Sunday, April 29, 2007

Show, Don't Tell, and Other Silly Advice

Show, don't tell

That could well be the most often repeated advice for writers. Rubbish, I say. Poppycock. Also, bushwah. (Which I believe is the sound made by Pretend President Georgette when he doesn't get his way.)

It's not that the rule is inherently silly but rather that, as is often the case with occasionally useful rules, it leads to silliness if it's followed in all circumstances. Some rules really are made to be broken.

Surely no one would write

John placed his hands on the arms of the chair and exerted downward pressure, simultaneously leaning forward and straightening his legs. Then he straightened his back. Thus he brought himself to a standing position. Once he was standing, John raised his right foot slightly, leaned forward, and placed his right foot down on the floor a few inches ahead of him. Moving steadily, he then raised his left foot, which was now behind him, advanced it to a position a few inches ahed of him, and ...

instead of

John left the room.

Arguably, the second version is telling, while the first is showing. But of course we all do that all the time in our writing. What matters is choosing what to show and what to tell.

What prompted these rather obvious thoughts was my realization that the crapocious section of Time and the Soldier that I was whining about a few posts back is crapocious precisely because it consists of boring and irrelevant showing. What happens in that part is relevant to the story, but how it happens isn't. So on some future pass through the ms., I'll chop it out with a meat cleaver (literary liposuction won't do the job with that fat deposit) and replace it with a very brief bit of telling. The book will be much improved.

And the world will rejoice. Well, I will.

Write what you know

Or maybe this is the advice most often given to writers. Thank God no one worth reading follows it.

If they did, we'd have very little genre fiction. Almost all fiction would be mainstream and would mirror the writers' lives, which means it would mirror our own lives, and so fiction would no longer serve its main function, which is to enable us to escape from our tedious, boring, pointless, aimless lives for a few hours.

God, do you realize how much of that fiction would be written by college English professors and would be all about college English professors having midlife crises? Aaaaiiiieeeee!

This rule becomes a good one if restated as, "Try to know something about what you're writing about before you write it. Don't just make stuff up. Google is your friend." But that's pretty obvious, surely.

The exception is if you're writing about the pretend president, who is entirely a creation of some PR firm and not an actual human being at all. So anything you write about him, no matter how invented, is acceptable, in the same sense that the syllogism

Whenever John eats refried beans in the morning, it rains at 6 p.m. that evening.
John ate refried beans this morning.
Therefore it will rain at 6 p.m. this evening.

is valid even though it's absurd.


Chris said...

David, I love this post. It's not that I think that these so-called rules don't have value, but their value lies in laying down a general principle, not in elucidating How One Must Write. I'm reminded of a post Neil Gaiman wrote after reading Stephen King's ON WRITING. King hates adverbs with a fiery passion, and Gaiman, upon discovering this, was motivated to comb his WIP with the intention of culling the offending adverbs from it entirely (ha!). As he read, though, his fervor died down, as one by one, each adverb made its case to stay.

Sometimes, you should tell. Sometimes, you should write what no one knows. Sometimes, adverbs work quite nicely. Sometimes, writers need to learn the difference between What Works for Them and What Everyone Ever Ought to Always Do (Or Else).

Of course, one should learn as many rules as one can. Otherwise, how would one know how much fun it is to break them?

David said...

Thanks, Chris.

After posting it, I thought maybe it was silly and pointless, so I'm glad to hear that it's not.

Well, the silly part's okay. I always aspire to that! But not pointlessness.

Fword said...

Funny what you say about adverbs. My boss is always telling us to take out adjectives. We have to cut out every unnecessary detail. People want the facts, the facts god dam it! (er yes but as a historian i would say that there is no such thing as objective fact and all depends on your perspective er and maybe i should show other points of view er...) Pretty soon everything i write will just be a series of one-worded bullet points...

David said...

fword, is that in English or French? I know that in English, some people hold fast to the no-adverb rule, whether it makes sense or not.

Regarding history, surely there is objective fact, namely, what actually happened. Determining those facts and evaluating them is the tricky and subjective part, right?

Travis Erwin said...

Ah ... the so-called rules of writing. Tok my a whilet o figure out the only real rule. "Break the rules, but break them well."

Whenever John eats refried beans in the morning, it rains at 6 p.m. that evening.

John ate refried beans this morning.
Therefore it will rain at 6 p.m. this evening.

John ate the beans - his resulting flatulance rose skywayrd creating a disturbance among the clouds - unleashing a downpour. You might be onto a meteorlogical breakthrough on the whole global warming issue.

Lahdeedah said...


Loved the post.


And wondering if next time around, we can't get a better PR Firm to create our president?

nancorbett said...

Yep. There are a lot of people offering hard rules to improve our writing. How about:

Never use adverbs
Never use the passive voice

Whenever I see the word, never, my eyes lose the page.

David said...

And never split an infinitive, and never end a sentence with a preposition.

Sometimes you see awkward prose that would be much smoother if the writer weren't trying to follow those rules.

David said...

lahdeedah, I'm beginning to think that's Obama.

I'll vote for him if he wins the nomination, but I'd like to feel that I'm voting for a person, not a carefully created image.

On the other hand, that's common in politics at every level, so I guess I'm being naive.

David said...

Travis, that's brilliant! I tried to come up with something as nonsensicals as possible, and you converted it into sense. Or at least, you made it plausible.

Isn't the EU working on regulations for animal feed so that cows won't produce such large volumes of greenhouse gases?