Show, don’t tell.

Use action verbs.

Forego using adjectives and adverbs.

Avoid clichés like the plague.

All these rules make me crazy. Not because they’re wrong, but because they’re not always right.

The trend toward minimalism – using as few words as possible to convey your tale – has become pervasive. Flash fiction is an example of this type of rapidness, along with TV, microwaves, and texting. This requires saying more with less. Not necessarily bad or wrong, but finding the right balance can be challenging, and adhering to the rules doesn’t always help.

I consider myself a baby bear in a big bear world. Some stories move too fast, some too slow, some contain too much, some too little. I want my writing to be ‘just right’. But as always, the question I ask myself, and I believe all writers ask themselves, is how to achieve that?


PART I:  Show, don’t tell

Some interpret this to mean one must always show and never tell. I disagree. Too much showing can drag down the narrative, muddle the scene with unnecessary information, or take away the reader’s pleasure of bringing his or her own imagination into the story. Do we need to know that the lady bagging your protagonist’s groceries has ash blond hair pinned back with green pony-shaped barrettes? Is it significant that the guy who delivered pizza to the villain is wearing an orange and navy striped golf shirt with a dolphin logo over the right breast? Frankly, sometimes showing is really showing off – see how much I know, or notice? Can you tell I’ve researched this topic thoroughly?

One good rule of fiction is to make every word count. If your protagonist makes quirky observations about everyone, or her murdered daughter wore similar barrettes, she’d notice them on the checkout lady. If the villain is going to kill the pizza guy, then the shirt might be a clue. But if these two characters’ functions end with the paragraph, why elaborate? Ask yourself: is it important to the story, or something about the person, place, or situation that we need to know? Will this detail pay off later?

Sometimes telling makes more sense than showing, like stating simple facts (Herbert Hoover was the 31st president; I’m a Libra), or describing unimportant characters like the checkout lady or pizza delivery guy. You can always throw in a bit of detail…the checkout lady greeted me with a toothy smile; “Some twelve year old brought this,” Grandpa muttered as he shoved the pizza box in my hands. The toothy smile gives us a snapshot of the checkout lady without taking our attention from the story. Grandpa referring to a “twelve year old” delivery guy tells us something about Grandpa and his view of the world, which is more important than a full description of the pizza deliverer.

Many writers deplore passive verbs, but should they always be avoided? We’ll discuss that next week.

2 thoughts on “THE RULES AND HOW TO BREAK THEM: PART I by Miko Johnston

  1. Thanks, Miko! I’m glad you’re taking up these rules one by one so that we can consider them individually.

    I read somewhere that showing is for scenes and telling is for sequels. The most dramatic stuff happens in the scenes, and what the characters think about it and do immediately following it is best told in narrative. It’s a drag and a bore to read undramatic things in scenes (except in works like “Marty”: “What do you want to do today, Marty?” “I don’t know, Ed. What do you want to do?” In context, that’s literature.). Characters sitting around and talking at length about what they’re going to do is much duller than showing them doing it. And explaining to the read what the previous scene just showed is really really bad. I can’t think of an instance in which it is anything but really really bad. Maybe one of you can refute me with a quote from a story.

    I’m not much for physical description, but as Miko points out, sometimes it is important to the story. Readers (I as a reader) forget what characters look like unless their appearance says something about their character, or unless it’s written with a good simile.

    I’m looking foward to parts 2, 3, and 4 of this discussion. And I’m hoping for lots of discussion of these things on this blog.

    1. Thank you Ann.
      When characters recur in the story, readers want to have a sense of what they look like, so we can ‘recognize’ them when they return in later chapters. Some readers like having every detail filled in, like an oil painting, while others prefer just a rough outline, like a quick sketch, and then use their imagination to fill in the rest.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *