Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Show Don't Tell


This advice has basically been in vogue since the Ernest Hemingway days. Although we have nay-sayers like Francine Prose who teaches writing and writes brilliant novels.

I believe this is from her book READING LIKE A WRITER.

"....there is a form of bad advice often given young writers—namely, that the job of the author is to show, not tell. Needless to say, many great novelists combine "dramatic" showing with long sections of the flat-out authorial narration that is, I guess, what is meant by telling. And the warning against telling leads to a confusion that causes novice writers to think that everything should be acted out ... when in fact the responsibility of showing should be assumed by the energetic and specific use of language."

ME:

I sometimes think that the most beautiful writing comes with the narrative passages, not ones of dialog. I get weary of too much dialog, too much of an attempt to completely root a story in hip, pitched dialects. Conversations can easily be as dull as narration. What do you think? Stasis isn't the outcome of narration (or telling) necessarily, but of too little story, too little description, too little character.

11 comments:

Joe Barone said...

Let's see now. When I read Moby Dick back in high school (or whenever), why was it I skipped the detailed descriptions of whaling?

pattinase (abbott) said...

Amen. And what about was the one that had the long section about money houses or something up front?

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Patti, I have Prose's READING LIKE A WRITER though I have only read it in parts. It's a very good book with plenty of sound advice for budding writers. I like a book that has both descriptions and dialogues in equal measure. Not long ago, I read my first book by Elmore Leonard called PAGAN BABIES and I was quite surprised by the amount of conversation that takes place. It takes getting used to. Leonard favours dialogues over descriptions, one of his famous writing tips.

Anonymous said...

Not a writer but as a reader I can give my opinion. As far as Jackie goes, she tends to treat all desriptive passages like Joe and you (and I) treat the whaling descriptions in MOBY DICK - she skips them. Needless to say, authors like James Lee Burke are not for her. (He's not for me either, but that's another thing.)

All I can say is, it depends. It depends on what kind of book you're writing. Elmore Leonard is a perfect example of one kind. A mystery of the kind he writes (or Lawrence Block, for another example) benefits from a lot of dialogue, but not everyone has his talent for it.

Jeff M.

Bill Crider said...

I've enjoyed the "telling" in a lot of novels, but then I even like MOBY DICK.

Deb said...

As a reader not writer, it's always a balance between telling and showing. I like something more than endless exchanges of dialog, but then I don't simply want vast descriptive passages. And what I can't stand is exposition wrapped in dialog. I just finished a mystery novel where huge chunks of exposition took place in clumsy conversations between people who would never talk like that to each other. For example, a husband says to his wife, "I'm sure you remember when we had the central heating put into this house six months ago to prepare for the winter weather."

/And, no, that dialog was not meant to be sarcastic, as it is when I say to my husband, "I know you remember when we got married 23 years ago and you said you'd take care of the dogs."

Ron Scheer said...

Isn't the show-not-tell business a way to suppress the voice of a narrator, to make the storytelling transparent to the reader? Fine for Hemingway, but some show-AND-tell narrators are half the fun of a good story, and that's why we call it storytelling, not storyshowing.

Dana King said...

I look at it as another one of those "rules" you have to understand before you start breaking them. Some things are best "told" in the interests of saving time. What I think "show, don't tell" is really advocating against are the pages of mind-numbing description or exposition some writers go through where nothing relevant happens. At. All. period. The detailed description of hundreds of years of family history in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO comes to mind, though if I start listing all the things i didn't like about that book we're going to be here a while.

Erik Donald France said...

Agreed ~~!

Charles Gramlich said...

Absolutely. We seem to be living in a world of relentless dialogue, and it's so often boring, trivial and just plain silly. I'd like to see writers cut back on it myself.

Richard S. Wheeler said...

I discovered in my own work that showing often grinds the story to a halt. I often use narrative to hustle the story along. Only when something is critically important should it be dramatized.