The Autistic Writer: Show Don’t Tell?

If you have even rudimentary knowledge of the Autism Spectrum and the basics of writing, what follows should be no revelation to you. In fact, it borders on obvious, though I don’t like to assume.

So for the sake of completeness allow me to say that Autistic people tend to live a much more internal life than the rest of the world. This, as with everything else in the Autistic experience varies from person to person. There are those on The Spectrum that are so internal that they never speak. Others like me may not appear internal at all based on our behavior in a given setting. Trust me though, I am an inward personality, and so are nearly all Autistics.

Jez Timms

Now let’s move to the most frequent, and perhaps most hackneyed of all writing advice. I have mentioned it before: show, don’t tell.

If you’ve not encountered this in my previous posts or anywhere else, “show don’t tell” refers to characters revealing emotions, thoughts or realizations by means of body language, actions, dialogue or any number of other devices instead of having the author just say how everyone is feeling.

“John pounded his fist on the table and screamed ‘Get the hell out of my sight,’ so loud the entire building could hear him.”

You can deduce John isn’t happy even though at no point does he or the author mention how he is feeling. That is showing.

The following is telling, note the difference:

John looked at the man’s face as the anger built up inside him. He could barely speak. He anted nothing at all to do with this visitor, and he wanted to make sure everybody knew it. He had to make sure that there would be no confusion at all about his desire that this visitor was not welcome, and he was more than willing to be violent about it.

“Get the hell out of my sight,” he hollered. He pounded his fist on the table.

As the author, I informed you directly what John’s emotions were. I was telling you, and I’m not supposed to do that.

Truth be told, this guideline is falling somewhat out of power, if it ever truly held the throne to begin with. You needn’t look far to find a popular novel, or even an acclaimed novel that makes as much use of telling as showing. Literary fiction is famous for just telling you what characters think, and doing so with fancy language.

Be that as it may, the advice remains sound if you hope to write commercial fiction with well-placed plot.

In life, though I am far from a chatterbox, I would just as soon tell people what I am thinking instead of expecting them to infer it. And though my Autistic hyperfixations and special interests may not illicit as much monologuing as it does in others on the Spectrum, in comfortable circumstances I can go on a while on certain topics. In other words, I am prone to telling a hell of a lot when it feels safe to do so.

That includes my fiction. I don’t worship at the altar of Show Don’t Tell. I will allow my characters extended internal moments wherein they express precisely what they are thinking and feeling. If it doesn’t slam the brakes on the whole novel, I do in fact tell instead of show at times.

Yet I acknowledge that an entire book of people simply stating what they are thinking for chapters on end is unlikely to attract a readership, even though I probably could write such a book if I had nobody to please but me. My early drafts contain more telling than the final products, in fact.

However I hope to please at least some readers.  That’s why in the drafting process I make sure I am showing as least as much as I am telling, despite having a brain that tells by default.

1 Comment

  1. Photo: Jez Timms

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