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Showing vs. telling vs. "good" telling

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Maxim

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There's nothing wrong with driving the point again for final emphasis, but I still think that directing is important. You prime the reader. You tell them that the meal will be delicious and then they read the rest through that lens.

You keep using the food example in your own context because it seemingly works well for your point, but what about point about transitions? What about the nervous analogy. It's easy to describe food as tasting good, so yeah, it's a good example for when showing might work on its own under certain contexts, but in most cases direction is useful.

I just spent several posts describing what exactly telling does accomplish. It makes for clear writing and ease of transition. That is a good thing and should be done in general. Tell them what's happening and back it up unless it is peripheral to the plot. But beyond that, it isn't all about sensory perception. Sometimes judgments are important, sometimes you need to tell the reader how they are supposed to feel about something because the judgment is more important than the description. Let them imagine the rest. When describing a character let them fill in the pieces that help them relate.

A good story is more about forming an emotional connection than about imagining the scenery exactly the way the author envisioned it. To form that emotional connection the reader has to put themselves into the situation and imagine what they would feel. They need to be part of the creation. Directing helps them to do that, to suspend their preconceived perceptions and imagine the description through the lens you have told them to imagine it through without necessarily always bogging them down with all the description that otherwise might be necessary without first directing them.
 

spamwarrior

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A good story is more about forming an emotional connection than about imagining the scenery exactly the way the author envisioned it. To form that emotional connection the reader has to put themselves into the situation and imagine what they would feel. They need to be part of the creation. Directing helps them to do that, to suspend their preconceived perceptions and imagine the description through the lens you have told them to imagine it through without necessarily always bogging them down with all the description that otherwise might be necessary without first directing them.

IMO, showing does a far more effective job of helping the reader form that emotional connection, than telling does.

By telling me that the raw steak is delicious, or that the person is doing such and such an action, you're not making me engaged in the story. You're not making me want to read more about the story or help me care about characters. In fact, it makes me feel as if I'm emotionally unattached to the story. As a reader, I'm simply watching events unfold, and I could care less.
 

maestrowork

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Maxim, by all means do what you're doing. But do understand why many writers advocate "show, don't tell." You can, of course, do anything you want to do as a writer.


A good story is more about forming an emotional connection than about imagining the scenery exactly the way the author envisioned it.

By "telling" me you're not emotionally connecting with me as a reader. You are TELLING me what I should feel before I see or smell or care. And by "priming" me to feel one way or another BEFORE you present me with the facts does not engage me either. It's about effective proximity. Show me first, then tell me. Not the other way around.

However, by emphasizing what I just read (the action, the details, the sensory descriptions, etc.), you are driving the point across and emotionally sealing my experience as a reader. It's more powerful that way.

I understand you don't agree. Like I said, you can write whatever what you feel is best. I'm offering you an alternative way of thinking about "show vs. tell." To me, "directing emotions" do not work, at least not as effective as show, and thus you're doing redundant work for no apparent benefit.

spamwarrior said:
IMO, showing does a far more effective job of helping the reader form that emotional connection, than telling does.

That's why movies are so effective, and deliver such potent emotions. Movies are mostly show, no tell, by the way. In movies, you almost never see a character say, "this food is delicious" BEFORE you actually see the food or the people EATING the food. You almost never hear a character say, "I'm so sad" before you actually see how sad he/she acts. Telling us "I'm so sad" does not emotionally engage us. Showing us the actor is crying or sobbing or punching a bag does. Sensory experience first. Telling comes next to seal in the experience and emotion.
 
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Maxim

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I'm not suggesting by any means that showing is bad, or that the bulk of the text should not be "showing," because showing takes a lot more space. But I am saying that they should weave together throughout.

Most of my writing is science, not fiction, so I've always placed an emphasis on making sure the reader knows where they are at all times. In my opinion, that makes topic sentences extremely important, but I think that holds for all writing, not just papers. I understand that many writers advocate show don't tell because I think many badly written stories tell far too much, don't show enough, and don't back up what they tell in a believable way. But I also think that it's possible to show too much, because then you get bogged down and lost in unimportant matters. You can't build that emotional connection without also showing, but setting the emotional tone for what is about to come can also help the reader prepare and throw themselves more fully into it. For example, tell that the man is attractive so they can set up that paradigm then make the reader fall in love with him by showing more about him, let the reader fill in the rest.
 

Jake Barnes

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That website that the OP linked to is for people writing children's fiction. I think you can get away with more telling with fiction for kids (and MG, too, not sure about YA) because they won't think that the telling is obvious and unnecessary. In fact I imagine that in a lot of cases the writer has to "telegraph" what's going on because otherwise a kid won't pick up on what is happening. In a kid's book you could write, "Mr. Smith was drumming his fingers because he was impatient." I'd never do that with adult fiction.
 

Maxim

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Hmm... I have yet to see "topic sentences" in fiction

You see them all the time. They're just subtle. I picked up the fellowship of the ring and opened it to a random page in the middle. Here is the paragraph that I found. It follows a sentence describing the anxiety of their guides, and signifies a transition.

"But however anxious their guides might be, it was plain that the hobbits could go no further that night. They were stumbling along dizzy with weariness, and unable to think of anything but their feet and legs. Frodo's pain had redoubled, and during the day things about him faded to shadows and ghostly grey. He almost welcomed the coming of the night, for then the world seemed less pale and empty."

Tolkein tells us that the hobbits can't go farther, then shows us why. We are put in the mindset of weariness and then get to experience it.
 

Bufty

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spamwarrior

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You see them all the time. They're just subtle. I picked up the fellowship of the ring and opened it to a random page in the middle. Here is the paragraph that I found. It follows a sentence describing the anxiety of their guides, and signifies a transition.

"But however anxious their guides might be, it was plain that the hobbits could go no further that night. They were stumbling along dizzy with weariness, and unable to think of anything but their feet and legs. Frodo's pain had redoubled, and during the day things about him faded to shadows and ghostly grey. He almost welcomed the coming of the night, for then the world seemed less pale and empty."

Tolkein tells us that the hobbits can't go farther, then shows us why. We are put in the mindset of weariness and then get to experience it.

Doesn't mean that they're necessary.
 

maestrowork

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Most of my writing is science, not fiction, so I've always placed an emphasis on making sure the reader knows where they are at all times. In my opinion, that makes topic sentences extremely important, but I think that holds for all writing, not just papers.

With due respect, we're talking about fiction writing here. It's quite different from writing a science paper.
 

maestrowork

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You see them all the time. They're just subtle. I picked up the fellowship of the ring and opened it to a random page in the middle. Here is the paragraph that I found. It follows a sentence describing the anxiety of their guides, and signifies a transition.

"But however anxious their guides might be, it was plain that the hobbits could go no further that night. They were stumbling along dizzy with weariness, and unable to think of anything but their feet and legs. Frodo's pain had redoubled, and during the day things about him faded to shadows and ghostly grey. He almost welcomed the coming of the night, for then the world seemed less pale and empty."

Tolkein tells us that the hobbits can't go farther, then shows us why. We are put in the mindset of weariness and then get to experience it.


That's not tell vs. show. We're discussing something very different.

In your Tolkein passage, he was expanding the level of details. It wasn't a judgment that the hobbits couldn't go any further. It was a fact, albeit brief. Then he opened up the level of details by explaining exactly how the hobbits were feeling that led them to stop. He could have stopped at "the hobbits could go no further" and it could be complete, because he was stating a fact.

In my own example, we're talking about something different. In that example, we start with a summary: "the food was scrumptious." It's not a fact, but a judgment, about the taste of the food, when there's no tastes to be experienced yet. Only after that summary, do we get to see how exactly scrumptious it is.

I hope you see the difference. On surface it sounds the same: "brief description followed by more in-depth descriptions." But it is not the same thing.


Even so, let's examine this further. What if Tolkien wrote it this way:

The hobbits were stumbling along dizzy with weariness, and unable to think of anything but their feet and legs. Frodo's pain had redoubled, and during the day things about him faded to shadows and ghostly grey. He almost welcomed the coming of the night, for then the world seemed less pale and empty. However anxious their guides might be, it was plain that they could go no further that night.

I would counter to say I think the second version is more vivid. We saw the hobbits stumbling, etc. first, then we realize: yeah, they could go no more. By then, we've already experienced their exertion and exhaustion, and the "go no further" is the emphasis of our sensory input, and we agree: they are frigging exhausted! Let them rest.

Personally I think it's more effective (no offense to Master Tolkein).

Also, note that Tolkein used a lot more "telling" in his writing than modern writers do (read the above passage again -- those are mostly telling: "the world seemed less pale and empty" "however anxious the guide might be"). Certainly if you like his style you should follow him.


====

Here's the pitfall and the reason for this kind of writing (summary first, then expanding with show)... that's how writers write! We think: "oh, I need to write a passage about this scrumptious dinner" then we get to go further to describe the scrumptiousness. What transpires is summary first, details second... because that's how the writer constructs the scene. But the writer understands: without describing the meal, the readers can't experience the scrumptiousness.

But that's not necessarily the way the readers should get to experience the text. Switch them around. Now, the readers get to experience it the way it should be: experience first, then summary for emphasis. It's a deconstruction, as opposed to the writer's construction. It's in reverse!

Writer: thinks "scrumptious meal"... thus describes the steak, the lobsters, the sauces, the bountiful vegetables...
Reader: smells, sees, tastes, hears and feels the food... thus realizes: the meal is scrumptious.


In fact, that's how a lot of screenwriters write. They construct it by building on the details. They'd use placeholders such as "they eat a great meal" first, when they're building the scenes, then later they would go back and actually describe the scene: "Jack and Diane order five plates of pancakes with sausages and eggs, four sundaes, and a whole apple pie. They chow down with gusto."

And then the writer deletes "they eat a great meal."
 
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Jake Barnes

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"There's nothing wrong with driving the point again for final emphasis, but I still think that directing is important. You prime the reader. You tell them that the meal will be delicious and then they read the rest through that lens."

I used to do this. Then I had a well known agent tell me not to. As she put it, "Repetition is death on toast." She attributed my tendency to my being a lawyer.
 

FallenAngel

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Wow. Thank you Op (original poster) for posting this. I honestly did not know about this mix. It brings out curious questions as to how many authors actually do this. J.K Rowling is indeed one of the greatest authors. No wonder I was hooked unto the books for hours and hours until i finished reading them.

I'm starting to wonder if Christopher Paolini of the inheritance series does this as well. I must check if he has some what of the same patterns.

In any case. It is trully one thing to try and master. As dgiharris mentioned and i will quote.

I believe that this is where the 'art' part of writing comes to play.
 

Lady Ice

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Focus on the five senses and action. Use strong verbs instead of weak to-be verbs and adjectives/adverbs. Once you've done that, you're halfway there. The next step is to expand on summaries and judgments -- show us the action, senses, etc. instead.

E.g.

Maryn was furious -- a) it's a weak verb + adjective, b) it has no sensory input and c) it is a judgment (furious -- who decides she's furious? The narrator. Thus it's telling: The narrator TELLS us how we should think and judge the character)

Now let's take a look at "showing":

Maryn shrieked and pounded her fists on the counter (okay, it may be over-dramatic but we're here to illustrate a point): a) it has strong verbs -- shrieked, pounded, b) it has sensory input -- sound (shriek), action and textile (pound), and c) it's not a judgment, only facts.

The last point is important: present the facts, not the judgment. The narrator didn't tell us what to think. No judgment there. Instead, the narrator simply reports on how Maryn reacts: shrieks, pounds, etc. It's up to us, the readers, to infer. And that kind of showing is POWERFUL because we get to experience it and use our own cognitive abilities to understand emotions and subtexts, instead of someone telling us: "you know, Maryn is furious." Really? How furious? We can't feel any of that if you just frigging tell us.

Now, what to show and what to tell (summarize) is part of the art of storytelling. We writers must pick and choose the right details to show vs. tell and vice versa. Like Bufty said, we may not want to read all the boring, mundane details of how the guy gets on the boat, but by George, please show us HOW all Hell broke loose. Sometimes more details enhance the experience, and sometimes they bog down the pace and plot. We must learn to pick and choose and the idea is to keep the readers in that world we create, and to allow their imagination take hold by giving them the right sensory inputs.


There's a difference between the narrator telling us how to think (which could be an indication of an unreliable narrator) and the writer telling us how to think (which is just bad writing).
 

maestrowork

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In 3rd person there's no such thing as unreliable narrator. The narrator is the writer (or one that uses the character's voice, but not the character itself), but there's a narrator.

The time when this "tell/summary" may work is if it's from the character's point of view. The character is making a judgment, and that's perfectly fine as long as we understand it's still a judgment, not a fact. It's only made stronger if backed up by facts (as in the "meal is scrumptious" example). If the character only tells us the meal is great without going into details, it lacks the sensory details to make us really care ("okay, whatever you say, character.")
 

FallenAngel

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That's not tell vs. show. We're discussing something very different.

In your Tolkein passage, he was expanding the level of details. It wasn't a judgment that the hobbits couldn't go any further. It was a fact, albeit brief. Then he opened up the level of details by explaining exactly how the hobbits were feeling that led them to stop. He could have stopped at "the hobbits could go no further" and it could be complete, because he was stating a fact.

In my own example, we're talking about something different. In that example, we start with a summary: "the food was scrumptious." It's not a fact, but a judgment, about the taste of the food, when there's no tastes to be experienced yet. Only after that summary, do we get to see how exactly scrumptious it is.

I hope you see the difference. On surface it sounds the same: "brief description followed by more in-depth descriptions." But it is not the same thing.


Even so, let's examine this further. What if Tolkien wrote it this way:



I would counter to say I think the second version is more vivid. We saw the hobbits stumbling, etc. first, then we realize: yeah, they could go no more. By then, we've already experienced their exertion and exhaustion, and the "go no further" is the emphasis of our sensory input, and we agree: they are frigging exhausted! Let them rest.

Personally I think it's more effective (no offense to Master Tolkein).

Also, note that Tolkein used a lot more "telling" in his writing than modern writers do (read the above passage again -- those are mostly telling: "the world seemed less pale and empty" "however anxious the guide might be"). Certainly if you like his style you should follow him.


====

Here's the pitfall and the reason for this kind of writing (summary first, then expanding with show)... that's how writers write! We think: "oh, I need to write a passage about this scrumptious dinner" then we get to go further to describe the scrumptiousness. What transpires is summary first, details second... because that's how the writer constructs the scene. But the writer understands: without describing the meal, the readers can't experience the scrumptiousness.

But that's not necessarily the way the readers should get to experience the text. Switch them around. Now, the readers get to experience it the way it should be: experience first, then summary for emphasis. It's a deconstruction, as opposed to the writer's construction. It's in reverse!

Writer: thinks "scrumptious meal"... thus describes the steak, the lobsters, the sauces, the bountiful vegetables...
Reader: smells, sees, tastes, hears and feels the food... thus realizes: the meal is scrumptious.


In fact, that's how a lot of screenwriters write. They construct it by building on the details. They'd use placeholders such as "they eat a great meal" first, when they're building the scenes, then later they would go back and actually describe the scene: "Jack and Diane order five plates of pancakes with sausages and eggs, four sundaes, and a whole apple pie. They chow down with gusto."

And then the writer deletes "they eat a great meal."

I just read this post and realized how useful this piece of information is.



This is J.k Rowling's style I read from within the article.



"Harry, Ron, and Hermione sniffed interestedly as they passed large, bubbling cauldrons. . . .( <---tell)
They chose the
nearest a gold-colored cauldron that was emitting one of the most seductive scents Harry had
ever inhaled: Somehow it reminded him simultaneously of treacle tart, the woody smell of a broomstick handle,
and something flowery he thought he might have smelled at the Burrow."
Then you conclude the paragraph and move the story forward. (<----show)
"A great contentment stole over him; he grinned across at Ron, who grinned back lazily." (<---tell)

Am I correct on my understanding on the above?

From what I read; the pattern continues on through out the entire story.

Using what you mentioned above. How would you apply those changes to the example I posted here of J.k Rowling's style?

Sorry for the random question. I'm just really interested in the topic. I honestly want to master balancing show and tell and see different techniques.
 
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