1. CMastah
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    CMastah Active Member

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    Telling, is it REALLY such a sin?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by CMastah, Jan 1, 2015.

    I've been reading name of the wind (haven't gotten past chapter nine, so no spoilers please :p) and I've seen the author use phrases like 'anger in his eyes with a subtle hint of sorrow' (I'm writing the gist of it, I don't remember the exact phrase), and in a few other novels where authors have said stuff like 'surprise crossed his face' and it makes me wonder, is telling really all that bad?

    I've written 'his eyes widened' so many times that without reading back everything I wrote I already know I'm in trouble. I am kind of pleased with myself when I mentioned the physical effects of emotion, yet you really can only say 'narrowed his eyes', 'he raised one of his eyebrows' and 'his eyes widened' just so many times...
     
  2. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    No, it's not all bad. There are times for this sort of telling, and times for the other sort, where you just lay out what happens and summarize events rather than showing every detail.

    The trick is to recognize when you're 'telling' and make sure you're using it effectively. Just like you should recognize when you're 'showing' and use that effectively, too.

    Absolutes in writing? Not usually valid.
     
  3. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Telling is not bad, it just happens to be a characteristic of new or inexperienced writers. Think of the brain as having an operating system. When we tell stories, we naturally tell them. Writing fiction is different. You want the reader to be immersed in your story, not just a passive listener to someone telling them the story.

    A lot of people on this thread get annoyed at the constant use of the advice, "show, don't tell." And a smaller but no less important faction advise to "show, don't tell" in an obsessive way. If people understood what the problem was, the brain's software needs retraining, I believe it would make a lot more sense to people when they heard the advice.
     
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  4. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    First watch writing by consensus. That's taking every critique and advice as gold. It isn't, and if you don't watch out you can wreck your style and story by trying to accommodate everyone. The best thing to do is what you're doing finding out why a 'rule' is a rule and when it needs to be used.

    Telling has gotten its reputation because so many new writers have leaned on the technique usurping its power, and rather than discuss it most writer's simply say 'avoid it.' The truth is telling is necessary to shape and speed. I could waste a lot of time creating a scene showing a man climbing a ladder into a burning building to show that he's a fireman. But what if that is not where I want to start or need to start? What if action is not my focus. What if the focus is on the wife of the fireman?

    She could easily state - My husband is a fireman. Most evenings he comes home smelling of smoke. Masking any hint of perfume, if there were any to mask.

    Telling but it sets focus, mood, and explains a lot about the mc. Sometimes things said simply and plainly are best. Look to context and pace. If you're context doesn't need a tell - avoid. If your context needs a tell - go over the context and make it clearer - if it still needs a tell go ahead. Often a tell is used ( wrongly ) when context hasn't been made clear.
     
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  5. Nightstar99
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    Nightstar99 Contributing Member

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    Nothing is wrong in and of itself. Adjectives and telling seem to be a staple interdit of creative writing classes. Probably because it's a quick way of expunging clumsy technique from students.

    What you need to do is look at it as part of the entire manuscript. If people' eyes are constantly popping open with surprise, or swivelling in suspicion, or opening and closing in confusion; then it's probably time to look at your overall form.

    I think the main thing is just to get something written then worry about the niceties.
     
  6. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Find the right balance between showing and telling. The main reason new writers are urged to show rather than tell is that telling is intuitively simpler, so new writers tend to over-tell.

    Each has a place, and there are certain situations where one is more effective than the other.

    See the "Show and Tell" link in my sig.
     
  7. CMastah
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    CMastah Active Member

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    Thanks guys, I'm trying to find a happy medium between the two because I'm running out of ways to display emotions physically :p
     
  8. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    This is something important that we rarely ever get to talk about here. The syntax and word choice, brevity or verbosity, can be important players in what is happening in the scene. Waxing rhapsodic over a moment of sudden shock negates that shock for the reader by diluting it in the sheer number of words. A spot in the story where the MC is piecing things together and making a part of the puzzle of the story resolve isn't served by glossing it with just a few words. Not every spot in the story needs for you to think about your word choice down to this fine of a point, but many places will.
     
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  9. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Broaden your thinking beyond your character and beyond the face if that's an issue.

    Yet another obstacle says, frustration.
    Attention to a mother and child interaction says something about the watching character's emotion.
    Nervously twisting one's wedding ring might say infidelity is on one's mind, or it could signal distrust of the spouse.​
     
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  10. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    My view on showing/telling is that sometimes a message is important enough that you want to demonstrate it rather than saying it flat out--and the demonstration is what people call "showing." But that doesn't necessarily mean that you need to create a visual. It just means that you go one level "out" from the core message.

    If the message is "Joe looked angry" then writing "Joe looked angry" is telling. If the message is "Joe is jealous of his sister" then a scene where the sister gets good news, and you write "Joe looked angry" as part of describing everyone's reaction, then I would classify that as showing--that is, demonstrating--rather than telling.

    If the message is "Jane's clothes are shabby", then writing "Jane's clothes looked shabby" is telling. If the message is, "Something is wrong in Jane's life" then if we know that Jane is usually flawlessly and expensively dressed, the statement "Jane's clothes looked shabby" demonstrates--shows--that message.
     
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  11. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    But is that an interesting passage to read?

    I know you just meant it as an example, and I agree there are times a short 'telling' sentence is called for. But sentences using words like "looked", "felt", and similar words tell the reader what they see, what the character feels, and that's exactly where showing is often more interesting.

    I would suggest a telling, to the point sentence like, 'he felt sick' or 'her clothes were shabby' not be used because they show something else, but rather use these telling sentences when they fit the cadence of the story.
     
  12. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Telling is not a sin. There are times when it's needed. People have to stop thinking of "show, don't tell" as a rule and start thinking of how they're pacing their story and what scenes are worth spending time on.

    Remember the movie "Raiders of the Lost Ark"? There was that scene when Indiana Jones has to go find Marion Ravenwood to get that medallion. We see him get on a plane. Then Spielberg cuts to a map with a red line extending, showing us the route Indiana is taking and where he winds up. The next scene is at Marion's bar. Obviously, it was a long trip, but nothing important to the story happened during it, so Spielberg just skipped it, using the map animation as a visual shorthand ("telling") to let the audience know where Indy has gone. It was a good technique and fit the movie well, and it was "telling."

    I say again, telling is not a sin. There are times and places for it. Events that are important to the story should, of course, be fully dramatized in scenes ("showing"), but that doesn't mean "telling" isn't appropriate when it's called for.
     
  13. A.M.P.
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    A.M.P. People Buy My Books for the Bio Photo Supporter Contributor

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    I think people tend to spout "Show, don't tell." so much to new writers that there is a lot of confusion on what it actually means and additionally those writers will think all showing is bad to the point where writing gets really hard or even confusing.
    It's good advice, but I think we need to learn how to communicate it better.
     
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  14. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    @A.M.P. people say "show don't tell" to new writers because it is easy advice to give, and you don't have to think about it or even know what you're talking about in order to give it. In other words, they've heard it said and are simply repeating it without giving it any deeper thought. When given in that way, it is entirely unhelpful.

    For any given piece of writing, you've got to look at the balance between showing and telling, decide what work and what doesn't, and if you're going to tell the writer "show don't tell" you need to have done enough thought to conclude that showing is preferable to telling in that particular instance.
     
  15. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    It's not about easy advice, or new writers taking it too literally. That's all part of the learning process. Having been a new writer three years ago, it is some of the best advice I got, along with, "why do I care about this character" and "is this moving the story forward". I understood right away what the issue with show, don't tell was.

    It took a while longer to grow my skills. I didn't just take the advice and go with it. I started reading writing blogs and books to get the finer points of show, don't tell. The forum and critique groups are not the only source of learning.

    I still tell when I write, then go back and edit to show, then go back again to take out the filter words and show things a bit more skillfully.
     
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  16. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    The advice isn't bad in and of itself, it's just that most people on writing forums toss it out because it is easy and don't put any thought into it.
     
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  17. Fitzroy Zeph
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    Fitzroy Zeph Contributing Member Contributor

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    Think of it as life: you can tell your SO you love them or can show them. Both have their places, but one usually has more impact than the other.
     
  18. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I agree with this, as long as it goes with the understanding that not EVERYTHING in your book should be totally impactful. Save the showing for when you want to emphasize things, and tell all the rest. Otherwise you'll be 300 pages in and the MC won't have left the house yet.
     
  19. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    'Show' is not only about description. You can show with all three: action, dialogue and description.

    When John ducks under the door frame, you know he's tall.
    When Mary says, "I hate you!", you know she's angry.

    And from my WIP, description and action combined:​
    If that were telling I would have written something like:

    I was very happy to be home.​
     
  20. ladyphilosophy
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    ladyphilosophy Member

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    "Rules are for the obedience of fools, and the guidance of wise men" - applies as much to writing advice as it does to anything else.
     
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  21. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm not sure if you're agreeing, disagreeing, or why you're quoting my post at all. I know what showing is... are you saying that it SHOULD be used all the time, for everything?
     
  22. GingerCoffee
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    I was saying that, "Otherwise you'll be 300 pages in and the MC won't have left the house yet." isn't something I think would happen if one showed everything and told nothing. I'm not commenting on the quality of your writing, I believe the things of yours I've read have been good. But your sentence said to me that your idea of showing was that it was all about showing the scene with descriptive details.

    I don't understand the idea one shows the 'impactful' things and tells a lot of the rest. That isn't what I think show, don't tell means either.

    I suspect we just aren't communicating.
     
  23. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yeah, I think you're right - we're on different tracks.

    I'm saying that you should reserve 'showing' for things that are important to the story. Like, you've written an example paragraph where a character being happy to be home is, I assume, important to the story. But sometimes these things AREN'T important to the story. Like, if you have a character wake up and then detail the sheets he wakes up in and how he swings his legs out of bed and does his exercises and what kind of tooth paste he uses and then what parts of himself he washed first in the shower and whether he lingers over and specific parts (!) and then the exact nature of what he dresses in and what he has for breakfast and how he has to crouch down a little to pick up the newspaper and where he sits while he reads it and, and, and... it's all showing. It could, conceivably, all be important and useful. But it probably isn't. So it could be told. "Joe's morning routine hadn't changed in ten years and he saw no reason to adapt it now," and then on you go with more important things.
     
  24. GingerCoffee
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    But that's exactly what I'm saying showing is not.

    'Showing' is not describing the minutiae of the setting or minutiae of the actions of the character. So I think where were are talking past each other is the concept of 'showing' being about what is or is not important.

    One would not describe that minutiae whether one did it as showing or telling. Take your example of getting out of bed. One could say, "he got up". But even if getting out of bed wasn't a key element in the story, one could show it rather than tell it to us and make it more interesting.

    The alarm rings but the Sun is still not up, (it's winter). His socks have a hole in them, (he's disgusted). The aroma of coffee drifts into the room, (he wonders who in the house is already up). None of these things involves showing us the minutiae of the room or arising. But all of these things need not be very important to show them vs tell them.
     
  25. BayView
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    I haven't read any of your work. Maybe you write entire novels with absolutely no telling in them. But I honestly doubt it. I certainly haven't read many (any?) published novels that have no telling whatsoever. Can you give me an example of a book you think has no telling?
     

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