1. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    acceptable "telling"?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Tesoro, Sep 5, 2011.

    Sorry to start yet another thread about show vs tell, but I have this scene in my novel where one character basically tells how one thing that happened changed one of the other characters (or rather reflecting upon it, since it's in third person) to the worse and how he wished that he could have the person back that he was before. Is this ok for telling? it is 381 words, little over a page, is it too much? I guess what I'm asking Is: when is it ok to tell rather than show? I have tried to avoid is as much as I can but sometimes it just seem ridiculous to show something you feel that you could just summarize with a short telling, instead of like in this case maybe having to write several scenes to include everything you want to show. I've also tried to come up with a way of showing all these details in one scene, but I don't know... do I really "have to"? (= would it automatically be better?) Help, please!
     
  2. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    You can tell as much as you want, so long as you do it effectively. I've read good books with a lot of telling in them. As with most things, show v. tell is a guideline, and particularly one directed at beginning writers who may drift ineffectively into telling.

    When looking at the passage in question, ask yourself whether it works. That's the only real issue.
     
  3. Youniquee
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    Youniquee (◡‿◡✿) Contributor

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    I think you should use Show when you want something to stand out, emphasis it, show it's importance. Tell is for passing things that aren't so important. Well, that's how I look at it.
     
  4. Cain
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    Cain Member

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    Sounds like since you know the difference you won't go far wrong.

    Usually I catch myself doing it when I'm trying to take shortcuts, and have to tell myself not to be so lazy. So accidentally doing too much tell is wrong, deliberate telling - not so bad :)
     
  5. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    yes, I sometimes slip into too much telling if I relax too much while writing and just let the words flow. Then I have a lot of work rewriting those passages later. When I have a very vivid scene in my mind and write it down for the first time I almost always use too much tell. It's like I need to catch it before it goes away and get the rough picture onto paper and then i can sit down and rewrite it later, when going over it again. the descriptions of people and surroundings comes in the second draft, when i can concentrate on the details, the things that set the atmosphere. I don't know if this seems like a "normal" way of working, does anyone else write like this?
    thanks for the advice, I think since this is just a character reflecting and not as important to have it's own scene, I might be excused with just telling those things. (or so I hope)
     
  6. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I don't like it when people treat "show, don't tell" as a rule, not a guideline. (There are no RULES for writing - just guidelines, and being a good writer means knowing when to ignore them.)

    The scenes that should be dramatized - shown - are the ones that form the main thread of the story. It shouldn't be necessary to make the reader wade through swamps of unnecessary scenes just to find out an important piece of information here and there. It puts the story out of balance, and makes it harder for the reader to detect the main thread of the story out of the background noise of the scenes that don't really matter.
     
  7. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Telling is acceptable only when you've learned enough to realize the 'show, don't tell' mantra is the work of swindlers usually trying to convince you they've learned something very important and you should listen to them, or, in worst case scenarios, they're trying to get naive, novice writers to read their blog or buy their instructional books.

    Show can be bad. Tell can be good. And only someone insane would think instructing someone to do something that has a proven track record for potential catastrophic failure would insist on sticking to that line of thinking.

    Show and tell as descriptors aren't even the best. As we've all seen, I'm sure, the debates often not only rage about how to employ the mantra, but what the terms even mean. Show? Well, all stories are told, so, uhoh. And provide an example of effective tell, and often you have 'show, don't tell' supporters sticking to their guns, claiming effective telling is actually just a form of showing.

    Here's a better idea: think beyond simplistic mantras.

    Whether you're showing or telling has literally no bearing on whether your prose is interesting, authentic, genuine, effective, meaningful, authoritative, etc. All it means is you can technically point to a sentence and make a case for it being described by a term.

    It's kind of like trusting a child to be your mechanic because they can point to a car and say 'car' or a truck and say 'truck.' Yes, indeed, my child, that car is a car... ah, but what is that el camino? Good truck, which is surely just another form of car, right? Or, I don't know, maybe we should stop to discuss not how to fix that car and/or truck, but to argue whether it's a car or truck!

    Basically, don't get stuck considering whether your el camino is a car or truck. It doesn't matter. What matters is what it can do. And don't get stuck on the labels you give your prose, whether it's showing or telling. It doesn't matter. Focus on what the prose can do, the effect it's having, the images it's creating, the relevance it's building, etc.

    And yes, all that can be done with 'telling' just as much as 'showing' which is really what makes any 'show, don't tell' anxiety utterly useless. There are more important things to consider.

    For instance, if it's a passage of internal reflection, is it presented in logical context? Is the character taking advantage of a natural moment of contemplation to think about things. Like, just got home from a date, plops down in front of the television, and it makes sense the character might have a prologue moment of internal reflection.

    Or, is your character somehow so powerful as to be able to stop time itself, pausing in the middle of action to reflect internally. This can often be seen in moments of bad prose where another character asks a question and the main character spends a good half a page considering the entire history of the issue before answering. Is this natural? Is this a normal moment where a character would spend copious amounts of time reflecting not just on the answer, but on all sorts of other semi-relevant things? What happened during this time with the other character? Was the other character freaked out by the main character seemingly able to either stop time, or simply willing to stand there for several minutes, dazing off into space, before answering a simple question?

    Again, focus on the effect. The effect of a character thinking when one has the opportunity and inclination to think is that it makes sense. The effect of the action in a story awkwardly pausing as the character thinks things that in the moment seem utterly contrived in both content or opportunity is that it seems contrived. Fiction that seems contrived is bad.

    Oh, and another problem with even trying to navigate the terms show and tell:

    One of the biggest offenders of bad telling is often actually rooted in descriptions. Writers get fooled, thinking describing things creates images, so is thus showing, when a case could me made (usually when it's done poorly so people can self-serving-bias their way into reinforcing notions of 'show, don't tell') that it's just detailed telling.

    Summary and scene is better designators. Scene is when you take the time to depict the setting, people, and other descriptions (that are of course relevant to the character and story), and summary is often when you don't take the time, and instead compress time.

    Of course many would argue it's just the difference between good and bad writing, and no labeling definitions are needed. And yes, first/early drafts are often filled with a sort of short-hand prose, not meant to be refined or perfect, but meant to remind the writer what they want to do with the scene in revision. For instance, you can fill in later details that make a characters dialog seem angry, but for now, just writing 'he said angrily' may be the best way to not stall progress on an early draft.

    In summary, there's no way anyone can actually answer this question for you without seeing the passage, and more likely the entire manuscript. But, beyond that, don't worry about labels and just worry about the effect your prose is having.
     
  8. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    thank you, minstrel and pops, that was good to hear. I think I'll consider keeping it as it is.
     
  9. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    You should find the right balance between showing and telling.

    Show and Tell
     
  10. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    Oh, there it is. I've read it before but I think I should go back and refresh my memory. thanks! :)
     
  11. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Or, really, you should just stop obsessing over whether something is shown or told and focus other things that are more important.
     
  12. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    The decision whether to show or tell a particular scene or scene element is worth considering carefully. I think dismissing it as obsessing is unhelpful at best.

    It may be a diffficult decision if you aren't accustomed to making it. It gets easier.
     
  13. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Actually, the problem is that show and tell aren't difficult. It's very basic, painfully entry level stuff. This is why it's so popular, and also why it's so frustrating. People learn concepts and theories of show and tell, and hey, it's even pretty easily identifiably (since everything can be justified as either, really). It's easy to tell others, well, the problem is you're not telling, you're showing. Ah yes, I see it now, we're all very sophisticated in our analysis, yes indeed, that is definitely telling, so I should do more showing.

    And then a writer really tries hard to show, instead of tell, and oops, crap, the writing still sucks.

    AH! Eureka, they find even more propaganda on the issue. Apparently, despite the mantra of 'show, DON'T tell' becoming so ingrained as to be come a mantra, some brave thinkers have realized you must show AND tell! Yes, yes, indeed, says the aspiring writer, and they go back to work!

    Ah, but, damn, they can recognize showing and telling, and have even read some blogs when to show and when to tell, and ooops, crap, the writing still sucks.

    NOW what do they do! Ah, yes, more brave thinkers have pushed the bounds of intellectual thought and realize you must not 'show, don't tell' and 'show and tell' isn't really the answer, but, the answer is simple: WRITE BETTER.

    Oh, great, says the young writer. My problem was I was showing and telling, but it sucked. So, how do I write better! By showing and telling? Oh, crap, showing and telling is really just descriptive, like telling someone fiction is made up of both full sentences AND sentence fragments! But how do you write better using show and tell? Why, you decide WHEN to use show and tell, of course.

    It's an endless grappling and reshaping of the most very basic, descriptive elements in fiction. And in practice it simply doesn't lead to better quality fiction except in a round about way where a writer stumbles into good fiction by using any number of methods they loosely associate with showing and/or telling, and hey, it must have been the showing and telling. They aren't sure exactly WHAT about showing and/or telling made the fiction good, but it is, so it must have been working.

    The problem is one can write some really awesome, well written, interesting showing and/or telling, and it can be completely irrelevant to the story. It may be the best showing and/or telling in the most perfectest balance EVAR, but if it's a story about Christmas, and there's an irrelevant, but well written showed and/or told scene with the Easter bunny who has nothing else to do with the story but that one, irrelevant scene, well, crap, suddenly the showing and/or telling is perfect, and it's STILL bad writing, and all the lessons on showing and telling aren't going to help.

    But, how do you possibly write without pointing to showing and/or telling?

    You focus on more important things. Is the information relevant? Is the action plausible? Is the character acting and reacting realistically to their nature? Is the style or voice of the language creating the proper tone for the story? Is the passage of time natural and believable? Is the underlying meaning of the scene working toward the overall meaning of the story? Is it clear what the character wants in the scene? Is it clear what is either keeping the character from or enabling the character to get what they want? Is the language appropriate for the audience? Is the description delivered in a way that is more than just information, and gives the reader insight into the world or character?

    I mean, really, there are a million things to consider, which is why writing is so tough and latching onto simplistic, descriptive 'advice' like showing and telling is so popular.

    And how does a writer keep track of the literally infinite number of questions they should be considering in any scene? Well, not by descriptively pointing to parts of fiction and labeling them, clapping their hands as they point to show, point to tell, yay, show and tell, show and tell, as if that just got them something. But by paying attention to the effects they're creating.

    If you or a reader laugh during a scene that should be sad, then something is wrong, and the writer has to figure out what. Is the the wrong language? Is something in the action not believable? Is the character not acting like himself?

    And identifying 'that's show' or 'that's tell' in a scene that isn't working rarely helps identify what's not working (or what is). And when it does help identify it, it's not because show and tell have any inherent properties, but the aspects working under the surface do.

    Is what I'm writing:

    Original?

    Believable?

    Building a connection to the character or world?

    Demonstrating the inherent tension of the moment (meaning, not a character hanging from a cliff, but the relationship between what a character wants and what they get. If the character is hungry, but has no food, that is an inherent tension that propels the story forward).

    From those 4 areas, once an area of weakness is identified, the questions follow that path and get more refined (from the pool of infinity I mentioned earlier). Eventually a writer finds the precise reason a particular moment or scene isn't working, and since it's specific, knows what to fix.

    And, of course, the problem with showing and telling is that it's not at all precise or indicative of anything but a self-defining definition. Showing and/or telling can be good or bad, relevant or irrelevant, effective or ineffective, original or cliche, believable or contrived, connecting or disconnecting, etc.

    If showing and/or telling can be all those things, good and bad, then it doesn't do much to instruct on what is good or bad. Showing and telling does little more than instruct on whether something is shown or told, which doesn't nothing more than describe whether something is shown or told, at which point you know something is shown or told. See how it goes nowhere? Eventually you have to figure out WHAT ABOUT the showing and telling is or isn't working, as I've outlined above.

    If you eventually have to skip considering whether something is showing or telling eventually anyway, why waste time worrying and obsessing and fretting over something you'll just need to skip if a writer ever hopes to get actually answers from their prose and revisions that can fix any problems?

    So, showing and telling really isn't really something the writer should concern themselves with. Deciding to show instead of tell, much less spending copious time on the matter, doesn't produce good fiction. But asking yourself all the questions I pose above and following that direction of investigation into one's own prose certainly does, because showing and telling can be good or bad, and whether shown or told, something that is irrelevant will simply always be irrelevant, something that isn't believable, will simply always be unbelievable, something that isn't original will simply always be unoriginal... so why not just start there, with the effect and result of one's prose, not with silly descriptors that lead nowhere?
     
  14. Trip
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    I think popsicledeath (hilarious :D) gives some relevant points about how "To show or to tell?" isn't really a helpful question – but only insofar as it shouldn't be an end in itself. It does point, however, to a larger concern: structure.

    For a few years now I've had a personal working description of showing and telling and it goes like this:

    "Showing" is description of the actual texture of experience at a higher resolution. "Telling" is description of that same texture, but at a lower resolution. In that sense, Show vs. Tell isn't correct, because both are strung out on the same axis and are teased apart so there can be "more/less/even more/less/a lot (less)/a whole lot (less)/etc./etc./etc." of either of them. It's not a simple black/white duality.

    Take this crude example of a character's speech:

    a) John explained the situation to Jane.

    b) John told her that the situation was <such and such>

    c) John said the situation was <really goddamn> <such and such>

    d) John said the situation was <really goddamn> <such and such> <!>

    e) John said, the situation is <really goddamn> <such and such> <!>

    f) The situation is <really goddamn> <such and such> <!>, John said.

    g) John said, "Jenny, the situation is <really goddamn> <such and such> <!>".

    h) "Jenny, the situation is <really goddamn> <such and such> <!>," John said.

    i) "Jenny, the situation is <really goddamn> <such and such> <!>


    The above may seem like belaboring the point but I've tried to be as thorough as I can. These are each different structural options that open up different vistas as to how that conversation might continue or be presented as a whole

    In a) the bare fact of explaining the situation is reported; the situation itself isn't.
    In b) the situation is explained.
    In c) the <really goddamn> marker is added, to show that in the explanation some of John's actual verbal mannerisms might be included, to bring us closer still to the texture of the actual conversation.
    In d) the <!> marker is added, which stands for punctuation marks, repetitions, stutters that bring us even closer to John's actual speech than verbal markers; the speech itself, however, is still indirect.
    In e) the only thing that separates us from actual direct speech is the lack of inverted commas, so the conversation takes on (to my ear at least) a direct, but somewhat muffled quality.
    In f) the "John said" tag is moved at the end, so (again to my ear) the "directness" is still more emphasized, since I first read John's words and then I'm told that he said them.
    In g) we have actual reported speech.
    In h) we have the same, but have a greater sense of immediacy, because the speaker's "said"-tag is at the end, same as f)
    In i) We have bare direct speech, plain and simple, like out of a Hemingway story.

    Possibly, in a substantial percentage of our writing many of these options will not be relevant, but I think it's important to be aware that they exist nonetheless. Awareness of structure is, to my mind, the one true writing fundamental, and structure is mostly about the foregrounding or backgrounding of information. The above example could've easily been about thought presentation or natural description or the description of actions.

    Another, simpler example is about describing character interaction. I think it's there that the "show, don't tell" advice is at its most insistent. Still, structural concerns might just render it moot.

    "He told her he loved her. She hated him for it; his words disgusted her."

    Now that sort of reaction isn't exactly normative and that kind of situation, plainly stated ("told") like in the example might have a stronger effect on the reader's curiosity than teasing out the why-s and wherefore-s of the situation. Depends on the kind of effect you're gunning for.

    My two cents :)
     
  15. The-Joker
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    While Popsicledeath you do have a point in that there are numerous aspects at work when trying to write good fiction, and show vs tell can't salvage your prose if these other aspects are ignored, I have to largely disagree with the gist of your posts.

    I don't think the concept of show vs tell should be dismissed so lightly. It does have a significant place when trying to learn the fundamentals of creative writing. Yes it's basic once you understand it, but you can't say the concept itself is pointless just because by itself it won't guarantee writing excellence. it's a small cog in a giant machine, but it's an an essential one to be aware of.

    And the way I see it, it's simply this.

    Spelling an image out to a reader as opposed to letting them deduce the underlying message. Cogito does a good job in explaining it. Here's another example.

    Jack felt nervous as he hoisted the sword into the air.

    Jack's stomach lurched as he hoisted the sword into the air, his palms sweaty around the hilt.

    As a writer you want to convey that Jack felt nervous as he lifted the sword. What's the easiest way to convey this? Simply tell the reader jack felt nervous, which is exactly what the first example does. It requires the least amount of mental effort. But creative writing requires more than simple statements. The second example describes Jack's visceral reaction to lifting the sword, and the reader deduces he is nervous. The image is stronger, more vivid, greater depth, because we can feel nervous with the character.

    Now Popsicledeath I'm sure you and anybody else who's spent more than six months writing understands this, but the difference between show and tell is quite distinct in many cases and not some vague self-defining notion as you suggest. The above is one such case. It's a valuable concept to understand and when editing an active scene, just paying heed to the distinct difference between show and tell can help you to create far richer images. It's a quick answer yes, but if I was critiquing somebody who'd written a tense scene involving swordplay, and came across example 1 in the middle of the prose, I wouldn't hesitate to say, "You're telling us his nervous. Rather show us how his anxiety manifests and let us work it out." I don't think I'd be wrong in using the show vs tell argument to convey my point in that scenario.

    As for the OP. Your 300+ word description of a past event is by definition a telling of that past event. Unless the character is a fiction writer who's trying to turn the event into a publishable short story, he would simply recount the events in the easiest way possible. Showing applies mostly to active scenes.
     
  16. Trip
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    I do agree with this.

    One of the first thing I say to writers I'm critiquing is "Look for abstract words (nervous, beautiful) or gloss-over phrases (The luxurious room ; The huge city ) and see if you can bring to the fore the substance of these words/phrases by detailing them instead of withholding information from the reader". I read for writerly information, for stuff, if you will.

    If one decides to still *tell* about these things, one should have a pretty good idea why.
     
  17. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    thanks, guys. I have always had a problem with this "show vs. tell"-thing, but now I think I understand it a little better, at least. But it is still something I will have to work at in my writing.
     
  18. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    The problem with examples like these, that proponents of show and/or tell love to bring out, is they're completely out of context of an actual story. Sure, the second seems really great, but only as an example of showing. But, there are two issues still at play:

    Issue 1) It could fairly easily be argued that the second example is still just telling. You don't show the sweat dripping off his hands, it's simply stated. You don't show his stomach lurching, and instead it's just stated. At best, it's just more vivid telling (or telling using melodramatic, overwrought language).

    Wouldn't true showing be something like: Jack paused as he lifted the sword to grab his stomach, doubling over momentarily, before grabbing the sword and having it slip out of his hands, the hilt left wet, before wiping his hands on his pants and reaching to hoist the sword again.

    That is showing the reaction Jack has to a lurching stomach (a description I excuse for the fact it's an example, but a character's 'stomach lurched' is a pretty bad trope that writers should be wary of using, as my heart races and breath is ragged). It also doesn't simply tell us his hands are sweaty, but demonstrates the cause--shows the action--of sweaty hands.

    So, wouldn't this be better? Well, not really. Spending so much energy on every little description would get tedious (though I've seen plenty of novels that seemed like little more than over-written novellas, so maybe it's a smart marketing tactic, as even bad novels sell better than good novellas).

    Ah, so the answer is to not show as much, and just tell, perhaps? Well, maybe, but only incidentally. The answer is to pay attention to the effect of one's prose. And the problem is so many novice writers get 'show, don't tell' or 'show AND tell' stuck in their craw they don't learn to look at the effect their fiction has, but instead only learn how to label whether something is shown or told.

    So, when a sentence isn't working, the novice writer may not even know it isn't working, because, well, they're showing just like they were told. And then, eventually, if they do learn it's still not working, much of the time they come asking questions like in this post, should they be telling, when do the tell instead of show, how is showing better, etc. Not realizing the problem is never, ever that they didn't show or tell properly.

    No editor, agent, publisher, professor or beta reader worth their salt ever pulls out a show-tell-o-meter and measures the showing and telling to see if a story is good or effective. Yet, novice writers keep being told to make sure to get their showing and telling in order?

    Or, are you still sticking to the argument it's a sound instructional way for a novice writer to create fiction, because I don't know how many times it has to explained that using rules or even guidelines that can (and often do) lead to failure are probably not good methods to follow. That's when you get a novice writer that, boy, they showed and told in all the right parts and did it well, and still, the story doesn't work and is terrible. But they followed all the show-tell wisdom, what could be the problem? And what will the show-tell proponents advise them to do now? Was it really a good starting place, sending a novice writer down a path that had a high likely hood of failure? And for what, because they now have a better knowledge of show and tell, and it seems the only thing they learned is that show and tell don't necessarily lead anywhere?

    That sounds like snake oil to me. Swear it'll cure my cold, cite others who swear it'll cure a cold, and maybe while I'm taking the snake oil my cold will happen to go away, but it's not really curing my cold. Same too, with show and tell. Proponents preach it'll teach them to write, cite others who swear it taught them to write, and maybe while employing show-tell a writer learned to write, but that doesn't necessarily mean it was show-tell dogma that did any of the work. And most often, writers just get confused along the way, suspecting the snake oil isn't doing anything, but too embarrassed to admit they've been swindled.

    Remember I said there would be two issues at play that are problems in the show-tell debate?

    The second issue is most show, don't tell examples only work if one assumes a lone sentence is really having to do that much work. Why, it's clumsy to simply tell a reader Jack is nervous picking up the sword. Hrm, so the next best thing is to show his nervousness (though, again, were I a proponent of show-tell, I'd argue your second example isn't even showing, just more descriptive telling).

    The problem is that fiction is rarely a sentence long. The majority of the weight a sentence must carry isn't on that sentence alone, but instead on every sentence leading up to it. Fiction is a cumulative effect, and if Jack being nervous picking up the sword is that important, by the time he's picking up the sword the reader shouldn't need that nervousness shown or told, if the writer has done a good job, as the reader will already understand everything that led to that moment and know Jack is nervous without it needing stated.

    Now, granted, this is some pretty heavy stuff for many writers, but the difference is something easily discerned if one studies enough manuscripts. Advanced fiction often has a flow that creates a sense of the inevitable. By the final scene in a story, we shouldn't need grandiose displays of showing to clue us into the meaning. We shouldn't need stomachs lurching and palms sweating to understand Jack is nervous. The entire story up until that point should be establishing that, and then the 'less is more' theory comes into play, little things in the present scene linking the reader back to all the meaning and momentum that has built in previous scenes.

    That's how meaning and magnitude in fiction are created, but the problem with showandtell examples is they don't create examples of good fiction, they create examples of good showing and telling. I've seen plenty (probably hundreds) of manuscripts by novice writers that are terrible fiction, but great examples of showing and telling. Most often, the writer has read all the snake-oil blogs about show/tell and is showing, showing, showing, and every single sentence is so full of showing it's overwrought and there's momentum built from sentence to sentence and instead it just feels like a bunch of individual, bloated sentences all smashed in a row, but not actually working together.

    And, what is the remedy? More telling? I've seen plenty of these manuscripts then revised and become a roller-coaster of fat, overwrought sentences and thin, underwritten ones, which is literally dizzying at times.

    And, what is the remedy? Well, learn when to show and when to tell! So, these manuscripts become skim-worthy and bland unless something the writer deemed important enough to show comes up, at which point they're still usually just a bunch of fat-overwrought sentences of show. The rest of the sentences just feel like rushed, informational summarizing the 'boring' parts until they get to the good stuff, which, of course, is still pretty terrible writing.

    So really, what is the answer? All the showing and telling advice leads a writer to not only failure, but not really being any closer to success, even if they're doing it all right. Eventually, the answer becomes, well, there are other things you must learn as well. Other things that could have been taught in the first place to at least send the writer on the right path.

    Show and tell 'lessons' are like forcing a child to walk backwards for years. Then, when they're still constantly running into things, you explain that yes, it didn't always work, but sometimes they got where they were going without hitting a wall! And when they learn enough and see enough other kids walking forwards, and they continue to ask, one usually falls back on something lame like "but at least you learned how to stand, and that's important, right?" Ummm, sure, but other kids learned to stand AND learned to walk forward!

    Teaching a novice writer to do something that has a high probability of still leading to failure is very simply bad teaching. It's especially a bad idea, and a way to lose all trust and credibility of a student to teach them something that even when they do your lesson well, can still ultimately lead to failure.

    And I'll clarify my beef with show-tell isn't personal, isn't just to argue for the heck of it. My problem with it is simple: it's bad teaching.


    Quite distinct, as above, which just seems like telling, and more descriptive telling? Is showing simply using more description in one's telling?

    Unless your reader is looking through x-ray glasses, I don't see how stating a character's stomach lurched is showing anything. Oh, wait, my bad, did this character have his stomach on the outside, so we can see the lurching?

    Poets make a living on imagery, and most poetry, according to standard show/tell definitions, is telling. So, I'm not particularly swayed.

    And I wonder, just saying something is valuable, doesn't make it valuable. Is your assessment coming from years observing and participating in the instruction of writers, or just what you've heard?

    I can tell you, in beginning fiction classes, when you ask (and I have) how many writers believe 'show, don't tell' is really important, most hands go up. By advanced classes, you ask that, and it's mostly laughter. :/

    And I'd say, if your second example was given, that it's overwritten and cliche and the nervousness shouldn't be a matter of language, but of context and subtext and history created within the story by every moment leading up to this one, and instead of a grandiose game of literary charades where the character acts out nervous, we can simply be connected to the history and momentum of the story in subtler, more effective ways that have nothing to do with show or tell.

    Just like I wouldn't say, hrm, try a sentence fragment. And I wouldn't say, hrm, try changing the POV.

    These are all easy, surface answers that we see all the time, but doesn't mean they're right or good or helpful.

    It's basically like a big pyramid scheme. Someone trying to sell something sells that something to writers looking for something to buy. It's self-serving, as the person who sold you what you were looking to buy is your main reference, so they're pleased when you also sell it to other writers looking for something to buy. And it's so pervasive that so many are in on the scheme--which by the way takes nothing more than a willingness to buy to get in on--that one can find validation of their buying and selling everywhere they turn.

    The most frustrating thing working in beginning fiction classrooms is trying to get them to unlearn all the things they were so eager to buy into just because it seemed plausible and they saw so many people also buying into it. Even worse are the students who are pretty smart and capable, but can't not cling to something like the whole show and tell thing they believed and preached for so many years. To do so is humbling, and hard, and the challenge doesn't become building a writer up from a blank slate, but fighting to rid them of all the things that aren't really helping them grow and develop as writers, but that they can't seem to let go of.

    And just because writers are clinging to something in the dark and tumult of the sea and haven't yet drown, doesn't mean it's a life raft and they're going to be saved.
     
  19. Trip
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    Trip New Member

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    One thing I would say in defense of "showing, not telling" is that, when done clearly and forcefully, it gives me more information of the kind I read for at all. I want what I read (and write) to be rich in two things - sensory and social detail. While the latter may be implied in a number of ingenious ways, I can't think of a way to simply suggest the former.

    Yes, a well-chosen, vivid sensory detail or three every paragraph (or every other paragraph, depending on structure) can suggest an even richer environment of sensory details around them, but a total lack or a pathetic dearth of sensory data are almost certain to keep me more or less indifferent to the story, no matter its virtues.
     
  20. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    There's a great book (one of the only instruction writing type of 'how-to' book I actually support) called The Scene Book. It's pretty simple, since it basically just about how fiction is structured and should look and feel on the page (meaning, it doesn't teach you how to write well, just how to structure well, the actually quality of writing is up to you). It might be worth checking out for people concerned with structure.

    The basic premise is fiction is made up of real time, and compressed time. Summary and scene. Similar to your resolution idea, but from a tangible sort of standpoint of controlling the [sense of] time passing in fiction.

    Though, the problem I see with applying show and tell in your analogy of resolution is that 'tell' can be quite descriptive and vivid (poets), and 'show' can be quite bland and boring. Writers can 'tell' with great resolution (good poets), and bad writers can still 'show' blandness for pages that doesn't really focus on anything. So again, it's not really very sound instruction.

    That's again more a problem with show and tell, though, and not your resolution analogy which actually works quite well with The Scene Book and ideas of summary and scene. Summary being the passage of time is compressed, or sped up, so less focus, and scene being the passage of time is in real-time, or slowed down to a sense of normalcy, and thus given more focus.

    Take any reference to show and tell out of your post, and it's great instruction. With show and tell there, though, it gets muddled (as it always does), because show and tell are descriptors, and trying to prescriptively instruct with descriptors is problematic.

    For instance, you teach a grammar student how to recognize verbs when diagramming a sentence. But, if you then want the student to learn to write an effective sentence, you can't simply say 'use a verb.' A verb describes the word in a sentence, sure, but it doesn't prescribe which verb to use.

    Teach a writer to recognize if something is 'show' or 'tell' when analyzing fiction. But, if you want the writer to learn to write effective fiction, you can't simply say 'use show and/or tell.' Showing and telling describes, sure, but it doesn't prescribe very well.

    One of the earlier stages of teaching writing (or just about any subject) is identify and name. The sorry thing is many writers are stuck perpetually in this phase, because they don't realize most of what they need to know is already learned in this regard. They already know the basics of language, verbs, adjectives, punctuation, etc. So, when they start writing fiction, it's time to stop identifying and naming, but to use those tools they can already name and identify to create effective language. Not just create language, but learn how to use the language they know to create effective language.

    But, a novice writers hears advice that is also descriptive, that is basically identify and name, and it not only gives them something to do, but it's something they unknowingly are prone to do because it's comfortable and familiar. So, instead of moving on from identify and name, the just buy into the new things to identify and name. It gives the sense of accomplishment and progress, but is basically just busy work.

    Show and tell are descriptive, not prescriptive, which is why it so often breaks down when applied. The advice is akin to USE VERBS and then is everyone really shocked when a writer uses verbs, expecting simply using verbs will create an effective sentence, and oops, all they managed to do was use verbs, which they can now identify as verbs, and are not consciously any closer to creating an effective sentence. Oh, but yay, eventually they luck into the right verb, and of course the people advising to USE VERBS are like, see, using verbs created an effective sentence.

    No, just because you can describe a verb in a sentence, and suggested using verbs, doesn't mean that's how to create an effective sentence. Just because effective sentences do in fact use verbs (usually), doesn't mean USE VERBS leads to effective sentences.

    So yes, I agree, writing is a spectrum, could even be described as various degrees of focus and resolution, but being able to look at an effective sentence and declare it showing or telling, doesn't mean showing or telling played any part other than blind luck in actually creating the effective sentence.
     
  21. Trip
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    Another thing, popsicledeath, about sensory data: it goes a long way with exactly what you (and I) want fiction to do: implying, not stating. For example:

    "He stretched his arms to the sides, fingers fluttered and gathered around him folds of cool evening air; he held onto them, tight, put a foot in front of the other, chin and chest close, his attention a rope-walker's though we walked on a meadow. He tottered and laughed, fingers went limp and he stepped to the side with abandon, turned wide on one leg crushing a bright yellow dandelion. It disappeared beneath his sole and now only his smile glowed in the dark."

    Now, since I made this up on the spot, I don't know exactly what it implies; but detail gives the writer a broader palette to develop motifs and create exactly that kind of ideal watertight context all good writers strive for so they don't have to blurt things out on the page that are much better left to the reader's creative imagination.

    About what you just posted: yes, I agree with you. I actually used the "show" and "tell" tags because they are familiar. Then I tried to tease apart their inner workings. That way they are a sound starting point to more useful things. "Real time" and "compressed time" might as well be better starting points, but they still dissolve by the time we get to the meaty stuff, discussing in detail :)

    The point is, "show don't tell" and "real time/compressed time" are phrases to get us thinking and not to stop us from thinking and just get us to act on whatever half-formed definitions of them we have in our heads. Methinks.
     
  22. The-Joker
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    The-Joker Contributing Member Contributor

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    Again I'm forced to agree with what you're saying, but you're working under a different definition of showing, at least different to what most of us "proponents" believe it to be. This is evident in the first of your two points.

    In your definition of show vs tell, even your example is simply more telling, rather elaborate telling. You don't show him grabbing his stomach, it's simply stated. You don't show him doubling over. You don't show that the hilt is wet. It's all, everything, simply stated. If we apply such technically rigid definitions to show and tell, then everything is telling. Everything is a statement. And then you would have a point.

    However that's not how most of us view and apply the concept of show vs tell. I for one simply look at the endpoint. In the case of Jack, the endpoint is he feels nervous. This is the image in its simplest most direct form. Jack feels nervous when he lifts the sword. It can't be made any simpler. Anything that conveys Jack's anxiety without explicitly stating "he is nervous," I would call showing. You show that he is nervous, without stating it directly. There are strong and poor ways of showing this, but that's another discussion.

    So according to that definition( the more widely accepted one amongst "proponents"):

    Jack's stomach lurched as he hoisted the sword into the air, his palms sweaty around the hilt.

    is not more descriptive telling. It's showing that Jack is nervous. And the debate about clichés aside, in a published active action scene how often do you see a simple statement of "Mr whatever was nervous"? Not often at all. It's too bland a line for something that requires emphasis.

    As for your second point. I agree writing is accumulative, but it's still no excuse for my original example one. Show vs tell by the above definitions and not yours does have a place I feel.
     
  23. Trip
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    Joker, I think what you're describing is what popsicledeath calls "Real time".

    The thing is, as I see it, that in an actual critique no one (well, not me at least!) would say "This scene lacks showing!" but will point out specific verbal tags - in your example the word "nervous", - that could be expanded on by substituting other verbal tags for them that would let a reader infer what's going on with Jack.

    The problem with "show don't tell" for me is that it overgeneralizes stuff. I mean, when you state it in more detail like you've done in the posts subsequent to your first one, it gets clearer and is useful. But when it's given as a general rule of thumb with the "he felt nervous"/"his stomach clenched" type of example, it undermines its potential usefulness since it doesn't encourage people to think about what "show" and "tell" mean and to think of different kinds of them that work differently in different contexts.
     
  24. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Exactly. It's a trap. The trap being that anything can be defined as either showing or telling depending on a person's individual definition. And while you may think there's a common definition, a huge part of the problem is that there isn't.

    In fact, the whole show/tell phenomenon is reliant on this fact. The issue can continue to be discussed and deemed important because a writer can come up with their new and improved take on show and tell. Why is this important? Back to the snake-oil analogy. If what you're selling isn't actually useful or relevant, one has to constantly find new ways to make it seem useful and relevant.

    For instance, we all know what Tylenol can do. If you have a headache or minor aches and pains, you go buy Tylenol. Now, if you're trying to increase your business or gain renown as a seller of remedies, it's a pretty bad strategy to simply say 'I have Tylenol if anyone needs it.' Instead, you create a need, claiming Tylenol can cure a wider range of ailments, or selling Tylenol to get people in the door, but you've also got this other magic tonic that will cure other things.

    It's all marketing, and so to, in a perverse sense (particularly as people actually make money peddling show/tell wisdom!). Show/tell isn't a way to teach others, so much as a way to sell ideas of show/tell to others. It's not instructing other writers, so much as informing them you've learned something. Which is appealing, even if unhelpful, as writing is tough and complex, so eager young writers want to think they too have learned something, not realizing that sure, they have, and meanwhile it doesn't seem to be leading anywhere.

    Not that anyone credits formal writing education around here, it seems, but in years of classes and workshops and retreats with very acclaimed and successful writers and teachers who've spent years learning and studying how to teach writing, I've never once (not a single time) heard one of them instruct on anything related to show/tell. Not once. The closest is when students bring it up and it's quickly dismissed as not something that matters to the teaching or learning of fiction. It does make an impact though, again in having to unlearn all these concepts in beginning fiction students.

    So, my problem with it is I know it isn't an effective teaching technique. I've seen it not work over and over, in a wide range of writer and settings.

    Well, I can only go off of everything I read and the perspectives people put out there, and respond to what I've read, not what individuals claim is the norm of the whole.


    See, so you aren't the spokesperson for the whole? :p

    So, if he picks up the sword and we get a direct, internal thought that conveys Jacks' anxiety, it's showing? (and I've seen arguments by folks that it both is showing, and isn't, which is problematic).

    Or would that be a different form of explicitly stating it? Even if he didn't think 'I'm nervous' but thinks something indirect, that implies it?

    And again, this is precisely the problem with show and tell. Everyone claims to have the best, most up to date definition... yet the discussions always have to come back to how people are even defining things or none of it makes sense. That's the sign of a poor method of outlining a process, and if one is teaching or advising a process that requires constant clarifications or redefinitions, then it's a poor teaching process.

    Which is why, incidentally, a lot of grammar instruction is going away from the old fashioned rote memorization method and to a more passive effect and use based system. They found hammering terms and identification into a student's head year after wasn't working, by the very fact it was required year after year, and researchers and educators have found the better way is simply let students use language, and then bring up grammar lessons as issues arise in the use of language. The difference being average students who could finally, by high school, identify and diagram a sentence, but didn't learn how to effectively use language, vs students who perhaps couldn't name the parts of a sentence, but could effective use the language. And of course, in fiction, being able to identify whether something is shown or told isn't as important as being able to effectively use the language, and again, my opinion (based on study and research) is that identifying show/tell in fiction doesn't even help describe what is in fact working to make fiction effective anyways, just because one can technically and accurately define prose as such. Identifying a sentence fragment in effective fiction doesn't prove sentence fragments lead to effective fiction, and simply identifying it as a sentence fragment doesn't explain why the prose was effective. It very literally is no more than learning to identify and name a sentence fragment (which again, they've found even in teaching something fairly prescriptive like grammar isn't even the best way to learn language).

    But, again, this all works in favor of the show-tell crowd. Because the goal isn't so much as instructing writers on how to create good fiction, but to keep the discussion talking about the discussion, posting new blogs on the issue, linking to old blogs on the issue, coming up with new ways to describe the issue, being able to easily and predictably offer feedback and advice, seeing as literally anything could (and often is) turned into some show and/or tell response that sounds plausible to a novice writer, but is really just ineffectual busy work for both parties involved.

    And eventually, when the nuts and bolts aspects of show/tell don't really pan out, we usually see people resorting to their own personal definitions and how it worked for them. This is great, and I don't even want to stifle a writer's personal method. But good instruction isn't based on what worked well for you personally, but what works well for those being instructed. And I see no proof anything related to show and tell actually works for writers trying to learn how to write. It works great for writers trying to learn how to learn something they can then claim they learned, as that's usually what happens, not writers learning to write better, but writers indoctrinated into the program, quick to instruct others they also just need to show, don't tell, quick to give feedback involving a lot of reference to show and tell that sounds great, but doesn't really do much other than propagate show and tell.

    In fact, what I've seen instead is entire groups of new writers all struggling, not with learning how to write well, but with coming to terms and making sense of show/tell advice and mantras. The phenomenon infects beginning fiction classrooms, and you literally have to unteach everything a writer learned about stuff like 'show, don't tell,' or to 'never use adverbs,' or to 'start with action.' Why? Because these things aren't how you teach fiction, they're how you teach nothing more than the very concept they're purporting. Show and tell advice teaches a writer to learn about show and tell, not to write better. Never using adverbs doesn't teach a writer to write better, simply to not use adverbs. And just because there's sometimes a correlation between good writing and these mantras, doesn't mean the mantras caused the good writing.





    But it's not bland because it's showing, or telling, or any other name anyone wants to call it concepts of created language. It's bland because it's bland, not engaging the senses, not creating the experience of the character, not in the context of action, and simply not original or interesting.

    And of course, as well all know, showing and telling can be just as bad as it can be good. There HAS to be something more than just showing and telling, right? Yes, there's GOOD showing and telling. So why don't people talk about that? Because very quickly, under scrutiny and study, that the 'good' has very little to do with showing and telling. The 'good' is the mystery that needs solved, and is complex and frustrating... and, really, it's easier to just go back to focusing on showing and telling. It's easy, it's a familiar process, it's comfortable, and it sure sounds smart and like I've already solved the mystery of what makes and how to create effective fiction.

    I mean, if you don't use and subscribe to showing and telling, what DOES a writer use, then, to create effective fiction!?

    Words, punctuation, spelling, grammar. I know, not nearly as glamorous. Few people are going to read your blog and shower anyone with the praise of a jedi master of fiction for simply stating truths about the basic parts of language.

    But, it's that simple. You use the very basic blocks of language to create language, and then ascertain if the language used is effective. You don't use descriptive concepts of language use to create language under the guise that the effective language you just looked at was created by using the descriptive concept of language you formed from looking at it. Because guess what created that effective language in the first place: basic building blocks of language, not descriptive concepts of language.

    It's simply bad instruction to see the result of something, and then try to teach that the result leads to a result. Even worse, in the case of show and tell, to label and define a result and then teach those definitions thinking it will lead to the same result.
     
  25. The-Joker
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    The-Joker Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well I always thought I had a somewhat clear understanding of the show vs tell lessons in Cogito's blogpost and other various places where I've stumbled upon it, but who knows? So I guess we'll view show vs tell as an imprecise writing device prone to misinterpretations, and something that should be approached with caution or as you would suggest not at all. It's very much about which path you choose to grasp the fundamentals of writing.
     

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