Thursday, March 31, 2011

Stupid Writing Rules: Show, Don't Tell

From the ever opinionated E.C. Stacy

I have what I call a Crap Meter to test what “pundits” tell me to do to write a novel. Show Don’t Tell? Really? So I pick up a book, especially one by a new author or a success story, and analyze the first few pages. Showing (without getting into the poetic use of using words to paint pictures—we’ll get into that later) can be summed up basically as, dialogue, descriptions, and actions. In other words, what you’d see on a video. Always within the initial pages of everything I read, I detect internal thoughts, emotions explained, and references to the past. So my meter pegs every time. Show Don’t Tell is crap.

It’s not that the author of this rule didn’t have the right idea. But whoever came up with this phrase had no clue about how to teach. Yeah, I know that the phrase is a metaphor per se, but I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen literal attempts to only show in manuscripts, and typically they’re from new writers who just joined a critique group and swung to this extreme thanks to picking up the asinine “rule”.

Some comments from my introduction to this series had some good points. Nancy Williams wrote that we need rules. Paula Martin, Sun Singer, and Write2Walk alluded that rules are meant to be broken. My response to both of these is: We need good rules from the start. Period. Whether we break rules or use them as a starting point, the need for clarity when absorbing information into the mind is paramount.

So expunge those three dirty words from your memory. Never utter them again. To your fellow writers, to the padawans who you’re offering friendly advice, or to yourself as you jump into this writer’s journey you say:

Show when you can. Tell when you have to.

Doesn’t this make WAY more sense? Of course you’re going to tell. You’re supposed to. It’s a novel. The point is: respect every opportunity to put action in your story; and definitely ensure that you tell the readers things they need to know but can’t glean from your descriptive devices.

Otherwise, it’s not a novel. It’s a screenplay.

Even in some screenplays, especially Oscar winning ones, there is narration. Now why would they stick a lot of telling in there when they are in the business of showing? Because it works and should never be trivialized with a poorly thought out command to desist.


N. R. Williams said...

You're right, Stacy, but only when you have learned the rules can you then lean how to break them effectively. In critique, we have a new writer and she does nothing but first the rules, then run like hell from the cops.

Cynthia said...

I frantically type my Facebook password and find all my friends who constantly complain about this rule. In my mind the throw their arms up, shouting in adulation.

Maggie Nash said...

This is why I love deep POV. You can "Show" AND "Tell" at the same time :-)

Karen Duvall said...

Cute cartoon! I love it. :)

I think it's also important to note that the story's narrator is the
interpreter of what's going on, so even if something is shown, the character telling the story will "tell" their perception of what he or she "sees." It's that perception that portrays the character doing the telling, as well as the character being observed and described.

J. H. Bográn said...

WEll, you sure are on to something.
I like this new rule.
do you mind if I print it in bold letters and place a banner atop my computer? :-)

Dean Miller said...

I feel scolded. I wish you could've shown me this instead of telling me and making me feel bad. :-)