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Lee Child on writing rules
July 13, 2012 12:39 PM   Subscribe

Break common writing rules, Lee Child says. The author of the Jack Reacher thrillers tells us to ignore that advice about "Show, don't tell."

“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.
posted by BibiRose (98 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
Yes, children's authors often break the 'show, don't tell' rule. Because children don't have the capacity to understand alternate viewpoints/narrators, not to mention abstract concepts or metaphors.

Adults should have developed those concepts, so I do think it's important to exercise them when writing compelling stories for adults.
posted by muddgirl at 12:44 PM on July 13, 2012 [7 favorites]


He forgot "Don't let Paramount buy the rights to your books, for they will cast a short gay Scientologist".
posted by nicwolff at 12:47 PM on July 13, 2012 [30 favorites]


"I am going to be paid to an article for anxious struggling authors based on disingenuous fake-confusion between the words 'show' and 'tell'."

Also, film at 11: Sloppily-written books often are very popular!
posted by aught at 12:47 PM on July 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


it's ok, Lee. The "show don't tell" rule isn't really for you any more. Everyone's given up on explaining the nuances of it (and what it means) to you, Grisham and James Patterson already. Keep writing the way you do. Your audience has no problem with it and the people who have a problem with it are just fine not reading your books.
posted by shmegegge at 12:49 PM on July 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


This is some pretty generic advice and very short on actual content. I'm sorry, but I don't see a lot of value to this article.
posted by Think_Long at 12:50 PM on July 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


The best writers are rule breakers. As long as you understand the rules you are breaking go for it.
posted by cjorgensen at 12:50 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, because we all want to read page upon page of exposition.
posted by Ephelump Jockey at 12:51 PM on July 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Knowing when to compress or decompress a story via show/tell is something that seems to take a lifetime to really get instinctive. That being said, the more genre-y or action oriented your story is, the more telling you're going to use just to keep the pace up.

One problem a lot of those kinds of books have is that the 3rd person narrator tends to sound to same in all of them, regardless of who's writing and it's harder (for me at least) to create distinctive 1st person narrators - esp. unreliable ones.
posted by The Whelk at 12:51 PM on July 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Now we all know why I don't buy Lee Child's books.
posted by Ardiril at 12:53 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Child said there’s nothing wrong with simply saying the character was 6 feet tall, with scars.

I'm confused. Isn't that showing rather than telling (which would be more akin to simply saying that the character was intimidating or tough-looking)?
posted by juv3nal at 12:54 PM on July 13, 2012 [12 favorites]


I am a secret, slightly befuddled reader of various Jack Reacher books. I don't know that I would necessarily say that Lee Childs is a breaker of stuffy writing rules. And the way he writes Jack Reacher has led me to one single question.

The slim, attractive woman Jack Reacher inevitably beds in each novel (yes, I understand, she's thin, tell me more about how she's thin. Or tell me more about the time he bangs a lady his own age, and Childs spends paragraphs explaining that she's still pretty hot in spite of being old.) never seems to realize that Jack Reacher is a creepy sociopath. How is that possible?

One way I feel certain this would play out in real life is Reacher's obsession with not carrying luggage. He rolls into town in one set of clothes, wears it for a few days, buys another, throws the old one out. The books are full of long passages about Reacher buying a pack of socks and wearing them straight out of the bag, throwing out his previous ones. These passages always give me a specific kind of anxiety. I keep reading, wondering if anyone will ever say "Hey... haven't you been wearing that shirt for a week now?" or "What is that smell? It smells like weird chemicals. Are you wearing a t-shirt straight out of the package? That's what that smell is."

Not even the (very slim) ladies who swoon over Reacher's silent violence wonder these things. Whereas, as a lady, I feel certain I would notice that the hot violent badass without a past was still wearing the exact same outfit he was wearing when he got to town. And then I would start to wonder if he was homeless. But not Clint Eastwood-homeless, grim, unsexy homeless. And then I would start to ask things like "So, Jack... do you, uh, do you have a spare set of clothes in your car, or something?" and then ultimately I would not be able to have sex with him, no matter how large and deadly he was. Because I would be so worried by the fact that he is always throwing away barely-used socks, WHO DOES THAT.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 12:54 PM on July 13, 2012 [53 favorites]


I'll grant that the "character examines themselves in the mirror" trope can be a bit odd, but that's not at all the default case of "Show, don't tell" that I think of. It's usually more along the lines of the narrative telling you over and over that a character is, for example, very brave, but never having the character do anything remotely courageous.
posted by Karmakaze at 12:55 PM on July 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


“We’re not story showers,” Child said. “We’re story tellers.”

Somebody might want to let Child know that the "show, don't tell" thing is a metaphor.
posted by The World Famous at 1:00 PM on July 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Lee Child is now an authority on "the way to write"? I look forward to lessons in music theory from Katy Perry.
posted by mkultra at 1:00 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Katy Perry is a strong advocate of showing rather than telling WRT peacocks.
posted by The Whelk at 1:01 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I like Elmore Leonard's rules a lot better. And they say don't open with the weather.
posted by ubiquity at 1:02 PM on July 13, 2012 [5 favorites]


metafilter: ultimately I would not be able to have sex with him, no matter how large and deadly he was.
posted by Think_Long at 1:02 PM on July 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Are these books worth reading? Or, which of them is most worth reading I guess.
posted by scunning at 1:05 PM on July 13, 2012


They are pretty fun if you like that sort of thing (as I do, at least sometimes). The writing mostly stays out of the way, which, when the plot is all go-go-go, is not the worst thing in the world.
posted by rtha at 1:07 PM on July 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


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

So did Ernest Borgnine, but I think that's a rather personal topic and not relevant to discussion of literature.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 1:08 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


thehmsbeagle: "Whereas, as a lady, I feel certain I would notice that the hot violent badass without a past was still wearing the exact same outfit he was wearing when he got to town"

Are you thin, though?
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 1:13 PM on July 13, 2012


But wait, your kid then is asked by their math teachers to "show" their work! REBUNKED.
posted by fleacircus at 1:14 PM on July 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


Prefer the showing to the telling.

My fav is the droids in Star Wars. They suck you right in by refusing to tell you what R2-D2 is saying. You have to pay attention to context in the conversation. And once they have you there, they do plot explication perfectly.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:15 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Lee Child is now an authority on "the way to write"? I look forward to lessons in music theory from Katy Perry.

Katy Perry writes incredibly catchy pop songs that stick in your head and Lee Child writes incredibly tight thrillers that are nearly impossible to put down (if you like that sort of thing). Neither one of them is going to change the world, but it's simply wrong to claim they aren't good at what they do. They are both exceptionally good at what they do.
posted by The Bellman at 1:16 PM on July 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


Katy Perry writes incredibly catchy pop songs that stick in your head

She does? I would love to hear some songs Katy Perry has written. I really like some of the songs she sings, but I don't think I've ever heard one she wrote.
posted by The World Famous at 1:19 PM on July 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Lee Child is now an authority on "the way to write"?

Sure, if you want to write like Lee Child. He's "an" authority. There cannot be only one!
posted by rtha at 1:22 PM on July 13, 2012


The Jack Reacher movie looks unintentionally hilarious. Tom Cruise looks horribly miscast.
posted by octothorpe at 1:26 PM on July 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Break common writing rules like having US characters speak US English? Although, to be fair, Child is better with this than he was.

I love the Jack Reacher books; they are real page-turners. I read them attentively despite their disconnection from reality. Tom Cruise was always the perfect Jack Reacher.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:27 PM on July 13, 2012


Child said there’s nothing wrong with simply saying the character was 6 feet tall, with scars.

That is not what that means.
posted by Artw at 1:29 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Katy Perry has co-writing credits for all her hit songs. I don't know if that's an Elvis-style thing or if she's co-written them all, because I don't follow her.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:30 PM on July 13, 2012


Katy Perry writes incredibly catchy pop songs that stick in your head and Lee Child
writes incredibly tight thrillers that are nearly impossible to put down (if you
like that sort of thing). Neither one of them is going to change the world, but it's
simply wrong to claim they aren't good at what they do. They are both
exceptionally good at what they do.
posted by The Bellman

They're good at what they do and what they do isn't good. Not that folks can't dig it, but I don't like the idea that this article presents Child is some kind of authority on the craft. I'd be far more likely to listen to Leonard on this kind of thing. There's a guy that can write a tightly plotted thriller with real momentum. This is just that classic lowest common denominator stuff that's going to sell no matter what. Ignore writing rules if you want to sell shit. It's harmless on the whole, but that doesn't make it quality. To be fair to Child, I've never read his work, so there's that. Plus, now I want to reread the Dresden books by Butcher so I should probably shut up.
posted by Ephelump Jockey at 1:31 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Dude, what kind of idiot thinks that suspense is generated by sympathetic characters? (This reads like a giant typo. Shouldn't it be "sympathetic characters in jeopardy?) Or that suspense is generated by questions? The former is certainly nonsense, as Child points out. The latter is also nonsense, because without emotional investment by the audience, it's not suspense, it's just curiosity.

The writers of "Lost" kept making that mistake. "The viewers don't know what's going on! SUSPENSE!" -sigh-

It's not complicated. Put a character in a position where a nasty or unpleasant outcome is likely. Then delay any outcome at all. "Janey Sue is about to take a test for which she hasn't studied...but then the teacher leaves the room for an undetermined amount of time. SUSPENSE!"

Fiction, like a joke, is often built of setup-to-payoff structures ("Setup: there's a gun in his hand. Payoff: he eats it!") If you create a setup and delay the payoff, you generate suspense. It's akin to asking a question and delaying the answer, but it's not the same thing.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 1:32 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


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.

Now, I've never read a Lee Child book, so I don't know. But it sounds like Lee Child doesn't know a goddam thing about what any words mean: sympathetic characters doesn't mean 'People you want to be friends with.'
posted by shakespeherian at 1:32 PM on July 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


Because I would be so worried by the fact that he is always throwing away barely-used socks, WHO DOES THAT.

Guglielmo Marconi, father of the wireless, THAT'S WHO.

When she caught him surreptitiously shoving dirty socks out of the porthole, she was aghast. With what bravado he could muster, Marconi explained that it was easier to buy new ones than to wait for the laundry.
posted by Comrade_robot at 1:39 PM on July 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


Based on thehmsbeagle's post I'm hoping that Tom Cruise just does his character from Magnolia for the entire movie
posted by theodolite at 1:48 PM on July 13, 2012


Okay, my Lee Child screed. I went to NPR's list of 100 top thrillers selected by their audience. They had 17,000 people vote and they were NPR listeners, so I expected a modicum of quality. I counted 27 books I had already read out of 100 including a few regrets. Dan Brown is there (a regret), but then I thought this is, in part, a popularity contest, if people hadn't read it, it wouldn't get votes.

So, from the list I selected The Killing Floor by Lee Child. Ouch. I want to kick his editor, somebody should have been there to squeeze him by the throat and say, don't do this to your readers. The main character is a drifter who picks a virtually random town to visit. He is accused of murder. The murder victim in this random town is later discovered to be his brother (who lives about a thousand miles away). I kept hoping, begging that the book would provide some explanation about how this wasn't really a kick-the-reader-in-the-head coincidence. It would have been so easy, a throwaway line. (My God, it wasn't random at all, it was a shared childhood memory, please throw me a bone.)

And then there is the main character's detective skills. When trying to track down someone who left the town, he happens to land at the exact motel about 120 miles away. How? Because he looked at the spokes of the roads heading out of the nearby beltway and he decided his target must have gone counterclockwise in choosing the direction. As he puts it, "Give people a free choice, they always go counterclockwise. It's a universal truth." (I pulled out the book just to find this ludicrous quote.) This stupidity actually made me angry. Most of the fun of the writer comes when you have to invent a rational reason for the good detecting going on. Again I wanted to strangle the editor, the writer and everyone who purchased a copy to make this a bestseller. (Oh, I guess that last group includes me.)

Lee Child hates readers.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 1:50 PM on July 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


The Jack Reacher movie yt looks unintentionally hilarious. Tom Cruise looks horribly miscast.

Wow. That's horrible.
posted by madajb at 1:52 PM on July 13, 2012


The murder victim in this random town is later discovered to be his brother (who lives about a thousand miles away). I kept hoping, begging that the book would provide some explanation about how this wasn't really a kick-the-reader-in-the-head coincidence.

So, it's been some time since I've read that book, but doesn't it say somewhere in there that his brother told him to check out that town?
So, amazing coincidence, yes, but not completely out of the blue for a summer "beach book".
posted by madajb at 1:57 PM on July 13, 2012


I quite reading Grisham when his books starting sounding like hastily written screenplays. (The Confession was a nice exception, I only read it because someone left it behind in a hotel room). Lee Child's books read the same way. If I want to read a screenplay, I'll pick one of Nora Ephron's.
posted by Kokopuff at 1:57 PM on July 13, 2012


madajb: No, his brother didn't tell him to check out the town. The character, Jack Reacher, went to the small town in Georgia (population seems to be in the 100s) because of an old jazz musician who he liked who lived and died there. The brother was visiting the town because he was with the Treasury investigating counterfeit.
To run into his brother would have been a pretty big coincidence. To be accused of the murder of his brother was ludicrous. And to be clear, it would have been a little less ludicrous if the police and Jack Reacher knew it was his brother early on - your brother is dead? As family you are a suspect. No, Reacher is arrested for the murder and the big reveal later on is that the victim was his brother.

I hate to judge a writer by one book - but the advice in that link is really crappy also. Is it possible to tell and not show and write well? Yes. However, 99% of tell and not show is lazy, pained writing and looks very amateur. Just because we use terms "tell a story" doesn't equate with "Tell Don't Show." Maybe Jack Reacher thinks it does.

He attacks "to have suspense make characters sympathetic." I think he's confusing this with: the only way to have suspense is to make characters sympathetic. When you care about a character, even a small threat plays big. While it is a matter of opinion, I thought his example failed. I thought the protagonist in Runaway Jury was sympathetic and Big Tobacco, clearly villainous.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 2:11 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Every short statement of writing advice is overstating its position to warn against a particular kind of mistake. One reason you're encouraged to "show, don't tell" is because showing is more convincing than telling. A common newbie mistake is to, for instance, tell us how competent and cool and collected a character is, and then show the character freaking out over something, intending to impress on the reader just how extreme the situation is that this cool and collected character is freaking out. And that might work if the writer had shown the character being cool and collected. Without that, readers will just think the character is an idiot and either forget they'd ever been told about how cool the character was, or wonder why the narrative said that when it's clearly wrong.

Choosing what to show and what to tell is one of the important things a writer does. So Child is right, of course, but it's not exactly a shocking statement.
posted by Zed at 2:18 PM on July 13, 2012 [7 favorites]


I started reading these a few months ago mainly because I can get them on Kindle from the library (and, I really did enjoy the first one in a totally guilty pleasure kind of way). I'm up to number five, and I gotta tell you, I feel like I've taken on some kind of burden. While I know it's within my power just to quit reading them, part of me feels like a quitter.

A funny thing about his books is that they're so fluffy and simple to read that I expect it should be mindless and fun. But it's like a goddamn job. Even this morning I was reading on the bus and I thought, okay, 73% of the way done. Just another 27% to go. I can do it. Like I was running a fucking race or something.
posted by MoonOrb at 2:21 PM on July 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


Dude couldn't even come up with a compelling name for himself. I will pass on his advice. And anyway, if your ear is good enough you can ignore the rules. If your audience is sufficiently uncritical I suppose the same applies.
posted by tigrefacile at 2:24 PM on July 13, 2012


Casting Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher is breaking all the rules. He looks like Mighty Mouse in that trailer. Reacher's trademark is his size. His violence demands it.
posted by pdxpogo at 2:31 PM on July 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


*head desk*

No, "showing" does not mean you have to "show" someone is tall and has scars over having a character or narrator "tell" you this information.

It means not having the narrator tell you someone's state of mind or feelings when showing is the best way to do this.

This guy is a pro writer?
posted by clvrmnky at 2:34 PM on July 13, 2012


"Saying the character was 6 feet tall, with scars," that he likes to bang one thin woman per book, that he's violent, and doesn't mind wearing the same pair underwear for a few days in a row, is telling.

Casting Tom Cruise is showing that the movie will be a steaming pile of crap. The only actor who could be more miscast in that role would be Woody Allen, and truthfully he might actually be better.
posted by Forktine at 2:38 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


“And that’s how you create suspense,” he said—it all boils down to asking a question and making people wait for the answer.

No, this is how you create suspense.
posted by martinrebas at 2:47 PM on July 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


The only actor who could be more miscast in that role would be Woody Allen, and truthfully he might actually be better.

I would so totally go see a septuagenarian Woody Allen play a tough-guy detective (or so I'm supposing the character to be, having never heard of him outside this thread.)
posted by Zed at 2:48 PM on July 13, 2012


No, his brother didn't tell him to check out the town...Reacher is arrested for the murder and the big reveal later on is that the victim was his brother.

It's not going to change your opinion of a book you didn't enjoy, but others who may be considering checking these books out should know you may have missed a few things: His brother sent him the note about the old musician dying there. He's arrested because he's the only stranger in a small town after the murder is discovered and the victim identification comes pretty early on in the book.

I realize they're not great literature, but they're an enjoyable page turner and, for all his 'rule-breaking' Child does more showing than telling. The counter-clockwise thing mentioned above, even if it's not true, which I don't know, is part of a longer explanation about how a small set of information allowed him to track someone down. It's a handy device to show the willing reader how the character's background helped him in this situation.
posted by IanMorr at 2:52 PM on July 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think the advice to show and not tell is completely overrated. Great authors like Melville and Faulkner told all the time and they were by far the more interesting for it. Whereas the edict against telling that now reigns over contemporary literature has inspired acres of tedious, prosaic literary gardens, each one dutifully planted by someone taught to write in the same charmless house style. Readers of such works must derive satisfaction mainly from the edifying knowledge that this kind of writing is real literature.
posted by shivohum at 3:03 PM on July 13, 2012


The counter-clockwise thing mentioned above, even if it's not true, which I don't know, is part of a longer explanation about how a small set of information allowed him to track someone down. It's a handy device to show the willing reader how the character's background helped him in this situation.

I read a lot of pulp and have a pretty high tolerance for implausible coincidence, but trying to explain something in a totally stupid way is a different matter. I mean "counterclockwise" doesn't even explain anything like, oh, I dunno, from which freaking spoke you start counting. Better to not even try and just have the detective guess and luck out IMO. (I haven't read the book in question though so maybe I'm mischaracterizing the explanation).
posted by juv3nal at 3:06 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


"counterclockwise" doesn't even explain anything like, oh, I dunno, from which freaking spoke you start counting.

Maybe I just have the afternoon stupids, but why would it matter? If you're looking at a map of a town that has, say, four roads leading into and out of it and they're conveniently placed at 12, 3, 6, and 9, how would it matter if you started at 3 or started at 12? Counterclockwise is still the the same.
posted by rtha at 3:21 PM on July 13, 2012


because if you are only going to investigate one road, starting from 3 and going one counterclockwise gives you 12. starting from 12 and going 1 counterclockwise gives you 9. etc. then all roads are equally viable depending on where you start.
posted by juv3nal at 3:24 PM on July 13, 2012


The whole point of the Reacher character is his decisiveness. It's fun escapist fiction because he's so exagerated; there's never a moment of dithering or indecisiveness. He sees two guys walking towards him, and he reads instantly in their body language that they mean harm, so he crushes their throats and just keeps walking towards the icecream stand where he orders a cone. He sees a map, he chooses a route, that simple.

He knows to go counterclockwise in the same way he knows that the guys are hired thugs who are going to attack him. In real life no one knows any of this, we get lost and mugged and we can't even decide what shirt to wear for dinner. Reacher is pure action, though probably pretty ripe by the third day before buying his next set of clothes.

Worrying about realism is the wrong metric -- the books are as unreal as a vampire novel.
posted by Forktine at 3:31 PM on July 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


Oh, right - of course.

I don't remember the details of the book anymore (they all kind of blend together after a while) and maybe this actually came up in a different Reacher book, but the "counterclockwise" starts at the most likely entrance. Not that that makes a ton more sense, granted, but in the bit I'm thinking of, he's already deduced (or knows) which direction the person he's looking for was coming from, so he's not randomly picking a spoke.
posted by rtha at 3:32 PM on July 13, 2012


A funny thing about his books is that they're so fluffy and simple to read that I expect it should be mindless and fun. But it's like a goddamn job.

I'm not sure what you're talking about, MoonOrb. Lee Childs is all about the taut, propulsive Hemingway-esque prose. Here, check it out as we join an assassination in progress:

He drove the van into the slot and shut it down. Sat still for a moment. The garage was quiet. It was completely full with silent cars. The slot he had protected with the traffic cone had been the last one available. The garage was always packed. He knew that. That was why they were extending it. They were doubling its size. It was used by shoppers. That was why it was quiet. Nobody in their right mind would try to leave at five o'clock. Not into rush hour traffic. Not with the construction delays. Either they would get out by four or wait until six.

[Page-long decription of sniper rifle specifications omitted, and...]

He listened to the silence and lifted the rifle off the rear bench. Carried it away with him to where the old part of the garage finished and the new part began. There was a half-inch trench between the old concrete and the new. Like a demarcation line. He guessed it was an expansion joint. For the summer heat. He guessed they were going to fill it with soft tar.

By creatively jetisonning those staid old writing rules, you too can make the reader feel exactly like they're staring at cracked pavement.
posted by ormondsacker at 3:33 PM on July 13, 2012 [6 favorites]


man, I guess the whole "show don't tell" thing is so oft-repeated that it's descended into general meaninglessness for everyone.

show don't tell doesn't mean you show what happens instead of telling it, or that you avoid exposition.

show don't tell is talking about feeling and motivation. You show how your characters feel or why they do the things they do instead of explaining it.

Tell: John was furious. He got in his car and drove off, quickly. Too quickly. When they later learned he'd wrapped it around a tree and died, the shock was palpable. Sue felt responsible. She ran off crying when she heard the news, saying if it hadn't been for their fight he'd still be alive.

Show: Well, you can't give an example in the space of a comment, because it takes much longer to successfully deliver that information when you're writing the way people mean when they say "show don't tell." Instead of just saying those things you show the fight that began it. The audience learns John is furious because he's acting furious. He drives off, and you can say that however you want, but then more story happens and maybe later someone runs in during another scene and says "Oh my god. John. He" etc... and the news is delivered. People then react the way they would. You get the impression that sue feels guilty not because she runs off screaming that she feels guilty but because you describe (or just allude to) a more natural reaction that tells the reader exactly how she feels.

it's like how, when you hear a story someone tells you about a tragedy, you can absolutely be moved when they say "then [tragic thing x] happened." But often enough, and we can all recall examples like this, if you go into a discussion with them about it, they'll return to details that drove the tragedy home. They'll recall the effect it had on their behavior. "I couldn't leave my room for a week," or "I remember staring at the tv for hours and not even noticing what was on it. In fact, it may have been off." or things like that. These are what can really drive the feeling of that tragedy home to us during these conversations. These are connectors between who's speaking and who's listening. If someone says "I lost my child" we can all grieve. We can all feel that sorrow, and sympathize and feel horrible about it. But when we see what it does to them, how it affects them across a range of actions and a length of time, that's when it connects us more directly to what they're feeling, because even if you've never personally felt that loss, you've felt something that's caused you to react that way. You can say to yourself, "I've reacted like that. I've felt things that caused that."

It's a sign of how little Lee Child understands the concept that he thinks it's about whether or not you describe someone's scars directly. It has nothing to do with that. Description is part of writing. And the truth is that even he obeys the rule to some degree, because instead of writing the sentence "Jack Reacher doesn't care about the law. He's a badass who can beat the shit out of anybody" he instead has someone describe why Jack's come after them (because he doesn't care about the law) and he instead shows Jack Reacher beating the shit out of a bunch of guys.
posted by shmegegge at 3:36 PM on July 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


So Reacher is basically Parker, only less awesome?
posted by Artw at 3:54 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I wrote this comment over on the article, but it's stuck in moderation. I'm quite proud of the examples I thought up off the top of my head - I haven't written basically any amount of fiction in about 10 years.
“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!”
posted by muddgirl at 4:03 PM on July 13, 2012 [9 favorites]


I've always thought the egregious examples of Telling rather than Showing were when you summed up a character. He was a tough guy. Versus showing the person doing something tough.
If you can, express a piece as a scene in a silent movie: with gestures, physical descriptions, story action, you convey the character memorably. (6 foot 1 with scars is okay, and is showing something).
Lee Child has no idea what Show Don't Tell means. (Or what it means to say sympathetic character.) And gives the absolute wrong reason to start with weather. (Because it is on your mind.) He doesn't seem to know what debunk means, though that might be the writer of the article.
And yes, I did leave out parts of what character above used to find the person at the motel. The counterclockwise was essential. He wanted to feel far away but not too far (thus about 120 miles). He had been gone for several days and each day was a new spoke on the hub, so he could count out which spoke was the correct one for that day - although that he was on the other spokes the previous days was unknown to the detective. These additional bits didn't really help convince me.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 4:29 PM on July 13, 2012


Yeah, I can't believe people thought it would be ok to cast Tom Cruise as Reacher. I had no idea that they were even making a movie, and just the other day I saw Haywire, and was thinking that Channing Tatum would make a pretty perfect Jack Reacher. He's big and has some acting chops. Tom Cruise, arguably, has some acting chops, but he ain't big by any stretch. Missed opportunity, that.
posted by zardoz at 4:53 PM on July 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


This is just to say Haywire is excellent and people see it, it's like a female James Bond as directed by French New Wave.
posted by The Whelk at 5:01 PM on July 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


You can't just have your characters announce how they feel! That makes me feel angry!
posted by bleep at 5:05 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thirding Woody Allen. I'd want it played totally straight, though. He'd go around crushing people's throats and beating the shit out of people in bars to solve a crime and everyone is terrified of him, but he's his normal neurotic self, just wrapped in black leather.
posted by Sangermaine at 5:05 PM on July 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


You know who wrote great exposition in his stories? Lord Dunsany.
posted by wobh at 5:10 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is just to say Haywire is excellent and people see it, it's like a female James Bond as directed by French New Wave.

I would happily have Gina Carano's babies, and that movie should have been perfect for me. Every element is up my alley -- violence, Michael Fassbinder, espionage... I was really looking forward to it. But it took everything I had to not just fast forward. Other than the restaurant scene, I don't think there was a minute of good acting (or perhaps good directing; I wouldn't want to unfairly blame the actors alone) in the entire movie.

But it's a good example here, in that Gina Carano would be a million times more convincing as Jack Reacher than Tom Cruise ever could be. She'd need some fake scars, and I have trouble imagining her being happy with low-end no-label socks (and definitely not with wearing those same socks for days until the next shopping trip), but she could kick ass and take names like Reacher and look good doing it.
posted by Forktine at 5:11 PM on July 13, 2012


The fight scenes had excellent blocking.
posted by The Whelk at 5:24 PM on July 13, 2012


Reacher is James Bond without the evening clothes or the sense of humor. He's fucking indestructible and he always pulls the right answer out of his ass. This is why Tom Cruise is the perfect Jack Reacher, because he is an animated GI Joe doll (or Action Man, I suppose, given that it's Lee Child).

Reacher isn't real. You never believe in him for a second.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:24 PM on July 13, 2012


And I say this as someone who enjoys the books.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:25 PM on July 13, 2012


Cruise does love that kind of character, it's one of his least endearing qualities.

I'm pretty sure they told him he was the good guy in Collatoral.
posted by Artw at 5:28 PM on July 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


Forktine: "But it's a good example here, in that Gina Carano would be a million times more convincing as Jack Reacher than Tom Cruise ever could be. She'd need some fake scars, and I have trouble imagining her being happy with low-end no-label socks (and definitely not with wearing those same socks for days until the next shopping trip), but she could kick ass and take names like Reacher and look good doing it."

Actually, gender-switching stuff like this is almost never done (the exception I can think of was Salt, where the lead was male and supposed to be played by Tom Cruise), but when you think about it, it would almost always make the movie more interesting. Salt certainly was. Let's do a female Bond next. Or sexual preference switch, a gay Bourne would be interesting.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 5:30 PM on July 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


You can't have gay spies! That's not realistic!
posted by Artw at 5:32 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


The director of The Transporter 2 says the character is supposed to be read as gay.

Daniel Craig has said he'd be okay if Bind got to seduce some guys cause he's supposed to be a secret agent.

Tinker Tailor Solider Spy has a rare reversal of the Hide Your Gays trope, in which a straight character was queered up in the adaptation to push up some of the themes.
posted by The Whelk at 5:35 PM on July 13, 2012


Actually, gender-switching stuff like this is almost never done (the exception I can think of was Salt, where the lead was male and supposed to be played by Tom Cruise)

Ripley in Alien was supposed to be a man.
posted by shakespeherian at 5:42 PM on July 13, 2012


That may have been a little joke there.
posted by Artw at 5:48 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


And of course gay perry.
posted by The Whelk at 6:13 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, back to my lean bullet prose of Andrew Vachss. At least Burke hung out with awesome ragtag people, had that fucked up assassin 'friend' (Wesley) and they all beat up pedophiles.
posted by snap_dragon at 6:13 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Actually, gender-switching stuff like this is almost never done (the exception I can think of was Salt, where the lead was male and supposed to be played by Tom Cruise)

I thought that was Tom Cruise...
posted by snap_dragon at 6:15 PM on July 13, 2012


My suggestion, in complete seriousness: don't read this article. Don't read any article that proposes to give you "rules about how to write."

Read books. Read stories you like. Then sit and write. If you've read enough, you'll find you have an inner voice that knows what to do. If you find your writing is awkward and ugly, then stop writing and go read some more.

But, from my experience, the only useful thing I've obtained by "reading about writing" is about the mechanical bits like punctuation and grammar. Reading about writing is like reading about carpentry; maybe it's diverting, but to make something, you actually have to swing the hammer.
posted by SPrintF at 6:25 PM on July 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Tom Cruise, arguably, has some acting chops, but he ain't big by any stretch.

Other than the height thing, which is so glaringly obviously wrong that it must have taken an extra zero to make Lee Child sign over the rights, the thing for me is Cruise's voice.

I don't recall if they ever describe Reacher as having an accent, but in my head, it's kind of laconic, gravely, deep-ish voice. Definitely not Tom Cruise's pipsqueak of a voice.
posted by madajb at 6:30 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I love this shot from the end of the trailer. Cruise is trying real hard to look menacing but looks like a skinny fifty-year old man.
posted by octothorpe at 6:42 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Jack Reacher movie looks unintentionally hilarious.

Jesus. Whoever wrote that dialog was one "Aw, fuck it" away from calling Reacher "a loose cannon."

Seriously. The tough guy ex-cop thing comes across as so cliche, it's parody; I can't take it seriously. For a half second, I really thought they were going to tell us his first partner was killed; now he has to learn to work with his new partner, who's an English Bobby/a talking velociraptor/a box of thumbtacks.

So Reacher is basically Parker, only less awesome?

*Points at Artw.*

Don't.

Not even in the same sentence, friend. Not even in the same sentence.
posted by Amanojaku at 7:12 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


thehmsbeagle: Because I would be so worried by the fact that he is always throwing away barely-used socks, WHO DOES THAT.

Comrade_robot: Guglielmo Marconi, father of the wireless, THAT'S WHO.

If I'm remembering right, this sock habit is also true of the supervillain in Superman III.
posted by spbmp at 7:14 PM on July 13, 2012


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

Out of the thirty books on my shelves, only 3 mention the weather in the first paragraph: A Clockwork Orange, The Baron in the Trees, and Franny and Zooey. Even books that I remember as having weather in them (Charles Dickens) don't start with it.
posted by betweenthebars at 8:40 PM on July 13, 2012


Come on, guys, even the great Dickens starts his most famous novel with telling:

"It was the best of times..."

Surely he could have just shown us how good the times were.
posted by muddgirl at 8:46 PM on July 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


Seriously. The tough guy ex-cop thing comes across as so cliche, it's parody; I can't take it seriously. For a half second, I really thought they were going to tell us his first partner was killed; now he has to learn to work with his new partner, who's an English Bobby/a talking velociraptor/a box of thumbtacks.

So Reacher is basically Parker, only less awesome?

*Points at Artw.*

Don't.

Not even in the same sentence, friend. Not even in the same sentence.


Mel Gibson.
posted by Artw at 9:04 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oops. Overdid the cut and paste there.
posted by Artw at 9:04 PM on July 13, 2012


One of the very few decent ideas I had while teaching writing at the early undergrad level was, to Google up a few of those endless lists of rules for writers - the Guardian did a particularly encyclopaedic survey a few years back - and ask the kids to pick the rule they thought most helpful and the rule they thought most deserved to be broken. It led to a great conversation.

I kind of love these lists of rules for very much that reason - every writer comes up with them, because codifying some consistency is the only way to stay sane. It doesn't make any rules sacrosanct; but these rules do provide a glimpse into the ever-shifting guidelines that writers use to guide themselves.
posted by bicyclefish at 9:20 PM on July 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


1. A guy's (daughter/wife/son/pet frog) is (killed/kidnapped) by (-----------).
2. Lots of car chase scenes.
3. and Explosions.
4. Automatic weapons.
5. He knows Kick Fu.
6. An electric timer is counting backwards.
7. Hot woman in tight clothes knows Kick Fu, too.

What else do you need to know? Okay, I guess you could tie him up and beat him with a stick for a while if you need to expand your word count.
posted by mule98J at 11:41 PM on July 13, 2012


Yeah, because we all want to read page upon page of exposition.

Judging by Neal Stephenson's sales figures, yes, we do.

ut it's like a goddamn job. Even this morning I was reading on the bus and I thought, okay, 73% of the way done. Just another 27% to go. I can do it.

You are allowed to not finish books you're not enjoying, you know. And why read unentertaining pulp when there is so much good, entertaining pulp around?
posted by MartinWisse at 2:03 AM on July 14, 2012


I am not a huge hater on most of Cruise's movies, with Collateral and the Last Samurai as some faves. I am wondering if this simply would go over better if it just was a movie without Jack Reacher as the character. Not go over great, per se, but better. Granted he does look like a small constipated 50 year old man in the previous poster's link versus 50 year old bad ass. Screw it, you all convinced me. I'm gonna see Taken 2 instead, even though that looks damn bad, too. If Rip Taylor was cast to play Reacher, now that would be better. Kill 'em with confetti, Rip!
posted by snap_dragon at 3:28 AM on July 14, 2012


You are allowed to not finish books you're not enjoying, you know

There's kind of a weird mentality that sets in (for me) when I'm reading a 'genre novel' series that started out good but is getting increasingly formulaic. This happened to me with the Kay Scarpetta series - the first book was quite engaging, but by the 5th or 6th novel I was scoffing more than I was enjoying it. But I couldn't put them down! It was like, there was just enough good stuff to keep topping up the 'good stuff' tank, even as the 'bad stuff' tank was overflowing. It does start to feel like work - like one part of my brain really needs to finish this book, but the other part of my brain is SO BORED.

Eventually I did stop reading mid-book when a main character seemed to be drastically ret-conned purely to increase sensationalism.
posted by muddgirl at 6:55 AM on July 14, 2012


Are these books worth reading? Or, which of them is most worth reading I guess.

If I had to recommend a Lee Child book, it might be 'Echo Burning.'
posted by box at 11:52 AM on July 14, 2012


If I had to recommend a Lee Child book, it might be 'Echo Burning.'



One of the main characters in Echo Burning is a Harvard educated lawyer from A rich New York family who moved to a nowhere West Texas town to do public interest law for five years after graduating as a way of giving back. Also, she's hot and wears a sports bra to work instead of a shirt. Also, she keeps a semi automatic handgun in her glove compartment. Also, she's a lesbian. She is one of Child's more complex female characters.
posted by MoonOrb at 1:51 PM on July 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


Child said there’s nothing wrong with simply saying the character was 6 feet tall, with scars.

Origin story: Batman is 6 feet tall, with emotional scars. He fights crime.
posted by ersatz at 2:20 PM on July 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


Child laments the fact that the rise of e-books is hurting bookshops. “It is individual stores, independents and some chains that create new authors. They invest in them and push them. That mechanism has been finely tuned and is going to disappear completely. Where will new authors get their start?”

I point out that some authors have turned to electronic self-publishing, using their fame to attract readers, and ask if he is tempted. This offends his Reacher-like sense of honour. “It is a version of what authors sometimes do when they reach my stage and the next deal is gigantic. They get rid of their agent and do it themselves. I feel that is so disgusting ... Agents and publishers work for years at the beginning, often at a loss. You can’t cut them out. That’s not ethical.”


Off topic, but original, give him that.
posted by BWA at 4:34 PM on July 14, 2012


Origin story: Batman is 6 feet tall, with emotional scars. He fights crime.

5 years from now when they reboot the movies they should stick that on a title card and be done with it.
posted by Artw at 4:43 PM on July 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


Artw: "Origin story: Batman is 6 feet tall, with emotional scars. He fights crime.

5 years from now when they reboot the movies they should stick that on a title card and be done with it
"

Why, they could be done with the whole movie that way!
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 6:35 PM on July 14, 2012


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