1. Alesia
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    Alesia Pen names: AJ Connor, Carey Connolly Contributor

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    Style Showing vs. Telling and "commercial" fiction.

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Alesia, Apr 22, 2014.

    I was shopping at Food City yesterday and happened upon the magazines/novels aisle. As usual, I stopped to read the first few pages of few books to see if any interested me and I noticed something disturbing. There were a hefty amount of newer novels - some bestsellers - that relied on blatant telling versus showing. I/E rather than saying: (poorly written sentence at 6am)

    "It felt as though a layer of frost were forming across my back."

    They simply state:

    "The room was cold."

    Bad example, I know, but it's akin to saying "I felt bad." Felt bad how? Stomachache? Headache? Show me! I've been trying to break the telling habit myself lately, and that's why it surprised me to see so much telling in published works. (BTW, don't ask for specific examples just yet. It's early and I don't pay attention to titles when I'm skimming. However, I do have to stop by there after work today, so I'll bring a notepad and gather some titles/excerpts.)
     
  2. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I don't see this as a problem. Sometimes it's much better to simply state that the room was cold instead of having some long description. I actually think aspiring writers would be better off if they didn't know about showing vs. telling (at least in the beginning); they try way too hard to show rather than tell, and it often leads to disastrous results.
     
  3. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I agree with @thirdwind that this precept often gets out of hand.

    It's a fact. The room is cold, so the character lights the fire. And THEN something significant happens... If every single twitch in a story gets expanded into frost creeping across the back, the book becomes purple and irritating to read. In effect, showing is putting everything into real time. You don't always have to do this in order to tell a story. If you 'showed' everything, the story would take as long to tell as it would if you were actually living it!

    The trick is to truncate the bits that are simply links—using 'telling' to do it—then do your poetic 'showing' during significant events, or when something affects the characters. There is a degree of difference between 'the room was cold' and 'he felt bad.' The cold room is a fact, but if it only leads to a fire getting lit there is no reason to expand it much. Feeling bad, on the other hand, is a subjective emotion, which is probably best filtered through the character, rather than spoon-fed to the reader.

    As far as substandard writing getting published ...yes, I'm afraid it does. Getting published, especially if you're writing genre stuff, is not an indication of quality any more than winning The X Factor is. It's all down to how many of the publishing house's boxes you can tick, and their requirements can be shallow indeed.
     
    Last edited: Apr 22, 2014
  4. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    For me, knowing when to show versus when to tell depends on the significance of the thing. If the room being cold is just setting the scene, I have no problem saying "The room was cold". If, however, it's setting the mood...

    "Genre stuff"? You really want to go that route?

    I have very seldom seen "substandard writing" get trade published. I have seen books I don't care for, however. I have seen books where the technical was less than perfect but where the story telling was superb. I have seen books published specifically with the "I just want a quick commuter-train read" buyers in mind. Everything doesn't have to be Tolstoy - that doesn't mean it's substandard writing.
     
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  5. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think that showing versus telling (or demonstrating versus spoonfeeding) can't be judged in an individual sentence, but instead on the context that that sentence is presented in, and the purpose of that sentence.
     
  6. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Regardless if the room was cold or the character shivered and put her sweater back on, I can relate to @Alesia's issue. There is a lot of crap on the fiction shelves. Considering some of the excellent material I've seen from unpublished writers, I shake my head. ;)
     
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  7. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Show AND tell. Find the right balance.

    Both showing and telling should be par of your toolkit. Most new writers instinctively know how to tell, but may be fuzzy about showing. That's why the advice often poorly communicated as "Show, don't tell."

    See the link in my sig for more.
     
    Last edited: Apr 24, 2014
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  8. Ben414
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    Ben414 Contributing Member Contributor

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    It really depends on your character's POV. If he experiences the world in x way, write it in x way. So "the room was cold" might be acceptable depending on what the situation is. If this character is freezing to death, he'd probably be focusing on losing feeling in his limbs, etc., and not actually experience in his own terms "the room was cold." If he was very much occupied with something else and he merely notices the temperature as an aside, "the room was cold" might work. Of course, that sentence might be unnecessary to the story which is another issue.
     
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  9. Alesia
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    Alesia Pen names: AJ Connor, Carey Connolly Contributor

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    Maybe that's why I freaked about it, because it's always been conveyed when people read my stories that I need to show only with no telling whatsoever.
     
  10. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Ummm... two examples, culled from the 'trade book' Mills & Boon section on Amazon at the moment ...both recently published.

    example 1 - from Scandal at Greystone Manor, by Mary Nichols
    Somehow the day was got through, with Isabel white-faced and their aunt flitting about trying to be helpful.

    example 2 - from A Doctor A Nurse: A Little Miracle, by Carol Marinelli
    Her mind whirred back to that dangerous place.
    When life had been just about perfect.
    When for three months, three glorious and passion-'d held him—and been held by him. (???? -not even sure what this means....)

    Be honest. If somebody had submitted these for critique on this forum, don't you think they'd have been taken to the cleaners by our forum members because of these awkwardly-written sentences? And these are just two examples I culled from spending ten minutes reading bits available for preview. Lots of the Mills and Boon don't even HAVE previews on Amazon. Now I'm not denying these books sell, but I stand by my assertion that these are substandard pieces of writing.

    I did not mean to imply that all, or even most, genre books are substandard. Indeed most of them are not. But some are. I stand by my original opinion, that just being published is no guarantee of quality.
     
    Last edited: Apr 23, 2014
  11. Bryan Romer
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    Bryan Romer Contributing Member Contributor

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    I see the same in novels from other genres. And yet, many of them sell very well indeed. They say the customer is always right. So perhaps we should be concentrating on what such books got *right* rather than what they did wrong, if we are seriously committed to making a living as writers.
     
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  12. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Well, in this case, they all wrote short romances to a very strict formula. I don't deny this stuff sells. (So does the People's Friend and the National Enquirer.) You can make a decent living churning out Mills and Boon romances. People buy the formula, not the individual book or writer—and the writers get paid accordingly. Last time I looked, there is a set fee that gets paid to writers of these books, and none of them last very long in print. Write enough of these fast enough and you can make a living—but your name is never going to set the heather on fire as an author.

    Incidentally, I'm not having a dig at the Romance genre (or any genre) itself. There is nothing wrong with escapism into fantasy, whatever form the fantasy takes. At least one writer who made her name writing Romances (Mary Stewart) is still one of my very favourite all-time writers. I read every single Agatha Christie mystery as a young person. Not because I was the least bit interested in 'whodunnit' but because of the sense of place and period that she created so well. Agatha Christie was a good writer, even though she wrote lightweight stories set to a formula (which she helped to create.) And you won't get more entertaining or characterful Westerns than those written by Elmer Kelton, another genre writer whom I admire.

    It's just that churned-out genre books are sometimes badly written. I'm not talking about content, character or plot, but sentence structure, word choice and other things writers on this forum use as critique criteria. They sell, simply because people buy the genre.

    My point again. Being published does not necessarily mean quality writing.
     
    Last edited: Apr 23, 2014
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  13. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    Depends. Some of us are not intending to making a living, but are interested in writing as an art, not a product. Both are legitimate.
     
    Last edited: Apr 23, 2014
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  14. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    I could probably cherry pick literary stories that are nothing more than verbal diarrhea , but it wouldn't prove that literary fiction in general sucks. As to quality and publishing - well, each to his own, said the maid as she kissed the cow. What you consider crap, others don't; if you're stuck on perfect technical aspects, others appreciate story more. If it sells, it must be good at something - unless you're implying that readers are idiots and far below appreciating your literary taste or prowess.
     
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  15. outsider
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    outsider Contributing Member Contributor

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    Interesting thread. It just goes to show what I've always believed, whilst the advice given in critiques is insightful and in many cases helpful, it is just that; advice.
    It is entirely subjective what one considers to be good writing and as such, there is not one predetermined, rigid formula that should be adhered to.
    Looking at some advice that's given out on the forum, you would be forgiven for thinking that the above assertion is not true.
    Of course, this is part of the reason that the qualities one must posses to be a good writer are so intangible and difficult to comprehend or define for the novice.
    Each must find their own way, make their own mistakes and crucially, enjoy the process whatever the end result.
     
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  16. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    i don't know who/what those people are, but that's misguided/misguiding advice... 'always' and 'never' almost never should be applied to advice on how to write well, because there are almost always exceptions that work well...
     
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  17. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yep, they were wrong. In general, I'd say that the more important something is, the more likely it is that you want to go one level of indirection away from it and "demonstrate" it, so that the reader can evaluate the situation and feel details and subtleties.

    But even then, you can't judge the role of a single sentence without context. It depends on the message.

    If the message is:

    The room was cold.

    AND you want some subtlety and detail around that message, you might say

    She shivered, and pulled her sweater closer.

    But if the message is:

    The house was abandoned.

    then something like the following would be "showing" or "demonstrating":

    The room was cold. Her shoes made marks in the dust as she walked past the sheet-covered lumps of furniture.
     
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  18. FrankieWuh
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    FrankieWuh Active Member

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    "Show not tell" is the type of rubbish that too many creative writing teachers come out with to show they are "bona fide" creative writing experts. And it is rubbish, and should be debunked as such as pointed out above (its one of those crappy creative writing mantras such as "write from what you know", which I would staple to a frisbee and throw over the rainbow, if it was up to me).

    There is a place for both showing and telling, it depends on the style of the story. Telling is as bad as chocolate, in my opinion. Doctors will usually say to cut it out entirely, but taken in moderation, telling is fine. Some doctors even say eating a little chocolate may be good for you, and I reckon that applies to "telling" in stories. "Telling" can sweeten the deal between you and the reader, when "showing" can be too laborious. You don't have to show every incidental thing - you can tell the reader what happened in a sentence if its necessary to the story, but not overly interesting.
    It also depends on the form of story. I've noticed "telling" appears to be more acceptable in shorter forms, but it doesn't make it any less of good tool to use in novels either.
    Whatever works for the story, in my opinion.
     
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  19. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    For the record, I found it a very useful guideline that I think improved my writing rather quickly. I agree it's not an absolute but I found it very useful.
     
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  20. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Yes. I think it's important to be aware (especially during the editing stage) of whether you're employing 'showing' or 'telling' mode—but there are perfectly valid uses for both. It's unawareness of the issue itself that can cause problems.
     
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  21. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think of these things as "shortcuts", reminders of things to watch for. But if one blindly adheres to them without understanding what they actually mean, well, obviously it's going to cause problems. It's like reading the instructions on a pill bottle. On the label it says take one per day - on the actual instruction sheet it adds "with food". Don't follow any shortcuts/advice unless you take the time to find out what it really entails.
     

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