I’ve become aware that we writers are not the greatest when we discuss the rules of good writing. My pet peeve is that common rule “Show don’t tell.” A while back, I received feedback from a published author and from Leslie Wainger, long time New York editor and author of “Writing a Romance Novel for Dummies.” They both read the same pages. The author tore into my writing with the comment that I should learn how to show things instead of telling. And Leslie Wainger? She told me not to change a word. Well, not really. I had used two words she thought were somewhat dated.
So, what happened? When I first learned show don’t tell, the example I was given was never to say the heroine was happy. Always say something like “her eyes sparkled and she broke into an infectious smile.” Happy was therefore implied. That seemed simple enough, except for trying to find original ways of saying someone was happy without saying it. But I was stuck when I got those opinions. How could two experts come up with such opposing views? More than that, how was I supposed to know the difference?
I read a wonderful book recently, “Wives of the Fishermen,” by Angela Huth. At one point in that book I had to put it down because my physical reaction was so strong I couldn’t breathe. How did Ms. Huth do that to me? She told a story. She told about Myrtle, the heroine. That she was frumpy and overweight as a child. That the boys in school made fun of her. She told how successful Myrtle’s best friend was with boys. She told about the boy Archie, who kept his distance until the day he asked Myrtle to marry him. But she showed, with all she told, the pain and struggle of Myrtle’s life. She never told us exactly how Myrtle suffered. Or even showed us directly. It was the accumulated telling of events that did the showing, in effect created the feeling. And when Myrtle was about to learn that Archie had died the reader, in this case me, felt her fear as she received clues as to what was coming. And, I was devastated by her loss when it came out.
So, I went back to my pages. Yes, I did a lot of telling, describing the situation and the scene. But I never told what the heroine felt at any point in those pages. The descriptions showed it all. Apparently, Ms. Wainger recognized that and my other critic didn’t.
Why do I bring this up? I think there is subtlety in all the rules we hear. Maybe we should have more discussions on these points.
THE DATE, by BB Roberts