Posted On December 17, 2012 by Print This Post

Tools Not Rules with Donna Cummings

Welcome one of my favorite people Donna Cummings. Donna’s writing career is starting off with a bang – I am SO happy for her! =)

Author Donna CummingsIt’s really easy to get hung up on rules. They can make the writing universe seem orderly and organized. It’s also tempting to think that if we can just master the rules, we’ll have an instant bestseller each time we write a new story.

But on too many days, mastery of the rules is just out of our grasp, and we feel like the only writer that can’t get it right. Still, we persist, because darn it, they are “rules”, which means they have to be followed. And follow them we do, until all of a sudden that is all we’re doing, even when we don’t know why we’re doing it.

It might make it easier to loosen our grasp on these firmly-held rules by looking at some of them in a little more detail, to determine why they’re a rule in the first place. So, give me your hand. I’m going to start prying your fingers loose.

I Do or Die CoverFirst off is the much-vaunted, oft-repeated “Show, don’t tell”. It’s a great rule. It’s lots of fun to say. It’s like a cool handshake that every real writer uses. But if a writer shows every darn thing that happens to a character in a scene. . . zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

So why does this rule even exist?

In the olden days, stories were told, which requires, well, telling. There were storytellers, who. . .okay, you know how the rest of that goes. But nowadays, telling has become show’s evil stepsister. I suspect this change occurred as our entertainment evolved. We became immersed in movies and television and even video games, complete with intense visuals and dazzling special effects. After that, just reading a story wasn’t enough. It was akin to a synopsis. What readers wanted, and needed, was the full in-depth sensation of feeling what the characters were going through. In real time. At the same moment the characters were experiencing it.

Knowing this hopefully makes it easier to transform the “show, don’t tell” rule into a more useful tool.

Donna Cummings Back on TrackWe just need to remember that it’s designed to lure readers into the characters’ lives. Humans are nosy by nature. We want to know what other people are doing, and why they’re doing it. It might satisfy our immediate curiosity to tell us what is going on. But if we as writers show the hero or heroine in the midst of an emotional experience, we can grab readers by their empathy, making sure they are unable to leave until the very last page of the story.

However, a power tool like this can backfire if used too much. The reader needs a break from being so deep inside another’s skin, and you don’t want them to take that break by setting the book down and running off to get a snack.

You can also lose a reader’s trust if you show, in loving detail, everything in a scene that is NOT tied to an important emotion. Don’t draw it out just to show that you know how to show. “Show, don’t show off” is an important rule to follow too.

As you can see, both show AND tell are valuable tools available to a writer. Each story requires their usage in varying amounts, and the fun part is figuring out which tool is the right one for that particular job.

So next time you hear “show, don’t tell”, think of “tools, not rules”. It can be our new writing mantra.


RU Writers, what’s your favorite writing rule?

Join us on Wednesday for Christi Barth!


Bio: I have worked as an attorney, winery tasting room manager, and retail business owner, but nothing beats the thrill of writing humorously-ever-after romances.

I reside in New England, although I fantasize about spending the rest of my days in a tropical locale, wearing flip flops year-round, or in Regency London, scandalizing the ton.

I Do. . .or Die, a romantic comedy, was just released from Crimson Romance. I also have a contemporary romantic comedy novella, Summer Lovin’, and Lord Midnight, a Regency historical, currently available. My contemporary novella, Back on Track, part of the Strangers on a Train series, will release from Samhain on April 2, 2013.

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18 Responses to “Tools Not Rules with Donna Cummings”

  1. Carrie, thanks for the great welcome! You KNOW you’re one of my favorite people. 🙂 Thanks for having me today.

    I’ve got my coffee, which is a tool, and a rule. I better stop before I try to rhyme. LOL *sips coffee instead*

    Posted by Donna Cummings | December 17, 2012, 7:51 am
  2. Hi Donna, great mantra! I agree; ‘show don’t tell’ is perhaps the most important rule we’re all advised to follow, but I also think the reader needs a break from the action once in a while. Another ‘rule’ I always try to follow is perhaps the 8-point story arc, which can be quite difficult when your tale takes on a life of its own! If the characters refuse to be coerced, its pointless, and takes the pleasure out of weaving the magic. Thank you for the post, it’s nice to be encouraged to go with the flow slightly. 🙂

    Posted by Fiona Chapman | December 17, 2012, 8:36 am
    • Fiona, thanks — I’m glad you like the mantra. 🙂 You’re so right about the story taking on a life of its own, especially when the characters balk at going the direction you’ve planned. But I think that’s where the magic happens. Which is why I always advocate going with the flow — it can take you to some wonderful places!

      Posted by Donna Cummings | December 17, 2012, 9:32 am
  3. Morning Donna!

    Oh those writing rules. Show don’t tell is like a monkey on my shoulder. And using the word was. was was was. I don’t even realize the little bugger is there until someone points it out or I do a search for it – ugh! It haunts me!


    One of my other challenges is the turning points. Those you
    HAVE to have and at just the right spot, but darned if my characters will listen!

    Thanks for posting with us today – I don’t have any brownies to go with your coffee, but..I did make some fudge. =)


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | December 17, 2012, 9:06 am
    • Carrie, fudge and coffee work beautifully together. And sometimes a girl needs a break from brownies. (Hah! You know I’m kidding, right?)

      I know I’m a contrarian, but I actually think it’s a good thing that we don’t notice our “go to” words when we’re in the midst of a story. To me that means we’re caught up in the characters and what they’re doing — we can take care of the overused words when we’re editing and revising.

      And yes, characters refuse to listen. *sigh* It’s like they think they’re in charge. Like it’s their story. . . oh, wait. It is! LOL

      Posted by Donna Cummings | December 17, 2012, 9:35 am
  4. Hi Donna,

    There are many ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ it is hard to keep track. I keep writing and, most of the time, hope it’s right.

    Mary Jo

    BTW, Carrie,is fudge e-mailable?

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | December 17, 2012, 9:33 am
  5. Hi Donna, A rule I love/hate is “start the story at a turning point”. It’s so hard to start a story at a compelling point for the main protagonist, and yet not dump a load of backstory on the first page to allow the reader to understand what’s going on. I struggle with the start of my stories more than anything else, writing and re-writing the first few pages until sometimes I’m absolutely sick of these people myself! I wish we could get rid of this rule and have one that says “Start by telling all the characters’ back story in one go”! So much easier! Thanks for your post – I enjoyed it!

    Posted by Helena Fairfax | December 17, 2012, 10:55 am
  6. Helena, that’s a good one to love/hate. LOL It can be tough to engage a reader’s empathy if we don’t know WHY things are happening to a character — yet sometimes withholding the why keeps readers turning the pages to solve the mystery about the hero or heroine.

    And I definitely had to laugh about reading the pages so many times you’re sick of the characters! When I’m done with editing, I always wonder, “What did I see in these people in the first place?” LOL

    Posted by Donna Cummings | December 17, 2012, 11:31 am
  7. What rule do I hate the most? I would have to say that I hate rules that change depending on the teacher. While ‘show don’t tell’ is a classic everyone adheres to now, I will say that I have heard of the 3 Act structure, 4 Act structure, and now a 5 Act structure.

    What frustrates me most is POV “head hopping” and there is a writing website that teaches how to do this in a scene without jarring the reader. Others will tell you never to change POV in a scene, which is what I believe, but apparently now there is disagreement over that “rule”.

    Posted by Maria Michaels | December 17, 2012, 1:10 pm
    • Maria, I think rules seem to change as book tastes change. When stories successfully stretch the boundaries, the rules seem to morph too. 🙂

      When I started writing, I used to head hop, because the books I read at the time did it, and there wasn’t a rule about it. Now I find it too hard to read. LOL So I’m glad I learned how to write with just one POV per scene. But it’s definitely a rule that changed along the way!

      Posted by Donna Cummings | December 17, 2012, 2:01 pm
    • Maria, I must agree with you about all the rules that change depending on who’s talking about them. I think it comes down to the individual, and what works for them. We all work on different stories with different characters, who have their own POV and come from their own places. I believe in whatever works for you is what you should use. If a certain scene doesn’t work one way, them try another. This is why rewrites and editing is so important and such a hairball at the same time.

      Posted by Carole Mann | April 7, 2016, 6:22 am
  8. Hello, Donna!

    I’ve sent plenty of scenes to the junkyard file. They were fun to write, but didn’t move the story forward. Repetitive words are a pet peeve of mine. A thesaurus is a great resource, however, another word with the same meaning doesn’t work if it doesn’t fit the cadence of the sentence.

    Great to have you with us today!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | December 17, 2012, 1:29 pm
    • Jennifer, thanks — I’m glad to be here! And I have a good portion of the laptop hard drive that is my “junkyard file”. LOL I hate to throw anything away, although FINDING it again isn’t always easy. Plus I get distracted by other shiny objects when I’m looking for stuff!

      I’d rather have a repetitive word than to lose the cadence of a sentence. 🙂 Sometimes the flow of words just needs to be a certain way!

      Posted by Donna Cummings | December 17, 2012, 2:03 pm
  9. Great post, Donna! I should know better by now, but I have to really watch myself or I tend to slip into telling instead of showing.

    One of the hardest rules for me is the “don’t use ‘was'” rule. I can limit the use of it, but I have a REALLY hard time eliminating it.

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | December 18, 2012, 1:40 am

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