Welcome back readers, to another installment of Being a Better Writer‘s Summer of Cliche Writing Advice. This time, flu-free.
Okay, that may not make much sense if you missed last weeks post. Last week’s was a bit light because I was battling the flu, and it was all I could do to get a basic, simple post up and then go take a nap. Ah well. But it got done! And so, this week, we continue with the Summer of Cliche Writing Advice but now with cognitive abilities back at full strength!
Okay, so if you’ve just stumbled across Unusual Things, you might be wondering what this post is. So, a bit of quick background. Being a Better Writer is a weekly feature that’s fairly self-explanatory: Each week it takes a look at some facet of writing and talks about it, from character development to pacing to genre, with the goal of doing exactly what its title claims and helping those who read it improve their writing skill.
The Summer of Cliche Writing Advice, then, is a special summer feature this year talking about all those bits of easily repeated, cliche advice that seem to follow authors like moths around a light. Little bits of advice like “Show don’t tell” or “Nothing new under the sun,” those phrases that authors new and old hear constantly spouted by a well-meaning public.
But … here’s the thing. A lot of short, easy to recall phrases tend to be oversimplified versions of the originals, to the degree that quite often they’re not as nuanced as the originals, or in some cases have taken on entirely different meanings altogether in the process of being stripped down. Which means a lot of this advice directed at authors? Well, it’s befallen the same fate. Some of it is useful … and some of it can be useful or even flat out harmful, the original phrase so far removed from the short, easy to remember version that its meaning has gone a very wrong direction.
Hence, this series, where we take a look that these phrases and short bits of advice and see what really makes them tick. Are they useful? Good? Bad? What do the really mean?
So, with that in mind, let’s get to it and take a look at this week’s bit of cliche advice:
Show the monster last.
Okay, so this is an interesting phrase, but one that you hear a lot these days, especially in writing circles. Sands, there are youtube videos discussing this particular bit of advice. It’s seen a surge of popularity in the last decade or so, and crops up all over the place, even in the writing chats I frequent.
Okay, so it’s popular. But what does it mean?
Actually, it’s pretty much what it sounds like. Scratch that, it’s exactly what it sounds like: Show the monster last. That’s what it’s saying. If you have a monster in your story, be it a dragon, a demon, or even just some cool monster that you cooked up on your own, reveal it to the audience last. Make that the final climax of the book.
And that’s it. That’s what the phrase is telling writers to do. And, well … Okay, let’s look at the reasoning behind it first. Why has this become a popular phrase? What is it hoping to accomplish with those that hear it and follow it? Let’s dig in a bit before I say anything more about it.
“Show the monster last” is aimed at a lot of young writers and particularly, in my opinion, at a wave of cheap horror stories that I seem to recall hitting around … oh, mid-2000s? This may be entirely anecdotal, but in the mid-2000s I can recall seeing a lot of cheap horror books, stories, and the like hitting the internet and even shelves. And there was a pretty common trend in these stories, something that’s common to a lot of new writers out there when they sit down to write a story that’s got a monster in it.
The monster was revealed very quickly and early on.
\Now, this doesn’t seem that bad. Plenty of stories do this. But there was a catch with it, a catch that I recall being repeated in a lot of my creative writing classes around this period:
What’s in the mind is often scarier than what is there.
This, my teachers argued, was a good reason to “show the monster later,” to save the reveal for another time. Because if you were trying to scare someone, what the mind made was often scarier than what the author made.
That might sound strange, but think of it this way: People are scared by all sorts of different things. So in a scary situation or tale, our mind will most often be encouraged to fill in the blanks with whatever scares us most. That might be a creepy, elongated figure with a knife … or a giant, multi-segmented bug that feeds on human flesh.
But the author must pick one of these things. And the reader scared by the giant bug may not fear the elongated figure with a knife at all.
Which is why a bit of advice like “show the monster last” started circulating. The longer a scary story goes without actually revealing the monster causing the scary bits, the longer the reader has to stew on what it might be! In introduces another layer of suspense. And even if you do reveal the monster at the end and it’s a monster that isn’t that scary to the reader, by then they’re already committed. They’re still engaged with whether or not the main character will live or die, The creature may not be as scary as what they’d imagined, but they’re right at the end and still committed to the characters. You know, assuming the characters are gripping and all that.
Now, with that in mind, this saying does make a good amount of sense. And in the context of the time, or a lot of young new writers, it also can be very sage advice. After all, as I pointed out last week, one of the first mistakes a lot of new writers make is to pile on all the “cool moments” from their head at once. Which, very, very often, will include fully revealing their monster as quickly as possible with the blind hope that everyone else will find it as cool and scary as they do. Which … well, can backfire when the readers don’t. What’s left to the imagination, as earlier stated, is often scarier.
So then, in this context, “show the monster last” can be very good advice. Young writers that want to dive right into a reveal can really benefit from learning a little temperance, to hold their cards a bit and let the reader wonder what is coming, rather than seeing it all at once.
That said, however … you may have noticed that there’s a bit of a catch to this bit of advice. More than one, really, but there’s a really large one that’s starting us right in the face. How many times in this post so far have I talked about “scary” or “horror?”
Yeah, quite a bit. And that’s one of the areas where this statement needs some context: It’s largely a statement intended for writers of horror, not action or some other genre that would include monsters.
Now, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be good advice in those types of stories as well, but it doesn’t carry the same weight.
Take, for example, and adventure story with a monster in it. In the beginning, the monster may be a shadowy figure, striking from the dark and taunting the protagonist. However, in an adventure story we’re not as much about scaring an audience as we are thrilling them, and so a good way to have a monster work in an adventure novel (not the only way, mind, but a classic) is to reveal it halfway into the adventure. Why? Because then the audience (and the protagonist) know what they’re up against, know just what sort of foe they’re facing. And the question of the book shifts from “what is this?” to “how can I defeat this?” Then the next half or third of the book will deal with the escalation of preparing to fight the monster, and the climax will be not a reveal of the monster, but of whether or not the hero will win!
Conversely, holding the reveal of the monster until the end in an adventure story can often lead to a fake-out or a shaggy-dog moment, as the reader (and the protagonist) have no idea what to expect, and therefore may not be sure what they’re preparing for or what the stakes may be. That doesn’t mean the “battle” at the end can’t be thrilling, but beforehand the reader will have no idea of what to expect from it, which can dilute the suspense and make the material beforehand a bit of a slog.
We can look at other genres to find this same sort of earlier reveal too. The classic fairy-tale Beauty and the Beast, for example, always reveals the monstrous form of the beast early on, be it in spoken form or in cinema. Because the appearance of the Beast is part of the story: The reader needs to know how monstrous he appears in order for the romance and meaning to come through. But if you pay attention, you’ll notice that a lot of adaptations pull an example similar to the one we gave above for adventure, where we’re given clues and then a reveal of the nature of the monster … but halfway or even a third of the way through, with the remaining story dedicated to the discovery and gradual reveal of the Beast’s humanity.
To top it all off, there are even horror stories that fly in the face of this “show the monster last” mentality. Though in all fairness, while not last, they do save the ultimate reveal to somewhere near the end, usually in the last third or leading into the climax, as sort of a halfway jaunt between the action/adventure style and pure horror.
Which leads us to what then, exactly? Is “show the monster last” a good bit of advice or not?
Well, I’d say yes … but with strings attached. If you’re just going to tell someone “show the monster last” and call it good, you’re better off not doing that, in my opinion. While it is a well-intentioned bit of advice, this like some of the other sayings we’ve looked at this summer is one that needs its context in order to be truly effective. And if that context isn’t given, well … it can do more harm than good.
“Show the monster last” is a good bit of advice for specific scenarios or as a means to get a young writer to think about why they would reveal their monster. What’s the goal with revealing it? What do they stand to gain by showing it to the reader now as compared to keeping it in the dark? What would they gain or lose by revealing it later? What do stories in the genre they say they want to write do? Are they even writing the right genre?
“Show the monster last” is a primer for all of these questions. A lead-in, if you will, to getting the writer to sit back and think about their work and why they wanted to include or exclude certain elements.
But if that lead-in isn’t taken advantage of? Well … then it’s not so great advice. After all, adventure stories don’t “show the monster last.” They show it early on to establish the stakes. Because they don’t care about scaring the reader (exceptions can be made), but about increasing the tension around the protagonist.
Applied there, “show the monster last” can actually weaken a story. Especially in the hands of a young author who isn’t sure why you would want to do so.
Which is why this bit of advice falls under the category of “Good, but …” It needs to have more to it in order to be effective. Left on its own it is just as likely to harm a young writer’s work as it is to help. It needs the context, someone to go a little further and explain why someone would show the monster in the final climax rather than earlier, or why they wouldn’t. To explore the actual meaning behind the phrase.
Again, “show the monster last” isn’t a bad phrase. It’s just one that comes with a lot of needed context and extra material that need to be explained for a young writer to understand why one would save the monster for later … and maybe why one wouldn’t.
So, in the end, is it a phrase we should be using? Well … No. Not unless the one using it is prepared to expand on it.
So as a short and quick phrase? It’s bad advice. You simply cannot drop this saying and walk away. It needs to be explored.
But if you do that, if you take the time to explore and dig into what it’s made up of, and give it that context and meaning, then it’s fine. So, if you’re prepared to do that, then go right ahead and use it. Again, if you’re prepared.
Good luck. Now get writing.