Writers Don't Always Show
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Sometimes they just tell.
Don’t believe me? Well, then check out this interview with New York Times bestselling author, Lee Child. You can’t go wrong listening to the advice of a New York Times bestselling author.
Personally, I just go by my gut feeling. If I feel like showing would work better for a particular scenario, I show. But I won’t hesitate to simply tell if I feel that showing would get in the way of storytelling.
My book, Guards Gone Wild!, is a collection of short stories about my adventures in the private security industry. As such, it contains scenes where I diligently perform routine security work. If I show in detail every instance where I greet a visitor to my building, Guards Gone Wild! will become a lengthy (and boring) textbook about security work.
On the other hand, certain scenarios must be shown in detail to add colour and depth to the story. Such as fights, for example.
There was this one time when a couple of delinquents tried to snatch my walkie-talkie away from me. I could, I suppose, simple tell you what happened. Like this.
“One of the boys tried to grab my walkie-talkie but I foiled his attempt.”
But that would make me a lazy and uninteresting writer. So I went with:
“One of the boys, the bigger and heavier of the two, made an attempt to grab my walkie-talkie from me. A lunge in my direction with one hand stretched out, like an overeager hand shake. I twisted my body away and kept one hand protectively on my walkie-talkie, the way a T.V. cop might palm a sidearm in his belt holster. “
Now, you get the picture!
Sometimes rules are meant to ignored and sometimes you follow them because they are there for a reason. But how do you know when to do what? Gut feeling. Go by your gut feeling, which you develop by reading A LOT of books.
Now, get thee to a library!
Teck Y. Loh
This article was first published on my blog, Guards Gone Wild, on the 10th of May.
Wayne C. Booth makes a similar point in The Rhetoric of Fiction, that in fact there are no "hard and fast rules" beyond what's trendy (he used a better word). He points to a variety of examples which show that telling is sometimes far more efficient and effective; I believe he mostly harped on The Decameron, which is obviously going back a ways, but the point still stands.
That said, it's trendy right now to show-don't-tell. So if you're running against that, people are going to notice and it had better darn well work very, very well.
When I think of "show don't tell," I think of it as mainly having utility as a rule for characterization. You don't say, "Bob was a bad human being." Rather, you show the reader Bob going around trying to get his co-workers fired if they wear belts that don't match their shoes, or whatever. That way the reader hasn't just been told a rumor about Bob; the reader sees Bob's behavior and draws his/her own conclusions.
Even here, though, this is just a rule of thumb, not a law of physics.
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