May 4th, 2012, 03:28 AM
Telling instead of Showing
Hi, I'm back after a while away (mostly writing and studying) and I just want to ask: In what cases is it alright to tell instead of show?
I've written a memory scene (late at night and with medication affecting me), and it came out as telling. I thought, shouldn't that be done through showing? But then I thought, maybe not. Maybe a more summarized form is better. But it's going to be harder to show this backstory. And the thing about backstory is: emphasis on story. I guess it just depends on the writer, really. And sometimes telling is better suited to the part than showing. You probably shouldn't show 100%, otherwise there'll be no variety.
May 4th, 2012, 06:21 AM
Man of Ways and Means
"It's Complicated," okay.
Telling is fine, particularly from a first person perspective, but also anytime. It has to integrate properly with the narrative and pov -- that's the real trick.
May 4th, 2012, 06:51 AM
There's times to tell,and times to show. I try to avoid large blocks of telling because it can become the dreaded infodump. There has to be a balance there, but keep the story moving. The cardinal rule is: Don't Be Boring.
May 4th, 2012, 07:00 AM
Speaks fluent Bawehrf
Go read the opening of The Lovely Bones and tell me telling is bad.
May 4th, 2012, 07:03 AM
Man of Ways and Means
Yep, first person, I might point out.
May 4th, 2012, 07:27 AM
Yep, I can read one little opening. So will do.
This is the passage I wrote in telling mode. It's part of a post-apocalyptic story, so the law isn't really enforced where they live.
Jarred lay in the dark, head spinning, too dizzy to sleep but not drunk enough to throw up or pass out, and dwelt on the past – specifically, what brought the then-four freelancers together.
It was all school’s fault, really. He didn’t used to hunt monsters, protect shipments, make deliveries, or otherwise freelance himself, and his particular skill sets, out to those who could pay. School equipped him with survival skills that he could use for an employer’s benefit. Once upon a time, he actually went to school, which was a luxury for someone from a poor family. Once, just out of school, he helped people out for the sake of helping people out. But to do that fresh from school, he had to go to school, and going to school was where he met David and Jessica.
At school, he learnt how to use his powers, to channel the destructive force and to control it. At school, he learnt how to hunt various types of monster, make ammunition and explosives, cook over a fire, read, write, manage money, salvage parts mechanical and electronic, run, fight, and more. And, at school, he learnt that bullies responded with respect—or at least fear—if you beat them up when they picked a fight with you.
It was lunch break. He just wanted to have lunch. But bullies being bullies, Tyson Marsh and the Pyros were picking on David. Jarred was eating a ham and cheese sandwich. David got to eat knuckle. Tyson punched David. David staggered back and tripped over Jarred’s foot, causing Jarred’s sandwich to fall apart. He’d been waiting all fricking day to eat that sandwich. He was starving, and that was all he could afford. David fell over. Jarred’s sandwich fell to pieces all over the lawn. Jarred fell into a blind red rage that ended with Tyson’s posse scattered, bloody noses and scratches where Jarred dug his fingers in around their wind pipes, groins kicked, eyes blacked, and Tyson pressed against a tree as Jarred shoved bark into his mouth.
Jarred was lanky, Tyson was big. It made the news around the school yard.
They were sent to the Commander’s office, where they were both scolded for dishonourable fighting, but where Jarred was asked to stay and given a warning about choking people. Said it meant you intended to kill the person, and could you really live with that on your shoulders?
Jarred couldn’t. He might have been blinded by rage—this was the eleventh fight with Tyson this year—but he wasn’t the killing type. The Commander let him go with the warning, which was nothing compared to what Tyson got.
Rumour was, for continued bullying of many, Jarred and David included, Tyson had to clean the whole school.
It was great for him—he got to show off his “twelve inches”—until the girls started laughing. The mystery of girls not being able to judge distances was solved that day.
Jessica they met on their way out of the Commander’s office. Apparently, responding in joke to the statement that Tiffany’s mum was a whore—when Tiffany never actually said so—was worth a reprimand.
May 4th, 2012, 08:54 AM
I prefer to avoid "telling" when it involves author narration, and I can usually do this quite well simply through using my character's thoughts. For me, having to break the story by setting the reader in a chair and explain things to them in the middle of a scene is just not something I prefer doing. It kills pacing, and when handled incorrectly, can derail a reader. Not saying you can't do this sometimes - narration is a necessary tool in the writer's handbag, but the trick is to do it without breaking up the flow and otherwise sensing that the reader will either welcome or have a tolerance to some back fill.
Showing vs telling can sneak up on you too. "She was tired" is an example where "She slumped against the wall" would be showing.
May 4th, 2012, 09:26 AM
Yeah, of course. It's part of an unwind period, thus it's maybe appropriate. The rest of the book is done through showing. I don't know if there should be more narration. That's up to my editor.
May 4th, 2012, 12:45 PM
Lots of people have only a shallow understanding of the two terms.
"Showing" refers to writing a fully realized scene with enough sensory detail to convince a reader it is happening to them right this instant. That they are experiencing it first hand, from inside a character, or looking on from a nearby viewpoint.
"Telling" refers to summarizing a scene.
The two are not absolute, sharply distinct from the other. Most scenes have micro-summaries in them. When your character walks across the room you rarely detail each and every step, each breath they take. UNLESS those details are essential. For a desperately wounded character that short distance may be an epic journey where they display the courage and will of a hero.
Conversely most summaries have micro-scenes, or scenic elements. "They crossed the desert in three days, baked, wind-scoured, and dried like pemmican."
Some summaries are implied rather than stated. These are called "jump cuts" in screen- or stage-plays. In one scene it's summer, everyone in swim suits running on the beach. In the next everyone is in parkas on that beach, slogging against cold driving snow. Your reader/viewer fills in the blank with their imagination.
Each have advantages over the other. Showing is "hot" - involving. Telling is "cool" - distancing your readers from events. There are times in the story when you want to pull your readers back. A vivid, brutal rape or murder might be one. Or you may want to smack the reader with the horror of it by detailing the sights, sounds, smells of the incident. The fear and pain of the victim.
You are like an orchestra conductor, asking your musicians for fortissimo here, pianissimo there.
Distancing the reader is also useful to give them a mini-vacation from intense experiences. Even the most adrenaline-addicted adolescent tires after a certain amount of excitement. When that happens the next scene has less impact. This is why (for instance) in Shakespeare's tragedies you so often have short scenes of comic relief. The next scene has more impact because your reader has had the mini-vacation.
Summaries are also much shorter than scenes. You use them to take your readers over the more boring ground in a journey you are taking them on. Ground which is nevertheless important enough to include.
An important point to remember is this. Both scenes and summaries, showing and telling, are useful tools. Neither is better than the other. A true artist will use both with great and equal skill.
May 4th, 2012, 01:47 PM
That's the wrong question to ask. If you are going to be a writer, you have to do away with the comforting child's notion of the Story Police. You decide what's alright in your text. Tools, not rules.
Originally Posted by SilentDan
Your excerpt is not a block of exposition where things are abstract. It involves scene fragments as flashback. It is a mix of memory and analysis. You are providing two sets of information. One is information about Jarred -- what sort of person he is, what he's capable of, details of what sort of environment he was living in (poor, able to go to school, learning how to fight monsters, etc.) which effects his current life, and the other set is how Jarred became buddies with David and Jessica, two characters critical in his life (though this part is primarily about the incident concerning David.)
Adding more scenic description to the scene fragments will change the narrative rhythms. It will greatly lengthen this piece of text, turning it into a full flashback rather than fragments, although analysis by Jarred about events and himself will probably still be involved. Doing so will allow you to add more detail information such as what David looked like, what exactly was said, but the question is, do you need that info provided to the reader and if so, do you need to have it at this point? You need to look at why you are having Jarred muse, unable to sleep at this point in the story. If the purpose of this event of Jarred not being able to sleep is to allow you to reveal Jarred's past, then creating more of a flashback scene might work better. If the purpose of the event is to have Jarred wrestling with a current problem that includes aspects of his past, then a combo of fragments and exposition summary as you have now may do the trick.
Exposition is not necessarily "cool" or distant. Exposition, unless an omniscient narrator is being used, are the thoughts of the pov character or characters, including emotion. Your passage here has quite a lot of emotion and some sensory detail recalled -- the sandwich, the bark, etc. -- and primarily documents Jarred's frustration:
"It was all school’s fault, really. He didn’t used to hunt monsters, protect shipments, make deliveries, or otherwise freelance himself, and his particular skill sets, out to those who could pay. School equipped him with survival skills that he could use for an employer’s benefit. Once upon a time, he actually went to school, which was a luxury for someone from a poor family. Once, just out of school, he helped people out for the sake of helping people out. But to do that fresh from school, he had to go to school, and going to school was where he met David and Jessica."
His frustration is what he's thinking about which leads him back to thinking about the incident concerning David. Having a series of scenes, in which we follow Jarred through the entire playground attack, and the aftermath, and the discussion in the office, in detail with all dialogue, isn't necessarily how Jarred would think about his past. And it isn't necessarily information you want or need the readers to know, or know at this point. It may be at a certain point that you revisit that scene with Tyson and Jarred remembers more detailed flashback about it. Or not, because it's not important to the story or to Jarred's character any further. You will have to decide those things because you are in charge of how your narrative sounds and what information it provides when and in what format.
Since this is draft, the logical thing to do is probably proceed and go back to this passage later. But if you want to work on it, read it. Does it work for you, now that you're off medication? Do the words sound right? Do they fit the way Jarred would think? Does it convey the information you need? Does it provide enough of a picture, or do you want more, or do you want even less and trim the pondering Jarred does? There is no one way to do it. It depends on your story needs and aims, your style and your preferences.
May 4th, 2012, 06:18 PM
We Read for Light
Telling instead of showing.
By and large, I'm a show guy more than a tell guy. Why? Because showing contains more sensory and emotional interaction (at least in my own writing).
That said, I always feel as if I have a kind of contract with a reader. I hope not to waste that reader's time with various emotional or sensory snipe hunts. Why get the reader all involved with a minor character's emotions? Who really cares what the grocery clerk feels, unless that clerk is of pivotal importance to the tale? When the story requires nothing more than brief ligature to tie two scenes together, just tell it fer crissake! ... Then, when you move into a portion of the story that involves the important characters at an important dramatic moment, you'll have saved up enough of your Words Budget to offer a scene that has real pay-off for the reader.
May 5th, 2012, 04:58 PM
If you want a rule, it would be something like this: show the interesting parts, tell (or skip) the boring parts.
But there are still plenty of times when you might want to break that 'rule' for various reasons. Ultimately the only thing that count is, does it work?
May 6th, 2012, 04:46 PM
Michael Sullivan has a useful post on his web site about this.
May 18th, 2012, 11:13 AM
I've been told to tell when the tension is low, but show when it is high. This coincides with the above advice of keeping the story moving. You can tell as a form of narrative summary, but in the good, important parts you should show. So, for the dream, I'd show where it matters most/high tension.
Originally Posted by MrBF1V3