1. mbinks89
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    mbinks89 Active Member

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    Is Explicitly Stating A Thought A Form of Telling? If So, How Should One Avoid It?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by mbinks89, Jun 9, 2015.

    Hey everyone. A few writers who I do critiques with have warned me against explicitly stating a thought, as it is too "tell-y." Is there a way to show a thought? I've been making use of facial expression, behaviour ticks, etc., to indicate how the character is feeling. Should I use that in conjunction with free indirect discourse to avoid telling thoughts. For example:

    Riley stood with his back to the wall. What on Earth could have growled behind the door?

    Riley was panting, and his hand quivered as he brushed the hair back from his eyes. He remembered watching a nature documentary about tigers. The growl on the other side of the door had sounded like that: low, but canting upwards in pitch, . . .

    How do you guys avoid "telling" when there is a solitary character?



     
  2. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Is dialogue "telling"? Thoughts are just internal dialogue.

    ETA: There is a tendency to accept whatever is said in a writers' group as gospel. Please don't fall into that trap. When an unpublished writer states something as dogma, it's likely something (s)he heard from someplace else and is repeating. Happens around here all the time. As for your question above, glance back over some quality literature that you've read and see if thoughts are presented. I guarantee that not only will you see that they are, but you will also note a variety of ways to present them.

    Good luck.
     
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  3. A.M.P.
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    A.M.P. People Buy My Books for the Bio Photo Supporter Contributor

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    Some people plain don't like italics for thoughts as they call it "lazy writing"
    I consider that just a form of dialogue so it doesn't bother me none.

    You can show thoughts through narrative, as the event/discussion brings the character mind to this and that subject.

    Also, your second example is much better than the first.
    It's more descriptive.
     
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  4. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    I don't know if I find this tell-y but I would maybe rearrange it a bit differently. And lose some of the details of the thought.
    I don't find it's problem is that it's tell-y or that it's a telling thought, it's that it doesn't seem to have the events and reactions in the right order. You seem to have him just standing, then thinking about something the reader hasn't been shown and then reacting to it. Feels a bit out of order.

    Have the growl. Show a body reaction - a jump a move, his hair standing on end or something- and then maybe an internal thought like - What the hell was that. If something like a tiger growled behind a door and I was near, I wouldn't be anywhere near it two seconds later.
     
    Last edited: Jun 11, 2015
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  5. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    There are at least two ways I have seen people interpret "show vs tell" (and there are probably more):

    1. To tell something is to state it; to show something is to state a consequence of it. (e.g. if a character is very tall, then you could tell that by saying he is very tall or you could show it by saying he bumps his head on a doorframe.) By that interpretation, yes, explicitly stating a thought is telling. Our inner state is the root cause and our actions are the consequences. Therefore, describing someone's body language is a way to show the character's inner state.

    2. To tell something is to give the reader just enough information to know what is happening; to show something is to decorate the narrative with sensory details in an attempt to help the reader "see" the scene. By that interpretation, stating a thought is not telling per se, but if you lack sensory details to go along with it, then you are telling.

    Show and tell aside, you do not need to set the point of view character's thoughts apart from the narrator's voice with something like attribution (e.g. "he thought" or "he remembered") or italics. You can explicitly state thoughts without the reader even realizing it. Basically, you would have the narrator speak on behalf of the character.
     
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  6. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I agree that a thought isn't fundamentally different from dialogue, in the show/tell, demonstrate/explain spectrum. And I think that both of your examples are more on the "show" or "demonstrate" side--a "tell" or "explain" version would be:

    Riley stood with his back to the wall. He was afraid that there might be a tiger behind the door.

    I do like your second example better, but not because it refrains from using direct thought. I like it because it makes his fear more specific and detailed. If I were writing it, I'd eliminate most of the physical signs of fear, because the fear is pretty obvious anyway.

    Riley stood with his back to the wall. What the hell? He'd seen a documentary about tigers once. The growl on the other side of the door sounded like that: low, but canting upwards in pitch.

    BTW, even if you're in favor of italics-for-thoughts, the italicized sentence in your example doesn't seem correct; it sounds like it's phrased by the narrator instead of the character. As a direct thought, I'd expect it to be What on Earth is behind the door? Edited to add: Or, really, What on Earth is that? He thinking to himself, so it seems off for him to tell himself that there's a door.
     
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  7. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    There's nothing wrong with telling. Writers tell all the time.

    The problem comes when it's all they do - when they tell what they should show.

    In this case, I'd skip the italics, and maybe pep up the language a bit, but I don't think there's a problem with using internal dialogue in general.

    Riley pressed his back to the wall, straining to hear through the door. What the hell was in the other room? It had sounded like a damn tiger, a growl so low it had been a physical vibration as much as a sound.

     
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  8. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    You shouldn't avoid telling. It's a matter of the balance between showing and telling, and that depends on your style. Internal dialogue is fine.
     
  9. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Want my advice? Forget about the show vs. tell "rule." It's an unnecessary and confusing guideline that doesn't seem to be helping anyone. If it's necessary to state a character's thoughts, then do so. While there may be times when thoughts should be replaced/taken out to improve pace, tone, etc., that decision should not be dictated by some silly rule. Just my two cents.
     
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  10. J_Downloading
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    J_Downloading Member

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    Every piece of writing is telling to some degree. You can try to show all they to the point where you're writing the atmoic interactions in the brain of a character which make up the emotion you're trying to convey but at that point it's much better to just say "he was sad about it". The way you have to judge where to stop complexifying in an attempt to 'show not tell' is to decide whether the interruption in the flow of the story is worth what the extra content. It's really a decision the author has to make for themselves based on their unique point of view.
     
  11. ThePhysicist13
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    ThePhysicist13 Member

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    Internal dialogue is great. Plenty of authors make use of it, and it works very well when combined with some visual details. I also think telling things—even lots of things—is fine, as long as you throw in some powerful interprersonal dialogue and imagery.
     
  12. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    It's not a rule. It's never been a rule. At its strongest, it never meant "don't ever tell". Expanded, it's a guideline that means, "Often, though certainly not always, it's more effective to demonstrate things than to explain them."
     
  13. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Speak for yourself. I find the advice incredibly helpful.

    Riley stood with his back to the wall. What on Earth could have growled behind the door?
    You are telling the reader that the character heard a growl and didn't know what it was. Why not show us what the character heard, let the reader experience the fear the character is feeling? It's stronger, more interesting reading if the reader is there, rather than the character telling the reader about the event.

    Riley stood with his back to the wall. A growl like he'd never heard before came from behind the door. He pushed the dresser up against the door as if that would be enough to stop the monster. But he knew, nothing would ever be enough to stop the thing from getting through, from getting to him.
    There is plenty of telling in that version, you are telling the reader what is going through Riley's mind. You are not telling us how Riley would describe the events to someone later.

     
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  14. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    That's why I put it in quotes ("rules").

    Too often writers automatically assume that showing is preferable to telling, which is why I believe advice like this one isn't helpful. Sometimes a simple sentence does wonders. The example I always give in threads like this is from James Joyce's "Eveline." This is the first paragraph of the story:
    Those simple three words at the end are more effective than having some long description showing the reader she was tired. Knowing when to use a simple description like the one Joyce used is an art form by itself. Unfortunately, most writers would have written a longer description instead of a simple "She was tired." And it's all because of this silly guideline.
     
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  15. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    It's interesting to note that while "showing" inevitably requires more words than "telling", agents and editors routinely fuss over word count. In my group at the pitch conference I recently attended, one first-timer was pitching a novel of 130,000 words; the gasps were audible. I had one editor warn me that my estimate of 119K words was "at the high end" and suggested I may want to keep that in mind in revising. I mention this not to advise one kind of writing over another, but rather to point out that different modes of writing serve to accomplish specific goals, and are often in tension with one another. Adhering to absolutes, therefore, is not generally a good idea.
     
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  16. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yes, my apologies; I realize you're not the one I'm arguing with. I just wish that even when it's put as a short pithy rule, that "rule" were phrased more accurately. To use other rules as examples, some people may really truly mean "Never use an adverb" or "Never use passive voice." But the equivalent "show/tell" rule isn't "Never tell", but "Tell less often, show more often."
     
  17. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Any reference to a "rule" in fiction writing that attempts to frame the rule as an absolute should be disregarded. All such pieces of advice are guidelines that different authors adhere to in varying degrees and that some ignore outright. If someone tries to tell you X or Y is an absolute rule, you're probably dealing with a beginner who hasn't read or written enough to be giving advice.
     
  18. RevGeo
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    RevGeo Member

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    If your story telling is compelling, then rules are for those other fools. Had Mark Twain listened to the critics Huck Finn would have talked like Chaucer. Its YOUR story. Write the damn thing.
     
  19. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    I agree with you but you implied it was never helpful advice.

    When you read the work of new writers, telling often stands out like a sore thumb. It's one of the most common errors of a new writer that isn't gifted with the innate skill of writing. So showing is a very useful thing to learn. Once you've mastered it, and understand the issue, then one can see where telling, including a whole book written as interesting exposition, an author telling the whole story, can work well.
     
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  20. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    But it's not a given that 'showing' is the thing to trim if a novel is too long.

    Didn't you also say that the agent you pitched to couldn't 'see' the poverty of your character's home or neighborhood, it didn't show as being different from the better class neighborhoods?
     
  21. Phil Partington
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    "lazy writing"? Tells me they don't understand how italics ought to be used. Sounds like the same kinds of people who say writing poetry is 'easy.'
     
  22. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I would disagree that that's always true. For example:

    Telling: John despised his family. Since he couldn't safely express that feeling in words, given his ongoing need for their financial support, he expressed it in silent gestures. He got away with it through a carefully-tuned pretense of confusion and ignorance. He fulfilled their picture of him as an ignorant perpetual teenager, and took his revenge on them for that belief, all at the same time.

    Showing: John entered the church in trainers and cutoffs, and approached his uncle's casket. Catching his aunt's expression, he asked, eyebrows down in mournful query, "What?"

    The "showing" is of course a much, much more ambiguous communication of the message, but to me that's why showing is often better. Ambiguity, and its demand on the reader to translate, adds richness.
     
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  23. Phil Partington
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    I think those who are warning you about telling because you're using direct thought are either:

    1) ...really saying that you're just overdoing it, in which case, yes, OVER-telling can be a problem;
    2) are the kind who don't understand that telling is not a bad thing at all...a novel that was 100% show would be extremely arduous to read; or
    3) may not understand that not all forms of direct thoughts are tells, even though they look like it. For instance, if you use a direct thought/monologue or whatever to simply explain some context, especially when it has the feel of being forced, then yes, you're probably telling and trying to mask it as inner dialogue. However, inner dialogue can very much be a show! Take, for example, the following passage I just made up :p...

    When the teacher asked the class about the date for the French revolution, Tommy raised his hand eagerly; he knew this one.

    "Yes, Tom."

    Only, when he opened his mouth to speak, no words came out. He had forgotten.

    Bollocks!

    ...see how the inner dialogue of Bollocks quickly shows Tommy's feelings? Yeah, yeah, it's a crummy example, but hopefully the point is clear.

    Like everything in writing, it's all about your finesse.
     
  24. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    And I didn't suggest that it was. Only that the advice given to writers often pulls in contradictory directions.

    No. First, she didn't read anything, there was only my pitch. In it I said that my character and his mother had been forced to move from an affluent Long Island suburb to a working class neighborhood in New York City. Most people with even the slightest clue about NYC would recognize that "working class" suggests a lack of affluence. However, she heard "New York City" and assumed I meant Manhattan in the East 80s or Gramercy Park. None of the other people I pitched - one agent and three editors - had any trouble picking up on the difference. Moreover, if she had read it, she would have clearly seen the difference.
     
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  25. Phil Partington
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    Phil Partington Member

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    Yeah, it certainly doesn't always mean a longer passage. I think a more accurate statement is that generally showing often ends up being longer than telling.
     

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