Pub Rants

A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

Writing Craft: Breaking The Rule: Show Don’t Tell

STATUS: What is up with over 100 degree days in Denver in June? We live here because summer tends to be awesome. We could be confused with Phoenix this week.
What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? NOVEMBER by Ben Williams

A week ago I attended Denver Lighthouse Writer’s Litfest where I gave my Agent Reads The Slush Pile workshop to over 50 hearty souls–which convinces me yet again that writers are gluttons for punishment.

As I was giving the workshop, inspiration hit for a couple of blog posts I could do on writing craft that I think my blog readers would understand and find helpful.

So guess what I’m going to do this week if I can find 30 minutes of time to get one posted?

Writers are often given writing “rules” that woe be you if you break them. And for most cases, because beginning writers have not mastered craft yet, these rules hold true. But if a writer knows what he or she is doing, breaking the rule can often create something really unusual that will work and be amazing (but will have a lot of aspiring writers crying foul that so-and-so writer does it and gets away with it.)

For example, how often have you heard that as a writer, you should show and not tell? Too many times to count I imagine.

Do you want to know one NLA writer who breaks this rule all the time at the beginning of her novels? Sherry Thomas. Sherry has won the Rita Award twice in a row now (the romance genre’s highest honor) and her debut novel PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS was named one of Publisher’s Weekly best books of the year in 2008.

So obviously somebody agrees that she has mastered craft and Sherry always begins her novels with a lot of exposition–usually a big no-no. But for her voice, it just works. Just last month, Sherry released her latest historic romance entitled BEGUILING THE BEAUTY which John Charles said in the Booklist review: “Thomas distills superbly nuanced characters and flawlessly re-created settings worthy of a Merchant and Ivory into a gracefully witty and potently passionate love story that sets a new gold standard for historical romances.”

And, if you check out the beginning of her novels, it’s all exposition. BEGUILING begins with the following:

It happened one sunlit day in the summer of 1886.
Until then, Christian de Montfort, the young Duke of Lexington, had led a charmed life. 
His passion was the natural world.  As a child, he was never happier than when he could watch hatchling birds peck through their delicate eggshells, or spend hours observing the turtles and the water striders that populated the family trout stream.  He kept caterpillars in terrariums to discover the outcomes of their metamorphoses—brilliant butterflies or humble moths, both thrilling him equally.  Come summer, when he was taken to the seashore, he immersed himself in the tide pools, and understood instinctively that he was witnessing a fierce struggle for survival without losing his sense of wonder at the beauty and intricacy of life. 
After he learned to ride, he disappeared regularly into the countryside surrounding his imposing home.  Algernon House, the Lexington seat, occupied a corner of the Peak District.  Upon the faces of its chert and limestone escarpments, Christian, a groom in tow, hunted for fossils of gastropods and mollusks. 
He did run into opposition from time to time.  His father, for one, did not approve of his scientific interests. But Christian was born with an innate assurance that took most men decades to develop, if at all.  When the old duke thundered over his inelegant use of time, Christian coolly demanded whether he ought to practice his father’s favorite occupation at the same age, chasing maids around the manor. 

This goes on for three pages. It’s backstory. Something writers are admonished to never do. But with her skill and voice, it works.

So keep that in mind. If you can pull it off, a rule is worth breaking. The trick is knowing whether you’ve truly pulled it off! From most of what I’ve seen in the slush pile, the answer is no, the writer hasn’t nailed it.


25 Responses

  1. Charlotte Sannazzaro said:

    Sherry’s exposition is lovely. I notice rule-breaking in most of the books I read, and sometimes it does pull me out of the story.

    I recently tried to start reading a book supposedly similar to Downton Abbey, and while the first chapter was OK (showing the current world of what I assume as was main character), the second chapter was just a long description of the manor house. I got so bored I haven’t opened it again since.

  2. Anonymous said:

    I think the same information could be imparted to the reader in a much more dynamic way. Sure the prose is relatively decent, but it is passive and on the dull side. Good for her that she can get away with it.

  3. Anonymous said:

    To back you up on this, I’ve read articles in WD and in several other places where this works as well.

  4. T.L. Bodine said:

    Another great book that opens up with exposition — Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman. Actually, there’s a ton of exposition in that book, but it *works* because it’s a novel about storytelling. I can’t imagine writing that novel in any other way.

  5. Lauren B. said:

    Hmm, I don’t normally enjoy romance but I found that opening intriguing.

    Whether they’re show or tell, I find I usually prefer a slower opening to being dropped in media res. Reading a lot of critiques online though it seems I’m in the minority. Maybe.

    Certainly some genres, like historical and science fiction, are more forgiving with exposition, as long as it’s still compelling.

  6. Elizabeth Poole said:

    I think a lot of effective telling has to do with voice. T.L. brings up an excellent point. Gaiman, in fact, does mostly telling in his books (see American Gods and Stardust for additional examples) but it works because it’s both part of his voice and the narrative voice of the book.

    I thought Sherry’s passage was interesting, despite what the commenter who felt the need to remain anonymous said. When you tell, should be interesting and also bring conflict. Notice how Sherry sets up the story with “it happened…”. Now I want to know what “it” is. She follows that with “Until then…had led a charmed life.”

    Now I know that “it” is probably going to be something bad, and I’m hooked.

    I look forward to the posts Kristin!

  7. JeffO said:

    “Reading a lot of critiques online though it seems I’m in the minority. Maybe.”

    I have a couple of suspicions as to why that is, but I’ll only mention one here. Online critiques are populated mostly by writers, and writers tend to be much less forgiving about rules (*especially* ‘show, don’t tell’) than readers. At least that is how I perceive it.

  8. SC Author said:

    I think you read my mind; I did a blog post about why the bestsellers today are bestsellers: they break the rules!

    Rule-breaking is made so average writers will be in a comfort zone. BUT, if a writer can excel at rule-breaking, they will achieve something CRAZY unique, just like the bestsellers. It’s partially (partially) a reason the bestsellers do so well! Because they break the rules to be unique!

    Do what the story tells you to do; I feel that is what many writers forget when they live by the rules.

    A GREAT, GREAT post! I really mean that too!

  9. Jess said:

    Breaking those rules is scary, because it feels like so much hubris to think you might be good enough to break them. If a new writer sends in a manuscript that starts with three pages of exposition, do you think agents would turned off prematurely? Gah, writing has so many rules that sometimes I think I will never create anything original for fear of breaking them. Crippling writerly angst, aaaaah.

  10. Overdue said:

    Actually I think I liked this passage because it IS showing rather than telling. It’s giving us a lot of the character’s behaviours and actions that show us something about his personality. I’d say he’s meticulous and single minded, for example, though it never tells us that. And it’s ok to give a longish back story in this way if it gives a sense of an unusual main character in an unusual way. I, for one, am intrigued…

  11. Anonymous said:

    I agree with Overdue. This passage may be “telling” us something of the character’s past, but it does so by “showing” us snippets of who he is (through his senses).

  12. Aubrie said:

    Very interesting! I also noticed this rule being broken in another famous author’s book. (Who will remain nameless b/c I don’t point fingers!) Usually my eyes glaze over reading exposition, but you’re right! The way Sherry Thomas writes, it’s interesting and keeps my attention.

    Great blog topic!

  13. Anonymous said:

    You’re absolutely correct, Kristin. And while that frustration may mask frustration with one’s own inexperience, it can also be a genuine complaint. I find when professionals give teaching/training, they can be incredibly rigid with the rules themselves, citing telling/showing, mixed points of view, etc, on the very first page. Then that same author picks up a book by Thomas or Carriger or Lu and see these exact same writing choices. It weakens the teaching experience and is exceptionally frustrating.

  14. Juturna F. said:

    The ‘rules’ of writing drive me insane, not because they’re bad, but because they’re so often abused. The thing with rules is that they’re not laws. The purpose for them is to create good writing habits.

    I once worked with a critique partner who told me I needed to stick a flashback in the middle of another scene because I was ‘telling’ what happened instead of ‘showing.’ It wasn’t an important scene to the story, and putting it in would have broken the flow of the story, shattered the pace, and deviated the focus away from the actual plot. When I said as much (in the more diplomatic terms of “you know, I thought about it, but a scene really wouldn’t fit there”), you’d have thought I’d stabbed him: this was his favorite rule!

    Only follow rules when they add to story; if a rule would hold back your style or take away from the essence of the story, that isn’t the place for it.

  15. eyeland2 said:

    “Don’t tell, show” sounds a lot better than it is.

    Great writers tell it all one day, and then show it all the next. It just depends on tone. I agree to adhering to a set of rules that should be taught, but life ain’t exciting if you don’t cheat every now and then.

    The only Golden Rule: If it isn’t boring, it’s probably pretty good OR AT LEAST worth a second look.

    Nice blog.
    Keep up the good work.

  16. Jaima said:

    I’m glad you pointed this out. Eva Ibbotson, one of my favorite authors is brilliant at telling. When telling is well done it can me much more enjoyable to read than being yanked back and forth between flashbacks.
    Anonymous has a point– this example feeds the senses, but I would still classify it as telling because the authorial voice is more present than strict showing. In this passage, we are in the hands of a skilled narrator who guides us through years of character formation quickly and vividly. I must read this book!

  17. Kristin Laughtin said:

    I third Overdue’s comment. We learn a lot about the character through being told about his past. It works to tell one aspect while showing another.

    I also think telling is sometimes necessary just to keep a good pace going. Sure, we could have a chapter or two fleshing out all this backstory to show it better (assuming it will all be important to the story as a whole) but that would keep us from getting to the next scene. In the middle of the novel, it may be better just to tell what minor (but necessary) things happen between important scenes in order to get to the next major one in a timely fashion. Showing them may allow for stricter adherence to that rule, but drag the story down. In that case, you’ve got to weigh the pros and cons of each method.

  18. Donna @ Bites said:

    I read predominantly YA and my issue is not that it’s telling and not showing but that it’s mechanical writing. It’s not exposition, it’s not beautiful prose like above. It’s she went there. She did this. She did that. She frowned. And I keep reading it and it makes me want to rip my hair out. I don’t know if it’s a category thing or what but I’m getting tired of mechanical works with absolutely no flourish whatsoever.

  19. Mark Murata said:

    I’ve tried to show thoughts and feelings by action, which doesn’t work. For instance, I tried to show the desperation of a man in the Ionian Sea by his getting weaker as the rough surf pounded him. Then online critiques indicated I didn’t show his thoughts or feelings.

    Show the reader your character and surroundings. But plunge your reader into your character’s thoughts and feelings by telling what they are.

  20. A. M. Perkins said:

    Bad writers break rules.
    Good writers break them well.

    I think balance is key.

    For example: when you look at a sentence like “While drinking a cold, rich chocolate mocha, the tall, handsome, dark-haired man slowly and calmly took a thick white envelope out of his black and gold leather briefcase and languidly laid it on the dirty steel table” it’s easy to see it’s overflowing with descriptives.

    However, I’ve seen this rule to “tone down the adjectives and adverbs” interpreted as “Ack! You used an adjective! Burn the heretic!”

    Balance 🙂

  21. Anonymous said:

    That example was garbage, and the advice to tell rather than show is only going to add to the shit heap. It used to not matter, but now with every terrible writer in the world self publishing amateur ebooks, there’s no filter to keep this crap out.

    Write however you want to write, but if you have any dreams of being a real writer and not some e-publishing wanna be, do not take this terrible advice.

    Kristin, I realize your job is rapidly becoming obsolete, but you’ve been around long enough to where you should know better.

  22. Jeff Seymour said:

    Thank you for this. It’s a thing many people in critique groups ought to read. Other commenters have covered everything I’d like to say but this:

    In some cases, even though it’s not fair, authors get away with breaking the rules because we know they’re good for it. People have brought up Neil Gaiman. He breaks rules often. There are paragraphs of his I do not like, and sometimes many of them occur in a row. I’ve read enough greatness from him, however, that I keep going because I know it’s going to be worth it.

    When I’m reading submissions, I don’t do that, because I don’t know the author is good for it.

    It’s not fair, but it’s true. And I think the mythical average reader does the same thing. The solution, distasteful as it may feel, is to build a reputation. Prove to people you’re good for it with short stories, novellas, novels that don’t break the rules on the first page, and you may find yourself able to break them a little more easily in the future.

  23. Anonymous said:

    I much prefer this kind of an opening as it eases you into the story and introduces you to the characters and their world. It makes me want to curl up and spend a few hours reading.

    Most of my favorite authors do this, and because they also have that certain ‘spark’ I know I’m in good hands and will enjoy the story.

    Too many books seems to want to open in the middle of some huge conflict, but because I don’t know the people involved, I don’t care as much, and it’s harder to keep going, for me anyway.

    1. Shirley said:

      Thanks for an excellent blog post. I think the opening of the book works because the first two sentences promise drastic change to come to Christian’s life, and then we are told how charmed his life currently is. I’m curious to know what happens to him now.

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