Be a Better Writer--TELL, DON'T SHOW? WHAT?

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--TELL, DON'T SHOW? WHAT?

Post by WriterFearNot » Mon Jul 21, 2014 2:40 pm

One of the most overdone "tellings" I notice is the naming of emotions. By simply scanning a document and removing/replacing every instance where an emotion is named, the level of telling would decrease. Sure, there are situations where naming an emotion is appropriate, but in most cases I'd rather see steam blowing out of someone's nostrils, rather than anger blowing out of those nostrils. And rather than hearing that a character is "angry," I'd rather see how that character reacts when he/she is angry.

To get even deeper into the "showing" process, I (now) have a habit of scanning over my documents during the editing process and deleting sensory tells, (He/she saw, tasted, heart, looked, smelled, etc.) So instead of "I heard a door creak," I would rewrite "A door creaked.." Or even better. "A creak. Like an opening door. Or was that a footstep on the wooden floor?" I also try to remove and replace. "He/she thought, felt, knew, wondered, realized, decided, wished, believed, etc."

I agree with the many comments above that there needs to be a balance, and that a story told entirely by showing could get tedious to read. I liked Steve's (that was Steve, right?) comment: telling is good for transitions and showing is good for scenes, but even that isn't an absolute.

One of the biggest dangers of "telling" during transitions, is of killing scene-building surprise. Say you spent an entire chapter building up tension and suspense. If you begin the next chapter with a telling paragraph that wraps up all the previous suspense ("And then this happened and all was well again in paradise"), it becomes a major buzz-kill for the reader. I once read a book where every new chapter did this very thing.

Having said all that, I also need to say that I'm still learning how to balance show versus tell. Case in point, I scanned my Challenge entries for an example of show versus tell balanced well, and I couldn't find one that I could honestly say "This is a great balance of show versus tell." However, I did find one that has a mixture of show versus tell and also ties into the notion that "no writing rule is absolute."

http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=40886

Theresa

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Re: Be a Better Writer--TELL, DON'T SHOW? WHAT?

Post by glorybee » Mon Jul 21, 2014 3:39 pm

LOL, Theresa, I actually groaned (in a good way) at the ending of that piece. "Anyways" is a word that sets my teeth on edge, and that word and "alls I want..." are two things that I had to purge from my husband's vocabulary in our first year of marriage. I'm not sure we'd have lasted, otherwise.

You're absolutely right about purging "telling" from emotional and sensory scenes, and I love hearing about your self-editing process.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--TELL, DON'T SHOW? WHAT?

Post by Sparrow » Mon Jul 21, 2014 9:08 pm

glorybee wrote:
trudynewell wrote:Hi - This time I have something to contribute. Shann recommended a great book to me by Amy Michelle Wiley - 'Bring Your Writing to Life'.I'd recommend it too.

Amy is great at explaining how to show/not tell. It is helpful. My problem is that it's far easier said than done!

Trudy
I've heard that Amy had that book, but I've not read it. Does it cover times when "telling" is preferable, too?
Actually I do have a section on when it is better to tell rather than to show. :-) I've been expanding that part in my workshops lately even more, too. I agree that it's very important to just give a quick tell sometimes and not belabor the point if it's not important. In my book I believe I mention telephone calls as one example. In real life we answer and say who it is, and chat for a bit, but in a book you should just get right to the point of the call.

The trick to showing and telling is to know when to do which. Tricky sometimes!
Amy Michelle Wiley
Check out my booklet, Bring Your Writing to Life: a writer's guide to "show; don't tell". Buy it here.
My Website, Sparrow's Flight

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Re: Be a Better Writer--TELL, DON'T SHOW? WHAT?

Post by glorybee » Mon Jul 21, 2014 9:24 pm

Sparrow wrote: Actually I do have a section on when it is better to tell rather than to show. :-) I've been expanding that part in my workshops lately even more, too. I agree that it's very important to just give a quick tell sometimes and not belabor the point if it's not important. In my book I believe I mention telephone calls as one example. In real life we answer and say who it is, and chat for a bit, but in a book you should just get right to the point of the call.

The trick to showing and telling is to know when to do which. Tricky sometimes!
I'm worried that some readers of this lesson might not be entirely getting my point, especially #3 on my list--sometimes it's important to tell because that's the right way to communicate that particular story. Telling shouldn't be reserved for the unimportant bits or the throwaway conversations--IF THE WRITER'S VOICE FOR THAT STORY (OR EVEN AN ENTIRE NOVEL) WORKS BEST WITH SPARE, LEAN PROSE.

I just don't want anyone to think showing = good and telling = bad, or even that a "show-er" is a better writer than a "tell-er." In fact, it might take even more finesse to make a "telling" passage work.

Showing is very often a wonderful thing, and beginning writers need to know how to do it. But it's not the only way to write well.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--TELL, DON'T SHOW? WHAT?

Post by CatLin » Wed Jul 23, 2014 11:09 pm

Thanks for permission to break the cardinal show/don't tell rule! (on occasion and when necessary). I sometimes feel under such extreme pressure to "show" everything, my words freeze up somewhere between my head and my fingers.

I smiled when I read your example paragraphs about woman out of wood and food. I wrote a short story a few years ago with a similar scene. Mine, however, was closer to your "tell" example :D I think I've improved a little since then, but I'm still learning.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--TELL, DON'T SHOW? WHAT?

Post by violin4jesus » Fri Jul 25, 2014 3:59 am

I get in trouble sometimes for not telling enough, but it's because I don't like long descriptive passages. I get bored, and want to skip over them. So naturally when I write I don't describe my characters or the scenes in detail. I like leaving it to the reader's imagination.

I also like to keep the narrator out as much as possible, so the emphasis will be on the characters and the story. That said, for certain types of fiction, it demands more of a narrative voice. And certainly for biographies or histories it's important to use more narrative.

This is one that demanded more telling:
To Cry, To Feel Again

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Re: Be a Better Writer--TELL, DON'T SHOW? WHAT?

Post by glorybee » Fri Jul 25, 2014 8:31 am

Leah, I respectfully disagree--that story was lovely just the way it was.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--TELL, DON'T SHOW? WHAT?

Post by Cinnamon Bear » Fri Jul 25, 2014 11:41 am

Hi! I'm just lurking--er looking--with great interest. :D

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Re: Be a Better Writer--TELL, DON'T SHOW? WHAT?

Post by Shann » Fri Jul 25, 2014 12:46 pm

I thought I would add some more thoughts. Showing definitely takes talent, but so does telling. I've come across many stories where the person simply tells or shows too much.

An example might be like this: He left his apartment to head for work. He closed the door behind him and walked to the car. He put his key in the lock and turned it. He looked down to see that his tire had gone flat. He picked up the phone and dialed 555-5555.
Someone on the other end said, "Hello."
He asked, "Is this Amos' Car Repair?"
He heard the other voice say, "Yes."
He spoke into the phone."I have a flat tire and have to have someone come to 117 Main Street to change it."

Technically this does draw a picture for the person. The problem is that it's so boring and way too full of details. The only person who might be vaguely interested in reading this would be the MC's mom.

I don't mean to come off as nasty, but I can't tell you how many times I've come across something like this both here at FW and in my editing jobs. Granted part of the problem above is sentence structure, but even if that was varied a bit, it still wouldn't make a great story.

Jan, Your lessons truly do help some of these people. I'll tell them something, then see you have a lesson on it too and will encourage them to check it out. It's all about balance. If you're moving the story forward, telling can be just as exciting as showing. If you're not moving the story forward, showing isn't going to give you a better story.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--TELL, DON'T SHOW? WHAT?

Post by Cinnamon Bear » Fri Jul 25, 2014 1:14 pm

Shann wrote:...I've come across many stories where the person simply tells or shows too much.

An example might be like this: He left his apartment to head for work. He closed the door behind him and walked to the car. He put his key in the lock and turned it. He looked down to see that his tire had gone flat. He picked up the phone and dialed 555-5555.
Someone on the other end said, "Hello."
He asked, "Is this Amos' Car Repair?"
He heard the other voice say, "Yes."
He spoke into the phone."I have a flat tire and have to have someone come to 117 Main Street to change it."...

I wonder if this level of detail might be suitable for certain situations. For example:

1) If the information contains clues for solving a mystery.

2) If the recounting of mundane facts is used to build suspense leading up to a significant event. For example, in the above scenario, if Amos Car Repair sends out a female auto mechanic, and the M.C. falls in love with her. Or perhaps while waiting for an auto mechanic, someone comes along and tries to murder the M.C.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--TELL, DON'T SHOW? WHAT?

Post by glorybee » Fri Jul 25, 2014 2:48 pm

Shann wrote:I thought I would add some more thoughts. Showing definitely takes talent, but so does telling. I've come across many stories where the person simply tells or shows too much.

An example might be like this: He left his apartment to head for work. He closed the door behind him and walked to the car. He put his key in the lock and turned it. He looked down to see that his tire had gone flat. He picked up the phone and dialed 555-5555.
Someone on the other end said, "Hello."
He asked, "Is this Amos' Car Repair?"
He heard the other voice say, "Yes."
He spoke into the phone."I have a flat tire and have to have someone come to 117 Main Street to change it."

Technically this does draw a picture for the person.
Shann, I'm not sure that I understand this example. I agree that it's bad writing--but it seems to me that you're using it as an example of bad "showing." To my way of thinking, this is "telling." There are no inferences to be drawn, no details of his reaction to the flat tire. The reader knows nothing about him, and no picture is drawn because we can't "see" him, his house, his car, or the person on the other end of the phone.

And I'll reiterate my initial point--that "telling" WELL takes perhaps more writing ability than "showing" well. Writers who can take fewer words, with fewer adjectives and adverbs, and still create a compelling situation with compelling characters--those are very gifted writers, indeed.

I'm not trying to negate the "show, don't tell" mindset. It's a good thing for writers to master, and particularly helpful for beginning writers. But it's not the be-all and end-all of good writing.

I may have misunderstood your post, and if that's the case, I apologize.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--TELL, DON'T SHOW? WHAT?

Post by Shann » Fri Jul 25, 2014 4:15 pm

Nope, you understood exactly what I was trying to say, but did it much better. Because it has words like walked, called etc. I've had people tell me this is showing. I was trying to reinforce your point about how it takes talent to do both and do them well.

Mainly, I was trying to show what not to do because I've received many stories and books that are quite like that, yet I can't seem to get the writers to understand that it's not particularly interesting. When I commented about reacting to the tire, I received an answer about calling the repair shop. If I asked for more details to show me, I'd get things like the color of the car, where it was parked, or what the person looked like.

After reading your response, I think it clicked that I need to have writers emphasize more on personality or emotions. I've told them that before, but it doesn't always seem to work. Whether one is showing, telling, or balancing the two, a writer wants to pull emotions from the reader. I'm still not sure if I'm being clear, but your response did help me understand why I'm frustrated and to have the writer focus more on what you call salsa words.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--TELL, DON'T SHOW? WHAT?

Post by violin4jesus » Mon Jul 28, 2014 8:46 pm

glorybee wrote:Leah, I respectfully disagree--that story was lovely just the way it was.
Oh, you misunderstood me. I liked it just the way it was, too. It just used way more telling than I usually use. :wink:

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Re: Be a Better Writer--TELL, DON'T SHOW? WHAT?

Post by pheeweed » Tue Aug 26, 2014 8:40 am

I've just read the whole thread and found it all helpful. Learning what showing truly is helped my writing move up to a new level. I haven't mastered it yet, so I know I have to be constantly on the alert as I write. But I've also struggled with the rule because my favorite writers and styles are from the Victorian era and early twentieth century. They do a lot of telling. I like modern novels because I can rush through them and they keep me engaged, but I'm always a little ashamed that I'm not challenging myself mentally. Sorry if I've digressed a bit, but I'm grateful to start learning that I can do both and still engage the reader.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--TELL, DON'T SHOW? WHAT?

Post by TracePezzali » Mon Feb 09, 2015 1:49 am

Hi
I think I may have come across occasions when telling is pivotal: during a protagonists 'aha' moment - the revelations from God that summarise what that person needed to know to help their situation.

I've been reviewing my "Hateful Love" challenge entry to see where I've gone wrong with it, and was thinking on the showing vs telling element. There are two sections towards the end (I think I'm going to remove the two first paragraphs that are my personal poetic indulgences that negatively effect the story) that are definitely telling. I'll give one:

When she finally calmed down, Cassie knew she couldn't be annoyed at Jack. His venting was justified. Cassie knew she'd spoilt Ben and these were the results: A lazy self-absorbed immature fool wasted of his talents. She sank to the floor in grief and wished that she could repair previous mistakes. But of course, she couldn't. Dear God, how in my love I hated Ben into this!

Is this a 'telling' example? And if so, does it suitably work in this context - given that the rest of the story is focussed on seeing?
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