Escape Artists

News:

News

ATTENTION: NEW FORUM THEME Please see here for details: http://forum.escapeartists.net/index.php?topic=13188.0

Author Topic: "Show don't tell". Always good advice?  (Read 21993 times)

Swamp

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 2229
    • Journey Into... podcast
on: February 20, 2007, 08:08:06 PM
Is the advice “show don’t tell” (SDT) given too often?  Is it a knee-jerk response?  The following is a quote from Orson Scott Card from his website.

“And you did this because ... of those morons who told you "show don't tell"? Because motivation is unshowable. It must be told. (In fact, most things must be told.) The advice "show don't tell" is applicable in only a few situations -- most times, most things, you tell-don't-show. I get so impatient with this idiotic advice that has been plaguing writers for generations.

"Motivation is precisely the one thing that cannot be shown. What movies do -- using dialogue or most-obvious-assumed-motive to communicate motive is actually not very good because there are no shades or subtleties and rarely can be (it just takes so darn much screen time!). It's one of the reasons why movies simply aren't very good at subtle motivation, and constantly have to reach for obvious audience sympathies ...”

Here’s the link to the whole discussion:  http://www.hatrack.com/writingclass/lessons/lesson13.shtml

My opinion is that SDT is valid advice in most cases.  Usually it is trying to motivate a writer to get out of straight exposition and show emotion or reaction through the actions of the character.  Instead of writing This comment made Tom angry, we might write Upon heraring the comment, Tom pressed his lips into a tight line, while his face became red.  (not a great example, I know).  It is an attempt to help the reader view the scene rather than just hear about it.

However, I have also seen SDT used too much, and can become something people just throw out quickly without looking deeper.  I feel that sometimes we take the SDT advice too strictly and go through many gyrations in order to show everything, when there are, at times, ways to improve the prose by simply telling something and getting on with the good stuff.

Bottom line:  I think SDT is a useful guideline to make your writing more engaging to the reader, but it is not a law that should govern over all of your storytelling.

What do you think?

Facehuggers don't have heads!

Come with me and Journey Into... another fun podcast


jrderego

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 687
  • Writer of Union Dues stories (among others)
    • J. R. DeRego - Writer
Reply #1 on: February 20, 2007, 08:26:35 PM
Is the advice “show don’t tell” (SDT) given too often?  Is it a knee-jerk response?  The following is a quote from Orson Scott Card from his website.

“And you did this because ... of those morons who told you "show don't tell"? Because motivation is unshowable. It must be told. (In fact, most things must be told.) The advice "show don't tell" is applicable in only a few situations -- most times, most things, you tell-don't-show. I get so impatient with this idiotic advice that has been plaguing writers for generations.

"Motivation is precisely the one thing that cannot be shown. What movies do -- using dialogue or most-obvious-assumed-motive to communicate motive is actually not very good because there are no shades or subtleties and rarely can be (it just takes so darn much screen time!). It's one of the reasons why movies simply aren't very good at subtle motivation, and constantly have to reach for obvious audience sympathies ...”

Here’s the link to the whole discussion:  http://www.hatrack.com/writingclass/lessons/lesson13.shtml

My opinion is that SDT is valid advice in most cases.  Usually it is trying to motivate a writer to get out of straight exposition and show emotion or reaction through the actions of the character.  Instead of writing This comment made Tom angry, we might write Upon heraring the comment, Tom pressed his lips into a tight line, while his face became red.  (not a great example, I know).  It is an attempt to help the reader view the scene rather than just hear about it.

However, I have also seen SDT used too much, and can become something people just throw out quickly without looking deeper.  I feel that sometimes we take the SDT advice too strictly and go through many gyrations in order to show everything, when there are, at times, ways to improve the prose by simply telling something and getting on with the good stuff.

Bottom line:  I think SDT is a useful guideline to make your writing more engaging to the reader, but it is not a law that should govern over all of your storytelling.

What do you think?


There are times when exposition is necessary, and times when it is not. Most often when I hear, or say, "show don't tell" is when I hit some exposition that isn't necessary:

Example 1- all expository

John didn't like cheese. In fact, he hated it, ever since his father had punished him by forcing the consumption of seven pounds of rancid Muenster after he broke the lamp while playing baseball in the house. John's hatred of cheese even went so far as to extend to all dairy products, and the cows that produced them. So it was no surprise that his first act as president of the known universe was the mandatory extermination of all bovine life forms.

Example 2- much less expository

John signed the executive order declaring it illegal to be of bovine extraction, then smiled. His vision clouded for a moment revealing an image of billions upon billions of cows herding through a planet-sized, automated, orbiting, abbatoir. He cried "I'm sorry I broke the lamp dad! I'm sorry I broke the lamp! How you like me now!!!!"

Anyway -

It also depends on the style and POV, third person omniscient lends itself better to non-dialogue exposition, where first person is better for dialogue exposition. But that is still dependent on the situation. Exposition is like the handle on a suitcase, one is usually just right, sometimes there are two (like mine where it can be wheeled raher than lugged) but having 25 handles just makes the suitcase unweildy. The important thing isn't what the handle does, the important thing is what's inside the suitcase.

"Happiness consists of getting enough sleep." Robert A. Heinlein
Also, please buy my book - Escape Clause: A Union Dues Novel
http://www.encpress.com/EC.html


SFEley

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1408
    • Escape Artists, Inc.
Reply #2 on: February 20, 2007, 08:42:25 PM
Heh.  For what it's worth, Jeffry, I liked your Example 1 much better.  In fact I think both paragraphs work even better in sequence as a complete story:

Quote
John didn't like cheese. In fact, he hated it, ever since his father had punished him by forcing the consumption of seven pounds of rancid Muenster after he broke the lamp while playing baseball in the house. John's hatred of cheese even went so far as to extend to all dairy products, and the cows that produced them. So it was no surprise that his first act as president of the known universe was the mandatory extermination of all bovine life forms.

John signed the executive order declaring it illegal to be of bovine extraction, then smiled. His vision clouded for a moment revealing an image of billions upon billions of cows herding through a planet-sized, automated, orbiting, abbatoir. He cried "I'm sorry I broke the lamp dad! I'm sorry I broke the lamp! How you like me now!!!!"

Here you're telling us the premise and establishing the character, then showing us the consequences.  To me the two paragraphs are funnier together than either one alone. 

ESCAPE POD - The Science Fiction Podcast Magazine


jrderego

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 687
  • Writer of Union Dues stories (among others)
    • J. R. DeRego - Writer
Reply #3 on: February 20, 2007, 08:46:07 PM
Heh.  For what it's worth, Jeffry, I liked your Example 1 much better.  In fact I think both paragraphs work even better in sequence as a complete story:

Quote
John didn't like cheese. In fact, he hated it, ever since his father had punished him by forcing the consumption of seven pounds of rancid Muenster after he broke the lamp while playing baseball in the house. John's hatred of cheese even went so far as to extend to all dairy products, and the cows that produced them. So it was no surprise that his first act as president of the known universe was the mandatory extermination of all bovine life forms.

John signed the executive order declaring it illegal to be of bovine extraction, then smiled. His vision clouded for a moment revealing an image of billions upon billions of cows herding through a planet-sized, automated, orbiting, abbatoir. He cried "I'm sorry I broke the lamp dad! I'm sorry I broke the lamp! How you like me now!!!!"

Here you're telling us the premise and establishing the character, then showing us the consequences.  To me the two paragraphs are funnier together than either one alone. 

If I coulda worked the seven pounds of Muenster cheese into the second one It'd have been a better example, but I think Muenster cheese defies "showing".

That said, think of the example as having to choose between either of those two rather than combining them, like, I don't know, the world would explode if you combined them or something.

on edit, and who thought I could ever write a complete story in under 200 words that features both Muenster cheese AND orbital slaughterhouses!
« Last Edit: February 20, 2007, 08:47:45 PM by jrderego »

"Happiness consists of getting enough sleep." Robert A. Heinlein
Also, please buy my book - Escape Clause: A Union Dues Novel
http://www.encpress.com/EC.html


SFEley

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1408
    • Escape Artists, Inc.
Reply #4 on: February 20, 2007, 09:08:27 PM
Is the advice “show don’t tell” (SDT) given too often?  Is it a knee-jerk response?  The following is a quote from Orson Scott Card from his website.

It's good to see that Card is so far on his path to cantankerdom.  >8->

I do think it's good advice, but it's often taken too seriously.  The difference between "tell" and "show" is really not that broad.  Everything in a book or story is technically telling -- you're not literally showing anything unless it's a graphic novel.  The writer's job is to tell people what happens.  You can't do anything but tell, when all you have is words.

There is, however, a virtual camera in every story.  It's the reader's internal imagining of the physical scene, the action, and the dialogue.  I think when writers say "Show, don't tell," they mean that they would prefer to have more of the story going on within the focus of that virtual camera, and less of it happening offstage.  Not because it's wrong to have one character tell another that the fleet 30,000 light years away was just destroyed, but because it's more fun to describe the space battle.  It's not like you have a limited effects budget to work with.

Of course, sometimes it really is better just to tell us that the fleet was destroyed.  It depends on your POV decisions, the importance of the battle to the plot or the major characters, your pacing, dramatic effect...  There are no right answers.

At least, that's what I mean by it.  I know some people use it when talking about how to exhibit character traits -- "Don't tell us 'he was a greedy bastard,' show him shaking down his grandmother for her Social Security check" -- but I consider that to be an even more ambiguous question of authorial voice.  One could also correctly do both, or neither, so long as the character acts consistently within the story.

ESCAPE POD - The Science Fiction Podcast Magazine


Roney

  • Lochage
  • *****
  • Posts: 440
Reply #5 on: February 21, 2007, 01:02:49 AM
My belief is that it's given a lot -- and is 9/10 times a valid knee-jerk response -- because it's one of those pieces of advice that doesn't mis-apply itself.  I probably need to go through the examples to make myself clear.

Either you don't know what you're doing, and your story is using too much "tell", in which case "show don't tell" is a vital lesson that you need to learn.  And showing is more likely to work better than telling in most situations if you don't know any better.

Or you do know what you're doing, and you've got perfectly good reasons for telling instead of showing, and you just ignore the advice.  Until such time as you know that it's the wrong advice, and can marshall the arguments that show that this is the exceptional case where telling works better, you're likely to improve your story by listening to the "show don't tell" line.

But lots of standard pieces of advice work this way, in many fields.  Simple solutions will usually improve an amateur's game.  What improves a pro's game is considerably more mysterious.

I can see why it would irk Card to hear it too often.



Rachel Swirsky

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1233
    • PodCastle
Reply #6 on: February 21, 2007, 03:37:22 AM
What they say at the writers workshop:

You can tell anything except the character's emotional state or motivation. Those must be clearly expressed through the other aspects of the prose.

Even here, though, there's no consensus. Ethan Canin: "Show everything you can. Tell what's too complicated to show."

Daniel Alarcon, Marilynne Robinson: stories without scene are perfectly fine.

As with most things, I tend to wedge myself firmly in the middle. It's a game. Elegant narration is beautiful, but usually must carry itself on sensory appeal and gorgeous prose; a well-rendered scene can be deeply involving; a story pruned of all telling can come across as oblique when remeoved even slightly from its context, by being read by someone from a different age group or subculture even.



Xenomundus

  • Palmer
  • **
  • Posts: 58
Reply #7 on: February 21, 2007, 08:52:05 AM
Orson Scott Card and Lois McMasters Bujold are two of my favorite authors, and they tell quite often. They know what they're doing, and the things they tell are usually witty, piercing, poignant, or wry -- and true to the characters. Even so, more than a page begins to drag.

With amateur to intermediate writers' work, the parts that most desperately need cut are usually telling: pointless backstory, POV-jarring asides, mid-action exposition, musings a psychiatrist wouldn't have time for.

Rules were meant to be broken, but you have to know the rules before you can break them.



DKT

  • Friendly Neighborhood
  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 4980
  • PodCastle is my Co-Pilot
    • Psalms & Hymns & Spiritual Noir
Reply #8 on: February 21, 2007, 10:04:04 PM
I've heard several sci-fi/fantasy authors debunk the SDT rule (Cory Doctorow and Laura J. Mixon).  Basically, they said it's a good rule in general, but sometimes the most natural way of telling the story is breaking the SDT rule.  Their advice was to ground the story, then info-dump (and info-dump quickly).


GoodDamon

  • Lochage
  • *****
  • Posts: 352
    • Speculations - My writing blog
Reply #9 on: February 26, 2007, 09:53:12 PM
Perhaps a good drop-in replacement for "show, don't tell" would be "set a scene and stay in it." Too often at workshop, I'll read a story with six paragraphs of exposition describing a character, his motivations, his goals, and how the death of his puppy at age six affected him without touching once on here's-what-he's-doing-and-where-he's-doing-it.

If a character -- let's call him "Steve" -- runs a science fiction podcast, I can start a story with this: Steve sat down in front of his microphone and began the day's podcast. "Today's story," he said, "takes place in the forums of a famous science fiction online broadcast..." That tells us Steve has a podcast, the means to record it, and even gives us some detail about what he podcasts. At the same time, it gives the reader a scene and the beginnings of a character to latch on to. Any other details can come as the story progresses.

I could say something like this: Steve was an intensely handsome man, with a strong jaw and chiseled features. He ran a podcast for science fiction, and everyone loved it. Steve was approximately 6'3", and athletically proportioned. He liked sandwiches. And none of these details could possibly tell you anything about what he's doing right now, because I'm intentionally avoiding setting a scene in favor of lavishing affectionate detail on my character, since that's easier.

Damon Kaswell: Reader, writer, and arithmetic-er


Rachel Swirsky

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1233
    • PodCastle
Reply #10 on: February 26, 2007, 10:22:47 PM
I disagree, Damon. They're different styles, but scene-driven fiction isn't the only legitimate type.

Consider Mischa's work, which we're both familiar with. He frequently creates striking character and situational depth through narration.



GoodDamon

  • Lochage
  • *****
  • Posts: 352
    • Speculations - My writing blog
Reply #11 on: February 26, 2007, 11:07:58 PM
I disagree, Damon. They're different styles, but scene-driven fiction isn't the only legitimate type.

Oh, by no means do I consider it the only legitimate type. I didn't mean to imply that. But if you have long expanses in which the reader doesn't know where the protagonist is or what s/he's doing, then it necessarily distances the reader from the flow of the story.

If you can do that and get away with it, keeping the reader engaged through the exposition lumps, then do so. There's no rule that says everything has to be shown. If anything, it's a useful tool, for keeping a story exciting. By no means is it the only one.

I think remembering show/tell is most useful when you're using descriptive narration as a stand-in for scene-setting and character action. You're just never going to convince me your character is a super-cool kung-fu studmuffin by describing how awesome he looks posing for the mental camera in a blank, featureless setting for three pages with no one to interact with and nothing to do.

Quote
Consider Mischa's work, which we're both familiar with. He frequently creates striking character and situational depth through narration.

Agreed. And that's because Mischa has a lot of other tools available to him to reach his readers. I'm a big fan of his work.

Damon Kaswell: Reader, writer, and arithmetic-er


Roney

  • Lochage
  • *****
  • Posts: 440
Reply #12 on: February 28, 2007, 07:36:24 PM
Their advice was to ground the story, then info-dump (and info-dump quickly).

Hmm.  "tell" != "info-dump".  I'd say that telling is necessary to most stories longer than -- to pick a figure out of the air -- 2,000 word mood/scene pieces.  I'm inclined to believe that info-dumping* is never helpful in anything other than "Science of Star Trek" books.

* Where info-dumping is defined as dropping in a load of background detail without anything actually happening in the middle of it.  I thought that Turkey City had a specific term for the one that really annoys me but the closest one is "I've suffered for my Art (and now it's your turn)" which refers explicitly to research; to my mind there's too much "I've done this imaginative world-building in detail and I'm damned if I'm going to let you miss out on a single word of it".



Rachel Swirsky

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1233
    • PodCastle
Reply #13 on: February 28, 2007, 07:40:22 PM
I think info-dumping can be okay if it's well enough written, but it's a risky proposition, I admit.



Russell Nash

  • Guest
Reply #14 on: February 28, 2007, 08:04:34 PM
I think info-dumping can be okay if it's well enough written, but it's a risky proposition, I admit.

I think it really depends on how interesting the information is. You get a lot more leaway when the readers are thinking, "That's cool"



GoodDamon

  • Lochage
  • *****
  • Posts: 352
    • Speculations - My writing blog
Reply #15 on: March 01, 2007, 12:03:37 AM
I think it really depends on how interesting the information is. You get a lot more leaway when the readers are thinking, "That's cool"

What if the reader's thinking, "That's cool... but what's happening?"

My rule of thumb is that info dumps should be disguised and diluted by action/activity. They shouldn't grind it to a halt. I find stories that do intensely frustrating.

Roger stumbled backwards under Lucien's vicious onslaught of stabs and thrusts. "You'll never defeat me!" Lucien crowed triumphantly. "Sweet Madeleine will be mine!" With that, he drove Roger over the cliff edge. Layers of sedimentary rock rushed past.

Sedimentary rock, he mused, forms as rain and other water sources deposit layers of new soil and sediment onto each other. Over time, compression causes these distinct layers to fuse, or so Roger thought. But he wasn't entirely sure, not having a reference book handy. Instead of telling you whether he survives the fall, I'm going to bore you with unnecessary detail about Roger's time at an archaeological dig in Guatemala, and how seeing layers of stone atop one another affected him. I'll do this for six paragraphs.

Damon Kaswell: Reader, writer, and arithmetic-er


SFEley

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1408
    • Escape Artists, Inc.
Reply #16 on: March 01, 2007, 01:32:43 AM
Roger stumbled backwards under Lucien's vicious onslaught of stabs and thrusts. "You'll never defeat me!" Lucien crowed triumphantly. "Sweet Madeleine will be mine!" With that, he drove Roger over the cliff edge. Layers of sedimentary rock rushed past.

Sedimentary rock, he mused, forms as rain and other water sources deposit layers of new soil and sediment onto each other. Over time, compression causes these distinct layers to fuse, or so Roger thought...


On the other hand, if the book had a tongue-in-cheek tone to begin with, I would probably find this hilarious.

I think you're right as a generality.  But there are exceptions to everything.  I'm reminded of Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, which usually had plenty going on but every so often would stop completely and devote a chapter to, say, charting the mathematical function of a character's horniness, or the erotic story involving antique furniture on some minor character's laptop.  Stephenson has always gone wild on infodump digressions, but here he took it so far it became a spectacle.

Of course, a lot of people disliked Cryptonomicon for exactly these reasons.  But I was amused.

ESCAPE POD - The Science Fiction Podcast Magazine


ClintMemo

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 680
Reply #17 on: March 01, 2007, 02:27:25 AM
I think it really depends on how interesting the information is. You get a lot more leaway when the readers are thinking, "That's cool"

What if the reader's thinking, "That's cool... but what's happening?"

My rule of thumb is that info dumps should be disguised and diluted by action/activity. They shouldn't grind it to a halt. I find stories that do intensely frustrating.

Roger stumbled backwards under Lucien's vicious onslaught of stabs and thrusts. "You'll never defeat me!" Lucien crowed triumphantly. "Sweet Madeleine will be mine!" With that, he drove Roger over the cliff edge. Layers of sedimentary rock rushed past.

Sedimentary rock, he mused, forms as rain and other water sources deposit layers of new soil and sediment onto each other. Over time, compression causes these distinct layers to fuse, or so Roger thought. But he wasn't entirely sure, not having a reference book handy. Instead of telling you whether he survives the fall, I'm going to bore you with unnecessary detail about Roger's time at an archaeological dig in Guatemala, and how seeing layers of stone atop one another affected him. I'll do this for six paragraphs.


I'm currently reading the Lemony Snicket books to my nine-year-old. They do that all the time. Sometimes, it's amusing, but usually, it just drives me nuts.

Life is a multiple choice test. Unfortunately, the answers are not provided.  You have to go and find them before picking the best one.


Rachel Swirsky

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1233
    • PodCastle
Reply #18 on: March 01, 2007, 04:09:30 AM
Right. I think infodumps can work within narration, though, if they are both interesting and well-written.

Then again, the definition of infodump seems to partially include the adjective "boring." So if it's not boring, then maybe it's not an infodump. :)



GoodDamon

  • Lochage
  • *****
  • Posts: 352
    • Speculations - My writing blog
Reply #19 on: March 01, 2007, 05:24:12 PM
On the other hand, if the book had a tongue-in-cheek tone to begin with, I would probably find this hilarious.

Ah, yes, that would make it much more fun. Sort of like Terry Pratchett's footnotes, they get in the way of the action, but they're so funny that those breaks become something to look forward to.

Quote
I think you're right as a generality.  But there are exceptions to everything.  I'm reminded of Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, which usually had plenty going on but every so often would stop completely and devote a chapter to, say, charting the mathematical function of a character's horniness, or the erotic story involving antique furniture on some minor character's laptop.  Stephenson has always gone wild on infodump digressions, but here he took it so far it became a spectacle.

Of course, a lot of people disliked Cryptonomicon for exactly these reasons.  But I was amused.

Guhh... Count me among them. I found Cryptonomicon dreadfully boring for a rip-roaring, multi-generational, hidden treasure, computer espionage, WWII adventure story. Every time the book threatened to go anywhere, he decided it was time for another diagram. As I slogged my way through to the end, I started skipping those parts entirely, and don't think I really missed anything.

On the other hand, I didn't really read those interludes as comedy, so maybe if I approached it from that perspective I'd appreciate it more.

Damon Kaswell: Reader, writer, and arithmetic-er


GoodDamon

  • Lochage
  • *****
  • Posts: 352
    • Speculations - My writing blog
Reply #20 on: March 01, 2007, 05:27:56 PM
Then again, the definition of infodump seems to partially include the adjective "boring." So if it's not boring, then maybe it's not an infodump. :)

A fantastic point. I guess the lesson here is "don't be boring." Use as much exposition as you want if it keeps the reader's eyes glued to the page.

Damon Kaswell: Reader, writer, and arithmetic-er


Mfitz

  • Peltast
  • ***
  • Posts: 107
    • Flying Whale Productions
Reply #21 on: March 02, 2007, 06:16:15 PM
Related to the dreaded Info-Dump the Stage-Setting dump.  We are currently working though this problems with a woman in my critique group.  She writes pages of description at the start of every scene.  It really slows her story down.  The problem is that description is her strong point as a writer.  It is wonderful, vivid, sensual, lyric, lush, and far better than any of the rest of her writing. 

The evil little voice in my head wants to tell her to stop waisting time in fiction and look for a job writing copy for catalogues, because I think she could seduce people into buying also anything with her prose, but I know that's not kind.



ClintMemo

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 680
Reply #22 on: March 02, 2007, 08:21:18 PM
Related to the dreaded Info-Dump the Stage-Setting dump.  We are currently working though this problems with a woman in my critique group.  She writes pages of description at the start of every scene.  It really slows her story down.  The problem is that description is her strong point as a writer.  It is wonderful, vivid, sensual, lyric, lush, and far better than any of the rest of her writing. 

The evil little voice in my head wants to tell her to stop waisting time in fiction and look for a job writing copy for catalogues, because I think she could seduce people into buying also anything with her prose, but I know that's not kind.

Suggest she take it up as a day job.  :P

Life is a multiple choice test. Unfortunately, the answers are not provided.  You have to go and find them before picking the best one.


Rachel Swirsky

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1233
    • PodCastle
Reply #23 on: March 02, 2007, 08:38:02 PM
Lit. people are generally more tolerant of that kind of pacing, too. She's writing SF?



Mfitz

  • Peltast
  • ***
  • Posts: 107
    • Flying Whale Productions
Reply #24 on: March 02, 2007, 09:41:53 PM
No she calls it "feel good" books.  Her plot involves travel to other countries, rich doctors, stately country estates, and amnesia, and seems sort of soap opera to me.  Her hero is Nicholas Sparks, but I've not read him so I can't say if he uses the same style.