1. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    About "showing" versus "telling"

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by minstrel, Aug 26, 2013.

    I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of sick of all this talk about “showing” versus “telling.” There are several reasons for this.

    First, frankly, some people on this forum (and elsewhere) don’t really have a clear idea of what showing and telling really are. I see people critiquing work in our Workshop and complaining that the author is “telling” on the basis of about half a sentence. You can’t tell if something is “telling” based on half a sentence. It takes more than that – at least several sentences – to establish the psychic distance characteristic of telling. So unless the author has made a habit of telling, and hence has established a psychic distance between the reader and the material greater than he is trying to achieve, the criticism is meaningless.

    Second, too many people (here and elsewhere) seem to think that all “telling” is bad and all “showing” is good. This is simply not true. Showing and telling are techniques the writer can use to control pace and psychic distance, nothing more. If the writer wants to cover a lot of material quickly, “to make a long story short” as it were, he tells. If he wants to bring the reader wholly into the drama, to provide the reader with the experience of actually being one of the characters as the scene is progressing, he shows. Different techniques for different purposes. Good writers will use both, and will use them wherever they’re needed, in any one story.

    I just read the short story in the current (Aug, 26, 2013) issue of The New Yorker, and it’s pretty much all telling, beginning to end. It wasn’t my favorite story ever, but it was effective. (It was translated from the Chinese; I wonder if that has anything to do with it.)

    Third, as with just about anything else in writing, this is not a binary (either/or) issue. There are degrees of showing and telling. Pace and psychic distance are almost infinitely adjustable between extreme showing and extreme telling.

    It just seems to me that “showing” versus “telling” is not really a useful measure for critique unless it’s an extreme, obvious case. And there’s nothing saying that all-showing is automatically better than all-telling.

    I highly recommend an essay by Anna Keesey called “Making a Scene: Fiction’s Fundamental Unit” which is included in a book called The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House. Keesey offers a different way of looking at scene construction based on “story time” versus “discourse time” and concepts she calls “unfolding” and “infolding.” I find this essay far clearer and more sensible – and more useful, ultimately – than the standard “showing” versus “telling” conception.

    Any thoughts?
     
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  2. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Perhaps it's a dynamic that grows larger than it should be in the same was as many other "rules" people love to spout and oversell.
    • Never use the passive.
    • Semicolons are heretical.
    • Put a comma everywhere you pause.
    • Small words are better than big ones.

    Perhaps, and this is just me speculating, because showing is a somewhat more involved, complex process, it's not the natural starting point for most writers. It's something they have to learn to do with aplomb, so the goal of learning to show well gets oversold as a rule by which to abide. Maybe?
     
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  3. Thomas Kitchen
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    Thomas Kitchen Proofreader in the Making Contributor

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    Thank you, Minstrel! I thought you I was alone on the matter. Of course telling can be just as effective as showing; look at the A Song of Ice and Fire series as an example. I just think it's generally being said that showing is better because at the moment these are the sort of things we see in books these days. Much of the earlier classics were telling the story rather than showing, and people just thought, "We're past all that now, so we'll show everything instead." I agree with showing to a point, but telling can be and is just as effective when done right.

    Am I waffling?
     
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  4. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    I think I've mentioned this before, but James Michener distinguished between "face" (a detailed scene, including dialogue and detailed description) and "carry" (moving the story forward at a faster pace). I've always felt that these terms corresponded roughly to "showing" and "telling". Michener, who was known for long descriptive passages, said that he always aimed to strike a 50-50 balance between the two, but he did not attempt to dictate to others as to what was "right" (this was true of all his writings on the craft of writing - he always presented it as what had worked for him, asserting that each writer had to find for him/herself that worked best.

    I am currently going through something of a Hemingway Revival. As I recently read To Have and Have Not, I was struck by the number of oft-repeated "rules" his writing breaks. Would Hemingway have a hard time getting published today? I would hope not (although publishing houses in his day were usually owned by one or a few individuals, and corporate ownership changes everything).

    I suspect that those who posit guidelines like "show, don't tell" on forums like this are either anxious to sound like they know better about the ins and outs of writing than those of us who pose questions, or else people who are so insecure about their own writing that they cleave to simplistic rules and spout them at every opportunity as a means of reassuring themselves (an old friend of mine is married to a woman who once dominated an entire dinner conversation with endless talk about the novel she was writing; I said nothing but couldn't help but think about how I disagreed with everything she said).

    Wrey, all I can say is that I find passive voice to be effective at times and I like big words when I use them for reasons other than just an excuse to use a big word. I use commas where I think I need them, but if I find a sentence growing heavy with them, I take it as a sign that it may be a run-on sentence. And I work with a fellow who recently had part of his colon removed; now he has a semicolon.
     
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  5. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    I agree and disagree, minstrel. I agree in the sense that there are a lot of people who have no idea what they're talking about who spout "show don't tell" at any opportunity, and that we have to "tell" sometimes, or the story would never end.

    But, I see the problem a lot, and sometimes it really is a problem and the easiest way to state it is as the show versus tell problem. Often, giving an example in conjunction with pointing out the issue is helpful. I often see folks who state something like, "I saw Mary standing there. She was beautiful. I wanted to have sex with her." They really need to describe Mary and what they're noticing about her and the beautiful part and the sexual desire will come through without being explicitly stated.

    Wrey: I think the rule really should be "The passive voice should never be used."
     
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  6. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    When the blogs return, my discussion of showing and telling (Show and Tell) talks about finding the right balance, and points out some criteria for choosing one or the other for a given scene or action.

    Like nearly any aspect of writing, understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each alternative trumps any "Thou shalt [not]..." rule.
     
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  7. obsidian_cicatrix
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    obsidian_cicatrix I ink, therefore I am. Contributor

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    I wish I'd figured this out sooner, instead of getting hung up and worried I was doing something wrong. Nothing has made such an impact on my writing as the realisation that I'm quite entitled to experiment. Of course, people told me that from the start. I was just so determined to do everything by-the-book. Regimented adherence now seems a completely ridiculous notion to me. Where is the allowance for individuality?

    Yup... that was me.

    Ah well... you live and learn.
     
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  8. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Thanks, Cogito. That's a great way to put it.

    If you understand your craft, then you understand the issue the "rule" was intended to address, and you therefore understand where and when and to what degree to apply it. Blind adherence to any rule is no substitute for understanding the craft.
     
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  9. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I was just babbling about this over at NaNoWriMo. My reinterpretation of "show, don't tell" is "demonstrate, don't pontificate." Yeah, it's annoying-cute-rhymey, but at least for me, it does a better job of communicating the goal of the advice. Or the goal that I take from it.

    As I see it, when something is important to the story, you often want to demonstrate it, often by writing at least one level of abstraction above the real message. You _want_ some ambiguity when something is important. Ambiguity forces the reader to interpret and to bring in his world experience, which is far richer and more complicated than an author can communicate explicitly.

    So if the real message is "Joe was angry", then you may demonstrate that with Joe's facial expression or the unnecessary force with which he just shut the door.

    If the real message is "something upsetting just happened in the cafeteria" then you might demonstrate that by flatly saying that Joe looked angry, Jane looked frightened, blah.

    If the real message is "something is causing violent unrest all over Minneapolis" then you might demonstrate that by saying "Half the graveyard shift broke into a fight in the Widgets, Inc. cafeteria as they were returning from the 3am coffee break. Two shoppers at Sports Mart fought a duel with discount putter and a water wand. Blah blah blah." You're levels above Joe's frowning face and door-slamming.

    As another example, it's usually best not to pontificate, telling the reader that Joe has always had a problematic relationship with his father, that his father resents Joe's success and therefore always devalues it, blah blah blah. You can demonstrate those things, with a scene or scenes. And the reader uses all of the relationships that they've been in and that they've observed, to interpret what was demonstrated to them. That makes that relationship much richer and more nuanced in the reader's mind than the author could ever achieve by pontificating. Of course, that means that each reader will see a slightly different relationship from the one that the author saw and the one that any other reader sees. And I say that's fine.

    On the other hand, if the real message is, "the book club members all had problems with their parents", then you might demonstrate that with, "Joe's father resented his son's success. Jane's mother was a malignant narcissist. Blah blah blah."

    So, yes, you absolutely can't distinguish between show/tell, demonstrate/pontificate, whatever you call it, without context.

    As a side note, I think that the passive voice issue is often tangled by the fact that many people can't recognize passive voice. They pass on confusion by condemning active sentences as passive for (for example) having the word "was" in them.
     
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  10. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    What a great thread, folks! Nothing for me to add. Thankyouthankyouthankyou....
     
  11. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    Like any advice, if misunderstood, it's useless. I found 'show don't tell' very useful as a beginner, but I never took it to be an universal truth. More like, if my scene isn't working, perhaps I am 'telling' a bit too much and not 'showing' enough to make the narrative come alive. This is not to say that 'telling' itself isn't sometimes exactly what's required. Like Cog said, it's all about undertsanding the craft. There are a hundred different ways to tell a story.
     
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  12. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Maybe. It's not the same, but narration in Finnish is different than narration in English. I read quite a lot of translations, e.g. from Norwegian to English, Russia to English, Polish to English, and the narration is different. There's even italics for thoughts. Omigod, The Night Watch employs a lot of ellipses! Metro 2033 is full of backstory that disrupts the action!

    Those are still awesome books, and ultimately it's the story, the substance, that matters, at least to me, not so much the execution, the amount of telling, exposition, back story, italics. However, I've noticed that the more you write, the more your eye becomes trained to finding suitable tools to express Thing X. There have been several instances I've chosen passive over active. There are situation where I downright list a character's looks (almost always a side character). Just a couple of days I used the dreaded adverb in a dialogue tag because it just in my opinion fit the best. Another person might disagree, maybe I'll disagree with myself later, but at that point it goes against "the rule."
    It can't be that black-and-white, and I bet most of us are smart enough not to get stuck with some "rule" and let it control their... well, creative force.

    As for the workshop, that's the thing, if you put your work out there, you have to realize that those who critique your work aren't stating the be all and end all of effective writing, and you can't be swayed by both, User 1 saying "this is telling, this sucks" and User 2 saying "this is awesome, keep it the way it is". I give the most useless feedback there all the time, getting hung up on "unrealistic" fight scenes instead of offering useful feedback on the narrative form, but if I have to be a friggin writing guru in order to crit another fellow fledgling's work then please put a banner there, "If you wanna crit, send in your qualifications and fill in the test, get min 85 % correct and you'll pass. Question number 1: What's the diff between show and tell?"

    If someone tells you "hey, this would be better if you showed he's nervous instead of telling me right out that he's nervous", it might be a good idea to ask "why do you think it's better?" If the answer is "it'd be more effective, you know, I could relate to him better that way," the suggestion might be worth mulling over. If the answer is "nghhhgg, weeelll... I read this blog post where this guy said that..." Then you might be better off trusting your own judgment and going with what feels like the best option.

    End of rant.
     
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  13. obsidian_cicatrix
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    obsidian_cicatrix I ink, therefore I am. Contributor

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    You've pretty much summed up my own feelings the subject.

    In my case it took a while to realise that many opinions spouted are subjectively based, personal preferences, nothing more.

    I remember taking a sociology class at college and having a disagreement with the lecturer. Despite being able to provide evidence to back up what I was saying, he completely negated my argument taking the stance that, since I did not have a PHD, my opinion was a moot point.

    I'm a 46 year old, barely educated woman who has been writing for less than a year. When someone who is clearly a better writer than I am tells me they know better than I do, I'm inclined to believe them. (Well, actually, my first reaction is to think, Who the f**k are you to tell me how I should write my story!—but then humility kicks in.) It's a bit weak and feeble of me, I know, but there have been incidences where I have went against advice and paid a heavy price for it, in terms of wasted energy and lost time. But, that said, I've learned as much, if not more, from failure than I have from success. It was never a question of being not being smart enough to avoid getting stuck on the rules, I simply didn't feel I'd earned the right to break from convention.

    I'm a guitarist and I do some teaching on the side. As soon as I see a dropped wrist, or an inappropriate digit being used, I'm on it. Bad habits are the hardest to break. When teaching someone to drive, it makes sense to teach them to hold the wheel in the ten-to-two position, despite knowing that when they pass their test, they'll hold the wheel however they damned well please.

    I think what I'm trying to say is that my desire to avoid potential pitfalls made me seek out absolutes and there are none. There are just too many variables, but it's these variables that allow us to creatively, uniquely express ourselves. I'm starting to feel a bit more confident. I'm starting to understand the pro and cons of upholding or breaking these 'rules', and as a consequence I'm finding it easier to choose which suit my style of storytelling best and when they can be applied for best effect.

    What strikes me as strange is that, generally speaking, I'm not a conventional person. How on earth did it take me so long to draw my conclusion? Why is it so hard to trust my own instincts?
     
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  14. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    @obsidian_cicatrix I can relate to that. I had no idea about some rules before I started reading about techniques to make one's writing more effective. I haven't read much, just Stephen King's On Writing and Strunk & White's Elements of Style, but before that I had already written into the desk drawer for years. It interested me from the linguistic point of view, I suppose, I started to think what kind of a psychological effect certain structures have or may have on the reader. Then I ventured to writing forums, and I suppose I went through a similar shock as you: people telling me what's right and what's wrong. I guess one of the worst was someone pointing out with an air of knowledge that the fact that my MC suffers of IBS is fluff. It wasn't even a plastered-on trait that's there for shits and giggles -- no pun intended. Luckily I didn't butcher my or my writing partner's work -- in fact I did the very opposite with the IBS. On the other hand,we did tweak the beginning of our WIP based on several recommendations, and I'm happy we did even though it follows pretty much every "rule" there is about novel beginnings.

    Anyway, the whole IBS is fluff -thing really made me question all the advice and rules thrown about on forums. I'm glad they are there and I'm very grateful to those who share their tips, but I'm also quite happy I started out oblivious to "the rules" and just wrote a lot and then some. It's still easier to write it all out, then check what could be improved, instead of memorizing a gazillion rules and then spend two years squeezing out a two-page short story that'd please as many rule-makers and writing profs as possible.

    Oh, I also learn best by mistakes, and I've fallen assfirst into pretty much every writer's pitfall there is -- and I will continue doing so, I guess, since I still suck at transferring the story from my head onto the paper. But I'm having fun while at it, so what the hell.
     
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  15. obsidian_cicatrix
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    obsidian_cicatrix I ink, therefore I am. Contributor

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    @KaTrian
    Wish I could say the same. I've been doing more research than writing of late. I guess that's what comes of reading one's own work with the same critical eye one uses to judge others. It's raises many questions. So many threads hint at enigmas I have yet to figure out. It's about time I took a look at the style guides you've mentioned. I've been avoiding them, mainly because I haven't felt au fait with the terminology before now.

    That seems to be the best way for me. Also when I've acquainted myself with a rule I can check out how it's application has affected the novel I'm currently reading. This alone has turned out to be quite the eye-opener.

    Baby steps.
     
  16. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    not everyone who offers advice/rules is an expert, or authority on the subject...

    experts/authorities are not always right about everything...

    all 'right' advice does not always apply to everything/everyone in every instance...
     
    Last edited: Aug 27, 2013
  17. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I have to basically agree with what minstrel said. One of the strengths of telling is that it can capture a character's thought process, which is important for literary techniques like stream of consciousness. This issue really boils down to reading enough to make an informed (and perhaps intuitive) decision on what the right balance is.

    I should add that I don't think there are any authoritative figures when it comes to writing fiction, so take every writer's advice with a grain of salt (no matter how famous he/she is). All you have is different writers giving their opinions and personal preferences.
     
  18. Misty'sMess
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    My critique partner is very good at picking up my telling from my showing and I appreciate all her comments. It is personal preference, but I think my writing style works better when I show not tell. It adds more tension to my story and make everything just that little bit more exciting.
     
  19. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I really like the way this thread is going.

    When a person chooses to read something, or buy a book for themselves, they will choose the KIND of thing they like to read. It's a matter of personal taste.

    Someone doing a constructive critique, however, needs to take another approach. Rather than attacking a piece because it's not the style or story you automatically 'like' to read, you need to ask yourself (or the author directly) what this particular author was trying to achieve. Then help them to achieve it with your critique.

    I personally don't like teenaged-vampire stories, but if I was critiquing one, I would not tell the author to go write about something else! Instead, I'd ask them: 'Do you want people to be scared by your story? Do you want them to fall in love with your vampire?' Questions like this. And THEN direct the critique...

    There is no formula for good writing or RULES THAT MUST BE OBEYED. It all boils down to 'does it work?' If it does, then do it. If it doesn't, then change it.
     
  20. obsidian_cicatrix
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    obsidian_cicatrix I ink, therefore I am. Contributor

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    Ain't that the truth?

    I've been learning about more than the mechanics, and nuts and bolts. Even though I've only been here a short while, I've already noticed that some members demonstrate a biased attitude when they critique. One particular member, who shall remain nameless, comes to mind. Every time I read one of his/her critiques, I can't help but feel that he/she is aiming to persuade the author to adopt his/her way of doing things, with scant regard for whether the advice is in keeping with the style of the piece. I've read some of this member's work, and although it is very far removed from my personal taste, I wouldn't slam it for being stylistically different.

    Luckily, I've been finding it easier of late to spot those members who give balanced, empowering advice and opinion. I just hope that when I finally commit myself to submitting a piece, some of these folks will see fit to give me the benefit of their wisdom.
     
  21. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    @obsidian_cicatrix: When you submit work for critique, you have to be prepared that not everyone will like it and you won't find useful everything you hear. Rather than focusing on potential reviewers, try to adopt an attitude that whether what you hear is good or bad, there's always something that can be of use. I used to despair when I got reviews that, like you said, had more to do with the reviewer listening to the sound of their voice, than my piece. However, I realised, if my work fails to impress the most nitpicky, self-absorbed critic, there's room for improvement. And no matter how tactlessly they may have picked up on something, if I focused on that something, I'll alway find the error or the way to improve it. And then, sometimes the nicest, most constructive review will leave you thinking "yeah, I see what you mean, but for this and this reason, I prefer to not go the way you suggested".

    So to my mind, it's got nothing to do with the reviewer, and whether they are knowledgeable or constructive. Feedback needs to interplay with your artistic vision and help you polish it, not fester performance anxiety and force you into producing work that doesn't showcase you as an artist at all. As with everything, balance is the key :)
     
  22. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    This is a key point to remember. When I took a writing class, the teacher told everyone that it was not an option to have the opinion that we did not like a story because it wasn't for us. We had to pretend we worked for a publishing house, and we were an editor and this story was already bought. We needed to go through it and make it as good as it could be.

    I think that's a good approach to critiquing. But, it can be easier said than done. When we get a piece that is just not at all what we would normally read, it IS harder to give a good critique. It might be harder for us to get fully into the story, and there might be conventions within that genre that we're not familiar with. I get a lot of dystopian, post-apocalyptic stories to critique in my writer's group, and overall, I just can't stand them. I almost never read that type of story when I'm choosing for myself, and I'm kind of sick of them. (Admittedly, that threshold for me is lower than for others who like that sort of story.)

    But I still do it. I can still point out where I get confused or when something doesn't make sense. I can point out pieces of dialogue that seem awkward. Even though it takes me longer to read those stories, I do get through them. Plus, I can also see when something is well-written, when the dialogue flows, when the characters seem to be developing well. And if I happen to really enjoy a piece, that's kind of significant, since I really liked it despite the genre. The good thing about this site is that you can avoid the pieces that are in genres you really don't like. There's no real requirement to critique, beyond the two per submission. But you can wait for something that is more your cup of tea, and there are lots of pieces in many different genres.
     
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  23. Ghost Cat
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    There's a time for showing and a time for telling.

    I personally can't stand reading long, overdone descriptions. This is why I can't get past the first chapter of East of Eden.

    It may be a matter of taste, but sometimes i prefer the blunt description. for instance, another member used the example -
    "I saw Mary standing there. She was beautiful. I wanted to have sex with her."

    That group of sentences got a chuckle out of me. The chuckle of entertainment. So I would say it works, no? I think there are enough romance novels describing the heaving breasts, creamy thighs, blah blah blah, of the neighbor you never knew you could......

    Though of course that first sentence may only work in the context that it stands out as specifically blunt (in comparison to the surrounding style.)

    anyway. i don't believe in rules. for writing, nor for life. thinking about the rules when you're writing will only block or augment your natural creative juices. in life, following rules will keep you out of jail and bad situations, which are both good experiences, giving you badass stories to tell, as well as keeping you humble
     
  24. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    ;-) You are right, Ghost. There could be stories where you want to have that sort of blunt, direct type of monologue or description for a particular sort of character. But I used that example because I see that sort of thing where it is not the case that the writer is intending that type of characterization. They might be trying to use something like that when they describe the time the MC met his wife (which again, could possibly work if you're going for a certain feeling), and they're trying to convey that they immediately had a spark.

    This just shows that there are no hard and fast rules.
     
  25. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    You've kind of touched on the point I was making. If you had to critique East of Eden, would you have told Steinbeck he should have written it more bluntly because that's what you prefer to read? Or would you have tried to understand his style and critique within it? For many people that's a classic story, so it's not as if he was doing something 'wrong,' or breaking a rule by writing it the way he did. As a person doing a critique, I feel you should be helping the author achieve what he is trying to achieve, not try to get the author to write in a style you prefer to read.
     
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