“Show don’t tell”

dream loverOkay, here we are with the rules of writing again. I’ve been reading The Dream Lover, a recently published biographical novel about the writer George Sand. Once again, here’s a high-profile, critically acclaimed book that brings to mind one important fact writers should remember: readers, in general, don’t give a damn about the rules of writing.

George Sand is a pretty impressive historical figure. Born Aurore Dupin, she endured a dramatic childhood and a miserable marriage before moving to Paris, writing numerous bestselling books, and adopting a scandal-worthy lifestyle that included cross-dressing and numerous lovers. All this in the early 1800s. It would be kind of hard to cover this much historical material without doing something that all the writing advice people say is a sin: breaking the “show don’t tell” rule.

Now, to give the rules-of-writing folks their due, the “rules” do help identify danger spots that writers face. Too many adverbs can lead to awkward and hard-to-read sentences. Prologues can sometimes just delay getting into the action of the story. And telling readers what happens can be less engaging than showing them what happens.

But codifying these suggestions into Rules that Must Not Be Broken overlooks a couple of facts. First, a writer needs to be able to choose whatever technique best suits what they’re writing. A highly educated novelist from the early nineteenth century is going to speak in a far more formal voice than other kinds of narrators, and “tell” writing is going to be more appropriate for this than an action-driven, in media res style. Secondly – and, I think, more importantly – readers aren’t usually as concerned about the rules of writing as writers are. For all its breaking of the “show don’t tell” commandment, The Dream Lover doesn’t seem to have suffered. Critics love it. Librarians love it. Any individual reader may or may not love it; I actually found the early chapters hard to get into, and it took a while for Sand’s story to really get interesting. But again and again, I see books being published, praised, and even becoming bestsellers, blissfully unaware or uncaring of the “rules” they’re breaking.

So I think the lesson is this: your job as a writer is to tell the story the way it needs to be told. Fix things that need to be fixed in editing, and if you run into a particularly clunky spot, keep an eye out for too many adverbs. But the rules are there to serve the story, not the other way around.

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One thought on ““Show don’t tell”

  1. Klaus Schilling

    I love prologues and adverbs as a reader; ergo, no amount of propaganda will be able to deter me in any way from writing accordingly.

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