Is there a place for telling?

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On show vs tell:

We have all been blasted by the advice "show, don't tell". Many of us have given it as feedback to fellow writers. Mostly, this is excellent advice. Showing engages the reader so much more than telling.

But, might there be a place for telling? I've heard some say "No. Never. Showing is ALWAYS better." Let's consider it. I've been reading "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers" by Renni Brown and Dave King.

"Even though immediate scenes [showing] are almost always more engaging than narrative summary [telling], be careful when self-editing not to convert all your narrative summary into scenes. Narrative summary has its uses, the main one being to vary the rhythm and texture of your writing. Scenes are immediate and engaging, but scene after scene without a break can become relentless and exhausting, especially if you tend to write brief, intense scenes. Every once in a while you will want to slow things down to give your readers a chance to catch their breath, and narrative summary can be a good way to do this."

My story is... super intense. Many scenes are packed with action (much of it gory, some sensual, some more than sensual. Many highly emotional). I often use telling to sandwich these scenes, with slightly more at the beginning and a single sentence (sometimes two) at the end.

What are your thoughts?
 
If we wrote every minute of every moment of the lives of our characters, the stories would be so long, and have so many parts that don't matter to the 'big question' that no one would consider reading it, and it would be bigger than a boatload of pages, whether physical or electronic. An epic is one thing, but a second-by-second reliving of a fictitious life - no thanks!

Telling, though, whether in one form or another (summary, exposition, non-POV description), needs to be the parts of the story that don't matter to the overall theme or question. If it matters, it's shown. If it's not important, it can be told.
That's my take on it.
 
Telling gets it done. Without it, our books would end up a million words long. It's all about figuring what's worth showing and what's not. For example, if it's the next day, I simply want to be told it's the next day, in one way or another. A blow by blow account of today becoming tomorrow? Hard pass. That's a silly example but you know what I mean.
 
I went all one way, then all the other way on this. Hopefully I will someday find the Happy Medium. You see perfect examples in Pop Ups. How many submissions just need someone to write, "The coach journey was long and tedious" for example instead of giving us a blow by blow of how long and tedious it is. This is where I'm marvelling at the difference between description and detail. Detail brings everything alive, makes it real. Description has me circling my hands trying to speed the writer up. ,"OK, the scenery's pretty. (Or terrifying, monotonous, alien etc.) Tell me something cool, now."
 
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Little snippets of told backstory, e.g, a memory, can enhance the emotion of the scene or provide a deeper insight into a person's character or reasoning without hindering the story's progression by breaking into a "show" backstory scene.

(In Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet she wrote a long chapter, blow by blow, of how a plague-carrying flea crossed the ocean, killed some merchant sailors on the way, and ended up in the paper that a jeweller wrapped a piece of jewellery in that Hamnet's sister collected. I love Maggie's style - and I loved that book - but I couldn't help thinking, just get on with the story! The idea for the chapter was clever, but shortening it immensely with a fair bit of telling would have done the job nicely, imo. I don't think a debut author would have got away with that chapter.)
 
I definitely use tell at points. Especially for passage of time. But I started reading a book (not going to name it because don't want to hate on an author here, but I didnt even finish chapter 1), that was so packed with tell. It was a fantasy book, which struggle with telling too much. I get it. The problem with fantasy/speculative fiction/sci fi is often there is a bit of world building involved. The writer walks a fine line between over telling and leaving the reader lost as to the make up of the world. For this book, though, all the telling was characterization (at least in the first chapter). For each character introduced (I stopped after five) the story gave two to three long paragraphs explaining all their characterization bits. It was incredibly off putting.

As far as characterization goes, I feel like I should take some time to get to know the characters in a story. Just like in real life, I don't expect to get a perfect idea of who a person is from a first meeting.

But tell does have it's place. 100%.

Edit to clarify: the book wasn't written by someone in this group. At least not to my knowledge. Just something I picked up at the library.
 
All very interesting takes on this. I recently had a chapter looked at by an editor (paid service) and I had one sentence of tell, after showing, showing, showing. The editor said SHOW!
This is why I am so unsure about paid services. Editing is a creative exercise if done right. The editor has to really get the story to be able to fix it. Yet I've heard of so many who've paid for the service and got phoned in responses. That's why I can't agree with "sandwiching", show, tell , show, tell. If it really is that easy then AI programs will be writing all our future books. ( There is an AI writers group on FB. I joined out of curiosity but I felt like the bastard at a family reunion.) The advice I was given with my first baby was, "It's easy. Just give them what they need." Yeah the trick is figuring out when they need: tenderness; NO; or standing by and feeling the hurt when they learn the hard way... I need an editor who can do that with my book. Otherwise I might as well just keep slogging through with my self-editing. However, for 75 sterling the Blue Pencil agency offered a critique of my contest entry. I will take them up on that just to kind of see what I get.
 
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I feel like 'tell' can be more than just a necessary evil... maybe it's outdated but I really enjoy classic crime and you often get some drily witty narration, which to me is just as enjoyable as what's actually going on in the story.
Yes! I love some witty interpretations by the narrator. As long as it doesn't start feeling self-indulgent on the writer's part, it adds to the story.
 
This is why I am so unsure about paid services. Editing is a creative exercise if done right. The editor has to really get the story to be able to fix it. Yet I've heard of so many who've paid for the service and got phoned in responses. That's why I can't agree with "sandwiching", show, tell , show, tell. If it really is that easy then AI programs will be writing all our future books. ( There is an AI writers group on FB. I joined out of curiosity but I felt like the bastard at a family reunion.) The advice I was given with my first baby was, "It's easy. Just give them what they need." Yeah the trick is figuring out when they need: tenderness; NO; or standing by and feeling the hurt when they learn the hard way... I need an editor who can do that with my book. Otherwise I might as well just keep slogging through with my self-editing. However, for 75 sterling the Blue Pencil agency offered a critique of my contest entry. I will take them up on that just to kind of see what I get.
The editor is an editor at Harper Collins.
 
If we wrote every minute of every moment of the lives of our characters, the stories would be so long, and have so many parts that don't matter to the 'big question' that no one would consider reading it, and it would be bigger than a boatload of pages, whether physical or electronic. An epic is one thing, but a second-by-second reliving of a fictitious life - no thanks!

Telling, though, whether in one form or another (summary, exposition, non-POV description), needs to be the parts of the story that don't matter to the overall theme or question. If it matters, it's shown. If it's not important, it can be told.
That's my take on it.
Devil's advocate:
In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.
Did all right with that bit of telling.
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.
That also seemed to work. Considered one of the best opening lines of all time.
Call me Ishmael.
Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.

Primary competition for best opening line honor.
You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.

There might be a trend developing.
Mr. and Mrs. Dursely, of number 4 Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were very normal, thank you very much.
And it's going to be a very long list.
Never tell. Always show. Unless telling works. then, by all means, tell away.
As Pete is fond of saying, there are no rules. What works, works
 
I recently had a chapter looked at by an editor (paid service) and I had one sentence of tell, after showing, showing, showing. The editor said SHOW!
I think showing and telling should always be deliberate. @MattScho gave some pretty great examples of iconic first lines in books that tell instead of show. I'm thinking about my first line (which I love, btw) and it is TELL and FLASHBACK. A huuuuuuge no-no. But for my story, which is quite circular in many ways, the ending of the series circles back to the beginning. And telling pulls the reader in.

So, in your case, why did you tell instead of show? Was there a reason? Did you notice you were doing it? For action, show is much stronger than tell (most of the time). But sometimes, to set the tone, telling is quite effective and, for me, more desirable.
 
I think tell vs show comes down to things like "She was a stern teacher." - Show. What portrays her as stern?
"I was afraid to jump of the diving board." Show.
"I waited until nightfall." If the main thread of story happens after nightfall, we don't need any show of waiting or indeed of the sun setting and moon rising. If, however, the wait itself is going to be interrupted, show some of the waiting (but don't bore the reader).
 
Has anybody come across a discussion on how to do good telling?

Seems that whenever "show, don't tell" is discussed, the writer or presenter is quick to make a disclaimer about how there is room for telling—and then spend the rest of the book (or whatever) describing how to show. Fine, but what about the telling? Why are some writers good at that. I can see that snippets of dialogue and sensory details can spice up a narration, but what else?
 
I am an aspiring writer. An amateur. Orson Scott Card in Characters & Viewpoint empowered me to use tell when it fits better. Here is an excerpt:

What is the difference between dramatic and narrative, between showing and telling in fiction?

[tell]

For sixteen years I put up with his constant whining. His students were stupid. He was never given any good courses to teach. They always assigned him the most worthless graduate students to advise. He was sure they would never renew his contract. When they renewed it, he was equally sure they'd never give him tenure. By the time the decision was made, I was praying he was right.

Unfortunately, he got tenure--and a raise every year, his own personal computer, and several good convention trips a year, and all the time I had to listen to his whining in faculty meetings, the faculty lounge, the corridors, even in my office I could hear him whining clear down the hall. It was too much to hope that another university would hire him, though I praised him to every department chairman I met, hoping they'd try to lure him away.

I began to dream of ways he might die. A fall in the snow. Getting run over by a truck. His bookshelves tumbling over on him. Accidentally taking an overdose of Seruton. I imagined him arriving at the emergency room, whimpering at the doctors and saying, "I know you're just going to let me die." I imagined the doctors saying, "Damn straight."

But I didn't kill him.

[show]

He came into my office without knocking, something even my wife doesn't do. "I don't know why I put up with this," he said.

Oddly enough, exactly the same sentence was running through my mind.

"This new rule about doing our own photocopying is obviously aimed at me," he said. "They're rying to harass me into leaving."

"If you'd have your students buy textbooks instead of copying entire books for them--"

"There is no single book that is suited to my classes. But I should have guessed you'd act like this. You probably suggested that they cut off my photocopying privileges."

"There's a cutback. We lost tow student aides. It has nothing to do with you."

"So you're one of them. fine. I don't need you. I can get a job anywhere."

If I had thought there was a chance he'd actually quit his job, I would have said something snide. However, I knew perfectly well that his whining would eventually lead the chairman or the dean or somebody to assign a student aide to him personally, just to do his photocopying--and if I said anything nasty to him in the process, he'd whine about that, too, and I'd end up sitting through meetings with the dean about my inability to be supportive of other faculty members.

So I didn't say anything. I just looked him in the eye and smiled, hoping all the while that he would die. It was a deep, sincere desire, one that I had often felt before. But I didn't kill him. (184-5)


[Text in bracket is mine]

One of these is tell and one is show. Which is better? Ehhhh. Hard to say. The telling takes on a bit more humorous tone and gives us more insight into the narrator's feelings about this man. The show reveals much more about what these colleagues' relationship looks like. It also takes up way more space and spans way less time.

As OSC notes, though, the telling sounds like the introduction to a scene. I would expect a showing scene to follow it.

One pet peeve of mine is showing AND telling, especially when it occurs in the same sentence or paragraph. For example: "She frowned, angry at him for judging her." Yea. Based on the scene, we should know why she's frowning. Telling right after showing weakens the prose. Or telling before showing. "Jenna was furious. 'Do you have the slightest idea who I am?' she snapped." Bruh. She snapped. We get that she mad af.

I would love to hear what other Litopians think about this :)
 
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Show don't tell is levelled at new and unpublished writers all the time. It really gets on my wick too.

There is a place for both in any story. Without passages of telling books would go on for ever. Flipside - too much of it and the prose becomes flat and lacks dynamism. However, there is no magic formula. No golden ratio to be adhered to. Telling can be done with panache and flair just as showing can.

One of my favourite authors is Chris Brookmyre. His books are superb. He shows in abundance but he also tell oodles and oodles. Sometimes telling passages can run to 3-5 full pages. But in his case, the story loses no impetus. The readability remains cranked up to the max. The plot moves forward and... blah blah blah.

So... what the heck? Show don't tell is one of these weapons often used against writers when in fact those levelling the criticism simply don't have the inclination to say: "Sorry, Mr Shakespeare, but I simply don't care for your story about grumpy old witches. There's just too much telling you see?"

Now this is purely a personal view. But I'm happy to be my own judge on this aspect. Oh, by the way, as I mentioned in another thread, I know nothing much about writing craft, so just to clarify, I am not asserting anything here :) What I do works for me and I can live with myself.

I think everyone should arrive at their own interpretation of this old chestnut. But this might also be of interest. The Craft Chat team's first topic of discussion was this very issue. There's lots to read here.

 
Although, imagine a setting where tell shows what the narrator thinks and show reveals the truth.
---
Why is Albert in ISS today? It's quite simple. Ms. Nicklewartz, the meanest teacher at John Whittacker Middle, put him there.

Yesterday, Albert had to pee during Language Arts, but Ms. Nicklewartz stared down her crook of a nose and said, "You're out of passes for the week." Then she turned like that was that.

But that wasn't that. Albert leaned toward Nicole, nodding toward her half-empty bottle of apple juice. "You gonna finish that?"

Ms. Nicklewartz glared at him, and he straightened.

"It's warm, anyway." Nicole passed him the bottle.

As Ms. Nicklewartz wrote "Essay on The Giver due 9/22", Albert slipped the bottle into his sweatpants, adjusted his business, and relieved himself.

"Ew!" If only Nicole wasn't so girly.

So, here he is. Staring at the clock on the wall in Coach Mallory's classroom waiting for the teachers to send work. They never will. They never do. But you bet they'll penalize him for completing nothing when he returns to classes in five days. They always do.
---
So, in this little fabrication, I've told you what happened at the forefront, but the showing reveals something else. So 1) you know how Albert feels about it and 2) you see what actually happens. Does it work? I dunno. Just thinking about show-v-tell and shaking things up, I guess.
 
I think one also has to look at the dates of the book publications. Telling was much more commonplace pre 2000, but fashions change, and right now, telling is quite out of fashion. Unless, of course, you do it brilliantly.
I think it's the brilliantly part that matters. If we show poorly, that's also not going to work.
The preference is to show, I won't and wouldn't want to deny that.
But telling does now and always will have a place in literature. In recent years, we see this trend a lot in streaming content, through narrators. Just jumping to a lot of recent shows in different niches. Narration made Narcos (drama), it's the entirety of Young Sheldon (comedy) and vital to a series of unfortunate events (YA).
 
Also, was thinking about this, breaking the fourth wall has always been around, but it's really trendy these days, stage, cinema and streaming. And breaking the fourth wall is all about telling.
Telling someone "show, don't tell" without expanding on why is often a sign of a lazy edit. Now, seeing what we get on an unsolicited manuscript is almost always a lazy read, there is a reason for the angst about it. People who are looking for any reason to toss a submisison into the reject pile will grab onto that. That does not make telling wrong, but it does make it sometimes impractical.
 
Also, was thinking about this, breaking the fourth wall has always been around, but it's really trendy these days, stage, cinema and streaming. And breaking the fourth wall is all about telling.
Telling someone "show, don't tell" without expanding on why is often a sign of a lazy edit. Now, seeing what we get on an unsolicited manuscript is almost always a lazy read, there is a reason for the angst about it. People who are looking for any reason to toss a submisison into the reject pile will grab onto that. That does not make telling wrong, but it does make it sometimes impractical.

So true. I just watched the latest Netflix Persuasion. It thoroughly breaks the fourth wall, and I'm a die-hard Jane Austen fan, and I loved it.
 
I have written a book previously where the fourth wall got broken, probably too often with the benefit of hindsight.

It's one of my favourite devices and I'm still always getting tempted.

Here in the UK we have a brilliant comedy show call The Goes Wrong Show. Don't know if it's watchable outside the UK but here's a link to a typical episode. It started as a West End Show (When Peter Pan Goes Wrong - full stage show) and now has done two seasons as a TV show (30 min episodes)

 
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