Welcome one of my favorite people Donna Cummings. Donna’s writing career is starting off with a bang – I am SO happy for her! =)
It’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.
First 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.
We 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.
- It’s Great Advice, But I Can’t Seem to Follow It – Donna Cummings
- Weekly Lecture Schedule, December 17-21, 2012
- Are YOU the Writer’s Block? With Donna Cummings
- Outsmarting Your Brain with Donna Cummings
- There’s No Business Like Show Business with Audra North