Showing and Telling

What writer in their right mind, when asked for writing tips, doesn’t say “Show, don’t tell?”  Okay, quite a few, because I’ve only heard that from a few people– but still, it seems to be well-seasoned advice.  The writing community throws it around as one of their biggest problems with narrative, and it does seem to be prevalent even in published novels.  It’s a tricky thing.  Still, as renowned as it is as the bane of all micro-edits, the problem of showing versus telling does not stop there.  It’s amazing how much boredom stems from this very problem, and how much the macro-edit has to do with it as well.

Indeed, showing versus telling has as much to do with scenes and plot as with sentence structure and description.  While “It was purple” might make a micro-editor cringe, it’s nothing to the sort of problems wreaked by an out of place explanation or a missing scene.  Confusion ensues, followed by rapid rereads of the explanation in order to make sense of it, followed by apathy and then, finally, boredom.  There goes one fan of the book.  The overlong explanation that drags on for an entire scene and involves advanced metaphysics and time streams is useless.

But that’s a problem, isn’t it?  I’m a fantasy writer.  In the worlds in which I write, I’ve spent hours just figuring out concepts, let alone cultures, character backstories, and the setting itself.  I have stacks of paper devoted to explaining natural phenomena to myself, in the hopes that I might find it useful in the course of the story.  But how can you find things useful if you can’t explain them?

The author Brandon Sanderson has come up with a few laws of magic systems, which are quite useful for worldbuilding.  His first law states: “An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.”  (From Sanderson’s First Law.)  This obviously means we need to explain anything we’re actually going to use in the story.

Yes.  Yes it does.  We need to make sure the audience knows what we’re talking about when we save the day with exploding ducks.  However, what better way to make them apathetic toward day-saving than to explain the exploding duck in agonizing detail?  They don’t need to know the reasoning behind it, nor the way you thought of it at midnight after watching TV all evening.  Unfortunately, they do still need to understand the tool you use to solve problems.

So.  How to explain it… without explaining it?  (Middle grade authors, epic fantasy people, listen closely.)

Make it happen.  Devote a scene to, not explanation, but showing what’s going on.  If a meteorite just hit the ground behind the main character’s house, don’t wait until the main character explains it to his neighbor– actually write the meteorite hitting the ground.  It doesn’t matter how much passive voice or how many “is” verbs you use.  It’s still more showing than that long explanation.

This is the reason many epic fantasies and such have prologues at the beginning portraying the evil person’s conquest.  Why simply tell about it when you can show it?

However, Orson Scott Card makes a very important point in his Characters and Viewpoint: not everything you’re going to find in a book is showing.  After all, we’re writers, not painters.  We can’t show everything.  But we can show what needs to be shown.

So what needs to be shown and what doesn’t?  After all, if you spent your time showing all the different concepts in your world, you’d have a long trip even before you got to the story.  So if not everything can be shown in the space you have, don’t show it all– just the main points.  Show the stuff whose effects are necessary.  Show that which the readers must see to believe, or see to understand.  Explaining the suspense involved in hunting penguins is useless, but showing them the hunt and letting them feel the tension, that’s powerful.  But you can leave off explaining how to use the harpoon gun.  No matter how you put it, that isn’t powerful.

A small side note on the subject of backstory and introduction: everyone says to cut the first few chapters of your novel because it’s full of unnecessary explanation.  Of course it is.  At this point, you don’t need any of it.  But where does it go, then, if not at the beginning?  Put it at the midpoint.  That’s the place where everything becomes clear anyway– why reveal all your secrets in the first three pages?  No, save the unnecessary emotional backstory until the middle, when we care about the characters enough to care about their emotions too.

And that’s all I have to say about that.  Showing makes sense in the macro as well as in the micro.  Remember that when you’re planning your next scenes.


26 thoughts on “Showing and Telling

  1. This is advice that is usually directed at less experienced writers. The thing is when these readers get stuck they resort to padding. This padding generally appears as gratuitous description. For example, I’ve seen novice writers devote paragraphs to describing every piece of clothing their characters are wearing even when there is no need.

    It usually indicates a lack of a subplot and thus a bloated novel.

    1. I agree, but there’s a tendency in even very experienced writers to explain things they could just as easily show, especially in concepts. It’s a good thing to bear in mind.

  2. *applause* (I seem to be applauding you a lot, lately.)

    I agree whole-heartedly. Now… when I get done with the macro-edit, we’ll see if I can figure this out with the micro-edit.

    1. *bows to applause* I don’t mind.

      Um, unless I was writing about something else, I thought I directed this specifically toward the macro-edit. The micro-edit “show, don’t tell” is a different animal.

  3. Great post! You triggered a long and interesting discussion with my mom (an experienced writer) about showing and telling. I feel even more ready for NaNoWriMo now, so thanks. 🙂

  4. This post has reassured me that my first chapter is okay. Thank you XD

    Hey Liam, I have a minor rant against fantasy as a genre and even readers of fantasy and I want you to tell me if I’m justified, okay?

    Names. Character names. It seems to me that people are under the impression that in fantasy, a character’s name MUST sound old english or medieval, or something like the names you find in LOTR. I personally like having a variety of names that sound english, Japanese, Native American, Indian and the like, and I use Google Translate extensively, making my character’s names sound foreign, which is how they should sound because you’re writing FANTASY. That’s my opinion. It really, really annoys me that people come up to me and say that “Your character’s names sound Japanese/Mexican/Not like LOTR.”

    Half the “constructive criticism” I get isn’t about my writing or my story or something that actually needs improvement, but character names. And it’s not like the names I choose are convoluted and confusing, in which case their dislike for them is at least justified. I don’t want to choose LOTR-esque names because it’s *fantasy* and these small things make a huge difference. It’s not even Percy Jackson style fantasy where the characters are based in the real world so they would have real sounding names. This is epic fantasy.

    So am I justified in my annoyance?

    Thanks ^_^

    1. You are justified, yes, but only under a certain set of conditions. If you’re writing a country like the US, where almost every culture in the world is represented in a single place, absolutely vary your naming structures. However, if you’re writing a single country that doesn’t have the reputation of the US, you’re going to need a general naming structure. It doesn’t have to be all that consistent, it just has to tie the names together so they seem like products of the same culture. Tolkien created new languages from his world, and from there he got his different names. Rohan, Gondor, and the Shire all have different names from each other, and the elves even have a different system based on their language. I agree– some people just copy Tolkien and use names that would only fit in his naming system, but I would suggest making your own naming system. Brandon Sanderson talks about this a few times on Writing Excuses, and I read a series by Jane Yolen, I think, in which the lower class from a certain town all had double K’s in their names, making them all seem similar, but not the same. I would suggest, instead of using Google Translate too much, simply creating your own naming system. Unless, of course, you’re writing a fantasy about a giant cultural melting pot, in which case you’re fine to do whatever sorts of names you wish.

      1. Thanks, and yeah I see your point. While I haven’t gone into much detail about it, I have mentioned ethinicities and made-up religions. But yes, I do have the Giant Cultural Melting Pot thing going on. Got lots of races, and even gay characters.

        Thanks again! 🙂

      2. Well, I’d suggest making a different naming system per race. Unless you’re intentionally basing a race on Spaniards or the Japanese or Russians, don’t use their naming systems.

      3. While that is a good idea, there are certain names I’ve taken from different cultures purposefully. I like the idea of diversity, even in a fantasy, and the concept of diversity in high fantasy doesn’t really have that punch unless it’s somehow associated to something we’re already familiar with. Beyond a point, the elves and the dwarves are all foreign to me unless you give me something I can connect them with. You know what I mean?

      4. I don’t, actually. When you copy names and structures from real life, it sounds real, yes, but isn’t this fantasy you’re writing? It isn’t like you’re trying to make it real, so why should the names be real?

      5. Well, okay, maybe this isn’t *the* most compelling argument but I think that the best fantasy has the smallest blends of reality. It’s the same logic used when people say that the best lies have a grain of truth.

        That’s why I take some names directly from other cultures. Like I said, it just adds that kind of punch that a true fantasy name could not. I think the one special element is the familiarity we feel about real names, even if they’re foreign-sounding to us.

  5. Also, now that I think about it some more, one of the reasons I sometimes use real-world names is that the help me to describe a character. To be honest, I’ve only ever done this twice in my life, both times in my current novel, and this is still an experiment for me. Both times, I’ve used Japanese names. The reason is because…how do you describe a race?

    Caucasian is easy, so is African, because there are an incredible number of words that you can use that don’t sound absolutely horrendously racist. What about the Japanese/Chinese race? First of all, if I remember correctly, that race is called ‘Mongoloid’, which I can’t use because the word comes from the country of Mongolia, which is on planet Earth. You can’t use that in epic fantasy. The same applies for the term ‘Asians’ which is, to begin with, a generalisation of epic proportions. The other terms that the internet so fondly uses are awfully racist and I don’t want to use them. In such a case, giving a traditionally Japanese/Chinese name sort of suggests their race to the reader.

    1. I think you’re thinking too much into this problem. Copying real names is fine, but you’re going to have people who criticize them until you figure out your own naming system. Once it’s yours, they can’t question it, but when you’re copying, it’s free to challenge.

  6. I guess so. Criticism is something you’re going to have to face no matter what you do. It’s baseless criticism that bugs me. But yeah, I never thought of a naming system before. I’ve been working on one all day. The possibilities are endless! How exciting. 😀

      1. The note’s not sour. You’ve given me an idea I hadn’t even considered and I’m having a ball working with it. I just need to figure out where to fit it into my novel and it will be great! Thank you 🙂

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