Showing versus telling

TypewriterSince I talked about perspective earlier this week on the occasion of my birthday, I’ll share one bit of insight I’ve gotten over the years.  Writers, this one’s for you.

There are no hard and fast rules for storytelling.  Anyone who gives you an absolute is absolutely wrong.  No, that’s not the perspective I’m going to offer, but it’s good to remember regardless.  People have been telling people how to write well since the invention of the sentence, and pretty much all those people have been full of it.  Write the way the piece has to be written in order to tell the story the way it is best told.

I used to think I had to retain all this advice and cling to it like a rock climber.  One thing I heard over and over again: show, don’t tell.  Depending on who said it, this could be taken more literally than from others, but the implication has always been that explaining things is bad and everything should be played out in front of the camera of the reader’s imagination.

It’s possible to get so tangled up in this piece of sage wisdom that your writing will collapse in on itself.  I know mine did.  I was so obsessed with avoiding the “telling” trap that I began to show everything, regardless of whether it was critically important to the story.  And that is not how it’s done, folks.

What’s immediate and brings drama or tension or sadness or any other emotion effective in driving the narrative is what you should show.  If something doesn’t do that, feel free to tell.  Move on to the interesting stuff.

But don’t take my word for it.  What did I say before?  Write your story the way it should be written.  Listen to advice if you want, but always be true to your writing, because that belongs to you.