Writing Rules That Were Made to Be Broken: Show Don't Tell
There's a distinctly rebellious air about the Muse and the Marketplace Conference this year. Come April 6-8 at Boston's Park Plaza, #Muse18 presenters will be letting loose on the writing rules that have held our manuscripts hostage for far too long. To kick off the conversation ahead of the Muse weekend, this year's Muse series explores the writing, publishing, and workshop rules, conventions, and accepted norms that authors, agents, and editors at the Muse love to hate -- and why they'd love to see them broken. Some presenters will also offer their own rules or conventions that they want to see adopted in writing and publishing spaces. This installment comes from Steve Almond, author of the forthcoming Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country? Steve will be leading two Muse sessions: Dare to Break the Ultimate Writing Rule: Why "Show Don't Tell" Is a Crock, and Rage Is a Red Lesson: How to Turn Anger into Charged Prose.
Here’s the only real rule that obtains with artistic endeavor: it’s a doubt-choked process that provides no guarantee your work will find an audience. All the rest of the “rules” you hear about are intended, deep down, to help artists contend with this inherent doubt, to foster the illusion that—if only you follow the rules—you’ll succeed.
I do believe there are certain “rules” that help writers improve their work, or at least avoid rookie mistakes. For instance, I often tell students that the Hippocratic oath of writing is: Never confuse the reader. I tell them this because I’ve read so many manuscripts over the years in which I couldn’t bond to the characters because I was too busy trying to figure out who everyone was and what was going on and why it should all matter to me.
I stand by this. But it’s not a rule, really. It’s a guideline, or a piece of considered advice.
Most of the rules I hear about proceed from a posture of absurd surety. They have that haughty flavor of dogma. And this applies not just to writing rules, but rules about the life of a writer, or promoting your work.
For instance: You have to have a social media presence. Bullshit. Most aspiring writers have a social media presence. That’s not what gets them a book deal. You need a strong manuscript. In fact, spending time on social media generally distracts you from the arduous (doubt-choked) work of writing that manuscript. It distracts me, anyway.
Of all these rules, the most pervasive and damaging is Show, Don’t Tell. I don’t say this lightly. I have those thousands upon thousands of bewildering student manuscripts to back me up. Nearly all of them were composed by writers under the sway of this ubiquitous bromide.
It’s what caused them to open the story (or novel or essay) in the midst of some dramatic scene, while providing the reader next to no dramatic context by which to make sense of that scene.
It’s what caused them to jettison a strong, independent narrator in favor of a frantic movie camera.
It’s what caused them to slog their poor readers through long scenes that are intended, mostly, to provide background information that a narrator could disburse in a line or two.
Having read so many manuscripts that are marred by these patterns (and written plenty myself), I’ve come up with a maxim that I find much more useful: Tell me just enough that I can feel what I’m being shown.
But even this is really only a guideline, a rule for which there are plenty of exceptions.
I can only think of one writing rule to which there are no exceptions, that I would defend as inviolate.
It’s going to be a bummer, for which I apologize in advance.
Here it is:
Steve Almond’s One and Only Writing Rule:
There are no shortcuts.
Steve Almond is the author of ten books of fiction and non-fiction, including The New York Times Bestsellers Candyfreak and Against Football. His most recent short story collection, God Bless America, won the Paterson Prize and his short stories have been widely anthologized in The Best American Short Stories, the Pushcart Prize, and The Best American Mystery Stories. His non-fiction work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Globe Magazine, The Washington Post and elsewhere. He hosts a weekly podcast, "Dear Sugars," for The New York Times and writes a weekly column. He teaches at Harvard's Nieman Fellowship and at Wesleyan University, and he lives outside Boston with his wife and three children. He is very tired. His latest book -- Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country? -- is available for pre-order now.
As Editor of GrubWrites, GrubStreet's popular blog, Sarah serves the Grub community a daily dose of literary goodness. Book lovers can find reviews, news, recommendations, and conversations with exciting new authors to stay up to speed on all things lit. Writers, GrubWrites is your go-to spot for expert craft talk, thoughtful discussions on how writing is learned and taught, and essential publishing and publicity advice. Sarah is also a GrubStreet instructor and consultant specializing in the novel.
Sarah is Writer-in-Residence at Wellspring House and a recipient of the work-study scholarship for the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. Her creative work has appeared in Solstice Literary Magazine, The Conium Review, Poetry and Audience, and other places, and her essays have featured on Dead Darlings and elsewhere. She's served on the editorial team for Post Road magazine and The Conium Review and is currently Fiction Editor at Pangyrus. A graduate of GrubStreet's Novel Incubator program, for which she was awarded a scholarship, Sarah is at work revising her first novel. She was educated at Leeds University, where she received her BA hons in English Language and Literature (International), with stints at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Kansas State University’s Graduate Creative Writing Program, where she was awarded the Seaton Graduate Fellowship in Creative Writing. Most recently, Sarah completed an MA in English Literature at Boston College, where she was awarded a tuition fellowship and the Henry Blackwell Essay Prize. Hailing from Yorkshire, England, her life's mission is to introduce the word "sozzard" to the American vernacular. For a full list of publications, projects, and other services, including copy editing, please visit sarahcolwillbrown.com.See other articles by Sarah Colwill-Brown