When you learn to write, you run across a lot of rules. Don’t open with weather. Murder your darlings. Omit needless words.
Like it or not, a lot of authors have come before you, and they’ve figured out a lot of what works and what doesn’t. They’ve figured out readers have expectations, and they’ve done their best to give us rules to follow to meet them.
Trouble is, one thing readers want is to be surprised. We know what has worked for them in the past – that doesn’t mean we know exactly what will work moving forward. Readers don’t want to keep reading the same stories. They want to be surprised. And there are no rules for how to do that. No one has ever been successful because they adhered more precisely to existing writing conventions than everyone before them.
Follow the rules, especially the one that says you must break the rules.
I’ve seen this piece of advice everywhere, but I’m not sure it’s productive. Writers follow this advice, trying out some new fiction, arbitrarily breaking a few conventions along the way.
The process is like evolution. Most arbitrary changes you can make are bad. Only occasionally will you stumble across something that works, and even more rarely will you do so in a work that doesn’t die because of the other rules you’ve broken. You may write something brilliant this way eventually, but like evolution, it will take millions of years.
I suggest a different way of thinking, a different way of processing writing advice. Don’t think of rules in the legal or scholarly sense. You don’t have to do what anyone tells you to. You’re a writer, and you can write whatever and however you want.
Instead, think of writing rules more like laws, like the laws of physics. You don’t follow the law of gravity because some physicist says you should, or that it has worked for him in the past. The law of gravity doesn’t tell you what you should do. It helps you understand what will happen regardless of what you think about it.
The laws of writing – the useful ones anyway – work the same way. For example:
Show, don’t tell. Is probably the most common writing rule you see. It just means, don’t tell the readers how to interpret things, what opinions to form. Show them the evidence, and let them interpret it themselves.
Telling the readers a person is attractive or a basement is creepy deprives them of the chance to create that experience for himself. You are doing all the work, and so they don’t have to. And since they aren’t complicit in creating it, it doesn’t become real for them. It stays on the page, nothing more than words.
Showing the readers some key details about the person or the basement leaves work for them to do. They have to create the experience for themselves, and that is what makes it real.
Clearly, showing is better. And thus the advice is ubiquitous.
However, it’s naive to just follow that advice constantly. If you show absolutely everything, you overburden the readers. They have work at every page, every scene, every detail. It becomes tedious, and it breaks the bond between the writer and the reader.
You have to trust the readers sometimes, trust that they can understand the simple stuff without you belaboring it. Trust goes both ways. If you don’t trust the readers, they won’t trust you.
There is an art to deciding what to show and what to tell – which is really just a decision of how much explanation to give. And it’s a dial, not a switch. The more you turn the dial toward showing, the more work the readers do, the more impact that part of the story has. Turn the dial the other way, and the story gets easier. Readers do less work, and that part of the story has less weight.
It’s a tool. You can use it to vary how important, or not, readers will perceive the different parts of your story. And you should vary that amount, because if you emphasize everything, nothing stands out.
But the point of this article is not Showing vs. Telling. The point is how you should think about any rule. Consider another:
Avoid informative dialog. That’s a good one. You see, people don’t sit around talking about the plot. They don’t reiterate what they know for the benefit of whatever readers might read the story.
Informative dialog feels unnatural. The character disappears, turning into a zombie, who opens his mouth and the writer’s voice comes out.
So the advice is, don’t do that. Which is good advice, except for the times when it’s wrong. You usually shouldn’t give your main characters informative dialog, because you wouldn’t want them to disappear.
But what about that doctor character? The one who drops the tragic bomb and walks out. That’s informative – pretty much just talking about the plot. And if you infuse him with too much personality, it could be confusing. The readers might expect to see him again and be jarred when they don’t.
If a character is extraneous, maybe having him disappear and be forgotten quickly is actually desirable. In the doctor’s case, it even feels natural for him to divulge key plot details. Kind of his job really, in the story and in his profession.
An advanced technique would be to give informative dialog to a main character, specifically to hide that character. In the Song of Ice and Fire series, the character Littlefinger is certainly a main, but he’s always telling people key pieces of information. He carefully chooses what information to give out to whom, to serve his own specific ends, but you don’t really know that until it plays out.
More importantly, you don’t really know what his ends are. You see him frequently. He talks to many people. He spends a lot of time discussing the plot. And because he is so present, you don’t realize how little you know about him. All of his dialog is informative, so none of it actually reveals anything about him directly. He fades to the background, and the character is hidden, right out in public.
So, that’s how you know when and where to break the rules of writing. For any rule, work to discover the underlying principle. Figure out what you get by following the rule, and what specific effect you get by breaking it. Then, when you choose to create that effect, that’s when you break the rule.