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Despite Miss Thistlebottom’s insistence in your high school English classes, punctuation is not a scientific discipline, at least not in fiction. Legal and other non-fiction documents may need to follow her rules to avoid any chance of ambiguity, but in fiction such adherence to (relatively mindless) rules will only create speed bumps for your readers. Here are some of the differences between fiction and non-fiction writing.

“Show, don’t tell” is probably the most hackneyed but important advice given to new fiction writers. Fiction is rarely written from such a great psychic distance that you should describe emotions. If you show the emotions, you may entice the reader to experience them. But, be careful. For characters other than the narrator, you can only describe their physical reactions, not their feelings.
“I ground my fists into my stomach to kill the butterflies.” That’s fine, but when the detective is narrating, and both she and the perp are sitting at a desk, she cannot know about the his butterflies or out-of-sight actions. She may notice a dilating or constricting of the perp’s pupils and see sweat beading (no strike that, find another term—it’s a cliché) on the perp.

But telling has at least two useful places in fiction.

1. Most writing teachers and coaches advise you to create your first draft without any editing. One implication of that is telling about emotions (probably in a few words). On rewrite you can show them, probably using dozens of words. If you hate rewriting, other than the fact your work will probably show it, you can put a comment in your manuscript so you don’t forget to fix the telling passages. Something as simple as she hated him xxx. Will alert you to the necessity of a rewrite. And unless you have a science fiction novel with some character with a triple x in its name, searching for xxx or your comments will find the places where you need to wShaltNotsork.

2. There are minor expositions in most novels, parts that you just want to get through so the reader is aware of some backstory or setting detail. In this case the four-word tell, is probably preferable to the 25-word show. In your sequel to Gone with the Wind, you want to give a little background on Scarlet. Telling us she loved Ashley but married Rhett will remind a reader of the background, perfectly acceptable after you get the plot going. Just don’t start your novel by telling us such background info. See the table.

One of the most common forms of telling for novices is in describing feelings. When you’re scared, you don’t think, “I felt scared,” but, “I feared.” Remember felt is for itchy clothing, not emotions in fiction.

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