Why writer’s rules are wrong

Ah, the rules. The wise sages depart them onto us in hopes we would emulate their glory and some day join their illustrious ranks.


Rules are meant to be broken, especially in writing. If you don’t break rules and see what works for you and what doesn’t, you will only write as good as the writer whose workshops you took. And if they need to organize workshops, they must not be very good authors, otherwise they would actually be making a living from it.

Which are the rules we hear most often?

One particular comes to mind: Show don’t tell.

Ah, that’s a keeper. Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, doesn’t it?

Problem is people take it way too seriously.

I think “Show don’t tell” or some variation of it is the single biggest reason why people fail to finish their stories. This one is the perfectionist’s mantra and because of it, novices are never satisfied with their creations.

What novices need to learn is to develop habits, not rules, habits that will enable you to produce a large word count. The writing technique can be developed and fine-tuned later, after you’ve developed the habit of simply sitting down and allowing your mind to flow wherever it wants to. Think about directing it later. If you’re a stickler for the rules, you will forever remain in that “want that perfect first line” phase aka “the Dreaded Empty Page”.

Tell the story first. Tell the activity as it comes and if it feels right. Don’t stand in its way as the floodgates are opened. Unleash your instinct, lend it to your characters, let it guide them and worry not of the words you use. Only after it’s been done, after the flood has ran itself out, look at the result and think about what was the purpose behind the details that glittered into existence among that chaos of flow. You will be surprised what comes out of you. Yes, some of it will be garbage but at least you will know it came from a pristine place.

But the main reason why ‘tell’ is better than ‘show’: it’s fast. It enables you to keep pace with the story. When the story springs forth, it’s a raging torrent. How will you be able to keep up with it if you’re worried about words? By writing fast, you’re not in control. The events in the story are not predictable to you as they would be should you be placing the perfect word after perfect word.

Another reason why writing in ‘show’ is bad: you’re conscious of your use of vocabulary. If you show, you’re texting, not dreaming. When the story floods out of you, it should be like dreaming. A lucid trance in which you forget yourself and pass into pure function. You’re not really there as the story gushes out. You give your body over to the arrogant gods and the fickle muses and let them weave their fabled song.

If you ‘show’, you’re using your conscious brain. That kills flow, it kills immersion as it is essentially editing mode.

Once the novel is done and you’re in true editing mode, you can ask yourself: “How to show the reader this? Or even better: how to hint at it without actually mentioning it? How do I create a mystery out of this so the reader gets to discover it for himself/herself?

Here’s my personal version of “Show don’t tell”:

Show if you can.
Tell if you must.
Imply whenever possible.

That last one is supposed to motivate you to have secondary plots running in the background. Some authors call it “Make things happen off screen.” This gives the story depth. It stirs curiosity in the reader’s mind, making them ask the single most important question of successful immersion: “What is happening there and why?” Throw the reader hints. Make them guess. Make a thought gnaw on their mind as they go to sleep. Make your story the first thing on their mind when they wake up. Give people sleepless nights.
No matter what they say to you, ‘tell’ is your friend. But just like any other friend, you shouldn’t abuse it.

In conlusion: read the rules of writing and then forget them. They are still there in the background but you shouldn’t allow them to exist in your surface as they will make you second-guess your work and slow down your progress.

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