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?