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SANDMAN Creative Writing Notes

These notes are for the use of creative writing students. There is generally a copyright problem which prevents much of a given author's work being quoted for detailed discussion and this is the sole reason why I am using my own work for illustration purposes in order to discuss particular aspects of style.

Show not Tell

There is a general edict that novelists should "show" and not "tell". Basically this is because "telling" brings the author's individual voice too strongly to the fore and thereby destroys what publishers like to call the "suspension of disbelief"; in other words, any strong engagement an author has with the storyline becomes a "voice-over" and is a distraction for a reader otherwise immersed in the story. Start listening to the author's personal thoughts and opinions and that delicate balance is ruined. This "up-front" authorial style was common in the early days of literature but is more frowned upon now, and it is generally regarded as a "no-no" for debut authors. Then again, as many creative writing students point out, it is still quite common with many best-selling authors. So why shouldn't they do it? The easiest answer is to say that it is best for debut novelists to avoid "telling" because it can easily get out of hand and destroy a reader's engagement with the story as something they can imagine to be real. More experienced authors can use telling with a lighter hand and so get away with it. Why would they want to tell? Because it is easier, shorter, and avoids tricky manoeuvres. That's not to say it's a good technique—although it can work splendidly for young children!

In SANDMAN I try to show, rather than tell, whenever I can, but I do slip in a little 'tell' if there is no easy way to avoid it; if I do this, I try to keep the telling down to a minimum and then quickly step back from the reader's head, hoping I was not even noticed. Here are some examples of this.

In the new scene on page 21 I am telling 'the lad with the rolled up jeans pushed his boat into the water', but follow this, by implication, with what he saw, what he heard, how he savoured it, and how he felt it was good to be alive.

The lad with rolled-up jeans pushed his boat into the water from where it was beached near the end of his garden. Jumping in, he sat down and rowed with a slow, fluid motion. Golden reflections from the low morning sun danced on the calm waters, and the only noise he heard was the soft plop of his oars as they moved in and out of the water. A shallow mist hung low over marshland at the easterly tip of Blackberry Point; several horses dreamed by the water's edge as if floating on cloud. A light breeze caressed the boy's deeply tanned skin and he sensed the coming of a hot, sun-filled day. He savoured the freshness of the air greedily. It was good to be alive.

The following paragraph (on page 21) introduces some scene-setting, but note how this is as seen through the character's eyes, rather than just describing it.

After a couple of minutes he stopped rowing, stowed the oars, and moved back to the stern where he sat by the outboard. In no hurry to start the motor, he was content to stare across glittering waters while the boat drifted gently. Squinting against the brightness of the sun, he looked towards the long sandbank that separated the harbour from the sea. Beyond, only faintly discernable through the morning haze, he could see the distant outline of the Isle-of-Wight. The beach huts along the golden line of sand reminded him of colourful beads on a necklace. Nature had painted a glorious picture here, but it was the touch of man that lightened the mood and confirmed it was a place of fun. Sand and sea; fresh air and the sound of breaking waves; it was a combination that created a special magic.

The above description might have said something like this: 'The boat drifted gently. The long sandbank separated the harbour from the sea. Beyond, only faintly discernable through the morning haze, was the distant outline of the Isle-of-Wight. The beach huts along the golden line of sand were like colourful beads on a necklace...' If it had, however, you would be very aware of the intrusive author's voice — whereas the published version describes a character's experience — so the reader stays within that character.


It is much more enjoyable to have a varying pace within a novel. This means a mixture of short and long sentences, short and long paragraphs, and slow and fast action. If the action is fast, the sentence length should be shorter so the reader 'feels' more breathless. If the mood is slow and languid, longer sentences and paragraphs help to portray this mood.

When Carol Davis is attacked (on pages 11-12), we guess she is going to be raped, but this is left to the reader's imagination at this point. Why not be explicit and provide the details? To be explicit takes a lot of words, and a lot of words slow a scene down, whereas an attack and rape is likely to be at a furious pace. In any case, the reader's imagination can fill in all the details. But I come back to this as a memory (on page 16), and here I compare it to a movie running at 'crazy speed'. The details are given in a very long paragraph with phrases separated by semicolons: because these tell the reader to pause less than the full-stops of sentences. So the reader reads at a 'crazy speed' and gets a better sense of the event and an appreciating of the panic involved. Already the reader has pictured this event and this recollection enhances and complements that by outlining some detail. It was a nightmare experience, and here the pace and manner offer it to the reader almost like a nightmare. The recollection is as follows:

This time the film played at crazy speed. The startled blackbird and its alarmed chirp; the man jumping out in front of Michelle as she walked the isolated path, his arms and legs forming a cross, a barrier; his creepy voice; the hand coming round her and almost suffocating her; the script, plopping into obscurity; the glinting knife; the way his hand tore and pulled beneath her vulnerably thin summer dress… she could still hear the ripping sound; the leering way he exposed himself with one hand while waving the knife in the other; the way he invaded and jerked her body; his scary, evil eyes—right in her face all the while—almost popping out of his head; the groan when he climaxed and she was, at last, able to push herself free from him, terrified, sobbing; the crashing sound as he vanished down a steep slope between trees and rhododendrons to the wooded area below; her run back past the lily pond, down the ravine-like slope to the road; the little green land train full of staring people that stopped when Michelle shrieked at it, waving her hands, calling ‘help me’ over and over; the ranger’s Land Rover that pulled up right behind the train; at last, sympathy and understanding; the kind brown ranger driving her to his office in The Barn; the police arriving to take her away; the ride in the police car with embarrassed officers; the police rape suite with its all-too-clinical room; the horribly intimate questions; the examination: her skin, and worse, inside… hateful; the way they took her clothes away and loaned her a track-suit; the ‘morning-after’ pill they’d provided and the way Michelle couldn’t even remember if she’d taken her contraceptive, or if she’d been taking it at all lately; the ride back to the B & B in the police car; the endless hot shower with its scouring jets and cleansing steam; the long night during which she just lay on the bed in a daze, with eyes that would not close in a room she couldn’t bear to darken; the way she looked at every man on the street when she went out the following afternoon to walk and collect her car from the car park, looking for their eyes, the shape of their mouth…

Normally I would never consider writing a sentence this long, but it is fine to break the rules if you have good reason. This scene condenses what happened afterwards in a manner that is shown and not told. It 'reclaims' the opportunity to dwell on the drama of the attack, but it efficiently condenses everything in a manner that reflects the horrible pace of the events as they played out for Carol (while visualising it as happening to a character called Michelle, during a film). This is an illustration of how style can manipulate the emotions of a reader.


Dialogue is good for introducing realism, showing character, and furthering the plot in a cunning way that avoids 'telling' narrative. As so many have explained before, do not be afraid to just say 'said' after speech, for this word really does almost disappear in the reader's subconscious, and adjectives such as muttered, shouted, hissed, etc, can, and should, generally be avoided. If the conversation is between two people then it is best not to attribute the speaker when it will be obvious through sequence, manner tone or action who is speaking. In a long exchange it is necessary to put in some markers now and then, to make sure the reader does not get lost, but often this can be done in a subtle way by introducing an action for the speaker or, if a viewpoint character, maybe a thought. In the following scene (beginning on page 19), Paul and Sasha are talking and no one else is present. There is no need for a single 'said' because of the actions described — and they also add to realism and help the reader to picture the scene.

Sasha clicked off the dryer, pulled up her robe and looked round. ‘Well, get a move on, Paul. You say you like to get into the bathroom before Leah. I heard her moving around when I came in. She won’t be long.’
‘By the way, you missed a call on your mobile while you were in the shower.’
‘Oh?’ Brushing her hair again, Sasha didn’t seem particularly bothered.
‘I answered it. Just deep breathing. No one spoke. Spooky. Do you often get deep-breathers calling you, Sasha?’
She laughed. ‘I’ve no such admirers, I’m afraid. It must have been a wrong number.’
‘Not many people get wrong mobile numbers.’ Paul watched her expression intently in the mirror’s reflection. There was no visible reaction.
‘I don’t see how you can say that. If a number’s misdialed, it’s just as likely to be to a mobile as a landline. I’ve had them before. Or perhaps someone I know accidentally selected the wrong person on their phone.’
‘I don’t get wrong mobile calls.’ He paused. ‘So hadn’t you better check it out? See if it was important?’

Little phrases like 'he paused' attribute the speech without the need for: ‘I don’t get wrong mobile calls,’ he said. Glancing through SANDMAN I notice that embedding small actions is a technique I use a lot in order to attribute speech while also making scenes more dynamic. Here is another example which blends 'said' into passages that employ actions; there's nothing like variety. (The following is from page 69):

‘Good. You can always trust water.’ Paul forced a smile.
Leah greeted him excitedly. ‘That was a great party, wasn’t it? I think Gran really enjoyed it, too.’
‘Yes,’ said Paul absently. ‘Did you see Mum before she went out?’
Leah nodded. ‘She changed quickly and went off for a run. She woke me up, actually.’
Paul crossed to a cupboard for a glass and poured himself some water from a bottle. ‘Did you enjoy your Bacardi and cokes?’
Leah smiled. ‘They were great. So now you and Mum have set a precedent, Dad.’
‘Precedents can be broken,’ he said, putting an arm around her waist and smiling at her while sipping his water.
‘Maybe,’ she said, spinning round to look at him properly, returning a knowing smile. ‘But I can’t be broken.’
They both laughed.

Another thing to consider when a lot of facts must be put over is how much of a conversation you should include. It gets a bit tiring for the reader if speech goes on for pages and pages, and it is bad 'telling' rather than 'showing' if you just only narrative to get this over. A technique I use is to mix the two together, as in the following example (on pages 141-142), where 'telling' is masked by embedding it within dialogue. (Never 'telling' is practically impossible without it affecting a natural style, and a natural style is important.)

I can hardly concentrate on my work for longer than an hour or so.’
‘At least you’ve got your work as a diversion. I wish I had.’ Carol sipped her drink. ‘What exactly keeps taking your mind away, Paul?’
Paul looked at her for a few moments, wondering how much to disclose. During their walk by the stream, Carol had confided how the rape had shattered her. Quite apart from the terror of the attack, and the questioning and intimate examination by the police, it was her new jumpiness and general fear of men that was wearing her down, plus the thought of how much worse it would be if her parents ever found out. Fortunately the news hadn’t reached Canterbury.
Paul could tell that talking to him had relieved a little of her burden, and he now felt he could also use some release in return. As a result, he found himself telling her, in strict confidence, how he saw Sasha having sex with Roger Lines... How he had wanted to break them apart, how he had longed to confront Sasha, how it had all unraveled... and how mixed-up his emotions were in the wake of it all, with anger, hate and grief all vying for prominence, sometimes making his stomach feel like lead. It was fortunate their area of the bar was relatively quiet during these exchanges, for he heard his voice cracking at times.
‘You poor thing.’ Carol edged closer to him along the sofa and put her hand gently on his arm. ‘You’ve got so much stress going on in your life and all I can think of is my own worries. Being attacked was really frightening, but at least it was over quickly. Your stress will never end. How awful for you, Paul. And for poor Leah.’

This passage even manages to include a condensed version of what Carol had earlier told Paul. It is slipped in amongst a lot of direct dialogue, and this alters the pace nicely while to get over important facts — especially how everything is affecting their feelings and emotions.

Changing point-of-view — and how this might affect voice

It can be a worry for authors that readers might not be 'with it' after they change point-of-view (POV). One solution is to restrict this to chapters, and some even go to the length of providing a chapter title which makes this clear. But readers are pretty bright, and it really only takes a few clues for them to follow.

I change POV a lot in SANDMAN, but I only ever use a single point-of-view within a scene. While writing I used hidden text at the head of each scene within my word processor (made visible to me) to indicate which character 'owned' the scene. This prevents accidentally slipping into the wrong character (especially during subsequent revision). I considered which POV character was affected most in that scene and gave them the POV. I limit the number of POV characters to avoid confusion. In rare scenes, where a principal POV character is not present, I write the scene 'third-person objective': like a film, where the reader simply observes but is not privy to any of the characters' thoughts.

I also used special techniques in SANDMAN to make it easier for the reader to quickly assess who the POV character is within each scene. The simple way is to open the scene naming that character, but sometimes the POV character was anonymous. I also change the tone of voice to give principal characters their own tone so the POV hopefully remains plain in the reader's mind. Here are some examples.

Stevie Clarke is a bit simple-minded, so both his speech and his POV scenes reflect this when we get into his inner thoughts (starting at the bottom of page 39):

Stevie shuffled uncomfortably in the sand. He had the feeling they were teasing him: but perhaps not. Perhaps they were genuinely interested in his physique; he knew it was good. It was always hard for him to tell if people were teasing him. ‘I’m not really a fisherman, see. But I can fish. No problem. That’s my boat,’ he said proudly, pointing to where his motorboat was beginning to bob in the deepening water. ‘I go right out to sea in it. Honest. Man, it’s a good boat. I go way out, even when the waves are really big.’ He demonstrated their size with a sweeping gesture. ‘I can catch fish if I want.’ He stepped closer to the veranda and rested a hand on it. ‘You on holiday here, girls?’

Leah, on the other hand, is a really bright and intelligent girl. See how the voice is different. It's also immediately clear this new scene is from her POV (page 112);

Leah felt in a dream. Her body seemed heavy and lifeless in the chair. She listened wide-eyed while her father explained his suspicions to the police... During this, the nice lady police sergeant, called Sam Gold, sat on the sofa next to her, frantically scribbling notes.
DI Hughes was doing all the talking on their behalf. He frowned when he spoke to her dad; Leah thought he looked rather fierce today. His face was hard. She wondered what terrible things he might have seen in his job...

Paul Vincent is a wilful and emotional man and his POV scenes reflect this, as follows (from page 62):

Paul walked briskly to the Black House in a vain attempt to clear his head. He sat on a bench there for at least an hour, staring across the narrow channel to Mudeford Quay. There was bitterness in his heart that people drinking and laughing outside the pub could be so happy. His emotions were sapped and he felt dead inside. Time seemed meaningless.


To summarise my feelings, I would suggest that the debut novelists should be aware of the rules, break them as little as possible in order to gain his or her break, but not be afraid to break a rule in special circumstances if this offers a positive contribution to the mood of the story. Be creative. Be brave. Do what your heart dictates.

Reading Group's Guide - for Writers!

The questions suggested for discussion in the companion Reading Group's Guide might be of interest to writer's groups.

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