Show, don’t tell? Proof that you can break the rules!

When learning to write fiction, a dilemma soon encountered is: the rules. As in, one must follow them. What are they you ask? They’re more like guidelines, but everyone seems to espouse their importance, often with a bit of finger wagging for added effect. Don’t overuse adverbs, avoid sayisms, don’t change the point of view within scenes, and so on and so forth.

As much as I believe such guidelines are beneficial, I think it’s also very important to highlight the fact that one can break the rules at times. In fact, I believe one takes the craft to a higher level when one can: a) understand when doing so is in good taste. And b) one is familiar with examples of similar transgressions by other authors.

Given the above, I would like to mention the dreaded, “show, don’t tell”, rule. At its core, this rule emphasizes the practice of avoiding narrative exposition.  The idea being that a writer is well served to tell his story via action and or rich dramatic dialog. True, this technique is a good rule of thumb. However, one should not feel this is always the case. A very credible writer who emphatically proves this point is China Mieville.

The fantastic thing about China is his incredible power of poetic exposition, which not only breaks the “show, don’t tell” rule, but utterly obliterates it out of existence. If you don’t believe me, then pick up any of his books. I’m currently reading THE SCAR, which is full of good examples.

But please, read carefully. I suggest getting up on a chair and reading his prose out loud to an imaginary audience. His expositions, you see, are truly works of art, and deserve to be heard in the proper accents, rhythms, and registers.

Of course China breaks more than just one rule, but for the purpose of this blog post, “show, don’t tell” will do nicely.

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2 responses to “Show, don’t tell? Proof that you can break the rules!

  1. The Scar is one of my favorite books, ever. I describe China Mieville along side with Gene Wolfe: the rules just don’t apply to them.

  2. schillingklaus

    I violate the idiotic rule “show don’t tell” rigorously at any cost; thence I write as many narrative expositions as I want to. No self-proclaimed judge, god, or King of worthless scribbling will ever be able to change my mind.

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