Wednesday, January 4, 2017

IWSG: The Writing Rule I Break


It’s the first Wednesday of the month, so it’s time for the Insecure Writer's Support Group blog hop! 

The question of the month is: What writing rule do you wish you’d never heard?

That’s an easy one: “Show Don’t Tell.”

Are you shocked? 

Admittedly, the rule has its uses. It’s very good for steering a beginning writer (like I was) away from a head-hopping storyteller’s voice that ignores deep character POV (like I did) and has no idea how to write an attention-grabbing narrative (yup, me again). 

I became a much better writer when I began to focus on “showing” character through action and the five senses. Since I was writing for kids (MG and YA), the emphasis on things like trembling, fists clenching, and eye rolls worked well. Hormones run amok in that category anyway! 

But here’s the problem. What if you write a paragraph like this:

Ginger gasped as her three roommates burst into her room. Her gaze fixed on them one at a time, trying to suss out which was the murderer. All of their clothing appeared neat and clean—no bloodstains from Jeremy’s body. Ginger's nails dug into her palms, and her breath locked behind a lump in her throat. As the seconds ticked past, her knees began to shake so hard she feared she’d collapse to the ground. 

OK, Ginger’s suspicious and scared. That’s obvious. But WHY?? Does she expect her roommates to attack? Is she just upset over Jeremy’s murder? Is she afraid she won’t be able to deduce who the murderer is and they may claim more victims? 

If you don’t “tell” Ginger's emotions, why she’s having them, and what she's thinking, each reader will plug in their own interpretation of her actions—and they might be wrong and will get confused later in the story. I swear, 10 people can read the same thing and each come out with their own idea of what it means.

It's important to clarify the character’s inner thoughts, goals, and fears so the reader doesn't have to guess. When the reader understands the character's ideas and motivations, they'll grow much closer to the character and that sympathy will draw them more firmly into the story. 

So the rule should read: “Show and Tell.” The one is as important as the other.

Do you follow the "Show Don't Tell" rule? Do you think it works?




This is a post for the Insecure Writer's Support Group, the brainchild of Alex J. Cavanaugh. It exists so the community of blogging writers can share and support each other, blog-hopping to cheerlead and commiserate. To find out more, visit: Insecure Writer's Support Group. Plus, check out the IWSG Website for lots of helpful info and links.

48 comments:

Birgit said...

I think most rules are made to be broken, or at least bent. When someone does this, they are called inventive or a rogue but I just say they go by what they feel works for them. I think you give good insight. Happy New Year!

Sheena-kay Graham said...

Sorry but my first thought was that little girl is going to drown. Be careful whenever you see a don't swim sign. Not every rule is meant to be broken. Don't wander off the path if you see a sign warning of bears in the bushes. Anyway Lexa I completely agree with you. I knew the show only rule was ridiculous early on. One of my first writing loves is poetry and I get going all poetic and dramatic in describing the moon sometimes instead of just saying it's nighttime. But for certain books not only is that not necessary, it's a terrible idea. Do you think Sweet Valley High series ever took long emotive prose to say Jessica or Elizabeth Wakefield got themselves into trouble? No! Because their audience just wants a story. I believe you need to remember the audience you are writing for first before anything else. It's like the warning not to buy your wife appliances as a birthday present. As a surprise sure but on her birthday it will look like you see her as a maid. Know the audience you are writing for. Sometimes people just want to know the moon is in the sky not how it shines off glass in two paragraphs.

D Biswas said...

That's a brave way to break a rule, but this rule does need to be broken at times, Lexa.

www.damyantiwrites.com

Andrew Leon said...

I think showing is just the current convention for writing, a convention which could just as easily swing back the other way. I also think that if it's well written it doesn't matter.

The Cynical Sailor said...

Great post! This is a rule I really struggle with in my own writing. I like the idea of finding the right balance between showing and telling. I'm also intrigued by Andrew's comment that it's just a current convention. I hadn't thought about it in that context.

Cheers - Ellen

Pat Garcia said...

Happy NewYear and Yeah! I said Show Don't Tell also in my article. I am so happy that someone relates. The most people who say that can't explain to you what they mean anyway, I've discovered.
All the best for 2017.
Shalom aleichem,
Pat Garcia

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Good example. It could be interpreted many ways.
Happy 2017!

Laura Clipson said...

You make an excellent point. It's a good rule, but like you say, telling is just as important sometimes.

lilicasplace said...

What a great post, Lexa. I've been writing for a long time and still struggle constantly. You offered a great example, and don't think I won't come back to check it out again. I hope you had an amazing holiday and Happy New Year! Xoxoxo. Eva, IWSG co-host #60

River said...

A couple of years ago, I took a Short Story writing course and the teacher was very strong on "show don't tell", but she was also very strong on preferring literature over popular fiction, while I am a big fan of popular fiction. I do agree that show don't tell is mostly the way to go, but sometimes, with some stories, the telling is also necessary. It may depend of the preceding paragraphs, if your readers have learned about and understood the character in question, they may well form the right conclusion without the telling, or at least not too much telling. Do I make sense?

Natalie Aguirre said...

I agree with bending this rule when you need to, like your example. But there are other times when it leads to too much telling, so there is a balancing act to breaking the rule.

JeffO said...

Ha, I just commented on this over at Nick Wilford's blog. The rule is good in a general way, and as you said, it helped you become a better writer. But sometimes, I see writers (mostly new) contort themselves to show, show, show or, when doing critiques of others, they'll redline every "tell" and write "show, don't tell!" in the margins. The result is not just sometimes confused writing as in your sample, but cluttered writing--also as in your sample! "Know the rules so you know when to break the rules," right?

Sue Bursztynski said...

If "show don't tell" boils down to "Ginger looked in the mirror. She saw a dazzlingly beautiful woman with long, honey-blonde locks..." then I'll go for "tell", thanks. And I should add I've read this sort of thing written by an otherwise delightful writer I greatly admire. In every single one of her books about the same character. You'd think the fans would know by now!

Sometimes you just have to tell. I said this to my wonderful editor who wanted me to rewrite something in my novel to make it "show don't tell." That would have taken a few pages; my original "tell" took about three lines. She yielded gracefully.

On the other hand, as a slush reader I get far too many stories that explain the hero's back story over the first ten pages! Ack!

Up to you.

Jennifer Hawes said...

Show don't tell is such a tricky one! There are times when telling is a must. But showing is definitely the best way. I love developing a scene after the first draft, which is basically me telling myself the story. "Showing" really does separate the good writers from the best writers.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I like show and tell better. That's one rule I wish I'd never heard because it's hard to learn how to do both together.

messymimi said...

It sounds like a great way to master certain writing techniques. Like any other such "rule", it's probably got its good and bad side.

Karen Walker said...

This is the best explanation of the problem with show and tell I've ever seen.

Decadent Kane said...

I think that is where the saying -learn the rules and then break them- comes in. Great post. I do agree that it should be Show and tell. Though it might be harder for beginning writers because we throw all this stuff at them- its overwhelming how much they need to learn- that mixing it might be too much also.
Though in the long run if they can't hold out in the beginning, they likely aren't going to make it far- so might as well give them information they can use their entire careers.
~Decadent
www.decadentkane.com

Tamara Narayan said...

I think you are right in this example. Some things need to be explained. It's a balance.

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

It's comforting see how of us don't like the show don't tell rule. Very comforting. Your examples are excellent. What bugs me most is how adamant many writers are about this rule. Wish I could order them all to read your post! Happy New Year, Lexa.

Stephen Hayes said...

I'm tired of hearing this writing advice: Show us, don't tell us. It's true, of course, but I've heard it too much.

Carol Kilgore said...

Oh, so true. Sometimes you flat out tell the reader what's going on. It's learning when to do this that's important in the writer journey. Happy New Year!

Julie Flanders said...

You make great points and are so right! I honestly get tired of all the writing rules. Sure, they all have their place and are important, but sometimes I think people get so fixated on not breaking any rules that they can't even write.

Suzanne Furness said...

I agree, sometimes this rule needs bending! Especially with a younger audience who may find inference harder to understand. Interesting post, Lexa.

Loni Townsend said...

You know, I never even knew cluing in the reader was considered telling. Wow. I guess there's a whole lot more telling in my stories than I thought!

Tara Tyler R said...

i've seen several anti-show-don't-tell lamenters! ha!
i actually like the challenge of showing, but a good tell is useful sometimes too!

wanted also thank you for always supporting me with Foxy and your celebrations!
AND HAPPY HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Crystal Collier said...

My goodness, we've got a whole underground of show-haters. LOL! There is definitely a time for telling. My guideline on that is that when there's external action, it must be experienced, thus shown. When there's internal dialog, it's definitely much harder to show. It can be done by metaphor and the like, but that may not fit a person's individual style. We just have to go with what works for us, eh?

H.R. Sinclair, Southpaw said...

Nice! Great example too. I agree there is a time for showing and a time for telling.

Patricia Lynne said...

That's a rule that always gets me too. Sometimes it is better to tell. Not often, but there's been times where I wanted to give some quick details before getting back into showing.

Kim Lajevardi said...

Very well explained, Lex! I agree that show don't tell has its limits. I try to balance between the two, and when I mess up, I have wonderful CPs to tell me. ;)

Cathrina Constantine said...

Excellent Post. I like show and tell!!!

Happy New Year, Lexa!!!

Yolanda Renée said...

I agree!
Very well explained too!

A little bit of both is needed most all the time!

Happy 2017!

Rebecca Douglass said...

I agree with you--that one's a rule that should be approached with some care. It's a balance, always a balance, but just like "never use adverbs," it needs nuance (the right rule would be "beware of the excessive use of adverbs"). My first-person narrators sometimes have an edge there--they can TELL what they are thinking/feeling, hopefully in ways that don't just sit on the page like a dead haddock.

—Rebecca
My IWSG Post

Lynda R Young said...

I'm surprised how many people have mentioned this particular rule while answering this month's question. Then again, I really shouldn't be surprised. There's a place for showing and a place for telling.

Jenny Baranick said...

I think that these kinds of rules are created because there's a tendency to do the opposite (to tell, in this case), but I agree with you that a balance between the showing and telling needs to be struck.

Cynthia said...

Happy New Year, Lexi! I see show and tell in a lot of stuff I read. I don't think the author needs to always to spell out everything. I just want to mention that my response to this month's IWSG question defends info dumping. So I want to add that sometimes explaining stuff and "showing" can work too. I think it's just up to the writer to decide what stuff can be abbreviated and what can be elaborated on.

Patsy said...

I think it's usually better to show what's happening in our stories, but there are definitely times when just telling the reader is the better option.

Bonnee Crawford said...

Great post, Lexa. Like many rules, "show don't tell" has its place, but in this case, it's place is with new writers who haven't yet mastered their craft. Once a writer knows what they're doing, I am sure this is not the only rule that ends up being broken without dire consequences. The trick is knowing when it is okay to do it and when it is not. "Show and tell", I like that!

Chemist Ken said...

It took me about five years to figure out what "show, don't tell" really meant, then I spent the next five years trying to get that rule out of my head. Showing is often good, but telling has it's strengths too. Thanks for the post.

L.G. Keltner said...

"Show, don't tell" is a tricky one. Finding the right balance between the two takes a lot of practice, and I'm still not sure how well I do at striking that balance. Showing is great, but you do have to tell sometimes too.

J Q Rose said...

What a good lesson--It's important to clarify the character’s inner thoughts, goals, and fears so the reader doesn't have to guess." Sometimes we are in love with our words and go overboard on showing and telling so instead of showing or telling we are just boring the reader.. Happy New Year!!"

Annie Neugebauer said...

I totally agree! Some of the most compelling writing I've ever read was technically "telling." Each has their purpose and place. Rules always oversimplify these things!

Rhonda Albom said...

Good example of the rule. I think of it more as a guideline.

Cathy Keaton said...

This makes a lot of sense, Lexa. You do need to do some telling, for sure. Pure "showing" is just leaving the reader out of the loop for a lot of the author's intentions.

Beverly Stowe McClure said...

Showing brings the characters and story to life. Some telling is necessary to, to explain what's going on.

erica and christy said...

I think with every rule there's always the danger of taking it too far. If we remember to keep them in mind, but don't get carried away, we'll remain at a happy medium. A little telling a little showing makes for a great read. :) Christy

J.H. Moncrieff said...

Bravo! I agree with you. Sometimes writers slip into "telling" and it's lazy writing, but other times it has its value--just like passive voice.

DMS said...

I continue to work on this rule. I used to tell, tell, tell and have gotten better at showing. Still, there are times when the best way to make the scene make sense is to tell. I see it as more of a balance now. :) I totally agree with you that it is a good rule to stop writer's from head hopping. Great post!
~Jess

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