If you’ve been a writer on the internet for any amount of time, you’ve probably come across some rules of writing. Maybe Kurt Vonnegut’s8 Basics of Creative Writing or Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules or this collection of rules from modern writers at The Guardian. Or maybe you posted a piece of writing online and someone responded with “You can’t do that.”
And if you’ve been on the internet for a little bit longer, you’ve probably realized that there are plenty of published exceptions to these rules. As the great pirate captain Barbossa might have said, the rules of writing are more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.
|As are the rules of oral hygiene, apparently.|
Rule #1: Show Don’t Tell
Ah, the big one. This bit has been around for at least 100 years, when
Mark Twain told writers to let the
old lady scream. The point of the advice is that to immerse a reader in
writing, they need to feel inside the scene rather than be given a factual list
of what’s going on.
Often when discussing the failing points of this particular bit of advice, folks take it to its extreme, saying, “He lifted one foot and placed it in front of the other and then repeated the process with the other foot” rather than “He walked.” This is absolutely a good point; get too caught up in the details of each action and suddenly your showing sounds very much like telling.
On the whole, though, the advice is good, especially for larger, important things. There’s a rule of thumb that you should never state the emotion at the heart of a scene. (If the scene is centered on your main character’s anger, don’t say they are angry or doing anything angrily.) But telling instead of showing can be just as emotionally resonant, if you do it right. Consider the opening paragraph of R.J. Palacio’s Wonder.
I know I’m not an ordinary ten-year-old kid. I mean, sure, I do ordinary things. I eat ice cream. I ride my bike. I play ball. I have an XBox. Stuff like that makes me ordinary. I guess. And I feel ordinary. Inside. But I know ordinary kids don’t make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds. I know ordinary kids don’t get stared at wherever they go.
This is all entirely telling, as is the entire first chapter. The main character, August, even introduces himself. These are normally things I would consider a red flag in my queries, yet it works. Why?
Here’s what I think: We hear from August that he’s the only one who realizes how ordinary he is, and that everyone else has a different idea of who he is. So the author is having August define himself. He is completely in charge.
Could we see the information played out in actual scenes instead of having August tell us directly? Sure. But it would have had a completely different kind of impact and, I think, run counter to what the author was trying to achieve.
Also notice how much we aren’t told. We aren’t told how this makes August feel. No “sad” or “angry” or “frustrated.” We just get the circumstances, but it’s enough. We don’t need August telling us his exact emotions to know what he feels.
At the end of the day, rules are just suggestions, like anything in writing. They are there to try to guide writers away from missteps. But if broken knowingly and with purpose, they can make a story all the better.
What do you think about “show don’t tell”? What books do you know of that break the rule well?