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Thursday, 5 January 2012

Let me tell you a story...

I’ve been looking at some of the critiques I’ve received lately, and the old ‘show don’t tell’ seemed to be back with a vengeance. This could just be my rubbish writing of course, but I took a look at some critiques of other peoples work, on various sites, as well and they do all seem to latch onto the same things. This would be a good thing if all this ‘tell’ was indeed dry and slowing down the story. But it’s also an easy target.

If you read any book from one of the latest popular mainstream ‘blockbuster’ series, like Twilight or Harry Potter for example, they are full of ‘tell’ sections. Not that I’m saying this is inherently a bad thing, or bad writing.
I don’t think I’d like to read a book that is entirely written in ‘show’ and the popular authors certainly don’t write like this. Like everything in writing, I suppose the trick is to strike the right balance.
So going back to those critique sites. I don’t think a lot of people are looking for or getting that balance. And please don’t think I’m trying to defend my own writing here. I’m most definitely not, and I look at and take every comment I get very seriously, whether it’s from a good-selling author or a complete (hence usually very keen) beginner. I totally believe that everybody’s opinion counts.
I also don’t think most people are picking faults in their critiques with any malice, after all a good critique is supposed to pick holes in your writing. No, I think it’s more that writers, especially the complete beginners nowadays are being more and more bombarded with the same old ... truisms ... e.g ‘Show don’t tell,’ ‘always use active and not passive voice,’ ‘kill the ..lly.’ All snappy little titbits of wisdom, but they may also make people too focused on the technical mechanics of writing without sufficient regard to the ebb and flow of the overall story.
I try not to look for examples in my own work because it’s too subjective, but I have seen numerous examples of what I see as selective critiquing on other peoples writing. I’ve read sections that seem to flow perfectly well to me, but people have hit time and again on an often small ‘tell’ section with the standard ‘Show this, I want to see xxx yyy’ comments. Often my thoughts run along the lines of ‘Why would you want to see that? If you read the story you can plainly see it’s simple background information, and doesn’t play a major part in ether the plot nor the character development.’ I suspect that a lot of the time the honest answer would be ‘Well I saw a bit of tell and told them to show, like you are supposed to do.’ And I believe in all honesty that they are trying to do good.

I think this type of rules reinforced thinking is leading to an interne entered writing culture that is constantly reinforcing the ‘do it right’ culture as defined by the rules of all new writers. And the good stuff can be daunting enough, without some people enforcing rules on the technical writing. But not actually reading the story to see if what was written fits and flows within the overall story.
Because it doses well to remember that it’s the story that sells those blockbusters, not the technicalities of the writing. Most readers don’t notice the actual writing constructs, and that’s exactly as it should be. The writing should be invisible, or at least as unobtrusive as possible, to the reader, leaving then free to read the writing, the story.

I’m not saying that internet critique groups are a bad thing. I’ve used them myself and think my writing is the better for it. There are some really rather good writers out there that do help struggling writers at all levels. As long as you are seen to be putting in the effort you will find people willing to help.

I don’t think I’m ever going to be capable of writing that blockbuster, but I do still like writing and am happy every time one person says they like what I’ve written, even though I may never make more than chump-change from it.

I truly hope I’m wrong but I seem to see a sea change in the on-line writing and critique sites. One that is freezing a lot of new people out by a lot of people looking to bump up their critiques by very specific and formulaic targeting of some type of prose without really critiquing the story. This attitude may be unintentionally fostered, and even unwittingly encouraged, by the many ‘critique to gain post-points’ schemes employed by many sites. With many people feeling forced to critique work that they don’t really have any interest in  or real desire to help with, in order to gain enough ‘ponts’ to post their own work... But surely this type of thinking is only destined to lead to a vicious spiral of increasingly formulaic and less useful reviews/critiques all around. Although it’s not all doom and gloom, the good people are still there, but for how long?

What do you think, are attitudes on the on-line sites changing, or is it just me being old and grumpy?


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  2. Garry, every published story I've read lately and that I greatly enjoyed had LOTS of telling, so I am convinced that the "show don't tell" advice is over-rated and abused. The overuse of this piece of advice is killing the new writers' creativity. So thanks for this post. I have been thinking about this issue for a while because I noticed that every published story that I like has a lot of telling, not just showing. If stories were only about showing, then we'd be better off watching movies.

  3. Hello Julia,

    I agree it’s a rather curios, not to say worrying, thing that seems to be happening lately...
    More so over the past two to three years I’d say. And it’s not just happening with “show don’t tell.” Is seems that les people are critiquing the story and more are critiquing the writing, if that makes sense. Every one is being told to write very correctly, in a world/market where the biggest sellers are not particularly written in this ‘correct’ style.

    So what gives?