Here, copied from PASSIVE VOICE, is what Lee Child has to say about writing rules.


In his ThrillerFest session “Tell, Don’t Show: Why Writing Rules are Mostly Wrong,” Child battled a few of the biggest writing myths out there, and explained what really keeps a reader reading until The End.

Show, Don’t Tell

Picture this: In a novel, a character wakes up and looks at himself in the mirror, noting his scars and other physical traits for the reader.

“It is completely and utterly divorced from real life,” Child said.

So why do writers do this? Child said it’s because they’ve been beaten down by the rule of Show, Don’t Tell. “They manufacture this entirely artificial thing.”

“We’re not story showers,” Child said. “We’re story tellers.”

Child said there’s nothing wrong with simply saying the character was 6 feet tall, with scars.

After all, he added—do your kids ever ask you to show them a story? They ask you to tell them a story. Do youshow a joke? No, you tell it.

“There is nothing wrong with just telling the story,” Child said. “So liberate yourself from that rule.”

. . . .

“And that’s how you create suspense,” he said—it all boils down to asking a question and making people wait for the answer.

Child added that one thing he has learned throughout his career as a television writer and novelist is that humans are hard-wired to want the answer to a question. When the remote control was invented, it threw the TV business through a loop. How would you keep people around during a commercial? So TV producers started posing a question at the start of the commercial break, and answering it when the program returned.

. . . .

Ultimately, he said writing rules make the craft more complicated than it really is—when it comes down to it, it’s a simple thing.

“The way to write a thriller is to ask a question a the beginning, and answer it at the end,” he said.

Link to the rest at Writer’s Digest 

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Funny--he's using two examples of showing.  The "show/tell" dictum is about working in image rather than abstraction, and working in scene rather than summary.  His examples are both images.  Evidently he doesn't really understand the distinction, which doesn't surprise me all that much.  The important things in a Reacher novel are ass-kicking and explosions, so as long as Child and his staff can manage a few action scenes they're good to go.  Not that action isn't a challenge--it requires some choreographic skill, to be sure.

Yes, I know showing involves a scene and telling summarizes.  I think he know that also.  But the mirror scene is such a good example of what happens when unskilled writers write by artificial rules. Nothing is gained by many of the artificial scenes that replace a simple one-sentence telling of rather trivial fact except wordiness.

He oversimplifies suspense.  Typically, Child doesn't develop characters.  He settles for a type and proceeds into action.  That's a shortcoming of many thrillers, though not their worst.  The worst problem is implausible plots.


And yes, managing suspense is tricky business, especially if you're heading towards the explosion at the end . . . or the surprising twist.

He may understand the distinction, but it's not evident in his examples.  The mirror thing is just bad writing, and has nothing to do with show vs tell.  Writing that a character is six feet tall and has scars is showing--you've made an image.  Telling would be something like: "He was hugely strong and had a threatening demeanor," or whatever.  And yes, that would suck.

I like Hitchcock's explanation of suspense (vs what he called "shock"): in a shock film, a woman walks up a flight of stairs and a knife-wielding maniac suddenly jumps out of the shadows.  In a suspense film, the audience sees the maniac waiting in the shadows as the woman is walking up the stairs.  It's about setting up the viewer's or reader's expectations, and then either delaying, satisfying or thwarting them.   

I'd add that writing that a character is six feet tall and has scars is lousy showing. The best type of showing is implicative, appeals to the senses, and/or conveys a sense of motion to make the scene more alive.

Well, I'd want to know what kind of scars, and where.  I'd probably use a metaphor to get at them, but that's my internal poet talking--Elmore Leonard wouldn't approve.  And six feet is the most boring height in the world.  I'd make him a midget.  Or maybe seven feet tall.  Why bother with anything in between?

I'd rather you find the character inside the average looking guy rather than go for the carnival show characters, but maybe that's just me... ;)


Yes, but it depends on the purpose and the plot.  If we're still on Reacher novels (I believe he's over 6 feet), you do need a guy who is clearly physical and used to rough stuff, because he'll get it and he'll have to fight his way out of it

The alternative is the sort of character Dick Francis preferred, the unassuming, ordinary guy who's never tangled with violence before.  For this fellow to put up with torture for a good cause also works on the reader's sympathies.

As for midgets or giants: the problem there is that the reader has trouble identifying.  Most readers resist putting themselves into the body of someone who is oddly shaped or, say, disfigured.  Such characters may arouse sympathy, but they tend to be watched from a distance.

One word:  Hobbits.

Ah, yes.  But that's rather elaborate fantasy where you're transported into another, non-human sphere.  Works also with children's books.

I like to go for effect in peripheral characters.  Although I think a midget detective might be kind of fun.

I see a writing rule article nowadays and I can't not read it fast enough. Everyone has their own rules. No one agrees on anything.

Same with writing advice. Read something. You'll get all the advice you need. As Les Edgerton pointed out in this video here, there are no secrets to writing. The secrets are all on the page.

I suppose that's a rule, too.

It works for some people, Ben, but not all. I listen to a lot of music but that's never given me the ability to write any. Some people can learn music by ear but not all. Some people can learn to write simply by reading, but that doesn't work for me.

Now, I don't like rules as much as I like reasons. The Hitchcock example Jon gave is pretty good and the attention to setting up - and then satisfying or not - the reader's expectations is important. I've broken down writing that I like to try and really understand why I like it and why it works for me and I'm often surprised by my own findings (but maybe that's just me ;).

I think in the Lee Child example the really important part is that question and and Answer - Francis Ford Coppola said kind of the same thing, that the idea is the question and you make the movie to find out the answer. But the question can't (or shouldn't) be just, "Who did it," and the answer, "the butler." Well, not for me anyway.


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