A Neurodiverse Perspective on Show Don’t Tell – I Don’t Believe You

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.
Thank you.

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.

Angry ND on Main

Dear Publishing,

I’m afraid to write neurodiverse protagonists.

I know, I know – why should I, seeing how I’m neurodiverse and all that? Well, here’s the thing: I’m not doing it right. I’m not being the accepted and known kind of neurodivergent. I’m not showing an inspirational struggle. Come to think of it I do not show my struggles at all.

Not saying there’s nothing, mind you. It’s just – you won’t understand. Like, really, you will not.

I meet some other nd squirrel and they get it without me having to say a word. But the nt world at large? No such luck.

So I don’t use the a-words when I write. I am careful with what I show. Is the protag stimming or are they just nervous?
Listen, LISTEN …

My protags get their weighted blankets. They have their routines and need their breaks from people. Their brains spin around like that hamster overtaking himself in the running wheel gif.

A Roborovski dwarf hamster is running in a red running wheel. Suddenly it is caught by the wheel and spins around in, flipping over and over.

You don’t get it? That’s fine. Just enjoy the ride and take in the sights. It’s a whole new landscape. Nobody forces you to make sense of every last detail. Bathe in the flavour. This is the world experienced through somebody else’s eyes (and brain). Isn’t this what you want from reading? New experiences and adventures!

And we are expected to – and continuously do because what choice do we have? – translate neurotypical stories all the time. Nobody ever wonders – will this scan for nd people? Does it makes sense outside a neurotypical frame of mind? Are these nt character relatable outside their own in-group?

I’m pretty sure nt people reading my protags have several wtf-moments. Because their brains are not wired like that. I am not making sense (which, tbt, nothing new). And then the feedback piles in: can’t connect with the character, unrealistic, not making sense, nobody would ever…

Sounds familiar? Yeah. It is. And it’s nothing new for me because I heard that kind of thing about my-fucking-self for over 40 years.

So maybe sit down with a smoothie and listen for a sec.

  • I’m not here to make sense for you.
  • I’m not here to translate my experience for your brains.
  • I am here to give you a glimpse into what it is like.
  • I am here to write for people like me.

We deserve to see ourselves in stories. As we are. Not as NTs need to have us translated.


Lies, lies everywhere

I keep getting comments on my stories that people say things that don’t make sense or just things that are not true.

And I’m like, yes, yes they do. My characters lie! They lie to your face, they lie behind your back, and they certainly won’t announce they are lying. They are here to fool you. That you think something is not right is just you seeing the edges of the lies shining through. Good work. I am proud of you.

Truth is, I want you to see the lies. And if not that, at least note there is something off.

Take Peter for example. He tells lies every day all day. He feeds different information to different people. Of course he won’t be going around announcing he’s manipulating everybody for his own gain.

And for one book, you will walk in my shoes. You will have to figure things out on your own from context clues that make absolutely no sense to you. You get my squirrely mind that can’t stop for long enough to dissect what’s going on. You get my issues that keep me from trusting my own gut and assessment.

Welcome to my world!

Of course, Peter is still a lying liar who lies. And you figure it out eventually. But until you do, he may not make sense. He lies and neither he nor I will tell you outright that he does so.

Tangent Time.

It’s quite possible this loops back into my neurodiversity. I had to learn context clues the hard way. And if you do it like that, you also learn not to trust them. People are also lying liars who lie. If you learn to reproduce the clues not because it makes sense, but because it is expected, you also learn that anything can be manufactured.

Everything could be a lie! There is no guarantee!

So maybe because I read people and stories differently, because the back of my mind is always open for what I am presented with being a lie, the way I express lying in what feels natural for me, is not natural to others. It makes sense.

Still, welcome to my world.

I hope you enjoy the ride as much as I do.