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Tell, don't show

Switch Blayde
Updated:

I linked to and quoted Janice Hardy (Fiction University) in my thread on using sounds in fiction. I was impressed with the way she described why/when to use sounds, much better than I was able to. So I read some of her articles.

One was on when to tell. She succinctly says: "When it is better to tell than to show? If showing is going to bog the story down or bore the reader. "

Kind of obvious, but there's so much more. I love this part:
_________________________________________________________

You tell (in an infodump), but it doesn't stop the story and it allows you to relay information the reader already knows. And that's the most important thing to keep in mind when deciding if you should tell or show. Does it help make the story better and keep the reader reading?

You already do a lot of telling in a novel, even if we don't officially call it that. You describe the setting, what someone does, what they say. It is called storytelling for a reason. The trick is to weave your tells in with your shows so the reader never gets the sense that the author is butting in to explain something to them. Tone matters a great deal, as does voice. Stay in a character's voice, and you can almost anything and make it work.

A flat descriptive paragraph with lots of details and no real context for it is usually boring. Even more so if it falls in the middle of something interesting going on. It stops the story and makes the reader do the literary equivalent of watching vacation slides. But take that same set of details and add judgment and attitude from the POV's eyes. Now it's interesting. It's not just stuff.


The room was small and overstuffed with items from all over the world. Vases from France, statuettes from Italy, wooden shoes from Holland. A bold, green and red flowered wallpaper covered three of the walls, with the fourth wall a solid matching shade of green. On that wall sat a carved trellis with silk flowers entwined through it. Toy birds perched on the top like bright lights.


Bored yet? This is just bad telling when you really think about it. The author is conveying details as if they were sitting outside the room with a pair of binoculars. But if we told it in a character's voice…


Chuck gaped. Holy crap, a garage sale threw up in here. Old vases, cheesy statuettes, those dumb clog shoes with the flowers on them. Bad enough every surface had something awful on it, but did she really need that wallpaper? Maybe she didn't know red and green flowers just screamed "I'm way too into Christmas and need professional help." And what was with that trellis with the fake vines and cheap plastic birds?


Same details, same "telling" what the room looks like, but now there's a person there so the details don't feel so "just telling you what it looks like."

You certainly want to show as much as you can, but sometimes a little telling is needed. Don't be afraid to tell when you have to, just make sure that when you do, you're telling it in a way that serves the story and keeps the reader interested.

Ross at Play
Updated:

I might be totally wrong here, but to me, everything after 'Chuck gaped' in the "better" version was internal thoughts of the POV character.

If you want to write a that 'close' to the MC, why not write it in 1-POV?

My question is, how would you rewrite that with a 3-POV-omni perspective? If that can't be done, then the blog is simply saying authors must only use perspectives closely focused on an MC. Not always, but omni POV has its rightful place.

I am disimpressed by this one, SB.

Switch Blayde

@Ross at Play

I might be totally wrong here, but to me, everything after 'Chuck gaped' in the "better" version was internal thoughts of the POV character.


As she said, they're both telling, but the second one is telling in the character's voice rather than looking at the room through binoculars. The reader is living the story through the POV character.

As to omniscient, one of the problems with omniscient is it's so much telling. The first one would probably be done with omniscient.

It seems most on this forum prefer the omniscient narrator and have the story told to them in detail. That's fine. That's the way many of the classics were written. I just find it boring.

Switch Blayde

We talked about filter words (e.g., felt, heard, saw, etc.) that are telling, but she has an article called "7 Words That Often Tell, Not Show" that go to the next level. http://blog.janicehardy.com/2010/04/re-write-wednesday-dont-tell-me-why.html

To (Verb)
When
As
In (Emotion)
Could See
The Sound of
Realized

I found it eye-opening.

Ross at Play

@Switch Blayde

As to omniscient, one of the problems with omniscient is it's so much telling ... I just find it boring.

Thank you. I have learned something new. :-)

So, do you agree that authors should prefer a closer POV when the content of the plot allows it, but when that is not possible they must accept they'll be obliged do much more telling?

Replies:   Switch Blayde
awnlee jawking

@Switch Blayde

It's certainly less overblown than most articles I've read on the subject, but the technique would still be tiring if used relentlessly. But I was amused by 'We don't see Bob shoot the zombie, or even decide to soot it'. Isn't it racist to black-up a zombie?

AJ

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde

@Ross at Play

So, do you agree that authors should prefer a closer POV when the content of the plot allows it, but when that is not possible they must accept they'll be obliged do much more telling?


Yes. Absolutely.

Replies:   Ross at Play
Switch Blayde

@awnlee jawking

to soot it'. Isn't it racist to black-up a zombie?


That was one of several typos. But she's an author, not an editor.

Replies:   awnlee jawking
awnlee jawking

@Switch Blayde

From her Amazon listings, she seems to have given up writing fiction and reinvented herself as a creative writing expert.

AJ

Switch Blayde

@awnlee jawking

reinvented herself as a creative writing expert.


Could be, hence Fiction University.

She has a book for sale on Show don't Tell. I read as much as the "Look Inside" allowed. It was interesting.

Ernest Bywater

@Switch Blayde


As to omniscient, one of the problems with omniscient is it's so much telling.


Handling that in the right way is where you separate the author's skills. the fact the author uses omniscient point of view doesn't mean he has to tell all. The author can also show a lot of the story and restrict what he does display to the reader. The real key in the show/tell issue is to get the balance right for the story itself.

Ross at Play

@Switch Blayde

Q: Do you agree ...?
A: Yes. Absolutely.

I'm not sure all of these "experts" would agree with us. If so, I would call them Showing Nazis.

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
Ernest Bywater

@Ross at Play

I would call them Showing Nazis.


That would make them socialist flashers. :-)

Replies:   paliden
paliden

@Ernest Bywater

socialist flashers


You mean like former congressman Conyers? LOL

Crumbly Writer

@Ross at Play

If you want to write a that 'close' to the MC, why not write it in 1-POV?

There's always 3rd person limited, which is a story, told in third person, but which deals with ONLY the things that the MC is aware of (i.e. told from their perspective, but in 3rd person).

Replies:   Ross at Play
Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

It seems most on this forum prefer the omniscient narrator and have the story told to them in detail. That's fine. That's the way many of the classics were written. I just find it boring.

Perspective isn't a matter of which is more 'boring', instead, 3rd Omni allows you to show what happens from a variety of perspectives, including revealing the motivations of secondary and tertiary characters, as it relates to the story. 1st or 3rd Person Limited only allows the story to capture things that the protagonist is aware of, so no insights into any other characters, unless the protagonist TELLS you about them!

If you're bored writing in 3rd Omni, that's fine, but don't downgrade everyone else for their choice in how they tell their stories. If you're bored, that's on you, not on every other author's writing skills.

Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

The Sound of

Warning Words: The sound of ... Bang! Bang!

Sorry to continue to dump on you, but just as "when" and "in" distance the reader, so to does an overly broad, unspecific sound effect. Rather than having an explosion, or even a "Crack!", you have a signal word "Bang!", which doesn't really sound (or feel like) the sound you're recalling. Instead, you're relying on the reader to substitute the gunshot sound effect of their choice. In other words, you're forcing the reader to do your work, as an author, of creating your scene.

Nothing distances a reader more than asking them to do work, it's akin to asking someone to 'Take out the garbage' during your most exciting scene.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Crumbly Writer

@awnlee jawking

From her Amazon listings, she seems to have given up writing fiction and reinvented herself as a creative writing expert.

The inevitable fallout from launching a blog. In the ever-demanding requirement to constantly keep new material to keep readers coming back each week, you surrender your own ability to write on your own time. I've seen countless 'authors' revert to mere 'bloggers' simply because they thought blogging would help 'sell' books.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde

@Ross at Play

If you want to write a that 'close' to the MC, why not write it in 1-POV?


You may want to switch POV characters. Very hard to do in 1st-person.

You may want some distance between the reader and POV character. My WIP novel is told from a single POV, but in a very close 3rd-limited.

In 1st-person, the narration is in the character's voice. You don't do that in 3rd-limited.

Replies:   Ross at Play
Switch Blayde

@Crumbly Writer

you have a signal word "Bang!", which doesn't really sound (or feel like) the sound you're recalling. Instead, you're relying on the reader to substitute the gunshot sound


BANG! might not sound like a gunshot to you, but it does to me and a lot of people.

There's someone shooting at cars in Detroit. One driver got shot in the leg. He went into a gas station and asked the guy to call the police. On the video, he says, "I heard a loud bang and..." The police believe the shots are from a speeding car so it must be a gun.

On another forum, some gun enthusiast was giving the sounds of gunshots. He said a 9mm is pop. A 45mm or magnum is bang.

Switch Blayde

@Crumbly Writer

The inevitable fallout from launching a blog.


I don't think it's her blog. She now writes books on writing instead of novels and speaks at writing conferences. She may do other stuff too. That's what I saw on her site.

Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

BANG! might not sound like a gunshot to you, but it does to me and a lot of people.

On another forum, some gun enthusiast was giving the sounds of gunshots. He said a 9mm is pop. A 45mm or magnum is bang.

All right, let me modify my complaint. While "Bang!" might be appropriate for a 45mm, the word itself doesn't evoke the perception of gunshot the way something like "Crack" does, with the hard "k" of the beginning "c" and ending "k".

The same with "eXPloTion". The hard "x", followed by the "Plo" sounds like a quick explosion, followed by the soft whistling of the debris following it.

The word "Bang", however, just doesn't feel very exciting.

Now, the old-timey "Rat-a-tat-tat" of the 40's gangster stories does.

Crumbly Writer

Was just thinking about this, as I went back to working on my latest chapter, and it occurred to me, while many criticize my use of "-ing" verbs, that's how I often avoid those 'telling' words like "as", "to" and "when". As in: "Al said, sitting up, ...". By using the -ing verb "sitting", I avoid having to say "AS he sat up", or "When he sat up", or even "preparing to sit up". Instead, I jump immediately into the present tense action, bypassing the awkward TELLING what he's doing.

My editors comment on my habitually using those -ing transition verbs, but I never gave it much thought about how it avoids those awkward 'telling' moments before.

Replies:   Ross at Play
Ross at Play

@Crumbly Writer

There's always 3rd person limited, which is a story, told in third person, but which deals with ONLY the things that the MC is aware of (i.e. told from their perspective, but in 3rd person).

I know that. I recognised that's how the sample of writing had been written. That sample was presented as an example of how to rewrite something by a self-called expert. I thought it was ghastly - because 3-POV limited was the wrong choice for that piece of writing: it could only be made tolerable in 1-POV.

Ross at Play

@Switch Blayde

You may want to switch POV characters. Very hard to do in 1st-person.

I know that. I imagined the effect of a book with multiple characters providing insights along the lines of, "Holy crap, a garage sale threw up in here". That's what made me want to throw up.

samuelmichaels

@Switch Blayde

A 45mm or magnum is bang.


I will just say that a 45mm will certainly go bang!

Ross at Play
Updated:

@Crumbly Writer

many criticize my use of "-ing" verbs

Some here know that includes me, so I'd like to clarify the opinions I have expressed.

that's how I often avoid those 'telling' words like "as", "to" and "when". As in: "Al said, sitting up, ...".

I certainly notice the results in your writing of your efforts to reduce the number of those types of connecting word, and yes, your use of "-ing" verbs often results in one less "glue word" being required.

I have never heard before of words like "as", "to" and "when" being labelled as 'telling' words.

I pretty sure that a 'sometimes can' is in, or belongs in, that statement.

I doubt whether many of the glue words you are eliminating are being used in the way this "expert" would consider telling. I think they are mostly simple conjunctions. I note that many of your savings require an extra comma. While I strongly favour minimal word counts when meaning is not altered - and you are good at that - I question whether it is a benefit if it comes at the cost of an extra comma. Is it actually faster for readers to process an extra conjunction or an extra comma? This goes against the "accepted wisdom" of those who favour a minimalist approach - as I certainly do - but I suspect the answer to that is, "often, it is not!"

I stress I see nothing wrong in the way you use "-ing" verbs. I have only said I find the frequency of their use reaches a point where I notice them as a style of writing. Maybe they don't affect other readers that way, but surely you don't want readers noticing how you are writing, distracting them away from what you are writing.

Your example fragment was "Al said, sitting up, ..."

I find that less inclined to become galling than "Sitting up, Al said ..." There are good reasons for beginning some sentences with adverbial phrases. They can simplify clauses which contain a lot of stuff; they can break up a series of sentences starting in a similar way, or with a similar rhythm to them. This reader only balks at their use when it begins feeling like a go-to technique in the author's style of writing.

Also, I question why not, "Al sat up and said ..."? Or, "Al sat up, said …, and ..."?

Sincerely, I think the first thought of every author before typing the first-cut draft of every clause they write should be: what is the correct subject for my idea? And, their next thought should be is there any compelling reason to not write a first draft beginning with the subject (sometimes omitted because it can be inferred) and immediately followed by its verb.

I am not suggesting every sentence should end up as Subject-Verb-Other clauses connected with commas and/or conjunctions – God forbid! However, I think there should be some reason for every clause that doesn't – and admittedly, there are many, many valid reasons. Modifying sentences from the "basic structure" is easy, and it's easier to recognise when it's desirable. I see a lot of authors committing themselves to fancy language with their first drafts of sentences. If those choices are less than ideal they may never resolve the problems that can cause. A far-better long-term strategy, IMHO, is to start with structures that risk being a bit boring - if overdone - and look for enhancements later. Readers will rarely notice "a bit boring" until they've seen a lot of it; they may notice each and every instance of "a bit awkward".

If I dared starting an entirely new bunfight I would add that exactly the same principle applies to grammar and punctuation. To do so would require me to commit the unforgivable blasphemy here of stating an opinion that the correct way to start thinking about how to write the first draft of every sentence is with something that adheres to the dreaded "Rules" of Formal Writing?! Obviously, not revising such drafts into a style appropriate for fiction will result in writing that is stilted, at best, but I think that, yet again, authors should make conscious decisions every time they move away from basic and correct structures. Equally obviously, I believe any author who's unwilling to learn those Rules is doomed to continue writing work of needlessly inferior quality.

I would not dare express such views here. That would be needlessly provocative and, obviously too, utterly futile.

* * *

CW, this post may appear to be dumping on you, personally. That was not my intention. It's actually aimed at those who are determined to not listen, while I expect you will reflect upon whatever merits it may contain. May I reset the balance regarding my opinions about your writing? … I am constantly astonished by your productivity with high-quality writing: a new inventive novel every six months, well-told when not being well-shown, almost flawless technically with touches of flair and a style appropriate for fiction, …

Please continue with your good work, and your Sermons from The Berg here. I always find those thought-provoking even when I may disagree with your opinions. :-)

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
REP

@Switch Blayde

BANG! might not sound like a gunshot to you, but it does to me and a lot of people.


I heard a Bang! the other day - two cars collided. The word only reminds you of a weapon being fired because the writer tells you the sound is from a weapon being discharged. It could also represent the noise of a weapon being slammed onto a hard surface.

awnlee jawking

@REP

And it could be the noise of dirt being removed by a cleaning fluid ;)

(Non-Brits: Google 'bang and the dirt is gone'.)

AJ

Replies:   helmut_meukel
Switch Blayde

@REP

It could also represent the noise of a weapon being slammed onto a hard surface.


That's part of the beauty of it. The reader hears the "bang." The women scream and stampede away from the door to the bar. The reader is alert of danger. Then Steele peeks into the bar and sees the dead woman in a pool of blood. Then the bartender's head pops up and he fires a shot that splinters the wood in the door jamb.

I could have used another "bang" when the bartender shot at Steele, but that was overkill. I simply said a gunshot rang out.

So back to the reader. They hear the "bang"s and see the women screaming and running. Some might know it's a gunshot. Others might not. But they all know of the danger. And for those who didn't recognize the "bang" as a gunshot, they'll know it when they see the dead woman.

That's the way I changed my writing over the years. For me, that's "showing" — letting the reader interpret the story. It isn't for all readers. Some like every little detail spoon fed to them. I used to be that way. And that's how I used to write.

When I wrote that way I would have told the reader the bartender wasn't dead and that he shot the woman three times. And that he was waiting for the next person to appear.

To me, the above paragraph removes tension. That's what I meant about poorly written omniscient — giving the reader too much information.

richardshagrin

@REP

Bang

And its a hair style.

helmut_meukel

@awnlee jawking

And it could be the noise of dirt being removed by a cleaning fluid ;)

The brand name here in Germany is Cillit Bang. I prefer Bref however.

To be minimalistic, why use "Bang!" when a sole "!" should do? ;)
(In programming the ! is sometimes called the bang operator.)

HM.

Replies:   awnlee jawking
helmut_meukel

@richardshagrin

And its a hair style.


To my knowledge it's never ever a singe bang it's bangs (Plural). :)

HM.

Ross at Play

@richardshagrin

And its a hair style.

To my knowledge it's never ever its. It's it's (Contraction). :)

awnlee jawking

@helmut_meukel

To be minimalistic, why use "Bang!" when a sole "!" should do? ;)


And !!!!!!!!! is a gang bang ;)

AJ

helmut_meukel

@awnlee jawking

And !!!!!!!!! is a gang bang ;)


Nice, it implies how many gang-bangers are involved (9 in your example). ;)

HM.

Ernest Bywater

@awnlee jawking

And !!!!!!!!! is a gang bang ;)


until they get caught and have to undergo an interobang by the cops. :-)

Replies:   Dominions Son
Dominions Son

@Ernest Bywater

until they get caught and have to undergo an interobang by the cops. :-)


+?! -?!

richardshagrin

+?! -?!

Does this gangbang include a collection of two males (!), two females (?), and two transsexuals, one from female to male (+) and one from male to female (-). Nothing offensive intended, the + and - refer to addition or subtraction of a penis.

Replies:   Dominions Son
Crumbly Writer

@Ross at Play

I doubt whether many of the glue words you are eliminating are being used in the way this "expert" would consider telling. I think they are mostly simple conjunctions. I note that many of your savings require an extra comma.

I never aim to reduce work count, instead, what I aim for in eliminating words, is to remove the frequent verbal tics which get between the reader and the story, those phases which distance the reader from the action. Thus my frequent use of -ing verbs more often is an attempt to switch from 3rd person omni in past tense into present tense. "Sitting" feels more immediate than "and sat". "He stood" is more immediate than "he stood up". In effect, it's an attempt to push the limiting words away from the underlying story, hoping the story will shine through.

That said, it's not for everyone, as many here are adamant about trying to eliminate words from their stories. But for those of us trying to find ways to bring stories out of 'telling mode' into 'action' or 'immediate' mode, it's a way of propelling the story forward, even when you are telling otherwise boring details on occasion.

And no, I didn't see it as a personal attack at all. You're simply expressing a worry that I'm playing fast and loose with the English language, which I'll admit to. Hopefully, once I finally learn how to incorporate all these ideas into my writing, I won't need to go searching for individual words and phrases to eliminate, but for now, it's a way for me to identify the words which do inhibit the story.

It's also like the dreaded filler word "that". I struggle to eliminate any "that" which isn't absolutely necessary, but my editors keep slipping them back in. Sometimes I decide, in my zeal, that something isn't needed, or can be eliminated, when in fact it's essential.

Sometimes, when you try to be 'cutting edge', you cut the corners too sharply and end up running off the edge of the read. :(

Replies:   Ross at Play
Dominions Son

@richardshagrin

Does this gangbang include a collection of


No, it's a play on EBs "interobang by the cops"

+?! = good cop -?! = bad cop.

Replies:   Ross at Play
Ross at Play

@Crumbly Writer

I aim for in eliminating words, is to remove the frequent verbal tics which get between the reader and the story

I will reflect on the merits of that approach. :-)

Ross at Play

@Dominions Son

+?! = good cop -?! = bad cop.

I got it! Our minds work in mysterious ways. Gulp!?

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