The Rationale Behind Common Writing Tips

We all know them:

  • Show don’t tell
  • Destroy adverbs
  • Give your characters goals
  • Don’t infodump

Those slightly glib, but popular pieces of writing advice that float around the internet and beyond. A complaint that I see appear time and time again is the lack of rationale, or critiques given using such comments without an explanation to back the statement up.

So I’m going to try and tackle the reason that these tips are good advice. I’m sure there are more pointers out there than the above list that deserve the same treatment. I’m also not going to tackle every angle or caveat for these simply for the sake of sanity (mostly my own) and brevity I’m simply going to provide my rationale for why these pieces of advice lead to good writing.

Show Don’t Tell

Probably the most used line around writing circles, I’ve spoken about it before and there are probably several articles worth of posts on the topic. I’m just going to stick with why ‘show don’t tell is important (IMHO)

First of all ‘showing’ creates a more vivid experience for a reader. A character saying “I’m angry” is straightforward, whereas a character clenching a fist prompts an image of that action. It’s not just about imagery however, showing provides an authenticity to a story. Being told stuff creates and experience of being spoken to by a narrator, not always a bad thing but it creates a feeling of a ‘take my word for it.’ The more a written work tells – the more capital the author uses in presenting information to the reader whereas showing simply provides the (fictional) evidence.

That last point probably seemed a bit abstract, so here’s an example. In the classic novel The Handmaid’s Tale does the story ever tell the reader the story exists in a sexist society that enslaves fertile women? (well not that I remember) No the world is shown through what happens in it. Basically suspension of disbelief, and sense of realism is better achieved through ‘showing’

Destroy Adverbs

Another commonly spouted and oft debated one. I actually find this topic tricky to dissect. Just what is it that’s so bad about adverbs, and whats so great about avoiding them.

In my ponderings I’ve come up with two main points:

First in writing powerful words are your friends. Despite what many people think fiction isn’t really an art that you can flub your way through with mediocre prose. Adverbs don’t necessarily leap out of the page and strangle the reader when their eyes set upon them, but more often that not an adverb signals a moment when a much stronger verb could be used instead.

The second point is more cerebral. Adverbs by definition modify a verb, so rather than saying Toby ran, I might say Toby ran quickly. Now in that simple sentence there was probably barely a split second as you read that to pick up the ran and quickly to put them together in an image, however sometimes a split second is all an imagination needs to have a slight hold-up in the experience department. When a word modifies another word it can create a sort of two-step process to finish the image which is annoying in itself (i.e. its much more efficient just to say Toby sped) but if you allow the straw-man imagine a sentence like: Toby ran across the grass field Clumsily. That sentence is sure to prompt an imagine of Toby running across the grass before interrupting with a ‘clumsily’. At best the reader has to wait till the end of the sentence to picture the scene, at worst the reader has to edit their imagination to fit the new information – by which point they won’t be enjoying themselves.

(the same sort of argument can be applied to adjectives, which are often frowned upon in fiction too.)

Give Your Characters Goals

Again I think this common advice has two key points. It’s such a ubiquitous piece of advice it almost seems like common sense – but it always good to examine such things to better understand and apply them (hence this entire blog essentially)

Firstly goals create a natural sense of potential action and tension. Drop an unmotivated character into a scene and at best people wonder what might happen to them, pop a goal into the mix and we automatically keep reading to see whether they get there or not. Tension is heightened when we know characters want something because is asks the question of what they are willing to do to get it, and creates a ‘stake’ in the story to worry about.

Secondly is the relateability factor, for the most part we can all understand wanting something. Even if the thing itself isn’t something we would go for, the desire for it makes sense. Trying to use random characteristics to create reader empathy will probably backfire as much as it will succeed.

Don’t Infodump

Confession time. It took me far too long to understand this advice. I was always like ‘how are people supposed to understand the story if they don’t know that human’s are replacing their loved one’s with AI programmed robots with the same personalities?’

The main problem with info dumps is actually pretty simple – it’s show don’t tell all over again, but I want to dive into a slightly more nerdy analysis of the problem with info dumps…

In fiction there exists context and subtext (don’t panic its not as Freudian or overly complex as people make it out to be). If I gossip about a workplace affair, the context is who, what where and for how long, the subtext is I’m telling you a secret about two people doing something they shouldn’t be.

Now subtext without context is pretty dull – imagine if I attempted to entertain you by saying ‘Did you know there are two people doing something they shouldn’t?’ Well it might start the conversation but its not going to fly on its own, I need to add context (It’s Bob and Bobette GASP) to fully present an entertaining story.

An infodump is the opposite problem – overdosing on context. There are only so many details a reader needs to support the subtext before things start to get boring and one loses buy in. I might be interested to know that Bob is Bobette’s boss and is currently on marriage number two, but its gets pretty dull when I have to learn about the audit work had last thursday.

Good works I find have a very ‘need to know basis’ for their lore/info/context. The reader is provide with what they need to know to enjoy the story, not more or less.


So that is that

Do you have any common advice/tips you’d like to see given the same treatment?



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