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  1. #1
    GemQuest Moderator Gary Wassner's Avatar
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    A game. So, which do you prefer? Or write your own version...

    He felt miserable. All the trials of the past weeks were taking their toll. He could barely keep his head up, he was so weary from all the fighting. Raw wounds chafed under his arms and the bandages needed to be changed. The day was just beginning and he didn't know how he was going to make it through until sunset.


    OR

    He grimaced. His shoulders slumped and his eyelids mimicked them. His head lolled on his neck. Fresh blood dripped from the tip of his sword and pooled on the pock-marked earth. Filthy bandages oozed green. Sunlight stripped the soil as his hand clutched the pommel, tendons bulging through dry skin. A long day ahead....

  2. #2
    Celestial Dragon Bengoshi-San's Avatar
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    I prefer the first one.

    The second doesn't flow as well.

  3. #3
    Just Another Philistine Hereford Eye's Avatar
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    Sunlight emphasized the wounds, the bandages, the blood overwhelming the bandages as well as the blood dripping from his blade. Sunlight failed to ease the thousand agonies besetting his muscles, bones, nerves. Head bowed, eyes refusing to clear themselves of sweat, shoulders slumping under the strain of weeks of trials with no end in sight, he doubted he'd last even so short a time as the arrival of sunset.

    What bothers me about choice #1 is the passive voice. I like everything about choice #2 except the sentence where the subject seems split between what the sunlight is doing and what his hand is doing.

  4. #4
    GemQuest Moderator Gary Wassner's Avatar
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    Exactly, HE! One is telling the other is showing, as the saying goes. But no matter how often we substitute showing words for telling words, so many readers, like you Bengoshi, prefer the more descriptive ones.

    For anyone who's reading this thread, post your samples of a similar paragraph. But write them both ways, first passive, then active. The active way is much harder. Trying to find the right motions, actions, twists of the head, blink of the eye, lines on the face etc is so much more difficult than describing it with adjectives and adverbs.

    Try it. Give it a shot!!

  5. #5
    Master Obfuscator Dawnstorm's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Gary Wassner View Post
    Exactly, HE! One is telling the other is showing, as the saying goes. But no matter how often we substitute showing words for telling words, so many readers, like you Bengoshi, prefer the more descriptive ones.
    I prefer the first one, too, but it's not a matter of show vs. tell; it's - as Bengoshi says - that it flows better. The language itself (as opposed to its imagery) is more vivid. Notice how you use a lot more of the tools language has to offer in the first one than in the second one?

    That's a problem I see a lot in the "showing treatment". It reduces the author's tool box to the simple-tensed statement. See, how you're using progressive aspect, modal auxiliaries etc. in the first one, but end up with a straightforward list of Subject-simple verb-Object sentences in the second one? Your tool box has been impoverished, and that's why the first one's better.

    For anyone who's reading this thread, post your samples of a similar paragraph. But write them both ways, first passive, then active. The active way is much harder. Trying to find the right motions, actions, twists of the head, blink of the eye, lines on the face etc is so much more difficult than describing it with adjectives and adverbs.

    Try it. Give it a shot!!
    1.

    The past week had drained his life-force and he was spent. The sun came up too soon, and bade him, too, to rise. Oh, but how his body protested! There was no pain, not any more. Just a dull ache from toe to head to toe. And a heavyness of limb that seemed impossible to overcome. But he had to overcome it. Last night's blood still caked his sword - never should he have risked a valuable blade like this. And the bandages needed changing lest they became indistinguishable from his unhealthy skin. He blinked; the sun, harsh as ever, did not. A new day, then. A new day...

    2.

    First a breath, and then another. It should not be an effort this business of breathing, but the hard earth was pressing against his lungs, and he was burying his head into the stinking blanket he was lying on, to block out the early sunlight. With an inward groan that had no air to travel on, he rolled onto his side and took a deep breath. The rush of crisp morning air ached in his lungs and sent his head spinning. He pressed his eyes shut and jolted himself into a sitting position. A mistake: a thousand cuts and bruises announced their presence, a hundred bandages, stiff with a dried mixture of blood and pus, chafed against sore skin. He winced. At least his breathing, though shallow, was steady, now. He found he was shivering - the clothes he had slept in damp with dew. A roof, a wall, a bed. Oh, please, a bed! Slowly he heaved open his eyelids, but instead of magical comfort he saw bare work: his sword, before him, unsheathed and uncleaned. A sudden flash of fantasy: A hundred enemies' blood had ruined his blade. He would not get another. He would never fight again. But already his treacherous hand was searching for his backpack. And found it. Gripped. Pulled. Exhausted itself. And the day was just beginning.

    (The first one was actually harder to write. I'm not really satisfied with either.)
    Last edited by Dawnstorm; August 19th, 2008 at 01:57 AM.

  6. #6
    GemQuest Moderator Gary Wassner's Avatar
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    It is the problem, Dawn. I agree. It's so much harder to strip the text of all the descriptors, adverbs, adjectives, and still convey the action and the sentiment. Scott Bakker once said to me that he tries never to use the conjugation of 'to be' - was, were etc. "He was tired" - NO. "Fatigue gripped him" - YES. And my editor wants stripped down text, action, terse sentences, few literary elements.

    It's much easier to describe and to find the perfect words, the perfect sentences using all the tools language has to offer. But it also slows the pace of a chapter and removes the reader from the active elements often.

    Both your examples are elaborations on the same technique. Both are descriptive and both describe inner motivations that require an omniscient narrator. Try the second one again without talking about any of the inner feelings, and try conveying them with actions and simple descriptors. Not so easy.

  7. #7
    Celestial Dragon Bengoshi-San's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Gary Wassner View Post
    Exactly, HE! One is telling the other is showing, as the saying goes. But no matter how often we substitute showing words for telling words, so many readers, like you Bengoshi, prefer the more descriptive ones.

    For anyone who's reading this thread, post your samples of a similar paragraph. But write them both ways, first passive, then active. The active way is much harder. Trying to find the right motions, actions, twists of the head, blink of the eye, lines on the face etc is so much more difficult than describing it with adjectives and adverbs.

    Try it. Give it a shot!!
    I did a lot of this in undergrad writing classes.

    The main thing here in my opinion is that the active writing will reach very little of your target audience in the way you want it to. As a writer.. you want them to try to come out with some general idea that you are trying to convey.. however.. active writing leaves more open to personal input and interpretation.. personal.. "fill-in-the-gaps" thinking, and thus the final product imo isn't even really what you meant it to be.

    I dont think everyone's interpretation should be the same, but with active writing.. it's a bit too open and leaves a lot of gaps for myself.

    Passive writing.. doesn't have to be so "passive" or "opressive". It's not the amount of detail that's important .. but the right kinds of details.

    I commented in another thread a while ago about how I believe that many writers today are wasting their time writing paragraphs and paragraphs of setting-description. Along the lines of "the long arching columns twisted and came around the marble walls that were auburn and green at the top, spiraling back towards the ground where glass and marble sparkled and reflected the silvery spherical openings of the patrician patterned roof." (I just made that up as an example.)

    Now... after reading that.. MOST people will either go back and have to re-read it 3 times in order to get a decent idea of what the author was saying.. at which point they wont care about the setting. OR most readers will say.. the hell with that.. I can't quite get the picture in my head and just keep reading.

    There is a fine line between meaningful detail and obese description. Active writing leaves you with not enough detail, and passive can sometimes hit you on the head with way too much.

  8. #8
    GemQuest Moderator Gary Wassner's Avatar
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    Yes, it's the right blend of both that works the best. Also, the story dictates what style to use from chapter to chapter.

    There is something to say though in praise of authors who can so succinctly get their mood and idea across with few words. It's the ability to find the perfect way of impacting the reader. The Road is a good example of this. The bleak writing parallels the bleakness of the story and setting.

    It shouldn't be a rule though. And it seems to me that too often editors trend towards one style or another, depending of course on market issues and commercial issues, at the expense of great prose.

    But still no one here has written a paragraph entirely in one style or the other! Try it. See how difficult it is to accomplish.

  9. #9
    Master Obfuscator Dawnstorm's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Gary Wassner View Post
    Both your examples are elaborations on the same technique. Both are descriptive and both describe inner motivations that require an omniscient narrator. Try the second one again without talking about any of the inner feelings, and try conveying them with actions and simple descriptors. Not so easy.
    Heh, you're right. I actually intended to write four scenes in a progression of specificness. I originally titled 1. "Explication of Motive" and 2. "Interiorisation of situation". (That's why I numbered my sections, in the first place.) 3. would have been something like "strategic scenery", while 4. would have been a completely detached narrator with no investment in the scene whatsoever.

    But I ran out of time. I may yet continue with part 4. and 5., when I have the time. The purpose was to show that it's a continuum, really, and that one man's "telling" is another man's "showing". But I got lazy.

    Quote Originally Posted by Bengoshi-San
    The main thing here in my opinion is that the active writing will reach very little of your target audience in the way you want it to. As a writer.. you want them to try to come out with some general idea that you are trying to convey.. however.. active writing leaves more open to personal input and interpretation.. personal.. "fill-in-the-gaps" thinking, and thus the final product imo isn't even really what you meant it to be.
    To be sure, I'm not against detailed writing with little explanation. That's not the point I'm making. It works for many people. It's just that, if it doesn't work for you, you're writing won't get any better for it.

    The basic distinction you make, though, is compatible with what I'm always saying:

    Telling, for the reader, is an exercise in imagination. You're giving the readers the information they need to set their imaginations to work. The risk is that you give them too little detail to catch their imagination.

    Showing, for the reader, is an exercise in interpretation. You're giving the readers a detail account of what happens (or - in some cases - setting descriptions - Virginia Woolf's "Kew Gardens" would be an example of this) and let them figure out the interpretations. The risk is that you withhold too much information, so they lack the "key" to decipher the scene.

    Most fiction is a mix of both anyway.

    Quote Originally Posted by Gary Wassner
    Scott Bakker once said to me that he tries never to use the conjugation of 'to be' - was, were etc. "He was tired" - NO. "Fatigue gripped him" - YES. And my editor wants stripped down text, action, terse sentences, few literary elements.
    This one made me smile. "Fatigue gripped him," is no way more "showing" than "He was tired." Instead, it adds a layer of figurative language onto a bare-bones abstract descriptor. This is not an edit on the vague - specific axis; it's an edit on the static - dynamic axis - as you're focussing on the moment that he became tired. Notice how you introduced a notion of agency where there is no agent? "What? I'm tired? Fatigue must have gripped me, the bastard!"

    This isn't, I think, what you were driving with your example, but it's the "passive voice" HE addressed. (Of course, "passive voice" the stylistic concept - to much static predication, grammatically - rather than "passive voice" the grammatic concept - of which your original paragraph contains exactly one instance embedded in a modal verb phrase: "needed to be changed".)

    So you've got:

    1. Scenic vs. Expository: an information-management issue

    and

    2. Active vs. Passive language: a rhetoric issue

    The current bias is clear enough with phrases like "Show don't tell", "don't use the passive voice", "info dumps"... Your writing's supposed to better if you're scenic with active language. Or - a variation - writing well is easier for the beginner if they try scenic and active.

    But that's nonsense. People are different. They ought to stick to what they're good at first, and depart from there.

    I don't have the time, now, to write the different scenes - but if I were to write an objective account of the scene above I'd:

    - probably use present tense - as this is - to me - the natural tense of description (see Gibson's Pattern Recognition which relies a lot on images).

    - add a sense of camera movement - a zooming in effect that plays with the changing light, too.

    - start with the sword, not the person, to give a framing effect.

    - use dry, clinical language á la late sixties Ballard.

    The alternative road is to use stereotypical images, for the immediate recognition effect. This is, I feel, best when brief, or interspersed with un-expected departures from the stereotye to catch the interest. On the specific level, the "expected element" is background info, while the "unexpected element" is story proper. (Imagine a sword with a Hello Kitty pommel. )

  10. #10
    GemQuest Moderator Gary Wassner's Avatar
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    It's funny that you describe telling as an imaginative exercise. Many editors complain that telling strips the reader of the use of his/her imagination. Too much description leaves too little to the imagination. If you can capture a character by a simple gesture, you save pages of descriptors. And you give the reader more freedom to imagine. Hopefully you set them in the direction you intend, and if you do, then you're doing it well.

  11. #11
    Celestial Dragon Bengoshi-San's Avatar
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    Here's an excerpt from a story I'm currently working on. Although I don't consider it to be an excellent piece of writing, I can say that I think it's balanced in terms of telling and showing.

    “About damn time” thought Elvin as he straightened his back and stepped into the train, brushing past the exiting commuters. Looking around for a seat, he found himself disappointed yet again. His thoughts were abruptly put to an end as the train screamed around a bend. He felt a man’s hand strike him on the shoulder.
    “Sorry, really sorry” said the suited middle-aged man who quickly looked away in embarrassment. The lights flickered as the bumping and grinding of the train came to halt, the doors opened and the announcer shouted inaudibly over the loud speaker.
    Stepping off the train with eager hands and bodies at his backside, Elvin climbed up the stairs and eventually out of the station.

  12. #12
    GemQuest Moderator Gary Wassner's Avatar
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    Yes, a good combination.

    Here it is without as many descriptors. Bare showing, less telling.

    "About damn time” thought Elvin. Stiff backed, he stepped onto the train, brushing past the exiting commuters. His head turned left and right and he frowned. A full car. Wheels screeched, he gripped the pole and held it tight. A heavy hand struck him on the shoulder.
    “Sorry, really sorry” said the suited man, his face a blushing map of tiny lines and wrinkles. The lights flickered as the train lurched to a halt, the doors opened and the announcer's muffled shout rang out over the loud speaker.
    Stepping off the train, bodies and bags pressing against his backside, Elvin climbed up the stairs and out of the station.

  13. #13
    Master Obfuscator Dawnstorm's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Gary Wassner View Post
    It's funny that you describe telling as an imaginative exercise. Many editors complain that telling strips the reader of the use of his/her imagination. Too much description leaves too little to the imagination. If you can capture a character by a simple gesture, you save pages of descriptors. And you give the reader more freedom to imagine. Hopefully you set them in the direction you intend, and if you do, then you're doing it well.
    Ah, I see. I keep forgetting that static description counts as telling, not showing. "Don't say, 'He's got blue eyes,' say, 'His blue eyes sparkled in the sun.'"

    I was actually talking about things that aren't directly observable, like your opening sentence: "He felt miserable." There must be a million ways to be miserable. Use sentences like that and you leave the particulars to the reader. That's imagination.

    In your second version, you do not say "miserable" at all. You evoke the effect through visuals (though what you'd have invoked with me would have been weariness more than misery). That's interpretation.

    Your second version, actually, is pure description. The sentences don't pose a sequence, as I see it, more like a snapshot. (The first two sentences start out sequential: 1. Grimace 2. shoulders slump 3. eyelids drop. What follows, the lolling head, the dripping sword, the oozing bandages... all seem to occur simultaneously.

    So, if you're applying the "dramatise features" definition of "show, don't tell," you're still telling in the second one. I suppose they'd want a sequence - events, rather than a simultaneity of states.

    Let me see:

    From the tip of his sword came loose a drop of blood. Without visible interest he watched it drop, hit his boot, splatter. He kept gazing at the tiny tentacled shape until his eyelids dropped. His sword arm dropped, the sword's tip barely penetrating the hard ground. He leant on it for support, but already the morning sun fell across his face. He winced, opened his eyes, squinted. With the speed and agility of a man two, three times his age, he lifted his hand to shield his eyes and scanned the horizon. A sigh. His left foot brushed against his back pack. He nodded to himself, then lowered himself to the ground, slowly, taking care not to upset bandages, stiff with blood and pus and dirt. Finally sitting, he let go of the sword and heaved a sigh. He grabbed his backpack and produced from it a cloth and a flask of oil. He looked at the bloodied sword with a mixture of respect and distaste, as if it were a fallen enemy. Then he snatched it and pulled it close and started to brush off the worst of the blood. He might need it today, in good condition.

    Originally, I thought we were going from abstract to concrete, not from static to dynamic. Different topics, I feel. [Edit: This is not the way I had planned either part 3 or 4.]
    Last edited by Dawnstorm; August 20th, 2008 at 12:57 AM.

  14. #14
    GemQuest Moderator Gary Wassner's Avatar
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    Invoking through visuals is showing. And it's very hard to do consistently. It's much easier to simply describe the action, but then the reader has a very different reading experience.

    I prefer your previous examples to this one. This is so full it in fact leaves little to the imagination and it tends to get tedious.

    Try one with all visuals.

  15. #15
    >:|Angry Beaver|:< Fung Koo's Avatar
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    Frankly, the problems with the two examples go deeper than Active vs. Passive or Show vs. Tell. If I was editing this and being really sticky about it, I would reject both outright and demand a totally new set.

    Let's pull it into smaller pieces so we can see the weaknesses more easily.

    He felt miserable. All the trials of the past weeks were taking their toll. He could barely keep his head up. He was so weary from all the fighting. Raw wounds chafed under his arms. The bandages needed to be changed. The day was just beginning. He didn't know how he was going to make it through until sunset.

    When we separate the individual thoughts into individual sentences, we can start to notice the deeper problems.

    There are subject-specific confusions. For example, the original is "Raw wounds chafed under his arms and the bandages needed to be changed." This sentence shifts from taking about the protagonist to the bandages, as if the bandages imply a synecdochal relationship with the protagonist. They do not, as one is secondary (effect) and the other is primary (cause). Logically, wounds chafing and bandages requiring change are likewise disconnected, so the whole sentence is off-putting. Sensibly, the arms chafe on the bandages and the bandages chafe the wounds. Wounds do not chafe as they are static. The causal relationship here is just wrong.

    From a broader perspective, we also have a real problem with flow.

    We can see that in terms of the conveyance of information, the example runs pretty much backwards to what a reader would normally require to construct a scene. We aren't aware of the setting at all until the final sentence. (Which again forces two distinct ideas together that aren't well paired. The day beginning and making it through to sunset are related in a poetic sense, but in terms of plot and setting, the pair simply go off into too much vagueness. In the scene immediate, or is it not?) We open with misery, we end with setting.

    If we reorganize the paragraph into a more logical flow, we get:

    The day was just beginning. All the trials of the past weeks were taking their toll. He didn't know how he was going to make it [through until sunset]. He was so weary from all the fighting. He could barely keep his head up. Raw wounds chafed under his arms. The bandages needed to be changed. He felt miserable.

    The reorganized version puts things into an order that is now much easier to follow. We start with a sense of time, and that sense of time now flows into the following descriptions. We know it's morning, which is an achy time of day anyway. And in this case, especially painful given the trials of the past week. We gain insight into the protagonists mindset, then we enhance that view with details of what he is experiencing. We then summarize succinctly, "he felt miserable," to reinforce.

    Then we can render it a little more nicely:

    The day was just beginning. The trials of the past weeks were taking their toll, and our hero didn't know how he was going to make it through breakfast, let alone until another sunset. And then a new day, when it would begin all over again.

    He was so weary from the fighting that he could barely keep his head up. Raw wounds ached under his arms, oozing pus laced with flecks of scab that were unable to adhere to his grimy, chafed skin. The reeking bandages desperately needed to be changed. He felt, in a word, miserable.


    The effect of changing the order is imagined simplest as a camera trick. The original starts in tight focus and zooms out (specifics to generalities). The redraft starts with the wide establishing shot and zooms in (generalities to specifics). The latter is by the far the easiest one for readers to understand, as it starts from the point of Show, whereas the former starts from the point of Tell.

    All narration is fundamentally an act of invasion, so at some point it necessarily requires the Tell. However, when we try to start with an impressionistic sense, we can never divorce ourselves from the Tell.

    The second one... Same thing. Let's make it simpler:

    He grimaced. His shoulders slumped. His eyelids slumped. His head lolled on his neck. Fresh blood dripped from the tip of his sword. Blood pooled on the pock-marked earth. Filthy bandages oozed green. Sunlight stripped the soil. His hand clutched the pommel. His tendons bulging through dry skin. A long day ahead....

    I start with some simple problems: do eyelids slump? What is the green that is oozing? Do you really want the sunlight to strip (deplete?), or to stripe (mark)? Pommel of what? Dry skin -- I thought it was bandages oozing with green?

    Each part of this one makes the other parts more confusing. I can't cohere the scene in my head, because there are simply too many things that don't go together. It's like I've got two puzzles mixed into one box.

    So let's make it make sense:

    Sunlight striped the soil. His eyelids drooped. His head lolled on his neck. His shoulders slumped. His tendons bulged through dry skin. Filthy bandages oozed green. His hand clutched the pommel of his sword. Fresh blood dripped from the tip of his sword. Blood pooled on the pock-marked earth. He grimaced. A long day ahead....

    Now we've got things into a sensible order. Body parts now follow in a sequence (head to neck to shoulders to arms). We put our oozing and flowing images together to reinforce each other. We've rectified the problems that one's eyelids rarely slump or droop while grimacing. We've now made the grimace a result, rather than the precedent. In other words, we've created narrative where before there was only tableau.

    So now let's pretty it up:

    The rising sun casts stripes along the aggravated soil, the trampled earth resembling the pock-marked skin of our hero. His eyelids droop in the half-light. His head lolls on his neck. His shoulders slump. Knotted tendons bulge through dry skin and filthy bandages that ooze green ichor. His cracked hands clutch the pommel of his battered sword. Fresh blood drips from its tip and pools in the pocked earth. He grimaces. There is a long day ahead....

    Again, same theory as before. Starts with the wide shot and zooms in. This makes all the connections much more ordered and logical. Nevermind the Show vs. Tell for now. We simply need a sequence of information that makes sense.

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