Sunday, September 14, 2014

Guest Julie Musil and the The Power of Showing

Author Julie Musil
I recently binge-watched The Tudors. Netflix describes the series like this: “All the splendor and scandal of England’s 16th-century royal court comes to life in this series that follows notorious Tudor monarch Henry VIII.” 

In The Tudors, a situation arose where the king’s chancellor disagreed with the religious teachings of a Mr. Fish. As Miranda Lambert would say, “Somethin’ bad about to happen.” Mr. Fish’s punishment? He’d be burned at the stake. But the storytellers wouldn’t show it, right? Wrong. 

The scene opens with Mr. Fish bound to the stake. Kindling is stacked against him. He’s given the chance to recant his statements about the church. Instead of recanting, he begins reciting The Lord’s Prayer. Tension builds. A torch sets fire to the kindling. Wood crackles. Smoke rises. Mr. Fish’s voice also rises with fear. But he continues shouting The Lord’s Prayer until he succumbs to the fire. 

It was a powerful, disturbing scene. 

When the king later asks his chancellor how many people had been burned at the stake so far, the chancellor calmly says, “Six.” Like it’s no big deal. After witnessing the scene, I felt those six deaths stronger than I would’ve had they just said “Six” without showing it. This scene was a great reminder to slow down and show pivotal details of important scenes. 

In my recent release, The Summer of Crossing Lines, there’s a scene that was especially difficult to write. It involved a dog fight. I’m a huge dog lover. I have two rescue doggies at home (both of them are snuggled against my feet right now). At first I was tempted to gloss over the dog fight after it had happened, but I knew I had to show it. The reader would better understand the people my character Melody was dealing with if they went through this turmoil with her. 

So I showed the scene in all its ugly details. The stench of blood. The cheering. The cry of a mortally wounded animal. The muffled gunshot. It makes me sad just thinking about it. 

As writers, it’s sometimes easier to skip the ugly parts because they’re hard to write. But too often we’d create a barrier between the reader and the character. If we want readers to feel for our characters and root for them, it’s important that we put on our big boy pants and write the hard stuff. 

I still think about Mr. Fish burning at the stake. And while not every scene can carry that kind of weight, the important scenes can...and should. 

Do you have a hard time writing challenging “show” scenes? Have you ever “told” about a difficult subject because it was too traumatizing to “show”? Which scenes in books or movies were the most difficult for you to read or watch? 

Julie Musil writes from her rural home in Southern California, where she lives with her husband and three sons. She’s an obsessive reader who loves stories that grab the heart and won’t let go. Her YA novels The Summer of Crossing Lines and The Boy Who Loved Fire are available now. For more information, or to stop by and say Hi, please visit Julie on her blog, on Twitter, and on Facebook. 


The Summer of Crossing Lines 

Author: Julie Musil 

Release date: August 19, 2014 

Category: Young Adult (YA) 

Genre: Contemporary Mystery 

Short Summary: When her protective older brother disappears, sixteen-year-old Melody infiltrates a theft ring, gathers clues about his secret life, and falls for a handsome pickpocket. At what point does truth justify the crime? 

Long Summary: When her protective older brother disappears, sixteen-year-old Melody loses control of her orderly life. Her stuttering flares up, her parents are shrouded in a grief-induced fog, and she clings to the last shreds of her confidence. 

The only lead to her brother’s disappearance is a 30-second call from his cell phone to Rex, the leader of a crime ring. Frustrated by a slow investigation with too many obstacles, and desperate to mend her broken family, Melody crosses the line from wallflower to amateur spy. She infiltrates Rex’s group and is partnered with Drew, a handsome pickpocket whose kindness doesn’t fit her perception of a criminal. He doesn’t need to steal her heart—she hands it to him. 

With each law Melody breaks, details of her brother’s secret life emerge until she’s on the cusp of finding him. But at what point does truth justify the crime? 

Author Bio:  Julie Musil writes from her rural home in Southern California, where she lives with her husband and three sons. She’s an obsessive reader who loves stories that grab the heart and won’t let go. Her YA novels The Summer of Crossing Lines and The Boy Who Loved Fire are available now. For more information, or to stop by and say Hi, please visit Julie on her blog, on Twitter, and on Facebook. 

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Buy Links for The Summer of Crossing Lines: 


  1. A dog fight would be brutal to right. I, in general, need to slow down.I found my some of my scene are more like a blur.

  2. It would be hard for me to write a dog fight.
    I don't write about stuff like that in general, so I can't think of any scenes I didn't show. There were a few in my last book involving a ten year old that were probably tough for some to read...

  3. It is important sometimes to show brutality, it is hard to watch and read, but important for the story! I enjoyed your example but glad I didn't have to see it acted out!

    Good luck with your book, it sounds as though you've asked the right question.

  4. I avoid writing about things that upset me, which is why writing a cancer story for Melissa Bradley was so hard.
    Congratulations Julie on your new release.

  5. Hi Stephen and Julie ... I most certainly am not happy writing about appalling or bullying type situations .. but understand the need to be included to bring us into that terror area ... the Tudors and Henry VIII's agents in the dissolution ... are exceptionally cruel ... death at the stake, hung, drawn and quartered ... the mind boggles horrifically at the thought - life was terrifyingly horrible for many.

    That certainly is a good example of 'showing' ... good luck with your books - Hilary

  6. There are some things I will not do. Kids and animals are off limits. But everything and everyone else is fair game.

  7. Yes, those are the scenes that really need to be drawn out and shown, as hard as it can be to experience as a writer. Great post, Julie. And congrats on your book.

  8. Such a great point about writing those painful scenes. I enjoyed The Tudors though it was painful to watch at times. Congrats on the book.

  9. Stephen, thanks so much for having me here today!

    Southpaw, the dog fight WAS brutal to write. Ugh. I love doggies so much and it pains me when they're hurting.

    Alex, difficult scenes with kids are definitely tough to read. As a matter of fact, there are a couple of books out there that I want to read but haven't yet, because I know they include tough scenes. There's a scene in The Boy With the Striped Pajamas that I still can't get out of my head.

    Yolanda, you're right about the need to show brutality. So often we learn about the truth of brutality through fiction. A Beautiful Life comes to mind, or Schindler's List.

    Denise, oh my goodness, yes. Last night I watched The Fault in Our Stars. I cried like a baby even though I haven't personally lost someone to cancer. I did write about burn victims in my last book, The Boy Who Loved Fire. My son is a victim of 3rd degree burns, so writing those scenes was tough. I had to wait a loooong time before I could actually write about it.

    Hilary, it truly was horrifying--in fiction but mostly in real life. You have to wonder...did they not think of these people as human beings with value? It boggles the mind. I'd like to say we're past that kind of horror, but now we just see a different kind of evil. It's sad.

    Stephen, I don't think I'll ever be able to write something horrible about kids. When I read what someone else wrote, it stick with me for way to long. But not in the good way.

    Natalie, sometimes it's tough to know which scenes to draw out and show. I guess that's what revision is for. Then we can add in sensory details and emotion.

  10. I hear you about how hard it is to write scenes that make you cringe, but you're right. These are the very scenes that build your story and involve your reader.

  11. Julie, I agree, those powerful *showing* scenes are vital and you used a good example with Mr. Fish. They are also incredibly hard, emotionally, to write. I also LOVE animals and I did write/show the death of a beloved dog killed in the line of protecting. I want you to know, I cried during most of it. BUT, any who read it didn't walk away unscathed emotionally. Many told me they cried. I thought, good, because I cried when I wrote it. It was a powerful scene and was necessary to showcase something about the main character and what she had gone through. Of course for scenes like that to have impact they have to be used sparingly. If you want it to shock the reader like it shocked the character then you have to do a good job putting them on the scene.

    Enjoyed your thoughts.

    Sia McKye Over Coffee

  12. Lee, those scenes stand out in a reader's mind because they are so cringe worthy. But it is definitely HARD!

    Sia, oh, how that must have been so difficult for you to write! But you powered through it, and obviously touched the lives of your readers. Books like that make us FEEL, which is a good thing.

  13. Ha, I can relate to this. As much as I love being mean to my characters, there are some scenes that are so difficult to write that I want to gloss over them or have them happen off-stage as it were.

  14. Hi Julie, I can completely relate to this. I have two dog fight scenes in my current WIP (about a pack of street dogs) and trust me when I say this, it was extremely difficult to write them. My first thought was that I should gloss over it, then I decided that would be cheating, so I am currently writing them in detail.

  15. Scenes such as these can elicit emotions from a reader that a writer may not otherwise be able to pull out of them. It's times like this when you can get sucked into a novel because you are so appalled or you simply want to do something about it. I don't like the gratuitous violence. It has to have a reason other than making the bad guy look badder.

  16. Lynda, I know what you mean about writing scenes "off stage." Sometimes I have a hard time deciding which scenes to slow down and add lots of details, and which scenes to gloss over.

    Rachna, that must be so difficult to write! I'm sure your readers will be impacted by those scenes.

    Stephen, that's how I felt with scenes in The Help. They made me so angry! I love it when books make me think and feel.

  17. A dog fight sounds painful to read. I've read such painful scenes many times, though. In one manuscript I currently submitted, the first chapter has such a horrendous scene, but I had to write it since the rest of the book is about the character dealing with it.