Following the Rules: Fiction
Blogger: Wendy Lawton
Location: Books & Such Central Valley, California Office
Weather: A little sunny and 62º
So far this week we talked about common sense rules for the entire submission process and for connecting with editors and agents. I’m going to take a little detour here. Since I’m talking about oft-repeated rules that may not be as carved in stone as most would have you believe, I want to talk about the rules for fiction.
If you’ve been part of a writing group, whether online or in person, no doubt you’ve heard the bedrock rules. Show, don’t tell. No backstory in the first umpteen pages. No flashbacks in children’s fiction. Stay away from prologues.
As someone who reads an inordinate number of manuscripts each year, I can assure you that these rules are meant as guidelines only. When slavishly followed, they lead to all kinds of problems.
So what’s a writer to do?
The answer is simple: honor the story and don’t be a slave to rules. Each one of those rules is meant to help you write a better story but goose-stepping to a set of rules can suck the very life out of your novel. Let me take just one oft-repeated rule and examine it.
Show, Don’t Tell. You’ve heard this hundreds of times. It’s repeated so often because it’s good advice. . . but only up to a point. What it means is that instead of telling us the story, the good writer will show it—letting it unfold before our eyes. It’s so much more immediate. Unfortunately, I see too many manuscripts where the adage is taken to the limit. Every minute detail is shown. Every emotion is carefully etched on every character’s face– in the droop of his shoulders, the shuffle of his feet. Even walk-on characters are named and shown in excruciating detail. There is precious little narrative, just scene after scene.
By the third manuscript page the reader is worn out. The story is overwritten– overwrought. I tend to put this kind of manuscript down by the end of the first page.
A skillful writer knows that you tell the parts you want to speed up. You show the significant parts. The careful balance of the two will move the story along. Showing is the way we focus the reader’s attention. It’s like taking the reader’s face in your hands and aiming it toward the important elements of the story—that’s what showing does. If you take that face and aim it all over the place, your reader will end up with literary whiplash.
The art comes in the perceptive use of both showing and telling. It’s all about pacing and highlighting.
Other times you want to tell? If you want to artistically handle violent scenes, use a judicious telling instead of showing. Your gentle reader will bless you. The same with overtly sexual scenes. If your genre does not call for sexuality, those scenes can be told with taste and artful omission.
The next time you’re critiqued by a neophyte rule-follower who smugly points out every instance of “telling” in your manuscript, I want you to be able to explain why you used telling in some places and showing in others. Okay?
And that’s just one fiction rule we’ve debunked. The more you read fine fiction, the more you will see that every “rule” can be broken with impunity in the hands of a skillful novelist.
Now it’s your turn: Do you agree or disagree? What about prologues? How about point of view? Are their other fiction rules that need to be debunked?