The Shack and Show vs. Tell

You’ve probably never heard of it, but where I come from, the novel The Shack by William P. Young is super popular. In fact, ever since it’s publication in 2007 countless people have told me to read it. (that being said, I went to a conservative Christian school; if you are not religious, do not get this book. I’ll tell you why in a moment).

So finally, five years later I am finally writing to say that I read the novel over the weekend. And it taught me a lot about how I would write a book,

and how I definitely wouldn’t.

First of all, I thought this book had a very interesting premise; a man whose child is brutally murdered goes back to the scene of her death to deal with his pain and anger against God. Not bad, right? Part of it includes finding his daughter’s body, reliving the moments of her death, and dreaming about her in heaven; all of which is really quite an interesting story of salvation and forgiveness. But as one of my favorite professors in college told me; there’s a huge difference between showing and telling. So let’s dive in, shall we?

First of all, obviously because this novel is written from a Christian standpoint, there is a TON of christian idealogy and philosophy thrown into the book. And I don’t mean that the main character Mack learns a lot about himself through his experience with God in the cabin. I mean that there are pages-long, painfully drawn out conversations that strip any subtlety whatsoever from the story and turn it from a work of fiction into a self-help guide.

As a writer, a good general rule is that you should never have to explain what’s going on through a convenient plot conveyor such as dialogue. If the characters have to explain it, it’s already lost most of it’s meaning.

Secondly, the story of Mack is particularly painful: he had an abusive alcoholic father whose heavy presence in his life still weights on him heavily. Then on an innocent camping trip his young daughter is brutally kidnapped and murdered by a serial killer. Obviously, this is all some pretty heavy stuff and anyone who has ever had a heart can relate in some way to the pain of misunderstanding, loss, grief, anger, and more that Mack goes through. But once again, just by knowing the story, you already feel sorry for the guy. You don’t need to be told repeatedly that he has problems, that he’s bitter, or that he’s in pain. Us readers know that already. Why? Because we’re not brainless sheep that need to be spoon fed the “subtle” nuances and emotions of every plot we encounter.

So overall, while this book has “the next Pilgrim’s Progress” plastered across it’s cover; not a very exciting book. In fact, there were many times that I skipped over several pages at a time, because I wasn’t going to gain anything worthwhile through them. But I did come away with several lessons in writing, and gauging an audience. Here are some helpful hints to those who are writing, because please, I don’t want to read a book like The Shack ever again.

  1. Don’t force feed your readers. The fact that they can read should be proof enough that they are smart.
  2. If you have a particular point or message to your novel/writing, don’t ever state it directly to the audience. Trust that we will figure it out.
  3. We can understand pain and emotion. Don’t stuff it down our throats.
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About Angela

Editor, bookbinder, and writer.

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