Let’s get at this old bony bastard of writing advice. I’m not going into known things like:
1) It only works if you share the same background because – come on! Captain Obvious anybody? What do you think is going on if a happy guy wanders around his quarter handing out eggs dyed red?
2) It’s a relic from a time when Literature was written from and for white allo cishet middle class white men. (If you do not believe me, go read “Craft in the Real World” by Matthew Salessess.)
Instead, I will dive into my neurodiversity and what that does to y’all proudly showing me how your characters feel: I don’t believe you.
It’s that easy and that complicated.
I have masked for the longest time. When I was younger, I painfully learnt what the correct tells were for emotions, what the correct responses to other people were. It became important to show the correct image of what I wanted people to read.
Please take a moment with mere her to reflect how the showing something, especially if you do not want to, is called tells.
Let’s move on.
Of course, this can be used consciously as well. I can flit eyes around nervously, rub my fingertips, touch my hair. My voice is steel, my face is stone, and I am exuding nothing but calm concentration.
I know what I show.
I also know that inside, things are a completely different matter.
What does this mean for Show Don’t Tell? Easy. It means I don’t believe the Show part on its own. There is always the chance a character is reacting the way they are so the others will perceive them like this. There is always the chance, the reaction is a learnt response, a conscious deception, a performance of self-preservation.
I have myself done all of those things and then some. For somebody whose second nature is not showing what they actually feel, visible signs of emotions and reactions are a precarious information source at best.
It is my lived experience that the outward depiction of emotional reactions or reactions at all, is a carefully crafted construct.
It doesn’t matter how well crafted and detailed your show is. I will see A Show. I will see all the building blocks of a correct and socially acceptable reaction. If your character doesn’t tell me they mean it, there is no guarantee they are genuine. (Leaving aside unreliable narrators for the moment here because that is where things become really fun.)
It seems that many neurotypicals view learning body language and using it as a spy novel skill you acquire to bedazzle and manipulate. Many neurodiverse people learn it simply to survive. Without this skill, we don’t last a day. There is a running two-way translation going though our heads all day everyday turning the outside world into inside sense and translating myself into reactions the outside understands.
Apart from being utterly exhausting, it also makes super sensible to mood and tensions. It is sometimes called a sixth sense. When you have to observe every minuscule detail to derive the correct meaning, you see a lot more of them.
Do I shut this down when I read or write? I think not. How can I? It is how the world works for me. (Apart from a few select fellow nds. ‘allo frens!) it’s alike to asking if you shut down your eyesight for stories. How can you? It is an important part of how you perceive the world!
Naturally, this feeds back into my reading. I see your character’s reaction, but if you don’t confirm the truthfulness of it, I will reserve judgement and if the signs I know align, just know they are not, in fact feeling the way they present themselves.
It also definitely plays into how I write. My characters will show all kinds of reactions. And I will assume that, since it is obvious they only show a thing, the reader knows there is a great possibility they feel something else entirely. Even if they don’t admit it (not even) to themselves.
This leads to a great disconnect between how I am told stories need to be written and how I need stories to be written to reflect my reality.
I want to know and love the characters I read about. But how am I supposed to do that, when they rarely show their true self to me? How can you tell me that my characters should not open themselves to the readers? That they never allow a glance under their armour? That they must not be vulnerable and true?
TL’DR, as somebody trained to display the correct responses, to me showing will always be a smokescreen to hide behind.
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