Friday, 2 September 2011

‘He catches raindrops from his window, it reminds him how we fall.’

‘Show don’t tell.’ Creative Writing 101. Anyone who’s ever taken a creative writing course or simply googled ‘rules’ of writing, will know that this is the NUMBER 1 most important rule there is. If you only follow one creative writing rule this year… etc, etc. Show what you’re trying to say, don’t tell it. The difference between, ‘he felt hungry’ (telling) and ‘his stomach rumbled.’ (showing.)

To anyone who has been following my blog with any sort of interest, it’s probably becoming apparent that I consider ‘writing rules’ a lot. I’ll admit that they are important to me, but not because I’m a straight laced, goody-two-shoes, never breaks the rules, doesn’t colour outside of the lines type of person. The truth is that I suffer terrible insecurity that my writing is not, and never will be, good enough, and I don’t want to give people reasons to add to the list of why this might be the case. ‘See that? She used an adverb. An adverb. Amateur!’ So I study the rules, and then, when I’m hit with another dose of ‘Godmywritingiscrapishouldjustgocurlupinahole’ I go and study them again and apply them to my writing and say ‘well, at least I’m not doing that wrong.’

But (and there’s another writing rule: starting a sentence with ‘but’ makes me look like an arse) the terrifying truth is: rules can be broken. If everyone did everything in the same way, it would be boring. If a book is full of broken rules and no one even notices because the book is AMAZING then who cares? And if a book follows every goddam rule and it’s still a pile of shit then again, who cares?? I know that there are people out there who fear a time when no one knows how to write a grammatically correct sentence anymore, and I empathise, but the beauty of writing and language is that it is always evolving. ‘OMG’ has entered the dictionary. Should we laugh or cry? And would writing actually be better if it remained the same and ended up feeling stilted and dead? (These are not rhetorical questions by the way. Feel free to answer them.)  

So maybe it’s about balance. I tend to find 70 percent sticking to the rules and 30 percent breaking them to be a good mix. A spattering of adverbs, the odd fragmented sentence.

Maybe it’s about being true to yourself. Exclamation points have been described as ‘canned laughter’ but how often does someone stop and find an exclamation point jarring? Sometimes they give a piece of writing some much-needed vigour.

I suppose my point is that I have no concrete answers. I’m always, always trying to be a better writer, but I’m often finding that I read something that breaks all of the rules and guess what? It’s still a great piece of writing. The fact is that with something creative, rules are only ever going to take you so far.

So, to come back to ‘show don’t tell.’ There are plenty of arguments against this rule and that’s fine if you agree with those, but I would say that this ‘holiest of holy commandments’ is one that I tend to observe when writing my WIP. I just find it a much stronger form of writing, and it leads to much more interesting ways of getting a point across.

I’ll end this post with the lyrics of the song ‘From The Stars’ by White Lies. Listening to it the other day, I was struck immediately by the thought that it made an interesting example of ‘showing.’

I saw a friend that I once knew at a funeral,
He took the time out to be seen.
His eyes kept glancing to the hour hand on the gold watch,
That he'd been given by a magazine.
He didn't cry when the priest gave the sermon,
Just pulled up the woolen collar on his fleece.
Crossed his arms, gave a sigh and checked the time again,
As he sat inches from the wife of the deceased.

He catches raindrops from his window, it reminds him how we fall,
From the stars back to our cities, where we've never felt so small.
Raindrops from his window making puddles in his hands,
He sees how quick the water's rising as another raindrop lands.

He took a chauffeur driven car back to his hotel,
Passing through the city streets where he was born.
He said "Driver, what's happened to these buildings?
They all look run down and so forlorn."
He took a shower in the bathroom of his penthouse,
Put the Do not Disturb on his door.
When the maid came in the morning,
She found him shivering on the bedroom floor.

Perhaps the downside of ‘showing’ is that the feelings of the person in this song aren’t completely clear. Perhaps people get different ideas about what the person feels and then argue about the meaning. To me, it is someone suffering depression or an existential crisis, or a feeling of disconnection with the world, or with his old life. The thing is though, however wrongly or rightly I interpret them, I find these lyrics beautiful and fascinating, and so much less boring than, say, ‘He was depressed.’ They make me think, they make me pay attention, and they create a world for the reader/listener to step inside. Can as strong an effect be had from ‘telling?’ Let me know what you think!


Kelley said...

Good post/advice. I see rules as guidelines, and if you break them with purpose, I think it's okay. Like how some people think you should know form poetry before free-verse :)

Eleanor at Mirror Of My World said...

what beautiful lyrics and insightful article, youve given me food for thought xo

Ruth Josse said...

In the end, each reader will interpret our stories differently. We can't control that. We can only be proud of what we've created.

But definitely show and don't tell:)

Elana Johnson said...

Everything creative is open to interpretation. Writing is no different. One reader might get something from my book that I didn't intend at all. It's all in the eye of the beholder. Therefore, there is no "wrong." At least in my opinion. You should write any way you want to. Some people will like it, and some people won't.