I discovered copywork after listening to a podcast (I’m not sure what episode or which podcast it was from; to that, I apologize). I devote about 20 minutes on the exercise: I take a novel or short story and then copy it, word for word.
I rotate between three stories. Currently, I’m doing Stephen King’s IT, James Clavell’s Shogun and Brandon Sanderson’s Way of Kings. I then switch out a title once I’ve finished copying a chapter, either doing another novel or short story. When I’m reading a story and come across an engaging scene, I make note of the chapter and page so I can copy it after I finish reading the book (read for pleasure first; study it later).
I started doing copywork because I was insecure on how I style my sentences. Often, when I’m writing on my manuscript, I worry that I’m using too much action and description, and not enough character thoughts and narrative intrusions. After doing some copywork, I began questioning the oft parroted rule “show, don’t tell.” Eventually I found that the rule must be broken: it is not “show, don’t tell,” it is “show and tell.”
Novice writers tend to “tell” a lot. They overstay inside their character’s head, make the narrator intrude too much, and blabber on and on and on about the world they crafted. But once they take the advice “show, don’t tell” to heart, the novice writer will overdo it and is left with nothing but action and dialogue and description.
Mistakes must be made, and the novice writer must learn. So I learned.
Copywork made me understand that “showing” and “telling” is a spectrum. It is not about balance; it is about rhythm.
There are seven narrative modes. I have listed them from concrete to abstract, from “showing” to “telling.”
The “showing” modes are action, dialogue and description. These are concrete. You see action, you hear dialogue, you sense what’s being described, like the smell of wet garbage or the taste of a lip-puckering lemon slice.
In between “showing” and “telling” is summary and transition. Action and dialogue are condensed by the narrator in this mode.
The “telling” modes are thought, intrusion and exposition. These are modes that belong to the narrator, who is an abstract entity of the author’s creation. It reveals what the character is thinking. It intrudes like a ghost, telling us something about the character, or what’s about to happen. Sometimes they’ll explain something that may or may not be relevant, but feel it’s important for the narrator to convey.
So I do this copywork exercise for 12 minutes. Once I’m done copying, I’ll start highlighting clauses and phrases by their narrative mode, which usually takes less than 8 minutes.
The following are the color-coding I use and a brief explanation why it’s colored that way.
Of course you can have your own color scheme that makes sense to you.
- Action as Red or Orange, like blood and explosions, the stuff associated with action movies.
- Dialogue as nothing because you can easily identify it with quotation marks. If you’re doing copywork of Cormac McCarthy, who eschews quotation marks, then you can add those for your sake (and sanity).
- Description as Green, like most of Mother Nature with her trees and grass and shrubberies.
- Summary/Transition as Yellow, like the caution signal in traffic lights.
- Thought as Blue, like the sky where clouds float, which I associate with thought bubbles in comics (because they look like clouds).
- Intrusion as Pink because Narrators are fabulous entities (the color choice was a personal thing).
- Exposition as Gray because it’s a dull color.
Now that we have designated certain colors to their modes, we start highlighting. Look for clauses and phrases, not sentences alone. You will highlight the following:
These are the main ones you should identify. I omitted Prepositional Phrases because they function as adjectives or adverbs.
- Main Clauses
- Subordinate Clauses
- Absolute Phrases
- Participial Phrases
Let me explain, then, what the narrative modes are.
Action is self-explanatory. If there’s movement, then it’s action. Keyword here is dynamic.
Description can easily be discerned with the S-LV-C sentence construction (is, was, see, hear, smell, feel, taste, etc.). It can be identified with sensory verbs. Keyword here is static.
Dialogue is pretty self-explanatory as well. If folks are talking in real-time, it’s dialogue.
Summary are sentences or paragraphs that speed up time. If Action or Dialogue is being portrayed, but not in great detail, then it is Summary. Transitionals are usually subordinate clauses that marks a jump in time or change in location, thus changing from one scene to another.
Thought has two types: direct and indirect. Direct are sentences with thought tags (I can't believe I broke my arm for that, he thought). Indirect are phrases or clauses without thought tags, but still attributable to a character’s thoughts (Jimmi remembered that time he broke his arm. He knelt down, wondering why he climbed that tree in the first place).
Narrative Intrusion or Intrusion is when the narrator addresses the reader or relays what a character is subconsciously thinking or feeling.
Often Indirect Thoughts and Intrusion are hard to discern. If it comes to that, my rule is this: if the character may think it at the moment, then it is Thoughts. Otherwise it is Intrusion. The following example is from The Gunslinger by Stephen King (underline is my revision):
[He muttered] the old and powerful nonsense words as he did . . . Strange how some of childhood’s words and ways fell to the wayside.
In the second sentence (Strange how some . . . ), it is not clear who is conveying this. The narrator could be interjecting their thoughts, or the gunslinger could be thinking this. But since it’s plausible the gunslinger can think this, the second sentence is Thought.
Same example, but as Intrusion (original text):
[He muttered] the old and powerful nonsense words as he did . . . It was strange how some of childhood’s words and ways fell to the wayside and were left behind, while others clamped tight and rode for life, growing the heavier to carry as time passed.
In the second sentence (It was strange how . . . ), the gunslinger might be thinking this. But since the gunslinger is preoccupied with singing a childhood song, it’s hard to imagine that he is having this detailed train of thought. The clue that makes this an Intrusion is the narrator’s interjection on how “others clamped tight and rode for life”.
First person POV frequently addresses the reader since the narrator is either talking to themselves or the reader. The following example is from Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov:
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.
Another thing that a narrator can do is look into the future that the character would not be aware of. For example:
Jim stopped to look at the grotesque painting. If he hadn’t looked at it, then he would have been safe from the curse that would kill him in ten days.
On the second sentence, the narrator intrudes, giving the reader a hint of what’s to come. Dramatic Irony is always an Intrusion. Dramatic Irony is when the reader knows more than the characters, thanks to the narrator giving that info. On the example above, the reader knows that Jim will be cursed, but Jim is not aware of it yet.
Exposition or Info Dump is the narrator relaying facts and information regarding the story’s universe. If Intrusion is intimate, then Exposition is cold. In Intrusion, the narrator is subjective, biased or opinionated towards the subject. In Exposition, the narrator is objective, detached or fact-based.
Jim stopped to look at the grotesque painting. It was made in 1723 by Johann Mayorga, who had used virgin blood for the reds and charred bone for the blacks. Jim shivered at the sight of it.
On the second sentence, a fact has been relayed to us. This is a quick exposition. The following is an info dump:
Jim stopped to look at the grotesque painting. It was made in 1723 by Johann Mayorga, who had used virgin blood for the reds and charred bone for the blacks. The canvas, though mistaken with real cloth, was made of stretched and dried human skin. When the authorities eventually discovered his macabre hobby, they had found thirteen canvasses, all dried and ready to be painted on. His brushes . . .
Too much information could rob the reader of some intrigue and mystery. It is good practice to sprinkle it in bite-sizes unless you want to elicit an emotion from info dumping. But it can become tedious. Veteran authors are adept with info dumping; novices use too much that it becomes suffocating.
Why go all through this, you ask?
It’s a good exercise, I think. Musicians do covers of other successful musicians, and from doing so, they learn scales, techniques and also styles. We imitate to learn, and we innovate from what we learn.
Another benefit is having a place for your notes and analysis. I don’t write on my books (I still see them as sacred), so having the capability to add comments on certain passages is great.
And there you have it. I devote 20 minutes on this exercise. Nothing more. Time is precious, and as writers, we need to work on our own stuff (and read other people’s stuff).
So, fellow writers, copy away!