Show Don’t Tell

You’ve all heard that trope before. Many, many times before. Yes, it’s a trope. It’s a glad handed politician that will forget you exist as soon as they get elected. Like all tropes, it has a place, just not the place it has been given. Why has it been given such a prominent place in the field of writing? Quite frankly, so colleges could sell you a creative writing class.

Think honestly and analytically about it for a moment. How can anyone teach you to be creative? They can’t. What they can do is use a few tools from a toolbox repeatedly. Show don’t tell is the hammer and with it they can turn every question their students ask into a nail. Writers fresh to the field, regardless of age, get lost trying to follow this advice. Unless it comes naturally to you, show, don’t tell, has absolutely no place in a first draft. It actually has no place in the process until your plot editor tells you the foundation has been poured and the walls are framed, now finish the house.

When a new to the field writer gets lost trying to be the nail driven by the hammer the instructor will then reach into the toolbox and pull out the screw driver. They will tell you to outline your story. This is equally hobbling advice for a fiction writer. Outlines are great when writing how-to type works. There you have a process which has a certain number of steps that must occur in a rather specific order. In that case an outline not only helps you write your work, it should be included as part of the work. With fiction an outline traps you. An outline stops you from taking the myriad of journeys your characters wish to take you on. In truth, you haven’t really become a creative writer until you set out to write one story and shelve it part way through so you can write the N other stories which fell out of that story. There is a great movie based on a true story which spells this out. This movie has a very appropriate title, “Flash of Genius.”

It is a story about the man who invented the intermittent windshield wiper only to have the invention stolen by Detroit automakers. The film is based on a true story and shows how the man basically went insane when the theft ruined his life. Years later he finally gets his day in court, in Detroit no less, and delivers a great set of lines about the U.S. Patent office. I do not know them by heart, but, he basically says that all great inventions seem obvious once they have been invented. The litmus test applied by the patent office is “would this invention have happened without a flash of genius.” There is a superb scene where he makes the analogy that the dictionary is the parts catalog of the English language but “A Tale of Two Cities” required a flash of genius to assemble.

How does one assemble a story? First, listen to your characters. It is your job to first record their story exactly as they tell it to you. Matters not if there are gaps, broken language or unbelievable aspects. The most important thing is to get as much of the story recorded while they are speaking to you. During their quite times you can go back and fix the broken parts of the story.

You live in an unprecedented time. Yes, one needs tools to assemble the story, but not the tools you paid to learn in some creative writing class. The tools you need are low cost and in many cases, freely available. Long ago we had only pen and paper to assemble a story. This gave rise to the archaic manuscript format. You needed to leave a lot of room on the page to make editing possible. Today you can get a used laptop for around $50 or buy a brand new computer for under $200. If you load Linux on it you will find Libre Office a more than capable word processor. Gospel truth, I write these blog posts in a text editor which has spell check. True it was originally created for programmers to develop software, but for the simple capture of thoughts the spell-as-you-type feature keeps most of the words correctly formed.

There are numerous places on-line where you can post your early works and hopefully get feedback. Just avoid those author scam sites where they promise to select N authors per month for consideration of publication. You don’t get actual feedback there and you also won’t get a good publishing contract. Do the math counting the number of writers “considered” vs. the number who actually received contracts and it won’t take you long to realize the place is a waste of time.

You may have noticed this post started out with “show don’t tell” then veered off in multiple directions. This is the nature of creative writing. During the editing process (which blog posts don’t normally go through) is when show don’t tell applies. It really only applies once you’ve learned how to take all of those things your characters told you and put them in some kind of order. It should never be foisted on someone early in their writing career. Once you have gotten reasonably skilled at listening to your characters and organizing their tale in some logical manner.

Show, don’t tell, is the critique you give to a writing friend who has already built the house. When you notice their chapters are short and the page count is thin. Rather than telling them this, you flag certain lines and passages with “show don’t tell.” This achieves the same thing and gives them so much more than “your chapters are short and your page count is thin.” What you are telling them is to put some paint on the walls and carpet in the rooms because they need to turn this house into a home.

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