Wednesday, July 3, 2013

5 Rules I Broke: Now Showing

Guilty as charged, I tell a lot in a novel. How do I get away with it? How did I break 5 big rules (one of them being Show Don’t Tell) and receive the blessings I did?

Because in every business there is a degree of B.S. that you have to wade through.

Of course you’re going to tell in your story. It’s a book for crying out loud. The rule was grossly misworded.  Our society is careless with coining phrases. Don’t believe me? The brilliant George Carlin observed, “Why do they call them apartments when they’re all together?” Erase from your memory the three word rule and embrace this realistic one: Show When You Can, Tell When You Have To. It’s been said before—by one of the writers on this blog as a matter of fact—but it should have completely eradicated the old rule by now.

To back up the necessity to tell, I ask you to consider this. Showing consists of three things: descriptions, dialogue, and action. Think about it. Really? An author is going to chisel 70 to 100 thousand words into rock that is just pictures, talk, and movement? No way.

An author isn’t supposed to over describe the setting or characters, so showing for these purposes doesn’t really advance the plot much. As far as actions go, subtle or brazen maneuvers can illustrate a lot of what’s going on in the story, but they can’t guarantee a major payoff that is expected of a novel which I’ll get to in a minute. Dialogue, a great tool, can fall short of the payoff as well.

And that is…

Point of View.

Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat, the fact that we have POV proves that you have to tell. You’ll hear agents, editors, and critique groups complain that a piece doesn’t have enough emotion. Whereas you can show emotion with crying, grinning, fist pounding, and what have you, not all feelings can be displayed, so you have to tell them.

Do you utter the 100% truth in every situation? None of us do. We fib to be nice a lot. We have to tell our boss what he or she wants to hear, right? How do you really feel? Or more importantly, how does the character that you’re writing really feel? It’s the author’s duty to tell the reader.

The key thing I want friends to walk away with is:
  • Real ‘showing’ in a novel is limited to descriptions, dialogue, and action.

  • You’re going to have to tell a lot because you have to share inside information (mostly feelings) about the character with the reader.

An absurb an erroneous rule stated as such: Show Don’t Tell, I think I’ve proven quite sufficiently my reasons for shooting it the bird.




Karen Duvall said...

Very true, Dave! I think the "show don't tell" mantra has become shorthand for expressing emotion in a way that reveals character. You can "tell" a reader your character is angry, but that's pretty blah. However, you can show that anger through action, speech and facial expression. There are a dozen ways to show anger and only one way to tell it. Telling is boring. Showing is interesting.

"He clenched his jaw, his fists gripped around the blade so tight that his knuckles turned white." That's one character's way of expressing anger. Another might express it differently: "Tears glistened in her eyes as her lips peeled back in a snarl, her shaking grip making the blade quiver in her hands." Two different characters, two different expressions, one basic emotion.

Vicki Gundrum said...

This "telling" is especially true in memoir, where it is called the "reflective voice." Vicki Gundrum

Julie Luek said...

This was a great post and so true. I find the "rules" of writing to be better digested as guidelines, but you have to find your way through your book. As Vicki said, for essays and memoirs telling creatively is essential. I don't think readers think about the rules near as much as writers are concerned with them.

Anonymous said...

Here-here, and Ha, Gusto! Great post! said...

I shoot all absolute rules the bird. Glad you proved this one wrong. It's an area I need to work on: telling more, that is. So thank you, Julie.

Happy 4th,