I’m no expert, nor do I want to come across as sanctimonious, but among the writing chatter online I’ve lately seen a few rules of writing being misused or misunderstood, so figured chatting about would at the very least offer catharsis, at medium help be clarify the points for myself, and as best maybe, just maybe help others with the craft.
The two rules I would like to discuss are:
- In media res and,
- Show don’t tell
In media res is Latin for ‘in the middle of things’ (according to Prof. Google) and refers to the idea that fiction, novels in particular, should begin in the midst of some action.
This advice is often presented in response to some common newbie mistakes (of which I am guilty of many) such as starting a novel with any of the following:
- A MC waking up to start the day that will eventually lead to the story
- The MC travelling to the inciting incident
- The biography of the MC
- The creation myth of the world
I’m sure you get the drift. The point of ‘in media res’ is not to avoid any of the above necessarily but more to the point start with something of substance to the story you want to tell.
So how are people getting this wrong. Well, it seems like a lot of writers are making the mistake of equating action with ACTION! Similar to the confusion over what conflict means in regards to fiction, action does not necessarily mean explosions, fights or extreme turmoil. In media res is not a call to make novels more like Marvel movies, but rather a direction to start a story on point.
(P.S. conflict in fiction refers to a tension over what will happen next exemplified best by a character having to make a difficult choice that will impact the story at hand, not wars, fight scenes or arguments as the common parlance would imply)
To further flesh out the idea, a better word than ‘action’ might be to start with active characterization. Not every novel starts with a vitally pertinent plot scene per se, but sometimes just something to introduce a character and develop them. My stance it as long as the scene ‘moves’ and involves activity (broadly defined) this works well.
Show don’t Tell.
Man I’m probably going to get lynched for this one.
Show don’t Tell, has probably go to be one of the most oft presented pieces of writing advice out there. Yet the number of times I see someone overdo or misrepresent the advice is almost as high.
To be fair, the advice has several layers to it. Show don’t tell cautions writers that presenting information directly to the reader can start to get a little dull, especially in regards to character traits, feelings and action. For example it’s more convincing to show a character is angry from their actions and dialogue than say ‘Bob was angry’. Furthermore it can be more potent to show actions from the results/effects than to state what happened e.g. ‘The blow from Bob’s fist made the cups jump off the table’
(P.S. I don’t think these are amazing examples of brilliant prose, just hoping they are clear exemplars of what I’m saying)
Going further, show don’t tell also is a reminder that whatever is setup in a story ought to be included within the tale. For example angry Bob should probably have a reputation with other characters, or for a better case a character presented as super attractive should be responded to accordingly throughout the story (don’t overdo reminders of character hotness though unless that’s what your story is about)
The important point is though, that show don’t tell doesn’t mean meticulously hunt down every possible instance of ‘tell’ in your story and eradicate them. And even more importantly ‘show don’t tell’ doesn’t mean to turn every line into a pumped up purple piece of elaborate prose. Your work still needs to be succinct and efficient and 12 words should not be used when 4 will do.
It relates to my slightly garbled post yesterday(?) that writing doesn’t just have to be good enough, the goal of writing is to find the most powerful way of presenting your concept to create a vivid experience for the reader. Showing rather than telling is often the path towards this.
So that’s that. What are your thoughts about writing ‘rules’? Do you have any particular ones that spring into your mind?