1. MilesTro

    MilesTro Senior Member

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    Getting Away With Telling

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by MilesTro, Nov 14, 2017 at 7:16 PM.

    How do you think authors can get away with telling in their stories without showing, and still sell their books? The show don't tell rule has always been a demanding rule, although authors still break that rule. Stephen King, Stephen Meyers, and Lee Child are known to break those rules. So why should it suck for amauter and new writers? We all just want to tell a good story that can be simple. But I guess it is all about sounding good in order to sell it. What are your thoughts about this?
     
  2. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor Community Volunteer

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    "Show, don't tell" has never, ever really meant "Don't tell".

    It means, "You might think that explaining things to the reader and telling them what to think is the most effective way to communicate them. But, no, it's often more effective to demonstrate the really important things and let the reader come to their own conclusion."

    And "show, don't tell" is not about "sounding good".

    Why do you say that those authors "break" the rule?
     
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  3. The Dapper Hooligan

    The Dapper Hooligan Active Member

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    Showing instead of telling is good advice because for the most part, showing is the more engaging option to your reader. There is however a time to show and a time to tell. Say you have a side character in your story named Bob that is able to create fire at will. Now you need to write a scene where your main characters need to make a fire, but Bob isn't there for obvious reasons. Where did Bob go? Maybe to the grocery store, maybe to his parents for the weekend, it doesn't matter because what he's doing there has no bearing on the story what matters is he's not there. So instead of showing him putting puzzles together and screaming small talk over the whine of hearing aids or perusing the aisles trying to figure out the difference between ketchup and catsup, just tell the reader he's not there.
     
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  4. izzybot

    izzybot Oportet Vivere Contributor

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    Who is it around here who likes to say "tools, not rules"? I'm way too tired to make a long post here but ... yeah, that. Showing and telling both have their uses as narrative tools.
     
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  5. John Calligan

    John Calligan Active Member

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    I've read a couple of romance books recently. They were all highly efficient when it came to telling. At the start of almost every chapter and many of the scene breaks, the author would usually say who was where, what the context of that was based on what happened when time passed, and how the characters felt about it. Then the action starts.

    I felt like I liked it because I knew it wasn't telling just to tell. They were doing it to quickly set the scene so that I could enjoy the action with context instead of puzzling it out.

    Sometimes telling is clearer and it is almost always faster.
     
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  6. Kwills79

    Kwills79 Member

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    I totally get where you're coming from on this! To me it seems like when you're writing a scene, it helps to consider whether it would be best (not easiest) to tell vs show. Either can be valuable, but there needs to be a conscious decision about it based on how you want the scene to go and how you want the reader to perceive it.
     
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  7. MilesTro

    MilesTro Senior Member

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    What titles are they?
     
  8. LostThePlot

    LostThePlot Contributor Contributor

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    Yeah, I agree.

    A book is a big project, you can't expect to just show everything all the time. And sometimes you just need to tell.

    There's some things where you need to underline it to make sure that the reader puts the right amount of weight on it, so they know that this thing that they were just shown is a really big deal that they need to remember. When you just show them something and they are reading quickly they can just scan over it and not see that it's a big deal. Sometimes you can show and put all the emphasis you need on it. But sometimes you can't. Sometimes you need to add another line somewhere in the scene to hang a lantern on it and make sure that no-one is going to escape the scene without knowing that this is a big deal.
     
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  9. John Calligan

    John Calligan Active Member

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  10. MilesTro

    MilesTro Senior Member

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    I guess it is all about balance, depending what type of story you are telling.
     
  11. OJB

    OJB A Mean Old Man

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    James Scott Bell wrote an entire chapter about this in his book: Plot and Structure.

    On a scale 1-10 (1 being the most telly thing ever, and 10 being the most intense imagery/showing you've ever read) you try to keep the book 4-6 the majority of the book jumping to the 7-9 during the midpoint and all is lost moment and a 10 for the climax.

    To give some context,

    1. I went on a nice date with Katie. (rated 1)

    2. At dinner, which consisted of garlic chicken and butter-baked asparagus, Katie wore a Martini Dress and smelled of Lavander. As we ate, a pianist played Billy Joel songs. (Rated 5)

    3. On Saturday night, during dinner, which consisted of garlic chicken and butter-baked asparagus that still snapped and popped as it was brought out on the plates, Katie, a blonde with a C-cup sized breast and blue eyes, wore a Black, sleeveless, Martine dress and smelled of Lavander. As we ate, a pianist, on the other side of the room, played Billy Joel's Panio man. Wanting to hold this beautiful woman close to my body, I asked: "Would you like to dance with me?" (Rated 10)
     
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  12. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor Community Volunteer

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    See, I don't see this as ramp up in showing, but a ramp up in details and description. I don't see them as the same thing.

    For example, let's imagine that these characters have been well established, and that we know that Katie is always hesitant to lay claim to things; she always steps back and gives the other person first dibs on everything. Then let's imagine:

    On Friday, Katie took the last potsticker.

    That could be a big, big "showing" fact, demonstrating character growth and change in Katie. But it's a tiny number of words, and has no description.
     
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  13. OJB

    OJB A Mean Old Man

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    Per my definition, showing is a combination of imagery (details and description) and Subtext (Character growth, emotional drive, etc.) Like anything in a story, it's hard to separate one element from another. Also, -and this is more of style thing- I tend to write overwhelming paragraphs to match the same feeling of overwhelmingness my MC is feeling; this is another 'tool' I have to use to show. If one wanted to get really fancy, If a character was in a musical mood, I could turn the narrative onomatopoetic and fill it up with literary musical devices as a way to 'show.'

    There are many ways to 'show.'
     
    Last edited: Nov 15, 2017 at 3:53 AM
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  14. John Calligan

    John Calligan Active Member

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    Mike liked to read. He always had.

    Mike turned the page and sighed with satisfaction. It was a good book.

    Mike turned the page and sighed. With bated breath, he read faster than he ever had. This book is great, he thought, as he sipped his tea.
     
  15. MilesTro

    MilesTro Senior Member

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    Telling is better in exposition and character dialogue. Even screenplays must show what is going on to help the readers visualize the movie.
     
  16. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor Community Volunteer

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    I'm not following your point here. I'm not sure if we disagree on the definition of "telling" or of "exposition". Can you have an example?

    And character dialogue is very, very often "showing".
     
  17. jannert

    jannert Member Supporter Contributor

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    I believe if somebody thinks Showing=Good, Telling=Bad, they probably don't quite understand how these two storytelling tools work. It's not a matter of good or bad, it's a matter of choosing what works best in a given situation.

    Telling is more a matter of condensing time than anything else. Telling is a much faster way to convey information, but it doesn't have the emotional impact that experiencing a scene in real time will have.

    Personally, I 'tell' the reader about events that I don't want to spend a lot of time on. These might be bridging events between scenes, or information about what's been happening 'offstage.' You don't have to escort your reader through the entire story in real time. Instead you use 'telling' to condense some events, so the storytelling can move along at a reasonable pace and focus on what's important.

    You 'show' the reader important events you want them to experience in real time. You let us feel what the characters in the scene are feeling, etc, by letting us see what is happening to the characters and hear their thoughts. And let us draw our own conclusions. Try to avoid 'telling' us what to think about what you've showed us. Just show us what happens and let us make our own minds up.
     
    Last edited: Nov 15, 2017 at 7:51 PM
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  18. LostThePlot

    LostThePlot Contributor Contributor

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    Right, exactly.

    Unless there's something really important happening there it's fine to tell the reader that someone went to work, popped to the shops then came home. And once they get through the door you show them the argument that happens there. Good fiction does not have to apply to Dogma 95 rules. When you go on a car ride you should tell us that they arrive and leave out them singing along to the greatest hits of Simply Red most of the time. There's reasons why you would show their normal, boring life; to establish their character in the first instance, but in a general sense you need to be showing us the stuff that matters to the story and telling us how it fits together. And sometimes even telling us a bit about what you've shown us so we get the right message.

    The two things work together.
     
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  19. jannert

    jannert Member Supporter Contributor

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    Yes, exactly. That's why I get bothered when people talk about how you should show and not tell. In a particular instance that might well be true. But in another instance, the opposite might be true.

    For example, if somebody 'showed' all the details of popping to the shops and then coming home, it might be a distraction from the main story, which has to do with an argument at home. Or that overused waking up schtick— 'hitting the alarm twice, fishing under the bed for slippers, staggering into the bathroom, brushing teeth, looking in the mirror and admiring her green eyes and red hair, choosing the black skirt and white blouse, applying makeup, going downstairs to make toast and have coffee before putting on the coat and leaving the house' —that so often opens stories. Seriously. Unless something important happens during that particular morning's ritual, better maybe to just tell us the person got up, went to work ...and then start showing scenes in detail that are actually important to the story.

    On the other hand, too MUCH telling results in a very flat recital of events and reaction. She got up and went to work. Her boss started calling her horrible names. She was very upset and ran out, screaming that she was quitting and wouldn't be back. He said he didn't care. So she went downtown and started looking at job advertisements in shop windows. Finally she found one that looked good, and went inside. The guy behind the counter hired her on the spot because he liked her looks. She put on an apron and started serving customers right away. Although she had to take a cut in pay, it was better than her old job, and she was happy not to get called horrible names. The end. Gosh, I'm so proud of myself. I really kept the word count down, didn't I?

    It's a good idea to study how to use these two writing devices, and understand what each of them can do for a story.
     
    Last edited: Nov 17, 2017 at 9:48 AM
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  20. LostThePlot

    LostThePlot Contributor Contributor

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    I think the received wisdom about 'show don't tell' is something that has a lot more complexity to it than really most people think about. It's some of the most basic advice that you can give someone about their writing and I think that it is good advice for a certain kind of novice writer (especially younger people) who is struggling to put some real feeling into their work; who's maybe rushing through the plot to get to the action and needs to slow down and let the story actually effect the reader.

    But 'show don't tell' is only really good advice if you are telling instead of showing and it shouldn't be construed as advice for all writing. It's silly on the face of it to suggest that a book can never tell and only show. Even movies, that are primarily visual can't do this. A movie where no-one ever gives exposition and where we're expected to figure out who everyone is without being explicitly told would be a weird indie film at best; dangerously avant garde at worst. We need to be told some things. Ideally uncontroversial things, things that aren't emotionally important, but that we need to know to put what we're being shown in context.

    We need to be shown impactful things. We need to feel along with the characters. But when it's not something that we're supposed to really react to or feel strongly about showing us is just dead words. It doesn't do anything for the book to show us that this character prefer English to Maths, you can just tell us that. To show us all the minutiae of someone's life would take, well, their whole life. Telling us takes six words. And as long as what you're telling is normal and reasonable for the character it's fine just to tell us in a few words.
     
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  21. SethLoki

    SethLoki Unemployed Autodidact Contributor

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    Do you naturally 'show as you go' ? @jannert I seem to struggle writing in that manner. My initial drafts resemble your girl went to work, quit and got hired elsewhere paragraph (masterpiece :) ). I've found it's the speediest way for me to get my thoughts down re. progressing the bare bones of a story. I spend way more time in the second draft picking relevant bits, elaborating on them and filtering out the filtering, if that makes sense.
     
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  22. jannert

    jannert Member Supporter Contributor

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    The trick for me is to slow down and spend a lot of time visualising my scenes. I live within the scene for a while, before I actually start writing it. Even a few hours a day, until I just must get it written because it's bubbling away. I imagine what is being said (and scribble down dialogue), get to where I know exactly what people look like, what their facial expressions and body language are like, how they feel. I don't decide what these things should be, I let them actually evolve. Before I write them.

    Try not to just tell us what happens. Let us experience what happens along with your characters, and make sure you know the purpose of the scene. If you know the purpose of WHY you're writing a particular scene, it helps you get beyond just telling us what happened. You want the reader to take something important from the scene, or come to an understanding about something, or begin to doubt something. That helps you direct your scene so that the relevant details are important and get recorded. That's a relatively new trick for me, but it works.

    If you like to preplan by telling yourself all the events in order, or whatever, do that for your own reference by all means. But when it comes to actually writing the story for real, slow it down. Enter the world you're creating and live there for a while. There is a lot more to writing fiction than just whacking away at a keyboard. The stuff needs to live in your head and heart before it will touch somebody else's. Just pick up any book you've enjoyed reading and see how the author draws you in and keeps you going. You can maybe help yourself by summarising one of their chapters or scenes in a few short sentences. In other words, 'tell' what happened. Then go back and see how they actually wrote it. This kind of exercise may help give shape to how you create your own story.
     
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  23. LostThePlot

    LostThePlot Contributor Contributor

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    Although not addressed to me I think I can answer somewhat; in that I believe that to some degree every story starts with some degree of telling even if it takes a variety of different forms. Some people will make a plan of all the story beats they want to use, they might even write out what every scene is supposed to include. And this is all very brusque and concise and flat with no feeling. Just a few lines to say "Jane gets home, they argue, she's upset." And how different is that really to writing out a draft of the story that is more fleshed out but still tearse? It's not that much different.

    For me when I'm actually writing I have no problem with 'showing as I go'. In fact I know that I show too much. I never know where to stop and I just want to keep on showing everything even when it's not some big deal. But even as a strong proponent of writing off the top of my head without a plan I still have some idea of where I'm going and what I want the big moments in this story to be. I have these things in my head, these moments that I know are going to be a huge deal but that I haven't gotten 'in the moment' with the characters with. I know what they are, I know they'll be tear jerking, I know they'll be awesome. But I haven't shown them until I actually put pen to paper. When I do get to those scenes then it's no problem at all for me to get all the stuff I want into it, or even in scenes where I don't really know what I'm doing. But for all that, it only works because I have something told in my head to work around.

    So don't worry about 'showing as you go'. If your process works for you and you're able to get it down how you like, even if you do need to be more conscious of showing on a second draft, then it's fine. It doesn't make you a worse writer because you don't naturally show as you write. Naturally all I ever do is show, and honestly I think that's a weakness in my writing. I think that I badly need to learn to be more concise in my first drafts, to know more instinctively what stuff is a big deal and what stuff I can let slide.
     
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  24. jannert

    jannert Member Supporter Contributor

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    I kind of disagree with that, although I'm sure the balance comes with practice. But I feel it's easier to write fully, then cut out the excess later, than it is to try to add life to flat writing. You're giving yourself a lot of material to work with, if you write in full-on showing mode. Later on, you can condense the bits that turn out to be peripheral or simply transitions.

    However, adding emotion and vividness to a flatly-constructed plot-heavy story? I suspect that's harder to do. However, there are probably people who do this well. It would be interesting to hear from them, and discover how they can work from flat to full. Is there anybody out there who writes this way?
     
  25. LostThePlot

    LostThePlot Contributor Contributor

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    It's certainly easier for me writing in my natural style to write a lot of material and then cut back; I literally don't know another way to write and I think it's served me pretty well so far in my writing. But it takes me longer to edit a book than it takes me to actually write it. The process of shrinking 170k or even 220k into 100k is not trivial and I absolutely loathe having to do it, and I really resent having to spend so much time in editing instead of the actual expressive writing. I'm sure for lots of writers having too much material is a good problem to have; and I can't say it's prevented me writing what I want to write but it's still not where I'd really want to be. I can reasonably write a book, even a 200k long first draft in twelve weeks. But then it takes me six months to edit it and that's not where I want that balance to be. I do definitely want to get my first drafts closer to the final book; try to have no more than 30 or 40k to cut from them, and be more discerning and considered in where I let myself just write freely.
     
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