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Showing vs Telling - the neverending debate about prose


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Spawned by a conversation on Discord.

As we all well know, many writing teachers emphasize 'showing rather than telling'

But the question is what is showing? What is telling? No one really seems to agree on a global definition.

So I posted a question on several Reddit threads using the following easy examples:

SHOWING

Clenching his fist he stared at him.

The moment had finally come, all the work had paid off it was perfect.

After his father died Timmy would wouldn't talk much, going to his room every night without a fuss as the sky darken, story time.

He slammed a fist on the table. "I will throttle you!" [though some people said this was showing, and others said it was telling. These seemed to differ depending on the respondent's influences and style]

TELLING

"I will throttle you!" he said angrily.

He was angry

.She was happy.

He was sad because of his father's death.

Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough, and looked don't-fuck-with-me enough, that his biggest problem was killing time. [American Gods by Neil Gaiman]

Personally, I don't think there is anything wrong with either style since it would be pretty boring if we wrote all the same way. Sometimes, I do get a bit down because I lean towards a more workman style of prose (ie get to the point), and it can frustrate me at times when the more verbose authors point out telling is bad writing.

Sample authors that get brought up a lot if you are curious

More showing than telling - Pat Rothfuss, Gene Wolfe, 

More telling than showing - Brandon Sanderson, JK Rowling, Mark Lawrence, KJ Parker

 

Fancy Prose! [Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss]

The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts. The most obvious part was a hollow, echoing quiet, made by things that were lacking. If there had been a wind it would have sighed trough the trees, set the inn’s sign creaking on its hooks, and brushed the silence down the road like trailing autumn leaves. If there had been a crowd, even a handful of men inside the inn, they would have filled the silence with conversation and laughter, the clatter and clamour one expects from a drinking house during the dark hours of the night. If there had been music…but no, of course there was no music. In fact there were none of these things, and so the silence remained.

Not So Fancy Prose [Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson]

Ash fell from the sky. Lord Tresting frowned, glancing up at the ruddy, mid-day sky as his servants scuttled forward, opening a parasol over Tresting and his distinguished guest. Ashfalls weren’t that uncommon in the Final Empire, but Tresting had hoped to avoid getting soot stains on his fine new suit coat and red vest, which had just arrived via canal boat from Luthadel itself. Fortunately, there wasn’t much wind—the parasol would likely be effective.

[How to Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee] - This is telling too

 Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the court-house sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft tea-cakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum. 

 

So. Conclusion? Write your way. Develop your own style. There will be people who hate what you write. But others will love it too.

Also, you may totally disagree with my opinions on the above passages - there really is no right or wrong! It's all subjective and what works for you.

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JK does certainly do a fair bit of telling - but its balanced with the amount of times she shows us what Harry is feeling - I think this is particularly evident in book 5 when Harry starts to mature, and become more frustrated with his situation and his helplessness. Her romance is rather piss poor, but I don't think that was ever a main focus for her, I mean look how horribly Ron treats Hermione in book 4. Even if her description is light on, we can still understand the characters feelings beyond the dialogue and quick exchanges. I mean I certainly prefer something a bit more polished than HP, but it is written for a younger audience than I normally read. I think the level of showing vs telling is also going to depend on your audience. I wonder if people's lack of appreciation for lengthy chapters in fanfiction may lead us to prefer more telling rather than showing?

In my own work, I try to aim for something between JK and Paolini, and the way to which I swing will depend on what I'm writing. My beyblade work is more towards JK's style, my zoids work is somewhere in the middle and my Narnia work is allllll the way over with Paolini - which is fun because I can experiment with all types depending on my mood for the day =) 

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6 hours ago, darkened-storm said:

JK does certainly do a fair bit of telling - but its balanced with the amount of times she shows us what Harry is feeling - I think this is particularly evident in book 5 when Harry starts to mature, and become more frustrated with his situation and his helplessness. Her romance is rather piss poor, but I don't think that was ever a main focus for her, I mean look how horribly Ron treats Hermione in book 4. Even if her description is light on, we can still understand the characters feelings beyond the dialogue and quick exchanges. I mean I certainly prefer something a bit more polished than HP, but it is written for a younger audience than I normally read. I think the level of showing vs telling is also going to depend on your audience. I wonder if people's lack of appreciation for lengthy chapters in fanfiction may lead us to prefer more telling rather than showing?

In my own work, I try to aim for something between JK and Paolini, and the way to which I swing will depend on what I'm writing. My beyblade work is more towards JK's style, my zoids work is somewhere in the middle and my Narnia work is allllll the way over with Paolini - which is fun because I can experiment with all types depending on my mood for the day =) 

I do not think length has anything to do with appreciation for showing-telling. There are plenty of reasons why people don't read long chapters. Time. Format (what they typically read on). Author style etc. It is like some people just don't like long songs (unlike me who enjoys long songs). 

Length is gonna vary from reader to reader too. Audience, I feel, is determined by your story and plot. Now obviously you can tell by the first chapter the writer's age, but I have seen stories by older people that are bland too. There are also stories by young people that are sophisticated. I would say it is experience.

Genre is important to note too. And I am not talking about romance, comedy etc but actual literature (Dickens) vs creative writing (Rowling). There is a big difference and many literature authors scoff at creative writing.

Anyways. I actually think showing and telling is shaped by your influences and how your brain selects and processes information. Some people get distracted by vibrant and verbose writing and thus lose immersion. Others love verbose writing and colourful prose because it is beautiful to read and has a nice tone.

Me personally? I like straight forward writing. I like to think I have a very active imagination and I like being able to visualize stuff happening. I do not need poetic descriptions to paint an image in my head.

I don't have a problem with telling vs showing. I care about the plot, the characters and the dialogue and not so much about prose. No amount of teaching is going to help someone write like Dickens and Rothfuss and that is okay.

Whilst I understand telling is a bit bland in comparison, I think instructors also should't claim telling is bad writing. You can show a lot and still be bad.

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What I was told was that showing is preferred but telling can still be used if showing starts to become clumsy or long winded. It’s particularly relevant for the types of writing that require simple explanations (E.g. business writing, technical writing).  It’s not so much using one over the other as it is knowing how to use both. But showing should also be someone’s first inclination, and it showing doesn’t work for whatever reason, then switch to telling, but add a bit of showing into it so that the writing doesn’t become bland.

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  • 6 months later...
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Here is one that I saw mentioned in a music server I follow, and people pointed out how shite it was.

"Described as "the worst fantasy novella ever", The Eye of Argon is a story by then 16 year-old Jim Theis published in 1970.

It's very over the top and full of unnecessary details that really distracts from the actual writing. It also has bad grammar.

It's one of those books that is so bad it's brilliant at the same time.

 

https://www-users.cs.york.ac.uk/~susan/sf/eyeargon/eyeargon.htm

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