Rules. Writers tend to have a love/hate relationship with these tricksy little buggers. We use them. We break them. We ignore them. We scream vile obscenities at them as we twist them to our purposes. The worst part about the “rules” is that they are often strong suggestions posited as absolutes.
Show, don’t tell. Kill all adverbs. Avoid using pronouns. Don’t filter. The list is never ending as is the bad advice that goes along with each one. There are a million writers with a million and one opinions on each of these rules. Just to muddy the waters, I’m going to throw my two cents worth of advice for some of the rules out there.
Show, don’t tell.
I really hate this one because it provides an endless amount of confusion, especially for new writers. The idea is to show the reader the scene. To plant them viscerally in the moment. We do this by using the five senses. By getting deep into the character and showing their emotional and physical reaction to whatever is happening around them. By painting a picture for the reader.
“Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” ― Anton Chekhov
This oft-quoted line provides no end of indigestion for writers. What does it mean? How do I do that? And then the writer goes on to spend pages detailing every little bit of everything because they must show, not tell.
The problem is that, while this advice helps to paint pretty pictures, it can also lead to over-bloated scenes that focus on all the wrong things. When you sit down to write a scene, ask yourself what are the things my character would notice? Focus on those things.
Would your character notice the decor of the room, or would they instead focus on the people in the room? If they notice the people, what features do they focus on? The eyes? The clothes? The fake smiles? Would they interpret the emotional state of the people around them? What trait does the character look at most to determine who is friend or foe? What memories or emotions does the setting invoke for the character? Which of the five senses register to the character? Those are the things you show. But, you don’t need to show all of them and not all at once. You can dribble them in as the scene calls for them. A little sprinkle here. A dash there. Show should reveal as much about character as it does about the setting or other details. It should do double duty.
Tell Example: Tom walked onto the stage. The bright lights blinded him. The four judges stared at him. He felt nervous. He needed the part.
Overly simplistic, but you get the idea. It’s flat and boring. It needs show to spice things up.
Show Example: Tom peered around the corner at the panel of judges. He took a deep breath and stepped onto the stage. His hands shook, and sweat beaded on his forehead under the blinding stage lights. His heart thumped heavily in his chest as he faced the audience. The four judges were nothing but silhouettes in the void beyond the lip of the stage. Would they love him? This part could rocket his career into stardom.
Notice that the example of show uses four times as many words as the example of tell. It also begins to feel a bit overwrought and cliche with the heart-pounding and sweating.
We can’t forget about tell. Tell serves just as important a function as show. Remember, we are storytellers. Sometimes we need to skip over mundane details to get to the important bits, but we need to leave a breadcrumb trail so the reader can understand how we got from point a to point b. Sometimes, for pacing, we need to tell the character’s emotional state rather than include a lengthy bit of show. Tell can serve as a jumping off point for show. The two work hand-in-hand to plant the reader in the scene.
A combo: Tom stepped onto the stage, back straight and chin up. He wouldn’t let his nerves get the better of him. This was his moment. The four judges were nothing but silhouettes in the void beyond the lip of the stage. He would impress them. This part could rocket his career into stardom.
Kill all adverbs.
This bit of silliness has some truth to it, but can be taken to the extreme. Adverbs serve a function in language. They add flavor. But, too many and they become a distraction. It is important to try and find the best possible word. Strong verbs make for better writing. But, sometimes an adverb adds a new bit of information. Something that clues the reader into character.
Take this example:
“I’m dying,” she whispered quietly.
This is a no brainer. Quietly adds nothing to the verb as it’s implied in the word whispered. Be gone foul adverb and trouble us no more.
“I’m dying,” she whispered loudly.
This adds something new. The character is whispering, which implies a need for secrecy, but she does so loud enough that others might overhear. Does she want to be overheard or is she unaware that she might be overheard? The adverb provides new insight into the character.
Kill adverbs when they add nothing new to the verb and go for a stronger verb when possible. Leave adverbs alone when they impart an extra bit of character.
Avoid using pronouns.
This comes down to sentence variation. It’s not about pronouns. Pronouns are a necessary part of identifying who. Who is speaking. Who is doing. Who. Some writers will try to get tricky by not using he, she, I and will go for identifiers instead, meaning the blonde or scarface or some other trait. They will use the character’s name on occasion, but will then rely on a character trait to identify the person doing the action.
Example: The brunette held the glass up to the light, swirling the amber liquid around and around. She caught the eye of a brown-haired man over the lip of the glass and smiled. She laughed when he grinned and joined her. She was certain her luck had just changed.
And it can get confusing. Especially when you get multiple characters in the scene with similar attributes. Set this up in an action scene, and you have brown-haired, scar-faced men and woman grappling with each other and no idea of who is doing what. This is an extreme example of course.
It’s problematic since our job as writers is to communicate clearly. But the problem isn’t with the pronoun. The problem is starting every sentence with a pronoun so that you have an endless stream of he did this, or she said that or the dreaded I, I, I in first person point of view. This lack of sentence variation tends to stem from filtering which I will discuss later.
So let’s try this again: Jill held the glass up to the light, swirling the amber liquid around and around. Would tonight be her lucky night? She caught the eye of a possible Mr. Right over the lip of her glass and smiled an invitation. The air sparked between them as he sauntered across the room, his eyes never leaving hers. Jill laughed at his cheeky grin, certain her luck had just changed.
It’s a matter of perspective. Of changing the focus of the sentence and restructuring so that there are variations and rhythm. It takes practice. Check out Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft for exercises on sentence variation.
This is one rule that is a good standard to adhere to, but there are times when you may need to throw a filter in. It’s about using the tool with purpose instead of avoiding it or overusing it. Most of the time filters are unnecessary. They create distance. Saw, felt, heard, thought, smelled, etc. comes between the reader and the visceral entrance into the scene.
An example: He heard the dogs baying in the distance. He felt a cold shiver of dread creep over his skin. They are hunting me, he thought. He visualized the path back to the house, a series of blind twists and turns. In his mind, he saw the river. He knew he would make it if he could get to the water ahead of them.
Lots of filtering going on here. I was pretty heavy handed with it. It gets in the way of us experiencing the scene. It tells us what the character is experiencing instead of letting us experience it with the character. So let’s take the filtering out and see what happens.
Example: The dogs bayed in the distance. A shiver of cold crept over his skin. They are hunting me. The path back to the house was a series of blind twists and turns before it reached the river. He would make it if he could get to the water ahead of the hounds.
This is tighter and puts us deeper in the scene, but if we add back one little bit of filtering, we get some characterization going on.
Example: The dogs bayed in the distance. A shiver of cold crept over his skin. They are hunting me. He visualized the path back to the house, a series of blind twists and turns before it reached the river. He would make it if he could get to the water ahead of the hounds.
It doesn’t seem like much, but the “he visualized” shows us a character that is planning even in a moment of crisis. Use the tool with a purpose.
There is really only one hard and fast rule that must be adhered to at all costs: Don't bore the reader. The reason for this should be self-explanatory. You want the reader to keep reading. You want them to recommend your book to friends. In order to accomplish this, the reader has to be engaged in the story 100%. They will put the book down if they are bored or confused.
Rules help us facilitate communication. We can’t avoid using them altogether, and if we adhere to every one, all of the time, we end up with flat prose. Take the time to learn the rules and when and how to bend or break them.