We Need to Talk About…

*declares pompously* Show don’t tell

Again? I hear ya..

Its an obsession. Much like the endless throw away comments about runaway adverbs ruining a piece  or dialogue tags  being lazy writing.. (how does one determine lazy writing? is it like sloppy handwriting?) its becoming such a cliché in writing circles that its almost losing its power to irritate. I’d like to reignite that power because for a cliché everyone is doing a remarkable job of completely not getting it. Language is a nebulous flexible slinky-like creature in my eyes and I don’t like to close down definitions as nuance can expand and enrich so much, and I fully acknowledge that my understanding is not some universal Truth all must adhere to, however what I do run into time and time again suggests something that is bordering on damaging. We either need to redefine it or chuck it out as useless, much like the advice on adverbs.


Or maybe we just need to learn what it meant in the first place. Writing is that odd bastard that everyone thinks they can take a swing at but no one bothers to learn. Our teachers are ourselves, our peers, published, un-published and self published. We all start out with a certain amount of assurance, not in our ability to write necessarily, but our ability to judge. Everyone – writer or simply reader – has thought, I could do  it better than that. Reality quickly teaches most of us and for those outliers the internet is all too ready to hammer it  – brutally – home.  It can then be quite easy to start to second guess yourself and once those rejections start flowing to feel as though you can’t – shouldn’t  – trust your own judgement at all.

Its part of the learning curve of every writer to eventually make a full circle and return to that place of assurance  – or maybe 350 degrees, a little self doubt might be useful, or at least that’s what I tell myself. The danger comes when we think the answer is to build a false floor out of easy and accepted ‘rules’ touted by a majority of other writers. It can seem like we’ve returned to a place of trust but in reality all we’ve done is abdicate the responsibility of making a decision and with it – we think – avoided any chance of ridicule. Nothing is quite as terrifying as a bunch of sneering writers, and they fester in the interwebs,  breeding in amazon and goodreads like indestructible MSRA..


That’s what my Common Advice for Writers series is all about. Trying to dig past all the false prophets and layers of misunderstandings and see where the original advice sprung from and what, if any, merit it had. Its always seemed to me that everything is worth questioning.

Some – a lot really – is simply too well worn into the cultural consciousness to trace to its origins, or even its more recent reincarnation. Adverbial caution didn’t originate with either King or even Leonard but they are responsible for its recent dissemination and popularity. Show don’t tell is even trickier to pin down.

In his oh so popular Ten Rules for Writing, Leonard prefaces his rules with the disclaimer..

These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story.

And a quick google will show you how widely dispersed these rules have been. (If you are interested in the original article, go here.) Yet he offers no real explanation of what this means to him; its not listed as one of his rules but rather as a guiding principle which drives all the choices he makes and techniques he employs. This, for me, is  at the heart of the common misconceptions of show: the notion that it can be distilled into one technique, reduced to one element of story or even one class of words. Show is an effect. And nothing, regardless of how I feel about the rest of his rules, sums that up more than Leonards One  Rule to rule them all..

If it sounds like writing I rewrite it.

But  we all have to learn. And while his rules are interesting, they aren’t lessons. They can writer to writer, writer to reader, give an interesting insight into his thinking,  how he achieves his art ( he might have called it entertainment) and what he is striving for. What they cannot do is teach, professor to student, how you might achieve your art – you might call it entertainment. I do.

So who is teaching?  And what are they teaching?

because I am ridiculously obsessed with this particular effect, because I believe that it won’t break your voice but make your story, I thought I would do another short series within a series and look  at a few common sources and explanations of Show.

As always I would love to think it has helped especially as if I can help with anything I would always hope it would be with this, but mostly i’m just hoping its interesting.





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