1. JaimeL
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    JaimeL Member

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    Is a personal first personal the antithesis to show, don't tell?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by JaimeL, Apr 10, 2016.

    I'm 20,000 words into a novel with multiple first person viewpoints, and concurrently writing a story with another first person viewpoint. When I write first person views, I tend to make them quite personal (very similar to diary entries), and the characters internally react to situations in my stories.

    My question is, normally the accepted rule is show, don't tell (which I really enjoy writing in the third person), but I go literally the other way around with in the first person, with my character (intentionally, as it's most natural with how I write) telling how how they feel, how they think others are feeling etc. etc. Do you think this comes across as cumbersome (obviously generally, as almost any question in this forum can be answered with "it depends on how well you write it"), and if so, how would you change it? Do you normally write the first person as a very personal prose?
     
  2. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    It could get a bit wearying, I'd think - hard to say for sure without seeing the full MS.

    But, in general terms, I think it's usually best to have a balance of show and tell. That said - I think we often misuse/misunderstand the terms. I've seen online BRAWLS between serious writers about what "show" means vs "tell".

    Some authors mean "show" as "paint a vivid scene with lots of details"; others take it to mean "maintain a distant perspective and describe only what is visible from an exterior viewpoint." There are probably other interpretations as well.

    As far as I can tell from your post, you seem to be referring to a sort of focus on internal events rather than external events? Is that accurate?

    If so, then, yes, absolutely, that could be wearying. Navel-gazing is rarely attractive. (it'd have to be a HELL of a nice navel). In terms of fixing it? I'd suggest just... not doing it? I'm not really sure about more practical advice. Focus more on external events? Make sure you have a plot and your POV character is active in advancing that plot? ?
     
    Last edited: Apr 10, 2016
  3. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I feel that I don't understand what you mean sufficiently to answer it, without an example. Even a few paragraphs would, IMO, qualify as an example.
     
  4. Cat Cherry
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    Cat Cherry Member

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    Dialogue can be a great exposition tool, as long as your characters are talking to each other the way that those characters want to talk to each other authentically rather than forcing out a bunch of exposition in ways that no normal human would speak. As long as you are moving the plot forward, using characters' interactions with one another can be a great way to give the reader a sense of what characters are thinking and feeling. If you are being true to your characters, some of them will be much more likely to spill their guts to one another than others, which is an important thing to bear in mind, especially if you are dealing with several first-person narrators in the same book.

    There are lots of different ways to approach first-person prose. Some of them are intensely personal, like being inside the perspective character's head all the time. Some of them are so close to third-person prose that the reader only sees the word "I" a few times per chapter, if at all (for example, I think I remember an old Leon Uris novel in which the first-person narrator was actually a very minor character in the book who was watching the protagonist from almost a fly-on-the-wall perspective). The wonderful, horrible, beautiful, evil thing about creative writing is that the minute anybody gives you any hard-and-fast rule about it, someone will come along and break that rule in a way that makes sense and tells a great story. It's possible to write clunky, cumbersome dialogue that errs too heavy on the side of exposition. It's also possible to write exposition-rich dialogue that builds character and plot at the same time and leaves the reader unable to sleep without reading justfivemorepages.

    As ChickenFreak said, it would be helpful to see an example if you want any kind of detailed advice.
     
  5. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't think so. You can still 'show' in first person, by not stating how your characters feel or how they think others feel (to use your own example) and instead show the signs of said feeling and let the reader interpret it. So no, I don't think there's a perspective that is more suited for "showing" than others.
     
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  6. Indarican
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    Indarican Member

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    I feel like maybe you can incorporate some "show" aspects if the main characters are talking about others. I think it may get tricky if you try and do the same for themselves.
    I really would have to see an example to give a better answer but I would say trying to stick the details around the MC and how they feel about them.
    Ex.
    I really hate that loud muscle cars that pass by my house late at night, the deep growl of the muffler plus the always present flickering light really keeps me up at night.

    I am not sure if this is helpful.
     
  7. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    If you instead write:
    I really hate that The loud muscle cars that pass by my house late at night, the deep growl of the muffler plus and the always present flickering light really keeps me up at night makes my ( insert Physical reaction)(My english skills don't cover those)
    Something like that makes the reader understand why the character can't sleep, if the descriptions aren't enough. You don't need to state that the character hate them. Show it, with an unpleasant physical reaction that makes that clear.
     
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  8. Cat Cherry
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    I was looking at that sentence and thinking that I would probably do it differently too, especially if my goal were showing and not telling. There's no right/wrong here, of course, but instead of this:

    I really hate that loud muscle cars that pass by my house late at night, the deep growl of the muffler plus the always present flickering light really keeps me up at night.

    I would probably write this (because it's me, and me loves profanity, this is laced with naughty words, but one could also do it with the boring-old-regular kind of words if one felt the need ;)):

    I've been trying to sleep for four hours, but every time I start to drift off, another fucking muscle car comes vrooming down the street without a muffler, shining its goddamn headlights in my bedroom window. Happens every Thursday night when the car club leaves the bar two blocks over on Vine. Before moving here, I always assumed old people went to bed at 8:00 P.M. I groan and haul myself out of bed to put earplugs and blackout curtains on my shopping list for tomorrow after work.

    The reason I would re-write it that way is that the original sentence relies heavily on descriptors (primarily adjectives and adverbs, but also a verb that explores feelings rather than actions) to tell its story. To me--and others are free to chime in and tell me that I know nothing, Jon Snow--that looks an awful lot like showing rather than telling. Letting your action verbs do the work and cutting as many as possible of your descriptors generally makes your creative prose more compelling. Granted, the passage that I wrote probably also contains a bunch of things that will make me cringe when I re-read it tomorrow, but that's what revision is for...
     
  9. JaimeL
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    JaimeL Member

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    Sorry for the late reply on my behalf, and thanks for all of the replies on yours.

    I've decided to stick with my current style of writing. It is, I feel, the best way for me to tell my story, and the one I most enjoy employing, so I'll keep at it this way. Thanks for all the help :)
     
  10. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    Show vs. tell is the difference between a scene (which is mostly written moment-by-moment) and what Dwight V. Swain calls a sequel.

    In a sequel, you're in between scenes and the character is working out what to do next. Into that mix, you bring speculation (which can include what the character thinks others are feeling, thinking, etc.) as well as pondering over past events that will affect the current decision toward future action. You also telescope time (a week passed before he was ready to take the leap) and build tension by enumerating obstacles and how the character feels about them.

    In a nutshell, scenes are about showing, sequels are about telling.

    Check my sig for info on Swain's book on writing if you wanna know more about it.
     
  11. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm finding myself doing a fair bit of what I assume is 'telling' just recently, but it is done purposely.

    Although I have to admit to not being entirely clear on this.

    If I highlight or skip over the day's events with paragraphs like, We spent the rest of that day (doing this, doing that), is that telling?

    The alternative is to ramble on in real-time 'showing' the days events instead, but if nothing significant or exciting happened during this period, surely it's better to skip over it with a brief 'telling' paragraph??
     
  12. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Yes, it's telling, but it's an appropriate place to use telling. Telling isn't inherently bad. :)
     
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  13. Spencer1990
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    That is telling. Good telling if what happened isn't important to the plot. It's a good, quick way to note the passage of time, seamlessly flowing to the next, important plot point.

    ETA: @Tenderiser beat me to it. Sorry for the double answer.
     
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  14. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    It's not telling in my view, it's summarizing, and there's room for that as well in a story. You don't have to (and I'd say shouldn't) describe everything that characters do, only the things that are important. As a writer you need to be able to decide when to do what.
     
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  15. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    But isn't summarizing essentially what telling IS?

    I certainly agree there's nothing wrong with doing this, I'm just quibbling over the terminology!
     
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  16. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Exactly. Telling is just, well, telling what happened rather than describing what happened.

    My stomach is rumbling and I'm dreaming of food. In summary, I'm hungry.
     
  17. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    By my view, that's not what telling us, but my view may be weird.

    I translate showing/telling as demonstrating/explaining. And you can demonstrate with summary.

    For example, "I slept sixteen of the next twenty-four hours," might demonstrate, depending on the context, that the speaker is depressed. So in my book it's demonstration, and therefore showing.
     
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  18. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    One more reason why the "show, don't tell" rule needs to die. Nobody agrees what it means!
     
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  19. Simpson17866
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    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

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    How about:

    Show = Evidence
    Tell = Conclusion
     
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  20. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think I've argued before that you can't know whether something is showing or telling without knowing the point that's meant to be made. Like, in @ChickenFreak's example, if the point is that he slept a lot it's telling, but if the point is that he's depressed, it's showing. That makes sense to me.

    (It's kind of like secondary vs. primary evidence in history - you have to know what the evidence is proving before you know whether it's secondary or primary.)

    So I guess I agree with @ChickenFreak and @Simpson17866 , but... hmmm. Maybe I just feel that the form of summarizing laid out in the example is not being used as evidence of anything (as far as we know) and is therefore telling. Maybe not all summary is, but this summary certainly was?
     
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  21. X Equestris
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    X Equestris Contributing Member Contributor

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    What you describe is one of the instances where telling is the superior option, in my opinion. I don't think anyone wants to read through mundane periods where nothing of note happens.
     
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  22. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    Of course, one could argue that all fiction is telling... every single word of it. TELL me a story. Sit down, I've got a story to TELL.

    And for someone who overthinks things to the extent I do, that has damn near frazzled my brain.

    Oh, crap! Maybe the only answer is to write in present tense?!

    I'm joking... I think.
     
  23. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Present tense won't help. You can easily say, "For the next year I work and sleep."

    Anyway, there's nothing inherently wrong with "telling." It's just usually not the best way to communicate the really important stuff.
     
  24. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    But that wouldn't make any sense. That's not story-telling, it's fortune-telling.
     
  25. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    "Show, don't tell," is the advice given to novice writers who only use telling in their stories. But as writers, those who advise in that way should be ashamed. Clarity is job one for a writer, and that advice is misleading at best.

    Showing and telling are complementary approaches. Telling is direct, straightforward, and to the point. It's uncomplicated, and ideal for the delivery of simple facts.

    Showing, on the other hand, is more subtle. It reveals through implication, much like a painter revealing a subject by painting the surrounding "negative space". Therefore, it excels at introducing complexity, like emotional state and motivation.

    Complexity is one of the elements that separates mediocre writing from great writing, so that's why showing is so strongly touted. But showing demands more of the reader, who must see what is implied. Also, because the interpretation is subjective, the writer cannot always be sure the reader isn't completely off the writer's trail. It's important to use telling to establish the fixed, immutable elements of the story. Telling is also refreshingly crisp and clear, and won't leave the reader feeling like she or he is listening to a politician who never really says anything straight out.

    A great writer not only knows to balance showing and telling, but also knows when one is better than the other, and why.
     
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