The Ten Commandments of Fiction Writing, Part Two

As a student of the art of fiction, there are several axioms and pieces of advice that I come across again and again; "show, don't tell", "write what you know", "don't trick the reader", etc. These aren't items from a single book, they're everywhere. Some of them surely originate with specific authors, but as ideas they've taken on a life of their own, becoming more than something one person said.

In this series, I will try to gather all those admonitions, encouragements, and adages into a single, definitive list; the Ten Commandments of Fiction Writing. Hopefully this will be as fun and educational for you as it is for me.


Commandment Two: Thou shalt show, not tell

You've heard it before. If you've read my article on Scenes and Narration, you know what it means. Stated as succinctly as possible, showing is like watching a movie, and telling is like reading the Wikipedia synopsis.

You know showing is important, but are you willing to commit to it?

One thing I never read in articles about writing is how hard it can be to force yourself to show, when telling is so easy. It can be tempting to just brush through a series of events with narrative summary. But if you truly believe that story is the highest goal, you put your own concerns behind those of the story, and soldier on.

Showing means more time at the keyboard. And that should be good, right? I mean, we're writers. We like writing, don't we?

The truth is, not all of us love writing every day. Sometimes it can be hard work. Sometimes the muse won't show up. Sometimes our attention is elsewhere. These are moments when the temptation to tell is greatest.

When you're on fire, it's easy to write scene after scene, Hell, it's harder to stop than it is to keep going. When you're having a good day, scenes, images, and actions seem to flow through you. They may even feel like they're not coming from you at all. During these times, showing is easy.

"Show, don't tell" is more than a technique, it's a lifestyle (Like this quote? Click here to tweet it!). It's about finding the right combination of elements that keep you in that productive mindset. And when it's not working, shake things up a bit. A change of location can work wonders; even if its from one side of the couch to the other. Breaks are important too; you want the Archimedes effect working for you when you're not actually at the keys.

It's hard sometimes, but it's worth it. The fictive dream is a powerful, magical thing, and you can't get a reader into it by telling. You put a lot of information across when you tell, and readers will know the story. But if you want them to experience it, you have to show them.