Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Show Don't Tell - Truth or Lie??

I've been reading a lot of articles lately about writing advice and how, like any advice, much of it should be taken with a grain of salt (I need to look that up and see why salt is used in this cliché). See this piece by Nick Mamatas. Hilarious and makes the point that a writer needs to do what he needs to do and don't let the so-called rules constrain you. I agree with much of it but I do think writers just starting out should be aware of these pieces of advice and follow them at first. When they are more comfortable in their writing voice then they can determine how much of that advice, if any, they should take. Still, at some point, a writer will be faced with one of these rules, like 'Show Don't Tell', and have to decide whether they will break it.

In my case, I was always a firm believer in the 'show don't tell' piece of advice. Why on earth would a writer choose to drone on about what a tree looked like when they could have their main character climbing the tree, feeling the rough bark beneath his fingers and balancing precariously on a low hanging branch? Well, I did believe this advice until I wrote THE BREAK and I had two major scenes where, in effect I was telling rather than showing.

Oh, my God, I worried over those scenes. I kept thinking: "Is there any way to reveal this information without a character just talking about it?" Well, since that information happened in the past, I would have had to have a flashback and I really don't like flashbacks. Flashbacks are another thing some writers advise to keep to a bare minimum if used at all. I guess that's one piece of writerly advice I've kind of stuck with but, since cutting myself some slack on the show don't tell advice now, I figure that one is also ready to be blown up. I'll probably have a flashback scene in my next book, for all I know! As for 'show don't tell, I finally accepted that sometimes in a story (as in life) characters tell another character about something that happened to them. Talking reveals information, characters react to that information and (here's the big thing) if it is DONE WELL a reader will not feel like the information is revealed in a flat, boring way. I really hope I did those 'telling' scenes well. Time will tell (agagaga!!)

In fact, in a book I'm reading now called "World War Z", the entire story is told in a 'telling' way because the format is based on interviews about events that occurred in the past during the zombie war. The writer still manages to make the telling compelling even though it reads like a historical document based on interviews. But because those interviews are filled with complex, flawed characters that went through a horrific experience the stories they are telling are never boring. Very different and very well done.

I guess the moral of this is that the more you write, the more so-called 'rules' you come across and the more comfortable you become in breaking those rules when you need to in order to tell (show??) the story. Writing is not mathematics (thank God). There are instincts that must be listened to, rules that sometimes need to be broken and, most importantly, a story that needs to be told in the way the writer feels works the best.

How about you? Have you broken any of the so-called 'rules' of writing?


  1. "Have you broken any of the so-called 'rules' of writing?"

    All the time. I write by 'feel.' Rule-bound writing is as flat as the state of Florida.
    Reading many of your posts, Nelsa, you clearly have the feel for good writing.

  2. Thanks, Mirka. It's hard sometimes, though. Rules do make things easier - though not necessarily better, huh?

  3. I do break rules on occasion. I even broke a few rules submitting to PB publishers I knew were closed. I got a contract out of it too. That was probably not the best thing that could have happened because now I feel like it's okay to break rules. But I really do think that sometimes it is okay.