1. J_F
    Offline

    J_F Member

    Joined:
    Aug 11, 2008
    Messages:
    50
    Likes Received:
    0

    When 'telling' is appropriate?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by J_F, Jul 7, 2009.

    I know that 'showing' is imperative to create a good work of fiction. But can 'telling' be appropriate at certain times, especially if it is back up by 'showing'? I ask this primarily because I see a lot of instances where authors come out and tell important details, mostly regarding character and background information, and I suspect this is to move the action along.
     
  2. Laverick
    Offline

    Laverick Member

    Joined:
    Jun 17, 2009
    Messages:
    43
    Likes Received:
    0
    I don't believe that "telling" is necessarily lesser than "showing". They're different styles. Telling is more common in genre fiction, but that makes it hugely popular as an entertainment style. Showing may be more popular in literary fiction. Depending on what kind of narrative is taking place it's easier to use telling or showing.
     
  3. thirdwind
    Offline

    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 17, 2008
    Messages:
    7,351
    Likes Received:
    2,891
    Location:
    Boston
    I know this may not be the best advice, but there are times when it is better to show and times when it is better to tell. I think a major part of deciding what to use is author instinct and experience. Consider the following passage from Joyce's Eveline (which is an example of what people might call "literary fiction")
    I'm guessing a lot of people, including myself, would probably have decided to show she was tired rather than come out and say it. But I think telling works particularly well in this case.

    I actually don't like the rule "show don't tell" because people tend to follow that advice religiously. They sometimes show everything, and it just gets boring to read after a while. Like I said, I believe it takes a little bit of intuition and experience to know when to use what technique.
     
  4. Laverick
    Offline

    Laverick Member

    Joined:
    Jun 17, 2009
    Messages:
    43
    Likes Received:
    0
    The difference between literary fiction and genre fiction is usually that one has a point to convey that the author feels is personally important, while the other is for entertainment and may follow a general formula.

    It doesn't really have to do with style....
     
  5. thirdwind
    Offline

    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 17, 2008
    Messages:
    7,351
    Likes Received:
    2,891
    Location:
    Boston
    I know the style has nothing to do with it. I just mentioned it as a fact, not really to make a point. And I don't really agree with how you distinguish literary fiction from genre fiction, but that's not something to discuss in this thread.
     
  6. daturaonfire
    Offline

    daturaonfire Senior Member

    Joined:
    May 18, 2009
    Messages:
    117
    Likes Received:
    0
    Location:
    Nowhere
    I lean way more toward the show-don't-tell rule. That doesn't mean you can't ever actually tell a reader something; I think it's just a matter of using it sparingly. Tell me something, then go back to showing. Thirdwind's quoted example is a good example of that--there's the showing, then a brief statement that expands on the scene. That works for me.
     
  7. Cogito
    Offline

    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    May 19, 2007
    Messages:
    35,935
    Likes Received:
    2,043
    Location:
    Massachusetts, USA
    Telling is perfectly adequate for simple, unambiguous description. Just make sure that what you tell is appropriate to the POV that is telling it (this is true of showing also, but some things may be more appropriate to show than to tell, or vice versa, from a particular POV).

    Emotion and sensations are usually better shown than told, due to their complexity. To say someone is angry shortchanges the fact that they may be simultaneously embarassed, envious, afraid,and many other things. Instead of trying to nail down that ambivalence. you're better off showing the external signs, and let the reader decide that there is anger in the mix.

    I mentioned POV earlier. Your POV character doesn't know what another person is feeling. He or she may conclude that the other person is angry. but theat is an interpretation of outward signs. Therefore, it is bette for the POV character to show what he or she sees rather than interpreting it for the reader.

    This may help: Show and Tell
     
  8. RogueGunslinger
    Offline

    RogueGunslinger Member

    Joined:
    Jul 6, 2009
    Messages:
    19
    Likes Received:
    0
    I look at it like this.

    Say I'm just starting a story, and their a lot of backdrop that I want to drop my character in to. I have to set the stage, maybe give a little background info, and get you up to speed with who my character is. I believe times like these are the best for telling.

    Another time, the intro to a first person story/chapter a lot of times tell to help set the stage, before it really ever shows from the persons perspective.
     
  9. J_F
    Offline

    J_F Member

    Joined:
    Aug 11, 2008
    Messages:
    50
    Likes Received:
    0
    Ah, thanks. That helped explain it. I think I understand the 'show and tell' concept a bit more. Now it's just a matter of practice.
     
  10. Dcoin
    Offline

    Dcoin Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Sep 2, 2008
    Messages:
    279
    Likes Received:
    1
    Location:
    NYC
    I think the main knock against telling is the propensity of authors to go on for page upon page in that mold.

    However, inserted at certain parts of the book and in small dosages, can be an effective story telling tool.
     
  11. goldhawk
    Offline

    goldhawk Senior Member

    Joined:
    Dec 15, 2008
    Messages:
    108
    Likes Received:
    6
    Location:
    The Great White North
    Show character by telling what happens.

    By character, I mean: The peculiar quality, or the sum of qualities, by which a person or a thing is distinguished from others; the stamp impressed by nature, education, or habit; that which a person or thing really is; nature; disposition.

    You show the character of your characters by telling what they do and how they interact. When you are told, "Show, don't tell," it's usually because the person doing so thinks there are too many unnecessary details. For every sentence, ask yourself two questions: Does it show any characteristic of the character(s)? Is that characteristic important to the story?

    For example: He wore a white shirt with a faded spaghetti-sauce stain on it.

    What characteristic does this tell you about him? Is he bad at doing laundry? Or is he bad at organizing his time and had to wear a stained shirt since he did do a wash yet? Or does he have bad eyesight and just can't see the stain?

    The problem with the sentence is that it doesn't show anything about his character, and hence, detracts from the story.

    Every sentence must show a little something about the characters' character or something about their relationships, which show character about two of the characters at the same time.
     
  12. arron89
    Offline

    arron89 Banned

    Joined:
    Oct 10, 2008
    Messages:
    2,460
    Likes Received:
    91
    Location:
    Auckland
    I agree with the general notion that wasting words is ill-advised, but a novel where every sentence contributes something absolutely vital would be exhausting both to read and write. Its important that in general, what you write adds to the reader's understanding of the character or the plot or some theme or concern, but there are times when you need to let your reader come up for air before you immerse them in the deep and meaningful again...

    As for the original argument of this thread, I've never been overly fond of this mindless "show don't tell" mantra. Yes, there is truth in it, but as an infallible, always-applicable law of story-telling? Puh-lease. There are times when things simply can't be shown, obviously, and times when from a writer's viewpoint, it doesn't make sense to show the reader. On a more personal level, I feel it detracts from the strength of the writing if the focus is purely sensual - in cinema, that approach is necessary as the only way the director can communicate with the viewer is through their vision and hearing; writers have the ability to communicate with readers more directly, and if you deny that by always sticking to the superficial, you're only at the tip of the iceberg of writing's capacity to communicate.

    As a sort o related aside, I find it amusing that in French, the passive voice is considered the height of intelligence and sophistication; in Western culture, its condemned - the focus is always action, speeding the reader through, showing them things in a flashy and obvious way. Tres amusant, non?
     
  13. bluebell80
    Offline

    bluebell80 Contributing Member

    Joined:
    May 20, 2009
    Messages:
    636
    Likes Received:
    18
    Location:
    Vermont
    Arron...Passive voice and telling are not interchangeable. I sometimes disagree with my my word program telling me something is wrong because it is in a passive voice. I do think occasionally using passive voice interspersed in the more direct verb use, is acceptable. I don't think I've ever pulled my nose from a book and gone, "Hey that was in passive voice!"

    I have however put a book down that did too much telling. Telling is much like info dumping. It can be as short as a sentence, or as long as a chapter, it doesn't matter, but just telling me something, as a reader, doesn't draw me into the character's head and into the story.

    I equate it to this, campfire stories are told: a novel is skillfully crafted to show the details of the character's lives in fictional situations. If you want to tell, stick to campfire stories. If you want to show your audience a whole fictional world of your creating, you need to do way more showing than telling.

    Just telling someone that they are telling too much and not showing, won't fix the bad writing. In a proper critique it should be pointed out which passages are telling. If a telling passage is present it should be examined as to if it moves the story along, or if the space of words could be better used in a showing manner.

    Can you use telling in your stories. Of course. I have yet to read a book where there isn't at least one telling sentence, most have many. What does that mean for you as a writer...well it means you have just as good of a shot at getting published as half the yahoos who do get published have.

    How will showing help in your writing? It forces you to connect to your character on a deeper level making the character all the more real to you and the reader. Will it make your chances of getting published any higher? Maybe. But that is like saying improving your craft will get you published too, it will.

    I don't think showing has to be tiring for the reader. If you are writing showing that just seems like a never ending action sequence, then you might be doing something wrong.

    Show is not using action verbs. It is about showing the passage rather than just stating it.

    Like:

    "Sally was tired and frustrated with herself. She searched around the room looking for her bra and finally found it on top of the little dragon statue on the bookshelf."

    That is telling. It's not the greatest work of writing either. Here is Sally in a showing piece, however I am changing to FP POV.

    "I sat on the edge of the bed and tried to pull my fingers through my matted hair. My eyes felt heavy and I rubbed them to get rid of the grittiness. I glanced around the room with a long sigh. Where the hell did my bra go? I walked over to the bookshelf, pulling my pants on as I went, and pulled my bra off the dorky dragon bookend."

    That is showing. I didn't tell the reader that Sally was frustrated or tired, I showed it. Yes it took a few more words, but it doesn't always have to.

    This is how telling would look in the FP POV, just to give you an idea.

    "I was tired and frustrated with myself for having slept with yet another dork. I pulled on the clothes I could find, careful not to wake Ed. My bra was flung over the head of a stupid dragon bookend on the shelf across the room."

    Now I don't like either telling passage. While any of those passages might seem acceptable to some people, the telling ones are not acceptable to me.

    Showing does not equal action. Telling does not equal passivity. If you need to give your reader a breather from the action, you don't have to do it with telling. You can show a lull in the action just as easily as you can tell it. Telling not very creative. It just simply gives the reader information. You want that information to keep the readers attention and give them more about the character, and to do that you must show the character, the situations, the settings, and the conflict/drama.

    Telling is the reason I don't really like genre novels. Sci-fi and romance has to be the two specifically that tend to draw in poor writers without much skill in showing, so they tend to do a lot of telling. I do think some Sci-fi/fantasy is starting to come around to showing over telling, but some writers have just not learned what it means.
     

Share This Page