Sunday, September 29, 2013

Two clichés about ‘good’ writing

‘Show, don’t tell!’
‘Find the conflict!’

These are two of the clichés concerning writing that you will hear, these days, at almost any writing workshop, at almost any meeting of writers, and on almost any blog devoted to writing. Because they have become clichés we have reached the point when we need to stop saying them. It is time to ask again: What do they mean? Are they even true?

I wrote in an earlier blog about ‘Show, don’t tell’, and I won’t repeat here what I said there. Francine Prose suggested that ‘show, don’t tell’ was ‘bad advice often given to young writers’  (Prose, Francine 2006. Reading Like a Writer. HarperCollins. pp. 24–25). One writer described this cliché as ‘the great lie of writing workshops’. Both of these are reactions against such advice being given without any real attempt to understand or explain what is meant by either ‘show’ or ‘tell’, and without any consideration of the appropriate context in which to use either. Both showing and telling are necessary when writing. Showing is best used when, as a writer, you want to take the time to dig deeper into a scene or moment, which you will probably want to do at key points in your story. Such writing necessarily uses more words and slows down the pace. To do this all the time would result in a very, very long novel (Ulysses?). Could this be why so many writers no longer seem able to tell a compelling story in a single, reasonably sized volume? Is there too much (boring and irritating) showing going on?

‘Find the conflict’ is a concept that seems to derive from journalism. Conflict sells newspapers. And perhaps this journalistic style is invading too much the world of the author. Yes, conflict is interesting. Yes, conflict can generate dramatic moments in a story. But it is not, surely, the only way to generate either interest or drama. It would not be difficult to point to dramatic scenes in novels that do not involve conflict. However, I can almost hear the indoctrinated screaming at me: ‘But that is conflict’, regardless of the non-conflictual example I might choose. They have simply become so indoctrinated that they naturally interpret anything which is dramatic or interesting as necessarily reflecting some kind of conflict. This raises the other major point, namely that conflict is a very broad term, and, as such, loses its usefulness as a guide to writing. Furthermore, conflict can, itself, be either interesting or uninteresting, dramatic or undramatic. It is not, therefore, conflict per se which will make your story or novel interesting or dramatic. To suggest so is just another quick, easy and lazy way of ‘teaching’ about writing. 

There is, of course, a grain of truth in these clichés, as in all clichés. A cliché is called such, however, when it has ceased to say anything really interesting or useful. I think we are at that point with these particular phrases. They no longer say anything very interesting or useful. It is time to dig deeper and resume thinking, rather than repeating these phrases in parrot-like fashion.


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