Friday, August 29, 2008

Writing: Show or Tell?

Show, don't tell!

This is the most common advice given to new writers. The is terrible advice. For example, two excellent thrillers I recently read, (7th Heaven and The Secret Servant) happily disregard this sage advice. The proper advice is Show or Tell. As the plot unfolds, the author must decide to either show or tell. If the two are combined, the readers will be bored by the redundant exposition. When an action in abridged with a telling summary, the emotional commitment is lost. When a telling summary is extended with a showing digression, the pace is lost. The author must commit to either Show or Tell.

Here is an example from classic Elmer Gantry by a Nobel Prize winning author. After dedicating two chapters to show us Reverand Gantry's first church. The next short chapter begins by telling:
A year he spent in Rudd Center, three years in Vulcan, and two years in Sparta.
Six years of plot gone in one sentence! This is the power of telling!

For each step of your plot, make a decision: Show or Tell, both not both.

Characterization: Five Rules

These five rules are from How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction, a book that has excellent advice for all fiction writers in spite of a title that emphasizes genre fiction. These rules (much abridged) were written by Dean R Koontz. I always prefer advice from successful writers, not amateurs or academics, and Dean Koontz certainly qualifies here.
  • Your character must not act irrationally and must not get into trouble merely because he makes stupid decisions.
  • Your character must not be passive.
  • Your lead characters must not be supermen or superwomen whose actions always succeed.
  • Your characters ... must have lives outside the central story.
  • Your lead characters must not be concerned solely about his own fate.