This Business of Writing

Archive for March 11th, 2010|Daily archive page

“Show, Don’t Tell.” Bologna or Beef?

In General Information, The Craft of Writing on March 11, 2010 at 10:15 pm

by C. Patrick Schulze

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Of all the maxims found within the craft of writing, “Show, don’ tell,” is foremost in the mind of almost every writing instructor and student of the craft. Wikipedia explains this as follows: “Show, don’t tell is an admonition to fiction writers to write in a manner that allows the reader to experience the story through a character’s action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the narrator’s exposition, summarization, and description.”

Proponents of this technique say the concept is simple, as is its purpose. When you Tell, your audience has no option but to see what you show them. When you Show, their imagination is free to visualize whatever they wish, thus making your story more personal to them. With Tell, they view your picture, whereas with Show they paint their own.

They say the key to this fundamental adage is the author’s objectivity or detachment from his writing. Can he paint with broad strokes and leave his words open to interpretation or must he interpret the details with a tiny brush?

These days, most are followers of this maxim and Show is considered to have the greater effect. Proponents argue this is obvious and shown even by examples in real life. To exhibit what they mean, consider the raising of a child. As with the classic example of placing a hand on a hot stove, does the child believe you when you tell them not to touch it or when they burn their hand? Seems obvious, doesn’t it? Show is more powerful than Tell.

Now, for the other side of the story.

This truism is hogwash.

A writer should come out and tell their reader what’s what. In fact, the opponents opine, it’s the wordy writer who must dramatize.

This adage, they say, hinders the writer’s spontaneity and stifles his artistic choices. The writer is not an actor doing as he’s told. Rather, he’s a painter who uses his canvas of words to exhibit his conceptual interpretation of the subject matter.

Francine Prose says, “There are many occasions in literature in which telling is far more effective than showing.” In fact, she’s right. Some of the finest novels ever written employ the technique of telling. “War and Peace,” is a classic example.  Even “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” which some think is among the greatest of novels of the Twentieth Century, is almost told in its entirety.

The detractors of this adage say it stems from Plato and has lost much of its punch by this time in history. It is an orthodoxy that should no longer be written in stone.

Remember Anton Chekhov’s line about the glint of light on the broken glass? The detractors of “Show, Don’t Tell” say Chekhov did not mean writers should adhere to a aged sage, but rather he meant writers should use sensory images.

They also say dramatization need not be accomplished by Tell, by rather the author’s choice of what and when to isolate or magnify his details.

So, what are your thoughts? Thumbs up or Thumbs down to “Show, Don’t Tell?” Let’s find out.


Either way, I hope you know I wish you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

Author of the emerging novel, “Born to be Brothers.”

Plot Tips for the Aspiring Author

In How-to's, The Craft of Writing on March 11, 2010 at 7:30 am

by C. Patrick Schulze

To listen to a podcast of this article, click HERE.

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Before we begin, it’s probably a good idea to define the concept of plot. In general terms, it’s the problems your hero confronts as he travels through the world you’ve created for him. Plot is what keeps your readers’ interest.

Those areas of your story that most affect your hero are called plot points. Plot points are situations that turn your novel in a new direction. They alter your hero’s quest. For an example, let’s consider the scene in Star Wars when Luke Skywalker first sees the hologram of Princess Leia. This initial plot point shifts Luke’s life in a dramatic fashion. His quest begins with that recording of the princess. Though that story had many plot points, another was when Darth Vader told Luke he was the young Jedi’s father. That, like the hologram, changed everything.

Your plot is comprised of three major components, the Complication, the Climax and the Resolution. The Complication involves those scenes that begin your major conflict or plot point.  The Complication identifies for your reader what dramatic quest your hero must undergo. The Climax is that plot point where your premier character faces his Complication, the bad guy. The Resolution, of course, is that series of events that solve the conflict outlined in the Complication. It closes the story.

It may help to think of your plot as a three-act play. Your first act is the Complication, the second the Climax and the third, of course, the Resolution.

For some general tips on how to develop your plot, consider the following:

1. Make sure your hero suffers. His trials can be emotional, physical, mental, or best of all, a combination of the three. Keep in mind the more he suffers, the better is his exhilaration during the Resolution phase.

2.  The conflict you create must have enough power to encompass the entirety of your story. A secret to this is to interweave subplots into your novel. (For more on subplots, read THIS article.)

3.  Insure your hero and villain are evenly matched. It’s important for the story that your reader never knows if your hero will survive his ordeal. He will, and they know it, but you do need to create that sense of doubt for your plot to work with efficiency.

4. Each chapter of your story should hang on an issue. As a famous author whom I can’t quote at this time said, someone must want something in every chapter, even if it’s only a glass of water. This constant tension will keep your audience wanting to read more.

5. Make sure you couple the correct setting with your conflict and plot points. It’s more riveting for your hero to suffer thirst in the desert than a coffee shop. (For more on setting, read THIS article.)

6. At some time, your hero must grab the bull by the horns and get into it with the villain. Nobody wants to read about an indecisive hero. Get that man dirty.

7. It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature, but it’s just fine to fool your reader. Give your plot twists and turns to confuse and surprise them. I think they call this, “mystery.”

8. Foreshadowing is a powerful tool when developing your plot. Let them know something ominous is coming, just don’t spill those proverbial beans too soon.

9. Try to stay away from stereotypes in fiction. The nun who works for the underground is more interesting than the soldier who does so.

10. Let your plot develop as you move through your story. Don’t be afraid to allow your imagination to take your characters where it wants them to go.

11. The secret to your success as a writer of fiction is the good story. And the good story is all about plot. And plot is all about conflict.

What tips might you wish to share as to how you develop your plot?

Best of luck  and know I wish for you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

Author of the emerging novel, Born to be Brothers.