Continuing Education 4: Sometimes It’s Better to Tell Than Show
Erin Healy (right), owner of WordWright Editorial Services, used her 20 years of editing experience as she taught Sometimes it’s Better to Tell Than Show at the ACFW conference.
Healy, who has written two books with Ted Dekker and three on her own, said writing has rules and this course would provide conferees with the tools necessary to navigate those sometimes-confusing rules. Rules can stifle creativity or set it free, she said. It depends upon the viewpoint we, as writers, bring. Viewing rules as tenets instead of laws can be a helpful mindset.
How can rules free us?
Rules provide a foundation for our stories, Healy said, and give us the tools to build a solid foundation. Without that solid foundation, story-telling skill alone is not enough to make a story sing. Rules also establish useful boundaries, simplifying the writing process, and allow us to connect with our readers and have an impact on someone’s life.
Some writers view mastery of the rules as a sort of magic bullet that will create a perfect novel—one that sells like The Shack or The DaVinci Code. Healy cautioned against that view. We may have a technically perfect novel, but if the story doesn’t move the reader, what have we accomplished?
The dark side of rules
Come to the dark side . . . we have cookies. Healy added a twist to this T-shirt message: Her daughter’s version of the shirt adds: Are you really surprised we lied about the cookies?
The rules do not guarantee success. Rules can set us up with unrealistic promises of perfection and success. They can also lead to fear, confusion, arrogance, and stagnation—and can devalue individuality and the creative process.
Focusing on the rules to the exclusion of story is bad.
But rules are not bad—focusing on the rules to the exclusion of story is bad. When our intelligence is more engaged than our love for our readers, the rules are causing problems. “Rules give us a language to talk about our craft,” Healy said.
In the second session, Healy shared some examples of writers who took the time to learn the rules—and then broke them in ways that worked.
Four common rules
- Stay in tight point of view.
- Don’t address the reader.
- Keep your timeline linear.
- Don’t use present tense.
Erin shared examples from four authors and four books, one for each rule. Each author took the time to learn the rules, then learned how to break them.
Our creative process is loosely legislated. Find our own way. New writers—and some who have been around awhile—ask when they can break the rules.
There are two standard answers for this: “Just do it,” which Healy says can be a good exercise but makes a devastating habit, and “Only when you’re brilliant,” which begs the question, How do we know we’re brilliant? Both answers can paralyze us.
Six tips for when to break the rules
- When our question changes. When our focus shifts from the rules to concern for the reader and what’s best for the story.
- When our attitude matures. Healy quoted Paul here, “When I was young I thought and spake as a child.” Our attitudes mature with time and experience.
- When our story becomes the justification for breaking the rule. If we’re breaking rules just to break the rules, it won’t work. But when we break a rule in service of the story, it usually works.
- When we recognize laziness for what it is. We all have moments of laziness, but we shouldn’t break the rules because we’re too lazy to follow them.
- When we can explain what we’re trying to achieve. As well as how deviation from the rule helps us achieve it.
- When our response to “this isn’t working” is curiosity, not defensiveness.
Rules exist to serve the story. Story is always what is most important. “Don’t just be okay. Be excellent,” Healy said. In order to be excellent, we must understand the rules of our craft—and when it is and is not okay to break them.