Sunday, March 09, 2008

"Common traps for writers"

As a displacement activity to avoid actually doing any writing, I've been reading other people trying to tell me how to write. I came across this article, by Rachel Simon, who is the "Author of Riding The Bus With My Sister and the forthcoming memoir tentatively titled Building a Home With My Husband." That 'tentatively says something, doesn't it...

Anyway, the advice. Mostly good sound stuff, if a little predictable (but then, writing isn't that difficult, is it, when you boil it down to its basics; it's its very simplicity that makes it so damned difficult.) But this bit, on show and tell, struck me:
The apprentice writer tells us a character is nervous by saying, "He was nervous." The advanced writer shows it. Example: "As he raised the fork to his lips, his hands trembled, a rattling beat that matched his careening pulse. Without a word he set the fork down and dropped his fingers to his lap, praying that he had managed to keep his mother-in-law from seeing."

Create a picture in the reader's mind by showing instead of telling. Another example: "Andrea was alone in the waiting room." Dullsville. Try: "In the waiting room, Andrea checked her makeup in her lipstick mirror, reached beneath her dress to straighten her slip, and, with a quick glance to affirm that the secretary had not returned, tugged up her sagging pantyhose."

Absolute horseshit. There's more crap written about show and tell than any other part of the writing process, and more beginner writers have been given crap advice than have ever got into print. There's nothing wrong with saying "He was nervous." He was. Three little words explained it. The reader now knows this. Instead, Rachel Simon gives us a hysterically padded piece of nonsense, dragging out a completely trivial scene - who cares about him trying to eat, is it a story about eating? - with overblown and overwritten detail - a 'careening pulse'? - just so she can avoid saying "he was nervous."

And then the second example. "Andrea was alone in the waiting room." Perfectly decent sentence. Sets the scene admirably. What do we get instead? Some drivel about makeup and dress, culminating in a ludicrous mention of pantyhose which immediately drags the scene into farce. Pantyhose is a comedy word; it is low register, it can't be taken seriously. So, unless the writer wants the reader to think this is going to be a silly digression, then this example completely fails to convey anything meaningful.

It's an absolute obsession with people who think they know something about writing, this nonsense about show not tell. You see it all the time in stories, the elaborate lengths writers will go to in order to "suggest" to the reader some emotion or other. Just say it and move on with the story.

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