Lee Child says go ahead and break those writing rules.

The mythical re-creation of Lee Child's character, Jack Reacher.
The mythical re-creation of Lee Child’s character, Jack Reacher.

Talk about writing, and everybody has a sure-fire formula.

Most everyone has a set of rules.

They are sacred.

They are gospel.

They are, if you believe Lee Child, a bunch of malarkey.

I might as well believe Lee.

He has, after all, sold a few books.

A few million books.

Lee Child, it seems, is a rogue when it comes to writing books.

He has one rule.

Break the rules that don’t apply.

And very few apply to him.

Lee Child
Lee Child

For example, Lee Child has no use at all for the Show and Don’t Tell myth.

Picture this, he says. In a novel, a character wakes up and looks at himself in the mirror, noting his scars, his height, and other traits for the reader.

Forget it, Lee says. “It is completely and utterly divorced from real life.”

So why do writers do it?

They have, he says, been beaten down by the rule of Show and Don’t Tell.

So they manufacture an artificial moment that is absolutely ridiculous.

He doesn’t say that, but it’s what he means.

“We’re not story showers,” Lee says. “We’re story tellers.”

You don’t have to drag some poor fool over across the early morning bedroom floor to stare at himself in a mirror, lean down because he’s six feet tall, and gaze at the old bullet wound in his chest, the knife scar down his cheek, the imprint of stitches across his throat, the remnants of a gash on his shoulder.

It’s perfectly all right to say: “He’s six feet tall with scars.”

I didn’t say that.

Lee Child did.

He should know.

“There is nothing wrong with simply telling the story,” Lee says, ‘so liberate yourself from the Show and Don’t Tell rule.”

Nobody writes better suspense than Lee Child does.

And he shudders at the thought taught universally that suspense is created by having sympathetic characters for you to worry about as the novel moves along.

For example, take The Runaway Jury by John Grisham, he says.

There wasn’t a sympathetic character in the entire book.

There were bad guys.

And there were worse guys.

The book was driven by what verdict the jury would deliver at the end of the trial.

That was the heart of the story.

“And that,” Lee says, “is how you create suspense. It all boils down to asking a question and making people wait for the answer.”

Don’t make writing your novel difficult.

Don’t complicate it.

That’s what Lee Child says.

Make it simple.

“The way to write a thriller,” he points out, “is to ask a question at the beginning and answer it at the end.”

And that’s why Lee Child loves to write.

He asks a question.

He doesn’t know the answer.

He writes page after page, scene after scene, and chapter after chapter trying to find it.

When he does, the novel is over.

As Lee explains, “For me, the end of a book is just as exciting as it is for the reader.”

Until that final moment, both author and reader are in the dark.

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  • Roger Summers

    Good rule. Break most rules.

  • Caleb Pirtle

    I will break any rule that Lee Child tells me to break. He’s broken them and sold millions of books. That’s good enough for me.

  • John Brantingham

    I tell students not to think of them as rules, but as tools that can get you out of trouble if you’re stuck. Nothing is sacred.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      As a teacher, John, you broke it down just right. The tools are far more important than the rules.

  • Darlene Jones

    Have to agree about the ending. When I wrote my first novel, the ending came suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere – surprised the hell out of me.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      I know, Darlene. I’ve often wondered if I were reading and writing the same book.

  • Maryann Miller

    As a huge fan of Lee Child, I had to come over to read this. I totally agree with what he said about those descriptions. I’m reading a book right now for review and every time a new character comes on board, the story pauses a moment so we can get the “grocery list” of description. What “show don’t tell” means to me is the difference between non-fiction journalism and fiction writing. Coming from a background in newspaper and magazine work, I didn’t understand the difference at first, but now I do. In fiction we set a scene and immerse the reader in it. In nonfiction we relate a scene. So Child is really showing, but don’t tell him that. (smile)

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Well said, Maryann. Of course, being an old newspaperman, I still don’t know the difference between narrative non-fiction journalism and fiction. It’s all told from the writer’s perspective, and both are generally based on a fact or two.

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