Like most art forms writing is full of advice – most of it good, some of it questionable – with the rare literary adage so treacheruosly bad it gets repeated over and over by well-meaning teachers who unintentionally lead hordes of aspiring writers astray.
How can this be?
Perhaps the best explanation is to share two of the biggest offenders.
- Write What You Know
- Show Not Tell
Let’s take these two pieces of popular writing advice one at a time. As we deconstruct these damaging axioms, keep in mind both are based on a kernel of truth that has been so twisted over time as to be unrecognizable.
Therefore, the issue is in their explanation not their existence.
Write What You Know
Where do we get started with this one? Originally intended to steer budding writers to areas of expertise (and away from inaccuracy), it has been so misrepresented that most aspiring authors have no clue what it actually means or how to apply it.
Farmer? Write about farming.
Ex-ballerina? Write about ballet.
Serial killer? Write murder mysteries
The fix is surprisingly easy: This maxim was never meant to limit you.
It was meant to set you free.
Write what you know is confusing because few explain what “know” means.
What do you know?
Write what you know means to express yourself, all of you, on the page. Write with facts – sure – but also with lived experience and felt emotion.
Bring your voice to the page.
Write from base experience and learn the details of what fascinates you about being human.
Write from a place of passion. Do your research to get your facts right but don’t be ruled by details.
You are only limited by your passion and imagination.
Write what you know. Indeed.
Show Not Tell
Before you yell, “Heretic!” and chase me into the woods with a pitchfork and torch, let me explain.
Again, there is a kernel of truth here. Again, it’s buried under layers of confusion.
Show not tell is the most popular refrain of writing teachers. It is an expression invented in response to new writers just learning the craft who rely heavily on exposition and narration.
Show not tell is easy to say but hard to understand. Confusion is the enemy of execution.
Instead of show not tell I prefer evoke and explain.
Show not tell is set up as if it’s either one or the other, when in fact it is often both, the writer gracefully balancing the two opposites, strategically choosing one over the other and sometimes both, shaping the reader experience of the story.
Why then do we say show not tell?
When in doubt, show.
If you have to choose, show is a safer bet.
However, if you want to rise above the ranks of simplistic writing, consider a deeper approach.
I say Evoke and Explain first because it negates the assumption that it is either/or instead of both/and.
Show, I think, is a dangerous verb that leaves writers scratching their Hemingway beards.
On the other hand, Evoke is a tangible word you can work with.
What do you evoke?
After all, most readers don’t want to causally read a book. They want to experience it along with the characters.
What is experience?
Experience is a whole body sensation that combines the physical with the mental and emotional so that you not only have visual action but mental and emotional action and reaction.
This is what separates a written story from one broadcast on the screen or radio.
You don’t just show something, you invite the reader into the visceral experience of the story with all the senses and intimacy that a book affords.
Evoke means to draw out of rather than hand-deliver the experience to the reader.
Evoke is about clues, signs and evidence, an invitation into intimacy through character thoughts and feelings and perspective.
Evoking allows readers to co-create the experience through their own assumptions, expectations and conclusions.
- Figure out the “tell” or simplest explanation (ex. The moon is shining)
- Ask, “What evidence leads someone (characters) to know the “tell”? (Ex. Glint of light on broken glass)
- Brainstorm as many clues, signs or evidence as you can
- Choose the most evocative and emotion-rich examples
- Choose what the character would notice (a 60 year old biologist might notice something different than a 6 year old)
In between the experience are the explanations. Sometimes the explanation is the experience.
For example, in understatement a simple sentence can have a more powerful impact than a whole scene played out in full detail.
5 Ways to Master Explaining
- Anytime evoking would be long or boring or relevant, try explaining.
- Use short, simple sentences. Ex. The next day, back at the office, they have known each other for more than 20 years.
- Explaining works well for transitions.
- Try explaining at the beginning or end of evoking.
- When your story requires explaining for more than a sentence or two, hide the exposition or backstory inside a compelling scene. Maybe the interrogation happens between two people that are plummeting off a building. This is Hitchcock’s “Bomb under the table” situation. Two characters are talking about something mundane while the reader knows that there’s a ticking bomb about to go off right under their literal noses.
The decision between evoking experience and explaining (transition, summary or narration) is a choice best left up to the writer as he or she shapes the story.
There are times for one, there are times for the other and most of the time there is a marriage of the two.
Once you truly understand the common writing advice, it takes on greater meaning. Comprehension almost always precedes competence.
Now that you know the meaning it’s time to translate knowledge into action.
Test these ideas out on the page.
Let me know how it goes for you.