Show, don't tell. But do you really mean that?
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I'm a pretty new writer, admittedly an amateur, but I received third prize is one contest and honourable mention in another, so some of my stuff is getting a little traction.
I'm five years into learning this craft, however, and here is one of my complaints.
Almost every writing seminar focuses on "Show, don't tell." That's fine. Good advice. Got it.
But here's the rub: every time I workshop my work, if there is any piece of the story or insight into the characters which is less than 100 per cent explained (or "told") by the text, that is almost certainly where the comments will focus, encouraging me to "tell" more. I thought we were supposed to be showing (?)
At first I thought it was because I was surrounded by other amateurs, but I took a few pieces to a pro - the writer-in-residence at my city's library. She wanted my stories to hand-hold the reader from top to bottom. She explained that she, as the reader, should not be expected to interpret a character's intentions though their actions alone.
What? Is this a common concern?
As a reader, I can tell you, I prefer showing, telling is fine to a point, but I don't like being led by the hand through a story.
This is actually a really good point for discussion. The short answer is, no, you don't really mean that.
The advice to show, not tell, is at once both good advice and the worst writing advice in the long and generally miserable history of writing advice.
It's good advice because most beginning writers tell when they should show; they lecture the reader about what is happening rather than dramatizing.
But it's lousy advice, because the essence of prose writing is narration, that is, telling. Take away the narration and you've got a play, not a story or a novel. And we can never dramatize everything -- this is why Shakespeare had Hamlet giving soliloquies, and why movies use voice-over.
All prose has to balance narration and action, and of course there's no hard and fast rule about where to draw the line. How much is told (and when, and of what sort of things) and how much is shown is one of the things that defines a writer's style.
So it seems your teachers and workshoppers are telling you that you need to narrate more.
There's an excellent discussion of this topic in Alice Laplante's The Making of a Story.
I agree with readafew that I don't want my hand held as a reader. But there are also times when the "showing" an author does is so "subtle" that I have to read a passage several times before I can figure out what they are trying to convey.
I suspect this is one of those things that only practice and study of the works of those writers who have already mastered this skill will cure.
I agree with you for once!
There's a big difference between telling and TELLING.
Obviously, you need to tell your reader what's happening, otherwise, as A.J. Somerset said: you have a play.
But, just the same, you DON'T need to tell the reader what to think. I think that writing instructors that tell you to avoid "tell-y" writing are instead trying to prevent you from shoving your imagination down the throats of other people.
Imagine if you will, you're at an art gallery. You find a nice landscape painted in watercolors. Next to the landscape sits the artist. She sees you admiring the work, and then begins to explain the excruciating details of the different aspects of the scenery, and why the sky is purple instead of blue, and why there is a lone black sheep in a flock of otherwise white sheep, and so forth. She has effectively taken away any joy you can get from viewing the work and interpreting it yourself. Granted, some people would LOVE to have an annotated-by-the-author version of this book or another (Finnegans Wake and Gravity's Rainbow for me), if the author would have written the interpretation into the book, it would take about half the fun out of reading it.
The TELLING you need to avoid is this: avoid telling the reader what they need to know. Instead, show them that.
Now, that's not very helpful, unless I tell you what I meant (or you devote some extra effort to interpreting it yourself). Sorry if you're bored already.
It's perfectly legitimate to tell us what a person is having for breakfast, or what the valley looks like as she drives past in her Buick. Just be careful to avoid fact overload, so we don't miss out on the important stuff.
But, TELLING is another matter. Instead of saying "John is a bad man," maybe try to show us how he's a bad man. "John walked by a homeless man. 'Spare some change?' asked the man, holding out a hand covered in fingerless gloves. 'Get a job!' said John with a sneer. He then kicked a puppy that happened to be walking by." See, isn't that more interesting? It'll also earn you more if you're getting paid by the word.
There is a time and a place for TELLING, though, just as there is a time and place for everything else in quality prose. One such time and place is for the sake of humor. Imagine a paragraph detailing every one of John's misdeeds, and then, by itself, a lone sentence saying "John was a very bad man." If the feel of the story is humorous, this will most likely cause the reader to laugh, as it is needlessly redundant (!) information. If the story seems to take itself seriously, though, then, well, you might want to try to avoid these summary statements, as they tend to slap the discerning reader in the face.
You are the author. You are writing for yourself as much (if not more) as you are writing for a reader. Though, when you write a story, you have a deeper understanding of the story than the reader. As such, you want to include things that will help the reader better understand the story, but not overburden them with useless facts or insult their intelligence by telling them something they already know. And in the end, if you can manage to do this, you'll have an interesting story. Not necessarily a GOOD story, but an interesting one nonetheless.
I seriously dislike the designations of "show" and "tell" - because, ultimately, they make no sense. All of writing is telling. Even the most vibrant accounts are still the author telling the reader what to visualize. Movies show; books tell. Fact of life.
So arguments over the worth of "telling" are often confusing, at best - particularly to newbies who are still trying to figure out what the heck the difference is. If I had my way and someone made me Queen of Writing Nomenclature, I'd rename the terms Dramatization and Summarization. It would make the world a much simpler place.
And *both* are absolutely essential to good story-telling.
Read some books on writing. On Writing by Stephen King. Bird by Bird Anne Lamott Writing to change the world Mary Pipher The 11th draft from the Iowa Writers workshop ed. by Frank Conroy Remembered Rapture the writer at work Bell Hooks So you want to write Brenda Uland
These will all give you tips on what works & how to do it.
It can be wholly unconcious because unintended.
When I first set out to learn to write short story, I figured I'd make it easier for myself by breaking it in half: dialogue ("showing"), and narrative ("telling"). First a story with only dialogue. Then a story only of narrative.
And it worked fine . . .
Until several years later when re-reading those efforts I saw I'd actually not succeeded in splitting it into two: each effort included both dialogue and narrative.
There was a lesson in that: dialogue, dialogue, dialogue -- interpsersed as necessary with narrative, even if only an occasional,
"She groaned because he was so prosaic . . . always droning on and on with narrative, telling what the characters were doing, instead of letting the characters do whatever they wanted, either by intent or impulse."
So, as hidden, additional, tangential point, one can learn from failure.
"Movies show; books tell."
"Mustn't let the rule swallow the rebellious exception," he said. "I have a significant number of books of photographs and reproductions of paintings."
#8: I think you're confusing the issue.
Telling what the characters are doing is still showing, not telling. When you do this, you're still dramatizing the story. You stray into "telling" when you give the reader information without revealing it through action.
That is to say...
"She was, quite simply, irritating the heck out of him" = tell
"He turned away from her and shook his head and exhaled heavily through his nose" = show, even though I'm "telling" you what's happening.
The book I cited earlier illustrates this point by reprinting a short story, with all the narrative passages italicized, and all the dramatic elements set in normal type. This exercise is quite instructive.
To the OP and anyone else interested, you can do the same exercise by photocopying a passage or a story you find exemplary and then marking all the narrative sections with a highlighter. After doing this you can consider the pages from a distance and get a picture of what proportion is show, and what proportion tell, and also consider it more closely, in terms of what the author chooses to tell, and why.
#5: Oh, no, you don't. ;)
Oops! I failed to TELL that I have a sense of humor, and that it tends to insinuate itself into my writing.
Show don't tell works best, in my humble opinion, in the action style novels. Some writings are in love with the written word and the reader wants to be lost in the winding path of poetic verse. ...Tell me, tell me, tell me more...
Personally, I like action. Don't tell me Superman is super, show me! He can fly - show me! He is super strong - show me!
I learned this in spades while polishing my manuscript of Fifth Sun: The Awakening for publication. I had to show why my scary mean guy is scary or else he becomes like a bureaucrat from heck.
I think there is a balance. One of the books I have on writing points out the Show Tell dilemma with an example from the Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald could have told us all about Jay Gatsby, rich man, rumored past. Instead he has the guests at a party do so in dialogue. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers
But then we have a writer like Robert Jordan who clearly did not know about the rule. He tells, and tells, and then to be safe, tells you some more. And still it works. Sometimes we even switch POV without any indication that it is going to happen.
In my writing i do my best to listen to see if I can show instead of tell but I do find in certain genres when backstory is important, and there is a lot of meat there, showing could be too costly in pages to be done and telling must be used. Or there is just no scene one can set up that makes sense to show, here is the history of the battle of Saratoga in a show, so you can understand all that went on, instead of a tell, he carried the weight of the loss at Saratoga around with him, now these twenty years later.
A balance, but when you do a show, it does make it more dramatic.
think of it as the difference between:
a) watching a movie and having events, characters etc slowly unfold and reveal themselves
b) Spelling it out for the reader and making everything that much more obvious.
A small example: imagine two of your characters hate each other. There's some long-standing dispute between them. You can either say straight up "They really didn't like each other, there was much discord between them" and so on. OR, you could convey that to your reader by revealing little glances between the two, a snide comment here and there etc. You build up that feeling, rather than saying "there it is!"
Hope I wasn't too confusing :)
Though my books are non-fiction, I still find myself removing more telling that is not absolutely telling with each rewrite while keeping the show. So, I think there is something to that advice.
With respect to fiction, which I do not write, I prefer novels written in Japanese because one can tell enough about characters (age, sex, relationship) from the dialogue to dispense with even the Hemingway minimum. This does not make such novels plays; it just means that less of the narrative is wasted on what amounts to stage directions.
In the case of poetry, especially haiku, ideas about avoiding the expression of sentiment went too far. People forget feelings are part of reality and just as objective . . . A purely telling world may be too sentimental, but a purely imagist world is a bore.
Hi whitbread - This is just another example of the writers-can-never-win scenario. If you tell the readers something early in the story, some "peer reviewers" will tell you that you are revealing it TOO early. If you show an extract from the beginning of the story in which you DON'T reveal the motive or background early, you will be told "I would have liked to know more about the hero's motives and background." ("What they should say is; "You have made me INTERESTED in WANTING to know more about the hero's motives and background.")
Regarding the specific problem of show not tell. The answer is that in a screenplay you show rather than tell. Soliloquies may work in Shakespeare, but not in modern dramatized work - at least not on the screen.
For novels (and short stories), the answer is a little more complicated. In the case of short stories you sometimes have to tell for reasons of space.
In the case of a novel it is better to show rather than tell, but you might sometimes cross over between the two - e.g. "He remembered the time when he relied on the judge to understand normal police procedure. He was not going to make that mistake again." You obviously wouldn't break off to describe the entire details of the other case, if all you're trying to do is explain why a police witness is going into such detail in his testimony.
Finally, don't assume that just because a pro tells you something he is right. Having said that, if you get substantially the SAME comment from many readers, with little dissent, then the criticism may well have merit.
"Though my books are non-fiction, I still find myself removing more telling that is not absolutely telling with each rewrite while keeping the show."
"Modern" non-fiction writers have imported "fiction" techniques because it makes for more movement. A simple example is an interview: though non-fiction it is usually given as a dialogue.
"Finally, don't assume that just because a pro tells you something he is right. Having said that, if you get substantially the SAME comment from many readers, with little dissent, then the criticism may well have merit."
If one person calls you a horse's ass, it's opinion. If two call you a horse's ass, you think about it. If three call you a horse's ass, you shop for a saddle.
Caveat: as elections can show, even a majority can be wrong.
Sorry to be pedantic, but you don't put a saddle on a horse's ass, you put in on a horse's back ;-)
Showing and not telling is not necessarily a matter of fiction -- and if you want a cow to carry hay (i cannot say about a horse), it does help to put it close to its ass -- so clarity would be welcome.
Believe it or not, i once had a Reardon as a roomate (Mike was his first name) and he borrowed a hat of mine and I recall waking at night to see him with it on his head and burning -- this at G'twn where i slept with a pulley and weights after injuring my neck -- so please pardon my prejudice . . . but to get a one-liner out of JNagarya, you are obviously doing something right ((-;) rdg
I have countless one-liners, so to save everyone (including myself) time I tend to toss out (or in, depending on my location) several at the same time. They seem to pop into my head by their own rude invitation --
Always abhor alliteration.
Sometimes they're borrowed and improved:
"Those who give up a little security for a little freedom end up with neither."*
*Original from the redoubtable** Benjamin Franklin, who quit Boston for Philadelphia because the price of bread was too high.
**Redoubtable. That which can be doubted more than once.
Here are some more:
Avoid cliches like the plague
I've been advised by her majesty the Queen to refrain from name-dropping
Oh, and here are some "Goldwynisms" (that I made up)
We spend one third of our waking lives asleep
There's nothing like a Civil War to unite the country
When I want your unsolicited opinion, I'll ask for it!
Awww, and the show/tell died out before anybody mentioned Moby Dick. When I finally forced myself through it, I opined that he really had quite a tidy little novel of a couple hundred pages there, too bad it got dropped on the floor with a whaling textbook.
I'm just about to publish a review (from ER) of E.O. Wilson's forthcoming first novel, and while I basically admire it, I do plan to say he's no Melville.
I hated Moby Dick* -- this lunatic had to go and find a whale that was minding its own business and harrass it.
*Probably still do.
And then Peter Benchley down-sizes the giant whale to the size of a large white shark and almost everyone swoons at what a great story/film that is.
Considerin', I ain't no Melville either: I don't hunt down animals simply to abuse them, while blaming them for their being abused.
The nonfiction chapters of Moby Dick are largely written in a style i call the metaphysical essay. It is somewhere between the musings of Thoreau in the middle years of his Journals and Carlyle's Sartor Resartus.
It is bad enough that we live at a time when creative nonfiction tends to be conflated with journalism, . . . but with textbooks?
When I want to read Thoreau, I'll read Thoreau. When I sit down to read fiction, I want a STORY.
"It is bad enough that we live at a time when creative nonfiction tends to be conflated with journalism . . . ."
I suppose there can be a bit of truth to the view that to write fiction is "to lie," but I've always been uncomfortable with that because so easily misconstrued, and abused, as it's my view that the purpose of art is the pursuit and depiction of truth.
I've also long had problem with the constant use of the word "creative" as a buzzword. If one uses a spreadsheet program to make a spreadsheet, one is said to have "created" the spreadsheet. Creativity is something wholly other than merely following established parameters and rules without screwing up.
There was a time when one wrote a letter, or even an email. Today one "creates" a letter, and "creates" an email. Am I "creating" a knot when I tie my shoelaces?
And then there's the constant and rampant misuse, abuse, and debasement of the word "hero": today if you fall down, then manage to get up without the aid of "first responders," you're a "hero".
Even worse: in the Amy Biship incident, one of the surviving professors is a "hero*" (which was determined by her own testimony) because she managed not to get shot because the gun was by then empty.
*The law of unintended consequences -- better, "creative" lack of thought:
"Feminism" got its wish for "gender-neutral" language, so now when the "hero" is female, therefore properly "heroine," we are instead lead to believe that she is a he.
And because, by extension, she then saved three of her colleagues from getting shot, even though the gun was by then empty, she is even more of a "hero".
Nice completely irrelevant snark at feminists there. I appreciate your argument, but you don't accomplish anything by throwing insults at an issue you clearly don't understand.
Don't feed the fire. Srsly.
Edited to change "troll" to "fire" so as to ensure that nobody felt I was targeting them.
....Ah. Yes. Troll. Sorry, only came onto the forums recently, guess I haven't gotten a feel for who to ignore yet.
Calling a "heroine" a "hero" and thus obscuring the fact that the "hero" is actually a female is an "irrelevant snark at feminists"?
No, it is a relevant "snark" at those who accomplish results opposite that they intended. And at the debasing of the language to lowest-common-denominator meaningless.
Most fundamentally, however, it is a criticism of mindless conformity. By contrast it's interesting how the "open-minded" only want to hear that they pre-approve, so those who express a different view are automagically "trolls".
It's okay to speak with an accent but not to read with one. Now go back and read what I wrote it for what it actually says instead of imputing the irrelevant to it.
I understand the issue; I've been a feminist for over forty years -- was there at the "beginning". The difference is that I've thought it through, instead of conforming to and defending the blind and foolish.
"aethercowboy" pretends to have the authority of a "moderator" or the like. Turns out he's nothing of the kind. Instead he's another who can't tolerate "controversial" views. Another who promotes "group-think" -- ganging up -- against views that "threaten" the safe status quo.
And since when is "feminism" such the perfect sacred cow that it is exempt from critical evaluation? Who appointed that the official and unquestionable "Ideology and Word of God"?
Now go back and read it with (sic) for what it actually says(...)
Before or after you edited it?
For the record: I never claimed to be open-minded, and I never called you a troll.
Yes, "creative" is a buzzword, and justifiably so: in order for a work, in the United States at least, to be eligible for copyright protection, it must exhibit some level of creativity. Hence, everybody wants their work to be creative.
But, yes, "creative" has become a vogue word. Do I dare eat my sandwich from Subway, as it was crafted by a sandwich artist? Can I take pictures of said sandwich, or am I violating somebody's copyright? Also, where do they get off calling themselves artists when I TOLD THEM HOW TO MAKE IT!?
Likewise, "hero" is a buzzword. Am I a hero because I saved a cat from a burning house? Am I a hero because I saved my company billions of dollars? Am I a hero because I am able to feed my family? "Hero" has been watered down to mean "do what you're supposed to do." Probably because society has become one in which people are, for the most part, self-serving. If everybody is X, nobody is. Right?
The funny thing about natural languages is that they are gendered. Romance languages have different articles depending on if a table is masculine, or a chair is feminine. Even further, in English, we add more gender our languages. Ever talk to a male trucker about his truck? She's a lady! Many times, ships are referred to as female as well. My college professors would refer to variables as "this guy here." People have claimed that Mother Nature is female, and that YWHW is male. Why? Natural languages are complicated messes, products of thousands, if not millions, of years of language adapting around the culture and its perceptions, and building off of the culture and perceptions of the last generation. What's the current correct demonym for somebody from Spanish-speaking a country south of the United States? And does that term (or even the fact that people try to attribute ONE term to people who represent many countries) piss somebody off?
It may be grammatically wrong to say "they" when referring to an individual of unknown gender, but it's certainly more respectful than saying "he" or "she" and being WRONG. Likewise, the common trend in society is to be gender neutral. All people who fly planes are "aviators," even though the word is TECHNICALLY masculine (with the feminine being "aviatrix"). People who tell jokes are pretty much universally called "comedians," (even though the word "comedienne" exists). It's not unreasonable to say that "hero" can also be used to be gender neutral. I mean, was it that hard to accept the fact that Hunter was female in Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere? Or, did she need to be called Huntress to satisfy some deep psychological need to have "male" words apply to males?
I have colleagues who have given their daughters masculine middle names, so they can go by (e.g.) A. Bernard Camden, so they don't face a glass ceiling by being named Allison. Is that also improper? Or is it just a language adapting to an improper culture in which women are treated poorly just because one of their chromosomes happens to have an extra leg?
Of course, I don't even realize why I'm even responding to you...
I never pretended to have any authority. I even said as much. I don't appreciate your personal attack.
"Personal attack"? And who, pray tell, presumes to tell newcomers who they should and shouldn't ignore?
And then accuses me of editing a post -- I rewrite, usually to correct spelling errors, often to clarify; it should be abundantly obvious that I don't edit out that which others might or will malconstrue as being "controversial" and therefore taboo, and therefore as excuse to ignore -- while having changed the personal attack "troll" to "fire"?
And then to state that you don't appreciate "my" personal attack?
Otherwise, I appreciate your lengthy statement of agreement with my statement -- though you should wonder why you'd ignore, and encouage others to ignore, those with whom you agree.
Calling a "heroine" a "hero" and thus obscuring the fact that the "hero" is actually a female...
Ah. I think I see that we're taking this two different ways - gender-neutral language is a pretty personal issue for me. For the record, I don't think the generic term could honestly be used to obscure someone's gender unless there was also a distinct and awkward lack of pronouns - much as I'd like it to sometimes, modern English doesn't let you avoid gender unless you're really trying to. What I do think is that marked words like "heroine" set men up as default and women as other, and that this is by definition sexist. And I don't appreciate having someone questioning my allegiances because I believe that.
And it wasn't relevant to your argument. You were talking about buzzwords. The gendering thereof is a side issue at best and regardless of your intent, came off as really petty.
#36 (Agreeing strongly with the point of seeking gender-neutral language to resist the masculine universal — particular to English — that stems from a conscious decision by the English parliament and ecclesiasts just a few centuries ago) There's a further problem with hero(ine), in that the masculine-universal world often made heroines into damsels in distress who needed to be rescued by heroes with the proper plumbing.
"damsels in distress"--such as in stories when the swooning female is called "so brave" because she actually resisted the urge to fall on the floor in a useless lump. That's not brave, that's being a functioning human being and not a burden. Of course, then our "heroine" misses the opportunity of having her hunk clasp her to his bosom and murmur, "Oh, my poor, brave darling."
Yah. Strongly-gendered language almost always ends up with women on the losing end of it, semantically. Master vs. mistress, lord vs. lady, governor vs. governess... the examples are endless.
Actually I think of the woman, a mother, whose car stalled on the railroad tracks with the train coming, with her two little ones inside. She got out of the car, and by herself did the ordinarily impossible: pushed the car off the tracks.
Calling her a "hero" obscures the fact that she was a female. It isn't sexist to recognize that a female is a female. It isn't sexist to instead call her "heroine"; and it does the exact opposite of the presumptive "disempowering".
Of course I'm talking about an actual incident, not the imaginary, in which identifying a female as being a female is inexplicably de facto disempowerment of the person being correctly identified as being female.
The bottom line is that I am not a conformist; I don't carry the habitual knee-jerk image of "damsel in distress," so won't call a female a "hero" when instead she deserves recognition of the fact that she is a heroine.
"What I do think is that marked words like "heroine" set men up as default and women as other,"
Yeah -- I suppose it does that for those whom it does that. But I don't operate on auto-pilot enculturation, so it doesn't "set up" this person. And the reality is that to men, women are "other," exactly as to women, men are "other". And since when is being seen as "other" ipso facto a negative?
How does it help women to be accepted as equal, even while being women, if we deny they are women in effort to accomplish that result?
Since when, that is, is recognition of difference automagically a negative, and therefore taboo? Do I not have your permission to notice, when watching films from, as example, China, that Chinese have eyes physically different than caucasian eyes? Is it racist to recognize that obvious fact? Or is it merely politically incorrect?
40 - "Othering" isn't just a recognition of difference, though. As you say, women are other to men, and men are other to women - why, then, is it WOMEN who need to be marked out with special suffixes, and MEN whose terms are used as the default?
Othering is a problem when it marks the non-other as normal. As in, the other is not just different but a deviation. That's the problem I have with gender-specific language as it works in English. And it's all well and good to say that you're not affected by "enculturation" but it really isn't that simple. Look up the Sapir-Worf hypothesis, for instance - the strong version of it is admittedly rather bunk, but the weak version, that language influences thought, is accepted as true by pretty much all psycholinguists. When our language marks "female" as a deviation from the norm, that sets us up to treat them that way, even if we don't always realize it's doing that.
Othering in this sense is always harmful. It excludes and it encourages people to exclude. And you still haven't explained how the use of a single non-marked term obscures every time the story would have to use female pronouns to refer to this woman. You have to work very hard to fully obscure gender in English, a few neutral nouns are not going to desex everyone.
I think like just about all selections of language for a writer, using a gendered or "universal" term depends on what you intend to communicate to the reader. To get back to the topic, yes, referring to a "heroine" might be a choice made consciously by a fiction or nonfiction writer, or a critic, even a start toward showing rather than telling. But it's dangerous ground because neither hero nor heroine is unambiguous.
And neither "hero" nor "heroine" is intended to be ambiguous.
Let's be unambiguous, direct, concrete, and clear: there is nothing negative, and everything positive, in recognizing the positives, the achievements, of a person, even if that includes identification of gender. Otherwise, it's only on very rare occasion that it is indicated that a positive, and achievement, is not that of a male.
As for the question, "Why does our language single out the female as "other": it only does that for those who are (1) enculturated to see that, and (2) fail to critically evaluate that inculcated presumption. "Gender-neutral" language cures nothing; it only results in absurd discussions such as these, which go nowhere and resolve nothing.
The core fact as concerns language is this:
It is a tool used routinely, even mundanely, 24/7, world around -- yet no one has a clue where it came from. That it might identify a female as a female -- HORRORS! -- seems not to be controversial when the female identified as being a female is in fact a female, except for those who play with their food.
And this actually says nothing:
"(Othering) excludes and it encourages people to exclude."
Recognizing difference which in fact exists "excludes"? -- that's the negative bias projected onto it; rather, recognizing difference distinguishes, and is hardly always a negative. A heroine is a non-male of positive achievement deserving of the distinction.
I would advise anyone under 35 to avoid books about writing, writing classes, workshops, seminars, etc. I would also say that if you are out to 'learn' how to write, avoid all instruction whatsoever, especially such as show vs. tell. Instead read Rabelais and Moby Dick at the very least to help build resistance against any who would constrict your work.
I think you should saddle a horse's ass as often as possible, as long as you're aware you're doing it.
And I think you ought to ignore any advice regarding writing toward the reader. Nabokov said his characters were galley slaves. Readers should be as well. There is only one writer, and the readers simply must do as he says. If the writer is a she, same goes.
Well, this thread has definitely gone somewhere else :) I'll add my two cents to the original question. I think #10 had it pretty close, but I'd make it a little more general. "Showing" is when you're conveying more than what the words actually say. Often that is in fact showing an action instead of telling something, but it could also be telling about something that suggests additional things to the reader. Beyond the obvious examples in just plain poor writing, I think even good writers tend to do too much telling when giving backstory. Depending on the genre, this can be very disruptive to the flow of the book.
"I think you should saddle a horse's ass as often as possible, as long as you're aware you're doing it."
This made me laugh, though I don't understand what it means. Could you elaborate?
"Nabokov said his characters were galley slaves."
Yeah, sometimes. But it's also helpful every now and then to imagine what would happen if they "came to life" and did what they would do without the author forcing their actions. I got much better results that way in one instance: In one section my bad guy was passively sitting around not doing much and I realized that if she were off the leash she'd actually be attacking the good guys at this particular time. So that's how I re-wrote it and it's muuuuuuch better.
someone corrected someone about saddling a horse on the back rather than the ass.
Nabokov was a great writer, but no teacher. Brains work in different ways. If he could plan from beginning to end, fine. If it helps to let the characters decide for themselves, fine: in fact, they still end up your galley slaves--they jump ship when you tell them, even if it is their idea.
Well, they jump ship when you tell them, but they also sometimes jump ship when you don't! Also, when they do jump ship they swim in whatever direction they like.
I suppose one might say that even when given freedom they still merely play out the inexorable logic of the basic goals the author endowed them with. (Instead of what the author wants to force them to do for convenience's sake.) But I think that would reduce the question to mere semantics. (We're saying the same thing but with different emphasis.)
i agree. and i like the idea of them running off in groups. read cendrars' planus on little people in jars.
To address the OP's question. Last year I read The Rhetoric of Fiction and people here really must be getting tired of my flogging it ever since, but - once again - some of its content is very relevant to a question being asked.
Wayne C. Booth makes the important point that 'show, don't tell' is a popular advice of the moment, but proves it hasn't always been critical to defining what is good literature. He cites Boccaccio's Decameron as an example, pointing out that it is littered with "telling" used to good effect, examining how much less effective it would have been had it all been changed to "showing".
He traces the beginnings of the "show don't tell" movement to Flaubert and Henry James among others - authors towards the end of the 19thC who sought to eliminate the author's presence from the novel - to make the author as invisible as possible, hopefully eradicated altogether, as a hallmark of "good writing."
He argues that such a state is unobtainable, and that even purely in "showing" the author maintains a presence, an "implied author" that cannot be ignored or forgotten, and that virtually everything written must imply the author who writes it. Start with the axiom of "why write about this and not something else?"; because the author imposed his/her will in selecting this topic.
Thus, abstract writing "rules" like show-don't-tell are artificial and of the moment, signifying a current trend that in a hundred years' time may be of no significance at all. If you're writing for the ages, it really doesn't matter how strictly you obey it and you should just do whatever works most effectively. How to determine that is an entirely different question, but those who have done it best were the authors of the classics we continue to read today.
read cendrars' planus on little people in jars.
Sounds interesting but I did a Google search on several variants of that and couldn't find anything.
Blaise Cendrars' book Planus, Chapter called Naples, page 71 he begins the story of Count Kueffstein's homunculi. It's hilarious.
Well said, Cecrow.
I gave a writers' conference workshop last week on debunking all these "rules" (which are actually more like rumors).
As with "show, don't tell", they can all be dismissed by merely reading published literature--the ultimate and only teacher and guru on writing as far as I'm concerned.
"Telling" is far more common than a few examples, and it's contemporary. "Girl With Dragon Tattoo", with it's pages of infodump, is a good indicator that readers don't care about this stuff, just people trying to cop money or ego off writers.
Thus, abstract writing "rules" like show-don't-tell are artificial and of the moment, signifying a current trend that in a hundred years' time may be of no significance at all.
"Show doen't tell" is a generalization. And a good one. But there are times that it doesn't apply -- such as when telling is necessary.
If you're writing for the ages, it really doesn't matter how strictly you obey it and you should just do whatever works most effectively.
Certainly. "A foolish consistency (can be) the hobgobblin of little minds." -- Emerson.
Or as Twain indicated, a consistency never broke a chain or freed a slave.
But logic and coherence have their place even if as deepest implicit underpinning of an essential irrationality.
How to determine that is an entirely different question, but those who have done it best were the authors of the classics we continue to read today.
A larger question, of which "show don't tell" is but one technique among several including that of ignoring that technique when best to do so.
Buy or rent (buy -- you'll end up saving the original rental cost) DVD of the film "The Road Home," starring Zhang Ziyi (and Sun Honglie). It is Chinese, with exceptionally good English subtitles which illustrate much of the foregoing. The opening scene is narrated -- a main character is "thinking". Then in a later scene, when he is meeting with two other minor characters, they are filling him in on situation and facts. That is, of course, to tell the viewer what is going on, without the author looking into the camera at the reader and saying,
"These are the basic facts of the story, . . . ."
It is a film with mostly visual cues -- the camera merely records what characters are doing; there is no need for verbal explanation -- so relatively few subtitles, which makes the purpose/s of the subtitles all the more clear: either characters are explaining things to each other, much of that a means to inform the viewer, or they are revealing story and character by saying things to each other.
That also happens to be one of the most beautful films, including the visual, of all time. (It is the luminous Zhang Ziyi's first film, directed by Zhang Yimou. See also his "To Live" and "Shanghai Triad".)
Also relevant are the films of Wong Kar-Wai, which are "radically" character-driven: literally, the actors and actresses in his films -- exactly as it is in "real life" -- do not know the "story"; they are not given a script (if the director even has one written down), only a few pages of hand written notes and probable dialogue from which to work; and with some direction by Kar-Wai.
An example is his "2046," which took five years to make. During those years, the actors and actresses would fly in, get involved in the making of the film, build and get into character, do their part, or at least a scene or two as that character, then fly out to make other films elsewhere; then later on fly in, get back into character, and film another scene or two -- never having a script, never knowing the story.
Wong Kar-Wai can be dizzying (especially in "2046," which also appears to be at least part SF), which is one of the thrills of his work. And he is challenging: try to figure out the "story" of "2046," especially whereas the main character, a Chinese writer (played by Chinese actor Tony Leung Chiu Wai) , depicts himself in the future as Japanese (same character -- but played by an actual Japanese actor).
Both are must sees -- see the reviews of them on Amazon. And the excuse to see them is perfect: studying writing.
More straightforward by him is "Chungking Express," which is two stories, the second for certain a comedy. (The first is probably a comedy also, though the "love interest" is a heroin smuggler/dealer.)
Isn't Kurosawa's Rashomon something similar that can be related to Show and Tell also?
I always remember that film begins with the word. With the writer, the script. (Even in instances when the director works without written script.) Putting aside the enjoyment I get from them otherwise, I watch film as a study in writing; as language in action.
As example, for those interested in complex/three-dimensional characters, relationships, and plots, I recommended multiple-viewings of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon". The two main characters are Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) and Li Mu Bai (Chow Youn Fat), and in the US trailer only Yeoh and Yun-Fat are named. But in the story there isn't any confict between them (beyond the subjectivisms of cultural traditions which prevent them telling each other how they feel about each other) sufficient to make a story.
So the story is actually driven -- surprisingly, and relentlessly -- by a supporting character, Chou Long (Zhang Ziyi -- not mentioned in the original US trailer because unknown). She is an 18-year-old governor's daughter, and only child so perhaps-predictably a head-strong spoiled brat.
But she grows as a character during the evolution of the story, part of that growth a result of her involvement (which reveals a lovable, sweet side of the character) with another inconsequential character, a bandit, who also turns out to be more important to the story than would appear, and more complex than such characters usually are.
I know next to nothing about Kurosawa's work, but one can undoubtedly view his films in terms of the writing. In terms of (such as) show and tell.
Kurosawa's stories come across and when the US gets them we have epics that are the Magnificent Seven and Star Wars, High Noon
The Seven Samurai
The Hidden Fortress
I must say, if you were to *show* absolutely everything, you'd be a very irritating writer.
You'd be condemned as patronizing if you truly held the reader's hand all the way, as the lady at the city library suggested. I suggest you ignore her and use the library more effectively to borrow some novels by good writers to see how it is done.
Try James Lee Burke. He'll also help you throw a distraction (the pathetic fallacy -- he perpetrates it every few pages) at the feet of the people who previously took the other easy road out, telling you to show, not tell.
For someone who tells you absolutely nothing about what his characters think that you cannot deduce from their actions, try Len Deighton. He wrote three trilogies about a spy called Bernard Samson in which he did not once take us inside the mind of any character. I wonder what the lady at your library would make of Deighton.
Most good writers switch at will between the telling and the showing style. If you cannot see rhyme or reason for which they choose at any point, consider the pace of the story and the weight of the character, his/her importance to the story.
As soon as you start bringing screenwriting into a "show/tell" discussion, you're really lost the whole point. A film can ACTUALLY show not tell. A novelist may scratch his head on how to show a ball flying into a window instead of just telling us the ball hit the window, but a movie just plain shows the ball hitting the window.
But EVEN SO, there are films in which people just sit there and talk without anything being shown except their faces talking.
highly regarded films, too. "My Dinner With Andres" "Swimming to Cambodia"
In fact, the more highbrow films get, the more it's just talking faces, you might notice. As opposed to the vulgar "action".
So ringing in film into the whole question of why "showing" is so much better than "telling" a story just middies whatever point there ever was.
For someone who tells you absolutely nothing about what his characters think that you cannot deduce from their actions, try Len Deighton. He wrote three trilogies about a spy called Bernard Samson in which he did not once take us inside the mind of any character. I wonder what the lady at your library would make of Deighton.
Ditto for later Henry Green -- Loving, for instance, which is about servants on an Irish estate. The reader never has any idea what the characters are thinking except when Green describes their facial expressions. Occasionally he'll condescend to say that a character "seemed to think..." While I was reading it I thought it would make a good film but I'm not sure it's really a novel. Ultimately the pleasure of a novel is that you know what a character is thinking.
I didn't know that about Deighton - must read him. Snob that I am, I've avoided that literary neighborhood. I've been meaning to read Green but couldn't find him at my library.
My latest novel (indie for now), "Since Tomorrow", is all show and no tell. If movies can do it (at least the ones without voice-overs), why not writers? I don't usually like hearing what the characters are thinking, unless from an artist like Don Delillo or someone equally original.
Oh - Cormac McCarthy doesn't go inside characters' heads either.
Anyway, writing "Since Tomorrow" was a great experience, requiring a special way (the movie-director's tao?) of approaching character and emotion. I'm pleased with the results.
If anyone would like to have a look, there is a sample at http://bit.ly/rmLhnQ
I used to tell my English students "Show it, don't generalize" when they attempted to indicate visual display of emotion. The sure sign of a lazy writer, I believe, is absence of showing. However, telling is essential to keep your story moving, and you're going to want your reader to know what your characters are thinking at key moments. I believe most writers strike a balance, as had been said above; whatever a scene needs a good writer provides. The last paragraph of #62 says it best.
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