1. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    "Show don't tell" - throw away advice?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Steerpike, Feb 4, 2011.

    One thing I've noticed in critique forums on various writer's sites is that any time there is an instance of "telling" in a story or excerpt, a handful of the responses will say something like "Oh, you're telling here. You need to show us that character feels X." Rarely is there any real analysis regarding whether the "telling" was inappropriate and "showing" would be a better way to go. The advice often seems to have been thrown out (as a sort of 'throw away' comment) because it is very easy to spot telling and therefore very easy advice to give without having to think much about it.

    The subject comes to mind when, as now, I'm reading some piece of fiction that is weighted heavily on the 'tell' side of thing. Currently, I am reading 2666, by Roberto Bolano. The book is an award-winner. Best fiction book of 2008, by Time magazine. The critical reviews are almost over the top at times in their raves, as critical reviews sometimes are for literary fiction. And even less than high-brow types liked it. Stephen King said of it "This surreal novel can't be described; it has to be experienced in all its crazed glory."

    I mention the reviews and awards not to argue that the book is great (people will have to read it and decide for themselves), but to show that it is generally considered a great work of fiction by those who review books, make best book lists, and that sort of thing. Personally, I like it as well.

    So where I'm going is this: the book is heavily weighted in the "tell" direction. And I do mean heavily. Is a character sad? Scared? Amused? Most of the time Bolano just comes right out and tells you: "So and so was amused by this." There are exceptions, but by and large this is how he goes about it. He also quite regularly summarizes entire conversations by simply "telling" you the substance of a particular exchange and not bothering to even play it out in dialog.

    If Robert Bolano had posted pieces of 2666 in any critique forum I've ever seen, the responses would largely say things like "You're telling here. You need to show us." In fact, I think it is safe to say that the excerpts would be widely panned on the 'show v. tell' basis by most unpublished, aspiring authors.

    So, then, what gives?

    2666 isn't the only example of this by any means. My personal thought on the show v. tell mantra is that you have to think it through a bit more. Just because a writer is 'telling' rather than showing in any given instance does not mean she is wrong. It may be that telling is more effective for a given piece, or at any given place in a work of fiction. Without the additional analysis, the simple, automatic recitation of the mantra to any new writer when they 'tell' in a piece of fiction seems to me to be a disservice.

    But I suspect some will disagree, so have at it. :D
     
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  2. Youniquee
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    Youniquee (◡‿◡✿) Contributor

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    I already though their was a thread about this.

    But I'll throw in my two pennies.
    That advice 'Show don't tell' is implies a lot. It's like telling the new writer they should only show, when there should be a balance. Sometimes I just want to know that the person was angry, I don't always want a description about how their brows furrowed and they frowned (You get the point) but sometimes it's vice versa.

    In a nutshell: Have a balance between the two of them.
     
  3. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    It does seem like balance would be a good starting point. But like I said above, with 2666 it is heavily weighted in favor of telling. Not much balance there, but it is a widely acclaimed work nonetheless. Maybe for some narrative styles, telling is just fine.
     
  4. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    It is the same with progressive verbs, present tense, passive voice, second person POV, certain aspects of punctuation, italics etc, it depends on the story. If you are telling a story that is a bit offbeat, has a unusual point of view, then the rules we learn at school aren't always going to apply.

    With most academic subjects you learn things at school then get to university and discover actually a lot you thought was fact, is perhaps a theory or out of date or irrelevant. It is just a crutch to teach you and help you understand what comes later.

    I am first person and present tense, just sometimes telling has to happen otherwise it is stupid. A seventeen year old boy might notice a cushion is ugly, but he ain't gonna be bothered why lol
     
  5. Terry D
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    Terry D Active Member

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    If you read enough amateur writing, be it non-fiction, or fiction you quickly realize that novice writers (not all, but the vast majority) have trouble conveying emotion, setting a consistent pace, and maintaining a smooth flow in their writing. We are all trying to be storytellers and we have a hard time making the story sound good to the reader's inner ear (not the one with drum, stirup, anvil, and hammer -- the one which 'hears' the story as it is being read). Most novice writing, and lots of experienced writing, has a choppy, or flat feel because the writer gets stuck trying to 'tell' the reader what he/she envisions in their imagination, instead of making the reader see it in their own mind.

    It's about creating, or conveying emotion and letting your reader be intimate with your characters. Telling does that from a distance and is generally more difficult for a novice to accomplish effectively. Showing is an easier skill set to master. Sure, very good writers can be just as effective telling as showing -- It was the best of times, it was the worst of times -- is a pretty good bit of telling. But, it is also very easy for telling to get boring. It's not throw away advice, in my opinion. It's just basic writing fundamentals, like "measure twice, cut once" is for a carpenter. When your habits and skill set are well enough developed, you don't need to think about it any more, but until then, it's not a bad bit of mantra to remember.
     
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  6. LordKyleOfEarth
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    LordKyleOfEarth Contributing Member Contributor

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    Lolita is almost entirely told as well. You can definitely write solid stuff and not balance your showing and telling. However, the advice is not meant for seasoned vets. It's meant to help beginners out, and most beginners have a tendency to tell a story, and in doing so, miss everything important.
     
  7. jaywriting
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    jaywriting Member

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    In my opinion any "rule" in literature is meant only as a guideline for the novice. To the extent that we are all learning to be better writers, it worth at least being familiar with the rules before choosing to break them.

    Too much "tell" is a justified criticism in many cases, because it fails to engage the reader as effectively as the "show" approach. Once you have sufficient mastery of the craft to hold someone's interest, you can write how you damn well please.
     
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  8. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    This makes sense. And Lolita is a great example, because it is a very engaging book.

    But on writing forums like this you have a wide range of skill level and experience, so that seems to argue against just tossing out "show don't tell" as a sort of automatic admonition. Doesn't it make more sense to see whether the author has told successfully and then, if not, maybe recommend showing some of it? I get the impression that most people who say 'show don't tell' don't take that first step.
     
  9. TWErvin2
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    TWErvin2 Contributing Member Contributor

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    You can't always show. Telling has it's place. From a short sample, a 'telling' can stand out. The only way to really determine how effective a writer in conveying that story is to read a major expanse, if not the entire piece.

    Direct vs. Indirect Characterization is a prime example where Show vs. Tell is showcased.

    Here's an article I wrote that explains it in detail (if further explanation is needed): Direct vs. Indirect Characterization
     
  10. LordKyleOfEarth
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    LordKyleOfEarth Contributing Member Contributor

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    But how many people on this board are just starting out and are getting beat over the head with "Show don't tell" in their classes and workshops? That's why it pops up here so very often.
     
  11. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    yeah but how many of us were also taught i before e except after c - despite it being wrong more often than it is right ;)

    I think it is better to teach people to write to the best of their ability - to learn about the five senses and do what works for the story. Although a few college professors might be out of work lol
     
  12. ScatteredDancer
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    ScatteredDancer New Member

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    This is something I've been struggling with lately. Great thread!
     
  13. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    how you 'show' and 'tell' in your writing is more important than how much you do either one...
     
  14. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Bingo.
     

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