First off, new Warbreaker chapter: Chapter Fifty Seven
It’s almost done! Join the discussion, and find new chapters, here.
We’re also getting near to the end of my top ten list of bad storytelling elements. Today, we’ll do:
Ten Elements of Bad Storytelling (we all use)
#2: Tell vs. Show (and vice versa)
It’s the age old adage of writing. “Show don’t tell.” Experienced writers use this phrase constantly, beating new writers over the heads with it. It’s the first bit of writing advice I ever got (From Marion Zimmer Bradley, no less.) It gets thrown around in writing classes and worships, the sharpened ninja star one can use when it’s tough to find something else to say about a work.
It’s good advice. However, the way that the pros often use it make it seem like we ALWAYS get this one right, and never cut corners. I’m here to tell you that just isn’t so.
The reason it goes on this list is because “Show Don’t Tell” is such conventional wisdom that every serious writing student has likely heard it dozens of times. The problem is, they’re often not ALSO told that sometimes, you just HAVE to tell. They’re also not told that reader’s tolerance for show vs. tell varies widely based on taste, genre, and mood at the time of reading.
Generally, showing something instead of telling it creates more dynamic writing, with more interesting prose. However, it can also make something confusing, and can make a section of writing take an inappropriate amount of time. Also, what one writer thinks should be shown, another writer will often think should be told. I’m reminded of an author who–while I was perusing his book–posted a review of one of my book on his website. He complained that my writing didn’t show enough, while I was thinking the exact same thing about HIS writing.
The reason for this? I think perhaps, that he and I make different judgements about where to show and where to tell. Because of this, we regard each other’s writing critically, ignoring the places where each of us DO show because those aren’t places where we’d have done it. It’s pretty easy to look through a book and pick out the ‘telly’ portions, once you have been focused on writing as much as people like Mr. Forbes and I have.
Now, I’ll admit, a LOT of new writers tell way more often than they should. However, in my opinion, ‘Show vs. Tell’ is less a skill to learn, and more a balancing act to practice. You have to decide where you want to use each type of writing.
And, sometimes, you’ll decide to TELL instead of SHOW. You’ll realize exactly what you’re doing, but at the time you’re writing, you’ll just be bored by the scene, and want to get past it quickly. You’ll tell it in a few quick paragraphs. Or, you’ll have a side character where you just don’t want to spend the effort to explain who they are via their actions, and will just go ahead and give a quick, two-line description instead.
Is that worse storytelling? Yeah. Do I do it? Yeah. Will I change? I don’t know. I, again, see telling as a tool–which is why it’s an element of bad storytelling that we all use.
Talk about it on my LJ if you want! (You can post comments there, where we don’t have that feature on my main website blog.) Forgive the rough draft.
#1 next week some time!