Monday, May 16, 2011

Show, Don't Tell

I follow Nathan Bransford's blog. He gives publishing advice. Some of it is built around the writing that will get your novel noticed. No surpise, the phrase "Show, Don't Tell" pops up. Everybody says it. I hear it more from blogs than muslims hear a call to prayer in middle eastern countries.
"SHOW, DON'T TELL," says my hypothetical Kurt above.

This is me listening...thinking...okay, they must know something I don't. I better heed the advice:
Okay, Okay. I'm Listening. I too want to be a great writer. I too desire to be published!

So...yeah...I like how the entire first paragraph of Jacob Wonderbar that got published last week is Tell and not Show.  Here it is:
Each type of substitute teacher had its own special weakness, and Jacob Wonderbar knew every possible trick to distract them. Male substitutes with long hair and women with tie-dyed skirts often had a guitar stashed nearby and were just waiting for an excuse to ditch the lesson plan and play a song. The mousy ones who spoke softly and tentatively when they introduced themselves would patiently answer every absurd question Jacob asked them and would be confronting a classroom gone wild within minutes.
LOL as I say, not as I do


  1. I thinbk it's a mixture of show and tell. He tells you all teachers have a weakness, but hten he demonstrates with two examples that show you what he means.

    I think it does get a bit heavy handed with the show vs tell thing, but I think that's because aspiring writers tend to be so intot he 'tell' camp that they need a big shove to get them out of it. Nobody writes exclusively in one or the other though.

    Moody Writing

  2. I think "show not tell" is one of those phony things they bandy about because they need some excuse to reject you and saying "you're a nobody and I'm not going to waste my time on you!" would sound rude.

    But for the record I think there's a little show in there from the specific details but it really is a mixture of both, as most writing is.

    What I hate is people who think dialog is "showing." Of course it's not! I mean come on, TELL is used in relation to TALKING so duh, do the math there.

    And at the same time, I submit two pages worth of description of foggy moors with owls hooting and the smell of compost they're going to say that's TOO MUCH SHOWING! All things in balance.

  3. I've got to agree with you here. There are a lot of things I would have pointed out in Nathan's first chapter if I had beta read it. People tend to ignore things if you have a big enough platform/following, though. Even with the problems, I actually liked a lot the sample chapter, so maybe it's one of those cases where breaking the rules works. Sometimes you need to tell readers something.

  4. What if we are all being fed writing "advice" that is meant to throw us off the trail? Why let the competition in your secrets? Morel hunters never tell where they find their mushrooms.

    I say tell to your heart's content and use adverbs until you are blue in the face, if you want to.

  5. My point of this post is that there are no rules to writing even though authors tend to grab a soapbox and stand on it. If they give you a rule of good writing, it's essentially them filling up blog space. I agree with yrmama. Go ahead and tell instead of show. Go ahead and use adverbs. If you don't get published, you weren't going to get published anyway because only so many books get in in a year and the gatekeepers thought you "suck". They thought Amanda Hocking sucked. Then she sold millions of books. Now she's great. But she still writes the same. How does that work out?

  6. I wouldn't go that far but I wouldn't obsess about eliminating every single adverb either. The best advice I think is to not get too carried away and keep all things in balance. You need a little show, a little tell, a little dialog, a little description, and sometimes even a few adverbs.

  7. The paragraph "shows" what Jacob Wonderbar is like, in a nutshell; the effect could have been achieved by also having Jacob distract a teacher to open the book, but you could never show him distracting EVERY teacher, so at some point you have to "tell" the reader that he does that.

    But "show don't tell" is lazy shorthand and applies more to film-making than writing; all writing is telling. And among the worst "tellers" are John Irving and Jonathan Franzen, who get critical acclaim.

    A great "show-er" was (judging by the 72 pages I could stomach) David Foster Wallace; "Infinite Jest" didn't explain ANYTHING; it just jumped right in.

    Robert Heinlein jumps right in, too, but spends lots of time with his characters telling.

    I take "show don't tell" to mean "this part is going on too long." So you're right, Michael -- it's not very helpful information, especially when it comes from someone who appears to violate his own rule to open the book.

  8. Guys and gals, let's be honest. If it was me and I submitted a book that had a "telling" intro instead of "showing" intro then agents like Janet Reid at Query Shark would absolutely hack it to pieces. You know they would. They would slaughter the crap out of it (if given the time) but otherwise it would just be a form rejection.

    I personally like Nathan's intro. I'm just poking fun at an industry that is in many ways full of hypocrisy.

  9. I'm with ya on the hypocrisy. It's a complicated, frustrating industry.

    But I have to pipe in here as a teacher that there has to be some "rules" to teach young people in order for them to develop better writing skills and habits. "Show don't tell" is a handy "rule" that can help young writers get better all around.

  10. The rules are a crutch until you learn how to break them well. I dropped my online critique group because all they did was spout the same old rules. "Show don't tell. Never use adverbs. Never use passive voice. Never use 'very'." If you follow these rules to the letter, your writing sounds unnatural and inhuman. Good writers know the rules, but break them well.

  11. What else do they say? Oh, yeah. . .master the rules before you break them. Meh. . .never was one for rules myself. (:

  12. RULE: Show, Don't Tell.

    EXCEPTION TO RULE: When you're famous and have agents and editors on speed dial.

    LESSON: The exception to the rule has nothing at all to do with actual writing. Irony much?

  13. I like the way you have divided the whole red tape of being able to get published in three parts. They are true in their own places.

  14. I agree with the people above. Usually, when I'm showing I'm doing it in a witty way. And then I use the telling to show more about how the characters deal with life. The biggest problem is when you both show AND tell, because you don't trust the readers enough to just show them something.

    <3 Gina Blechman

  15. That's the trick, isn't it? What to show without showing all of it and what to tell without telling too much. It's all a delicate balance.

  16. None of the rules matter. My kids are being taught to never use the word "said." It's boring. They are taught to use as descriptive language as possible, adjectives and adverbs. Later, they will be told, if they try to write a book, that all those rules they learned are wrong. Unless, of course, the rules have changed by then. Because the rules do change. Constantly. Based on whatever's popular at any given time and how people are reacting to what used to be popular.

  17. My problem with this paragraph isn't the "tell" vs "show"; but in the POV that seems to go from omni to third.

    Can't say I'm an expert on MG though. I've seen the discrepany in other works. And of course, Nathan was an agent a lot of years before he was a published writer. So how can anyone who isn't a multi-published author or agent/editor in his genre assert an opinion.

    This sounds preachy (witchy). I thought about erasing it, and not commenting at all, but what I really want to say is that no matter how experienced a writer your are, maybe a second pair of eyes is still necessary. Someone at your writing level that says; wait, is this really what you want to say.

    The more developed my writing becomes, the less likely I am to acknowldge feedback from less experienced writers. But I also see where that could also be detrimental to me.

    Just because a child says it, doesn't make it less true. You know?

    Michael: hold out your hand; this is me virtually slapping it. How dare you make me think so deeply? There's no real answer, is there?


  18. Hiya. Guess what? You're invited! I am starting up a networking community for supporters of the LGBT community, as well as readers and writers of LGBT fiction and nonfiction, called Everything LGBT. The blog will discuss LGBT novels, movies, music, rights/issues, current events, etc. I would love it if you would join and share the link with whomever you can. I believe that media will bring the next big change, and I want to help to make that happen. Thanks.

    <3 Gina Blechman