Monday, February 7, 2011

A tidbit for your thoughts.

I'm still on my quest to find the balance between showing and telling. If you have read this post and this post, then you know what I'm talking about.

Some of my reasoning for calling both acceptable, is because there are many books that I love-- some of them are mainly showing, others are mostly telling, and still others are a little of both.

Thus, I am of the opinion that, because they both work, showing and telling are each acceptable forms of writing... within reason. For instance, there are places where telling is perfectly acceptable. And there are also cases where it makes writing look extremely amateur.

Likewise, showing has it's places for appropriateness. And also, places where telling could take it's place.

Here's what I've learned about telling:

You can't tell emotions. You can tell action and dialogue.

Don't believe me? Okay, read on.

John was angry. 

A very amateur, poor sentence. It's telling emotion.

Now, read this sentence:

His face turning a bright red, John kicked the rotting log at his feet with an enraged cry, the wood chipping away beneath his boot. 

Still not a perfect sentence, but I showed his emotion instead of telling it. It was more effective, yes?

Now, action can either be shown or told; they're equally good. But here's an example, from The Mauritius Command by Patrick O'Brian of told action/dialogue--compare it to the told emotion above.

(I used this excerpt from the book in this earlier post.)

   The ritual offerings appeared, brought in by a black boy in a turban, and Jack and Clonfert were left alone: a certain awkwardness became manifest at once. With advancing years, Jack had learnt the value of silence in a situation were he did not know what to say. Clonfert, though slightly older in spite of his youthful appearance, had not, and he talked - these baubles were from his Syrian campaign with Sir Sydney - the lamp a present from Dgezzar Pasha - the scimitar on the right from the Maronite Patriarch - he had grown so used to Eastern ways that he could no do without his sofa. Would not the Commodore sit down? The Commodore had no notion of lowering himself to within inches of the deck - what could he do with his legs? - and replied that he should as soon keep an eye on the Boadicea's boats as they pulled briskly between the arsenal and the frigate, filling her magazines and shot-lockers with what he hoped would prove a most persuasive argument.

While some may argue that this section would be much "better" if it was shown, there is a certain charm in this style of telling. But as you can see, there is a whole conversation taking place here, filled with various action, and it's all told instead of shown.

Onto showing.....

I'm going to bring up something that Jeff Gerke said in his book, The Art and Craft of Writing Christian Fiction. He said something like: Don't have your metaphor be a storyteller around a campfire. A campfire storyteller tells. Instead, Jeff Gerke says, change your metaphor to a filmmaker. A filmmaker has to show to audience every detail.
I quote the last line:
"So toss aside your s'mores and put on you director's chapeau. It's time to stop telling stories and start making movies-- on paper."

I'm sorry, I have a feeling I'm getting onto a soapbox again, but here I go.

One of the advantages of writing books, as opposed to making movies, is that you can tell. You can't tell in movies, with the exception of narration, and that's sometimes a limitation. Telling's something unique to books. 

If you're going to write like you're writing a movie, then for crying out loud- write a screenplay already! 

But if you aren't going to do that, then to those of you who are "showing" legalists-- there is a time for showing, and a time for telling. 

Take these little bits from Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Incident. Eoin Colfer does a great job at "showing" most of the time... but here are several instances where a sentence or two of telling achieves things that showing never could:

Artemis rubbed his temples. There must be something he could do to help his friend. He had the highest IQ in Europe, for heaven's sake.

The above one: obvious telling, but it was necessary considering the information the author was going to convey. And if you stuck to showing, you could never make a remark like this unless it was through dialogue. Here's the second one:

Butler decided that is was time to get to close quarters. He rose from his haunches, making slightly less noise than a panther, and hurtled down the corridor toward the enemy (the enemy being the B'wa Kell- goblins.).
There were only two men on the planet better educated in martial arts than Butler, and he was related to one of them. The other lived on an island in the South China Sea, and spent his days meditating and beating up palm trees. You really had to feel sorry for the B'wa Kell. 

Again, that first paragraph might be considered showing, but the second was definitely telling. But again, the slightly ironic or sarcastic, dry voice of the author making this statement is pretty hilarious, but would not have been achieved except through telling.

Thus, while most would say that showing is the way to go, don't forget: a little dose of telling here or there is a good idea, not to mention a relief to the reader.

My conclusion as of this post?

Telling is a freedom. Showing is an option.

There is a time to show, and there is a time to tell.


Wow. That was a bit more than a tidbit. Whoops.

Well, thanks for bearing with me,

The Director


Star-Dreamer said...

Hmmm... I agree with you here. Telling is an important part of stories... has been throughout the history of story telling and oral traditions. You can't tell when you make a movie, but you do have that option when writing a book. Telling can be an asset, but it must be used wisely.

Excellent post. Thank you! :)

The Director said...

Aw.. thank YOU, Star-Dreamer! :) Thank you for reassuring me that I'm not as whacko as I think I am ;)

Anonymous said...

Ah, you're not whacko Director! Actually I've found all of your posts about showing versus telling very interesting and helpful. :D

-"Bunny slippers"