Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Clash of the Titles Conquerors!

Delia Latham
They say every novel reveals a bit of their author, and that is certainly the case with Clash of the Titles’ Conqueror, Delia Latham’s Destiny’s Dream. Although Delia has never ran a Christian dating service, giggled at a funeral, or finagled a coffee shop date with the handsome man she met during the eulogy, she and her heroine, Destiny May, share a passion for prayer and a love for Christ.
Delia competed in our Best Conversion Scene category, which many assume would come easily for Christian authors, but in actuality, it is very difficult to weave authentic faith issues into a novel. Authors typical swing from one side of the pendulum to the other: Either their stories are filled with long-winded sermons or they’re “clean” novels that mention Christianity in passing. To write a believable and impacting conversion scene, you need to understand the human heart and our deep longing for the things of Christ. Then, you need to let the scene and your characters’ actions and reactions speak for themselves. 
As authors, it can be very tempting to tell our readers how our characters feel, but doing so actually gets in the way. Basically, when we tell, we negate what we’re telling, if that makes sense.
Here’s an example of Delia’s scene flipped—telling instead of showing:
As Pastor Paul Porter extended an altar invitation, Destiny worried. She wanted Clay to go forward. He appeared anxious, perhaps even convicted. It was almost like he wanted to go forward. An old hymn that told of Christ’s love and tenderness, played.
Miss Willard was consistent in her preference for the old hymns.

Right now, Destiny had no objection.

She wanted to reassure Clay, and perhaps even encourage him to step forward, so she laid a gentle hand over his. He was tense, and deeply moved. Without a word, he nodded, and they stood. Destiny walked with him toward the front of the church, overjoyed that he had taken the final step of faith.
Now read the real scene, taken from Destiny’s Dream. Notice the increased emotional intensity in the following passage:
As Pastor Paul Porter extended an altar invitation, Destiny sneaked a peek at Clay’s face. His hands had been fisted into white-knuckled balls for the past twenty minutes. Now a muscle worked in the strong line of his jaw as the familiar, sweet notes of “Softly and Tenderly” played in the background.
Miss Willard was consistent in her preference for the old hymns.

Right now, Destiny had no objection.

She laid a gentle hand over one of Clay’s hard fists. He opened his eyes and slanted a misty look her way even as he unfurled his fingers to wrap them around hers. Without a word, he nodded, and they stood. Destiny walked with him toward the front of the church, joyous tears dimming her vision.
This is a perfect example of “show not tell”.  Delia didn’t tell us Clay struggled, she showed us through his body motions. Clay’s entire body tensed as his inner battle raged. His hands clenched in white knuckled fists, the muscles in his jaw tightened and his eyes grew moist. Until…the battle is over and faith wins.
Having read both, which is more intense? Often it is our fear that the reader will somehow “miss” it that motivates us to oversell things, but in reality, our telling works against us. A good rule of thumb: avoid adjectives like the plague. Okay, so maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but any time you’re tempted to tell an emotion, use body language instead.
Last Thursday April Gardner, Clash of the Titles Senior Editor, gave some excellent tips on how to use “action tags” to intensify dialogue. Expanding on some of her examples, I’ve developed the following to help you intensify your scenes by making your readers feel what your characters are feeling:
  1. Determine the emotion you are trying to describe. (This is a no brainer, but it leads us into step two, so…) But seriously take time to ask yourself, “How would I be feeling right now?” Often a slew of emotions are involved, as you noticed in Delia’s scene. Clay was tense and teary. Destiny was nervous and encouraged.
  2. Spend a moment recalling a time when you felt that emotion. Jot down all the physiological responses that occurred. For example, when I’m frightened, my legs feel prickly, as if a bolt of electricity shot through them. When I’m happy, I feel giggle and energized. When I’m sad, I feel physically fatigued and might even get a head-ache. When I’m stressed, my muscles tense, my heart rate increases, and my jaw tightens.
  3. Spend some time researching that emotion. What happens when we are afraid physiologically? Our body releases adrenaline which causes our blood vessels to expand, our heart rate to increase and our pupils to dilate.
  4. Spend time remembering the physical appearance of people who have experienced the emotion you are trying to describe. If necessary, watch movies and television and jot down what you see. Do they lift their chin and square their shoulders? Do they fidget? Do their eyes shift back and forth rapidly? Try to go beyond the easy, frequently used, “She frowned.”
  5. Another, duh, but once you've got your list of physiological responses and descriptions, weave them into your scene.

The result will be intense, authentic scenes that grip your reader to their very core, enabling them to see themselves—their fears, their hopes, their struggles—in your characters. Then the truth presented in the scene will cement deep in their heart, because you are no longer talking to your hero or heroine, but instead, to the reader.
Next week Delia will share a bit more on her Clash of the Titles winning novel, her journey to publication and how her relationship with God affects her writing.
Jennifer Slattery is the marketing representative for the literary website Clash of the Titles. She is also a freelance writer, novelist and columnist. Visit Clash of the Titles to find out more about this fun, author friendly, reader-driven website. Visit Jennifer Slattery Lives Out Loud to find out more about Jennifer Slattery.


  1. To get a scene right just takes longer. You can't just write it, you have to think about it. And, as you pointed out in your post, it helps to think about a time you experienced the emotion your character is experiencing and recall your physical reactions. Sometimes you have to go backward to write forward.
    Good post!

  2. What fun! I loved your dissection of my conversion scene, Jennifer. And I enjoyed your tips - all strong, valid points from which any author should be able to glean something valuable. Thank you, Edie, for allowing me space on The Write Conversation. My entire COTT experience has been wonderful, thanks to all of you!

  3. Still trying to my arms around the idea of showing instead of telling, but this really helped a lot. I've written down some of the tips, so hopefully I'll be able to apply them to my writing.

  4. Delia, thanks so much for taking part in this. I really enjoyed your interview and got some great tips and insights.
    Beth, I so agree and I love the way you phrased it - "go backward to write forward."
    Ellen, you are growing so much as a writer. I just love your attitude and how well you apply the things you hear.
    Blessings to you all!

  5. Ellen, don't feel lonely - I'm pretty sure "showing vs. telling" is one of the hardest concepts for any of us to wrap our minds around. But it can be done, and I'm sure you will do it!

    Edie, thanks again for posting...and Jennifer, thanks for such a great article! Y'all ROCK! :d