work without them before introducing them in again 🙂 Feel free to post up your complete piece on your blog or in the comments. I’d love to see what you write!


Written by Jessica Lei

November 23, 2010 at 6:00 am

Posted in Exercises

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