Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Showing and Telling -- In the Eye of the Beholder?

Showing and telling. Three words that send shivers of dread down the spines of new writers. Writers like me. The number of writing concepts I have yet to master is still daunting (setting, characterizations, dialogue, etc.), but at least those concepts make enough sense I know I’ll get them eventually. But showing and telling… Arg! Every time I think I’m beginning to grasp the concept, I come across another post or writing book with an example of telling that I don’t understand at all. For me, grasping the concept of showing is like grabbing a piece of fog. Very frustrating.

Lately, I’ve been reading Show Don’t Tell by Robyn Parnell, and while I’m certainly learning more about showing, I’m also beginning to understand why not all writers agree on what’s telling. Here’s an example from the book.

It was stormy. 

Why is this telling? Because, according to Robyn, it’s not specific enough. Too generic. It's a conclusion by the writer.  What does stormy mean? Where’s the proof? Each reader might interpret “stormy” differently. So Robyn offers up a showing alternative:

He looked out the kitchen window. Rain splattered against the glass and drilled a staccato beat on the iron roof. Thunder crashed overhead. His dog whined. 

Okay, not bad. I think I see her point. Not sure I would have spotted “stormy” as telling on my own, but it’s a start. But then Robyn quotes a showing example from Frankenstein: City of Night by Dean Koontz and I get confused again.

Showered, feeling pretty in a summery dress of yellow silk, Erika left the master suite to explore the mansion.

Robyn explains why this is showing. “We probably all know what a summery dress looks like and therefore can imagine a summery dress made from yellow silk.” Hmmm….. I think I can imagine what “stormy” looks like just as well as I can a summery dress. Perhaps even more so. So why is “summery” not telling? It seems to me that it's just as much of a conclusion by Koontz as “stormy.” As Robyn would say, “Where’s the proof?"   Are the shoulders bare? Is the dress covered with floral designs? How was the dress cut?  I know the dress was made out of silk, but I’ve seen plenty of silk dresses that would not be considered at all summery.

So why isn’t “summery” just as telling as “stormy?” The short answer is: it is just as telling. Then why does Robyn consider one showing and the other telling? I suspect it has to do with Robyn’s perspective. She’s probably seen “stormy”so often it’s almost a cliché, while “summery” is unusual enough that it just feels more like showing.

I’m not saying Robyn is right or wrong. But I am beginning to understand why showing (and telling) is often in the eye of the beholder.

If anyone disagrees with me on this or has anything to add, please share your thoughts.  I'd be most grateful. Everything I learn about showing and telling is worth its weight in gold.

12 comments:

  1. I see your point. I think the line about the dress is a little of both. We can't eliminate all telling though - that would be impossible and read really weird if we accomplished it. I think the perception comes into play when there's a good balance.
    Jessica Bell has a book on show versus tell that is really good. Her examples make it very clear. I can see telling much faster in my writing now.

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    1. I have Jessica's book, but I'm going to need more than one book to get this showing thing down.

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  2. Yup, you're absolutely right - it's not a black and white issue. It's much more gray, which is why there's so much disagreement among writers about it. Often what it comes down to is whether or not you can get more across by writing something differently. For example, Robyn's example, to me, is not a very strong line. I'd like to see it rewritten to give me a clearer sense of how Erika feels, and why. Something like: "Erika showered and slipped into her favorite dress. The yellow silk was soft and light against her skin, and the color was so bright it made the dreary day seem radiant with sunshine and heat." That might no be the best rewrite - I did it pretty darn fast - but I think it's more evocative than just saying she feels pretty, and it's summery. So yeah, I disagree with Robyn; I think her example IS telling :)

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    1. I'm beginning to realize that an author's viewpoint on showing and telling is one of the things that make up "voice."

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  3. I see the line about the dress as telling. It's as same as saying "The party was fun" when you could easily describe the laughing, dancing, smiles and every other jovial detail about the party...which would rightly lead us to believe the party was, in fact, fun. "The dress was summery." OK--so --what--makes the dress summary? It's material? The way it flits in the wind? How light it is? The answer to those questions are the shows. Blatantly calling it "summery" is a tell. And I agree--perhaps it's because the author hasn't heard that term a lot that it feels like showing to her; it's new and not yet cliché--that doesn't make it showing, however.

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    1. I just wish I had a computer program that could look over my words and tell me which is showing and which is telling. It would make things so much simpler.

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  4. Sometime we have to tell to show. It's all so very tricky. Scenes should show. The transitions between scenes need to do some telling or we might never get to the end. :) I think in the end, we all come to our own perspective on it as every story has a mix of show and tell. Show to emphasize. Tell to not.

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    1. Yep. And it all depends on the author's choice as to what should be emphasized and what shouldn't be.

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  5. To be honest, I don't think all telling is evil. We can sometimes overthink it. If you can write it better by delving into more detail (keeping in mind the pacing and relevance etc), then do so. Otherwise, a brief tell is fine.

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    1. That's a decision I always struggle with. Sometimes I worry so much about telling that I squeeze all of my voice out of the words.

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  6. Next you have to "tell" us if you read Jessica Bell's book and it makes sense, because I think both examples have an equal amount of showy-tellishness. How's that for a new word? I like Liz's show line. If I can see the scene, it's enough showing for me. I think it's a matter of taste and imagination. Some people need more picture painting in words than others. And I agree with M Pax and Lynda, you have to tell sometimes to finish a book within a reasonable number of pages. It's knowing where to tell that's important.

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    1. Actually I reviewed Jessica's book back in 2012.

      http://hogwartssabbatical.blogspot.com/2012/11/showing-and-telling-in-nutshell.html

      It's good, but I wished she'd have guided us through her telling to showing examples a bit more.

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