The Critique Circle Blog

The CC Blog is written by members of our community.
Do you want to write a blog post? Send Us a blog request

Menu
  • View all blogs
  • Go to thread
Jun
17
2020

The Problem with Plot -- by Dale Stromberg

What can literature do that only literature can do? As authors, shouldn't we be acutely aware of this?

The Edit in Film

Stanley Kubrick frequently spoke of the uniqueness of editing in the art of cinema. Of the many aspects of a film, most are shared with other art forms. Screenwriting is a genre of writing; acting originates in theater; cinematography is based on photography, in turn informed by painting and other visual arts. Films include music, but music is an art form of its own; and even the combination of music with acting existed before films—for example, in opera.

Kubrick thought that editing was what made cinema unique (1). In one interview, he gave the example of showing “a simple action like a man cutting wheat from a number of angles in a brief moment,” which makes it possible for the viewer “to be able to see it in a special way not possible except through film.”

Since Horses Can’t Spell

So, again, what about literature? What can fiction do that other genres struggle to equal?

There’s an idea going around that fiction must compete with film for eyeballs—which implies a mandate to focus on doing what film does well, but somehow to do it better. This is a truly depressing notion; it sounds to me like a foot race against a horse.

I’d rather choose a different contest against a horse: a spelling bee, say, or a cooking contest. If we write stories on the assumption that our ideal reader would rather be watching the movie version, haven’t we already lost? Shouldn’t we instead write literature for readers who want literature?

If we will give readers something they can only get from us, then one important area to consider is our ability to manipulate time—to spend pages on the events of a moment, or to span a century in a sentence. I believe this is unique to fiction: the written word can stand outside time, as painting or sculpture can, but it also allows movement within time, like music, film or theater. This is the author’s superpower, and it is given surprisingly little attention in writing blogs (2).

Its enemy? “Show, don’t tell.”

The Inner and the Outer

Modern storytelling wisdom is that narrative outweighs all else. “Showing is better than telling,” we are helpfully reminded, and, “Plot is king.” Yes, stories that preponderate in dramatization can be powerful, as can those with unencumbered plots. Yet such writing can also end up feeling shallow—as though the novel is simply a dress rehearsal for the eventual screen adaptation. Why?

To focus on what happens, and then what happens, and then what happens next… is certainly one way of telling a tale—it is essentially the prioritization of plot over all other storytelling possibilities. But it risks lacking context.

In particular, I refer to two important contexts: the inner and the outer. By the inner, I mean the heart, the psyche, the soul: whatever is inside one that drives or influences one’s acts. By the outer, I mean the wider world: history and politics, the grand narrative of humanity within which your particular narrative happens, and, without which, it could not happen otherwise.

Life occurs within these contexts, after all. Plot divorced of them lives that much less.

Both of these contexts must often be “told” more than they can be “shown”—and their telling is most effective within the spaciousness (3) of literature. Why are modern writers warned to do as little of this as possible?

Perhaps it is no accident that we writers find ourselves in an age in which the most economically powerful form of storytelling is visual. Showing sells—or, at least, what sells these days can only really show.

Show, Can’t Tell

Television, film, internet video—these are genres of entertainment which do inner context, the heart or psyche, extraordinarily badly. (Exhibit A: the much-derided voiceover.) Lacking literature’s unencumbered scope, cinema only generally “shows” the inner life through actors’ subtle external cues. The trembling lip, the cocked eyebrow. Sounds a lot like, “Show, don’t tell,” but in cinema’s case, it is, “Show; can’t tell.”

As for outer context, for history and politics—same problem. (Exhibit B: the much-derided opening montage.) Larger context is often clumsily dispensed with through title cards or, again, ponderous voiceovers. The urge seems to be to get past such material as quickly as possible, which makes sense; it is like a musician who, knowing she’s a poor public speaker, keeps her opening hellos to the audience short, then gets on to what she does better. The viewer of most films that ostensibly touch on politics or history ends up seeing very little of either, and a great deal more of the acts of a small set of characters.

Filmmakers, limited by their medium—and its real-world economic strictures—simply have few effective techniques for more elegantly providing either slow dives into psychological depth or overviews of sweeping realities.

Voluntarily Limited

A novelist or short story writer wishing to expand and contract so sweepingly may find it expedient to adopt a narrative voice with the ability to pluck the reader from the normal flow of time and swoop out or in, portraying with perfect freedom the massive or the miniscule. In other words, the omniscient narrative voice.

But omniscient narration is, again, one of the techniques that young writers are increasingly warned against—often for no other stated reason than that it is “hard to pull off”. Is this really why it is falling out of favor?

Or can it be that authors (and purveyors of writing manuals), cowed by or covetous of Hollywood’s money-printing powers, are so anxious to stay in the swim that they avidly condemn as a profitless vestige of yesteryear any authorial technique with no moving-picture equivalent?

To do so is the author’s loss, and the reader’s. A story shackled to plot-and-nothing-but is likely to run in a single gear, necessarily relying on that gear being a high one so that the passengers, duly impressed by the velocity at which they are being rattled along, are given no time to note how little of the scenery they may enjoy.

Using All We Can

Now, just as a filmmaker might choose not to make extensive use of the edit—say, creating a film composed entirely of long single takes that are never intercut—so might an author choose not to make use of each and every narrative technique available. I have no intention of implying that psychological exploration or historical/political contextualizing are compulsory requirements of fiction, or that you’re a wicked writer if you leave them out.

Then again, it seems a terrible waste not to at least learn how to use these techniques, and to grasp what they might do for us. Sure, plot may be all you ever need—but what if it isn’t?


Notes

1 He was influenced in this by the Soviet filmmaker Pudovkin.

2 Barring occasional exhortations to compress boring bits in order to get on with the plot.

3 Joseph Bottum, analyzing the development of the novel for The Spectator, writes, “Novels became central to the culture partly because they were the only available art form spacious enough for all the details authors needed to draw increasingly realistic pictures of their characters.” It is his use of the word “spacious” that attracts my attention. From compact tales like The Crying of Lot 49 (47,000 words) or The Color Purple (67,000), to comfortable reads like Gilead (85,000) and sagas like Dune (187,000), all the way up to doorstops like Gone With the Wind (418,000), the novel has a range that far outstrips that of the feature film screenplay, an average specimen of which might be 90 to 120 pages, running to perhaps 24,000 words—one-seventeenth the length of Margaret Mitchell’s famous epic.

Posted by Dale Stromberg 17 Jun at 03:20
Do you want to write for the Critique Circle Blog? Send us a message!

Responses to this blog

Harpalycus 17 Jun at 06:05  
Applause. We should write in ways that allows the story to be told to maximum effect and bedamned to the modern restrictive dogmas with which the Style Police try to shackle us. I have always attempted to write disregarding the 'rules', concentrating on what seemed to me to be what was required, not what I was told was needed. But this provides a context and argument to justify such cavalier behaviour, and very effectively too. Thank you.

Onalimb 17 Jun at 10:07  
To my mind, idioms like "show, don't tell," when directed at an audience of amateur writers, are not about making literature like a screen play. "Show don't tell" is about understanding basic scene development, which is a mainstay of good literature. It's what enables us, as writers, to draw readers into our stories. Is it abused and misused and misunderstood by that same audience? Absolutely. Do too many novice writers think it means exposition isn't allowed? Absolutely.

Their misunderstandings don't negate the original intent of the message. There's a vast difference between those who can exploit the strengths of literature to great effect, and those who'd prefer to view their ignorance as genius. Part of the challenge, in trying to improve, is in figuring out when to stick and when to listen. It makes learning to write like walking a tightrope.

The challenge for us, when we're critting, is to work harder and do better for our fellow authors—to look for the strengths of a story and highlight them, not just score it against an imaginary rulebook.
Kcm 17 Jun at 13:34  
Nice bit of literature; well told!

Kevin
Aaribaud 17 Jun at 15:23  
Hello,

I will plead guilty of talking about "show" and "tell" in my (few) critiques here on CC, however I will try to raise a couple of mitigating circumstances:

- when filmmaking "show, don't tell" is governed by how difficult or ineffective telling can be, I think there is a different "show, don't tell" applicable to writing, or at least, that's how I see it, and it is about information dump: when I can plainly see that a story is dumping information on me, I consider it is "telling" and should be "showing" instead.

- also, I don't deal in absolutes much, and for me, it's not about "show, don't tell"; it's about "show more, don't tell so much". There's a point in the story where the reader must know some context, so a measure of telling might be necessary; when I suggest to "show" rather than "tell" (1) in a critique, it is not as an unbreakable rule but as an indication that for me, the measure went too high at this specific point in the text.

Hope this makes some sense.

(1) and I try to never, ever, use the expression "show, don't tell" itself.
__________________
Amicalement,
Albert.

Amichelle 17 Jun at 16:14  
In the book Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, where a group of women risk their lives to study literature, there is the line: "I suddenly panicked." This is a book that was on the NYT bestseller list for 100+ weeks, is translated into 32 languages, and is a profound reading experience for me. It occurred to me dogmatic followers of the rules would reject it with calls of Show-don't-tell and don't use adverbs. That realization made me a little sad and a little angry all at once.

Thanks for posting this. We need more reasonable, informed voices against the dogmatic application of "the rules." Which, writers will find, if they are reading widely, are not followed by successful authors.
Attaree 17 Jun at 17:16  
I frequently receive "show don't tell" comments in critiques, usually with no elaboration whatsover. Maybe that means the critter and I disagree on whether the text should summarize or be translated into scene. Maybe it means the critter thinks a scene is not a scene if it doesn't include dialog. I find "show don't tell" not helpful information. Show what? Exactly what is missing from the tell that should be shown? I'll pause, but I won't pause long.
__________________
I aspire to write redneck, blue collar stories of literary quality.

Lryan 17 Jun at 17:29  
Personally, I have tried to ration "show don't tell" — at least in my (obfuscated to the Nth degree) critiques and my own writing — as the flow of implicit versus explicit information one delivers to the reader.

Is it time for you to deliver something short and explicit ("Billy was terrified") so we can make the scene snappy and have the reader not dance around ambitiousness of a scene (which is fun most of the time) or do we need something long, drawn out and implicit? Something like the detail of Megan's lazy slump home from school and the way she misses a grab for the door handle?

Maybe we don't need a full direct detailing of Jake's character motivations yet, and such can be told from the mission he's on or his own inner turmoil narrated through his thoughts (but never stating the problem directly)? Or perhaps it's just best to let us know Dave brought down the ax. Twice. Maybe not detailing the instrument cleaving his through his own foot, or maybe doing just that.

Deciding on how much detail to divulge and how you divulge it will, obviously, depend on the flow of the text, what type of story, what type of reader, etc etc.

Sometimes it's fine to screw the general consensus on the rules and just say the narrator is panicked.

— LR
Phinosaur 17 Jun at 19:19  
You stated, and much more clearly than I've been able, a position I've been discussing at home for the past month. I'm just hack who has just been Writing as a hobby during quarantine. Even so, there are plenty of stories I would like to tell but which, if forced to "Show, not tell", won't be as effective or will be much longer than I think they should be.

Thank you for putting a voice to my thoughts.
__________________
-PoliPhiNosaur

Phinosaur 17 Jun at 19:50  
Attaree
I frequently receive "show don't tell" comments in critiques, usually with no elaboration whatsover. Maybe that means the critter and I disagree on whether the text should summarize or be translated into scene. Maybe it means the critter thinks a scene is not a scene if it doesn't include dialog. I find "show don't tell" not helpful information. Show what? Exactly what is missing from the tell that should be shown? I'll pause, but I won't pause long.
For me, in my limited experience, I see these comments in critiques and can understand why the critter would have suggested it. The problem is that if I take their advice and show, rather than tell, a couple of sentences (maybe a paragraph) would need to expand into 3000 words. I will have shown, rather than told, but I will have buried the core of the story and thus rendered it meaningless.

Sometimes telling is about pacing. Sometimes it's because I don't want to distract from the items I want the reader to focus on.

Sometimes this is because I'm such an amateur that I wasn't aware that I could have shown something rather than tell. Someone more skilled than me might have been able to impart the same information while showing rather than telling.

As you mentioned, without more detailed suggestions accompanying the "show, don't tell" reminder, I'm left guessing whether this is one I should pay attention to or not.

__________________
-PoliPhiNosaur

Mayaone 19 Jun at 07:36  
Too much showing ups the pace too much. When reading, I need narrative to get a sense of peace and enjoy the experience. I write memoir so narrative, or telling is imperative to show what I learned or didn't learn from the experience. Not everything should be a scene. When a critter asks me to put that in a scene of delete a telling remark, I read my work out loud and see if the advice improves or worsens my WIP. Trust yourself. We make art.
Schultz 19 Jun at 14:02  
Hone skills enough to be aware of artistic choices, and then choose. That should end any discussion on show vs tell. Tell if you want, show if you want, but please have a REASON to show or tell? A well developed notion with definitive virtues and flaws is the first step in constructively critiquing you own work. Having others critique work is a quest to expand artistic choices—finding new avenues, new paths, new borders.
Luke 19 Jun at 14:32  
The writer here seems to miss the point of show don’t tell imo. In fact it often means “elaborate on this”. Don’t “tell” me she’s sad. Show me. That might mean a tear, a despondent look, a wailing. Or it might mean you get in her head and show me her thoughts. Her inner workings. The tug and pull.

Show, in this sense, is exactly what the blogger wants. It’s not something film can pull off very well, but a writer absolutely can. Deriding show vs tell is missing the point and derailing a very important tool and reminder.

Does it get abused? Yes. Usually by people like the blogger who have lost sight of its true intention. Understand what it means and why it exists, and you can use it in your own writing and discern when other critters are abusing it.
Attaree 19 Jun at 14:51  
Luke: I'm lost. What is the true intention of show don't tell? I believe the intention of the immediate scene is to draw the reader closer to the characters. Is that wrong?

IMO even exposition is a form of "show." It shows the story, does it not, but in lesser detail and at a quicker pace?
__________________
I aspire to write redneck, blue collar stories of literary quality.

Luke 19 Jun at 15:07  
Attaree
Luke: I'm lost. What is the true intention of show don't tell? I believe the intention of the immediate scene is to draw the reader closer to the characters. Is that wrong?

IMO even exposition is a form of "show." It shows the story, does it not, but in lesser detail and at a quicker pace?
Show vs tell is a micro-crit. It’s looking at how a scene is painted, and saying, you didn’t paint this. I want to see a tree and imagine it and smell it and feel it (for instance if the tree is somehow significant) and instead you just wrote tree. If the writing feels shallow and disconnected, it’s often written with a lot of “tell” and not enough “show”. It’s within a scene already being shown. Does that make sense?

As opposed to a scene being told, which the writer does not wish to show in full. “Show vs tell” should not be used as criticism to replace exposition unless the writer chooses to flesh out the scene. It should not be used for a macro-crit. It should not be used to criticize if, say, the writer is telling us historical context about a war or something in a character’s past or anything else contextual, such as glossing over a period of time. It can be suggested, I suppose, but it’s at the writer’s discretion.

And that’s why I agree with the blogger’s points but not his platform of disparaging “show vs tell”.
Attaree 19 Jun at 22:05  
Luke: Thanks for your answer, but no, I don't understand "show don't tell" as a critting comment. All it tells me is that the critter and I don't agree on what should be exposition and what should be immediate scene. If a book covers fifty-four years and a short story covers two hours, we can't apply the same choices to both. IMO "show don't tell" as a critting comment is a cop out. If instead I receive an explanation of why tell doesn't work, that's different.
__________________
I aspire to write redneck, blue collar stories of literary quality.

Luke 19 Jun at 22:29  
I agree. If the critter doesn’t back up their crit, they are either lazy or don’t know why they said it.
Attaree 19 Jun at 22:41  
Exactly!
__________________
I aspire to write redneck, blue collar stories of literary quality.

Marisaw 19 Jun at 23:10  
Attaree
Luke: I'm lost. What is the true intention of show don't tell? I believe the intention of the immediate scene is to draw the reader closer to the characters. Is that wrong?

IMO even exposition is a form of "show." It shows the story, does it not, but in lesser detail and at a quicker pace?
My understanding is that there are two kinds of "show not tell".

The one most often mentioned is where you show a person's emotion, rather than using a simple verb. So, "Her throat closed and the tears welled in her eyes" instead of "She cried".

Personally, I'm in two minds about that one. The theory is that if you describe the physical manifestations of an emotion, (instead of just naming it), readers can interpret them the same as they do in real life, and therefore it will feel more real to them. I think that works sometimes - but sometimes, it's asking the reader to do to much work. I've read scenes where I've had to read the characters' reactions three or four times, and I'm still not sure what emotion they're meant to represent. I think there are some verbs which "tell" with perfect clarity, much better than descriptions of twitches and grimaces.

The other version, which may apply more to you, is exposition. If you're doing a good job of getting into your character's POV, it feels really jarring when the author suddenly intrudes. It's like the director suddenly froze the movie, grabbed a microphone and stuck his head in front of the camera to say, "Sorry, I just need to explain this bit to you". So, if readers are finding exposition jarring, it's a compliment to how well you're inhabiting your characters. If readers weren't getting involved with those people, they wouldn't be upset when you butt in.

I'd say that in a book like yours, where you sometimes have to cover long timeframes, you might need to make a virtue out of necessity and make exposition a regular, predictable part of the novel - preferably something that appears in a consistent spot, like at the beginning or end of a chapter. And maybe put it in italics to make it obvious it's you, the narrator, dropping in.



Attaree 20 Jun at 00:02  
Hi Marisaw: Thanks for your input on the show and tell issue. My books are essentially complete but of course I'll be making some changes as I receive editorial feedback.
__________________
I aspire to write redneck, blue collar stories of literary quality.

Pcat 20 Jun at 00:53  
"Show, don't tell" has been a bugbear of mine for awhile. I enjoy exploring oral folktale narration and other non-Eurocentric forms of narrative. It's not fair that these are deemed to be lesser, not "good literature" by default. I'm glad to see the critical thinking going on in this thread.

To add to what's already been said, it is worth noting that "show, don't tell" has a political history. In 'Workshops of Empire' by Eric Bennett, he discusses how the Iowa Writer's Workshop was used to promote a particularly "American" style, explicitly opposed to the more didactic lit seen in some Communist countries. You can see where that's going.

So, whenever I hear "show, don't tell" I cringe a little. Showing is a tool, useful for some situations. The trick is in knowing when to use it.

Also, this if my first post. *waves*

-Sonia
Marisaw 20 Jun at 02:32  
Pcat
"Show, don't tell" has been a bugbear of mine for awhile. I enjoy exploring oral folktale narration and other non-Eurocentric forms of narrative. It's not fair that these are deemed to be lesser, not "good literature" by default. I'm glad to see the critical thinking going on in this thread.
Welcome, Sonia. I don't agree that those styles are deemed to be lesser. I think the "show don't tell" advice arises when people are writing in a modern style in one character's POV, and then suddenly switch to "storyteller" mode in mid-stream and back again. I've read some terrific novels which are written in a conversational style, with the present-day narrator ever-present in the background - and they work because they're done consistently.

Show don't tell becomes a problem only because novice writers tend to take guidelines as rigid rules - and then write blogs about them all over the internet, which are then taken as gospel by other novice writers who don't realise the blogger isn't as experienced as they think.
Harpalycus 20 Jun at 05:42  
The problem with ‘show not tell’ is the way it is framed. It is formulated as a rule, it is preached as a rule and ‘novice’ writers are bombarded with it until it becomes an integral part of their thinking. Of course, it is going to taken as a rule.

Secondly, it obviously implies that showing is inherently superior to telling. WHICH IT IS NOT.

Whenever the question comes up, we get the same justification. Novice writers don’t recognise it as a simple choice of techniques, that should be dependant upon the context. They ‘have to learn that it isn’t a rule and when not to apply it’. What, by all that is holy, is the point of giving someone something that looks like a rule and quacks like a rule, and then leave them to learn by experience that it isn’t. This is a frequent assertion (if not perhaps stated so baldly) but it seems a very strange pedagogical technique to me.

‘Hammer, not screwdriver,’ says the master carpenter to the apprentice, and then spends long sessions having to explain why the hammer was the wrong tool. Instead it should be made clear from the start that the hammer is for this task and the screwdriver for that. It should be pointed out when it can be incorrectly used, with reasons. ‘For this job you need a screwdriver, The hammer destroys the grip of the thread…’

Telling is an essential part of narrative. After all, we are story tellers not story showers (I cannot escape the image of Terry-Thomas declaring that you’re all absolute showers – some may have the seniority to appreciate the thought). As critics, where we feel (and I emphasise the subjectivity of all such judgements) that a piece of narrative might be better towards the show end of the spectrum (and it is a spectrum) and then explain the how and why. Or, if you feel that is not necessary, simply say,’ I think this could be shown rather than told’. Or told rather than shown. Showing should not be privileged over telling until it becomes embedded in the poor tyro’s mindset as a superior form.

As far as writing is a craft, it is one with many different tools to be chosen and applied as and when required. It is the critic’s job to help the new writer appreciate all these tools and then make their own decisions about how and when to use them.

But it should not be forgotten that writers have their own voice, nor be afraid of using it, instead of dutifully following the prevailing opinions. Dare I say fads and fashions?

Yes, I dare.

It simply depends upon what sort of writer you want to be.

Regards,
Harp

Lizzie 20 Jun at 06:30  
Marisaw
The one most often mentioned is where you show a person's emotion, rather than using a simple verb. So, "Her throat closed and the tears welled in her eyes" instead of "She cried".
I think this is a misunderstanding of what "show" means. Both these sentences SHOW something (the same thing) - that a character is sad/upset. One of them shows it in a more wordy way than the other.

The difference between show and tell is actually:
She cried.
vs.
She was upset.

The verb "cried" allows us to infer that she is upset. But there may be other interpretations in the context (e.g. she could be crying from laughter).

With "she was upset", you are unable to infer anything at all. That's why it's an example of the writer telling us something.

Both have their purposes.
Marisaw 20 Jun at 06:42  
Lizzie
Marisaw
The one most often mentioned is where you show a person's emotion, rather than using a simple verb. So, "Her throat closed and the tears welled in her eyes" instead of "She cried".
I think this is a misunderstanding of what "show" means. Both these sentences SHOW something (the same thing) - that a character is sad/upset. One of them shows it in a more wordy way than the other.

The difference between show and tell is actually:
She cried.
vs.
She was upset.
I have never seen that explanation of show and tell, I must say.

Lizzie 20 Jun at 08:24  
Marisaw
I have never seen that explanation of show and tell, I must say.
Well, that's my understanding anyway.

Pcat 20 Jun at 15:42  
Marisaw
Pcat
"Show, don't tell" has been a bugbear of mine for awhile. I enjoy exploring oral folktale narration and other non-Eurocentric forms of narrative. It's not fair that these are deemed to be lesser, not "good literature" by default. I'm glad to see the critical thinking going on in this thread.
Welcome, Sonia. I don't agree that those styles are deemed to be lesser.
Well, it has been my experience that more "telling" styles are deemed "bad literature/" Too often I've seen "show, don't tell" used as a rule to gotcha someone rather than as simply another tool to be used when needed, but YMMV.

Marisaw 20 Jun at 22:40  
Pcat

Too often I've seen "show, don't tell" used as a rule to gotcha someone rather than as simply another tool to be used when needed, but YMMV.
I've certainly experienced that as well, but (as I said) I've only seen it used to apply to paragraphs within a piece, when an author has slipped into a "telling" style that's inconsistent with the rest of the text. I've never heard whole stories or novels dismissed on that basis.
Aries75 20 Jun at 22:58  
It doesn't matter what else may be going on in the world - you can still count on yet another "show, don't tell" debate thread on CC

Seriously though, I'm personally inclined to agree both with the original blog post and with Harpalycus. I'm also convinced that if everyone simply used Emma Darwin's approach and terminology instead, so many of these endless misunderstandings and misapplications of the advice would end:

SHOWING is for making the reader feel they're in there: feel as in smell, touch, see, hear, believe the actual experience of the characters. As John Gardner says, it's by being convincing in the reality and detail of how we evoke our imagined world - by what the characters do and say - that we persuade the reader to read the story we're telling as if it really happened, even though we all know it didn't. That means working with the immediate physical and emotional actions and experience of the characters: your rage beating in your ears, the wind whipping your cheeks, a beggar clutching at your coat. The more I talk about Showing, the more I call it evoking, sometimes presenting, and occasionally channelling.

TELLING is for covering the ground, when you need to, as a narrator (whether the narrator is a character, or an implied, external narrator in a third person narrative). It's supplying information: the storyteller saying "Once upon a time", or "A volunteer army was gathered together", or "The mountains were covered in fine, volcanic ash". So it's a little more removed from the immediate experience of the moment. The more I talk about Telling, the more I call it informing, sometimes explaining, and occasionally understanding.
To me anyway, the terms "evoke" vs "inform" offer far more clarity and insight into what each method accomplishes and when one is preferable to the other.
Marisaw 20 Jun at 23:12  
Aries75
I'm also convinced that if everyone simply used Emma Darwin's approach and terminology instead, so many of these endless misunderstandings and misapplications of the advice would end:

SHOWING is for making the reader feel they're in there: feel as in smell, touch, see, hear, believe the actual experience of the characters. As John Gardner says, it's by being convincing in the reality and detail of how we evoke our imagined world - by what the characters do and say - that we persuade the reader to read the story we're telling as if it really happened, even though we all know it didn't. That means working with the immediate physical and emotional actions and experience of the characters: your rage beating in your ears, the wind whipping your cheeks, a beggar clutching at your coat. The more I talk about Showing, the more I call it evoking, sometimes presenting, and occasionally channelling.

TELLING is for covering the ground, when you need to, as a narrator (whether the narrator is a character, or an implied, external narrator in a third person narrative). It's supplying information: the storyteller saying "Once upon a time", or "A volunteer army was gathered together", or "The mountains were covered in fine, volcanic ash". So it's a little more removed from the immediate experience of the moment. The more I talk about Telling, the more I call it informing, sometimes explaining, and occasionally understanding.
YES, perfect! I must bookmark that for the future.

This explanation highlights the fundamental point I've been trying to make. Usually these days, we're writing in 1st person or 3rd person limited, and trying to create the illusion for the reader that they're "in the moment". As soon as we start telling, it's "a little more removed from the immediate experience". Done badly, it's a LOT more removed, to the point of destroying the illusion. It takes a lot of skill to do well (which is why, coward that I am, I try to avoid it altogether).
Gavincarte 24 Jun at 17:59  
This is an interesting blog. I've often wondered how Show Don't Tell originated. I believed in pure speculation it arose to compete with cinema. I remember reading an article a few years ago by an author who said novels are starting to read too much like movies. I was told in a critique that I had a cinematic style; indeed, when writing genre fiction stories that are meant purely for entertainment I write in a more "cinematic style" on purpose.

I don't really throw around Show Don't Tell in my critiques. When I do suggest the guideline it's usually because a person is writing his story in exposition instead of using scenes.

Jane is a quirky character= telling
Jane doing and saying quirky things=showing<<
It was a dark stormy night=telling
The wind howling, ripping at the MC's clothes, a crack of lightning tearing into the ground, thunder rumbling across the hills=showing



Honestly 26 Jun at 14:38  
It's interesting because film adaptations of movies the feel very cinematic like a movie don't always translate well to the screen. For example, I'm a huge fan of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, and I've always thought they felt more like a television series or movie because of how they are written — very short scenes that change viewpoints frequently, dialogue that is quick and relies on little nuances of what the characters are doing for the humor.

That said, despite seeming so perfect for the screen I have yet to see a really good adaptation of any of his books. Which goes to show I think that no matter how similar a book may feel to a movie, it's not just that easy to replicate in a film. The timing of jokes, how you convey the story is completely different.
Ednarosas 29 Jun at 01:44  
You know, this was the same type of question I was asking to myself a short while ago. I happen to be watching a lot of visual entertainment and tend to listen to a lot of music, but I've always questioned what the strengths of literature were if film adaptations and musical performances always seemed more enticing and less uncomfortable to consume.

What I think literature possess and can harness is its simplistic nature followed by the art of narration. Practically anyone can write a story and share it with anyone. It's practically free to do so and does not require special equipment to record and edit a story. You can also do a lot with how the story is told, using point of view and the narrator as observers of a literary realm but also as a sort of personal guide to the reader that shows the reader the ultimate message that is being expressed.
Marisaw 29 Jun at 03:40  
Ednarosas
You know, this was the same type of question I was asking to myself a short while ago. I happen to be watching a lot of visual entertainment and tend to listen to a lot of music, but I've always questioned what the strengths of literature were if film adaptations and musical performances always seemed more enticing and less uncomfortable to consume.
I don't find the written word more uncomfortable to consume OR less enticing. For me, a written novel allows me to create the world and the characters in ways that suit me, rather than being constrained by what the film director chose.

But then, I don't often read "literature", I read commercial fiction. If I pick up a book that has "difficult" language, I give up on it very quickly.
Stromberg 1 Jul at 02:56  
It is very interesting to me that this blog touched a nerve on, "Show, don't tell," especially since that wasn't what I thought it was mainly about. I see now that I didn't word that stretch of it very well.

It seems to me that the Writing Rules Industrial Complex is pushing us these days toward certain limited forms of storytelling and away from others. To me, the "you betcha it'll sell" forms most favoured seem somehow vaguely movie-ised. Or they feel as though a singer with a wide vocal range is being told to sing only three notes... if that makes sense.

This post was my clumsy attempt at articulating what I feel often gets left out. (Though I'm sure there are others saying similar things – so it isn't being entirely left out.) It wasn't meant to be a polemic against, "Show, don't tell," which is really another topic. In fact, I think there are more intelligent things said about, "Show, don't tell," in the comments section here than there were in the blog post itself.

It's been great reading all the responses.

Respond to this blog

Please log in or create a free Critique Circle account to respond to this blog


Member submitted content is © individual members.
Other material is ©2003-2020 critiquecircle.com
Back to top