Lately, whenever I’m reading a book, slush-reading, or working on my novel, I’ve been struck by this idea that in order to be good writers we have to unlearn practically everything we were taught in grade school about creative writing.
If you google "writing tips," one of the most common pieces of advice you'll find is to avoid dialogue tags. You should write "he said" or "she said," instead of "he growled," "he railed," "she whispered," etc. You keep the tag simple so it doesn’t distract from the story.
But when I was in the fourth grade, our teacher taped a large cartoon speech bubble to the classroom wall and on it she wrote, “Instead of Said.” Our lesson that day was to come up with dozens of goofy dialogue tags (e.g. bellowed, fumed, screeched, roared, etc.) to add to the speech bubble. We were encouraged to use those tags in our creative writing exercises throughout the year.
It’s no wonder then that when I slush-read, I see people using excessive numbers of these same phrases in their short stories. They’d been taught to in elementary school, just like I had! To be honest, I don’t think I stopped using bad dialogue tags until I read Stephen King’s thoughts on the subject in his excellent book, On Writing. But it’s funny, even now when I should know better, I still find myself trying to use words “instead of said” when I’m writing dialogue. The habit is hard to break.
And there are so many other ways well-intentioned elementary school teachers managed to turn us into bad writers, or at the very least, establish some very bad writing habits.
When my fifth grade teacher taught us to “show, don’t tell,” she never really explained what that meant. If you take that phrase literally, it’s becomes impossible to explain what a character is thinking. It’s hard to show thoughts. Instead, you get stuck describing scenes purely in terms of spatial physics. Stories get hyper-linear and boring because you’re showing every single thing that happens in excessive detail.
“Show, don't tell” has also created my biggest pet-peeve when I slush-read, which is excessive descriptions of body language; the tilt of a head, a shiver, clenched stomachs, pounding hearts, etc. It gets purple, distracting, and cliché fast. But how are you supposed to explain to the reader how a character is feeling if you're only allowed to "show" and never "tell."
Sometimes, I think it's better to just say your character was frightened as opposed to going into a paragraph long description about the character's bodily functions. Or use dialogue to your advantage. Or trust that the reader will know that under those circumstances anyone would be scared (trusting the reader is a massively undervalued skill in creative writing).
The truth is, “show, don’t tell,” is a gross over-simplification. You have to do both. You want to show as much as possible, but some things just have to be told to the reader. For a great explanation about “showing” and “telling” check out this brilliant blog-post by Emily Lowery.
In grade school, how many of you were taught the “Elements” of a story? Setting, Character, Conflict, Resolution, and maybe Theme? Probably all of us. It’s not that those aren’t real elements of a story, but it’s how they’re taught, like literal instructions on how to write a story. Step one: establish the setting. Step two: describe the characters. Step three: create conflict (things got a little vague when we got to this step). Step four: somehow, the conflict resolves itself and ends. If you were a “good” writer, you were the kid in class who could get all the way to Resolution, but I think 99% of us got stuck at Setting and Character.
The problem with this way of teaching writing is that it artificially divides the story into discrete components. It makes us believe that the “right way” to start a story is to begin with a physical description of the setting in hyper-descriptive language (because according to my teacher, good writing was descriptive writing, with lots and lots of adjectives). Then if you managed to get past your multi-paged description about the weather, only then did you get to Character, and you described them, in lots and lots of detail; their raven black hair, their almond eyes, their five-foot two-inch height, and their clothes, you could not skip their clothes.
It’s only when you’re older and you read good books do you realize that most authors spend as little time and detail on the Setting and Character as they can get away with. What did Holden Caulfield look like? I have no idea and frankly, I don't need to know.
When you divide stories into neat little elements and then teach your students to “show” us those elements using hyper-descriptive language, it gets really hard to know anything about the character beyond their physical appearance, even if that may be the least important part about them.
And Conflict? This seemed to be my teacher’s least valued part of the story. She wanted adjectives, lots of adjectives. Conflict and plot were secondary to the mechanics of the language she was trying to teach us. In retrospect, I can see that she was trying to get us comfortable with reading and writing more than she was actually trying to teach us how to build a good story (though you could make the argument that you’ll never be much of a writer, creative or otherwise, if you have no feel for storytelling).
But when everything you know about writing stories can be traced back “rules” you learned in the third-grade, well, it’s no wonder we struggle to write a decent short story or novel. It’s hard enough as it is, but it’s even harder when you’ve been taught a lot of bad habits.