As a writer, I always strive to “show, not tell” in my fiction. As an editor, it is one of the number one things I tell the authors I work with: Show, Don’t Tell.
What the hell does that even mean? In the non-fiction and content creation world many of you know me from, I write for one primary purpose, although there are others that certainly play a role: I write to educate and to make the internet a better place.
Okay, maybe I write to be funny sometimes too. Like my post about being a writer on career day, or the one about 10 Things Cops Had that You Wish They Didn’t. More often they are serious, like How To Make Long Form Content a Success and one of my most widely shared pieces that appeared first on GIS User and then on Huffington Post about The Map that Made Trump the Nominee.
In those posts, I do a lot of telling. Using a journalistic approach I answer questions like what happened, who was involved, why did it happen, and how does it affect me. Many authors come from a journalistic background, or do technical writing, or just have a lot of college in their background. This is good. You know the rules of grammar and style (sometimes). You can put together a coherent sentence.
Your fiction readers don’t want that though. They want a story, and a story is a relationship. It is a collaboration between the author, the reader, and the characters the author has created. In that relationship, there are a few simple things that are essential. They are the same things that are vital to the success of any relationship.
This is the foundation of any relationship: while there is a certain amount of misdirection in fiction, especially mystery, there is no room for lying.
“Wait,” you say. “Fiction is a lie. The story is not really true.”
Right. Except that the story is true to itself and the events and characters inside. Once an author starts to lie to his characters and by extension the readers, he loses the power of both. That’s a damn shame. One a reader says to him or herself, “That would never happen in real life” or “Sally would never take Ethan back after he did that” you have lost them.
This is where the suspension of disbelief comes in. For a few moments, I must get my reader to believe that dragons are real, and can be conquered by a knight with a sword. However, if the medieval knight pulls out a 9 mm Glock and blows the dragons head off, I have crossed the line of what is believable in the world I have created.
Even if the rules I have created are new and made up, they must be followed. If I am going to break them, I must do so extremely well and with good reason. Otherwise I lose, and my readers leave.
Why do we emphasize good grammar? A solid vocabulary but one that uses simple words that fit in with the everyday language of our readers? Because we must communicate with them clearly, concisely, and in an entertaining manner.
No one wants to read dry prose or poetry for that manner. We want words that move and inspire us. For facts, we read non-fiction. For escape, to be transported beyond our everyday lives, we read fiction. Making things too real, to slow and methodical takes away their power.
We are not academics. We write stories to move readers, to inspire emotion and empathy.
Trick me once, shame on you. Trick me twice, shame on me. That is how the saying goes, but truthfully as an author, if you do something stupid and trick a reader, they might not come back and give you another chance.
What do I mean by trick them? It comes back to the trust issue and being honest. Perhaps you are too young to remember the serial stories shown in theaters (I am) but I have seen a few as I have studied the structure of stories.
Many of them would end with the hero in a situation he clearly could not get out of, a cliff hanger. This is all well and good, until the next week, he somehow managed to escape just before going over the cliff, or before the explosion and resulting fire. It was a cheat, a trick, and always a disappointing start to the next episode.
In the theater, this is known as a deus ex machina, or “god from the machinery” usually translated as “machine of the gods.” It’s defined as “an unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation, especially as a contrived plot device in a play or novel.”
Don’t use these. Your readers will flee like lemmings racing over the edge of a cliff, every one following the other so closely they don’t know their stampede spells your literary death.
The Timely Resolution of Conflict
You have a conflict with your spouse or significant other, usually over something vital like the fact that you forgot to put the dryer sheet in with your clothes, and now they are all static-filled. So is her favorite skirt, which she just had to wear tonight because otherwise she would have to wear that one red dress, and Veronica Sanders has one just like it, and if they showed up dressed the same at the party it would be a literal disaster and you would clearly be to blame. Or something like that.
The key to moving forward in your marriage is resolving this conflict in a timely manner, whether that means you fluffing your wife’s skirt in the dryer by itself with a sheet this time, so the static is gone, and doing so while she is in in the shower, so she does not even think about it. Or if it is early enough, you can take her shopping for a new outfit, without the usual spending limit, and oh yeah, she could use some new shoes too.
Your readers are the same. If you lead them down a path, the path must lead somewhere. The gun on the mantle must be used by someone, even if it is just to prop something open or to stir a drink. You cannot leave things open entirely, even for a sequel. There must be a clue that something is coming next or an incomplete resolution.
You must show your readers this resolution. Don’t tell them about it as an aside, but let them see it happen, If you do not do this in a timely manner, they will think you have even forgotten to resolve it (you might have) or that it doesn’t need to be in your story at all (also maybe true).
Think of it this way. The first page is your start of a relationship with your reader as you build a story. How much they will forgive the spelling error on page 73, whether they will keep reading when Mandy meets her untimely demise in act two depends on how much they trust you, and how good your relationship is.
Your reader must trust you. You must present your story by communicating clearly. You can’t resolve issues by tricks and cheats. Finally, you must resolve conflicts in a timely manner. The relationship you have between you and your reader depends on it.