Handing Over the Keys

“All meanings, we know, rely on the key of interpretation.” – George Eliot

The axiom in writing is always “show, don’t tell.” With due respect to the originator, sometimes in writing, you should tell. In fact, that is one of the advantages of prose over screenwriting. In screenwriting, you are forced to show out of an inability to tell without seeming fake.

The question becomes, how much do you want to leave open for interpretation? If you want your reader to really get your theme, you can hit them over the head with it. I know a writer that once told me you should never leave anything open to the interpretation of your audience. I disagree. I want the reader to think about what I wrote and what it might mean.

There are a lot of readers out there who like to work a little bit when they read. They like to think about the message of your story and decode the various metaphors. There are some that would rather you tell them. Generally, however, you can tell them your theme without bludgeoning them with it.

Character is defined by thought and action. Story is essentially putting characters in a situation and seeing what they do. What they do, and what they think about their situation is how the reader gets to know them.

These days, everyone wants to see action and dialogue. Readers have been conditioned by film to look for those two things.  Still, we cannot forget that prose writing, is in essence an interior art. We have the ability to hear our POV characters thoughts. We should take advantage of that.

Humans think about what is happening to them. Characters should do the same when there is time to do so, and when it doesn’t slow down action.  Action and dialogue are generally vague conveyors of message. Thought is more specific. The art is in finding the balance between the two.

Writing is a very personal art, a conversation between two people, the artist and the reader. Trust your reader and work with them. Know the expectations of readers in your genre and write to them, then defy them. Make them think. Make them feel like they are a part of your art.  Some genres allow more introspection than others, so know what your readers’ expectations are. Some allow more telling, while others only want action.

As you can see, I will not suggest doing one and not the other. I will not say “never” tell. Never doesn’t exist in writing. There is only what works, and what doesn’t. Whatever you do, if you do it well, that is all that matters.

Show, tell, allow interpretation, or explain it all. What matters is that you keep writing, and you write the way you love.  Personally, I love handing over the keys to the reader and letting them drive awhile.

Jack Campbell, Jr. is a dark fiction writer in Lawrence, KS. His writing has appeared in various venues including Twenty 3 Magazine, Danse Macabre, and Insomnia Press. He writes about reading, writing, and life on his blog at www.jackcampbelljr.com.

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