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SciFi / Fantasy > Do you always show not tell? I find it often unnecessarily elongates things in some situations

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message 1: by S. (new)

S. Nileson | 45 comments I've read a few books lately which had this 'over-showing' thing going on. It made them terribly difficult and unnecessarily descriptive to read at times. One of these books is the first installment by Jordan's Wheel of Time. I'd like to know what others think about this rule. Do you always stick to showing, or do you punch in a tell every now and again to skip some unimportant detail?


message 2: by Angel (last edited Aug 20, 2015 06:37PM) (new)

Angel | 180 comments I do a fair balance of both.


message 3: by Christina (new)

Christina Maharaj | 7 comments I agree with you. Sometimes it's really not needed. Like Angel, I try to have a mix.


message 4: by Steve (new)

Steve Harrison (stormingtime) | 77 comments There are no rules. I wish there were, because the main difficulty in writing lies in finding the best way to tell your story.


message 5: by Zee (new)

Zee Monodee (zee_monodee) | 154 comments I aim for balance, whether as an author or as an editor - though in this case, I often find I have to urge 'my' authors to show more and not just aim for the tell. But the thing is, it also depends on your writing voice. I have authors who are mainly dialogue with some physical cues thrown in, so you're not gonna overhaul their voice to get them to show more when this is just the way they write. It's a balance and you have to recognize with whom it works and not. In my own writing voice, I show a lot because I use settings people are not familiar with so there is a fair amount of description, but of course, even that needs a balance :)


message 6: by Yzabel (new)

Yzabel Ginsberg (yzabelginsberg) | 262 comments IMHO it depens what "showing" entails here. It's not necessarily "tons of descriptions"--that could easily be "telling" as well, and be just as long, if not more.

What I try to avoid is telling about a character's feelings, for instance, when I could just as well use a verb (the English language is wonderful in that regard). "He stomped through the house; he was very noisy": the first part of the sentence is enough, no need to tell me the guy's noisy.


message 7: by Jay (new)

Jay Cole (jay_cole) | 292 comments I agree with Steve, there are no rules.

Both showing and telling can jar the reader by disrupting the flow of a story. I think the important thing is imparting necessary information in as transparent a method as possible. (The writer’s version of invisibly mending a seam.) As long as you keep a good flow; you’re not obvious or jarring, then you’ve chosen the correct method.


message 8: by Leena (new)

Leena Maria (leenamaria) | 8 comments I've been pondering about this myself. I have just finished the first round of editing (with a professional editor) of a long story (fantasy, young adult) that happens partly in ancient Egypt. Being an Egyptologist I have to catch myself early from not trying to educate the reader too much about the life in ancient Egypt, and just give enough clues to create believable, exciting surroundings and characters. After all, this is a story, an adventure, not a history book. Thankfully my editor is a real "school marm" (in the good sense of the word) and a published author herself, who knows what works and what doesn't and isn't sugar coating her comments.

So a nice mix of details and dialogue, as long as the story flows and the details don't start boring the reader.


message 9: by V.W. (new)

V.W. Singer | 141 comments In real life, one's surroundings are actually a kind of blur until you happen to focus on something. So the natural thing is to be fairly general in your descriptions until something catches your attention or interacts with you physically, be it a flash of colour, using a tool, noticing what the person talking to you is wearing, and so on.


message 10: by T.L. (new)

T.L. Clark (tlcauthor) | 145 comments Hell no! Life's too short to turn it into an epic!

I found Lord of the Rings too descriptive when I first read book 1 (well, didn't even get far into it tbh). Thank heavens for films!!

Yes, you should aim to show not tell where you can, but don't make it a saga. Sometimes the shortcut is perfectly acceptable, to avoid boredom setting in.

:-)


message 11: by G.G. (new)

G.G. (ggatcheson) | 491 comments Yzabel wrote: "IMHO it depens what "showing" entails here. It's not necessarily "tons of descriptions"--that could easily be "telling" as well, and be just as long, if not more.

What I try to avoid is telling ab..."


I'm with you here. Too often, people seem to mistake description for showing. At least, that's what I get from this thread so far. Sorry but describing a forest isn't necessarily showing. sure, it can be, but most of the times it's just more telling.


message 12: by Philip (new)

Philip (phenweb) | 158 comments Finding it very difficult at the moment writing a sequel where the telling of the back story is necessary to put actions into context, but showing seems contrived.


message 13: by Rory (new)

Rory | 104 comments Philip wrote: "Finding it very difficult at the moment writing a sequel where the telling of the back story is necessary to put actions into context, but showing seems contrived."

Exactly. That is the art of writing. Backstory should, as I have been instructed anyway, be introduced as it is important to the reader's understanding of the story-line, plot or character development. Short of that the story should move scene to scene. Showing, I think, is most often best - and especially when it reveals the depths of the characters. Some telling of course is okay - but avoid dialogue dumps for background sake. That is a quick way to slow the flow of a scene. I've been told to keep the tense scenes flowing with short crisp sentences and dialogue - avoiding introducing background as much as possible at that point in the book. All the discussions above have been great and are very applicable. :o) Rory


message 14: by Jim (last edited Aug 21, 2015 07:33AM) (new)

Jim Vuksic | 1049 comments The amount of descriptive narrative varies by author. Some embrace intricate details, while others leave much to the reader's imagination and deductive reasoning skills.

An example of an author known for dedicating entire paragraphs and sometimes pages to minute detail is Jean M. Auel, who wrote the 6-book Earth's Children series. The exact opposite example is Gary Jennings, author of the 3-book Aztec series. His style allows the characters in the story to provide most of the descriptive images through dialogue and innuendo.

As always, readers decide which works best for them. What one may find extremely tedious and boring to slog through, another may find educational, entertaining and essential to the story. Art has no boundaries or restrictions. Its value lies in the eye of the beholder.


message 15: by Brenda (new)

Brenda Clough (brendaclough) | 361 comments It would astonish you how little tell is actually necessary. You could do an experiment. Create a separate version of the work, with NO tell at all. Save it as a separate document. After it cools for a while, go back and reread it. How well does it hold together? Can the reader understand, with all that tell peeled out?


message 16: by Nancy (last edited Aug 21, 2015 08:34AM) (new)

Nancy Glynn (nancyglynn) | 59 comments I think showing just gives more of a visual for our senses. After I finish my first draft, I go back and make sure I'm using all 5 senses in all my scenes to make the reader feel, see, smell, touch, and know more of that character. I'm sure I tell in moments, but I try to work from there, i.e. she was sad to tears coated her eyes as she looked down; he was angry to his fists clenched at his sides, there was a storm to thunder rumbled with a flash of light, he was mean to he squashed the innocent bug crawling on the table. It gives more depth.

My 12-year-old daughter had to write about an experience in her English class, so she chose a tornado scare we once had. The teacher was impressed because she was so detailed she made her feel like she went through it as well. That's what the teacher was aiming for, to get her students to show, not just tell about it.

I also hate long descriptions of scenery, boring! I skim those paragraphs, and I try to keep it short in my descriptions. I totally get that!

Sorry, just realized this was for sci-fi fantasy, just saw it in my notifications, ha! I guess this could also be used for fantasy authors, but those books are huge! I think the scenery is almost a character in these stories, so that sort of changes things. Carry on! ;)


message 17: by Anna (new)

Anna Bradley (goodreadscomanna_bradley) | 28 comments I have to agree with G.G. that it's easy to mistake description for showing. Long passages of description can weigh a book down, in my opinion, but bright flashes of "show" done well are really just another way of achieving deep POV, which is an asset to any work of fiction. I understand the point about how show can start to sound contrived. I try to layer show with dialogue to try and avoid that.


message 18: by Shomeret (new)

Shomeret | 138 comments I know this is a discussion that is supposed to be for authors. I'm a very experienced reader. It seems to me that the definition of showing in this thread is very cloudy. What do you mean by showing? My definition of showing is scenes that take place in real time. It seems to me that if you need to do a great deal of telling then you need to write a book that takes place earlier. If you've already written that book, then consider whether the reader really needs to know the information you're giving them at that point in the narrative. Information should be given gradually on a need to know basis. My favorite method of introducing the past is by getting into the head of the protagonist and showing a memory which will include what the event means to the protagonist. This advances characterization in addition to giving the reader information. If it means something to the protagonist then it will mean something to the reader. If it isn't a significant event to the protagonist, then maybe the reader doesn't need to know about it at all. Be selective.


message 19: by Brandi (new)

Brandi Nyborg I definitely agree with a mix, as a reader. There have been books that I've skimmed through half and still knew exactly what was happening, because there was so much showing. I really dislike overly wordy books. I like getting to the point without a ton of fluff.


message 20: by S. (new)

S. Nileson | 45 comments Nancy wrote: "I think showing just gives more of a visual for our senses. After I finish my first draft, I go back and make sure I'm using all 5 senses in all my scenes to make the reader feel, see, smell, touc..."

I think your argument stands for most, if not all, genres. Still, I sometimes get the feeling that fantasy - far more than sci-fi - books have the habit to get lost in the 'show' part of the novel.


message 21: by Victoria (new)

Victoria Zigler (toriz) | 2855 comments I do what feels right for the story.

Like most writing "rules" the one about always showing instead of telling is a guideline, and the person doing the writing should go with what feels right for them, as well as what works best for the story.

That's my opinion, anyway.


message 22: by Jay (new)

Jay Cole (jay_cole) | 292 comments Shomeret wrote: "I know this is a discussion that is supposed to be for authors. I'm a very experienced reader. It seems to me that the definition of showing in this thread is very cloudy. What do you mean by sh..."

A reader…You mean they’re not mythical! :)

I get your point that showing (vs. telling) is often poorly defined. Every author, editor, writing guru, etc. seems to have their own definition. But this is actually fair and realistic. Style is not just using the words of the English language, but the writer’s interpretation of all the tools of dramatic writing.

Real time is definitely part of showing, but a flashback, future event, or even a split timeframe can be shown with intimate detail, too.

I tend to think of showing as a movie screen located in a hopefully avid reader’s head. “What’s on the screen?” then becomes your most important means of imparting information. Telling would be the voiceover of the narrator, as in a documentary; although this can also be couched (transparently, I hope) in dialogue. Whether showing or telling is appropriate to give the reader necessary information… There’s just no way around it, it’s a judgement call.


message 23: by K.P. (new)

K.P. Merriweather (kp_merriweather) | 276 comments Bwahaha Jordan is the worst when it comes to writing epics because he describes *everything*. I wrote in his style (was a big fan as a teen) and got hammered for 'adjective abuse'. I later found a nice middle ground.

Basically ask yourself - is this important to the story? does the reader need all this information? are you translating a script to a book? are you really describing to a blind person and not the average reader?

It'll take some time to get the right balance. I had 18 years of practice...


message 24: by Jay (new)

Jay Cole (jay_cole) | 292 comments S.L.

Having a bad day, are we? :)


message 25: by C.J. (new)

C.J. McKee (cjmckee) | 107 comments I use more show, less tell. Sometimes when you want a surprise or something the character isn't aware of a tell makes it unexpected and a surprise for both reader and character. (that's just one example). Whenever I show it's usually from the character's point of view. (He watched the elk run and dodge between the moss-draped trees...)

I think completely stopping the "tell" aspect is unnecessary and not as easy as it looks in all situations. A lot of showing can drag a story on, I would rather move past it and not bind the reader with a long description of a leaf falling from a tree to the ground next to the character.


message 26: by Groovy (new)

Groovy Lee | 1 comments I agree there should be a balance. If you show everything, the book would be twice as long and needless to say, boring. I've read books where the author would go on and on describing something and I just wanted to throw the book across the room.

As authors, we are told to describe all 5 senses. I'm afraid this is where I fail. Feel, see, and hearing--yeah. But smell--very little.

Nancy mentioned 5 senses. But isn't feel and touching the same? Correct me if I'm wrong.


message 27: by G.G. (new)

G.G. (ggatcheson) | 491 comments C.J. wrote: " I would rather move past it and not bind the reader with a long description of a leaf falling from a tree to the ground next to the character
..."


Unless you want the readers to know it's fall, I'd put that into the tell category and not show. And even at that. It wouldn't have to be long. You can show a lot in a single short sentence. I like to use these as examples.

1- In the puddle of water, the reflection of the moon shivered slightly.

2- She dipped her quill into the ink and wrote a letter by the candlelight.


message 28: by G.G. (new)

G.G. (ggatcheson) | 491 comments Groovy wrote: "I agree there should be a balance. If you show everything, the book would be twice as long and needless to say, boring. I've read books where the author would go on and on describing something and ..."

There are a lot more than just five senses when it comes to writing. You have the popular ones: Touch, hearing, taste, smell, and see, but you also have time, space and the unknown.


message 29: by Groovy (last edited Aug 21, 2015 09:02PM) (new)

Groovy Lee | 1 comments Taste, that's right. I don't use that a lot, but when I do, I let the character relate that through their facial expression. But I'm proud to say I use time, space, and the unknown.


message 30: by David (last edited Aug 22, 2015 12:34AM) (new)

David Staniforth (davidstaniforth) | 80 comments I always think of showing as being that which the reader gains without actually reading it. It is the information that can be gathered between the lines. An example would be a conversation between two characters, the words they use and their responses should give the reader an insight to the relationship without the author having to point it out directly.

Therein, showing has nothing to do with painting a visual.

This form of writing also allows the reader to become emersed in the narrative, whereas telling, keeps them on the surface.


message 31: by Jay (last edited Aug 22, 2015 01:01AM) (new)

Jay Cole (jay_cole) | 292 comments David wrote: "I always think of showing as being that which the reader gains without actually reading it. It is the information that can be gathered between the lines. An example would be a conversation between ..."

I see what you're saying, but I think you're confusing subtext with showing?

The actual words that a character speaks are not the meaning conveyed to the reader, or for screenplays, the audience. The meaning is in the subtext. A simple line, "You look good in red," can be a passionate seduction or an 'I love you,' if conveyed in the right scene between lovers. The exact same words spoken by a threatening villain with a knife can mean 'I'm going to cut your throat.' Subtext depends on context - what's being shown.

Showing is immersively descriptive. Dialogue may play a part, but the scene provides the context within which the characters, their dialogue, their situation, and their setting play a part. Showing is a classic gestalt.

Hope this helps.


message 32: by Dwayne (last edited Aug 22, 2015 01:04AM) (new)

Dwayne Fry | 349 comments S. wrote: "I'd like to know what others think about this rule. Do you always stick to showing, or do you punch in a tell every now and again to skip some unimportant detail?"

Like any rule of writing, if it gets in the way of telling your story properly, ignore it. Showing can be effective, so can telling. It just depends on the story and how you see it best told.

Whether showing or telling, if a detail is unimportant, it's better to skip it.


message 33: by V.W. (new)

V.W. Singer | 141 comments A lot of new writers tend to separate "showing" from "telling" when in fact both can flow along within a paragraph almost invisibly or at least unnoticeably.


message 34: by Leena (new)

Leena Maria (leenamaria) | 8 comments I remember reading once that you should never write a thing that is not meaningful to the plot at some point, but I don't quite buy that... Some things should be told just to create more believable surroundings to your character, but I feel you should only give enough hints to make the reader imagine the rest. That is why I feel books are better storytellers than movies - every reader can create a vision of their own from the words the author writes.


message 35: by V.W. (new)

V.W. Singer | 141 comments Leena Maria wrote: "I remember reading once that you should never write a thing that is not meaningful to the plot at some point, but I don't quite buy that... Some things should be told just to create more believable..."

That's true. No film can ever capture the grandeur and excitement of the mental world that comes from reading.


message 36: by S. (last edited Aug 22, 2015 07:16AM) (new)

S. Nileson | 45 comments Leena Maria wrote: "I remember reading once that you should never write a thing that is not meaningful to the plot at some point, but I don't quite buy that... Some things should be told just to create more believable..."

I could not agree any less with that statement: "never write things not relevant to your plot."

That, I believe, would constrict the ideas and depth the story can provide, and would almost entirely eliminate frame stories - which, if done right, can make the story much more of an enjoyable read.


message 37: by Jay (last edited Aug 22, 2015 09:25AM) (new)

Jay Cole (jay_cole) | 292 comments It’s impossible to tell a good story with only things relevant to the plot, or if not impossible, it would be impossibly bland.

Characters need to be developed to be believable. Subplots, frame stories, story within a story, etc. would all be eliminated. Description would be confined to minimalistic views…and the list goes on. Nearly every literary device would be eliminated or restricted in favor of plot. Any sense of style would be severely handicapped or killed outright.

I can’t see that ever being realistic, or an enjoyable experience for the reader.


message 38: by S. (new)

S. Nileson | 45 comments Jay wrote: "It’s impossible to tell a good story with only things relevant to the plot, or if not impossible, it would be impossibly bland.

Characters need to be developed to be believable. Subplots, frame st..."


To be honest, I think many of these 'guidlines' are good for practicing writing, but not necessarily good for storytelling.


message 39: by Janna (new)

Janna Morrow (JANNA_MORROW) | 52 comments I get the concept of "showing", but sometimes, it can be unnecessary. I think you have to find a balance and trust your judgement as a writer. I take the stance that it is my writing and I write how I want to write. If I feel my work needs more "showing", I will plug it in there as I edit.


message 40: by Michael (new)

Michael Laird | 10 comments Try to imagine watching a version of the Firefly series where there is no interplay between the crew except to issue and acknowledge orders, exchange essential plot information (It's a trap!), or--well that would be about it.

Limiting a story to only things relevant to the plot would make it more of a fake documentary than a story.


message 41: by Jay (new)

Jay Cole (jay_cole) | 292 comments Michael wrote: "Try to imagine watching a version of the Firefly series where there is no interplay between the crew except to issue and acknowledge orders, exchange essential plot information (It's a trap!), or--..."

That's a little hard to imagine. If anyone can tell a great story, it's Joss Whedon!


message 42: by G.G. (new)

G.G. (ggatcheson) | 491 comments Depends on how you see it. Character development is important to the plot, thus relevant and necessary. Even subplots help in character development. We learn how one reacts to situations etc. They are all part of the story telling.

Yet, for example, small talk around a meal that leads nowhere and adds nothing can easily be skipped. Same thing for bathroom breaks, unless of course the character suffers from a condition.

The guidelines should lead us to ponder about these scenes. Are they essential, or not? Would the story or character development hurt from its removal? It's not there to tell us not to do it. It's there as a reminder that sometimes less is more.


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