Tag Archives: Show vs Tell

My Caveats

These are my caveats, which I have formulated over decades. One is personal, but the other two are universal. I suggest all writers engrave two and three upon their brain-pans in indelible, glow-in-the-dark, neuronal script.

  • Caveat One: I may not know what I’m blathering about.
  • Caveat Two: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong.
  • Caveat Three: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

Caveat One is obviously personal. This caveat is on my twitter account (@PKgesic) and also goes in the signature of any forum I join. I’m just warning people that I may be talking utter nonsense and they should really check it out for themselves rather than taking my word for it. I will quite happily pontificate on subjects ranging from the theory of mind to why the world economy is so messed up and what the hell is going to happen next. On most of these subjects my knowledge is autodidactic and therefore may be very very wrong. It doesn’t stop me spouting, but it should give people pause before they swim with the flow of my babbling opinions.

The caveat is not entirely personal however. I’ve never met an opinion I didn’t like to deconstruct and everybody else should do the same. Never take anything as read – no matter how worthy and respected the source.

Caveat Two is a result of too many writing rules being thrown at me on various writing sites. I suspect a lot of these rules began life on agent and editor sites, even in submission guidelines: this is what we do not want to see. Then bloggers, and other people who like something as complicated as reader taste simplified, took them up as battle-cries in the war against creativity. Yes, you can get all these things wrong, but that doesn’t mean they are rules.

Note: I am not talking about the rules of grammar here. Punctuation, word-usage, sentence structure, and so forth are essential for clear prose. Clarity of prose is essential for understanding. Comprehension is essential for…well, everything really. Ambiguity in your plotting is fine, everybody likes an unreliable narrator, but you really shouldn’t leave your reader scratching their head over your sentences. There are of course stylistic choices and flourishes you can use, but grammar is not something you can simply ignore.

Caveat Three is really just a warning.

If you read — for instance — ‘Show Don’t Tell’ on a website then you know, without a shadow of a doubt, that that person is talking out of their arse. If they give an example, which turns one word into fifty, then they ate a really hot curry and you are about to suffer the after-effects.

Only if they say something like ‘It is best to show rather than tell, because it places the reader in the scene. However, telling does have its uses’  are they actually speaking out of their mouths (yes, I know they are actually posting to a blog and not speaking, but once you start using a metaphor you really should follow through to the bitter end. In my humble opinion of course). The same goes for adverbs, dialogue tags, and any of the other myriad little things a writer should bear in mind when writing or revising.

I am as guilty as anybody else of saying ‘you should always’ or ‘you should never’ in critiques and edits, because sometimes the person you are critting or editing really needs to know that having a different dialogue tag after every single piece of dialogue is somewhat distracting to the reader. A certain amount of firmness is needed at that point. But my caveats are always there to let the writer know that everything to do with writing is subjective.

There you go, an insight into my philosophy of writing. Which I suppose counts as an introduction.

A version of this was posted to ‘of Altered States’ as part of my introduction to that site: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

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In Defence of Head-Hopping

My favoured Narrative Mode for novels is Multiple-Subjective-Third in the Past Tense. Or multiple-third-limited/close/deep: or whatever you want to call it when you stick behind one character’s eyes for a scene and then change to another at the scene/chapter break.

Needless to say, I don’t always keep to this for reasons I am about to explain. I sometimes shift POV during the scene and I occasionally head-hop too. The difference between shifting POV and head-hopping is one of degree. (The technical term for Head-Hopping or Shifting POV is Omniscient Third. However, Omniscient Third also includes Multiple Third, Narrator Voice, and a whole host of other techniques, so I’m breaking it down to individual techniques here)

If I just switch the POV from one character to another and then stay in that character’s head for the rest of the scene, then that (to me, the nomenclature for this is personal) is shifting POV.

If, however, I jump between characters, either the same two characters or more than two, and then back again, then that is head-hopping. I am very careful with a head-hopping scene. Doing it only for a specific story-telling purpose, taking great care to make sure the reader knows whose head they are in, and really working at the transitions; otherwise it will appear amateurish and, no matter how much care the writer takes, some people will always say it is wrong, because they think fashion = rules-that-should-never-be-broken.

Head-hopping can be very effective if the writer wants to show both (or more) sides of a conversation or event. It can increase dramatic tension and give the reader information they require.

The alternative is generally either: clumsy expositional dialogue, so the character (other than the POV character in the scene. Remember the writer are rigidly staying behind one pair of eyes because, you know, that’s like a rule innit, guv’nor) can quite literally tell the other character what they are thinking just so the reader can be told; or having to write another scene in the other character’s POV so that the reader can find out what they were really thinking during the conversation.

The first option is appalling and I would rather hand in my keyboard than use it as a general technique (I reserve the right to use any technique at any time if the story requires it).

It could work but only (IMHO) if the character is telling yet another character what they were thinking after the original conversation/event, but that requires the character to be someone who would tell their innermost feelings to somebody else. Not to mention having a somebody else to tell their feelings to in the first place. It can work, but it is liable to be pretty clunky unless it grows out of the character rather than out of the writer’s need to get this info to the reader.

The second option will lead to redundant wordage. One of the biggest problems of writing in Multiple POVs is that every time the writer switches POV they have to reset the scene. It’s the transitions  (even if they are using a scene break or a chapter break a transition is needed — an establishing shot if you will) that ups the wordage in a Multiple POV story.

The reader needs to know, WHO/WHAT/WHERE/WHEN as quickly as possible. Yes, there may be occasions when the writer needs to keep that stuff hidden for dramatic purposes, but usually you need the reader to know WHOse head they are in, WHAT is going on, WHERE they are, and WHEN it is happening within the first couple of paragraphs.

If, however, the writer shifts POV or head-hops, then all they have to worry about is the WHO. The other three Ws have already been established in the original set-up to this scene. The reader knows WHAT is going on, because that is the point of the scene. The reader knows WHERE it is happening, because the location has already been established. And the reader knows WHEN it is happening, because there is no time interval involved.

Over the past few decades novels have tended towards the bloated. The insistence on ‘No Head-hopping’ plus the insistence of ‘Show Don’t Tell’ have, in my humble opinion, led to the novel-you-could-beat-a-bear-to-death-with syndrome. Writers were constantly having to write whole scenes just to show something they could show in a couple of words if they just shifted POV for a moment in the scene.

As a general rule I write in Multiple Third, but I’d rather not take a thousand words to get to the point when a hundred, or even ten, will do the same job.

But maybe that’s just me.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘of Altered States’: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

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