Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Showing Vs. Telling - When Telling is Okay

One of the primary rules of being a writer is the show vs. tell aspect. It's much better to see a conversation between two people who are flirting than to to tell the reader that the two are flirting. The fist way builds the chemistry, where the second way leaves something to be desired. But showing isn't perfect 100% of the time.

Yup, I said it. Sometimes it's okay to tell. Now before you start booing and throwing tomatoes at me, let me give you a few examples.
source

1. Flash-Backs

Every once in a while you need a hint into a characters past that will foreshadow upcoming events, but lots of flash backs are a no-no. If you can sum it up in a simple sentence or a line of dialogue, do it! Unless it's for comedic value such as this little gem. (sorry, it wouldn't let me embed it)

2. Re-telling's

Sometimes something important happens and one character needs to tell another character. Please, please, please, don't go and show the story again. A summary is best in this situation. Here's an example of this done well in Rick Riordan's 'The Throne of Fire'

"I gave them the shortest version possible -- why I left London, how the Egyptian Gods had escaped into the world, how I'd discovered my ancestry as a magician. I told them about our fight with Set, the rise of Apophis, and our insane idea to awaken the god Ra."


3. Un-important scenes

It can be easy to get caught up in so much showing that soon you are showing things that are of no consequence. No one needs ten pages on how someone got onto an airplane and found their seat. Unless it furthers the story, telling the reader they got on the plane may be enough.


Are there other times when telling is best?




21 comments:

Anonymous said...

"...when telling is best?" If your brother's about to do something stupid?

Oh, you meant in writing...hmm...probably, but nothing comes immediately to mind.

Annalisa Crawford said...

I agree with all your examples. I think '#3 telling everything' is something you learn not to do the more you write.

Sometimes telling can be part of the style. I remember once reading 'The Good Soldier' by Ford Madox Ford, and I think he did a lot of telling in that. (A long time ago, so I might be mistaken.)

Joanne said...

In either case, I often find that the less said is the better. Sometimes just a hint of either showing or telling gets the readers' imagination going.

Cristina said...

I attended a workshop with Orson Scott Card, and this is what he said about this... if you want to show, go make movies. We are story-TELLERS. LOL

I think a good story is about finding the balance between the two, and that comes with practice. I hope.

Christa said...

Hmm...often dialogue ends up being a lot of telling. And that is actually incredibly effective at times. You gotta move the plot forward and there's nothing like a dude saying, "Hey, didn't he have the knife with him when he went to the dinner party?"

:)
I like the new look and website.

Cassie Mae said...

Definitely telling's okay sometimes. If we showed everything, not sure if there would be a book under 100,000 words, lol.

cherie said...

Great post, Jen! And I absolutely love your new blog. Hooray for you being back! (And sorry this is late ;-P )

<3

Jenny S. Morris said...

I've yelled at the computer screen before because of showing not telling. Sometimes you just need that quick sentence. Just enough to tell the reader and get them caught up. Great post. Ugh, now back to me trying to keep to my only commenting on M,T & F. So far it's not working. ;)

Nisa said...

All great things. Sometimes it's not a matter of showing vs telling as just don't tell. Like in descriptions. I don't need to be able to imagine every inch of the room or every tuck in a gown. Honestly, I don't. I promise I have a great imagination.

I think you nailed the telling of unimportant things, too. Showing can bog down a story as much as telling if done too much. It's all about moderation. Finding the right balance.

Mark Noce said...

I agree with Show-not-tell of course, but I find that commercial fiction waters it down intentionally otherwise the audience might not pick up on all the subtleties. I wonder for various genres how much an author should throttle into show-not-tell and how much they should just tell. Glad I found your new blog:)

Carolyn V said...

I have a dream in my wip and I tell in it to show the difference in scene. But I think you have something there about not using showing on every little thing. =)

Emily R. King said...

Great new site!
I agree with your examples. I also like to use telling in dialogue.

David P. King said...

You nailed this topic in the most succinct way possible!

I had a big problem with this when I first started. Big problem. My very first chapter, ten pages of "everything my character when through in his life up to this point." I learned a lot about the character for myself, but now, it's a bore. I'll have to stretch out his history with the next revision. :)

The Golden Eagle said...

Great examples!

I've noticed telling in books where the perspective isn't that of the main character, and the narrator kind of "zooms out" and looks at something else--perhaps to increase tension or add a plot twist. I can't see how you'd be able to do that without telling if there's no character there.

Hope Roberson said...

Thanks for saying this out loud! Sometimes you just got to cut right to the scene and a little telling might get you there :) Thanks for signing up to do the Valentine's day bloghop! I look forward to reading your scene :)

Marcia Richards said...

Beautiful new site, Jennie! Very professional, yet feminine.

Show vs tell: a delicate balance

Jan Morrill said...

Very helpful post! I think sometimes in my enthusiasm I may "over-show," and your list is helpful in curbing that. Thanks!

Melanie Fowler said...

J.A. Your blog looks spectacular!

Kate Coursey said...

I agree with these, for the most part. You definitely need telling along with showing. As for flashbacks, I think longer, more substantial flashbacks are all right if used for a specific purpose. My current WIP begins in media res and almost a third of the book is told through flashbacks. It was a difficult decision to make, and it's been hard to pull off, but the book really does necessitate it. Brodi Ashton does something similar in Everneath.

But most of the time I think you're right. Flashbacks can be a cop-out way to get info across. I think once you know the rules about flashbacks and why the rules are in place, you can break them for very good reasons. Same goes with all of the "rules of writing."

Pk Hrezo said...

Awesome advice! We have to tell sometimes or our stories would have way too much action! :)

Rachel Cotterill said...

The re-telling is a particularly good example; I've read too many books with dialogue of the "...and then we did THIS, and then THAT..." when you've seen 'this' and 'that' happening just a few pages earlier.