Monday, February 27, 2012

The 10 Commandments of Writing and When to Break Them

By Julie Daines

Writing Conferences. We go. We listen. We obey.

Maybe sometimes we obey too much.

My next few posts will be about when to break the writing commandments.

Commandment 1: Thou shalt never tell.

How often have we heard "Show Don't Tell"? Well believe it or not, there are times when it's better to tell.

  • In an attempt to avoid telling, many writers resort to physical cliches. 
Tears sprung to her eyes as she thought about saying goodbye to Mark. At least they still had this one last moment together. Her heart pounded as he moved closer, and when he held her hand, a sizzle of electricity shot up her arm. He tilted his head to the side. When he looked at her like that, she felt the flush of heat in her cheeks.

This is showing, not telling. But it's so laden with physical cliches it's painful to read. The trick is to use inner dialogue to convey these feelings and not tell us what is happening to her physically, but tell us WHY. (Without sounding telly. Not so easy, but it can be done.)

  • In the words of children's book editor Cheryl Klein: "Sometimes readers need the plain straightforward direction of telling to elucidate the point of all that showing."
Klein states, a great technique employed by J. K. Rowling is to have a sentence at the beginning of a paragraph that is a little more telly followed by a few awesome sentences of showing. 

These topic sentences point the reader's mind in the right direction, easing the transition from action to interiority, aiding in a place or time shift, or subtly suggesting a shift in the character's mood or focus.

When used at the end of the paragraph or section of showing, this good telling can act as a confirmation to the reader that the main character is indeed feeling or thinking what we think he/she is. 

Harry had the best morning he'd had in a long time. (telling) He was careful to walk a little way apart from the Dursleys so that Dudley and Piers, who were starting to get bored with the animals by lunchtime, wouldn't fall back on their favorite hobby of hitting him. ... (followed by a few more clever and poignant sentences of showing.)  -The Sorcerer's Stone, chapter 2

Can you think of other times when it's appropriate to use telling?


Scott said...

Sometimes you need to quickly bridge a time gap when nothing especially critical happens, and showing would just slow down the narrative with little or no payoff. That's a situation where a brief bit of telling can move the story forward to where it needs to be.

Julie Daines said...

Another good example, Scott. Thanks!!

Danielle Paige said...

In one of my first books I spent pages beautifully showing the MC's boredom. It got the emotion across ;)

Michelle said...

I can't leave writing feedback, but I love the post, Harry Potter, and the new header/background!

Michelle said...

I changed my mind. I love the header, but that background is a little bland. I like the idea of a solid color, but maybe a more exciting one? I think either of the blues or the green that we see in the header would look good. I love that teal color behind the boy reading.

Julie Daines said...

Sheesh! Thanks Michelle. I'll experiment. :)

Michelle said...

I LOVE the blue background!! Nailed it :)