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Author Topic: Show versus Tell  (Read 22143 times)

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Show versus Tell
« on: 02/19-12:39 »

Though it's been talked about more than once in several threads I don't think I've actually done a thread specifically on the subject of "Show Not Tell". It's something you hear regularly in writing, but it's really a simplification of the overall concept.

Here are a couple links to some decent examples of show versus tell.
- How To Show, Not Tell: A Writing Lesson From John Le Carre
- Show, Donít (Just) Tell

And if you look around you'll find many, many more sites with other good examples but what they all fail to do, is provide story context. Descriptions need to further the story by providing insight into the motivations, personalities, or be pertinent to the storyline and plot.

An author can paint a lot of imagery for a scene but if it doesn't further the story, then more than likely it's just sidetracking the reader. The goal is not to impress the reader with the world that's been created or throw in a bunch of imagery just because you think some is required or because that's how a writer writes. A reader needs to be connected to the story, characters and plot; that's what makes a book enjoyable and hopefully captivating. That's what any imagery you write should do.   

When someone writes a story there are usually a number of things they want to get across to the reader about the environment and characters, and not just the physical aspects but also things such as the tone of the period or culture. We're not just talking about what an environment or character looks like but the forces that created and drive them.

Since an author can't add every little detail about a story they've created in their imagination, what needs to be done is decide what things are important and where in the story they become pertinent. Keep in mind a novel or story is not a movie and you can't think in those terms. One of the more memorable scenes in the first Harry Potter movie was the kids rowing across the lake to the castle, something that wasn't there in the book. In the book, that WOW moment the kids see the castle, was from the shore and consisted of one line. From there, they were across the lake and at the castle.

I've seen many sites demonstrate showing through dialog, which works as long as the dialog is natural and pertinent to the scene but it misrepresents what the rule means. You don't want dialog to come across as wooden or forced. When it does, the story loses credibility.

"Chance in Cold Space" is one of the projects I'm focused on right now. The opening takes place on the bridge of a starship. Many would be tempted to describe the details of the bridge in the opening but the lights, bells and whistles of a bridge aren't important to the story. In my story, the facts about the bridge that are important, are that our MC is a lawman on his own, manning the helm for long hours at a time, day after day, as he tracks a fugitive from system to system in the cold of space.

Another fact about the bridge that I want noted is that there are no personal photos as screen savers on any of the displays. In other words, our hero has never personalized the bridge even though he's been on the ship for years. He's a loner with no real family or friends.

Through the story, I get this information across as it becomes important. Only a small part of which is in the opening paragraph

Jacob Chance had been relaxing, half dosing, in the command seat on the bridge when the ping of the proximately sensor began to cry for attention. The Steel Fox --officially, Ranger BC26-- was two days out of Hyper, entering the outer belt of D1356; a dead star system on the edge of his jurisdiction.

The other facts come out through the observation of the female lead as she gets to know our hero. I will also probably add in a few more words during the first round of editing to beef it up a little in places but just enough to add a little depth to it. Perhaps here, something about being stiff from long hours of sitting watch.

Too often, you see young writers who think creating imagery in their work means flowery language or an abundance of descriptive words. The reality is, in most cases 'Less' is 'More' when it comes to adverbs and adjectives. The goal should not be to create a picture but a sense of the moment.

In one of the short stories I've been laying out, a man returns to the vacation cabin he and his wife owned, for the first time after her death. Generally, people know what a cabin is, so why spend any time describing one unless there is something about it that is important to the story. What is important to this scene is the impact on him.

When I reached the top of the porch, I glanced to see if he was still there but he'd already disappeared into the shed. I turned back to face the front door I'd been long avoiding, taking a deep breath to steal myself before opening it for the first time in three years. When I finally relented, what greeted me were cobwebs, dust and memories. Through long shuttered windows, streams of light crossed the room. In the light hung tiny particles suspended as if time had been standing still until my return. The simple act of opening that door seemed to set them and time into motion once more. And as familiar as the room was, what was missing made the scene alien and surreal.

As you see, the focus of the description is of the moment, not the physical aspects of the scene. Personally, I think brief glimpses of emotional moments are much more effective at connecting the reader than longwinded accounts of the setting.

I've seen many writers talk about laying out a summary of settings and characters ahead of time so they have some starting point in their head as they write but I would think it just as important to know which of those details are important to the story and how they want to parse them out. Some subjects will be well suited for dialog, while others better suited coming out as narrative, reflections or thought processes. Whichever form it takes, it needs to come across as natural and unforced.

For those who are just starting out, I highly recommend you focus on writing a good story first, then go back during the first edit and add any color or depth in the places you feel you can. Make it a light touch initially then build from there. You're better off giving the reader a hint of flavor to the scene then let their imagination take over from there. Letting a reader shape the setting themselves to a large degree will likely provide them with a more satisfying experience.

If you know a story by an author that's close to where you want to be as a writer, rewrite it in a different genre. You'll find it's a good exercise and may help provide insight into how they write.
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Re: Show versus Tell
« Reply #1 on: 02/23-23:08 »

The celebrated mystery writer, Dorothy Sayers, is known for her ability to put out some good imagery. More than a few have found her a little too verbose, but most would agree she can tell a good story. I've even heard people admit to skipping areas of her work they found a bit long winded.

Quote from: from the Nine Taylors
The car lay, helpless and ridiculous, her nose deep in the ditch, her back wheels cocked absurdly up on the bank, as though she were doing her best to bolt to earth and were scraping herself a burrow beneath the drifted snow. Peering through a flurry of driving flakes, Wimsey saw how the accident had come about. The narrow, humpbacked bridge, blind as an eyeless beggar, spanned the dark drain at right angles, dropping plump down upon the narrow road that crested the dyke. Corning a trifle too fast across the bridge, blinded by the bitter easterly snowstorm, he had overshot the road and plunged down the side of the dyke into the deep ditch beyond, where the black spikes of a thorn hedge stood bleak and unwelcoming in the glare of the headlights.

Personally, this piece I find rather enjoyable simply because it's a bit on the whimsical side, rather than a dry description. Humor, even if subtle, can make a otherwise long winded description less of a distraction and actually add something to the story.
Quote from: Robert Louis Stevenson - Treasure Island
It was one January morning, very early--a pinching, frosty morning--the cove all grey with hoar-frost, the ripple lapping softly on the stones, the sun still low and only touching the hilltops and shining far to seaward.  The captain had risen earlier than usual and set out down the beach, his cutlass swinging under the broad skirts of the old blue coat, his brass telescope under his arm, his hat tilted back upon his head.  I remember his breath hanging like smoke in his wake as he strode off, and the last sound I heard of him as he turned the big rock was a loud snort of indignation, as though his mind was still running upon Dr. Livesey.

This is what a lot of people think of as literature and it's what many young authors try to sound like but the context of the times, language and taste of the audience are not the same as today. Also the entire story doesn't have all the descriptive language this particular paragraph has, which appears intended to set the tone and flavor for the scenes that follow.

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Re: Show versus Tell
« Reply #2 on: 02/24-21:02 »

Here is an opening description for a scene. With more time I suspect I'd be able to come up with something better but it will do for now.

The room was a featureless grey, without hangings, fixtures or even a door. The exception was one transparent wall that looked out over the sprawling city far below. The only contrast to the room's drabness was a conference table that gave pretense to wood, yet devoid of any grain. It was a room of necessity conjured from the mind with the detail one would find in a dream. A room suspended between one second and the next, hidden from prying minds, whether friend or foe.

This description isn't so much about the room rather than the character, their powers, and the limitations of those powers. It provides an alternative to a dry explanation; hinting at, rather than describing explicitly. It also is intended to create some level of mystery and anticipation on the part of the reader, as to the necessity of such a room and who might be prying.

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