We hear the same writing advice over and over. Show, don’t tell. Write what you know. Kill your darlings. And sometimes those old chestnuts are helpful, but just as often, rules become walls, which is no good for anyone. Walls block. Walls negate. Walls keep us from moving forward. There are exceptions to every rule, and in fact, sometimes turning the cliche around is a great way to boost your creativity and get your writing going in a new direction.
So, flip the script.
Let’s start at the top. “Show, don’t tell” is universal writing advice, given everywhere on every occasion. But when does it fall short? When should the advice really be “Tell, don’t show”?
When your novel has no voice. “Voice” is one of those elusive but important things that bedevils us all. Some novels come out of the gate with plenty of voice, especially when they’re narrated in the first person. But what about the third person? What about omniscient or rotating perspective? If your novel doesn’t have a speaking voice, what does “voice” even mean? Mostly, it means the way you choose to tell. There’s a big difference between “Kate sat down on the sofa” and “Kate lowered herself gingerly, inch by inch, onto the warm comfort of the familiar sofa.” Voice also comes out in the showing — “The soft cushions of the sofa bent under the sudden weight of Kate’s exhausted body” — but sentence after sentence of that can really fatigue a reader. Basically, you’ve got to “tell” sometime. Figure out how to make it count. “Kate flung herself at the sofa like a mad possum.” “Kate draped her nude body artfully on the sofa, a perfect odalisque.” “Kate couldn’t believe she was f***ing stuck here again in this stupid f***ing room on this stupid f***ing sofa.” The choices are all yours.
When every little thing doesn’t count. In normal life, incredibly boring and tedious things happen. We brush our teeth, we pay our cable bills, we stand in line at the grocery store. Beginning writers are tempted to give us every little detail of a character’s life, but many of those details are utterly irrelevant at best and distracting at worst. Going back to our “Kate sat down” example, does it matter that the sofa Kate sits on is patterned in beige herringbone? That she got it second-hand from her divorced cousin? That it has a perfectly circular milk stain at the far left side of the middle cushion? These details only matter if they illuminate something. Even if we do want to know the sofa used to belong to her divorced cousin because that cousin is going to become an important character, you don’t need to give us a whole flashback about the time Kate went to pick up the sofa and it didn’t fit in the car and blah blah blah. Don’t show. Just tell.
When your timeline sprawls. For any novel, you can’t show every single moment of a character’s day, but it’s even more important to flex your telling muscles when your book covers years of story. You might blow past an entire year with “A year passed” or “One year later,” and those are pretty straightforward. But you’ve got a choice to make — are you going to jump from fully-realized showing scene to fully-realized showing scene with just those bare scraps of connective tissue? Or are you going to tell us something about the time in between? “Kate spent a year getting ready, but when the day came, she was still unprepared.” Could you show us an example of how unprepared she is to get that point across? Sure. But you don’t need to do both. Save your showing for more important things.
Next month I’ll do another “flip the script” post suggesting another piece of writing advice that works just as well, or better, in reverse. In the meantime, which do you try to do more — show, or tell?
(Photo by sixmilliondollardan)