1. Exzalia
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    Exzalia Contributing Member Contributor

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    showing and not telling. Why at times I find this difficult

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Exzalia, Jul 31, 2012.

    They always say show but don't tell. That's all fine and dandy but I am often running into parts in my story were I have to tell, a lot.
    My woe's come mainly from my fantasy stories as I try to be original making up systems and mechanics that make my world tick but, Often these are very important and I end up having no choice but to explain them in a telling fashion. What is more I feel pressured to explain them as soon as possible for fear of confusing my readers. Here's an example. A small part of a battle in my story.


    "It was that warping spell! frost beam made her aether sluggish but, perphaps. I cast dilute sending a stream of water aether into her weeve. Her spell needed pure fire aether to work, with the water in her weeve I thought she would abort the move. But she didn't, her inexperience showing. She attempted to cast the spell It miss weaved and instead of teleporting her away to safty it warped her right in front of where the slashing vines were rooted."

    Did you understand that? probably not.
    This is because You have no knowledge of how magic works in this world. Now let me explain to you how it works and then read the above passage again.

    In order to cast a spell you need to gather aether a reality bending energy that the gods used to create the world. Aether is also known as magic. You need different types of aether for different spells, Fire spells need fire aether, water needs water aether, ect, ect. Once you have the aether you weave it, weaving is the act of moulding the aether into your desired spell, if you mess up the mould or some one disrupts your casting the spell will miss weave. Each spell has a different name. In the above passage mage A hit mage B with a frost beam earlier which slows down aether, making it harder to weave (frost beam made her aether sluggish) mage A then cast dilute which is a water spell that forces the wrong aether into mage Bs weave (Her spell needed pure fire aether to work.) Mage B should have given up the weave but she activated her warping spell anyway (The warping spells name is flame warp.) It miss weaved and instead of warping her to safely it warped her closer to danger.

    Phew now read the passage again.

    Made more sense? yes but that's were the issue comes in. See I had to devote an entire section just to explain that small battle scene. Add on that there still tons more to explain like duel spells, summoning, enchanting, disenchanting, dual casting I didn't even get into the arcadia that you need to put in your weave. all of which have their own rules, limits, ect ect. You see the problem that is allot to tell and feels impossible to show.

    But then you may wonder. Why does the reader need to know? well If a battle scene between two powerful mages happens each with their own styles of casting, how is my reader going to follow with out a very deep explanation? I can't expect him to know the secondary effects of nova shield if he hasn't even seen the spell before.

    It's not just magic, but the world it self is strange, He needs to know my world s flat, that aether flows through everything, that there are actually five kinds of humans, that Exzalia's moon actually turns into it's sun in day and back to moon when it's night.

    So in far out fantasy stories how does one explain all this with out telling?
     
  2. ThievingSix
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    ThievingSix Member

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    I think what you may find, is that if its hard for you to show and not tell in that much detail, your going into too much detail.

    Try to keep it as simple as possible, there's a good chance your reader won't be able to follow the detailed dynamics of every aspect of the aether. An option would be a spell book as some kind of appendix with all the detailed information. You can then assume the reader can look up any spells if their interested, but keep to the basics and only explain spell dynamics the first time a spell is used and only in passing of its effect. I found it very difficult to follow the extract, even after reading the explanation(i.e. it takes away from the tension in the scene).

    I would also use italics or quotes or something to differentiate the spell name from the actual text
    I was quite puzzled as to what you meant, or if it was an error until i realised "dilute" was the name of the spell. I think there's a minor error highlighted in bold.

    This isn't a critiquing forum, but I think you need to work on the construction of your sentences in general. I found it quite clunky and difficult to read. Here's an example of how I would write it. I think an increased clarity in your prose would allow more room for you to show rather than tell.

    Then again, I'm not an avid reader of magical fantasy fiction. However i thought the extract was interesting.
     
  3. GoldenGhost
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    GoldenGhost Contributing Member

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    Understand that showing and telling are both tools used to show character.. in the grand scheme of things.. telling being Macro (sometimes) and showing being Micro (sometimes) as in individual emotions, in dialogue and such.

    Look at showing in dialogue.. sometimes you're 'telling' things in dialogue, whether it be your character simply saying so and so was angry, or that it pained him to see someone destroy a garden in such a way.

    Regardless of what is being said, or what is being told, you may be 'telling' the reader information, but you're 'showing' them character... at the same time.

    IMO the whole 'show don't tell' thing is utter nonsense... Yes, you want to 'show' your characters emotions, whether they're dialogue tags, or in certain scenes where you can have them do physical things, such as gazing out a window, instead of saying theyre 'sad'.. but there are times where showing is apart of the whole, whether you're describing emotion through action, or telling through narration.. Hemingway is a great example of this.. No matter what his characters are doing, no matter what his narration is doing, showing or telling, the ENTIRE piece is SHOWING, because every word put down to paper is keeping the characters in mind..

    I hope this makes sense.. I'm doing a hard job attempting to explain what I'm trying to mean... Don't get so hung up on the word show, in 'show don't tell'.... understand that 'showing' is really how you tell your story in the first place.
     
  4. Fivvle
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    Fivvle Contributing Member

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    To dilute something is to weaken it with water. The word you need to use is "divert" or "redirect". If it's an action of putting a weave inside your enemy's that wasn't there before, that would be termed more like an insertion... the word escapes me, but it would obviously need to be a word that describes overpowering something, and it needs to be applicable to a description of water. Anyway, the system of magic doesn't sound confusing to me at all. It's not imperative that the reader knows that aether is the power of the gods in the passage you shared, nor is any other extraneous information. The passage you shared is focused on the combat between two mages, so the only information the reader needs is simple, quick descriptions of how it's working. Using words that can be used to describe water to describe the effects of a water weave is very smart. You did that with "dilute", although a diluting weave would suggest weakening the weave instead of inserting something new inside of it. Then again, you would have to insert water into something to dilute it in the first place. Whatever. What I'm saying is this: the reader only needs the information that is crucial to understanding the situation. Since this particular situation is just a battle, the only information we need is some bare, on-the-fly mechanic stuff. You pretty much have that going already.
     
  5. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    Agree with TS - I don't think it's as much a problem with show/not tell as it is sentence structure. I could understand it better after trying various punctuations. And during the heat of a battle, you definitely don't want a lot of explanations of how things work. If writing about a WWII battle, you wouldn't include details of how tanks operate; you would emphasize the speed (or lack thereof) and the menace their presence produced. Have the explanations after the battle, in a conversation among comrades, if necessary in the narrative at all.
     
  6. PeterC
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    PeterC Active Member

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    I understand your problem. I have a similar problem in my work which takes place on an alien world and is told from the point of view of the aliens. They naturally use terms and refer to cultural concepts that don't make sense (at first) to my human readers.

    I've come to enjoy the challenge of getting the necessary information to the reader in a natural way. Here are a couple of things I've taken away from that process...

    First, I think it's okay if your reader is a little unclear about things to start. In my world I have a goddess and seven demi-goddesses. The characters sometimes talk about "the Seven" (with capital S) and I leave it at that. My reader probably comes to understand what that's about maybe 30% of the way through the work. It seems fine to me.

    Dialog can be a good way to explain things in a natural way. In your case maybe you can have a scene where a master is teaching a novice about magic. It's easy to introduce key concepts that way but it can be tricky to make it seem natural. Things get easier in my story when the humans arrive and the aliens have to tell them how their culture works. The problem is such dialog can start sounding like a lecture if you aren't careful.

    My experience has been that you don't really want your reader to know too much right away. It makes a more interesting read if some of the details are left unexplained and then unveiled later as the story develops. On the other hand you don't want your reader to feel confused either. It can be a fine line.
     
  7. Quinn T. Senchel
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    Quinn T. Senchel Member

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    I agree with TS and PeterC.
    I found that it wasn't as confusing when I played with sentence structure. You don't need to reveal the details right away. You can always reveal little details over the course of your novel to avoid info dump. I also think that a battle isn't the place or time to be discussing how the world works.

    You could have one character criticize the other after battle. They could explain how such a move was dangerous and how she could have better avoided such a situation. The trick is to make it sound less like the character is lecturing the audience and more like the character is teaching another character. You could also have a character musing on the concept of aether and the Gods.
     
  8. Exzalia
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    Exzalia Contributing Member Contributor

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    you all make very good points. thanks so much for the input. I'll try working on the sentence structure and show you again.
     
  9. nephlm
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    nephlm Member

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    I didn't see anything in the tell paragraph that I thought I needed to know to understand the show paragraph. If anything It seemed to of the general class of paragraphs where the author is treating me as if I'm a bit slow. Maybe if it was my first magic system it would be confusing, but if so explore it later more organically, not in the middle of a fight. Cut down to it's absolute core all that paragraph says is that two people are fighting, one made a tactical error due to inexperience and is now at least at a disadvantage. If this is the first time the reader has seen the system it also tells them that magic energy is colored and it can be messed with as it is being deployed. That is all the reader needs to walk away with.

    I have a friend who is an audio engineer, his employer records a series of books which he calls gun porn. Every action sequence includes in depth description of make and model and relative advantages and disadvantages of everyone's weapons, discussion of ammo, etc. These elements are rarely important to the story, it seems more like the story is the excuse to talk about guns. I bring this up because I think there can be magic system porn as well. It's important to work out the limitations and flavor of your magic system, I'm not sure the reader needs to know it all immediately. Let it come out organically rather than front loading everything.

    What's important in a fight scene like that is the flow of advantage and what the choices made say about the characters making them (inexperience).
     
  10. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Like all writing maxims, you need to apply judgment. There are times you need to tell in order to telescope action into workable timeframes. There are times when the reader doesn't need to be shown, and showing could make the passage tedious.
     
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  11. B93
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    B93 Active Member

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    This doesn't read like an opening paragraph for the story. Surely if there is any build-up to the battle you can establish some of the special word uses ahead of this.

    The greatest difficulty I had in reading the original was encountering common words with special meanings to your story. When I see dilute I don't think of a noun, but rather a verb or adjective applying to the contents of a bottle. Maybe capitalizing the names of spells would help? That still won't tell me that a Flame transports (warps?) you, though - the three words flame, transport, and warp have no prior general connection for me.

    I still have trouble when I go back, even knowing of the spells, in parsing the sentences, punctuation, grammar, and various spellings. Is it weeve (a word from your world?) or weave, the common word? Where do the phrases start and end?

    It was that warping spell! Frost beam made her (which kind?) aether sluggish but, perphaps (sp: perhaps) but this is an incomplete and thus vague thought tacked onto a real sentence. I cast Dilute sending a stream of water aether into her weeve. Her spell needed pure fire aether to work, (comma splice - use period and Capital) With the water in her weeve (comma) I thought she would abort the move. But she didn't, her inexperience showing. She attempted to cast the spell period It mis-weaved and instead of teleporting her away to safety comma it warped her right in front of where the slashing vines were rooted. to the root of the slashing vines.


     
  12. Exzalia
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    Exzalia Contributing Member Contributor

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    hmm. yes I see your point maybe I'll italicize the spell names.
     
  13. JackElliott
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    JackElliott Senior Member

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    Show don't tell is a rule for beginners to get them writing with greater specificity. After a while you figure out that one must include character / setting history, exposition, and condense narrative time on occasion (known collectively as 'telling'), and that is when this rule falls by the wayside.

    Don't live and die by this sort of thing.
     
  14. E. C. Scrubb
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    E. C. Scrubb Active Member

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    I think two other issues that could help you out here are

    1. Resisting the urge to explain everything and
    2. Telling can be interspersed.

    "It was that warping spell! But why was it so sluggish? She must have been hit by a Frost beam." That's all you really need to know about a Frost beam here.

    Also, by having one of your characters learn about magic, every one of these terms will be learned by the reader in a "Show" rather than "Tell" method.

    I disagree with the idea that showing is micro and telling is macro. That may be in some cases, but in many others, showing is just a series of words that disconnects the reader from the story world.

    There are times telling is great, when you want to summarize something not important, and jump right back into an important scene.

    "Mark agreed, and went inside for lunch. He wasn't happy about it, nor about the beans and rice, but half an hour later, he came back out, ready to finish the job."

    In that sentence, his lunch wasn't important, so it can be told, but the point of it is not to get across important information, but rather, to get back to the show.

    If you want your reader to remember the information, then show it to them. Just telling them, will IMO, sound too much like a school lecture, and may even be skipped or ignored, which is exactly what you don't want.
     
  15. Zachary Langferd
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    Zachary Langferd Member

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    While showing instead of telling is certainly an important aspect of storytelling, I don't think that's your problem here.

    As I see it, your problem is how to familiarize the reader with your magical system. If you're world is something completely new and foreign, then you'll probably want to take the first chapter (or two or three) and mold them into a sort of introduction to the world. Not like just sitting back and explaining the whole thing, but finding a way to mold the story so that your character/s are discovering the world, or maybe traveling through, marveling anew. As PeterC said, the newbie learning from the master is always a good way to get the reader familiar with this new system of magic. The main downside to that, though, is that it is very cliche.

    A battle scene is definitely not where you want to start teaching the reader about your magic. I think you just need to find a place in the beginning to introduce the basic system (using character dialogue to do so is a tried and true method) and then have the characters, and therefore the reader, learn the more intricate details along the way. A little confusion is to be expected with a complicated system. And it's not altogether a bad thing, so long as it's not completely befuddling, as it might draw the reader to continue on in hopes of finding in the answer to their question in the next chapter (this from personal experience as I'm often confused when reading sci/fi fantasy type books with complicated systems).
     
  16. LuminousTyto
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    LuminousTyto Senior Member

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  17. captain kate
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    captain kate Active Member

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    Exzalia..check your email box for a small example that might help you with what they're saying.
     
  18. thewordsmith
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    thewordsmith Contributing Member Contributor

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    Excuse me while I go somewhere and scream to vent the frustration over how many times I have seen discussions on the prozaic pronouncement!




    [ARRRRRRGH!]​




    Okay. I feel a little bit better.
    NOW, there is no law that says "Show Don't Tell". There is a tradition which dates back a couple hundred years which novice writers latch onto as though it were a life raft in the middle of the ocean. Now, in all fairness, coloring your prose with imagery and action is usually more inviting than merely telling what's going on. But not always. Sometimes, it is not only better but imperative to TELL rather than show. I have said this more times than I would care to count (but wager I'd be a millionaire a few times over if I have a nickel for every time). The best writing finds a balance between showing and telling and what that balance is depends upon the needs and demands of each individual story.
    Remember that old saw, "rules are made to be broken"? Which was quickly followed by the wisdom that, "You have to know the rules before you can break them 'intelligently'?
    Yeh. Well, that about sums it up. Finding the right balance between show and tell in each ms you produce.

    And good luck find a simple rule for that one!
     
  19. Exzalia
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    Exzalia Contributing Member Contributor

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    your post makes my laugh. :) Yes balance is almost always the answer. Thank you for the input.
     
  20. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Few new writers show too much at the expense of telling. The converse is not true. That is why "show, don't tell" has become the mantra of frustrated teachers and editors.

    As with most matters, the best answer is neither extreme, but rather a judicious balance. Read Show and Tell
     
  21. captain kate
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    captain kate Active Member

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    There's always a element of telling, Cog, but you're right about the mix. There's always information that needs to be told..then back to showing.
     
  22. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    There are advantages to telling as well. Kate. You have to decide which is more effective for the situation you are faced with.

    I favor showing for revealing emotional state in most cases. But there are also times when a simple "Kelso was enraged" is perfect.

    Show. AND tell.
     
  23. captain kate
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    captain kate Active Member

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    same here...I prefer a mix, because sometimes technology has to be told..but showing is better. Learning that mix is something new writers struggle with.
     
  24. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Your punctuation and structure are definitely more of a problem! But you already know that now :D

    I really liked how Hunger Games incorporated its "infodump" or exposition parts. For example, the mockingjay is explained when Katniss meets one - but the mockingjay is explained in the context of the war against the Capitol, so even though it is a huge chunk reserved for explaining, it made me feel like there was a reason why I needed to know that. It gave me information I actually wanted - eg. history of the battle - while incorporating a very essential element into the plot that would come to drive the trilogy. I think the trick is to embed it in something the reader already wants to know, some kind of history or backstory that is essential to plot, setting or character development. Another thing Collins was very good at doing was pique the reader's interest - she never just dives in and blurts it all out. She builds it with intrigue at the beginning, just before she begins to explain, to give you enough drive to pull through the entire paragraph.

    For example, the same chunk of exposition done in the Hunger Games movie was horrible IMO - it was not embedded into a backdrop of history, of useful fleshing out of the history and story, but it is simply told, "Ok here's what this thing does." And that's cheap, and boring, and I hated it.

    So I guess the conclusion is - it's all in HOW you tell it ;)
     
  25. Jamie Senopole
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    Jamie Senopole Member

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    Exzalia,

    I didn't have any issues understanding your battle scene, the first time I read it. Maybe because I already know what aether is, or maybe because I read this genre regularly, I still so I'm familiar with certain things, but if it weren't for either, I still would've had no problem understanding through context in the scene.

    Second, I wanted to mention that your readers will be people that enjoy reading your genre so 10 to 1, they'll already have read plenty of books for them to be able to pick up on what your world is about.

    Third & lastly, I wanted to share with you that in all the books I have read about writing, along with "show, don't tell" they also say not to assume ignorance from your readers; to give them more credit to figuring your world out than you think. Usually all those minute details are only used for the writer & not explained in the story. That's because the reader will be able to pick up pretty quickly what's up with your world with the way you word things when "showing, not telling".

    Hope that helps!
     

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