by Anne R. Allen
One of the most sacred commandments in the writerly bible is "Show-Don't-Tell."
As Susan Defreitas wrote at LitReactor, "If writing advice were classic rock, this would be 'Stairway to Heaven'."
Show-Don't-Tell is sound advice—up to a point. Nobody wants to read a novel that's a dry recitation of incidents. That can sound like a four-year-old recapping his day. "I had Cheerios and then Dad took me to preschool and I played with blocks and ate a bologna sandwich and then I went to the bathroom and…" You want to show us the action in a series of scenes not tell us what happened.
And we know a "telling" sentence like "Lula-Mae was beautiful," is bland. We want to say something more like "Lula-Mae's flowing auburn hair and voluptuous figure had a powerful effect on Bubba and Jim-Bob." That way we can show what she looks like and let the reader in on the emotional reactions of the other characters.
But a whole lot of writers, especially newbies (and the dreaded "writing rules police") take the Show-Don't-Tell thing way too far and turn it into an unbreakable rule. That can make for some murky, slow, and downright boring fiction.
Joshua Henkin wrote a great piece for Writer's Digest calling Show-Don't-Tell, "The Great Lie of Writing Workshops." He says Show-Don't-Tell makes his students "adjective-happy" and lazy about confronting the emotional core of a story.
Here are some ways that following the Show-Don't-Tell rule can interfere with good storytelling.
1) "Camera's Eye" writing skimps on information.
As book coach Jennie Nash said in her recent post at the Book Designer
, these people "write as if they are a camera recording the physical events of the story – 'She sighed', 'He smiled', 'He took her hand.' These writers forget that the reader has absolutely no idea what the sigh, smile or handholding means. They refuse to tell us because they are convinced this would violate Show-Don't-Tell."
Most modern writers have been brought up on screenplays. We have the conventions of the screenplay hardwired to our brains, because we saw TV shows before we could read. But what we see on the screen isn't a screenplay. It's the interpretation of the script by actors, directors, cinematographers, composers, and a whole host of other creative people.
When a screenwriter says a character clenches his fist, this clench will be interpreted by an actor to show a whole spectrum of emotion. Lighting and music and camera angle will enhance them.
But when a novelist tells us a character clenches his fist, he is not letting us in on much.
Is the character angry and about to punch somebody? Is he trying to keep from crying? Is he suffering from a painful intestinal ailment? We'll never know if the author won't tell us.
You're not a camera. You're a novelist. And it's your job to give us as much information as possible to tell your story.
2) Withholding information annoys the reader.
Withholding information is not plotting. I've read a lot of amateur fiction (especially literary fiction) where the plot seems to be a secret the author is withholding from the reader. A character moves inexplicably through a bizarre landscape having cryptic conversations with random people. These writers may use the phrase "story question" to explain this game of "that's for me to know and you to find out."
But readers aren't there to play games. We are there to enjoy a story. A "story question" should not be, "WTF is this story about?"
Withholding information is not a smart way to create tension. One story question should be answered before another one is asked. Piling on the confusion is only going to annoy your reader.
Let us know where we are, who the protagonist is and what he wants, or you've lost your reader before chapter two. If you have to tell rather than show to keep the reader from leaving, go ahead and do it. Seriously. It's okay.
3) Exclusively "showing" puts distance between the reader and the character.
An author's job is to create a connection between the reader and the character. Readers want to get inside the character's head.
But when we meet that guy with the clenched fist, we are just looking at him from the outside. We're shut out of the story.
When you say, "Lula-Mae bit her fingernail," we don't have access to her feelings. She may be apprehensive, but she may simply have an annoying hangnail or be desperate for a cigarette.
"Lula-Mae was so terrified of meeting the man from the FBI, she'd chomped off three fingernails and was working on a fourth," gives us a much better idea of her internal state even though the author is—gasp—telling us Lula-Mae is terrified.
4) Too much showing slows the pace.
If you spend ten pages describing the shabby apartment of the murder witness, and we hear the screaming children and the blaring TV and smell the unemptied cat litter box and overflowing garbage can, your story is not going forward.
A writer should only dwell on the key scenes where important action is occurring. It's perfectly okay to say your detective can tell the witness is a harried single mom who is barely able to cope so her testimony may be useless. Then he can move on with the investigation and your reader can get on with the story.
Some newbie writers confuse descriptions of violence with conflict. If you describe every blow and scream of pain in a fight scene, your story is not moving forward. The story stops until we know how the characters react to what's going on and how the fight alters the trajectory of the plot. The carnage has to do something to the characters and move the plot forward, or it's no more interesting than a description of the sofa cushions.
5) It's hard to say anything original about body language.
How many times have you hit the thesaurus looking for a new way to say your character is afraid or angry or elated?
Beginning writers are likely to stray into purple prose territory while trying to avoid telling us this stuff outright.
- "The contents of his stomach had turned into rabid ferrets."
- "Her angora-mittened hands clenched into fuzzy pink balls of rage."
- "Her heart felt as if it had taken wing and landed in Narnia—but not the winter Narnia with that awful queen—Narnia on a summer day when Peter was High King and the talking animals were all getting along."
We want to be original. We want to Show-Don't-Tell. But we need to be careful it doesn't involve stepping out of the story and taking our readers with us.
6) Too much "showing" can be a sign of over-workshopping
Last month Kris Rusch warned us about the bland "serious writer" voice
that comes from following too many "writing rules" instead of developing our own voice.
I'm a fan of workshops and critique groups because they can be a free and helpful way for a new writer to learn basic writing skills. But I also warn about the dangers. See my post on Why You Should Ignore Most Advice from your Critique Group.
There's such a thing as over-workshopping. I know writers who have workshopped the same novel for decades in everything from college classes to writers' conferences to online critique groups. They often try to follow the advice of every person who gives feedback.
What they're doing is giving away creative control of their own book. They are letting their book be written by committee. They're also following a recipe for bland, boring writing. Don't do it. If a book isn't working, or it's had hundreds of rejections and you don't know what to do to fix it, put it in a drawer.
Then go read at least five popular contemporary books in that genre by five different authors. How many times do these authors break the "rules"?
How often do they tell, rather than show?
Learning to write compelling prose takes time. It does take feedback, but it also takes a lot of READING. Your time might be better spent learning from the pros. Workshops have their place, but nothing can substitute for knowing your genre inside and out.
What about you, scriveners? Are you annoyed by the Show-Don't-Tell rule? Have you tried to follow it to the letter? Have you run into an over-workshopped manuscript? Do you have examples where Show-Don't-Tell drives you nuts?
By Anne R. Allen (@annerallen) March 6, 2016
Anne R. Allen is the author of ten books, including the bestselling CAMILLA RANDALL MYSTERIES and HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE, co-written with NYT bestseller Catherine Ryan Hyde. She also blogs at The Camilla Randall Mysteries.
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Labels: Anne R. Allen, bad writing advice, Kris Rusch, show don't tell, The Lady of the Lakewood Diner, writing rules