I’m hoping this is a place that new members (and/or people who don’t know something about the process of getting a book to publishable standard) can go to ask questions they may feel are stupid. I am absolutely sure that lots of writers who are still learning about ‘show not tell’ or ‘voice’ or ‘story arcs’ are sometimes reluctant to admit it. I’m one of them.
Where to start?
June 17, 2020 at 1:49 pm #8442Andrew BrutonParticipant
I’m not sure if there are any other novices in the Den, but I’m hoping there are those who can help us out if we are sufficient in number. I’m relatively new to the Den and by way of an introduction, I thought I would create this group because it fits my stage in the process.
I have been terribly slow to realise that I need to learn about ‘writing’ to make the process of writing easier. I merrily skipped through 80,000 words of an idea and then realised a lot of what was there could safely be described as useful for a toilet-paper shortage.
I’m buying books and taking online courses/webinars to improve my knowledge, but I also realise that just reading about it isn’t always enough. It can be hugely instructive to get direct answers in plain English from someone who has been through it themselves.
So, here’s my first question to you all…
How can you be sure you are ‘showing’ and not ‘telling’ and when is it OK to tell?
Any advice very much appreciated.
AndrewJune 17, 2020 at 3:06 pm #8443KateParticipant
I’ve got lots of that toilet paper with little black writing on it stashed all over the place too. It wasn’t until I began to interact with other writers and receive feedback that I started to learn. There’s a daunting amount of craft to get to grips with and I don’t think you ever stop learning.
As to your question, the way I look at it is: telling gives the facts to the reader directly, while showing infers what’s going on, makes the reader use their imagination and lets them participate in the experience. It pulls them into the story.
Telling: He was soaked through by the rain.
Showing: His hair was flattened by moisture and little drops of water reached icy fingers under his coat collar, trickling down his back to soak his t-shirt. He shivered. Bloody rain.
Showing should be much more immersive.
Telling is something of a summary and can be useful for moving the story forward and getting over unimportant events. It can get a character from A to B and the next important encounter. It can move you forward in time or can summarise something that has already happened.
Hope that is useful and makes sense.June 17, 2020 at 5:08 pm #8445JaneShuffParticipant
Hi Andrew. The only stupid questions are the ones you don’t ask and it doesn’t matter how ‘far’ along the learning the craft of writing journey you are, there are still more things to find out about and old things to be reminded about.
Emma Darwin’s blog The Itch of Writing has a host of useful blogs if you haven’t come across it already. This one on showing and telling is very helpful
although Kate’s summing up above is spot on.June 17, 2020 at 8:19 pm #8446AthelstoneModerator
Showing and telling is a tricky one and there are many situations where telling something is 100% right and others where showing is 100% right. The reverse is also true.
Jake was acting suspiciously when I met him at the cafe. He looked cagey and only told me about Jane when he was sure nobody else could hear him.
Jake sidled through the cafe door. His eyes darted around the room and even after spotting me, he scanned the other customers before slipping into the seat opposite. He leaned forwards, beckoning me close. ‘It’s Jane,’ he whispered.
The first example is all tell. I’ve pre-digested the observations for you and there’s no effort needed. It may be fine in the context of the story, particularly if the events are actually being told to a third party. On the other hand, the second example is more show. If this is the only account it will probably be more engrossing. I feel as though I have a view of what happened. I’m involved.
But beware of fighting to show just because you’ve hear the mantra ‘show, don’t tell’. For instance:
‘Sunlight lit everything and there was a hint of frost typical of late spring. Bong, bong, bong, bong, bong, bong, bong, bong, bong, bong, bong, bong, bong’
is not nearly as good as
‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen’.
I think it’s very natural for us to tell most of the time in conversation and also to carry that forward into writing. And that’s appropriate – in conversation. We’re going to put a lot of friendships under stress if we start trying to show things all the time when we’re not writing. I suppose it’s finding a balance.June 18, 2020 at 8:29 am #8447SandraParticipant
What a brilliant set of answers and examples to a most important question, I’ve been writing fiction ten years now but still forget how this one works. Thanks for asking it, Andrew. And well done Jane for mentioning Emma’s blog – taught me so much.June 18, 2020 at 9:00 am #8448SquidgeParticipant
Wot everyone else said! My rule of thumb to determine when I should show is to put myself in the MC’s shoes and write from their experience – if I can portray something through what they are seeing/hearing/feeling, then it’s probably more of a ‘show’ moment than a ‘tell’ one. For me, it’s linked with people and actions rather than descriptions – which one of Ath’s examples also seems to support.June 18, 2020 at 9:55 am #8449RichardBParticipant
Good point, Squidge. It can also help if your think about how you perceive things in real life. When someone becomes angry, for instance, no one tells you ‘this person is angry.’ It’s shown to you as you see their brows come down, as you hear their voice rise.
And for all ‘novices’ reading this, another plug for Emma Darwin’s blog, the finest resource for writers on the web. Clear, in-depth, intelligent advice. Often quite funny, too.
Oh, and Andrew (and anyone else who’s in a similar position), do keep the ‘stupid questions’ coming. Many of the regulars here are quite some way along the writing journey, and we haven’t had a lot of this kind of intersting discussion. It’s livening the place up no end.June 18, 2020 at 12:27 pm #8453LibbyParticipant
This forum is a great idea, Andrew.
Re show-or-tell, I can’t add much to what’s already been said so well. The only thing I can think of is that sometimes, even with telling, you might want to write quite descriptively. Emma Darwin gives an example in the showing and telling post Jane mentions.July 8, 2020 at 7:09 pm #8528Andrew BrutonParticipant
That’s all completely amazing. I managed to forget my password and have been locked out for ages so it’s lovely to see responses. I will digest as much as I can. I liked the show/tell examples, very useful. Thank you.
I still haven’t figured out how the replies work so whilst I thought I was starting to respond to one person it appears that I’m just adding something at the bottom. SO be it.
Just from that flurry of answers, I feel I understand a little more about this which is truly motivating. I have taken the decision to completely start again with my novel, going through a planning process beforehand so I can finally put the plot to bed and not worry about where I’m heading…and then I can throw away the plan if I need to.
I will continue to struggle with the balance of telling as I continue, but I think I may be able to spot it a little better from this point forward.
- This reply was modified 1 year ago by Andrew Bruton.
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