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Does ‘show don’t tell’ ever run up against your personal prohibitions?
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When I first saw this question it left me quite confused. What does prohibition have to do with show-don’t-tell? It was a too much on the nose pun. Maybe it was too early in the morning on a weekend. I have been dealing with a lot on my plate lately, so I could have been in a foggy funk, too. Prohibition tangled itself up in an image of the 1920s and alcohol. I wasn’t quite sure where this was going.
After sitting back a moment to digest the question and think on what it may mean to me or anyone else in the writing and reading world, I recalled the things that were holding me back from writing my trilogy. How did I experience the prohibition in writing? There’s a lot of personal and political those books. I was in the midst of a master’s program, and coming out of a decades long depression having a new goal to focus, and renewed dreams. That’s a deep dive into the no-go-zone. Depression and a whole slew of things deeply connected to the human condition were what was holding me back on writing. Discussion of these topics are prohibited. We see that in how mental health is swept under the rug, only whispered in private spaces.
Because of this, there were so many questions that raised a lot of fears. For instance, were the things I would write about going to cause people to be angry with me? Did I dare to use appropriate language, or even to show the sex and violence of the subjects contained in such a narrative? I wondered, how would my family or friends look at me if they read these books. In one instance, my closest friend gives the basis for a character who deeply and unforgivably fails the protagonist in a selfish, if not childish, fit. Would my friend wonder if that was entirely her, or accept it as literary license, to push the narrative along?
Details of my life were fictionalized throughout the trilogy, condensed, and embellished. Names have changed and any resemblance to living or deceased persons is purely coincidental, as they’re amalgamations of experiences. My family would feel hurt if they believed they were the family Holly has in the books. The fact is, although a lot is based on my life, much was pushed aside to focus on the main narrative. I wasn’t writing a biography. I was writing Maiel and Holly and all the others in a fictional tail that my own experiences helped inform. That is all.
I didn’t shy from showing once I realized that not only do these things need to be spoken out loud, they need to be boldly told. Out went prohibition. So, when asked, if I tone it down for a belief system, I don’t essentially understand such a question. As an artist, my belief system is my art, and I am the tool of the muse. Whatever my Muse determines I will say, will be said. First and foremost, the story is king. I won’t allow my fears and beliefs to control the way in which I write. Fiction, though some of have tried hard to malign it, is not blasphemous or against any deity’s expectations and rules.
Show-don’t-tell is a great way to build an impactful work. We’re not having a conversation with a friend across a high-rise at the bar. In my case, at least, I’m writing things that should matter: such as how is evil and good defined, and how humans construct our understanding of mythology, and what if anything do the bonds of family and friendship mean. My trilogy, focused on how far one goes in maintaining the expectations of our universe as we experience it (cultural norms, laws, etc.). I couldn’t let prohibition stop me.
OP-DEC, my WWII spy thriller, alludes to the sexual but never consummates. That tension shows a lot more about the relationship between Claire and Carsten than actual sex could. That’s why in the sequel the sex between them is not so very important. You know it’s happening, because their relationship has reached another level at this point, and it’s quite boring. The flame between them seems diminished by it, as they fade into normalcy.
Likewise, the sex between Joseph and Emily is absolutely a forbidden thing in the time of the US Civil War. You understand how much these two care for one another, but should Emily become pregnant and Joseph either dies or has not married her yet, there would be deep shame for her and her family. It’s interesting, though, that it takes place in a refuge of the Conrad women. What do you think of that allusion? It’s a show don’t tell moment. Man has entered the bower of the woman is only the shell of the oyster. Talk about prohibition!
Show-don’t-tell is a means to use signs and symbols to make meaning and be more elusive about it. It’s less simple and says things that can’t always be captured in plain telling (language). Essentially, it is more interesting. Show-don’t-tell supplies more Easter eggs to the reader. It’s not a hammer to the skull, and it makes the rhythm smoother. Reading stage directions on every page does get annoying. What purpose or meaning do the movements have for the reader? If you can’t answer that, you probably don’t need to tell me that he/she stopped and turned, moved to a table, sat down, rose up, breathed, heaved, or sighed.
For those struggling with this, my advice is to write your draft however you need to get it on paper. Then, when you go to do your redrafts, think about the necessity of these actions and try your best to sweep them out. After that, clean up by making sure you’ve used active language not a ton of was’s and were’s (to be, to do, ta da! nor could of should of would of. Axe those stop and turns, look to’s, and the likes). It takes practice, because grammar school doesn’t work this out of our writing and it remains well into college. But, those are the keys to the kingdom, so to speak. If you can remain in active voice and maintain who’s perspective you’re writing, along with dropping the stage directions, you should see your writing rise to another level.
After that, you’re going to have to take those gloves off and get comfortable with being uncomfortable, and writing those things that you wouldn’t say out loud in a room full of colleagues or family. A book, remember, isn’t that space. If those people do read your book, that’s ok, you won’t die from it. Will they look at you differently? Probably. I know people think I am this young, naïve, doll-faced child although I am not. I’m a grown woman who’s been through some things, and I deserve to be seen for who I truly am. So do you. Do we even realize that it’s our own prohibitions that frame this idea of ourselves in others? One’s fear of challenging other’s perceptions of ourselves rides on the ideas of acceptability. It’s tied to personal experience of social correction, too.
Still, you can’t let them clamp down that prohibition. Let your writing be daring. Say the things that scare you. A good book makes people feel and it makes people think. Don’t just write tropes or angst. Don’t be afraid to unpack the prohibited, or place it around your work in little treasures for the reader to unpack. Great books have always lead the charge in social change, bettering humanity. No matter what kind of genre you write, you can contribute to that. (And, for the love of gahd, I’m not condoning the sale of bigotry here–don’t go disguising hate as being daring or edgy, because it’s not!)
Click on the links below to see what the other authors have to say on the topic. Each of our writers has a unique perspective on the art and these questions!