1. Hysteria1987
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    Hysteria1987 Member

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    "Showing" versus "telling" from a third-person view

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Hysteria1987, Jun 19, 2011.

    Sup y’all,

    So, I’ve been having a few plot and overall story problems with the one novel that I’ve been focussing on recently, and it’s been chewing me up a bit. Most notably I lack any real defining central ‘problem’ to be overcome, a villain that isn’t two-dimensional and black-and-white, subplots for complexity and depth, and a whole heap of main characters, because two’s a little low. But hey, at least I know where my problems lie =P Time will hopefully fill them out.

    Anyway, because of these problems, I’ve been focussing on what I know will happen, and revising what I’ve already written with what I’ve learned. However, there are a few things I’m not sure on, and I’d like your input.

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    1) Firstly, my first chapter. Always a good place to start, no? It is quite long, perhaps too long, at an unfinished 8,500 or so words (though many of said words need modifying at this point). On the one hand, I definitely want there to be some solid content to the book, but... I say perhaps too long for a reason. The chapter is there to set the scene and each character’s motivations and current goals. It’s split into different sections, from the viewpoint of each main character, as while they're in the same city, they haven’t met yet.

    What I’m wondering is (and I’m aware that this may be difficult to answer without more context), how long is too long before the trigger that sets off the quest occurs? At the moment the scene is being set, and the characters are approaching the trigger, though there are certain things that have to happen first.

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    2) One of my characters is a little girl with a secret. The story starts focussed on her, but I don’t get too close, or really see things from inside her mind. This is because I don’t want to reveal her secret yet. I’m concerned, however, due to the third-person nature of the narration at this point, that I may be ‘telling’ too much rather than showing. I’m having a similar problem with my other main character, though I can get in his mind more- the problem here lies with the fact that he’s got nobody to talk to for a while, so the plot is advancing in the same manner.

    I’m rather new to this whole ‘attempting to be professional’ thing. How do you yourself go about ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’ when you’re trying to avoid getting into your character’s mind for the moment? What I've written may well be fine and it may just be a lack of writing confidence talking, but I'd like to know for sure =P

    -

    As always, thanks for any help you can provide here =P
     
  2. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Chapter length is irrelevant. The issue isn't how long it is, but what you do with it. You say that you are "setting the scene" for each of your characters. That's fine. But be sure that the scene setting is for things that will be relevant to the story later on. Also, your scene setting should be of an active nature - not just where your characters are, but what they are doing, what some of their relationships might be. Give a sense of the conflicts to come (even if you show what appears to be a good relationship that you know will turn to conflict later on in the story).

    Holding back on the little girl's secret is fine, as long as it doesn't come off as too contrived. So, for example, if her secret were that she has some supernatural ability, you would need to reveal that early on, not wait until a moment of crisis when she suddenly turns up able to save the day. Third person narration is no more given to telling rather than showing than is any other type of narration. The key, if you don't want to reveal too much, is to focus on what they are doing and to show that.

    My advice is to go ahead and keep writing. Don't let these concerns bog you down. If you write something worthwhile, you will revise it many times before your done and that's the time to go back and correct things like too much telling, etc.

    Good luck.
     
  3. Declan
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    Declan Senior Member

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    Showing rather than telling is more a process of limiting the use of modifiers in your writing (adjectives and adverbs) and focusing more on the character's actions (so verbs) to infer what they are feeling, what kind of person they are, what they want and so on.

    By doing this your character's actions will seem less direct and obvious, and prolong the 'giving away' of the plot.

    As for an 8,500 word chapter, I would look at that and think "Oh god", in most cases. Chapters break up the action and keep a reader reading because it makes them feel like they are progressing through the story at a nice steady pace. I'd try and break it up into smaller chapters.
     
  4. Suadade
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    Suadade Senior Member

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    This. Or, if applicable, just write a story which doesn't have chapters.
     
  5. Leonardo Pisano
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    Leonardo Pisano Active Member

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    1. FWIW, when I read I like using a chapter as a point where I can put away the book (e.g., go to sleep if I read it in bed). It's then satisfying, because you have a more or less finished scene.

    2. Show versus tell: read Cogito's chapter on this here on CWF. I don't believe that the commenters above have it exactly right. Showing is about allowing the reader to conclude what's happening, thus engaging the reader more with your story, while telling is that you as narrator reveal it. It has nothing to do with narrative style as such.
    Example: "She became very angry" (telling) vs "Her face reddened with fury" OR "She balled her hands and scowled" (showing). Showing visualizes the scene so the reader emotionally attaches to it.
     
  6. Lord Malum
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    Lord Malum Senior Member

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    I've seen some authors place the trigger several chapters in, building characters and setting. It really depends on the needs of the story and what's comfortable for you.

    Just go with it. Perhaps show the manuscript to a fellow writer or someone "in the biz". They would have better advice on what you're manuscript lacks as they would have the entire thing to look over. Without seeing what you've writen, it's near impossible to tell you whether or not you need to fix something.

    I honestly think that we as writer's are our harshest critics. And that's how it should be. Let someone else take over the criticizing for a while.
     
  7. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm not particularly concerned about the chapter's length - it seems to me that it would be easy enough to break it up into a separate chapter for each character, or something of the sort.

    I am worried about the fact that you seem to be doing a great deal of "setup" before starting the story. Does this setup _feel_ like story, with plot and conflict, or does it feel like setup, almost like a long prologue? Can you revamp it a bit so that the main story line starts before you've set up all the characters, or so that some of the character background is presented after the story begins?

    For example, if Mary has to care for her elderly needy passive-aggressive mother, do we really need to know that before Mary meets Todd at the bank holdup, or can we find out out when Mary comes home and has to deal with Mom's self-centered unsympathetic reaction to Mary's traumatized state? _You_ know all about Mary before the action starts, but does the reader really need to know? They might be more drawn into the story if they get some surprises.

    On the show versus tell, I feel that I need more detail or examples. For example, with the question of the little girl and her secret, it seems to me that "showing" would make it easier, not harder, to refrain from telling the secret. Can you offer more details, maybe a scenario and secret that you're not using in the book so you'd be more comfortable discussing it in detail?

    ChickenFreak
     
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  8. ImaginaryRobot
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    ImaginaryRobot Member

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    Telling always gets a bad rap and in general people will say that you should favor showing in your writing. The truth is that you need a balance of both and, just to make things more complicated, the best lines often play double duty by both showing and telling.

    Here's an example from Lolita:

    It is telling in the sense that the narrator is laying out the facts of what happened, but showing in the sense that his style tells us something of the personality of the narrator.

    Too much telling creates distance between your readers and the story, but too much showing can exhaust your readers. In general telling stops the movement of your story and allows for analysis and thought, whereas showing generally drives the movement of your story forward. A great story has a balance of both, and often blurs the line between them. Sometimes the opposing nature of showing and telling can create tension, sometimes it can smooth out the pacing of a story. Like anything they're tools.

    Another example from Lolita:
    In the above quote Nabokov is using his descriptions (telling) to show us the action. Look at some of the key words: nervous, slender, darkness, tender, arabesques, touched, sensitive, playing. Even though he hasn't yet mentioned sex (and in fact doesn't really explicitly mention it in the rest of the scene, though he gets awfully close) that entire description drives us toward thinking about sex. He's showing us how the thought of that intimate encounter colors the way the narrator remembers everything about that night. Showing isn't just about using verbs, it's about using language to make your readers think about actions and motivations without being explicit.
     
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  9. Hysteria1987
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    Hysteria1987 Member

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    Lots of excellent replies here, thankyou all very much. This post will be large, so if you're coming back to see how I've replied to your replies, you may want to look over the rest =P

    ---​

    The scene-setting is indeed relevant to the story later on. My bandit witnesses a robbery that will become relevant later (though I'm not quite sure how yet =P), and what happens to the girl during this period sets up their journey for the rest of the book.

    I don't go around making it obvious that she has a secret she's hiding from everybody- I just drop a few hints here and there that certain things are only happening at her sufferance. It will be revealed what happens before the end, but there'll be no deus ex machina at the end because she loses her powers at the start and doesn't get them back in any meaningful way in this novel- this is her personal trigger.

    ---​

    I'd like chapters, for the reason Leonardo's given. That said, I also like the idea of dividing the first chapter into two. That would stop the whole scene change thing I have going in the first chapter that I didn't plan on having repeated much later on. It'd take some rewriting and reordering, but it could well come out better.

    ---​

    The idea had occurred to me before, and I like it. The trouble is, I don't really know anyone "in the biz", so I'd have to look into my options there. I'd like my first chapter (or two chapters now, as it may be) to be 'complete' before that happens though, so I have plenty of time to go before that yet =P

    ---​

    Changes are going to be made and it may head that way a little, but I feel too much and it would lose something, mainly a bit of the mystery. My little girl character loses her powers and is trying to get them back. I feel if I don't set that up properly (showing it, but not getting too close or revealing too much), the ending may come a little out of the blue (said character is going to be very secretive and untrusting).

    I think you're right in regards to "showing" making things easier at the point where she loses her powers- by not outright stating anything I'm not giving absolutely everything away. It's the approach to this point that concerns me.

    Ok, I'll write up a similar scenario now. The character itself is different, and it leaves out the motivation of the bad guys, but it should do.

    So, we've got a young boy now. Huge difference, I know =P And he's got supernatural powers. Bit different from my little girl, though it amounts to the same here. So, our little boy is exploring this world, looking for an answer to a question nobody's realised existed. It's here I'm trying to keep a little distant from the character, to not reveal too much about his talents, or his unusual outlook on the world. Getting him to this location, though, was just a ruse of the bad guy. He grabs the child by the neck and throws him into a stone wall, or something equally brutal, and the child, unharmed, merely looks annoyed. Here's our first concrete example of our child actually being something out of the ordinary.

    The kid summons his powers to do away with the bad guy and... finds himself unable to, for the first time in his existence, an experience that must be truly terrifying. The big bad runs off with said powers. So our hero comes along and finds this injured kid left for dead (there's a good reason the bad guy doesn't kill the child himself). He's horrified to see his own blood, something he wouldn't have seen before (another example of this child being something special), and doesn't trust the person he's just met, but he can't survive alone out here and send a warning back home without help...

    I hope you find that adequate; it's a little simplistic compared to what I've got down for my story but it follows a similar path.

    ---​

    Those are some nice quotes. Lately I've been taking notice of things like that in the book I'm currently writing, and taking them down as I come across them as a good example. Admittedly I haven't read this one before- in fact, a lot of the really famous works outside the sci-fi genre I haven't read before.


    ---​

    So, thankyou everyone. This post is already going to be huge and I couldn't address every point that everyone made, but I read them all. Some very good advice here that I will be taking notice of =P
     

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