The Ultimate No

Yesterday, I posted about my experience with bending the “no internal monologue” rule I’d  been following with these past two books. What I didn’t say, that in breaking that rule, I also broke the cardinal rule of writing fiction: show don’t tell.

The thing with rules is, they’re like the English language, there’s always an exception. And I’ve read lots of writers talk about how and when to effectively break the “show don’t tell” rule.  

It made sense to me, especially in summarzing, but I never really applied it mindfully to my own work until this past week. For me, illuminating character motivation in a short sentence or phrase during an active scene is one time when I found that I had to tell instead of show.

I can hear my critique partners shrieking even as I write this.

But the trick is, and this is why I’m waiting to review my revisions another day or two, I have to make sure I didn’t fall into the trap of doing both. You don’t want to show then tell where the showing is obvious. Like she’s crying and then you say she felt sad. Just to show crying is fine in that situation.

Telling can be useful in some scenes because character actions don’t always match their motivation. You really have to set that up. To use a simplistic example, if every time a character is stressed they put their hand on the back of their neck and rub it, well, that action doesn’t automatically indicate stress. (It could mean they’re tired, or they have an injury or whatever.) So with some gestures, you have to tell what they mean. Not every time she rubs her neck, just the first time.

“She rubbed her neck, a reflex she’d noticed happening whenever her body signaled stress.” 

That’s telling. It gives some added info that illuminates why the character does whatever she does next. Something happens that moves the plot forward, and it happens because she’s stressed. That’s motivation.

We might forgive her for acting like an idiot if we know she’s stressed. Especially if she tries to get her stress level under control but someone keeps pushing her buttons. If we don’t know she’s stressed, we might think, man, she’s an idiot. Why does she not even react to that jerk who keeps pushing her buttons? Why did she do X instead of Z? I can’t figure her out and I’m not so interested in trying…

And then, the writer has lost the reader, who is pulled out of the vivid, continuous dream.

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