I pleased to welcome children’s author Emma Rea as my guest this month, with her thoughts on writing rules and breaking them, in particular that vexed issue of showing versus telling.
When I was at school, I had a wonderful English teacher (who herself was taught by CS Lewis) and she said several things that stayed with me. One of them was her explanation of the trellis and the rose.
She was teaching us Shakespearean sonnets, and she showed us the form: the three quatrains rhyming abab, cdcd, efef, followed by a couplet, rhyming gg. She explained the iambic pentameter. We all knew the rules.
Then she started telling us how Shakespeare broke the rules. Using half-rhymes, caesura, enjambement. We grew confused.
And she explained that in all writing, there is both form – the trellis to which the writing must cling – and the author’s insight and imagination – the rose. Without a trellis, the rose will flop. But if it follows the trellis rigidly, left, right, left, right, there will be no life in the writing at all.
I write children’s fiction, not sonnets, but her words still ring usefully in my head. I’m always trying to work out what form, or ‘rules’, work in writing and which rules can be bent.
And one rule I’m wary of is ‘show don’t tell’. We’re always told this, and of course it’s important, but a confident writer will know when to break it, and simply tell the reader certain things. This confidence is enormously appealing. Dickens’ first sentence of Bleak House is ‘London.’ A later paragraph starts ‘Fog everywhere.’ He goes on to show us, but he hasn’t been afraid of telling us, too. And we immediately get that delicious feeling that we’re in the safe hands of a writer who knows exactly what they’re doing.
I think this tension between telling and showing is pleasurable for the reader. They want to know some things – just as you want to know the rules before you start playing a board game – but they also want intrigue and nuance, so their curiosity is aroused and they can start trying to work things out for themselves. You have to have on the one hand, absolute clarity, and on the other, obfuscation, and the two hands have to be clasped, fingers intertwined, so that the text is both strongly rooted and yet open to interpretation.
Over ten years of writing and writing groups, I’m getting better at spotting in my own work which bits need clarity, or telling, and which don’t. I love checking out first chapters to see how authors find a balance between the two, and I like experimenting with telling to see what works.
I’ll leave you with an opening line which makes me feel grounded and safe, and yet curious. We’re given the location, the season and the time of day – and a springboard into the story.
‘It was an ordinary spring day in Istanbul, a long and leaden afternoon like so many others, when she discovered, with a hollowness in her stomach, that she was capable of killing someone.’ Elif Shafak, Three Daughters of Eve
Emma Rea is an author, reviewer and proof reader. She is the author of MG novels Top Dog (Gomer 2014) which was shortlisted for the North Somerset Teachers’ Book Award and My Name is River, published this June by Firefly Press, and listed as Sunday Times Children’s Book of the Week in July.