Show, don’t tell. Fix it later. Kill your darlings. Hook the reader. Torment your characters. Writers write.
Ours is an industry that loves catchy truisms. Writing is tough at the best of times, but what makes it particularly challenging as a career is that there’s no clear path to success, no obvious steps or stages or even a clear process of learning the craft that will inevitably lead you to become a PROFESSIONAL WRITER. What’s worse, no one author’s path to that hallowed ground is the same. Ask twenty different pros how they got where they are, and you’ll get a wildly disparate group of answers. Everyone who decides to pursue writing seriously ends up wading into this bog of uncertainty, scraping around for clues that will help them write better stories.
On several occasions, I’ve heard pro authors bemoan that amateur authors think there’s some kind of key that will turn them into overnight professionals. “You do the work! That’s it! It’s like they think there’s some silver bullet to making a successful writing career!” they cry.
But the more I reflect on this lament, the more I’m convinced that it’s not accurate of most beginning authors. We’re just confused as hell. We don’t know what works, what doesn’t, how to pick out a good idea from a bad one (often this, I think, is the unstated question writers intend to ask when they ask an author they admire “where they get their ideas”–the fallacy being that the idea alone is what makes a good or bad story), how to make a story gripping, how to make it satisfying.
The farther along this writing path I get, the more I start to realize that even the pros don’t always know why their stuff sells half the time. (In fact, many pros will say as much if you buy them a beer and chat about craft–there’s a mysticism involved in creating excellent work, and oh boy, don’t even get me started on the mad magic involved in getting readers to LIKE and BUY what you write!) I think this is why they get frustrated when beginners pepper them with endless questions (often, the *same* endless questions), and I think it’s also what created all these mystical craft truisms that keep getting regurgitated in books and workshops and critique groups.
Take the pinnacle of these truisms: Show, don’t tell. It’s one of the first pieces of advice new writers get, the one I hear the most often, the one that appears on every list of “Great Tips for Writing Better Fiction!” For years, I struggled with that advice. It looks so simple. Show, don’t tell. Well, of course! Obviously!
Except, no, it’s not that obvious. “Show, don’t tell,” is a lovely little soundbite that encapsulates a HUGE amount of context, which unless you’ve studied the craft of writing for a while, completely oversimplifies the complexity of pacing in fiction. The context of this truism should be: “Show, don’t tell, the important things.“
I can’t tell you how many stories I wrote early on that described–in MINUTE DETAIL–a character walking across a floor, gripping a door handle, turning said door handle, and then passing out of the room, and then turning to close the door behind them. Show, don’t tell. I didn’t want to tell anything, but how do you tell a story without telling SOMETHING? What even counts as telling? Is dialogue telling? How is describing the smell of the sea not telling the reader that your character can smell the sea? (I 100% realize I’m an over-thinker, which does not work well with soundbite advice, but I also know I’m not the only beginning author who’s battled with this tendency!)
I used to bash my head against this advice, at turns terrified of telling ANYTHING EVER, and at others, WRITING EVERYTHING IN EXPOSITION because screw that advice, it doesn’t make sense, I don’t know how to apply it, so it must be wrong!
The thing is, the advice isn’t wrong, but it took me a long, LONG time before I understood it in a way I could apply it to my own writing. And I think that’s secretly what it is that beginning writers are looking for when they appear to be looking for “a key to success.” It’s not a silver bullet for success. It’s the click that will suddenly make some seemingly simple piece of advice suddenly MAKE SENSE. It takes time to digest writing advice. Torment your character: intellectually, I get this. Problems drive plot. Problems in fiction are what make a story fun. But I’m STILL digesting this one. Sometimes I succeed at this, almost without even trying (and certainly not by thinking “I need to torment my characters more!”), but just as often I’m hung up on how to increase tension in a story.
I think I’m almost there, having read dozens of articles and quite a few plotting books and attended quite a few convention workshops that I’ve started understanding it enough to apply it when I’m writing (without having to think about it too hard). That’s the key for me: I have to understand a craft element deep in my bones before I can utilize it well. I struggle to write anything worth writing if I’m constantly trying to keep “good story” writing advice in my head while I work. I have to banish the truisms in order to produce any words, otherwise I’ll just sit paralyzed before the blank page.
Sometimes I think of Hemmingway’s Shit-Detector. For context:
“The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.” – Ernest Hemmingway
For years, this quote haunted me. What if I don’t have a shit detector? What if I can’t tell what sucks and what doesn’t? Does that mean I’ve failed before I begin? Am I stuck being a bad writer? Then sometime, somewhere, I heard or read something that made this advice click, nullifying the terror it used to hold over me: you develop a built-in, shockproof, shit detector by reading. A lot. Everything. All the time. READ, and you’ll start subconsciously identifying what works and what doesn’t, simply by exposing yourself endlessly to what works. Now whether this is “true” in terms of what Hemmingway meant, that’s up for debate. But for me, that was what unlocked this oft-repeated truism and turned it into actionable career advice.
But a lot of times, on blogs (hello!), in craft books, in workshops, and on panels, it’s pretty much snappy truisms all the way down. Write what you know. Don’t leave your stories in a desk drawer. Raise the stakes. Yes, but-!/No, and-! These aren’t necessarily good or bad. They’re neutral. On more than one occasion, I’ve had epiphanies sparked by books/workshops/interviews/articles/etc. that converted some truism I’d thought was just bad/misguided/not-the-way-I-work, into something that massively improved my writing, once I shucked off the truism shell to get to the meaty, contextual-rich craft lesson inside.
Part of the issue with truisms is that they’re often repeated by well-meaning professionals (our only guides in this murky mess of a career), they start to have a gravity that distracts from the fact that they’re just advice distilled into snappy soundbites. The soundbite alone isn’t the advice, not really. It’s the starting point. And no matter how many times someone tells you “Show, don’t tell,” the soundbite alone won’t teach you much unless you basically already understand its context. Show the important things, show the emotion, show the significant details, show the scenes that matter, but good heavens, that doesn’t mean NEVER TELL!
Telling is a wonderful tool for managing pace in a work, and sometimes you honestly *have* to tell, because describing a two week long march on foot across a desert where the scenery doesn’t change and literally nothing happens to your characters while they’re marching, would be SUPER BORING. (Truism: Cut the boring bits.<–You can do that by telling, in a sentence or two, that they hiked for two weeks across the desert and nothing interesting happened other than those two funky lizards that tried to mate in your protag’s sleeping bag. OR you can jump the transition entirely, though sometimes that feel be clunky. But don’t tell the scene where your protag learns his dad is actually the super villain! It’s emotional impact will be better if you let the readers feel it with Luke.)
Lately, I’ve been thinking of all new writers as full of locks. Each lock is a crucial craft skill that they need to learn in order to write successful, salable fiction. Every writer has to unlock each one, but they may do so in wildly different order, and they may not even really understand what key made it suddenly click for them. It may come out of the blue one afternoon. It might be something a fellow author says in passing, or an editor says in an interview. It might be a tidbit gleaned from a workshop or a craft book. Truthfully, they probably don’t remember, and/or couldn’t explain how they came to understand it. So the truisms come out, because there’s truth deep in that nugget, and it seems so obvious to them now that they’ve grasped it, they may no longer even really remember why they had so much trouble with that skill when they started out (or even recall they struggled with it at all). Some new writers may solve a lot of locks quickly, and progress quickly because of it. Some (probably like me) will have to beat their heads against some of those barriers for years before a crucial skill clicks and the lock falls away (usually, like in good fiction, to reveal three more locks behind it). But the process is deep down the same: every writer must unlock these skills on their path to becoming a better writer, but how and when and what triggers that lock to open is part of that mystical weirdness of the process.
So do your searching. Read widely. Listen to the pros (because sometimes they’ll say something or phrase something in just such a way–without even realizing it–that will crack a block in your head that seemed unbreakable). Check out workshops or classes or read craft books or your favorite author’s blog for advice. But don’t fret if something just doesn’t click. If you keep searching, and keep practicing, those locks will fall. I can’t promise it’ll be fast (it often isn’t for me), but I know from my own experience, you will overcome a great many of them with time and patience. And cracking those locks WILL make you a better writer. This is where writing becomes a long game, and those among us who are lifelong students will have a leg-up, if only because their curiosity will keep them at it.