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18 August 2005 @ 01:51 pm
Discussion: Show, Not Tell  
Today's discussion features my own personal Achilles Heel. I will always struggle with the "Show, Not Tell" gremlin, partly because I have never quite understood the concept.

What I've read counsels toward being more descriptive, to be concrete rather than abstract. Rather than say the dog is brown, the advice says to say the dog is a shabby, mangy brown, the color of mud dried under a blazing summer sun.

My problem? I detest writing that goes into *that* much detail! It's one of the reasons I've never read Tolkein's work.

So, folks, rather than a long-winded entry from me today for the discussion topic, I'm turning it over for discussion. What's the best advice for writers who dread hearing "Show, Not Tell" in an editor's rejection letter?
Quarlaquarla on August 18th, 2005 10:52 pm (UTC)
While this isn't any advice to writers who don't like to "Show, Not Tell" but more of just a comment about myself as a writer. I actually have the problem that I do /both/. I show and I tell. I think I do this because I don't feel confidant in my 'showing' skills so I then go and tell the reader as well. I'm not sure how to get rid of this problem either and it is quite frustrating.

I don't normally go into detail like your above example unless it's absolutely needed though. But I do love details, just not /every/ single little one.

- Quarla
emmarutheruth on August 19th, 2005 06:32 am (UTC)
Sometimes I think there can be too much emphasis on showing people. Whatever happened to leaving things to the imagination, it's the most powerful tool a person posesses. If they need to be shown that much, then surely they haven't learnt to extrapolate.

Besides, I personally always prefer to learn about something along the way. For example, take your brown dog. That might be enough to start with. Later on we might learn it's breed, sex, age etc, or may even not see it again. And if it's something that isn't going to be seen again, why bother in the first place, with what may be irrelevant detail?
Yvonneymp on August 19th, 2005 08:48 am (UTC)
I'm a big fan of judicious showing, and I abhor telling. While on site one of the guys lent me a book that was entirely told rather than shown, and it drove me up the wall. To parahrase:

'She entered the church. There was a hall down the centre lined by rows of pews, and at the end was a nave. The nave was square and held an altar.'

The physical descriptions were worse - it was all, 'the black-haired coroner' and 'her heart-shaped face' and 'the hulking Welshman'.

I've never had TOO much telling problems, but I do have a few. I try to picture the scene in my head and then pick out odd details that might not be.. usual, and comment on those. On how the light falls, or the folds in the tablecloth, or the flowers on the ledge by the window.

I am with Emma though - I like to learn along the way. I don't need an exposition clump at the beginning to give away all the details - boring!
boldly_goboldly_go on August 22nd, 2005 12:02 am (UTC)
I tend to put way too much detail or explanation into my writing. This happens when I try to show something and when I just plain tell something. I need to winnow away at my stories to get them to the point where it isn't an encylopedia on the subject.

To counter act this I find that I am using dialogue more frequently in my stories. I think I'm doing this so I have less chance for exposition dumps.
Legs MacGuffin: sanzorhosyn_du on August 25th, 2005 04:03 am (UTC)
I don't think that "show, not tell" is really about level of detail. It's much more about how your narration presents information. For example, a "tell" approach would be to say "Joe was surprised," whereas a "show" approach would be more along the lines of "Joe's eyes widened and he felt his jaw drop open," or something to that effect. "Surprise" is an abstract, whereas the physical manifestations of a person's surprise are concrete and observable.

I think the idea behind "show, not tell" is to draw the reader into your story as an active participant. When you tell, rather than show, there is no ambiguity in what's going on; it's a straight information dump that doesn't give the reader any opportunity for interpretation or for really being inside the story.