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Editors and exquisite readers, in here please.

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  • Editors and exquisite readers, in here please.

    Did I finally figure something out? If not, please let me know. I've been trying for years to totally understand what my creative writing teachers meant by "Show. Don't tell." They've explained it in many ways and maybe my brain is stubborn, but last night something my son did might have shed light on it?

    He built a huge maze out of stuff he piled in the living room. He proceeded to tell me for the next 2 minutes what he was going to do with the maze now it was built. I stood there and listened to him rattle on but I really wanted him to just get on with it so I could get back to making dinner. Finally he dropped to his little mouse knees and crawled through his maze and did all the stuff he said he was going to do, and we all thought it was very cool.

    So! I'm not supposed to tell the reader "my character is going to do this and then he's going to do that, and then later he's going to ...." etc. That's boring! SHOW US WHAT HE DID instead!!

    Is this what it finally means?

  • #2
    I reckon. MM takes it a stage further, sometimes not describing even the route of the narrative itself - giving the reader creative freedom to 'bridge the gaps': I think the 'show; don't tell' concept is beginning to dawn on me, too - I tend to get into deep description of mood, environment, etc...which has it's place, but it's getting the paradigm shift of trusting your reader's perceptive faculties, and hence allowing yourself to strip down your narrative to an efficient but rich text. 'Least, that's what i'm trying now :? :lol:

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    • #3
      That's it! :)

      It also applies to emotions and attitudes, as well as just actions though. For example, if you wanted to suggest that the character of Dee had a weird Amأ©lie fixation, you could write:

      "That was Dee. He had a weird Amأ©lie fixation."

      But, the "show, don't tell" way of doing it would be to write:

      "I first met Dee in Paris, licking the windows of a cafأ©, where several scenes from the movie Amأ©lie had been shot."

      The second version says basically the same thing as the first, but is more colourful.
      "That which does not kill us, makes us stranger." - Trevor Goodchild

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      • #4
        I think that the way Dee illustrated it is the method I generally prefer, with the added requirement that the narrative should very rarely, if ever, explain the "meaning" of such depictions. This is a corollary of my personal dictum, "Never condescend to the reader." If your scenes and images have meaning, an intelligent, perceptive reader won't need to be told the meaning or interepretation -- he'll be able to provide those himself. This is part of the two-way transactional nature of fiction.

        I shouldn't go on about this subject, so I'll leave it to those here who are more expert in this domain of discourse.

        Mes 5 centimes.

        LSN

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        • #5
          I'm hardly an expert either, but I found my writing technique evolves in that direction too, to the extent of writing stories like stage plays where everything has to be guessed from the (of course never objective) dialogue. Also I hardly do any description of the settings anymore - the reader has to guess it from partial and subjective statements made by either characters or narrator - the latter never being a godlike omniscient one.
          Come to think of it, I am reaching a point where I won't even describe anything of the scenes that are - supposedly - taking place. I don't know if that is good or bad. All I know is I'm going to push that technique to its limits and see what comes up.
          probably incoherent babbling.
          which wouldn't be so much of a change, heh?

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          • #6
            Let's expand on what Dee was saying. I want the city my main character lives in to reflect the character's melancholy. The first case is a tell and the second is a dense show.

            Case 1:

            "She felt like she could cry. While standing in line for her second chocolate shake of the day, she knew that those around her would ignore her tears. The traffic would fly by and she'd stuff herself with another shake. She felt so alone."

            Case 2:

            "The taqueria at the intersection had the best horchata on the block and a tall one would help fill her void. Maria was almost overcome by the noise of the traffic. She could hear above the din roaring and popping like a distant storm that was fast approaching. Two fat Harley Davidsons rolled through the intersection, sparkling like a pair of hot silvery tears running down the cheeks of Long Beach, but no one paid much attention."

            Or something to that effect.
            The cat spread its wings and flew high into the air, hovering to keep pace with them as they moved cautiously toward the city. Then, as they climbed over the rubble of what had once been a gateway and began to make their way through piles of weed-grown masonry, the cat flew to the squat building with the yellow dome upon its roof. It flew twice around the dome and then came back to settle on Jhary's shoulder. - The King of the Swords

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            • #7
              Thank you for your replies. Learning so much day by day here, from everyone.

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              • #8
                Hmm. There is a Wittgenstein angle here. For some phenomena the appropriate response is an empirical explanation, for other phenomena the appropriate response is understanding . . . understanding where you, or we, or people stand in relation to the phenomena in question. We are mistaken when we respond to an aesthetic phenomenon as if it is something scientific, as if it is something in need of an empirical explanation. We shouldn’t seek to cobble together an empirical explanation of a novel--Moby-Dick, say--because empirical explanation is an inappropriate response. Rather, we should seek to understand Moby-Dick. Because seeking an understanding is the appropriate response. And understanding, remember, is seeing or coming to terms with where we stand in relation to the phenomenon.

                This distinction can now be applied to narrative, to telling a story.

                We shouldn't attempt to provide an empirical explanation of a scenario or an event (unless we are parodying an empirical explanation as a means of ridiculing a certain Philistine "scientific" mindset). Instead we should seek an understanding of a scenario or an event, and then express or show that understanding. Use language to cause the reader to "understand" what the author understands. Or use language to attempt to reach for that understanding, for those understandings.

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                • #9
                  Being a "professional" writer, although not outside of the small press, I understand the confusion of editorial dictates. I've also edited my fair share of tomes, so I know what it means to "show, don't tell."

                  Quick reply: believe that you are actually a cerebral painter, and your canvas is the readers mind.

                  Second is to use something quite familiar to all of here:

                  Tell: The alien, albino prince sits on his jeweled throne brooding.

                  Show: "It is the colour of a bleached skull, his flesh; and the long hair which flows below his shoulders is milk-white. From the tapering, beautiful head stare two slanting eyes, crimson and moody, and from the loose sleeves of his yellow gown emerge two slender hands, also the colour of bone, resting on each arm of a seat which has been carved from a single, massive ruby."

                  Still one of the BEST character introductions I've ever read.

                  I hope that helps.

                  Jeff

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                  • #10
                    Same rule applies to films, I find. I hate being told in a dialogue essential things to understand the plot! Much so even in documentaries in which you often depend on oral testimonies, of course, but at least one can try to find or create situations in which a protagonist behaves very "tellingly" without saying it so that I understand how he/she is disposed, handles stress or treats other people.
                    Google ergo sum

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                    • #11
                      Mmmm. Mmmm. In plays characters often must tell what's going on. It can either be very effective or too too obvious. Maybe the thing to do sometimes is to deliberately make it obvious in this way, and use this as a narrative strategy: The Chorus in Henry V. He may be telling, but gosh is it riviting good stuff. For our own purposes, here's where experimental and parodic narratives and narrators come into play.

                      Nor should we fail to overlook the fact that conventional "showing " tra la is itself a convention, a linguistic construction/practice among many. I remember a creative writing teacher telling me to change a parodic introduction I had written, and then some similar bits that came at the end of the same piece. He suggested the cuts in order to make my piece more "marketable." Markets be damned. I was making art. This guy would have told Kubrick to cut out the final sequence of 2001.

                      Beware of creative writing insutructors bearing commercial advice. It could be their marajuana habit talking.

                      But then again this might be my own "art" habit talking too....

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                      • #12
                        Originally posted by LEtranger
                        Same rule applies to films, I find. I hate being told in a dialogue essential things to understand the plot! Much so even in documentaries in which you often depend on oral testimonies, of course, but at least one can try to find or create situations in which a protagonist behaves very "tellingly" without saying it so that I understand how he/she is disposed, handles stress or treats other people.
                        The worst film I have ever seen in this regard was John Carpenter's "Big Trouble in Little China". What could have been a good bit of fun was kneecapped by the protagonisy explaining what was happening as opposed to letting the audience work it out for themselves.
                        Does it follow that I reject all authority? Perish the thought. In the matter of boots, I defer to the authority of the boot-maker.
                        Bakunin

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                        • #13
                          Nabakov eschewed dailogue, which is interesting. Pale Fire has only one or two lines of dialogue, if that much. Everything is simply Kinbote's account of things--mad Kinbote thinking about things. And yet the sounds of the characters' voices are clear enough. In fact, I can still hear them. Remarkable.

                          In a related thread, LSN makes this excellent point:

                          Originally posted by L_Stearns_Newburg
                          avoid using forms of "to be" between the subject and the verb, unless there is a good reason for doing so.

                          Example:

                          "He was walking up the street"

                          Versus:

                          "He walked up the street"

                          It's common enough to see people treat these 2 phrases as if they were interchangeable. They're not, really. Both types of expression are useful, but which is used depends on what the writer is trying to accomplish.

                          The first sample makes the narration clearly retrospective. The character is recalling something, and the result is a bit static in the way it observes the action. The second sample, although employing the past tense, renders the scene somewhat more dynamically and dramatically, without that pane of glass ("was") between the subject and verb.

                          If I want to dramatize a scene, one move at a time, I try to avoid expressions of the form, "He was seeing / feeling / doing <something>" unless there's a retrospective moment that must pull the reader up short to think about the character's "condition," and give him a momentary taste of pure being, as it were. :lol:

                          This is not, of course, a rule. This is more a personal trick, or perhaps simply a mannerism. I find it useful.

                          LSN
                          In our dreams, in our private cinemas, our own mad "inner Kinbote" sees things *happening*: "He walked up the street." Never in a dream do we think: "He was walking up the street."

                          hmm.

                          "He was running up the crow's step gables when, with flapping arms, he was suddenly flying off into the moon-lit night.

                          "He ran up the crow's step gables, spread his arms and flew off through the moon-lit night."

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                          • #14
                            Thanks, Carter. Your exegesis of my notion captures it perfectly, and goes the next step to show (there's that word again) the difference in how the 2 approaches render the action.

                            Everything depends on the effects you're chasing. Carter understands this. Perdix does, too, as well as Dee and several other contributors to PX-1, based on my reading of their texts.

                            I'm tempted to start another discussion of a technical nature on the dangers in narration of extended use of the pluperfect. I always suspected Henry James in The Turn of the Screw, Conrad in Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, and Conrad Ferdinand Meyer in several novellas (notably, "The Sufferings of a Boy") employed their methods of indirect narration at least in part to avoid some of the headaches that arise from the pluperfect. (I know, Meyer wrote in German, but the resultant constructions would have been just as inelegant as our equivalent pluperfect.)

                            There's also the added irony obtainable from the use of the outer frame narrator, but that's a different, more complex question.

                            LSN

                            Postscriptum: There's something vaguely surreal about observing myself (like Sartre's Other) posting to a thread for "editors" and "exquisite readers." How the hell did I get in here? And where's the door? :lol:

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Originally posted by CarterK
                              "He was running up the crow's step gables when, with flapping arms, he was suddenly flying off into the moon-lit night.

                              "He ran up the crow's step gables, spread his arms and flew off through the moon-lit night."
                              The reference to that excellent (and tricky) novel, Pale Fire, is nice supporting evidence. I wasn't thinking of Nabokov's book when I wrote the original comments, but I like the example as a (complex) starting point.

                              I quoted Carter's example above because it illustrates another virtue of avoiding gratuitous use of "to be": note how much quicker and more compact the second example is than the first. Speed of narration can be a great virtue. Readers often respond positively to it.

                              LSN

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