Some Writing Rules Should Not Be Taken Quite So Literally

i will show not tell writing rulesWhen I first sat down and put fingers to keys, full of optimism about being a writer, I looked for suggestions about how to write my first book. Any guesses what I found? The two most overused pieces of advice in writing: “Show, don’t tell,” and “Write what you know.” If writers’ groups were classic rock radio stations, those two pieces of advice would be Stairway to Heaven and Hey Jude. All good enough, as far as it went, but I didn’t even understand what they meant.

It took me quite a while to get the hang of “showing,” not “telling.” Years, honestly. I never said I was bright, or a quick study, did I? Finally, ten years later, I think I’ve got it. Instead of just “telling” my reader what happens, I put them in the scene. Make them a part of it. Give them an emotional connection to the material. What I’m not sure of is when this became the way to go.

Recently, I saw the the SyFy Network was planning on releasing a miniseries of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. I read and loved the story when I was a teenager, but I thought I would read it again before trying to watch the show. When I did, I was surprised by what I found: paragraph after paragraph, page after page, of telling. Of course, there were scenes where Mr. Clarke showed me the action as well, but I was surprised by the ratio, which was three or four to one of telling to showing, by my admittedly inexact estimate. Don’t take this as a criticism of Mr. Clarke or his book. As I said, I read and immensely enjoyed both that book and others by him decades ago. Out of interest, I pulled a few other books from my teenage reading pile and found the same was often true with them as well. A quick Google search tells me that fantasy authors, including George RR Martin, are often accused of too much telling as well. Judging by the popularity of his writing, I think Mr. Martin will manage to survive the criticism.

For me, I try to keep my ratio of showing vs. telling at five to one or so. There are certainly times when telling something is more expedient than the word wrestling match required in order to show it to the reader. Like most things, I think we just need to master the niceties of the rule before breaking it.

What about that other old chestnut, “Write what you know?” This one is more problematic on a surface level. This advice is what leads to so many stories about writers who can’t come up with a decent idea to write about. I don’t need to read any more stories about frustrated writers, thankyouverymuch.

So, does this advice hold any water at all? Of course it does. We just need to dive beneath the surface. “Write what you know,” doesn’t mean that you have to recreate your life’s situation on paper – your job, where you live, what you do in the evenings – it just means to take the truth of a situation you have lived through and find the proper place to use it in a story.

Here’s an example. In my current WIP, I have a fifty-three-year-old man occupying the body of his fifteen-year-old self, set in 1976. His mom is worried that he is acting differently, and so she wants to have a talk with him. This is where write what you know comes in handy. I thought back to my own teenage years and recalled a time when my own mom had a talk with me. She was convinced I was on drugs. A reasonable assumption in the seventies, but an inaccurate one – I was apparently the one teenager in America who hadn’t smoked marijuana. The more I thought about it, the clearer that scene became to me: body language, my incredulity at being falsely accused, the silly little pamphlet she had picked up somewhere about talking to your teenager about drugs. The reality of that memory gave me everything I needed to write that scene effectively and draw the reader in as well. Why? Because I knew the truth of it.

That’s why I keep notebooks full of old memories and try to jot a few down every day. I never know when the truth, the impact, of one of them, will fit perfectly with a story I’m writing. That’s also why I try to be a keen observer when I am out in the world. When I am waiting to pump my gas, I watch the harried mom in front of me with a toddler screaming in the back seat. How does she stand, react, deal with the situation? I can almost certainly use that information in a future story.

I hope there will come a time in my writing when I can imagine a scenario and write it with the same realism that I do a borrowed memory. Until then, I will continue to write what I know.

Author: Shawn Inmon

Shawn Inmon hails from Mossyrock, Washington — the setting for his first two full-length books, Feels Like the First Time and Both Sides Now. His newest release is Rock ‘n Roll Heaven. By day he works in real estate with a side of public speaking. Learn more about Shawn on Facebook or his Author Central page

28 thoughts on “Some Writing Rules Should Not Be Taken Quite So Literally”

  1. Hello, Shawn. Rules become our worst enemy when we believe them to be the formulaic panacea to good writing. “Show, don’t tell” is one of them when writers take that as a 100% thing. They show every damn thing, even the most ludicrous, useless detail.

    What a writer doesn’t put down in words is as important as what he writes down. Don’t show everything. Show only those part you want your readers to remember and care, and that will have a role later one in the story. For everything else, remember, we’re not storytellers for nothing!

    1. I agree that slavishly following a rule is detrimental. For me, though, I have to learn to follow a rule before I am capable of breaking it effectively. Until then, I am shooting basketballs at a basket I cannot see.

  2. I cannot agree more with the “write what you know” bit, Shawn. What we know, and can articulate effectively, is so much broader than our personal experiences or our education. If that were not true no-one could write effective Fantasy or Sci-Fi – or action thrillers, for that matter. What we know spans the breadth of our emotions and the height of our imagination – so long as we can express it in a way that readers buy into.

  3. ” In my current WIP, I have a fifty-three-year-old man occupying the body of his fifteen-year-old self, set in 1976. His mom is worried that he is acting differently…”

    Been there, wrote that, but set in 1981. Great minds think alike, right? 😉

    Great article. I often draw from past experiences, or from others I know. I’m always afraid that if I tried to use something too far out of my knowledge base, readers will easily see that I’m trying to fake it.

    1. Yes. I wrote a short story a few years back where I needed a character to do something with her hands while she was having a conversation, so I had her crochet. Knowing nothing about crocheting, I had her needles click together. The story was published about 24 hours when I got the first email from a reader saying, “You’ve never crocheted, have you?” Caught!

  4. Much as I love the Beatles, that other song would be Satisfaction, not Hey Jude. 🙂

    As for the actual subject of the post … 🙂

    My opinion, FWIW, is a combination of two thoughts. One is that there is no writing rule that is an absolute. Even a rule as obvious and simple as spelling words correctly or using good grammar might go out the window when you’re trying to portray a not-very-well spoken person with an accent. Second, which you said in different words, is the old cliche about needing to understand the rule and its reasons before you can break it.

    1. Oh, Al, Al, Al. Satisfaction? Where do I begin to tell you how wrong that is? 🙂

      Glad you mentioned a character with an accent, as that is something that drives me to distraction if it is written too literally. If a character is a southern hillbilly, for instance, and every dropped “g” and drawl is written, I just can’t take it. It will force me to quit reading. Instead, just a sentence or two with the accent strongly accentuated in the beginning, with a touch up reminder here and there serves the purpose quite nicely. That’s just me, though!

    2. I can tell you’ve never done radio, Al. When a disc jockey at a top-40 station had to go to the bathroom in the ’70s, he played one of two songs: Stairway to Heaven or Hey Jude. 😀

      1. Not true. I programmed the music on a radio show for 2 hours one time. 🙂

        But I’ll concede Shawn’s experience in radio outweighs mine by about 10,000 to 1.

  5. Another comment on “write what you know.” Taken literally and to the extreme, it makes no sense. If every writer took it that way we would have no science fiction. Your explanation of it makes much more sense. 🙂

    1. Agreed, only astronauts, theoretical physicists, and rocket scientists would be able to write about space travel.

      I’ve never been a police officer so I shouldn’t write about crime.

      🙂

    2. As I mention at the end of the article, I hope that as I become a more accomplished writer, I will be able to write about situations I have never visited with verisimilitude. Until then, I will keep writing about overweight middle aged guys that are driven to death by their Fitbit. Yes, I really wrote that story. 🙂

  6. My philosophy: “Write what you know; what you don’t know, you can find out.” This is particularly true in the age of the Internet. Whereas I used to spend hours in the library doing research, I can now find multiple websites to assist with the task. We are, after all, creating the “illusion of reality.”

    I think, too, that it’s more important to “Write what you feel.” True emotion is the foundation of our stories. Authors cannot “pretend to feel,” or readers will see through our ruse. Emotionally-charged scenes are best depicted through showing; details that are less important, through telling. Choosing strong verbs can help enliven the narrative

    The advice I follow: “Never take any writing techniques off the table”; and, “Learn all the rules, then forget them.”

    Great post, Shawn! Pinned & shared. 🙂

    1. Thank you, Linda. I agree that our job is much easier in the internet age than it was thirty years ago. Last year, my plot ended up taking my two main characters to the Philippines, a locale I have never visited. A few days of intense Googling, though, and I felt I knew enough of the geography, culture, habits, language, etc., to write the section without appearing clueless. Also a benefit of the internet age is that I now know people all over the world, so I was able to ask someone to read it over and check it. Long live Google! 🙂

      1. This ties in very well with the next article about internet research. I think there are times when reading about something is not enough. ‘Write about what you know’ is an important rule, at least for ‘realist’ novels, but it doesn’t necessarily mean only write about things you *already* know. It should perhaps be rephrased as ‘know what you write about’. Sometimes that means getting out and walking your character’s route. Yes, we are just creating an illusion of reality, but that illusion is strengthened immeasurably by personal experience – only through that can we ‘write what we feel’. And if an afternoon buzzing the jungle canopy in a helicopter can be written off as a business expense, why not?!

  7. The older you get, I think it becomes more apparent that there are very few absolute rules. Like most of the stuff out there, these are just guides, ones created to help people tell better stories.

    I think your explanation of “write what you know” as simply being telling the truth of a situation or experience, is absolutely on the mark. All the best writers know how to do it. That’s why they connect with so many readers. It feels real.

    1. “The older you get, I think it becomes more apparent that there are very few absolute rules.”

      That may explain why I realized the truth of it – I earned it through my gray hair. 🙂

  8. Yes, I agree Shawn,

    Writers in the ‘olden days’ used to rely quite heavily on ‘telling’, of that there is no doubt. There could be a number of reasons for that, the simplest being fashions change. What was acceptable back then, need not necessarily be acceptable today.

    I’ve just finished reading latest book of a very successful modern Trad writer (no names, no pack drill), It was so telly I found it very difficult to enjoy. Couldn’t get into it at all. Basically, I thought it was rubbish.

    Here’s a theory I’ll put out into the ether. Could ‘telling’ have had something to do with the lack visual input back in the days before photographs, TV or film to show people what, say, the Amazon jungle looks like? Maybe back then, it was deemed more important to tell the reader what something looked like? Just a minor theory, I’m not about to test its validity any time soon. What would the null hypothesis be?

    As I said, times and fashions change. Telling and showing are both valid options, and used properly, in balance, can help the reader both ‘see’ and ‘feel’ the story.

    That’s what I reckon. 🙂

    1. “Could telling have had something to do with the lack of visual input..”
      That would make sense, especially in genres such as fantasty and sci-fi where the writer /still/ has to create a whole new world for the reader to ‘see’. But I think balance is the key in any genre. Does the reader reeeeeally need to share the pain of a stubbed toe? I think not, not unless that stubbed toe is the pivotal to the plot somehow.

  9. Great points, Shawn.

    I like to think of it as “show vs. tell,” instead of “show, don’t tell” because you’ll bore your readers to tears if you relentlessly “show” OR relentlessly “tell” in your writing. It’s about balance.

    As KJD and A.C. Flory already said, “telling” was in vogue in the olden days of fiction writing, and it’s much more prevalent today in sci-fi and fantasy genres because the created worlds have to be ‘splained!

    “Write what you know” is limiting if you take it too literally, as it were. “Write what you love” is better advice, imo.

  10. I’m with KJD. “Show, don’t tell” is a fairly recent fad. Whether it lasts or not depends on how society sees itself.
    I think “telling” works with an authoritarian, stratified society where some people are seen as superior to others, so they give their wisdom by telling.
    Showing appeals to the democratic, where the author shows what is happening, and lets the readers interpret it as they wish.

    1. Perhaps. I’ve never thought about it that way.

      I am a simple soul – I try to write the story in the way I would appreciate it if I stumbled upon it in its native environment.

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