Image: Matthew Loffhagen
For a while now, we’ve been putting overly rigid writing advice under the microscope with 3 Writing Myths You Should Feel Free To Ignore and 3 (More) Writing Myths You Should Feel Free To Ignore. Today, we’re back in the lab, examining more absolutes to see if they belong in your writing.
Myth #7: Write what you know
The reason for this advice is fairly obvious. Karen Blixen is far more qualified to set a book in Kenya than I am. It’s painful when an author tries to write about something they clearly haven’t researched or experienced.Lack of research or insight quickly makes itself known, whether in fiction or non-fiction. Click To Tweet
Taken too literally, though, this advice leads well-intentioned authors to write whatever they already know, regardless of how brutally boring it may be. Precious few are the Annie Dillards of the world, who can write about people’s shins and end up with a captivating memoir. Before you crack your knuckles and dive into a detailed retelling of the life and times of your fourth cat Mary-belle, hold up your audience barometer, which should have the following two questions imprinted on it:
What do people want to read about?
– and –
Do I know anything about that?
Another way this advice can go wrong is by directing people to write too literally. As with dialogue, a scene that is written word-for-word how it happened in real life may not come across as realistic on the page. Imagine your last romantic encounter. Write a transcript of the experience and read it back to yourself as though it’s a scene in a novel. If you don’t immediately want to gag, you are either the next Annie Dillard or your romantic life is unusually scintillating. You get the point: not everything translates smoothly to the written word. Love scenes, battles and stunts, court cases, kids’ birthday parties – these events often sound ludicrous when told exactly as-is and need to be tempered according to style, genre, and subtlety.
‘Write what you know’ also limits you. If you only write what you know, you’re going to run out of things to talk about. Truman Capote didn’t know what it was like to be a brutal murderer. After six years of deep research, though, he knew enough to write the realistic and gripping In Cold Blood.
Better advice might be: know what you write. Don’t write without any prior experience or research, but don’t limit yourself to your existing knowledge base. Let your imagination guide you, then do the grunt work to fill in the gaps.
Myth #8: Show, don’t tell
I give this advice all the time, and for good reason. It’s almost universally better to say that someone averted their eyes than to say that they ‘felt sad’. But there are times when telling is more efficient than showing (when presenting backstory, for instance). Or telling can act as the yin to the yang of showing.
Kathy hated her job. It wasn’t just the mundanity of pushing paper and kissing ass, though a weaker soul might be driven into early retirement by the number of times she’d stamped her boss’s signature or fetched dry cleaning after hours. It wasn’t even the cloud of essential oil pumping out of Loraine’s cubicle like a chimneystack. It was Jim, her cubicle-mate. Jim, with his sleazy moustache and gap-toothed grin. Jim, with his endless barrage of self-aggrandizing stories and overuse of the word ‘moist.’ Jim. Charlatan, windbag, womanizer, and – regrettably – her ex-lover.
The telling at the front end of this paragraph provides a framework for the showing that follows. The telling at the tail end gives a vital piece of backstory without coercing their whole past into the present-tense narrative. Imagine showing this detail. Kathy might have a flashback, or she and Jim might have a conversation in which one of them says, “Well, back when we were dating…” If the dialogue served another purpose, perhaps that would work. But just to convey that bit of information, it’s inefficient and doesn’t read naturally.Showing is better than telling, but it doesn’t suit every occasion. Click To Tweet
The advice to show is more likely to apply to descriptions that are too vague to be worth their weight in ink:
‘She was beautiful’ gives the reader no visual on the woman.
‘He was angry’ is boring.
‘The town had a strange vibe about it’ is ambiguous.
We find a better version of this advice in third-grade classrooms: show and tell. Just remember that the telling is waaaaay less interesting if your three-legged gecko isn’t with you on show-and-tell day.
Myth #9: Start with action
Junot Díaz’s action-packed book The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao starts with what sounds suspiciously like a prologue:
They say it came from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles.
Fahrenheit 451, The Name of the Rose, Life of Pi, even the first Harry Potter book… all these widely acclaimed novels start with prologues. Some people will tell you that The Lord of the Rings doesn’t even get interesting until chapter 9 or so. So what gives with the oft-repeated advice to ‘jump right in’ and ‘start where the action’s at’?
As with most advice, it depends. Many successful books start with action. Gravity’s Rainbow, for example: ‘A screaming comes across the sky,’ or The Metamorphosis: ‘When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed into a monstrous vermin.’
The start-with-action advice might be better worded as: ‘Don’t start with anything that doesn’t make a real contribution to your book.’ Less catchy, but more to the point. A lot of prologue-like introductions drag. Their main purpose is to get the author’s engine going, but the readers may not really care about the gassing up that takes place before the race. For this reason, I often advise authors to cut their first paragraph or several paragraphs and see if they end up with a more engaging opening. They may need to write that first paragraph in order to get to the one they keep as the opener, but readers don’t need to read everything that authors need to write.Don’t start with anything that doesn’t make a real contribution to your book. What the author needs to write isn’t always what the reader needs to read. Click To Tweet
Of course, there are reasons prologues might work well:
- The book, or series, takes the reader on a journey with the character. This is what’s happening in Harry Potter. The reader begins where Harry begins and walks alongside him into the series from there.
- There’s a key shift in setting or circumstances, without which the reader would be lost. We see this in C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet, where the reader needs to experience Ransom’s earthly life before his journey into space carries any meaning.
- You want to establish the motivation for telling the story. Let’s say you’re working on a creative non-fiction biography. Your great-grandfather may have played a major part in a war or had a top-secret love affair with Gloria Swanson, but the ‘page 1, action!’ approach might come off jarring or cliché. You might want to pique curiosity by starting after the action, as in Things Fall Apart, or before, as in A Thousand Splendid Suns.
- The book is about something deeper than the narrative alone. Life of Pi is a striking example of this, because its prologue is so long but the story is still so engaging. Beginning the book the way he does, Yann Martel brings the spiritual element to the forefront, then allows the story to illustrate the very message it contains: you have the straightforward account, and you have the mythology – ‘and so it goes with God.’
- To emphasize nostalgia. The Notebook does this by beginning at the end, dipping backwards and bringing us full circle for effect.
There are undoubtedly many other reasons you may not want to open with the plane crash scene, and feel free to add those to the comments below. I’ll close with this: if you do include a prologue, consider not calling it a prologue. A lot of readers skip or skim anything before the official ‘chapter 1’.
Putting axioms to the test
One way to vet any advice you hear about writing is to test it against several of your favorite books. Chances are, you’ll discover that some line up with what you’ve heard, and others will blaze a different trail. The key is not to use this as permission to ignore the advice you don’t like, but to study how successful authors have avoided the pitfalls that catch-all rules warn against.
In the meantime, we’ll continue to dismantle popular misconceptions together. Post in the comments if you have any you’d like to discuss, and check out Your Research Can’t Stop With The Internet – Here’s Where To Go and Here’s Why Telling Is Just As Important As Showing for great advice on today’s topics.