Friday, 20 July 2012

The telling and showing balance

I've been editing some of my previously published stories for a collection I'm hoping to put together. It's a really fun project - some of the stories are pretty darn completely perfect and don't need any editing at all, others needed a bit of updating (a couple were written before mobile phones became common, one needed Facebook mentioned). And one needs a whole rewrite.

And that's the one I'd like to talk about, obviously.

Yesterday, I made a start on it, and realised I tell everything and show nothing. This is bad. All the advice points to showing not telling, and it makes sense - it keeps the prose varied, it draws people into the story, it even breaks up the page because speech and action naturally have more gaps.

So, I got out my red pen and started slashing. It was a massacre!

And then... I read The Beacon by Susan Hill (not all of it yet, so this isn't a review... but I have read the ending because I do that!)

There's an awful lot of telling in this short book, but it works - for most of the story so far, a woman is alone in her farmhouse after her mother dies and she's recalling growing up.

In my story, a homeless girl is telling us what her day consists of. She's so busy surviving that conversations with people don't have much meaning to her... so writing conversations would jar against the story. Wouldn't it?



What are your thoughts about showing v telling?
Have you ever written a story/novel that is mostly telling?
Do you have any tips for me?

26 comments:

  1. A lot of (big name) writers get away with telling, rather than showing. As a reader, I personally do not mind either approach, so long as the story being shown (or told) is intriguing enough. That's what matters most to me, the content/subject matter, not its delivery.

    Best of luck with the collection your putting together. :D

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Them 'big names' get away with so much, while we have to slave for perfection... I'm not bitter :-)

      Delete
  2. I agree that more showing is what's called for in most stories but there are some who benefit from telling more. As you say, it depends on the type of story and the viewpoint. But in any story there is room for both, I feel... But if you really want to draw a reader in then showing is the thing because then the reader feels she is actually in the story with the charcters.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's a good point, the story needs to be strong... *thinks back to WIP*

      Delete
  3. Oh my, telling is a big problem for me, and I am trying really hard to learn to show more!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's so hard to find that balance - because all showing and no telling might just make the reader's head spin!

      Delete
  4. I think a book with all showing and no telling would be really hard to do - and awkward to read. I think a little telling here and there, even in a story with a lot of action and dialogue, is natural.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good point - pace, rhythm and flow do make a difference in the enjoyment of a book.

      Delete
  5. i think you've gotten some really good advice already. just wanted to say best wishes on the editing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Michelle - I'm really enjoying the chance to go back over my short stories and make those little changes I've always wanted to make - I'm never finished writing, even after publication!

      Delete
  6. Agree, lots of good advice above. :) I think it is about balance, and about what works best for your story. Good luck. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Rachel - I agree, the type of story makes a difference to how you deliver it.

      Delete
  7. 'it even breaks up the page because speech and action naturally have more gaps.'

    Excellent technical point, A.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I have these brief moments of clarity... then it all goes foggy again lol

      Delete
  8. I just read an article by Lee Child who blasted the advice of showing rather than telling. He said...kids don't ask to be shown a story, they ask to be told a story. That really made me stop and think. Do we try to show too much? I think we do. There are times when telling is enough. It fits. I think you should go with your gut on this. YOU know your character and what is happening in her life. You know if she needs to tell her story or if she wants to act it out and show it to us.

    I haven't written a story that uses mostly telling (yet), but that doesn't mean one wouldn't work. I think in your case, from what you described, a lot of showing would interfere with the girl's daily routine. My personal advice is to show her daily routine when you can by using imagery around her (if it fits), show her feelings by using physical cues (if they fit) and tell the rest.

    Or, tell it all. It's your character. She'll let you know what needs to be done. And I don't think there is one right or wrong answer.

    Michelle :)
    www.michelle-pickett.com

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ah yes, I read that same article (although I forgot about it until just then - d'oh). And yes, perhaps the story demands that I tell it this way - thanks Michelle!

      Delete
  9. I think the subtle difference between good telling and bad telling (!) is telling something that could and should be shown, as opposed to telling because it suits the story. A story that is mainly a sort of internal monologue will inevitably end up being mostly telling and I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I often get my knickers in a twist about whether I'm showing or telling and end up not being sure what I'm doing! I think we should just write and trust our instincts! Looking forward to reading them!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. As writers, we should trust our instincts more... otherwise we'd just write like everyone else, wouldn't we?

      Delete
  10. You know I'm no expert, but when I write, I use this simple rule.

    If it's boring but crucial to the story: tell it (quickly and efficiently).

    If it's interesting and crucial to the story: show it.

    If it isn't crucial to the story: delete it.

    It sounds simple, but most people find this agonizing. Good luck.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's a great rule, Rena. And you're underselling yourself!

      Delete
  11. As a reader, I don't mind 'telling' when its done well and the narrative is compelling, so I try to use that same philosophy in my own writing. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Some authors have such a great voice that they do suck you into the story, no matter how it's told. These comments have helped me realise there's no right and wrong, just what's right for the story.

      Delete
  12. What I'm seeing from the comments is that you need the right balance to keep your story interesting. Read it out loud - that's a good way to tell if it's flowing or bogging down. I bet you have the right mix - just needs some tweaks. Rules are meant to be broken. Good luck!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I do read my stories out loud, that's a great way of finding those awkwardly written parts. And I love to break the rules :-)

      Delete
  13. As a reader, not as an aspiring writer, I do enjoy a smart, long dialogue. I actually prefer it to, very long and tiresome descriptions (although I am also a big Balzac admirer). I think it's a matter of inspiration...:).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Some writers have just a gift for dialogue - that's a whole separate art, I think, but definitely one to study!

      Delete

Please comment - I love a good chat!