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.
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