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At what point should an author hold the reader's hand or explain things to them?

Tidus53Tidus53 Registered User regular
Hey guys I'm still wading in the water of writing and I had a question I wanted to kick around with people that have a "higher level" at this then me (you guys groaning over how I used a video game reference yet?).

So in entertainment involving writing--games, tv shows, movies, books, etc.-- a specific rule is that of Show don't Tell, which as I understand it means that you need to present the reader with clues or subtle facts to them and allow them to piece it together themselves. That can be totally wrong, so I'll just say that I understand it as a short way to say you don't hold the reader's hand, you have to respect them.

This comes in a lot ways with like subtle clues describing a battle torn landscape, a character's physical description, to even secondary characterization or their actions in the story that reveal their inner workings. That good ways of revealing someone's character is subtle, not them stating," I am a warrior, I fight things and help people." When a better way would be a warrior giving the last of his provisions to a starving child on his journey.

What I would like to know is if there is ever an appropriate moment to reveal more about a character through dialogue then action alone? Like would two characters discussing a third in idle conversation seem like a bad or amateur means of revealing more character or would it be acceptable, because it would reveal more about the third party and those that are talking about them?

On top of that in high fantasy and sci fi settings at what point do you need to break to explain the logic of the world? Or would it break the immersion to explain it?

I apologize if these are amateur of vague questions, please quote or PM me and I'll try to explain what I mean further, but I'm really hoping to expand upon this sorta thing.

At any rate, thank you for taking the time to read and/or comment on this!

Posts

  • AmaliaAmalia AuthorFace Registered User regular
    Hey Tidus!

    Here's the thing--Show don't tell taken to the extreme becomes a laborious, torturous read. The trick is really learning what stuff serves the story BEST by being told and what serves the story best by being shown. And I think one of the best ways to do this is 1) identify what your PoV is, and 2) be aware of what would be naturally observed by your PoV character and/or what would naturally be registered as an experience with perhaps deeper cognizance of the moment. For instance, it probably isn't worth "showing" a war torn landscape through the dropping of clue and hints of what the landscape is. If the character observing the landscape is shocked, you can show us their shock (by maybe having them stop short at the sight) but then go ahead and TELL us what they're seeing that caused them to pull up short. You can certainly show emotion (shock/surprise) through action, and I think maybe that's one of the most glaring show vs tell examples -- for example: "She saw the war torn battlefield and was filled with sorrow." vs something like "She saw the war torn battlefield and her throat closed." But even then, sometimes giving a telling cue might be helpful, a la "She saw the war torn battlefield and sorrow fisted around her heart."

    In regard to your specific question-- you can have two characters talking about a third character to reveal elements of their (3rd character's) characterization/back story if you want, sure. But ask yourself two questions: 1) is it necessary and does it serve to move the story forward? like, by revealing some super critical piece of information about said third character that helps one of the two other characters come to a realization/understanding of why they've behaved the way they have or allowing them to band more closely together? 2) is the third character going to follow-through and reinforce whatever's being revealed through their actions?

    For example, in Twilight, Stephenie Meyers tells us over and over again (via Bella's internal monologue/narration) that Bella is a terrible liar. Except that Bella lies convincingly CONSTANTLY throughout the book -- over and over and over again, she lies and hides things from her chief of police father, who presumably (I mean, who knows) is not an idiot. No matter how many times Meyers repeats this element of Bella's characterization, it is consistently disproved by the book itself. Maybe Bella doesn't LIKE lying particularly, but she certainly seems to know how to do it well enough to conceal the fact that she's dating a vampire/constantly living in peril because she inexplicably attracts the supernatural like moths to a flame.

    It isn't going to matter if your other two characters (or character 3 himself) tell us that character 3 is super awesome at, say, burning toast, if character 3 is constantly toasting his bread to perfection over an open fire during their journey.

    All of this is to say -- show vs tell is really more of a suggestion or a guideline than an actual RULE, and judicious telling has its place. It isn't ALWAYS wrong to tell, and it isn't ALWAYS right to show, and a good way to learn about the best uses of each is just to keep reading good books and pay attention to where they're doing which, and why it works for you as the reader and HOW/WHY it best served the story to do it that way.

    As far as revealing the logic of the world goes -- try to resist the urge to give the reader everything at once in an infodump, period. Drips and Drabs as the PoV character(s) encounters a thing is usually a way better idea. And even then. Limit yourself to maybe a sentence at a time. Chances are if your PoV character lives IN the world/grew up in the world, they're not going to be dwelling excessively on the logic/mechanics (unless their trade is the studying of said logic/mechanics, I suppose -- a wizard might have more to say on the mechanics/logic of magic than your average farmer, for instance, but a farmer might have a lot more thoughts about the weather in relation to foodstuffs and harvests than a wizard who lives in some citadel in a city -- just like the Starks of Winterfell are more obsessed about Winter Coming than say, the Lannisters in the south.) so if you insert a ton of information on the topic, yeah, it might be jarring/obvious authorial insertion/break immersion. Chances are your characters and players are going to, during the course of their adventures, be limited in their actions and choices BY the rules and Logic of the world naturally, and I think this is where trusting your readers comes in. That said, if something is going to save the day at the end of the book, you might want to lay some subtle groundwork to support that particular element early on, vs just oh this element is a thing we can do so yay we're saved at the end.

    Again, I'd recommend really reading and paying attention to how authors you admire do this.

    Soooooooooo.
    YMMV and I am sure other people will have differing opinions and maybe some of them will be the opposite of mine, but I hope this helps to some degree!

    Sometimes I blog. Other times I tweet. But I'm always writing. (and so is that other Amalia)

    Give the Gift of Thor! Or maybe you'd be interested in that Orc Book I wrote.
  • chiasaur11chiasaur11 Never doubt a raccoon. Registered User regular
    Amalia wrote: »
    For example, in Twilight, Stephenie Meyers tells us over and over again (via Bella's internal monologue/narration) that Bella is a terrible liar. Except that Bella lies convincingly CONSTANTLY throughout the book -- over and over and over again, she lies and hides things from her chief of police father, who presumably (I mean, who knows) is not an idiot. No matter how many times Meyers repeats this element of Bella's characterization, it is consistently disproved by the book itself. Maybe Bella doesn't LIKE lying particularly, but she certainly seems to know how to do it well enough to conceal the fact that she's dating a vampire/constantly living in peril because she inexplicably attracts the supernatural like moths to a flame.

    Of course, in a GOOD book, that would be an intentional unreliable narrator thing. I mean "I'm a bad liar" is one of the classic tells that the main character is kind of addicted to lying like a rug. Kind of a tangent, but with third person limited and first person, you can do a lot of showing with not showing, if I can get insufferable for a second.

    Basically, if you have a third person omniscient narrator, you can tell things about a character by just saying them. You get all their thoughts, their history, the works. Third person limited, though, that's all from one person's perspective most of the time. Which can be useful. If the narration gives detail on, say, the specifics of a car's engine, and skims what everyone's wearing, it says the viewpoint character is interested in cars without having to say "Jim really liked cars and thought they were awesome."

    Of course, the line for showing versus telling varies by person anyway, which complicates matters.

    Amalia
  • DoctorJestDoctorJest Grand Eedjit The Loony BinRegistered User regular
    Twilight is probably bad, from a Professor of Literature angle. On the other hand, it's incredible commercial fiction, with a very clear target audience that was written for and that very clearly loves it. The day I can pull off something that well, I doubt I'll care what any Professors of Literature think of my book. I think the same's true of Dan Brown -- we forum folk do love to poke fun at Dan Brown, and point out the crappy writing. But we take that as "we write better than Dan Brown", when it's really probably "we write more correctly than Dan Brown". What he does well is probably more interesting than what he does badly, though there's plenty of both to look at.

    But I also think that's also a part of how to approach this -- sometimes, how much you should be telling or showing will depend a little on who you're writing for. Children's books tell more than adult's books, because the latter tend to assume a more mature reader, capable of making more intuitive leaps, while the former tend to assume that the readers need to be told more directly.

    And while the show-don't-tell thing is certainly a good concept, I think it is actually just one interpretation of an even more basic concept -- don't kill the pace of your narrative. If you're telling like a dusty schoolmaster, then you're going to have trouble if you tell a lot, because your reader will close the book. Tell like Pratchett, though, and you could probably just tell, tell, and tell some more until you've run out of pages, and be just fine. Style trumps rules every time.

  • chiasaur11chiasaur11 Never doubt a raccoon. Registered User regular
    DoctorJest wrote: »
    Twilight is probably bad, from a Professor of Literature angle. On the other hand, it's incredible commercial fiction, with a very clear target audience that was written for and that very clearly loves it. The day I can pull off something that well, I doubt I'll care what any Professors of Literature think of my book. I think the same's true of Dan Brown -- we forum folk do love to poke fun at Dan Brown, and point out the crappy writing. But we take that as "we write better than Dan Brown", when it's really probably "we write more correctly than Dan Brown". What he does well is probably more interesting than what he does badly, though there's plenty of both to look at.

    "I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all."

    I'm not saying there's nothing to learn, something that sells usually has some appeal to a basic human desire, but appealing to popularity as a sign of quality is... questionable. Especially since there's popular stuff that manages some level of literary merit that can usually teach the same lessons less painfully.

    NartwakSo It Goes
  • tapeslingertapeslinger Space Unicorn Slush Ranger Social Justice Rebel ScumRegistered User regular
    The problem with "show, don't tell," as advice, is what the advice means is "demonstrate, don't describe," and most people don't know what it actually applies to in context. It's most useful as advice about character behavior and interaction. For example, don't tell us, "He was mean," show him doing something mean.

    Amalia has the right of it in terms of point of view. Using the tighter worldview from the character, small specific demonstrations are more effective than huge description blocks.

    Amaliachiasaur11Kamar
  • gavindelgavindel You were sent from my sight When your heart grew darker than your nightRegistered User regular
    I tend to think of show versus tell in terms of a zoom lens. When you tell what someone feels, you distance the reader (and make experience past faster). Less zoom. When you want to really show, you zoom in, devoting more words (and thus subjective time) to the experience. As the author, you want to control the level of zoom for dramatic effect. Its fine to tell that somebody hates bagels or math class if you're going about a character's day; if they're about to quit school or if the bagel is the last straw that sets off a Hulk-like rampage, you want to zoom in and grant it more significance.

    Looking for magical girls? Try: http://rpg.drivethrustuff.com/product/144223/Sparks
    Maybe more interested in morally dubious shapeshifters and stealing from gods? Try:
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  • Gabriel_PittGabriel_Pitt (effective against the Irish) Registered User regular
    Tidus53 wrote: »
    What I would like to know is if there is ever an appropriate moment to reveal more about a character through dialogue then action alone? Like would two characters discussing a third in idle conversation seem like a bad or amateur means of revealing more character
    If it's full of information that either of them should already be fully aware of, or has either of them saying, 'as you know-,' before launching into further explanation, you're probably making a mistake.

    The issue with 'show, don't tell,' is that the 'telling' takes the place of significant chunks of what should be narrative. Describing a battle as 'terrible, with so many dying on both sides,' and not showing any of what actually happened to make it so. Describing a character in certain ways, but never doing anything to display it. There are times when a certain expediency works, but when it comes at the cost of things actually happening in the story going mostly only mentioned, that's usually not a good thing.

    Part of experience is going to figure out when and where to tell, and where to show, because too much showing is easy to turn into data dumps that are bad in their own way.

  • DoctorJestDoctorJest Grand Eedjit The Loony BinRegistered User regular
    chiasaur11 wrote: »
    "I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all."

    I'm not saying there's nothing to learn, something that sells usually has some appeal to a basic human desire, but appealing to popularity as a sign of quality is... questionable. Especially since there's popular stuff that manages some level of literary merit that can usually teach the same lessons less painfully.

    I think the fact that it is so bad, from an objective standpoint, is what makes it fascinating! As for quality...yeah, perhaps that's the wrong word. But what Twilight does well, it does very well indeed -- and that's why you end up with people who love the books, even while those same people acknowledge that they are objectively bad books.

    Amalia
  • Gabriel_PittGabriel_Pitt (effective against the Irish) Registered User regular
    I just came across this as an excellent of example of when the author decided to go with 'telling' instead of 'showing.'

    *spoilers for Robotech, going on 30 years after the fact*

    To a certain extent, the author's choice is understandable. This occurs right at the start of the book, summarizing the aftermath of the death of a prominent character which concluded the previous one. It deals with that, and lets the story timing get advanced over the following interim, but it also takes what could be some very powerful scenes to 'show' of how the events actually occur in the character's lives, and turns them into a short paragraph of 'telling.'
    The VT pilots of Skull Team had their own way of dealing with combat deaths: The slain pilot simply never was. Men from Vermilion or Indigo might approach them in Barracks C or belowdecks in the Prometheus and say: "Sorry to hear about Roy," or "Heard that Roy tuned out." And they would look them square in the eye or turn to one of their Skull teammates and ask flatly, "Roy who?" some might think the skull were kidding with them and press the question, but the response remained the same: "Roy who?" Nobody broke the pact, nobody spoke of Roy, then or now. Roy simply never was.

    Except in the privacy of their quarters or the no-man's-land of their tortured memories and dreams. Then a man could let loose and wail or rage or throw out the same questions humankind has been asking since that first murder, the first death at the hands of another, the one that set the pattern for all that followed.

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