I have “Do, don’t think,” written on a post-it perched by my computer screen. My note has two applications. When I’m trying to get through a first draft, it reminds me that I shouldn’t try and overthink while I compose. It’s meant to encourage my fingers to keep typing my draft rather than pausing to consider what comes next … a long pause that requires me to fill up my tea cup … where was I?
My post-it applies to my second draft and editing process as well. The crux of most MFA programs is, “Show, don’t tell.” This mantra used to confuse me, because all storytelling is, by definition, telling. It makes more sense to me to say, “Describe, don’t explain.” When you describe details, you enter the realm of the physical, and we all know that action speaks louder than interior monologue. My post-it says, “Do, don’t think,” because that’s how I need my characters to behave. When my novel’s protagonist offers a drink to an alcoholic king, tension ensues. To have her explain or think during this exchange would be to ruin the moment, and would insult the reader’s intelligence. It would also mean I didn’t set up the situation properly in the preceding chapters, through physical descriptions and earlier conflicts.
Is there an exception to this writing rule? As Bob Mayer says, one should always understand the rules before breaking them. There are writers who command such a forceful voice that they can carry off a reversal, carrying us through a long passage of thoughtful narrative, reflecting on important backstory or analysis of other characters. These narrators successfully “Think, don’t do,” because their situation calls out — screams out — for them to act. In The Remains of the Day, when a butler called Stevens describes Darlington Hall in great detail, he is missing the crucial details which prevent his correct action. When a justice-seeking Hamlet pauses his sword, and reckons that a delay in his uncle’s execution will ensure his uncle goes to hell, the audience should be drawing in breath waiting for the inevitable result. When Nick Carraway observes the parties at Gatsby’s, when the second Mrs de Winter thinks through her decision to wear Rebecca’s gown, when Elizabeth Bennett wrestles with her scruples and then holds her tongue about Mr Wickham … You get the idea. Only think, only hold back on the action, if it creates tension and builds conflict.
And now, fellow scribblers, it’s time for me to stop thinking so I can go do the writing.