The Silly Things They Tell You to Do …


I have read a *lot* of “how to write” books going back into the mid 1800s. I’ve read a lot of how-to sites, taken a number of classes in creative writing, and the greatest repository of silly rules people try to inflict on writers of fiction can be gleaned out of workshop critiques. That’s because workshoppers have, collectively, picked up from even more sources and will be happy to try to save you from error by parroting “rules” that any few moments of thought should reject. More paving on the road to hell.

For today, I would like to shake a couple of these loose, in case you’ve forgotten to question authority.

Foolishness #1: Show, Don’t Tell, always.

I trust you have already read my post on when to Tell, Don’t Show. But if you think too hard there are many places you absolutely cannot Show and must Tell.

Orson Scott Card (*Ender’s Game*) has pointed out that motivations cannot be Shown but must be Told. The telling can be a character’s speech or thoughts, or a declaration in narrative, but Told it must be.

Other things cannot be told in words. Only fairly simple expressions or gestures can be described. Even if you go on for a hundred words, no writer can Show the one subtle act of an actress in *The 13th Warrior*:

In the midst of the hall, the queen turned to Bulweif so the king could not see, widened her eyes, pursed her mouth, and shoved her head a bit forward.

In visuals, a perfectly plain non-verbal demand. As a Show, worthless verbiage. It sounds like she’s blowing him a kiss (anyone who knows the movie can say this is accurate description). Rather, you have to Tell the reader:

In the midst of the hall, the queen turned to Bulweif so the king could not see, and shot him a look that demanded he do something to discourage the king, that only Bulweif could.

That’s the only practical way to handle this. Human non-verbal communication is too complex and nuanced. We are stuck describing the cumulative effect in a Tell.

Foolishness #2: Never have the character cry. Make the reader weep for them.

This came with a corollary claim that a character must never laugh. Rather, the writer must make the reader laugh for them.

Obviously, this came out of litfi and a teacher who had no comprehension of the vast world outside that little genre. As Holly Lisle pointed out, in “How to Write Suckitudinously,” in successful litfi all main characters are neurologically abnormal and have pretty much no feelings at all. The most worked up they get is to “almost feel something kind of resembling (fill in the feeling, and not too strong a one)”. Naturally, this sort of litfi robot would never feel enough emotion to weep, or even feel enough intellectual dissonance at a situation to laugh. They might manage a half-smile, but only if wry and self-mocking.

In the real world with normal people, whom most of our characters resemble, people laugh from nerves, in derision, at a joke or a cute dog doing tricks. They weep from sorrow, disappointment, frustration, anger, or any combination. To have not only your character but everyone’s characters never laugh or cry should be obviously silly.

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