"Different roads sometimes lead to the same castle."
George R.R. Martin
You've discovered an interesting and little known corner of the internet, intrepid websurfer.
This page hasn't been promoted. It wasn't written to attract visits to this website. It wasn't really written to be read...
If you are reading this, you've stumbled across it by accident and are now probably wondering what you've let yourself in for. So, let me tell you...
Below you will find the log of a conversation, a writing discussion, between two men who are often in disagreement. A bit like Captain Kirk's log might have turned out, if Bones, Scotty or Spock had been allowed anywhere near it.
Keith Knight and I (Christopher Fielden) are both authors. We rarely agree. On anything. Especially when it's to do with writing advice. We've never met face to face. However, we have liaised via email. In our emails, we discuss writing.
Keith wrote this post for my website a while back. Although I didn't agree with all the advice in the post, I published it. Why? I liked the quirky style of Keith's writing - he divulges advice in 'splodges' which is something I hadn't seen before. I also understand that fiction writing is highly subjective, as is the advice that pertains to its best practices. Therefore, I think it's a good thing to voice two sides of any argument - that way a reader can form their own conclusions about any advice given.
Recently, Keith wrote to me about a gripe he has with the common writing tip 'show don't tell'. He asked me to publish the gripe. I said no. And from there, we started to discuss this piece of advice. I advocate it. Keith does not.
Now, at this point you may be wondering if Keith and I like each other. I can't speak for Keith on this matter, but I can tell you that I respect him, and his views. And I enjoy discussing them with him. It allows me to form more educated and well thought-through opinions of my own. Keith would probably say something similar if asked.
Having reread our correspondence while putting this page together, I wondered if our tone might seem argumentative at times. Emails can often be misread and/or misinterpreted. They are emotionless and devoid of the subtleties that the tone of a voice, or a facial expression, might bring to a conversation...
So, I hope none of our discussions appear rude - I can sometimes be overly blunt in written communication, especially when I'm busy and rushing. If they do, it is not intentional. I feel that Keith and I are simply exploring our views and opinions. This 'author discussion' helps us.
As you can probably tell already, there is nothing conventional about this blog post. It doesn't contain pictures. It doesn't use subheadings (well, maybe 1 or 2, but not the liberal dosage recommended by internet experts). Thus, it's not that easy on the eye.
It's here to be read, if you can be bothered, or not, if you can't. Enjoy it. Or don't. If you do read it and feel compelled to voice your own opinion about anything writing related, then please use the comments form located at the bottom of the post to share your views.
To complete the post's lack of convention, it is presented backwards, like an email thread. Because that's what it is. An email thread.
I will add any future correspondence between Keith and I to it, if it pertains to writing.
26. From Chris to Keith, Fri 16/12/2016 12:33 (GMTST)
I hope you have a great Christmas and New Year. Until 2017.
25. From Keith to Chris, 16 December 2016 06:12
I'm going to wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year and allow this 'thread' to cool awhile.
Again, compliments of the season and will get back in touch in the New Year. As always use our freakishly pen-pal similar correspondence as you see fit.
Keith Knight, three cheers for Scrooge, Bideford.
24. From Chris to Keith, Thu 15/12/2016 17:53 (GMTST)
Madder (And Madder) Keith
It's good to hear that Writers' Forum published your letter. I've always found them to be a good publication – sharing opinion rather than decreeing the law.
I wouldn't profess to know best, or to assume that you're plain wrong. If that's how it came across in my previous emails, then I apologise. I disagree with you, but that doesn't mean I'm right and you're wrong. It just means we don’t agree.
Maybe I'll share the post about this email thread with my readers in the New Year. I was going to leave the discovery of it to Fate, but Fate is fickle and can take months, years, or even decades to work her magic.
I have another post going out about exclamation marks, hopefully before Christmas. That will also contain a discussion with another writer who doesn't agree with me about how they should be used in fiction (well, I'm hoping it will – I'm just waiting for his final approval on the post).
Sharing this 'show don't tell' discussion with my email list might get more opinions involved, so I'm happy to do that, if you like.
23. From Keith to Chris, 14 December 2016 15:30
One of the 'great and the good' - it's not necessarily a compliment - Writers' Forum published a letter of mine on my hobby horse. The editor, though conceding a little ground, took your view that he knows best and I am plain wrong. The evidence thus far suggests he might be right. I will, though, continue to push my point (stop groaning, you're winning the argument).
Ask your fans, I mean readers or supporters, if they have read the latest collection of short stories by Short Fiction. I'm interested to know how it is received by others. By others I mean younger people than me. Our friend Fridrik Solnes Jonsson had the privilege of the opening story. I have only read four stories so far and I cannot help thinking that if these four stories represent 'some of the finest short stories from around the world' I have all the proof I need that 'show don't tell' is not improving the standard of fiction writing.
Keith Knight, Bideford, just getting madder and madder by the moment.
22. From Chris to Keith, Wed 14/12/2016 10:58 (GMTST)
Modest ambitions might lead to modest results. I feel it’s the world or nothing. Well, half each should be manageable…
Oh, I see. Any ‘great and goods’ in particular? Individuals? Groups?
21. From Keith to Chris, 13 December 2016 14:58
Let's keep our ambitions modest - we'll try and please some people. I'm so not ready to try to please even half the world. Good luck with your half, by the way.
I haven't done with 'show don't tell', not yet anyway. It's not the 'show don't tell' that annoys me so much as the great and the good's need to give the titbit.
Knackered old Keith Knight, Bideford.
20. From Chris to Keith, Tue 13/12/2016 10:22 (GMTST)
Writing fiction is an art, I agree. As is storytelling. As is showing the reader what is happening, allowing the tale to unfold. Showing is a form of storytelling.
I know nothing about artists I’m afraid. I think an awful lot of nonsense gets talked about paintings and artwork… To me, a nice picture is a nice picture. I don’t really understand art beyond that. I don’t see how pictures and storytelling can be compared. They’re not the same thing.
I still think 'show don’t tell' is good advice. It’s not meant as a restriction – it’s meant to open your mind to different ways of letting your story unfold, in a more satisfying way for the reader. If you see the advice as a restriction, maybe that’s just your perception of it, not the meaning of the advice itself. Then again, I guess it depends who has given the advice and in what context...
Anyway. I think this horse is now flogged, dead and resting in a ditch. Somewhere near Hades. I don’t think either of us are going to change our minds about this titbit of advice. If anyone ever discovers this page, reads it and decided to comment on the subject, maybe we’ll learn if either of us has a point. If not… well. I’ll carry on showing the reader a story. You can tell them. Between us, we’ll probably please everyone on the planet :-)
19. From Keith to Chris, 12 December 2016 14:45
To get back to flogging my dead hobby horse. Fiction writing is an art. Non-fiction I believe to be more of a craft that can be learned and no doubt studied and taught. As we know, fiction has its genres, so not all fiction can be the same. But if 'show don't tell' is the mantra for all of fiction, as prescribed by the great and the good, then the brush strokes will be the same. Artists have no equivalent, I believe, to 'show don't tell' and everything in a frame, from the naive work of Alfred Wallace through to the old masters and Jackson Pollack, is considered worthy of being described as art. You might even find a Wallace in the same gallery as a Pollack, though perhaps not a Rembrandt or Monet. 'Show don't tell' is not advise but a restriction. Writers are praised for telling a good story or good tale. Writers are storytellers. The clue is in the job description.
I rest my case. For now.
Keith the Naive, Bideford.
18. From Chris to Keith, Fri 09/12/2016 12:43 (GMTST)
Apparently not… I guess we’ll both have to change our wardrobes.
17. From Keith to Chris, 09 December 2016 11:28
So wearing underpants on your head is not cool. Always learning something.
16. From Chris to Keith, Tues 06/12/2016 17:16 (GMTST)
I try and avoid the use of colons, semi-colons and most other punctuation, if I can. There are so many rules about it all. Unless you’re an academic who retains rules well, it’s hard to consistently use colons, or anything else, correctly. I’m a drummer who doesn’t retain any form of information well. So, if I can, I just use apostrophes, commas, full stops, speech marks and question marks. I’ll occasionally use an ellipse or a hyphen, but only if I have to.
So no, I don’t think you’re a fuddy-duddy.
Then there are exclamation marks. I despise them with a fiery passion. They’re completely unnecessary, in my opinion. As Terry Pratchett said, of using exclamation marks, “It's like wearing underpants on your head.” Sums it up for me.
15a. From Keith to Chris, 06 December 2016 14:40
Apropos of nothing relevant. Do we use colons and semi-colons when we speak and should writers use colons and semi-colons in speech? I use the ellipsis. Am I a fuddy-duddy?
15. From Keith to Chris, 05 December 2016 11:15
The great and the good of this industry, you may include yourself amongst this number, advise that the writer should write about what he knows. He is also advised to be 'different'. Take your pick as to the reason why I am writing about a man with E.P.D. My novel The Abomination is about the early Christian Church. I knew little about the subject matter until I did some research. The novel published on my website is about a colony on Mars. Ditto. All I need for the climax of my story (Joke to Some) is a cheap yet effective cure. That's my next area of research.
Must get on, Keith.
14. From Chris to Keith, Sat 03/12/2016 12:oo (GMTST)
You seem to be spending a lot of time writing about erectile dysfunction of late. Is this a new career direction?
I’ll look forward to hearing your thoughts, as always.
13. From Keith to Chris, 02 December 2016 05:46
On so many days I fail even to reach the heights of average. To be described as 'average' is flattery, although according to the rejection slips I receive 'nearly man' might be appropriate. In fact you may receive an e-mail sometime today with my thoughts on the lazy way this procedure is carried out by the literary industry. I'll leave it to later as I have to get back to my erectile dysfunction story.
All the best,
PS - At 62 all I can advise someone who is a youthful 44 is that it is downhill from here on in. Keith, as cynical as he is average.
12. From Chris to Keith, Thu 01/12/2016 14:35 (GMTST)
Average Keith. Is this title acceptable to you? I was toying with adding the word 'Above' to the front, but thought it might cause upset...
OK, excellent. I’ll make the page discoverable today. And I promise not to edit your emails. Except if I spot a typo – I just lob it through a spell checker before publishing. I’m assuming that’s OK?
I don’t think it matters if there are big gaps in the correspondence. We can just add to it as and when.
Let’s see if this changes the literary world. Who knows. Maybe one day it will.
As for clichés, it sounds like we are in agreement. However, I will be interested to hear how you feel after reading Fridrik Solnes Jonsson's full story.
I’ll look forward to reading your
rant review. Until then, farewell.
PS - At 44, I'm ecstatic to be referred to as youthful.
11a. From Keith to Chris,
01 December 2016 05:55
A fantastic idea, me thinks. I can be quite inconsistent so there might be quite long periods between e-mails, and I dare say there are times when you are 'snowed-under' with work. It also something that might develop of its own accord. Not that it should ever become a public viewing of a pen-pal relationship and our disagreements must be real and not for the sake of creativity. As the forum is your creation I will bow to your editorial control as long as you do not edit my e-mails. Though I think you might want to add a disclaimer to the effect that my beliefs are not necessarily your beliefs. I fear F.S.J. has already, if not libelled, annoyed by my criticism of his writing formed from the opening sentence of one short story.
So go for it. You never know, your youthful enthusiasm and my cynical literary slant might lead literary fiction to a new and pleasant land.
Crotchety, though sometimes Capricious, Keith of Bideford.
11. From Keith to Chris, 30 November 2016 16:56
Apologies for late reply. Busy busy lately. First minutes in front of laptop since last Friday.
I'll reply about the introduction tomorrow morning when I'll have a wee bit of free time. As for cliches? Cliches can be both lazy writing and amusing. I dare say I fall into the trap myself and when a woman leaves a room in a temper she will almost certainly slam a door. Fortunately our own home has no doors, except the bathroom, and here I advise any man living with a woman or women to remove bolts and locks otherwise you are risking being kept from what is the most important room in the house. This advice does not necessarily apply if you live in the country as there are more bushes and less prying eyes.
I would say 'always originality' in the wordsmithing department, though sometimes the obviously ordinary can be more impactful than trying to be clever. Yes, I have just invented two new words. If Shakespeare can do it, even if he didn't really do it as often as his champions suggest, we can all do it. If Shakespeare were alive today he would agree with me. As it is he's revolving in his grave, wherever that is, at the sheer damned awfulness of what goes for 'best fiction' today. I claim to have invented Flash Fiction but gads alive! its proliferation does nothing for the quality of today's fiction.
Of course we all like an original voice but Fridrik Solnes Jonsson may have originality - I'm going to read that bloody story soon. I might explode with indignation. Be warned! But it must have charm, the original voice, I mean. Or a defining character that engages with the reader, rather than alienating.
I'm rambling. I'm tired. Oh so tired. Hard physical labour does that to a man. So apart from suggesting you refrain from referring to me as 'fantastic', a title I'll never be able to live up to, I'll wish you a good evening and even better night.
10. From Chris to Keith, 25/11/2016 - 16:05 (GMTST)
I’ve drafted a page. You can see it here:
Feel free to add an introduction of your own, to sit beside mine, if would like. Or not, if you wouldn’t.
Once you confirm you’re happy with it, I’ll make it ‘discoverable’ by adding it to the menu on the ‘Advice’ page.
And so, here is a statement, blatantly mentioned here to engineer another discussion (is that cheating?):
You should never use clichés in writing. Ever.
What are your feelings about clichés? I dislike them intently. I think I sometimes go a bit OTT with what I would class as a cliché, if I’m honest. Slamming doors, for example. They slam far too often in stories for my liking. But even I feel like I might be taking it a bit far there… It comes from reading a lot of short stories through the competition I run and my proofreading service. I think I’ve become hyper aware of clichéd wording, ideas and phrases. Still, I prefer originality to the use of hackneyed phraseology, character types and storylines. I also love an original voice that is daring and unusual. I think we may have discussed ‘originality’ before. I remember us having differing views on the matter (surprise, surprise…). Your thoughts please, kind sir, if you would care to share them.
9. From Keith to Chris, 25 November 2016 06:06
Your enthusiasm shames me.
Keith Knight. I, too, was once young.
8. From Chris to Keith, 24/11/2016 - 12:07 (GMTST)
You’ll be pleased to hear I wholeheartedly agree with you about something. I didn’t think that the Jonsson story could be described as ‘good literature’. The same goes for the other story you mention. And if Chandler were compared to Jonsson, I think the vast majority of people would draw the same conclusions. At last, we agree… :-)
It sounds like you have lost your love for reading. And maybe writing too? That’s a shame. I don’t think assuming that all young writers are the same, or should be tarred with the same proverbial brush, is fair. I’ve read some excellent stories by younger writers. And children. So my view is far less pessimistic than yours – there are some fine writers out there, and I’m sure some of them would take your side of arguments rather than mine. It’s all very subjective, after all.
I will build a page on the site for our discussions. I won’t promote it at all – it can be a resource for people to stumble across. Or not. I’ll share it with you when it’s built.
7. From Keith to Chris, 23 November 2016 16:02
Look, I have erectile dysfunction jokes to insert into my story, so time is short as I have work of the paid variety to get to.
I've not heard of Jonsson either. But someone, no doubt the editor of that collection 'of some of the finest short stories in the world', thought a paragraph 'showing' the size and shape of the penis of a baby good literature. Like you, I thought it should have been disqualified.
When Chandler was at his typewriter, no doubt with a bottle of whiskey at his side, turning his short stories into the masterpieces of the whodunnit genre, he was not subject to the overlords of the literary industry, mass produced by degrees from university creative writing courses. Compare and contrast Chandler and Jonsson, I say.
I read a story the other day, again the first story in a collection, where the writer wrote something on the lines of 'Johnny fucking hates riding on buses'. Both you and I know that Johnny should have said this. It would give us an indication of his character. But the writer told us 'Johnny fucking hates buses', which told us more about the writer than the character.
Do with our correspondence as you wish. No one will agree with me as everyone is young these days and more like Jonsson in their writing than Chandler. There is no charm in life these days and no charm in literature. I doubt if the young even know what charm is, apart the charms of witches.
Erectile dysfunction waits for no man, so I'll leave you to inform your audience about Raymond Chandler.
All the best,
6. From Chris to Keith, 23/11/2016 - 10:27 (GMTST)
I’ve never heard of Jonsson so didn’t feel like I could comment… I will say the extract in your email is not to my taste, but don’t really see what that has to do with ‘show don’t tell’ advice.
Ah, good luck with your search. The irony you mention made me laugh, so my sense of humour has been returned to me. Thank you.
Maybe I should publish our correspondence as a blog post? At the very least it would reveal both sides of any writing related argument for others to think about and form their own opinions from. Something to think about…
5. From Keith to Chris, 23 November 2016 16:02
I notice you did not comment on Fridrik Solnes Jonsson. That's my point. I know exactly what 'show don't tell' is about. About everything else you may be correct.
Anyway, I have to go search for my sense of humour. I had it the other day. I remember laughing. Since then I've been trying to write a fictional story about impotence and wondering if I should get some Viagra (for research purposes only). Ironically I'm finding this story very hard to write. I'm about to Google 'jokes about impotence'. Let's hope it cheers me up.
Keith Knight, Bideford.
4. From Chris to Keith, 23/11/2016 - 10:27 (GMTST)
I see your point. I disagree though (no surprise there… :-) ). Writers are story tellers, as you say – that I agree with. And as a writer, you do use description to set a scene, telling the reader what is happening – again, I agree. However, that is not what ‘show don’t tell’ advice refers to.
Having proofread a lot of stories for newer writers, I impart the show don’t tell advice often. This is because many writers spend most of their story filling the reader in on unnecessary back story about characters, telling the reader what they are like rather than showing them through dialogue and plot develpment. If you’d read some of these stories, you would see why I give the advice – the pace is poor and disengaging for the reader. It’s a common problem, which is why the advice exists. Successful writers, like the ones you have quoted, do not need this advice – they naturally tell well-crafted stories that include excellent character development.
Like I said before, I think your beef is with the name of the advice, not the advice itself.
I disagree entirely about researching magazines and publishers. A publisher often has a niche. For example, I publish humorous short stories in my competition. Humour is subjective, and I favour certain styles. If a writer reads previous anthologies, they are conducting market research and can see if my publication is suitable for their work. I don’t try and tell anyone what to write. Ever. But I do look for a certain type of story to publish. Writers should be as creative as they like. I know I am. However, I do conduct research before submitting anywhere. And that is why I have had so many stories published. I submit to suitable markets for my work. If a publication doesn’t look suitable for my style, I don’t submit. It’s not publishers telling writers how to write – they’re trying to stop a writer wasting their entry fee or time and effort by submitting to the wrong market. I have so much direct experience with this... I know it works because I’ve done it. And I have never felt stifled or like a publisher is trying to tell me what to do.
The point of my challenges is to make writers more aware of market trends. That’s what I did with the adverb challenge. If you are invited to break a ‘rule’ (I think ‘rule’ is the wrong word – ‘widely regarded best practice’ is probably better) you understand it better. And that improves your writing. All these rules can be broken, if done so cleverly. So you can be creative with it. My challenges are to make writers think about different bits of common advice, see how it relates to their writing and then form their own opinion about it. But it’s an informed opinion, because they’ve thought it through. It’s not trying to stifle creativity or originality – it’s supposed to encourage it.
Anyway, I’m waffling… sorry.
Health, happiness and the merriest of Christmases to you to :-)
3. From Keith to Chris, 23 November 2016 06:29
Dear Excellent Christopher,
No. Do not even consider suggesting your readers tell and not show. That would be as bad as the 'show don't tell' that I, and doubtless I alone, find so objectionable. Every writer is a teller of stories. The writer is a story-teller. The point I was making with my list, including J.K., who I have read only a little, is that they are known as story-tellers. Incidentally, if you haven't read Raymond Chandler - 'The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would let in troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armour rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn't have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn't seem to be really trying'. - you should right the wrong by the fall of night. My point is this: is Chandler telling his story or showing? In telling his story he is showing the reader the hallway of the Sternwood place. In showing his story to his readers he is telling the reader the Sternwoods were fabulously rich.
The teaching of fiction should be outlawed. Editors of magazines should not tell story-tellers how to tell their stories. 'Read our magazine to see what we like to publish' is repression of freedom of thought, the greatest restriction that can be brought upon the creative mind. Here are the opening lines of a story from 'Short Fiction'. "The Waterboarding of Mrs Elephant by Fridrik Solnes Jonsson. - 'The first thing my son Oliver usually does when he gets in the bath is pee in it. Now he just stands there with his knees slightly bent and lots of toys floating around. At its thickest his penis has the circumference of a cigarette and then tapers off toward the tip. It's hard to believe that in ten to fifteen years Oliver will actually be fucking woman with that.'
This is where literature is at. 'Show don't tell' is the wedge that is creating the downward spiral.
Everything is not hunky-dory. As a writer I am not so much average as defunct. I would sell my soul to the devil to be Chandler. I would turn to God not to have to write like Solnes Jonsson.
Wishing you health, happiness and a merry Christmas,
K.D.Knight, cynical washed-up-never-has-been, Bideford, Devon.
2. From Chris to Keith, 22/11/2016 - 10:15 (GMTST)
Nice to hear from you – I hope all is well with you.
I don’t publish this kind of thing on my website. Maybe I should develop a letters section… Hmm. I’ll add it to my extensive ‘to do’ list.
I see your point, but these storytellers (certainly Fleming and Rowling, who I have read) show the reader what is happening rather than telling them. It’s simply a style, and writers that tell the story by showing the reader what is happening tend to be more successful than those that tell them. So it sounds like your beef is with the name, rather than the advice itself?
While this isn’t something I’d publish, you will find other websites with ‘show don’t tell’ advice on them where you could leave this beef as a comment. That might work.
I’ve started running some writing challenges on the site. You can see them here. A ‘show don’t tell’ writing challenge could be a good one to run in the future – inviting people to tell the reader what is happening rather than showing them. I already have 3 new challenges in the pipeline and will only be running them every 3 or 4 months, so we’d be looking at the tail-end of next year for that. Would you be open to doing that?
1. From Keith to Chris, 22 November 2016 06:37
Or the excellent Christopher Fielden as I always refer to you.
I am trying to ignite a literary fist-fight over the phrase 'show don't tell'. As I know you wouldn't want another article from me I have written my beef within a letter to you. Perhaps you might consider publishing it on your web-site. I know I will take a whole lot of flak, some of it from you, but my point of view should not be censured:
Raymond Chandler told rattling good ‘whodunnits’, created around one of fictions most iconic private investigators. Ian Fleming told great spy stories. Jerome K Jerome told us about the adventures of George, Harris, Jay and Montmorency on the River Thames. Beatrice Potter told endearing stories for children. J.K.Rowling continues to tell wonderful fantasy stories.
All the above, as with hundreds of other writers, were and are great story-tellers. So how has the phrase or instruction ‘show don’t tell’ gained such prominence in recent times? I understand the meaning of what to me is a subtle form of censorship yet my imagination insists on the conspiracy of a committee convening in private to draw up a template for the writing of fiction. Perhaps to make life easier for hard-pressed editors of literary magazines and those who must adjudicate on literary competitions?
In the dictionary you will find the word ‘Storyteller’ – a relater of tales or anecdotes. You will not find the word ‘Storyshower’. To my uneducated mind the maxim ‘Show don’t tell’ is posh-nosh cooked up in the lecture halls of Creative Literature.
My beef is this: a good story is a good story no matter how it is written. And though I concede that literature must evolve it should not exclude. To ‘tell’ a good story is just as valid as to ‘show’. If it isn’t then the five writers I listed in the opening paragraph cannot be considered anything other than ordinary.