Show Me Yours and I'll Tell You Mine

What's that line?

What's that line?

When I was around nine or ten years old, one of my closest friends was a girl. A year younger. Very pretty. I wasn't sure if she knew I had a crush on her. Hell, I wasn't sure what I would do if she did know. One day when we were in my room, I said, "Show me yours and I'll show you mine."

She looked plainly at me and said, "Okay."

"Really?" I was shocked.

We stood. She closed my door. Unconsciously, I backed into my desk at the opposite side of the room. It was like the Old West. Dust swirled everywhere. A tumble weed scurried across my room. Wind creaked the saloon doors.

Whattayagonnado, pardnah?

Whattayagonnado, pardnah?

"Ready?" she said. She undid the top button of her jeans.

I did nothing.

She pulled down her zipper.

I did nothing.

Her thumbs snuck under the waist band and wormed their way to her hips.

I still did nothing. "Wait! Let's not do this."

She dropped her jeans.

My eyes shut like a jail door and my hands clamped over them.

That's showing, in writing terms, versus...

I wasn't sure if she knew I had a crush on her. Hell, I wasn't sure what I would do if she did know. One day I challenged her to a game of chicken: pulling our pants down. She did it. I chickened out.

Obviously, the first version is more interesting. There's a bit of suspense, a bit of tension. Writing 101, right?

Show. Don't tell.

A kid won the war?

A kid won the war?

A couple years ago, one of my student's parents gave me a book by Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game. I was on his site and read an article explaining show versus tell. He said you have to show, but you'll also have to tell. You can't exclusively do one or the other. I can't agree more. Within important scenes showing is the way to go, but when we're summarizing or in a character's thoughts, telling seemed to be the better tool. But not many teachers or writing gurus explained it this way. So when I read that article by Card, a published and New York Times Bestselling writer, I was elated.

There are so many writing do's and don't's  out there that it seems to stifle the art of expression rather than help it. And when I talk to certain writers who are rigid technically, it's like talking to a born-again-Christian.

May we come in? Hello?

May we come in? Hello?

"God will punish you if you use a fragment!" (Must be why McCarthy won a Pulitzer for The Road)

"You wrote 'asked' instead of 'said'?" (Guilty)

"Oh my Lord. Adverbs!" (Yeah, Rowling.  What're ya thinkin'?"

Like all arts, there's a level of technical proficiency and structural guidelines that should be followed. I ain't no architect, but all buildings from homes to skyscrapers are boxes. A home may have a box for the family room, three boxes for bedrooms, two boxes for bathrooms, etc. Skyscrapers are just thousands of boxes stacked high. That's the underlying structure. Outside of that, architects can express themselves by creating visually (adverb!) spectacular buildings.

All stories tend to have a similar structure. There's a beginning, then an event (inciting incident) that throws things off balance, followed by conflict and tension to recover that balance, and a climax that leads to an end. Outside of that, stories can be told in a million different ways, with unique backdrops, story arcs, perspectives, etc.

Thumbs up

Thumbs up

In the Bruce Lee Lost Interview, he discusses naturalness versus unnaturalness in terms of acting and martial arts. Relying purely (another adverb!) on instinct is "unscientific", as Lee put it. Unscientific means it's not repeatable. We tend to see this in one hit wonders, and I often think of Stephanie Meyers and her Twilight series. Her novel, Host, wasn't widely accepted but sold well because she had a strong base of fans. Since then, a sequel to the book hasn't been mentioned, only follow ups to the vampire series. But being too technical, you become a "mechanical man". In terms of story, you're writing according to formula, or that your story becomes formulaic. (George Lucas anyone?)

So don't let the do's and don't's stifle creativity. See them as guidelines.