Techniques on Tuesday: Show me, show me, show me how you do that trick

As I write this post I’m re-installing Steam after wiping my laptop and starting again. My machine has begun huffing and puffing in its old age but giving it a good clean out seems to have given it a new lease of life (finger crossed). If this post ends halfway through you can blame Football Manager, or KOTOR, or CIV, or Cossacks 3…. Lets just say there are many reasons this might effect my productivity and I will definitely regret re-installing the damn thing.

Inspired by the latest post of Chuck Wendig on his brilliant terribleminds blog I thought I’d have a go at tackling some of the common techniques and advice bandied around literary circles. I’ve been slightly unsure of how to approach ‘Techniques on Tuesday’ as there are already a great many informative souls occupying Twitter and WordPress who can teach you a hell of a lot more about writing techniques than I’ll ever be able to.  So, with that in mind, I decided to avoid repeating things you’ve heard elsewhere and focus on discussing something more about how useful I find some of the common strategies and advice I come across online and in literature.

Now, up until February this year I was undertaking a PGCE to teach English at secondary schools in the UK. This means that if there is a piece of writing advice being hammered into school children it will have been repeated to me a thousand times to make sure I say it in the classroom. One thing that raises its head frequently is the adage: ‘Show don’t tell’. It’s a phrase that would be fervently chanted by those educating the educators in staff meetings and marking standardisation sessions. It has become the headline mantra of a movement that seeks to make a formula for the success of creative writing in schools and in doing do kills some of the ‘creative’ element of children’s writing.

Side Note: I realise that in writing that last sentence I have rather given away my epistemological outlook in that I think creativity means that sometimes you don’t follow a rule. As long as you do what you are doing well and for a reason I see no particular call for all writing to follow a ‘Show don’t tell’ mantra throughout. Now that I think about it I might just end up copying and pasting this format if I tackle all the ‘headline’ bits of advice that exist for new writers.

Enough negativity on my part – this piece of advice is bloody important if you haven’t heard it. If you spend your whole time telling your reader that “Mr. Ben was furious” then you’re gonna have a bad time. Much better to show that “A faded photograph in a wizened frame plummeted to the floor as Mr. Ben slammed the door”. Already we have a lot more info on why Mr.Ben might be angry (don’t think I’ve even seen the guy even mildly annoyed before) and how this character behaves. On the other side of this particular coin however there are instances where things need to be told and, for me personally, that’s A-OK.

Wendig’s own deposition of this ‘rule’ writing is all the more scathing: “Nonsense! Shenanigans! Flim-flam banapants! Show, Don’t Tell isn’t a rule — it’s a trick. You literally cannot show something with your prose. [Show Don’t Tell is] a linguistic way to make the work seem more visual, and by proxy, open to some interpretation”. Maybe it can be considered a bit of a trick, maybe it shouldn’t be a rule for school children, I don’t think I’m fully qualified to make these judgements. What I do know is that it is a useful exercise to re-read your own writing and analyse the amount of explaining you are doing vs the amount of telling in your draft. Depending on the context of your writing, more of one than the other will be expected and is fine, if this is not the case take a look to see if you can add some variety between forms.

“Show me, show me, show me how you do that trick” said the cure – if you need more info then take a look a Standoutbooks or Thewritepractice for tutorials or good old Wikipedia can give you a history of the whole damn idea. If you want to see more about the debate on the status of “show don’t tell” as a rule take a look here.





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