The hard-and-fast rules about hard-and-fast rules

We begin today with a quiz: what does this photograph depict? More to the point, if you had to describe it in a manuscript, how would you do it?

Why, yes, now that you mention it, those are two rather different questions: the first has a single, fact-based answer, the second no uniquely right answer.

And yes, that IS an excellent parallel for many aspects of the revision process. How clever of you to spot that. Pat yourself on the back immediately.

I have been on retreat for the past couple of days, meditating in a remote mountain cave and living off sips of purest dew while I wrestled with the knotty problem of creating the Platonic blog post on showing, rather than telling — because, as I’m sure some of you have noticed, I’ve been spending the last week or so dancing around various aspects of incisive reader Shelley’s delightfully straightforward request that I address what the oft-repeated writing axiom actually MEANS.

There’s a short answer, of course, which I snuck unobtrusively into an earlier post: telling is when the narrative simply states what is going on and what it means, whereas showing is when the narrative allows the reader to be the primary drawer of conclusions based upon what the various characters do, say, and think.

The longer answer involves, as we’ve seen recently, a whole plethora of very specific writing strategies and techniques. I could keep us occupied for a good month on them, if I really put my mind to it. And I certainly intend to focus on a few of my favorites in the days to come.

But that prospect didn’t relieve me of the feeling that I really owed it to posterity to write the definitive single post on the matter, I must confess. If I crafted my notions persuasively enough, I figured, if I made the case for show, don’t tell so convincing that no reasonable creature could possibly ever disagree with it, if I made the very idea of telling rather than showing sound so unappealing that each and every one of you would feel faint at the very idea of doing the former, I could rest again at night.

I would also be a benefactor of humankind deserving of being carried through the streets of the nearest metropolis by an admiring throng — nay, of every metropolis in the English-reading world, if not actually meriting having my profile appear on future coinage, stamps, and Wheaties boxes.

If I could manage to make it funny as well, someone might even name a dessert of some sort after me, like Napoléon or Pavlova.

In short, I made the task so gigantic in my mind that there was absolutely no possibility of my ever posting on the subject again. Evidently, I was doomed to spend the rest of my natural life in that cave, being fed by those cartoon birds that are always fluttering around Snow White.

What knocked me out of my self-imposed procrastinative funk, you ask? My neighbor, Sarra, made me a mocha that was a work of art, complete with a beautiful top layer of foam patterned like an exotic cat’s pelt.

The subject of the photograph above, in short.

In the proverbial flash, the answer to my dilemma came to me: like so many of the so-called hard-and-fast rules of good writing, show, don’t tell should NOT be applied blindly to a manuscript, but with discretion — and with style.

Let’s face it — it’s not the clearest piece of advice anyone has ever given a writer. In some ways, show, don’t tell is a bit vague; show, don’t summarize is probably clearer advice. At least for the interesting bits that you want to stick in the reader’s mind forever and a day.

Obviously, though, any writer is going to need to summarize certain events from time to time: if every book set during wartime, for instance, had to describe every battle down to the last drop of blood hitting the ground, there wouldn’t be a whole lot of room for character development, would there?

Want a concrete example, do you? Okay, think about the photograph above for a moment. Factually, it’s a picture of a cup of coffee. Narratively, I would have been perfectly within my rights to tell you so from the get-go, correct?

But that simple empirical description wouldn’t have conveyed a whole lot about either the odd, animal-print beauty of the foam on top or how it got there, would it? Or why Sarra, a barista of local repute, might have gone to the trouble of creating such an intricate pattern, would it?

My guess is that she likes me — but that’s an example of the narrator’s drawing a conclusion that the reader might have drawn unassisted from the narrative so far, right?

I could, of course, have just come out and tell you that the foam was gorgeous, but gorgeous is a pretty non-specific descriptor, one that could conceivably apply to each and every one of the beautiful objects and people in a full and lovely universe.

Herd a hundred intelligent, observant people into a room and ask them to define the term, and you’ll end up with a hundred equally valid answers. Possibly more, if some of those hundred happen to be both indecisive and verbose.

By contrast, chestnut brown lushness alternated in chevrons with airy cream foam is awfully darned specific, isn’t it? Given the choice between that description and the foam was gorgeous, which do you think conveys a more vivid impression of what I actually saw?

The former is showing; the latter is telling.

Notice, however, that I did not describe the cup containing the drink of beauty in equal detail, nor the countertop upon which it rested briefly, nor the room in which Sarra and I were standing at the moment I first beheld her artistry.

Had I taken the axiom show, don’t tell very literally, I might have engaged in equally detailed descriptions of all of these — in addition to regaling you with meticulous accounts of the sky visible through a nearby window, the grunt of approval my SO emitted when I showed him my prize coffee, and every article of clothing I happened to be wearing today.

Why didn’t I do that? Because we’d all be here until Doomsday.

Also, these factors were extraneous to the story. Including them would have watered down the intense visual image that I was attempting to impress upon my readers’ brainpans.

Let me repeat that, because it’s vitally important: including too much detail can distract the reader from the main point of a description, scene, or narrative paragraph.

Show, by all means, but not indiscriminately. Apply the technique where it will have the greatest effect.

Dare I say it? Yes, I shall: use your judgment.

I’m sensing some uncomfortable shifting out there at the very notion, amn’t I? “But Anne,” I hear some of you murmur, “isn’t the point of a hard-and-fast rule that we should apply it in EVERY instance? Relying upon one’s individual judgment implies a bit more wiggle room than I am used to hearing about in rule application.”

Great question, anonymous murmurers — but doesn’t the answer depend very much upon what KIND of rule you’re thinking of applying?

Matters of grammar or standard format, for instance, are the stripe of rules that one might want to take literally every time. A semicolon may only be used in a certain limited number of ways, after all, and it would be pretty hard to argue that a 1″ left margin meant anything but that the text should begin one inch from the left-hand side of the page.

Other rules are not so clear-cut.

A very powerful agent who specializes in genre fiction used to tell roomfuls of conference-goers that he ALWAYS stopped reading a submitted novel as soon as he encountered a scene in which characters were drinking coffee, tea, or any other non-alcoholic beverage.

Why? Because he had found over years of scanning submissions that such scenes almost always involve the characters sitting around and talking about what was going on in the plot, rather than going out and doing something about it. Much like scenes where the protagonist sulks in his tent, thinking, these scenes provide analysis of what has already happened, rather making something new happen.

To him, such scenes were the kiss of death: they indicated, he said, that the author did not know how to maintain tension consistently throughout a book.

Now, speaking generally, he probably had a point: it’s not all that uncommon for characters to get together to discuss what the reader has just seen happen, mulling the implications without doing much to change the situation and thus move the plot along.

(Phone conversations are also prone to this tendency — especially, for some reason, when the chat is between the protagonist and his or her mother. Happy Mother’s Day.)

But the rule the agent proposed was not take a good look at any scene where your characters sit around and talk instead of acting, was it? I might go along with that, but no, his advice was very specifically beverage-related: implicitly, he was telling those roomfuls of aspiring writers to cut ANY scene where the protagonist was drinking coffee, tea, or any other quaffable liquid under 50 proof, on pain of getting their manuscripts rejected.

Sure sounds like a hard-and-fast rule, doesn’t it?

But it isn’t — and couldn’t be, in every instance, any more than it would be safe to declare that every scene that takes place in a bar is inherently action-packed.

Especially in my neck of the proverbial woods. Since I edit for many Seattle-based writers, if I advised them to skip every possible coffee-drinking opportunity in their works, I would essentially be telling them to ignore a fairly significant part of local community culture. Their poor characters would wander the streets in the omnipresent drizzle, mournfully wondering where their hang-outs had gone.

I do, however, routinely suggest that aspiring writers flag any lengthy let’s-talk-it-over scenes — no matter what kind of beverage happens to be bouncing about in the protagonist’s digestive system at the time — then go back and read the entire manuscript with those scenes omitted. Nine times out of ten, the pacing of the book will be substantially improved, with little significant loss of vital information.

The moral: pacing is HUGELY important to professional readers; if a discussion scene slows the book down without advancing the plot, consider trimming it or cutting it altogether. Ditto with pages at a time of uninterrupted thought.

What the moral isn’t: the mere mention of potable liquid kills narrative tension. Unless, of course, that liquid can be poured over a plum pudding and set aflame.

If you have ever found yourself wondering why I explain the logic behind my writing and marketing advice so extensively here — even for the rules of standard format, which aren’t negotiable (and if you aren’t sure why, or were not aware that there were professional standards for submitted manuscripts, please see the STANDARD FORMAT BASICS category at right) — this is why.

Yes, some rules of writing are pretty set in stone — but a great many are in fact matters of style, taste, and/or marketing strategy.

For those, you will need to use your own judgment, unavoidably. All I’m trying to do here is give you enough information about why certain stylistic choices and marketing strategies might behoove you to embrace.

Ultimately, though, it’s up to you whether to give ‘em a big old hug.

So if you asked me if it was all right to use business format for a query letter, I might instantly shout, “In heaven’s name, NO!” but that wouldn’t stop me from explaining at great length why I would do everything in my power to discourage you from making that TERRIBLE, TERRIBLE MISTAKE.

(If that last paragraph didn’t tempt you to chortle knowingly, you might want to take a gander at the HOW TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER category in the list at right before you send off your next. I just mention.)

In that spirit, I’ve saved the best possible argument for showing, not telling until after I’ve urged you to weigh the pros and cons of a writing axiom before you apply it. Everyone sitting comfortably? Here goes:

Based upon my description of the cup of coffee Sarra made for me, what do you think she’s like? What kind of a relationship do you think she and I have?

I’m not going to tell you. I’m going to let the details speak for themselves. You’re a good reader; draw your own conclusions.

And that, my friends, is an example of a narrative’s showing, not telling.

More specific strategies follow in the days to come, naturally. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

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