I’ve heard a lot of protests from inexperienced writers about how non-essential the rules were if you meant to break them in the first place. In over half of them, I was the one protesting. Yet, looking back, the only rule that most inexperienced writers will die on a hill for is not needing to show the reader what the reader needs to see play out for them to understand who the character is at a more complex level than who they understand themselves to be, even if they think they’re being honest with themselves.
To remember just how important it is to show the reader what matters so they’re a witness in the character’s growth as it happens and not a passive observer following what the character learns through dialogue, libraries and their analogues and the intuitive knowledge the character had before the start of the story. We use a shorthand squiggle that all writers know as “show don’t tell”.
In all the years I’ve spent my own money learning how to write by attending writing conferences and the occasional workshop, I’ve never heard a professional writer tell me “show don’t tell, unless you tell it really well, in which case, telling is fine.” I only heard the last section when I was a very inexperienced writer but I heard it loud and clear. I was shocked to find out that my MFA program teaches the excuse I gave myself not to learn how to show as a valid critique to writers still starting out.
Showing the reader what’s happening as it’s happening is the easiest way of telling a story. Telling a story instead of showing it is much more difficult to do and it involves a lot more finesse than just telling the reader what’s happening instead of showing them it.
Okay, says the skeptic. But I’ve spent *years* practicing how *I* tell. The techniques I use to tell my readers what they need to know are fantastic. I want to tell this writer just how many good stories I’ve read in the slush that through hook or by crook, needed to be told through telling. Many, many, many writers have practiced telling stories so well they’re almost as good as a story that is shown by a less experienced writer. I can have my pick of well-told stories about conversations the character has had.
What is far less common are stories shown through characters living through the build-up of tension in a situation that matters, surviving climax the best way they can and live through the consequences of their choices moves me, whether the character’s efforts to change their fate were successful or not. A character talking to other characters about something that only impacts them tangentially would have to be an exquisite story to even come close to the same emotional payout.
It took six years of being told “show this” to hear “it’s important you show this because your character and your reader need to experience this important event together so the reader can understand the world/character/problem at a greater level than just as a past event that happened.”
I just heard “here is a rule” and I broke the rules on purpose. I didn’t know “a character should have a name” is a rule and “show your story, don’t just tell the important parts of it” is how you write. I thought I was being transgressive when I told the events of the big fight through finding a half-dead survivor luckily found before the ravens took their still shiny eyes on the battlefield. Showing a big battle where the character would have to be in it and survive it was too daunting. Showing anything I didn’t automatically know how to show it was.
There is a time in your story where the exhausted general/best man drags himself into the war room/bridal suite and tells the table that the king/groom is dead and it will crack like thunder across the page. But if most of the information conveyed in the story is conveyed through dialogue, what’s told will have no added meaning at all.
And we in the audience of those conference would lean back after we were assured that there are no rules because everything they said before assuring us sounded really hard. The way we avoided not showing the complex scenes that remain with the reader long after the book was put down was fine. The pros just said so.
I sold six stories in the years between hearing that there were no rules and realizing the rules were the scaffolding needed to tell bigger stories than I could imagine without them. I wrote dozens and dozens in the same time frame that tried equally important rule-breaking in which none of them are even worth remembering at this point. If I was told that threading a needle is hard but threading a needle on the wing of plane is harder, I’d rent be renting a plane to practice. Even if I didn’t need a threaded needle. When I heard a character needed to be empathetic, I developed a taste for beer so someone could hold mine.
But…I never could write an unempathetic main character that worked. I tried and tried but it became clear that if a reader is supposed to care about a character enough to want to read on to find out what happens, the level of story necessary to make a reader want to continue reading even after they do the **unjustifiably** unthinkable was outside of my ability no matter how much I wanted an unempathetic main character to work.
Any character can be driven to do the unthinkable. It takes a spectacular amount of talent to write a story in which the character drives themselves to that point, does the unthinkable, and still has the reader’s empathy for having done it. Visual media has a little more leeway when it comes to characters like that because viewers are passive. Readers have to be in the mind of a person who not only conceives of what can’t be justified, but does it. It’s a different level of emotional investment if those actions are done by the protagonist.
Even remembering Nicolas’ Cage’s acting at the end of 8mm chills me to the bone. I can’t remember if he beat the bad guy to death with his bare hands or if he used something like a rock. I will never forget how he kept beating the man long after the rage died out. His character was driven from an everyman to a man who kept killing when the rage was gone because of the consequences of his actions. He might have won, he’ll have to live with who he became to do so for the rest of his life.
In a work of fiction, shooting the man who shot your dog can work. The reader should understand how a character would feel doing so, even if it’s not what they would have done. But shooting the dog-murderer after time has passed and the character had space to move on from it? Empathy gets more questionable. If the character rounds up the family of the man that shot their dog and sets the church he locked them in on fire and while cutting his eyelids off so he’d be forced to see it burn? Nope. Ten steps too far. Poe has walled up that story years ago.
It wasn’t the first rule I understood because I’d tried to break it and couldn’t. At the age of 11, I realized it was too difficult for me to try to write a story about a wild horse because what they always wanted to do was always so obvious and giving them human consciousness didn’t feel real enough for me. I’m not saying it can’t be done. I’m saying 11-year old me couldn’t do it so she moved on to telling ghost stories in which the ghost was the main character — only to learn her 12-year old self couldn’t write stories in which the protagonist couldn’t affect change in the “now” of the story and they weren’t a ghost in their time. Then she wrote about a talking white horse and a magic sword that foretold of the return of the king and was quite pleased she’d been so inventive.
Until she read Mercedes Lackey and Tolkein for the first time.
Show don’t tell is more fundamental than a character staying within the actions of what the reader could understand being done. Showing the reader the events of the story as perceived by a character is how we tell stories. If the author can’t show the character actively moving the character through the story through the choices they make, they can’t make those choices matter in ways that change the character in ways that echo the theme of the piece. Studying craft is how to learn how to better show the reader what they need to understand to be moved by the work.
I realized during my MFA that while we argued over breaking the rules practically every week, I can only remember a few times where the rule broken meant that I thought the character wasn’t empathetic enough for the reader to care what happens to them or if the character remained unchallenged and unchanged throughout the story.
The vast majority of arguing over the rules in my MFA and outside of it was over the simple fact that had author (including me) shown the reader what the characters talked about, thought about, or already knew going into the story, it would be a more engaging story for the change and the author arguing that they chose not to write a more engaging story on purpose.
It doesn’t matter that some writers can actually tell well enough that they don’t need to show what happens. What matters is that in a slush pile, I can tell you that most of the stories are going to be told through characters going places and talking to people. If you want your story to stand out, write a story about a character needing to change their fate because it matters to them. I can choose from the best of the best of all the perfectly polished stories told through characters learning what happened after it’s already happened. But a character who is in the thick of the changing events is a story I want to work with to make it the best story it can be.