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Lee Child Debunks the Biggest Writing Myths

Categories: How to Write a Mystery, Writing Thrillers, What's New Tags: thriller, ThrillerFest.

Like his famous protagonist, Jack Reacher, Lee Child is a bit of a rogue badass—especially when it comes to his thoughts on writing, and debunking popular 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 you show a joke? No, you tell it.

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

Child believes the average reader doesn’t care at all about telling, showing, etc. He or she just wants something to latch onto, something to carry them through the book. By following too many “rules,” you can lose your readers.

Don’t Start With the Weather

“If the weather is what’s on your mind, start with it,” Child said.

Simply put, all-time great Alistair MacLean did it all the time. Enough said.

Suspense is Created by X, Y, or Z

For instance: Suspense is created by having sympathetic characters. More and more, Child said, this rule doesn’t add up. Case in point: In The Runaway Jury by John Grisham, Child said there isn’t a sympathetic character in the entire book—there are bad guys, and worse guys. Instead of sympathetic characters, the book is driven by what the verdict of the trial at the heart of the story will be.

“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. (Think sports—Who has the most career grand slams?) Even if you don’t care about the answer, Child said, you stick around because you’re intrigued.

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.

When he’s crafting his books, Child doesn’t know the answer to his question, and he writes scene by scene—he’s just trying to answer the question as he goes through, and he keeps throwing different complications in that he’ll figure out later. And that very well may be the key to his sharp, bestselling prose.

“For me the end of a book is just as exciting as it is for a reader,” he said.

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24 Responses to Lee Child Debunks the Biggest Writing Myths

  1. Ciara Ballintyne says:

    These weren’t the ‘myths’ that sprang to mind when I read the title. Hardly the ‘greatest’ writing myths I would think.

    I agree with some other commentators that the mirror trick is both cliched and telling itself, although I do also agree that a judicious amount of telling may well be appropriate in some cases. however, I wouldn’t recommend ‘telling’ the whole story. I’m reading one right now, and while it’s interesting enough while reading it, as soon as I stop I lose all inclination to pick it up again. Oh, and Twitter is a mighty good distraction even when I am reading it.

    Weather… never heard this one. Opening with weather can be powerfully atmospheric. I might open a scene with weather, or a chapter – perhaps not a whole book, though, depending on how long it goes. Lack of a character for too long can make the reader wonder what they are reading – readers read for characters – good and bad ones.

    Also never heard the suspense rule. Suspense is created simply by making the reader want to know what happens next. I don’t think suspense has anything to do with sympathy as such.

    There were probably far more controversial writing rules to debunk – like the POV ones.

    Oh, and I don’t think writing rules are ‘rules’ as such. I regard them more as guidelines as to what works based on observable fact. A really engaging story will carry a reader past mediocre writing, and a writer who is good enough can break the rules in a way that works. While writing rules are not ‘hard and fast’, I do think it is important to understand how and why they work in order for a writer to understand how to effectively deviate from them. Stephen King masterfully deviates from some of the traditional POV rules because he knows how to do it so subtly the reader doesn’t even notice. Kind of like how scientists need to know how the laws of physics work before they run off and try and tie them in knots…

  2. mjhayslip says:

    I think one of my biggest literary disappointments this summer happened in the “Fifty Shades of Grey” series. That book series is all the rage right now with my facebook girlfriends, so of course I had to read and see what all of the hype is about. It’s true that E.L. James writes a fascinating sex scene. She definitely “Shows” not “tells.” I, in fact, learned quite a bit on that subject. She did fail me as a reader though, when she wrote about Christian Grey’s helicopter crash. I should have been in that helicopter with him. I should have experienced his anxiety and panic at possibly never seeing Ana again. I should have been on the edge of my seat wondering if he was going to make it back home at all. Instead I got a scene where Christian comes home and “tells” his family all about his fatal near miss.The actual “telling” by him had very few details. I was so disappointed by that. In fact, it was very anticlimatic for me. So the bottom line for me is…sometimes you might briefly describe or “tell” the reader something if it is not super significant. A writer must always “show” a significant scene in a way that the reader feels the same emotions as the main character. Otherwise, why did Christian’s helicopter go down in the first place?

    • Rina75 says:

      What are you talking about? The Fifty Shades books are all told from Ana’s point of view. SHE’S THE MAIN CHARACTER! She wasn’t in the helicopter with Christian, so how could EL James describe the experience? All she could describe was how Anna felt about it. My God.

  3. erb says:

    Thank you, Mr. Child, for providing me with an alternate approach.

  4. Naomi says:

    I think having a character look in a mirror and note their appearance for no reason other than letting the readers know what the character looks like is dull. However, if there is another reason for the character to note their appearance, then I think this can generate interest. Perhaps the character experienced an event that makes them wonder if they look different: a bar fight the night before; or, their first sexual encounter. To me, Mr. Child is making a point that the “show, don’t tell” rule is not hard and fast, which I think is excellent advice.

    I completely agree with Mr. Child’s second point. Sometimes, the weather is a secondary character in, or even the impetus for, a story.

    I disagree with the third point. Granted, characters should not to be 100% sympathetic. Such characters come across as being little other than victims, or one-dimensional. Still, I think the antagonist needs to have something about them that is sympathetic, even if the reader does not agree with, or like, the antagonist’s goals and actions. Just as the protagonist needs to have flaws; otherwise, their perfection makes them unbelievable.

    Mr. Child states, “The way to write a thriller is to ask a question a the beginning, and answer it at the end.” I think this is essential for every story, regardless of the genre.

  5. Labuschagne says:

    I fully agree with Lee Child.

    Thank you for posting this article. Writing is a freedom of expression. Freedom cannot be had if rules control it.

  6. Tom Gold says:

    ‘Show, don’t tell’ has been the rallying cry of every writer’s forum I’ve been a member of. How refreshing it is then to hear an established and successful writer saying its not necessary.

    My personal view is try to place the reader at the heart of the action and make him or her feel it. It takes a degree of ‘show’ to achieve this. However if we’re dealing with character descriptions or landscape then let’s just give the reader the info they need and get on with the stuff they bought the book for in the first place.

    Btw, Plumage, couldnt agree more with your closing statement!

  7. connieh says:

    Right or wrong, he certainly got everyone talking about it!

  8. plumage says:

    I don’t think Lee Child thinks show don’t tell is always a bad thing, I just think that people take it to extremes. The guy looking in the mirror and downloading his description is one of the biggest cliche’s in the book (so to speak). Read some top-notch literature and you will find few of them stick to these conventions. Take the ‘only use the word ‘said’ in dialogue attribution’ rule, Dostoyevsky didn’t do that, neither did most of the great novelists. I think these rules are only good for people who don’t have the sensitivity to make a good judgement. They are rules of thumb not laws. I think someone made a good comment though, that agents are full of not very sophisticated junior readers who might reject you for something very trivial which violates their personal style rules. But what the hell, you have to write the book the best way you know.

  9. I also disagree with the not having to show. Child’s use of the mirror cliche of why it’s not necessary to show, shows me that he doesn’t understand the meaning of the rule. I recently read a book that I wanted to like, but came away quite disappointed because the author told what happened to the main character rather than show through action scenes and dialog. As a result, I didn’t become invested in the character and hence the book. As Mark Twain said, “Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.”

    I also disagree with having likeable characters. As a reader, I find that if I don’t become invested in at least one character, I’m not too anxious to read more of that author’s books, even if I finish the one I started. I personally can’t become invested in the character if I don’t like the character. In that instance, I just as soon read a technical manual, where I can actually learn something. Other reader experience may vary.

  10. muddgirl says:

    “Show, don’t tell” doesn’t literally mean “never describe anything” – that would be impossible. Generally, people are talking about internal emotional states. Here’s some examples that I just made up of what people mean when they say “show” and “tell.”

    Here’s showing, using child’s example: “Over my menu, I peeked at the man at the other end of the diner. He was over 6′ tall and scars criss-crossed his face like it was a map. He removed his motorcycle jacket to shake off the rain and raised his arm to flag down a waiter. I could see a small heart-shaped tattoo on his bicep, the name underneath covered with harsh ugly black rectangle. His eyes swept across the room towards me. I quickly hid my face.”

    Here’s telling.: My ex-boyfriend came in to the diner. I was hiding from him because I just broke his heart and I thought he would kill me. He is menacing because he’s in a biker gang.

    Here’s showing, using the other example: “I looked in the mirror and instinctively recoiled from the scars criss-crossing my face. I gingerly probed a sore lump on the back of my head, then pried open my busted eye. ‘Oh, boy,’ I muttered to myself.”

    Here’s telling: “I saw my face in the mirror. Clearly I had been beat up a couple of times in the past. This Quantum Leap experiment sure does send me to some strange places!”

    There’s nothing *wrong* with “telling” as an abstract concept, but the amount you “tell” is going to depend on the audience. Children don’t have the capacity or experience to “put themselves in the narrators/character’s shoes”, so showing doesn’t really work on them – depending on their age, they can’t really empathise or draw from experience. Adults can do both those things, so telling all the time gets boring.

  11. JR MacBeth says:

    A good article. I’m not sure that we need to get hung up so much on the show / tell thing though. The way I read Lee’s advice is apparently not the way other readers are taking it. To me, I didn’t see the recommendation as a kind of “replacement dogma” at all, you certainly don’t “have to” tell, but telling is obviously preferable to contrivances like the mirror example. The real point isn’t all that novel, that is, any “rule” can be taken too far. If it becomes the kind of restriction that forces a writer to get away from reality, then that’s probably an example of how a rule went wrong.

    On the other hand, there’s no question in my mind that an established writer enjoys far more latitude than someone new, who might be prematurely judged by a small “rule” departure. That does seem to be a genuine risk, suggesting that some degree of caution is in order.

    Some great comments here!

  12. williamf129 says:

    Landman11′s got it right. Same with screenwriting. If you’re established you can break the rules. For the great unwashed, scripts go through “readers” for “covereage”, and coverage literally follows a rules template. And with very few exceptions, even established screenwriters will go through “development hell” where they are subjected to “notes”, the intention of which, usually, is to align the unruly script with the “rules”.

  13. I think the point here is a good writer can make anything work. A lesser writer needs training wheels to stop them falling over and bumping their heads. But at the end of the day it is going to be a more exciting journey with someone who is enjoying the ride more than worrying about whether they are going to fall off.

  14. S Neal says:

    Thank you, Lee. So much is written about sooo many rules to follow on writing a good story. The rules are getting in the way of the story. What a relief to hear you say this.

  15. Peachy_Sweet says:

    I don’t agree with the advice that the “Show, Don’t Tell” rule doesn’t need to be followed. In some cases it works, but if you just say he was “six feet tall with scars,” then I feel as if I’m reading a children’s story book. “Cinderella was kind and thoughtful with blonde hair tied up on her head and soot covering her clothes, but her stepmother and stepsisters were greedy and evil and made her do all the chores.”

    Young children (around four or five years old or so) usually can’t draw conclusions for themselves, so they need to be told. If I read something that’s just telling me what a character looks like or acts like, I feel as if the author thinks I’m not smart enough to get what they’re saying or that they didn’t take the time to come up with a more clever way to put descriptions of their characters in.

    I know these aren’t the author’s true intentions (or maybe they are), but that’s just the way I feel.

    Although I can agree with the rest of the material in this article, I think that Lee Childs just wanted to be viewed as different; a person who’s an exception to popular rules that everyone follows and breaks those very rules (like the typical high school bad boy that isn’t that bad). But some rules should be followed, and we need to accept that.

  16. Penny Graham says:

    As a female who loved Jack Reacher, I was shocked to see that Lee Childs actually endorsed the role being played by Tom Cruise. How about Roseanne Barr as Wonder Woman? As a reader who read and loved the books and the character, I felt like I was punched in the stomach by the acceptance of Tom Cruise as the actor who would play the role of Jack Reacher. If you do a search, you will see that I am not the only one enraged that Lee Childs would create a character so vivid that we would know Jack Reacher anywhere, but now we are to accept that a 5 foot 7 (or so) instead of a 6 foot 5 man would be “Jack Reacher. It tells me that Lee Childs was only interested in making the top dollar for his movie deal, and I don’t know about anyone else, but I probably won’t read any further books he writes about Jack Reacher because I will be unable to get that ugly inadequate picture out of my head. It sickens me.

  17. landman11 says:

    The problem is that Literary Agents and Publishers follow the rules. This is more proof that agents are out of touch with “normal” readers, who just want to read a good story. Once you are an established writer you can get away with breaking all the “rules,” but not so for the person trying to get their first book represented.

    • This is simply not true. There are novels picked up that don’t follow the rules. Publishers are only looking for a book that will garb a reader and keep them grabbed until the last page. They couldn’t give a rats turnip how the writer achieves that – as long as they do.

      For example J.K.Rowling described all her characters and I seem to remember she did fairly well with her first book.

      A publisher is a reader as is a literary agent – if they are grabbed and if they can fit the book into a recognisable marketable niche there is a good chance the book will get picked up eventually.

  18. mdcmdaw says:

    This article motivated me not to postpone what I posted on Facebook: “As our home fills with boxes that, along with furnishings, wait for movers; mixed with sadness I seek new hope in going back and forth to check on the remodeling of our next house. Each time it feels farther and the distance from decks overlooking mountains higher. My nights and mind race in urgency to stop or accelerate time, to write about him; the being without a soul that over twenty years ago, soon after life totally changed, filled me with visions and feelings as I lay in the dark terrified. How unreal that must sound. The marks he left on my body to make sure I had no doubts. Should I own a past with what moved me to write over 600 pages?”
    http://beentheredonthat.blogspot.com/

  19. I highly disagree with the first one: the almighty “character notes traits in the mirror” trope is just another way of telling! Picture this: you tell me in the first paragraph that your lead character is narcissistic. But then Joe Character never once looks in a mirror or comments on how amazing he looks. Suddenly when he looks in the mirror and those scars catch his eye and remind him of just how much the ladies will TOTALLY go for those scars…

    That’s showing. You’re showing the character trait. Out of context it just tells me in another form, what he looks like.

    You can SHOW me though, that the character is six feet tall with scars. Sure, you’re right, you can just say it and that’s not a sin until you get into the classic erotica trope of the laundry list of character traits. And, just as it’s not hot to read about how she had blond hair, C-38 breasts and was precisely five foot four, it’s dreadfully boring in any genre requiring a little bit of suspense. Write out the sequence where yet another arrow cuts through his skin, he hears Mary, the party rogue yelling for his help. She’s made it to the gate but that tiny human can’t possibly reach the latch to release the rest of their party. Joe can easily reach it, as he’s a good head taller than her.

    With this, you’ve shown me that Joe is a head taller than a short human and he’s in a fight and it’s not the first time. Instead of wasting time on “Joe, the six-foot tall and mysterious human”, well, his actions tell me what I need to know.

    I do agree that the “I list my traits in the mirror” is a problem in that it’s divorced from real life, but I don’t think the ideal replacement is to simply write “Joe was six feet tall and had scars.” Maybe it works, but while I have a mental image of all the characters in my Terry Pratchett novels I’m not entirely certain he’s ever written a character description of that ilk.

    The other two, though, I totally agree with: suspense is all about the question and the analysis of suspense in novels is very well written, and excellent advice.

    Good article, even if I don’t fully agree with it.

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