Writing is a Bad Habit: Show and Tell isn’t for kids anymore!

It’s time, as I anxiously wait down the hours to the end of the Kickstarter (yes, the plug!  IT IS SHAMELESS!), to start a new segment of articles (and to some day properly categorize all of them) with Writing is a Bad Habit, a general series of articles on good and bad writing habits.  I figured I would kick things off with one of the big cardinal rules of good writing: ‘Show, Don’t Tell!’.

On the surface, the meaning of that rule isn’t entirely apparent.  In essence, we are story-tellers, so isn’t everything we do telling?  How do you ‘show, not tell’ with the written word?  A lot of pictures?  Obviously not, something that most, if not all of you, probably already know.  What the phrase means to an author is that it is better to ‘show’ characterization and plot through action and reaction instead of directly ‘telling’ the reader about it.  This particular rule crosses over into countless bad writing tropes, such as Informed Ability and Designated Hero/Villains and the like, but for tonight, we’ll stick with the basics.

Think about it from the reader’s perspective and take a very glaring example.  If you’re about to go into, let’s say, the major climax scene of the book, the ultimate resolution of that book’s conflicts, would you, at that point, cut to a third party observer in the room, who then narrates to the reader the scene he sees?  No, obviously not, you would want to go through that scene from the point of view of the protagonists, to provide the proper emotional investment.  Even worse, would you then cut to AFTER the end of the action, and have the protagonist describe the event while filing a report or dictating to his/her assistant or writing about it in his/her journal?  Again, obviously not, but these extreme examples serve to showcase how this kind of activity can hurt your novel.

Let’s take something more subtle and a much more common misstep.  Let’s say the protagonist has a very bad temper and you want to make sure the reader knows this, as that bit of characterization is vital to your plot.  To absolutely make sure they don’t miss it, you create a scene where two associates of the protagonist begin to talk about him/her and one of them makes note of his/her hair-trigger temper.  You have now just broken the ‘Show, Not Tell’ rule and almost certainly lessened the interest of the reader.  The reader isn’t an idiot and most readers do not appreciate being treated as one and hand-held through every bit of characterization.

Now if instead you depict a scene with the protagonist at work and he/she crashes into a co-worker while trying to deliver a report.  It was an honest accident on both sides, but the protagonist starts yelling and cursing, flustered with rage.  Any reasonable reader would then instantly infer the protagonist has an awful temper for flying into a fit at such a minor and innocent incident.  That is ‘showing’, not ‘telling’.

Now, there may be times when you feel that you have no choice and, perhaps, you may be right.  Even the best of writers has to sometimes do a short info dump or a quick explanation handed out here and there … it’s better to have your readers able to follow your work than to be totally lost.  However, you should make every reasonable attempt to avoid it.  The more you have to ‘tell’, the more of a disconnect you will suffer with your readers.

The best way to avoid this bad habit is simple practice and patience.  Re-reading and editing can also help spot areas where you may delve into being too ‘tell-y’, allowing you to rewrite those sections before they become published or distributed.  Never hesitate to rewrite a scene multiple times if you have to.  You won’t regret the extra time invested to increase the quality of your work.

What experiences have you had with the ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ rule?  Have you ever had to skirt around it and do you feel it was vital, or have you since regretted not finding another way around it?  What are acceptable breaks from this rule?  Talk about it in the comments section.

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