There’s nothing wrong with “telling” – or with adverbs

When it comes to good writing, there’s only one rule that counts: Whatever you do, don’t do it badly.

It’s true but it doesn’t offer much help to the novice writer, and that has a lot to do with the current proliferation of “rules” for writing. People who feel they can distinguish between good and bad writing try to figure out what makes the difference. When they spot something they can put a finger on, they put out a “tip” or a “pointer” – only to have all the desperate would-be writers pounce on it and put it on a pedestal.

Example: It is true that some cases of bad writing are “bad” because they use adverbs badly. This has been turned into a “rule” that one should avoid adverbs like the plague. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with adverbs. Adverbs are useful. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t have them. Like everything else, though, they have to be used well. You have to think when you use adverbs… or adjectives… or verbs… or pronouns…

Consider this: “To boldly go where no one has gone before,” is not at all the same without the adverb (setting aside the question of the split infinitive). Some would argue that the writer should have used a more colorful verb than “go” so that “boldly” would not have been necessary. Maybe: “to venture where no one has ventured before?” Or, “to stride where no one has stridden before?” Honestly, I don’t see the improvement.

Then there’s “show, don’t tell.”

There is a literary style of story-telling in which the writer tries to avoid explicitly “telling” the reader what the characters are thinking or feeling – or what is significant in ongoing events – or even what is actually happening. Instead, he or she tries to “show” us these things by providing the clues, the bits of evidence. From these, we are supposed to figure it out. The character’s exact choice of words, his facial expression or body language, is supposed to “show” us what he is thinking or feeling. When well done, it can undeniably be an impressive feat.

This approach is best suited to stories that are small in scope and take place in contexts that are familiar to the reader. That way the writer can focus his energy – and expend his words – on detailing all those clues and bits of evidence.

The approach is not well suited to sweeping sagas, or futuristic or historical epics, or any story that requires large amounts of back-story or “world-building.” When there’s just plain a lot of story to tell, showing everything takes too long.

This is not to say that showing isn’t important. You may not need or want to show everything, but you should show the important stuff. The principle is the same as in writing an essay: If you want your story to be convincing, you must illustrate your points. In fiction, the important things include critical attributes of character, significant features of the setting, crucial events, etc. These things need to be illustrated. If your character is supposed to be a brilliant military strategist, you had better show him strategizing brilliantly. If it’s important to your story that the nobles are oppressing the peasants, there should be some visible acts of oppression. If the temperature dropped dramatically to twenty below overnight, you’d better show the steaming breaths, the blue lips and fingers, the ice in the fountain…  Or, if a scene hinges on what a particular character is feeling, you should do everything you can to show us that feeling in all its power and glory.  What you don’t need to do is to take every single opportunity that arises to “show” rather than “tell.” It isn’t necessary or practical (or even desirable) to “show” every detail of your story.

In fact, “telling” has two advantages over “showing:” It’s efficient, and it’s clear.

It almost always takes more words to show than to tell. Consider whether it’s worth it. Sometimes it’s better to just get on with the story. And attempts to completely avoid “telling” can cause confusion. Trying to show what your character is feeling through facial expressions, gestures, and body language alone, can fail if your reader doesn’t interpret those clues as you intend. Interpretation can be cultural – or individual. One person may express extreme anger with nothing more than a clenched jaw, another by screaming and throwing things. A description of twitching facial muscles and vibrating limbs might suggest to some readers that the character is frightened rather than angry – or is having a seizure…  (It’s entirely possible to “show” things badly.) If you tell us the character is “furious,” your meaning won’t be misconstrued as long as the word is in the reader’s vocabulary. If it isn’t, the problem is solved by a dictionary.

Sometimes the best approach to the “show” versus “tell” dilemma is to do a little of both. Tell for clarity and show a bit for illustration. “He was plainly furious. His lips twitched. His fingers clenched on the handle of his cane.” Or, more simply: “He was shaking with rage.” That last one is a “show” and a “tell” all in one. It may not be literary, but if it serves the required purpose for the story you’re trying to tell, what’s wrong with it?

Opinions? Agree? Disagree? I’d love to hear your take on this burning issue.

Clarity and the ambiguous pronoun

Caterpillar using a hookah. An illustration fr...

Caterpillar using a hookah. An illustration from Alice in Wonderland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I read people’s fiction manuscripts I’m often surprised at how frequently I encounter things that just aren’t clear. (I probably shouldn’t be. As a writer you always know what you meant to say, and it can be hard to tell in the heat of the moment that you haven’t said it.) This is a much rarer flaw in published works of fiction – although I have had the same experience recently with published books or ebooks. It never used to happen, or almost never.  I suspect the proliferation of self-published books and books from small indy publishers is at least partly to blame. The author may or may not have hired an editor, or may have used an inexperienced one. A small publisher may run the ms past one editor, whereas I’m told the major houses used to run them past several. More eyes are better. It’s that simple.

When I say things aren’t clear, I’m not talking about places where the writer was obviously trying to imply things, rather than explicitly state them, or deliberately trying to be ambiguous. I’m talking about ambiguity that’s obviously not intended.

One of the most frequent causes of unintended lack of clarity comes from ambiguous pronoun reference, something like this:

As Jim peddled down the street, his friend Bob was sitting at the bus stop. He smiled and waved.  “Where are you going?” he called.

Who smiled and waved? Was it Jim or Bob? Is Jim asking where Bob is going on the bus, or is Bob asking where Jim is going on his bicycle?

Other things being equal, pronouns tend to attach themselves to the nearest preceding noun. “His” therefore refers to Jim. There’s really no other possibility. Both instances of “he” are most likely to refer to Bob, making Bob the one smiling and waving and also the one calling. If you as the writer meant otherwise, you had better say so, like this:

As Jim peddled down the street, his friend Bob was sitting at the bus stop. Jim smiled and waved. “Where are you going?” he called.

Now the remaining “he” feels like it refers to Jim because Jim is closer, so Jim is doing the calling as well as the smiling and waving. Again, if you didn’t mean that, you had better say so:

As Jim peddled down the street, his friend Bob was sitting at the bus stop. Jim smiled and waved. “Where are you going?” Bob called.

But remember, I said “other things being equal.” Consider this rewriting of the original sentence:

As Jim peddled down the street, he saw his friend Bob sitting at the bus stop. He smiled and waved. “Where are you going?” he called.

Now Jim and Bob no longer have equal weight because “Jim” is being used grammatically as a subject whereas “Bob” is being used as an object. I’m not certain, but I feel as if all three instances of “he” more likely refer to Jim. Jim was the subject of the first sentence, so I tend to assume it’s Jim whose actions are being described as the narrative proceeds. If I intend otherwise, I must say so:

As Jim peddled down the street, he saw his friend Bob sitting at the bus stop. Bob smiled and waved. “Where are you going?” he called.

And again, I’ve now got Bob doing the calling because his is the closest name and it was used as a subject.  If I meant to switch back to Jim, I should have written, “where are you going?” Jim called.

All right, now consider this variant:

As Jim peddled down the street, he saw his friend Bob sitting at the bus stop. His face broke into a smile and he waved. “Where are you going?” he called.

Now, I tend to feel as if the “his” in “his face” could quite possibly refer to Bob. I think this is because “Bob” was used as an object and “his” is an object pronoun. It could still be Jim, but the connection is weakened and the sentence has really become ambiguous. Also, the last “he” now feels like it ought to have the same referent as the one in “he waved.” So again, I have to check to be sure that’s what I intended.

What’s the upshot here?

When you are describing action involving multiple characters of the same gender, the pronoun is not your friend. This doesn’t mean you should avoid all pronouns. You obviously need them sometimes. Repeating names over and over can sound repetitious and clunky. It just means that you have to regard all pronouns as suspect, potentially ambiguous until their possible referents have been checked and cleared. And if there’s any chance of confusion, out they go.

It’s a good idea to have alternative identifiers for your characters to help you avoid repeating the same name over and over. Alternative identifiers are things like: “the boy,” “the old man,” “the dark-haired girl,” “the fat woman,” “the farmer,” “the merchant,” “the Italian” – or even things like “his friend,” “the other man,” or “the speaker.”

I know you’re thoroughly tired of this sentence by now, but just to illustrate:

As Jim peddled down the street, he saw his friend Bob sitting at the bus stop. His friend’s face broke into a smile, and he waved. “Where are you going?” he called.

Then, of course, there are the people who don’t like to use dialog tags, who want to just write, “where are you going?” Well, here’s one alternative fix for that approach:

              “Where are you going, Jim?”

It’s remarkable how easy it is to end up with ambiguous pronouns. I know I find them all the time when reviewing my own writing. How about you? Have you noticed this problem in your own writing or in other people’s? Do you have your own tricks for dealing with it?