If you’ve been reading my blog, you know I have no idea what I’m doing. The first draft of my novel probably made me lose a few friends, and since then I’m trying to improve it. It’s an ongoing backwards journey of fixing my book after I wrote it.
Lately I’ve been going through the following steps:
- My novel is awesome!
- Someone points out one problem that I had no idea was a problem in the first place.
- I hate the guts of that someone.
- Realization kicks in.
- The problem is everywhere!
- My book sucks.
- I spend a long time fixing said problem.
- Go back to 1.
Forgetting stuff is my specialty, but my memory is pretty good when something unexpected and unpleasant happens. As a result, I almost always remember when I learned something new about writing that impacts my novel.
You may be surprised that I didn’t know that “show, don’t tell” was a thing, but as far as writing was concerned I’m not the sharpest knife in the shed (sorry for the obvious joke).
Actually, it’s better if I show you.
The End of The Innocence
It all started when Galileo, one of my cats, was trying to have a nap on top of my laptop. I was worried that he’d change chapter 1, inadvertently making it better, as I was reading the feedback from one of my beta readers.
Her comment was a cryptic word that made no sense to me:
Yes, telly. I reread the paragraph several times and I couldn’t find anything that could imply “television”, or “show”, or something related to TV. Moving on, I decided that I’d worry about it and Galileo afterwards. But a few paragraphs later, and after breaking Galileo’s heart by moving him away, there was another odd comment, this time with one extra word:
My writing was not only telly–whatever it meant–but it was too much like that. Okay, this was starting to look like a real problem. I clicked on the start button and launched my web browser, looking for salvation. But Google was no help at all. I didn’t even know we had a telly monster.
As I looked away from the red-violet monster, staring at the late afternoon sun of a lazy Saturday night, realization hit me, and
I was shocked. my chest hurt, I dropped to my knees, fell on the floor and curled into a ball, crying.
Show; Don’t Tell!
It turns out that show, don’t tell is the number one rule of writing. Seriously, how often you do stuff without knowing the number one rule of it? It’s like grabbing a gun and looking at its muzzle while pressing its trigger to see if it’s loaded.
The idea is to describe what’s happening instead of just telling it. This works better in movies and TV (yay, I was not too far off)–for obvious reasons. For instance, which one of the scenes below is more remarkable?
The picture on the left where my daughter tells us that the house is on fire is too abstract, and since she’s smiling you may even think it’s a joke or a metaphor. But the picture on the right is clear, unmistakable and memorable: shit’s on fire, literally, and the girl seems happy for some odd reason.
Ok, I get it. So should I go ahead and show everything?
Writing that Shows Everything
Rather than saying she was upset, you say she frowned. She wasn’t happy, she smiled. And suddenly your characters are frowning every time, smiling too much, and narrowing their eyes like it’s 1999, as you develop an impressive but dubious face expression vocabulary. This is bad, and it makes me frown.
So what the heck do you do?
You begin avoiding describing faces, eyes, mouths, and so on, moving you the next writing technique slippery-slope. Everything is an action, and you stop using adjectives and adverbs. In fact, some people on reddit complained about the emotional cheat sheet I posted last year: those are words we should never use. You’re not inquisitive, you put your hands on your hips. You’re not withdrawn, you cross your arms. The next thing you now your character must kick someone’s balls to show her anger. Ouch.
And yet, like everything I learned about writing (it’s the land of contradiction!), a lot of people disagree with this rule. Jessica Strawser says that “Show, Don’t Tell” is the Great Lie of Writing Workshops:
In Characters and Viewpoints, Orson Scott Card claims that we should mostly show important scenes (ones that must be presented dramatically), because you can give more information telling, and showing takes too long. This is the narrative technique (tell), and we tell what happened without taking too much time. Important scenes must be presented dramatically (show), and, according to Card, they’re relatively rare.
Show *and* Tell!
Instead of going all the way to the other side, maybe we should do something in between. Telling cannot be that bad all the freaking time. We must mix show and tell in our work.
True, too much show can make a story feel overwhelming to the reader. On the other hand, the opposite is also true. It’s easy to fall into a trap where all your chapter is doing is dumping information (and, to be honest, I do that more than I’d like to admit).
From Kristen Lamb’s blog:
Imagine Tracy telling her husband over dinner: “I don’t love you anymore like I loved you 16 years ago when we married. Me and our son Philipp, who is 15, has outstanding grades and dreams of a career as a professional hockey player, lost all our respect for you when you drunkenly caused that car accident. I like cooking and painting and I’m afraid of being alone, that’s why I’m still with you, but I have an affair with our neighbor who is a certified animal trainer.”
The million dollar question is to know which one to use at the right moment.
“Either could be wrong. Factors like rhythm, pace and tone come into play. (…) Characters are made more real through scenes than through narrative.” –Orson Scott Card
Going back to the painting metaphor, sometimes you use a wide brush for roughness (tell), and sometimes you use a thin one to highlight the details (show). The quest for a successful book doesn’t mean following every single rule to the letter; instead, we should have a mix of techniques that better push the story forward, while still making it interesting and fun.
I’m actively looking for agents and publishers for my book. More info here.
Check some of my other posts below:
Thanks to my lovely daughter for the stick figures drawing!
Disclaimer: I’m not a writer, I have a hard time paying attention to detail, I overuse adverbs, I start a lot of sentences with ‘I’, and I often confuse words that are similar. More importantly, I reserve the right to change my mind at any time, in which case I’ll deny I ever wrote it. Please let me know if you find something that is too embarrassing. This blog is riddled with typos and creative grammar problems, but it’s mine. Luckily, I can always blame my mistakes on the fact that English is not my first language. Or hackers.