As my writing skills evolve, I continually question how I use various techniques. Most of the time, this blog conveys what I’ve learned to you. Today’s post is more about working through a technical issue I’m having than about telling you what you should do (Unless, of course, I end up, through the process of writing the post, resolving my problem. In that case, however, I probably would have went back and edited the preceding sentences, so ignore this parenthetical interruption which I’m leaving in solely on the off chance that someone will find it amusing and now have taken way to far…)
Both Resist the Urge to Explain and Show, Don’t Tell are based on one important and valid underlying principle — no matter how much you trust the source, no amount of telling you (as, ironically, I’m doing with this statement) will make you internalize a truth as much as coming to a conclusion on your own. Both the aforementioned pieces of sage advice instruct you to do the following:
Provide evidence to your reader to let him deduce the truth behind your words.
As I’ve alluded to above, I find this principle pretty darn solid. If you’re a beginning writer, you’d do well to take both “rules” as the gospel truth until such a time as you can discern the inherent problems in taking them too far. I, unfortunately, am past that particular point and need to make a decision on how to proceed.
The question at hand is:
Exactly when are explaining and telling okay?
Some would say, “Never!” In response, I’d bring up scene transitions as an example of a place where telling is perfectly valid. Obviously, there are ways to move from scene to scene without telling, but, in my opinion, it’s misguided at best to eliminate one reasonable method just because it violates a “rule.”
1. It’s hard to think of a piece of popular genre fiction that does not in some way utilize telling or explaining beyond just scene transitions. While I agree that “Everyone else is doing it, Mom” is not the world’s greatest argument, it’s instructive that other authors have achieved success despite not strictly adhering to the “rules.”
2. Clarity is a huge issue if you don’t tell/explain. No matter how well or how much or how meticulous you are with your presentation of the evidence, someone out there, maybe even twelve someones, aren’t going to believe that OJ is guilty (I realize the fallacy of the analogy; evidence in that trial was not in any way, form, or fashion presented well).
3. I firmly believe that the best way to achieve immersion is to show and not explain. On the other hand, I do not believe that short, isolated bursts of telling or explaining necessarily break immersion. It’s not like a reader is going along with the flow and, suddenly, reads a quick telling sentence that causes him to step out of the book. Rather, the effect is more neutral in that the technique simply doesn’t immerse him more. Granted, the author must be careful here. Too much telling certainly can break immersion by becoming boring, and hammering a point multiple times is a quick way to make the reader put down the book and say, “Enough already; I understood it the first time!”
I’d love some input in the comments section on these thoughts. Thanks!