Show, Don’t Tell

a good rule to follow

There are many rules to writing — but many of the great writers have been known to ignore them. It seems that as long as you know the rules, then you have the opportunity to bend or break them to your liking.

They say you should write in your own voice. To write as you speak. That authenticity engages the reader. I happen to agree.

So if at times I use fragments, which I seem to do quite often, it’s because every now and again that’s the way I speak.

My fragments always pop up in Grammerly, giving me a final warning to correct the error of my ways, but I usually end up hitting the ignore key. With a streak of rebellion and a Wabi Sabi attitude, defending the beauty of imperfection and the freedom that comes with it, it seems the only way for me to be.

If we get too caught up in the rules, “are we using too many comma’s, fragmented sentences, double negatives, and run on sentences” instead of writing our thoughts, writing from our heart, we can spend a lot more time editing than writing, and that gets us nowhere fast.

When you read your writing out loud, you will be able to hear if any of those grammar no-no’s show up in your work. And then it’s your prerogative to keep them as they are, or change them to be grammatically correct.

One thing that really isn’t a rule but makes for a great read is the concept of Show, Don’t Tell.

I experienced this when writing my first screenplay. As a fiction writer I was accustomed to using words to tell my story, but in a screenplay you must show your story.

I was reading the book, Reading Like a Writer, A Guide for People who Love Books and for Those who Want to Write Them, by Francine Prose. The paragraph below made quite an impression on me and immediately earned it’s place on my desktop and still stays there as a constant reminder. Here it is, I hope you have an “aha” moment like I did.

“The tale concerns a linguist known only as “the Professor,” who travels to the North African desert ~ The contents of the Professors “two small overnight bags full of maps, sun lotions, and medicines” provide a mini-course in the importance of close reading. The Professor’s anxiety and cautiousness, his whole psychological makeup, has been communicated in five words (maps, sun lotions and medicines) and without the need to use one descriptive adjective or phrase. (Example; he was an anxious man, who worried about getting lost or sunburned or sick, etc.) What very different conclusions we might form about a man who carries a bag filled with dice, syringes and a handgun.”

Isn’t this great? I saw the power behind those five words and the story they told without having to explain anything to the reader. The author is actually addressing the importance of paying attention to what you’re reading, but for me it was a lesson in writing. Not a rule, but a challenge in seeing and using words creatively and so worth the effort.

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