Friday, May 27, 2011

Lizard Wizard, Canned Cheese, and How Not to Make Your Readers' Heads Explode

We read a lot as a family. Reading aloud is one of our special bonding times. It's also great for me because I learn a lot about patterns in writing--things stick out more when I hear them. Being a reader helps teach me what works for me as a reader instead of a writer. Because of this, I learned something I just have to share.

Ready? Here it is:

We writers are constantly told to show, show, show instead of tell. However, there are circumstances where it is entirely permissible, might I say preferable, to tell instead of show.

(I just heard the thunk of writers everywhere falling off their chairs. Sorry about that.)

Why tell instead of show? Because you don't want your reader to shake his or her fist at you and say bad words in their minds, which they will regret and blame you for, which causes them to feel guilty, etc, etc.

Say, for example, your reader is engrossed in how Norma and Bernie scale Mount Everest looking for a fabled scepter and discover ancient sharks swimming in a mountain lake. They fight an evil flying octopus by using hand grenades and aerosol cheese, then make sushi for lunch. End chapter.

You've done such a good job that your reader is dying for more.

She turns the page to see Norma and Bernie meet up with their old friend Lizard Wizard, who was a rocker from way back, and they rush to tell him all their adventures so he's up to speed for the next escapade--in which he'll use his extra-fast super regrowing tails to help them win another fight.

For the love of readers everywhere, please do not, under any circumstance, have Norma and Bernie tell Lizard Wizard, through dialogue, the entire previous conflict. We don't need to read ten pages of a story, then two pages of recap. Only do this if you want your reader's head to explode. That's not the kind of interactive experience they're looking for, trust me.

If we've written a great showing scene, the reader already knows the information. Making a reader endure a retelling of the action is like listening to Uncle Ferdie's golf stories for the millionteenth time.

Instead, give us a quick paragraph or two of telling so we know that Lizard Wizard is up to speed.

For example: "Bernie and Norma told Lizard the whole story, ending with the bits of octopus raining from the
 sky. They then offered him their last bite of sushi."

 This way Lizard gets the story and we don't have to eavesdrop on the whole conversation. Then give us a reaction from Lizard Wizard, and send the trio merrily on their way. (Or unmerrily if you write tragedies.) Nothing more to see here. We don't need to read their entire conversation about what happened several pages ago.

A paragraph. Not two pages of recap.

I love the things I learn from reading.

Writing Wednesday

This post is part of Jordan McCollum's Writing Wednesday fun! Click on the picture to read more writing posts!


Heidi said...

You are, of course, totally correct. I recently read an article on this very same thing wherein the writer (someone with some kind of credentials, no doubt) says this same thing (tho perhaps not for the very same reason) and gave Harry Potter as an example. The whole showing thing rather than telling thing is a bit faddish, anyway. Obviously showing is usually more interesting and FASTER. But, like most rules, it has its exceptions. Glad you guys are safe and sound!

Small Town Shelly Brown said...

But how will Wizard Lizard ever know about the sharks?
I think this becomes a matter of trusting our readers to fill in the blanks with material we've already given them.
Funny post. I especially like the rockin' Lizard.

Rebecca said...

Shelly, I updated my post with a better explanation. Lizard won't miss out on the action. :D

Thank you both so much for visiting!

Angie Cothran said...

Amen! That is the hardest balance as a writer-learning when to tell and NOT show. I'm so glad others think this too :)

Kazzy said...

I am sure reading aloud is a great precursor to writing.

Now that my kids are older I miss reading aloud.

Jane Isfeld Still said...

Can I say that I really like your writing or would that make you mad LOL
You always put humor into it...I just heard the it. Great advice too. I actually read a book or something once that retold the story and ever since then...I kid you not...when I am reading a story that is going to explain the situation again I cringe. It was a tramatic event in my life. The psycological ramifications are still deeply imbedded. :)

kbrebes said...

You and Jane both crack me up!