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View Full Version : Don't you sometimes just want to be TOLD?


Stew21
11-20-2007, 03:07 PM
I was thinking about the sage advice of show don't tell. The thing is, while I agree with it, I also think there's a limit. And sometimes showing me too much in great detail pulls away from the story and plot. At least it feels like it to me. I can think of a few books that would have been better if just occasionally the author would have told me something rather than feeling the need to show it all.
So I put it in context of my own work. In the most recent novel, i do some telling. I have a narrator. He has an odd way of telling a story. While quite a lot is shown, there are plenty of things he also just tells.
In first drafts I tell a lot - it holds my place, so i can go back in second draft and show. But some of the telling is still there. to me, it suits his voice.
To show it all would, I believe, dilute his voice and dilute the plot.
So, what do you do?

and woohoo, there's a poll.

KTC
11-20-2007, 03:45 PM
As Depeche Mode once insisted: GET THE BALANCE RIGHT.

Stew21
11-20-2007, 04:01 PM
Well I'm glad to see how this poll is going. I see the advice so often here, and while I know it is valid, couldn't help thinking that isn't the case for every story, every narrator, everytime.

Wraith
11-20-2007, 04:01 PM
Telling has its place in a story just like anything else. In fact, I've read passages of 'telling' that were breathtakingly beautiful.

So KTC's right. What works, works while sneering at all the rules. :D Different stories need different show/tell balances, the key is finding it and writing away as true to the story as possible. If that means telling, so be it. If that's your voice, stick to it. Telling can sometimes add flavor to a book. :)

WittyandorIronic
11-20-2007, 04:02 PM
My non expert, unsaged (wtf...) advice would mirror KTC's, but without the weird early '80's music reference. Balance is needed in everything. I would also venture a guess that as telling is easier than showing (though not necessily well written telling) that everyone makes it a hard and fast rule, so that writers are AWARE of breaking it.

Stew21
11-20-2007, 04:03 PM
My narrator is a "teller". Not all of it, there's a lot of show, but as is true with a voice like his, sometimes he "skims". But in truth, the things he tells, he tells for a reason. He has a point to make that he won't be able to make without telling it. He has observations and lessons he gathers from these things that are the point. He speaks to them.
So while I knew I was "breaking the rule" sometimes I just let him tell.

KTC
11-20-2007, 04:13 PM
My narrator is a "teller". Not all of it, there's a lot of show, but as is true with a voice like his, sometimes he "skims". But in truth, the things he tells, he tells for a reason. He has a point to make that he won't be able to make without telling it. He has observations and lessons he gathers from these things that are the point. He speaks to them.
So while I knew I was "breaking the rule" sometimes I just let him tell.

Your POV/tense is slightly more condusive to telling too, Trish.

Stew21
11-20-2007, 04:20 PM
well that's good to know. I was starting to feel like a hack.

Perks
11-20-2007, 04:33 PM
In fact, you can tell when a writer has bent over backwards never-to-tell and it's silly. Sometimes you just sit and look at the details -- even in real life.

I like a bit of telling, if only to catch my breath. And no one ever drank a decent cup of tea while pelting through an obstacle course of do-ing.

Stacia Kane
11-20-2007, 04:46 PM
Telling is sometimes necessary, as well. If your character needs to cook dinner, say, you can show a long scene at the grocery store in which nothing happens but buying groceries, or you can simply say, "A quick trip to the grocery store and she was ready to start." Some details are nonessential, and best dispensed with by a quick tell. That's not a great example but I think everyone knows what I mean.

Stew21
11-20-2007, 06:48 PM
Skipping over tea drinking and grocery shopping are absolutely good examples. But what about bigger "tells"
I'm going to give a for-instance of my own work, just to throw this out there.

My character sees and talks to Ernest Hemingway's ghost.
When Hem has something important to say, I show the whole scene, except for a couple of times. I just say (and this is just an example, not in my book)" As I was getting ready for work, shaving, brushing teeth, etc, talked to hemingway, combed my hair..."
I did it for a reason. Yes, he just skimmed right on over having a conversation with a dead famous guy. why? because I wanted it to appear casual enough to skim. It has become enough of his life that it can be yadda'd over.
Some people would say, wait a second - why would you skim over ernest hemingway's words? Because what he said wasn't important. Because what mattered in that scene is that he was getting used to the visits from Hemingway.

Are people going to look at that and think, "she's skipped the best parts?" or are people going to realize it was done deliberately to demonstrate a change in my character?

Bubastes
11-20-2007, 06:54 PM
See, to my eye, that "tell" works for the reason you mentioned: it's a strange activity that has become part of the character's normal routine.

IMO, "show, don't tell" is a guideline, not a rule, and it's a tool for pacing the story. As another wise AWer said, show what needs to be shown and tell what needs to be told.

Birol
11-20-2007, 07:09 PM
So many people take the "show, don't tell" rule far too literally. First, it's not meant to be an absolute, but a general guideline. There are times, for matters of pacing, not getting bogged down in lots of irrelevant details, or quickly conveying information that all of the characters take for granted, that "tell" is both necessary and valid. Second, there's showing and there's showing. "Showing" doesn't have to be going through the action step-by-step. Sometimes, it can be as simply as displaying the MC's mindset to the reader. This is what you have done with your example. You have "shown" your reader that the MC thinks talking to Hemingway's ghost is nothing unusual, just an ordinary part of the daily routine, without saying "Talking to Hemingway's ghost was nothing unusual. It was just an ordinary part of his daily routine." What you did was not "tell." It was "show."

Birol
11-20-2007, 07:12 PM
Are people going to look at that and think, "she's skipped the best parts?" or are people going to realize it was done deliberately to demonstrate a change in my character?

You need to remember that the ordinary reader is not going to be analyzing the details or how the book was written. If you've done your job well, they're just going to be reading and taking in the story, realizing the information, without ever comprehending the little tricks and techniques you the writer have done to make the story work for them. Most readers are just going to be reading.

Stop stressing and over analyzing. Just write.

Meerkat
11-20-2007, 07:12 PM
I voted "mostly tell," and not as a joke. I am disappointed with the excessive length of almost everything that exists on the market.

Of course, this would also explain why I have been so unsuccessful as a writer...

Stew21
11-20-2007, 07:14 PM
Stop stressing and over analyzing. Just write.
LOL. Yes, I needed that kick in the butt.
I did write it - twice.
Now I'm trying to decide what needs a third revision, more detail, etc.

but I noticed it in reading too. Sometimes authors show me way too much.
Just tell me already. :)

DeadlyAccurate
11-20-2007, 08:23 PM
As always, I like to point to the master in situations like this: Joss Whedon*.

In a season two episode of Angel, a nemesis of Angel's shows up. They fight and Angel runs. Plot stuff happens, and near the end, Angel is alone in the hotel when the nemesis returns. They exchange words (I think the bad guy says something like, "I have to know,") face each other in a showdown, and...fade to black. The scene cuts to Angel showing up elsewhere, beaten but obviously the winner.

That's telling in visual form. We didn't need to see the fight. We'd already seen them fight once. In fact, nothing they could have shown us would have done justice to the epic battle we create in our mind.

Show, don't tell is simply a shorthand rule, because it's something many new writers don't understand. The most important thing is to analyze which one best enhances the story at that point.

*Who'd you think I was going to say?

Dawnstorm
11-20-2007, 09:43 PM
Sometimes, it can be as simply as displaying the MC's mindset to the reader. This is what you have done with your example. You have "shown" your reader that the MC thinks talking to Hemingway's ghost is nothing unusual, just an ordinary part of the daily routine, without saying "Talking to Hemingway's ghost was nothing unusual. It was just an ordinary part of his daily routine." What you did was not "tell." It was "show."

Actually, I think the Hemmingway example is a brilliant demonstration that "showing" and "telling" are inherently relative terms. Both these verbs are transitive, i.e. they require an object. You have to show/tell something.

So: we're told, not shown, that the character is talking to Hemmingway, but we're shown, not told, that it's a normal thing to do. It entirely depends one what is important in the scene. But that's where it becomes complicated, because writer and reader A and reader B may all have a different focus.

"Show/tell" is not a very useful line in critiques if you're not being precise about what we're told or what we're supposed to be shown. And if there's a reader-author conflict, how do we tell whether the reader's missed something, or the author's failed to make a point? (As I like subtle to obscure, I tend to default to "inattentive reader" - as in, "Oh, I missed that!" If I were reading primarily for relaxation, I'd probably default to "vague author".)

There are usually better (because more specific) ways to talk about writing:

-I-

Reader: "Wait, he talks to Hemmingway? I want to eavesdrop on that conversation!"
Author: "You will. No time right now, though."

-II-

Reader: "Wait a minute? "Talked to Hemmingway"? Is that his cat? Does he talk to a picture on the wall? What?"
Author: *Wry smile* "Wait and see! Hehe." // or // *scribble, scribble* "...talked to Hemmingway, who was even more hungover than usual, ..." There. Better?

And so on.

Does it surprise you folks that assaulted the mis-guideline with a Blooming Eggplant?

maestrowork
11-20-2007, 10:25 PM
It's always about writing the story the best you can. If you summarize something by telling, make sure it's worth summarizing but not necessary for the readers to "experience" it. "Fifty years have passed and she was miserable..." -- perfectly fine to summarize that in a paragraph or two so we don't have to watch her being miserable for fifty years. Show vs. tell is all about details -- the more important the scene and information, the better it is to show instead of tell.

That said... In first person narrative, you have more flexibility because most often the voice of the narrator is the important thing, and if the narrator chooses to tell -- "She's the most beautiful woman I've ever known" -- then he has the authority to tell you just that. He doesn't have to justify the description by going into details. Still, as a writer, you have to see it from the readers' point, too: Are you engaging them? Are you glossing over too much so they don't really get it?

But yeah, you're the writer and you decide what's the best way to tell your story.


For example, there's a line in my WIP that "the men got into more arguments every day over nothing... " Sure, I could have shown all that but it would take at least a few pages, if not a few scenes, when one line will do the trick. I've decided: the readers don't need to witness all the bickering and fighting. Just a bit more details in that summary will suffice: "the men got into more arguments every day over an extra hard-boiled egg or cigarette or spoon..." It's still "telling" but with a bit more substance/details. Then later, when the plot actually takes a turn, I could easily mix in a scene in which the men are fighting over something minute -- it brings the "telling" back to the front stage and voila, hopefully the readers get the whole picture.

So, my point is, sometimes only show or only tell doesn't work. You need to choose the right thing to do and bring them all together to paint the complete picture for the readers.

BenPanced
11-20-2007, 11:13 PM
To be honest, I never really know if I'm showing or telling. I just writes it as I sees it.

chartreuse
11-20-2007, 11:30 PM
My non expert, unsaged (wtf...) advice would mirror KTC's, but without the weird early '80's music reference. Balance is needed in everything.

HEY! Are you saying Depeche Mode fans are WEIRD? Them's fighting words!

Judg
11-22-2007, 04:45 AM
My feeling is when telling is tedious, show. When showing is tedious, tell.

I also tell when I don't want to give that particular statement any more weight than it already has. I could perhaps make the showing interesting, but then it would be too much of a distraction, in my mind anyway.

Little Red Barn
11-22-2007, 05:32 AM
Trish, me thinks you'll do excellent in both show and tell. I remember here http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?p=1586773#post1586773
how well you did both, so beautifully I might add and off the cuff at that! ;)

Unique
11-22-2007, 06:22 AM
you're making me think - stop it.

Well, if I'm reading something and I think, 'Why are you telling me this?' Then yes. Or 'I did not need to know that, what a waste of time' then yes. Probably.

Oh. And non-fiction. Definitely, yes.

L M Ashton
11-22-2007, 06:30 AM
My non expert, unsaged (wtf...) advice would mirror KTC's, but without the weird early '80's music reference. Balance is needed in everything.

HEY! Are you saying Depeche Mode fans are WEIRD? Them's fighting words!Fight! Fight! Fight! I'm in!!!! :D

Stew21
11-22-2007, 06:50 AM
Fight! Fight! Fight! I'm in!!!! :D

I want that action.
I got five on the DM fan.

Unique
11-22-2007, 07:43 AM
Thread Rerailment: I guess it depends (for me) If you can make me smell the candle wax and feel the velvet when you're describing it, then okay. "Show" me.

If you really can't, that's okay. Just tell me she's wearing velvet. I don't care what colour. I can do that myself.

I can read.

What did I just say? I agree with Meerkat. ;) but I still like eggplant.

2 matchsticks on the depreche people.

maestrowork
11-22-2007, 10:59 AM
Another way to look at it... IF your book is a movie, how does it work? Can it be filmed? If not, can the summaries be done by a "voice over" or a reference? If so, is it even important?

So there are these levels of "details":

A. to be in the movie, it has to be "shown." You can't show "for fifty years she has been miserable." You have to somehow "show it."

B. it can be summarized either in VO/narration or dialogue: "Mary has been miserable for fifty years," Peter said. "And look at her now." In narrative form it becomes exposition.

C. it is not important, after all. Who the fig cares if she's been miserable for fifty years -- what we want to know is if she's still miserable now and how.

"All telling" kind of books are very difficult to adapt to screen. :)

Sean D. Schaffer
11-22-2007, 11:15 AM
Sometimes I really do want to be told. Like in a sex scene, for instance. In that case, I prefer to have the narrator do the majority of the talking, and maybe once-in-a-while have one of the characters say something. In this instance, I see no reason to show everything.

I did a sex scene earlier tonight, and I feel like I showed a little too much in my zeal to get the story told. There's nothing like a scene where there's just too much showing; to me it's just one of the worst experiences I can have in reading.

So yeah, I definitely wish to be told at least part of the time, though I agree that the majority of the time, showing is the best.

Like others have said, so I also think there has to be a balance between show and tell.

Stew21
11-22-2007, 06:43 PM
Another way to look at it... IF your book is a movie, how does it work? Can it be filmed? If not, can the summaries be done by a "voice over" or a reference? If so, is it even important?

So there are these levels of "details":

A. to be in the movie, it has to be "shown." You can't show "for fifty years she has been miserable." You have to somehow "show it."

B. it can be summarized either in VO/narration or dialogue: "Mary has been miserable for fifty years," Peter said. "And look at her now." In narrative form it becomes exposition.

C. it is not important, after all. Who the fig cares if she's been miserable for fifty years -- what we want to know is if she's still miserable now and how.

"All telling" kind of books are very difficult to adapt to screen. :)

In the movie version, a miserable looking Mary says, "I've been miserable with that soul sucking bastard for fifty G.D. Years!"

:)

Jaycinth
11-25-2007, 08:21 PM
HEY! Are you saying Depeche Mode fans are WEIRD? Them's fighting words!


YEAH!!!! I like Depeche Mode, and I am certainly NOT weird.

....and neither is my Orlando Bloom shaped eggplant....



it told me so

WittyandorIronic
11-25-2007, 09:06 PM
lmao!! I had no idea my words would be so...incendiary. Now if only I could stir this kind of passion and response with my stories, rather than my insults to music taste.