Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Technical Topic - Show Versus Tell III: The Motivation

Elsewhere, a writer asks:

"Can I just SAY why a character does something?  Can I just state it outright?

Isn't that 'telling' instead of showing?"

Well ... yes.
And so what if it is?

Sometimes we shows and sometimes we just sets ourselves down and tells.

Reveal motivation in action, in dialog, in facial expression, in physical reactions, by foreshadowing, through symbolism and metaphor. Let the other characters note what's going on in their dialog. Use internal Monologue.
Show. Tell. Send up smoke signals. Let there be a Goddamned voice coming down from the sky.

Your reader picks up the book with the TV blasting in the next room, her three small children running back and forth, and she's got 15 minutes before she has to go fix dinner.
Do her a favor. Be accessible.
Be clear.

Just plain stating the motivation is one vegetable in the minestrone, the kris knife in your arsenal, the metric torque wrench in your toolbox.

Any writing 'rule' that tells you to toss out a useful technique is doing you no favor.
There's no writing technique that can't be done well.


  1. "Any writing 'rule' that tells you to toss out a useful technique is doing you no favor.
    There's no writing technique that can't be done well."


  2. Love it! Excellent post. Straight to the point and I like it :)

  3. Somebody coming up with a 'problem' like this is a lesson to all of us who dare to hand out writing advice.
    Sometimes we do more harm than good.

    And it's always better to suggest a couple alternatives than to lay down some pronouncement about what's 'wrong'.

  4. You should write a craft book, Joanna Bourne--for the fun of it. Editors and readers would thank you for it, writers would pay money for it (and thank you).

    1. Found your post in my spam basket. *g* Ah well, better late than never.

      I keep thinking I will put all this stuff together into a book.
      Then I think -- there's lots of craft books out there.
      Then I think -- so what's wrong with one more.

      And then I think .... I have no time.

  5. Thanks for this post, Jo. As a very new writer, I find some of the advice I receive to be confusing (to say the least) at times. My latest tactic to learning skillful approaches to writing is to READ (always have, but now done with particular intent in mind). Trying to glean how successful, interesting, engaging writers do it! A lot of my conclusions are summarized in your post above.

    1. Hi Bev --

      You have put your finger on it. Read. The books teach us. Anything complex, we have to see in action.