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I respectfully disagree

The brilliant Ursula K. LeGuin (a Portland author – yay!) posted a response to an article about three rules of writing which are made to be broken (an article she read “cheering and arguing all the way”), originally written by John Rechy. (Thanks to Laura Manivong, who tweeted about the post).

The three rules are (everyone say them with me – if you’re a writer, you already know them):

1) Show, don’t tell.

2) Write about what you know.

3) Always have a sympathetic character for the reader to relate to.

I agree with LeGuin that those rules are best interpreted more as guidelines (to paraphrase Captain Barbossa), but I respectfully disagree with her assertion below:

Thanks to "show don’t tell," I find writers in my workshops who think exposition is wicked. They’re afraid to describe the world they’ve invented. (I make them read the first chapter of The Return of the Native, a description of a landscape, in which absolutely nothing happens until in the last paragraph a man is seen, from far away, walking along a road. If that won’t cure them nothing will.

I have to say that, as an adult reader in 2009, a first chapter in which nothing happens until the last paragraph would cause me to gently set the book down and never pick it up again. Further to my earlier thoughts about JELLICOE ROAD, I would rather be confused than bored.

Secondly, I don’t find Return of the Native to be a relevant example in a discussion of contemporary fiction. (Sorry, Mr. Hardy! I read and loved most of your books, but only because I was an English major with a special interest in Victorian lit.)

Maybe a first chapter composed entirely of a description of setting could still work for a reader in 2009 … but only if that reader is an adult.

I write for teens, whose lives in the 21st century operate at warp speed compared to just a decade ago. They communicate in short bursts of information (text messages, status updates, tweets). This is NOT to say that they don’t have the attention span for novels – which would be a nutty thing to suggest – but I believe they have less patience with long-winded passages about setting and back story. I've seen actual teens remark online that they skip passages like that to get to the dialogue.

There are a few rare authors who can get away with telling instead of showing – I think Sarah Dessen is the best example of a contemporary YA author who is successful at it. For those of us who are part of the critique group culture, we have been constantly warned away from telling … now we’re actually afraid of it. So it’s refreshing to see the device employed judiciously and effectively.

I confess that the book I’m working on now contains a short chapter (Chapter Two, in fact) in which the main character comes right out and tells the reader his history. I’ve fretted over that chapter since the day I wrote it, but no matter how many times I reread it and consider deleting it, or taking that back story and feeding it slowly in during the narrative … it just seems quicker and cleaner to leave it the way it is. My main character’s life is unusual, and I wanted the reader to understand that up front, so I could go on with the action. We’ll see what happens when my crit group gets a hold of the book. :-)

I'd love to hear what you think on this subject. Am I high? Are there books out there full of telling that WORK for you? If you're an adult, do you think those books work for teens?


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Jul. 19th, 2009 06:04 pm (UTC)
I have such patchy and slow internet connection right now that I haven't read the articles in question, but I have to say I have always hated the "Write what you know"-rule. What boring books we'd get if everyone followed it! I write fantasy, so I write what I make up. And take Elizabeth George, the detective novelist, who is American and who writes British detective novels so authentic I had read several before I realized she wasn't British.

My problem as a reader is that a lot of contemporary novels seem to not care about story, something which is never mentioned in any rules. They are more about literary form experiments than a good story. And a juicy story with a good main character is what I want as a reader.
Jul. 19th, 2009 11:26 pm (UTC)
I agree, sookie, if we all only wrote what we knew, our stories would be boring.

However, taking that thought a step further, I've always believed the rule should be rewritten to say: "Know what you write." That would include fantasy and realistic stories.

There's nothing that makes me squirm with embarrassment for a writer more than when I realize s/he has no idea or no clear vision of what s/he is talking about, or when the story reads like a well researched information dump. (*Raises hand* - I've been caught doing the latter. *blushes*)

The storyteller has to have some true connection, whether it be by personal experience or by a deep feeling, to what they're saying in order to make it authentic. That's my humble opinion (read: humbling experience) anyway.
Jul. 20th, 2009 01:32 am (UTC)
Yes, I've read books that consist entirely of many info dumps connected with thin threads of action and dialogue. I think they keep the reader at a distance from the narrator.

And yes, I've been guilty of info dumping, too. Nowadays, if I don't catch it myself, my crit group always does. :-)

Jul. 20th, 2009 01:29 am (UTC)
Yes, if we all wrote only about "what we know," the world would be a narrow place.

And I've even seen the third rule successfully broken recently - in DEMON'S LEXICON. The main character is very hard to like, but completely compelling.
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Jul. 20th, 2009 01:33 am (UTC)
Agreed, Melodye. Without a compelling voice to keep me turning the pages, I find too many reasons to put a book down.
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Jul. 20th, 2009 01:39 am (UTC)
Interesting example ... I would think the heated cheeks and fisted hands said it all without the "I was furious" parting shot. But I understand your point.

I guess what I was trying to say - broken down to its most basic - was that big chunks of writing risk being skipped by today's teen readers. You have to have a pretty firm grip on them to persuade them into the thicket of words. You need the compelling voice, dialogue, action, and emotion before you can rhapsodize about landscape.

And lastly - I agree that it's another tool, but best used sparingly. Hence ... my second chapter remains intact ... for now. o_O
Jul. 19th, 2009 10:28 pm (UTC)
It's funny how books seem to go through trends -- lately, I've noticed too many books (YA) which show so much that I haven't the faintest idea what's going on. I need some telling! It's all about balance, and the best books (the ones I like the most, I should say) tend to have a mixture of telling and showing (and probably err a little on the telling side, but I'm okay with that). For example, the book I just finished and LOVED was CARTER FINALLY GETS IT -- and there's a fair amount of telling in there, but it's always in short spurts, and always in Carter's amazing (and quite authentic) voice.
Jul. 20th, 2009 01:41 am (UTC)
Very true, Robin! Sometimes you do just have to come right out and tell it, instead of losing your reader by forcing them through pages of cryptic clues. (I'm looking at you again, JELLICOE ROAD.)

Jul. 19th, 2009 10:56 pm (UTC)
I actually enjoy narration, but it's all in the balance. Pacing is made up of narration, dialogue, and action -- too much or too little and the story feels out of whack. Kara LaRue has an interesting blog post about narration and "writing rules": http://bluebirdworks.blogspot.com/2009/07/sabbatical-part-one-touch-of-class.html
Jul. 20th, 2009 01:41 am (UTC)
Thanks, Laurie!
Jul. 21st, 2009 06:15 pm (UTC)
I agree with you about using Return of the Native as an example. (And I say this as a die-hard Hardy fan!) Reader expectations in regard to story have changed too much; what worked over 100 years ago would likely be dead in the water today.

Others here have said it already: it comes down to balance. Narrative summary can be a beautiful thing. It can clarify things for the reader, as well as modify the pace of the story...either speed things along, or give the reader a bit of a breather from the action.

Thought-provoking post!
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