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“Show, Don’t Tell”, “Conflict-Resolution” and Other Writing Shibboleths

Seemingly we live in progressive, liberal times, where everything is questioned and nothing is taken on faith, yet in one area of our endeavours we still are beholden to arbitrary rules and regulations, which we accept as absolute truth and as some kind of sacrosanct gospel.

I am referring to such writing conventions as “Show, Don’t Tell”, “Conflict-Resolution”, and “Need to have characters in your story”. If you don’t follow these conventions, then your stories are judged to not be literature and are rejected out of hand by the literary establishment. So, these conventions are like passwords that one needs to know in order to gain entry into the hallow inner sanctum of literature.

I am speaking from personal experience, for I consistently ignore these conventions and just as consistently my work is rejected by editors. Yet, I refuse to change my stance on this matter.

My view has always been that one cannot hinder one’s creativity by saddling it with artificial rules. And so, when I write, I refuse to follow any established rules of writing, such as the rule that there have to be characters in one’s stories, the rule that a story’s plot needs to follow a “Conflict-Resolution” pattern, and the need for a story to “Show, Don’t Tell”. I simply do not care for any artificial, external, prescriptive rules that one is supposed to follow when one is writing and I will always reject any restrictive, constraining limits on my creativity. I refuse to shackle and lame my creativity by any prohibitive limitations. It’s like deliberately putting chains on oneself when one is being creative – why would one do that to one’s creativity and constrain it so?

Given that fiction writing is such a complex and infinitely diverse field, existing in so many different variations, I really can’t see how one can put any external constraints on what form and shape a fictional story should take. Also, given that fiction writing is not an exact science by any stretch of imagination, I don’t see how rules such as “Show, Don’t Tell” could be considered to be absolute laws that every fictional story has to follow in order for it to be a valid and worthy fictional story.

I might also add that despite my stories not following these rules, my work, nevertheless, does have a dedicated readership who appreciate it.

As an example of a story that doesn’t follow “Show, Don’t Tell” and “Need to have characters” conventions, I include below my story “The Shadow of the Great Nebula of Orion” that was published recently in the “The Rabbit Hole” anthology. (Some editors do accept my work!)

THE SHADOW OF THE GREAT NEBULA OF ORION

One day, the nebula in the constellation of Orion, already the brightest nebula in the night sky, started to shine more intensely, emitting a piercing blue-green light. Its luminosity became so brilliant that it cast shadows during the daylight hours too, something that had always been the sole prerogative of the Sun.

Naturally, this generated great excitement, for never before had such an extremely bright celestial body been seen in the day sky. Everybody rushed outside to look at this heavenly wonder and to gawk at their double shadows, the old familiar one and the new one created by the Orion Nebula.

It was then that the world was hit by a very unpleasant surprise, for there was something quite peculiar about the shadows caused by the nebula. Instead of being mute, inert outlines of a person’s physical form, they revealed the shadow of a person’s character. Everyone’s inner anxieties, delusions and insecurities were now exposed for all to see.

No one could be found who did not possess a nebula shadow. Even newborns had a shadow accompanying them; thus, coincidentally, vindicating some psychological theories and theological dogmas, while demolishing others.

Naturally, the consequences of this new phenomenon were immense in their scope. Billions of lives were wrecked, relationships destroyed and careers ruined as a person’s innermost complexes and most tightly guarded secrets were revealed to their spouses, family, friends, work colleagues and complete strangers. The very structure of society was threatened, for its smooth running depended so much upon one’s true feelings and nature being suppressed and hidden, even from oneself. Consequently, these revelations came as a heavy shock to the many who didn’t know what apprehensions, doubts and self-deceptions they had been concealing from themselves in the remotest reaches of their psyches or in the deepest substrata of their unconscious minds.

Humanity was in a dilemma over how to cope with this situation. It certainly couldn’t dim or extinguish the nebula’s brightness. It could have tried to adapt to a nocturnal existence, when the shadows would be less distinct, but surely that would have been too radical and onerous a solution. Yet who could risk or put up with the shame, the disgrace and the burden of walking around with all of their flaws and aberrations showing?

Inevitably, cults arose that chose to embrace with enthusiasm this new state of affairs. For them the Orion Nebula was The Bearer of Truth, The Great Enlightener of Mankind. Just as the Sun brought outer illumination, so the Orion Nebula was deemed to bring inner illumination to the world. The adherents of these sects took pride in letting others see their most intimate neuroses, and experienced catharsis in coming face-to-face with their fears, self-delusions and insecurities for the very first time. Having accepted their shadows, they felt more fulfilled and whole than they ever did before.

And then, just as suddenly as it flared up, the Orion Nebula dimmed to its usual luminosity. It didn’t take long for people to readjust to having only one shadow again. Lives, relationships and careers wrecked by the nebula were quickly rebuilt and almost everyone resumed living their old lives, maintaining total silence about that awkward period when their failings were revealed. It was as if the exposure of their inner selves was nothing more than a minor faux pas that is ignored in polite company.

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41 thoughts on ““Show, Don’t Tell”, “Conflict-Resolution” and Other Writing Shibboleths

    • GD Deckard says:

      I’m not sure that I buy the idea that the author is the sole arbiter of what is “literature.” I believe the reader is. “Show, Don’t Tell,” “Conflict-Resolution,” and “Characters” are, in fact, what most people like to read. Editors & publishers strive to put out what people want to read. If the author disagrees, he’s welcome to self-publish. In the end, whatever people want to read, generation after generation, becomes “literature.” And, please correct me where I’m wrong: Most “literature” contains “Show, Don’t Tell,” “Conflict-Resolution,” and “Characters.”

      Liked by 4 people

      • Christy Moceri says:

        GD, I’ve been reading a fair amount of classic literature lately, and while overall I agree, the older stuff does tend to play faster and looser with “show, don’t tell.” Dickens, for example, tends to both show and tell – and in his case it works. Modern audiences, including me, have less tolerance for this. This is partly because the joy of reading, for me, is in the subtext. I’d rather not be spoon-fed my stories.

        I’m trying to imagine any serious artist rejecting the notion of painting “rules.” My favorite artist, surrealist Salvador Dali, was so impactful precisely because he’d mastered the conventions of painting, and knew how to break just enough of them to shock the viewer. He understood perspective, palette, how the eye perceives images, symbolism, and more. Indeed, whenever someone brilliant radically breaks form, they are not eschewing rules, they are manipulating them with a specific, masterful purpose. We could never create radical art if we rejected artistic conventions out of hand.

        Liked by 5 people

        • Christy,

          I am a big fan of Dali too and I agree with you regarding needing to know and understand rules in order to break them.

          I do know and understand the rules of writing, but choose not to follow them. However, I have written stories that do follow writing conventions. Here’s one of them if you wanted to take a look. It’s a short story that I wrote in Tolstoy style, and so it has characters etc: https://cafelitcreativecafe.blogspot.com/2018/07/the-eternal-question.html?spref=fb

          Regarding the difference between breaking rules and manipulating them, I think that’s a bit of a hair-splitting issue, for if laws are manipulated, then they are no longer the original laws and thus, they have been, in fact, broken.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Christy Moceri says:

            I believe certain elements are fundamental to good writing. But in the end, if you are passionate and happy doing what you do, it doesn’t matter how you do it. These guidelines are based around how to appeal to the largest number of readers, and not everybody wants or needs that. I think we all have parts of our work we won’t compromise.

            I can think of at least one Bradbury short without characters but for the life of me I can’t remember the name. It was all about a house. I think the absence of characters was the point.

            Liked by 3 people

            • Christy, thanks for the Bradbury story recommendation. I have read one Bradbury story that I really enjoyed – “The Sound of Thunder”.

              I still would appreciate your suggestions on “The Great Shadow of Orion” story, so you are welcome to email me at bozlich@yahoo.com.au

              Also, given your love of Dali, I wanted to mention that I do a lot of ekphrastic writing and one of the artists that I collaborate with has been called the new Dali. I can tell you more about him by email, but here is a flash fiction piece I wrote to accompany his surreal painting of Dali:

              Liked by 3 people

              • Christy Moceri says:

                I really got a kick out of that one! I was a Spanish major in undergrad and I did a Spanish presentation on surrealist art as radical politics during the Spanish Civil War. Franco despised surrealism and viewed it as a real political threat. I just adore Dali because he’s so relentlessly weird, but his surrealism also has this sort of visceral element that feels like realism. I’m no art critic. I just like weird and provocative things.

                I know I’ve read things like your nebula story, I just can’t place where. I’ll let you know if I can figure it out!

                Liked by 2 people

        • GD Deckard says:

          Christy,
          Yup, the great authors -in a sense- create the rules we tend to follow. My main objection to too much “tell” is that most writers today are not great authors. To quote Norman Mailer on an author he didn’t like, “He said she was beautiful because he couldn’t make her so.”

          Liked by 2 people

      • GD, I agree with what you say in the last sentence. Most literature indeed contains those conventions because, I think, most writers are too afraid to break them. But just because most literature follows those conventions does not in any way justify them, validate them or makes them absolutely true. We never can judge a certain rule’s truth value by the number of people who follow that rule. For example, in some country there might be some ancient law that all of its population is required to follow. None of us would accept that because of so many people following that law, then it must, ipso facto, be true. In fact, we might be strongly opposed to such a law, despite of millions of people following it.

        Regarding “Show, Don’t Tell” etc being what most people like to read, I do have a strong following who enjoy my work despite me not following the conventions. And also, I have been published quite a number of times, so obviously there are editors and publishers who think that people would want to read my work despite it not following conventions.

        Liked by 2 people

        • GD Deckard says:

          Boris,
          Sorry. I wasn’t clear. I wasn’t referring to the writers of most literature, but to the readers. Books considered “great literature” are read generation after generation. Authors don’t define great literature. It is a title conferred by readers.

          Liked by 1 person

          • “I simply do not care for any artificial, external, prescriptive rules that one is supposed to follow when one is writing and I will always reject any restrictive, constraining limits on my creativity.”

            I agree 100 percent. Obviously, I’m a reader and writer, not just a solipsistic writer, so I end up writing the kind of fiction that I would like to read and which I think is sorely lacking nowadays.

            All one has to do though is look at what Joyce accomplished. His ‘novels’ Ulysses and Finnegans Wake broke every rule and then some. 100 years later most writers are still afraid to step outside of the rules. It’s a shame. Of course, there are still plenty of writers that have taken after Joyce, whether directly or indirectly. Much of the fiction published by Dalkey Archive is in the subversive and experimental vein.

            The distinction I think is between a writer simply telling a story (or telling a story simply) versus a writer creating a work of art. I love to see the mental fireworks of a writer wrestling with his or her imagination, with language itself, which is why I more often enjoy long, sprawling novels, such as Infinite Jest, Underworld, and Midnight’s Children.

            To put it more boringly: it all boils down to taste. If someone wants to write a basic story following all the rules, good for them, but I for one won’t be giving it any attention.

            Your story reminded me of Borges and Calvino. You must have read Invisible Cities. Since you are welcoming ‘criticism,’ I’d say my only qualm would be that the language is fairly prosaic.

            In general, other than the fact that certain words are quite beautiful visually and orally, using rare, archaic, or unknown words can be a way of breaking barriers. Of course, there is such thing as too much, so I’m quite picky with the words I use and often refer to their etymology to ensure proper use or calculated subversion. But I also understand the need for more sparse prose, as one finds in DeLillo’s later work and much of Kafka’s work.

            On the other hand, here is a list of amazing words I had to look up when I was reading a buried Brazilian masterpiece, An Invincible Memory by João Ubaldo Ribeiro:

            • Contubernium
            • Phlogistic
            • Riparian
            • Canicular
            • Secundines
            • Poltroon
            • Impavid
            • Maieutic
            • Nescient
            • Rugosities
            • Cacothanasia
            • Intercalated
            • Cozenage
            • Niveous
            • Stridulation
            • Columboid
            • Eburean
            • Atramentous
            • Contumely
            • Paludal
            • Exophthalmic
            • Addlepated
            • Trismus
            • Plumbous

            For me, it is a joy coming across such gems.

            Liked by 4 people

            • mimispeike says:

              Shades of Carl E. Reed! (GD will get that) I have used addlepated. I have seen two or three others used. I’m going to check all of them out. I came across a good one the other day, but I’m not sure where I parked it.

              Liked by 2 people

  1. Christy Moceri says:

    This is maybe not the best story to illustrate the author’s point, because it’s an example of perfect scene structure. There is an inciting incident, complications, a turning point that forces a crisis, a clearly defined crisis question, a climax, and a resolution. I guess even when we resist the notion of “rules” we tend to pick up on them instinctively. That said, there is a lot to improve here, which could be learned by studying other stories of its kind… But I’m not sure the author is all that interested in improving.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Christy, I always welcome critique on my work, so you are welcome to email me with your thoughts on how you think this story can be improved: (bozlich@yahoo.com.au)

      Regarding “studying other stories of its kind”, are there any particular stories that you can recommend that are of the same kind as my story?

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Perry Palin says:

    I never really learned the rules and conventions. I don’t worry about them. I read short fiction and I try to write like the writers I like. And I have collected my share of the stock rejection slips from editors that say my best effort “does not meet (their) current needs.”

    I liked the story the first time I read it. But I don’t think I could read these stories as a steady diet because I like characters too much. Meanwhile, Boris follows SOME of the rules. He spells the words correctly, for example.

    I suppose the rules and conventions are there to tell us what the current markets want. The rules change over time, and a lot of older stories would never be published today.

    This winter I took a community ed class in creative non-fiction. We were all amateurs. Those that followed the “show don’t tell” rule were better received by the others.

    I know two writers who have been on the New York Times Best Seller List. Do they follow the rules? Maybe. They each have a style and a pattern that meets the expectations of their editors and readers and they keep selling books.

    Lydia Davis earned critical acclaim and a nice review in The New Yorker for her short story collection “can’t and won’t”. She doesn’t follow the rules, at least in many of the stories.

    So how do we do like Lydia Davis? What we need first is a good book on the whims of editors, the gatekeepers for the markets.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. mimispeike says:

    I’m thinking about rules and such in the last two days. I have finished book one of my series. A final look-through and I will be ready to publish. Have I got the best product I’m capable of creating?

    I’ve told a damn good story, I’m sure of that. Style-wise, it may have a few problems. They say genre fiction lives or dies by plot, literary fiction probes feelings, interiors. I feel my thing sits half way between the two points of view, it’s not meaty on either side. On the other hand, it’s a story about a talking cat, how meaty should I be?

    Well, it’s done, but for a bridge of a paragraph to the final chapter, long long written. Sly has some additional motivation for leaving that I need to fold in for the transition to make perfect sense.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. victoracquista says:

    I am tempted to suggest you are an unconventional nonconformist. Instead, I prefer nonconventional unconformist.

    While I do believe knowledge of the rules is important, I also believe in unique style. If your style is to ignore or bend rules, then I see no reason why you should feel constrained to abide by the rules. However, readers and publishers may be turned off or may embrace your particular style. Like spaghetti, you have to throw it out there to see if it sticks.

    reWLzz..whoO,” Knneedz___sTink[in Roolls#?

    e.e. cummings broke the rules rather famously. Ann Leckie has written best selling science fiction giving the AI of a space ship multiple POV perspectives and ignoring gender designations. As a result, the reader doesn’t know whether characters seen through the many eyes of the ship are male or female. I hated it and thought the literary contrivance made it difficult to read and it wasn’t necessary for the story. Her book “Ancillary Justice” won Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke awards. Apparently, many readers and critics embraced her rule-defying style.

    I say do whatever floats your boat. Perhaps you’ll become the next Picasso of literary genius with your defiance of convention.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Christy Moceri says:

      Anne Lecke didn’t do it for me, either. But I generally applaud taking creative risks. I don’t even think of them as “rules” so much as a set of tools. Regardless of where we are on the craft spectrum, every single one of us eventually has to do that mental calculation: What is the trade-off for adjusting my work to appeal to a mainstream audience vs. doing my own, wild thing?

      What I write is pretty weird. My first novel is a gritty romantic thriller in an alternate world futuristic setting with literary elements that deals with a wide range of heavy themes, from socioeconomic equality to sexual assault. It’s not a beach read. At face value, I have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting it published. But that’s actually one reason I am so attracted to craft. I know what I’m writing is not what most people would be naturally inclined to read, so I feel challenged to make it irresistible. I’d rather learn to tell my own stories exceptionally well instead of adapting my subject matter or style to something more mainstream. That is the great irony here – I believe my devotion to craft gives me more creative options, not fewer. It’s certainly made me more comfortable with taking creative risks.

      Liked by 2 people

      • victoracquista says:

        “I believe my devotion to craft gives me more creative options, not fewer.” I must admit that I like this thought you have expressed. The rules and tools are only restrictive if we constrain ourselves in our writing based on these restrictions. I am not a fan of writing to market as I think it floods the market with ho-hum same old retreads. When something creative shakes up the market, many will follow. If you write with your own creative style, you are bound only by your own creativity.

        Liked by 2 people

    • Victor, I am happy with being a nonconventional uncomformist.

      Actually, I do have a strong readership who appreciate my style and I have been published in quite a number of places too. For many of my readers, I already possess literary genius, but I will let you decide that for yourself.

      I notice that you write to raise consciousness. I do that too actually, as you may have noticed from my story above. There’s actually another short story of mine that also deals with this topic. You can find it here if you wanted to take a look:

      https://www.thesunlightpress.com/2018/10/09/the-mephone/

      Liked by 2 people

  5. mimispeike says:

    For me, the gold standard of cat tales is Tomcat Murr by E.T.A. Hoffmann. I can’t go as deep as he does. I have too many characters, and I don’t write in the first person, that lets you get away with just about anything. I do agree with Boris: rules are to be ignored if you are committed to a quirky vision and can make it work.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. mimispeike says:

    Announcement to all: I have had big problems with my PowerMac, and never did get a Kindle reader installed there. Because I expected it to die completely on me at any time. I had the Kindle Reader on my iMac that bit the dust last summer. A week ago I went and bought a new iMac, and am busy getting it in shape. I will download a Kindle Reader on here. So! Curtis, I will now buy your sequels, I am going to get some of Jim Webster’s work (he’s on Facebook) and who else wants to suggest things for me? It’s so nice to have a machine that I’m not always holding my breath on, that goes dead on me capriciously. It goes a week with no problem, then dies three times in an hour. I was a nervous wreck when writing on it, saving after every line.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Deidre says:

    But…but ..but this story DOES have characters, the main one being the Nebula itself. And it definitely follows conflict-resolution in that the people (the minor characters) are conflicted, then their conflicts are allayed when the Nebula dims again. And most certainly there is show-not-tell because you have not told us why or how either the shadows did what they did, or why and how the nebula dimmed. These are all left to the audience imagination, which in my mind they should be in a good story of any type.

    Boris, I think you are having us on in the typical Aussie pull your leg back to front humour…..d.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Deidre says:

      So here is a challenge …who can write a fictional story wit no characters, no conflict or resolution and all tell with no show (ie leaving nothing for the reader’s imagination). If it can be done, which I doubt, then who would want to read it anyway?

      Liked by 2 people

  8. I consider the rules that Boris dislikes to be rules of thumb, like the 5-7-5 rule for writing haiku.  Compliance is **usually** helpful but does not ensure writing good stuff.  Breaking (or just bending) a rule of thumb is **often** helpful, especially if one has a specific good reason in mind.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. mimispeike says:

    Boris, your thinking in your short story is absolutely delightful.

    “We cannot convey to our Masters the true range and depth of our thoughts and feelings, and are unable to engage them in a higher dialogue. Consequently, there will forever exist an unbridgeable gulf between us and them.

    “Nevertheless, we persevere tirelessly at attempting to impart to our Masters that we 21st century dogs are not the simple, unsophisticated, naive creatures they apparently believe us to be. As we cannot communicate with them through language, we instead perform actions which hold deep symbolic significance, hoping our Masters will thereby recognise how enlightened and profound we really are.”

    This is wonderfully akin to Tomcat Murr. Please take a look at it. I think you have something marvelous here.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I think there may be a tendency to oversimplify show-don’t-tell as a rule. As other commenters have mentioned, it’s a convention. I would add that it applies to one particular type of fiction: realistic, character-driven fiction.

    It also depends on what type of reading experience the author intends. If you’re going for full-on kick-me-in-gut emotion, then I need you to show me so that I can experience the emotion myself. If, on the other hand, you want me to have a cerebral reading experience, you can tell me whatever you want in whatever way you want, and my brain will come along for the ride.

    My first writing professor’s perspective was that a story can break with the currently- accepted conventions as long as it replaces these conventions with its own, which are made clear to the reader from the beginning. I think this is a good approach for reading as well, to understand and appreciate each story on its own terms.

    Liked by 2 people

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