Sunday, May 09, 2010

Show versus Tell: The Plot Thickens

I finished reading Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King a while back and enjoyed it. I found much food-for-thought, which I’ll share along the way, and some points I feel the need to debate. Here’s an example of the latter, and I hope you’ll weigh in with your thoughts.

On page 16, Browne and King write: “You don’t want to give your readers information. You want to give them experiences.”

My first reaction to that was: “perfect!” That’s exactly what fiction writers want to do.

Except! It doesn’t appear to be what readers always want fiction writers to do.

Have you read The Da Vinci Code? The biggest blockbuster novel of our age is full of mini-lectures, and I’ve heard plenty of readers say they loved having the chance to learn some stuff along with being entertained. (Whether what they learned was accurate or not is a different issue.) Those readers were saying they wanted the “information” that Browne and King are saying not to give them, and they were perfectly happy getting it in info-dump form without having it dramatized.

If it were just Dan Brown writing like this, we might put the readers’ reactions down to a fluke. But I’ve seen the same kind of “information-heavy” prose in a lot of popular novels, from modern thrillers to historicals. The readers aren’t always on the same “page” with the writers on show versus tell, and it’s starting to make me rethink that whole debate.

It’s beginning to seem to me that the whole “Show don’t tell” axiom in writing is so incredibly oversimplified as to be virtually useless. At best, the axiom should be: “Show don’t Tell the dramatic important scenes.” But if you’re merely moving people from spot to spot, tell it and get it over with so you can get to the next important scene. And as for information dumps, there’s a lot of gray area there as well. It seems that writers lean more toward the showing side for this sort of thing while readers are perfectly happy with info dumps, as long as they convey interesting information and don’t completely disrupt the flow of the narrative.

If we were doing mythbusters I’d have to declare “Show don’t Tell” busted. What do you think?


Ocean Girl said...

I just finished David Baldacci's Absolute Power and I was really surprised and impressed at how good the story and the writing were. I've watched the movie so I was expecting a regular thriller but no, the book touched me on many levels including emotionally. There is not much fact in the book but I experienced the story.

And I picked up Absolute Power after Dan Brown's the Lost Symbol which I found all these information being dumped on me in a lecture over a very lame background thriller.

Of course Da Vinci Code was a page-turner unlike any other but it was because it was written like a movie and the background was most intriguing.

Readers are as varied as writers but in general, I believe we are in for the roller-coaster ride.

pattinase (abbott) said...

In a play, show don't tell works better than on paper. Too much dialogue tires me out. I like a mix of narration and dialogue with a little action thrown in.

cs harris said...

I think the whole "show don't tell" lesson works to remind writers not to use crutches like "said angrily" or "said sadly" but to SHOW that anger or sadness, and to describe the dirty, barefoot kids and broken gutters rather than simply write, "The neighborhood was poor and rundown." But there's definitely a place for telling, mainly when the alternative is boring.

As for information dumps, the success of The Da Vinci Code tells us that lots of readers love them, even when done with Dan Brown's trademark clumsiness and factual carelessness. But then, Brown does so many things "wrong"--flashbacks in the middle of actions scenes, having his characters look in the mirror so he can describe them, even flashbacks in the first chapter... One could go on and on. All of which goes to show that a writer can make LOTS of mistakes and still sell huge if they get a few things very right.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ocean girl, I guess part of it is that it depends on the story. If the story really sings, then less than stellar writing can still keep the reader enthralled.

Pattinase, I can see that. Maybe movies and plays is where the concept is closest to being an axiom.

Candy, certain things seem to cover a multitude of sins. Something in the Da Vinci code certianly did.

ArtSparker said...

I'd agree with cs harris - the injunction concerns conveying feeling and character without being hamfisted about it - I'd also add explication as something that makes for good writing if it's organic rather than interrupting the flow of the story.

Do we really want Dan Brown as a literary role model?

David J. West said...

(Whether what they learned was accurate or not is a different issue.)-LOL

I've read essay's by Orson Scott card where he raged against the "Show don't tell" advice. You're a writer and you have to tell, he says.

It seems to be a matter of balance.

Angie said...

I agree completely. We went over this a few weeks ago -- the whole "show don't tell" thing is good advice sometimes, and bad advice at other times. And what writers think makes good or bad writing isn't always what the readers think is good or bad.

I think baby writers who have a habit of telling the entire story, including action scenes, can use this advice. The trick, though, is that you're taking someone who's way out on one extreme and giving them advice way out on the other extreme in the hope that they'll end up in the middle where they belong. Someone who takes "show don't tell" literally and never tells anything will be just as wrong as the person who never shows anything.


Bernita said...

I agree, and there's this. Sometimes, "showing" can take up five pages and a "tell" a paragraph.
The key to info dumps is as you said, whether or not they interfere with the flow of the narrative.

writtenwyrdd said...

That is an awesome book! But, like any Rules of Writing You MUST Follow, there are exceptions. And I wholeheartedly agree with what you say here.

I think that in the case of books like DaVinci Code, you have such a gripping story that readers just want to know What Happens Next and thus exposition is a good thing in many ways.

The purpose of writing is to make choices that make the end product popular so you sell books. The art of writing is an aesthetic, and it's easy for a writer or critic to forget that it's the story that is important for 99% of readers.

ninthmuse (roz m) said...

As writers work, they need to keep some questions in mind:

1. Can I weave this info into the character's experiences and conversations as I go along instead of plopping all of the information in one place? (And no, that does not include characters telling each other information they both already know)

2. Is this info even important to the reader's understanding of the storyline, or am I just including it because of all of the thought/research that went into it?

I recently read a book that was so full of background information about each and every character and each and every situation that I got disgusted and stopped trying to finish the story. I did not need to know that John, Evander's next door neighbor, had a wife who spent her time knitting potholders that she sold at the side door of the shop while John worked behind the main counter (a made up detail, but VERY close to what was in there). I especially did not need to know this once I found out that the only time I saw John was when the neighbors got together to complain about the noisy kids downstairs. This -- plus pages and pages of overdeveloped background information that kept interrupting the pace of the story -- does not feel like character development or world-building to me.

ivan said...

It is interesting that master SF writer Stanislaw Lem sometimes uses
fictional scientific papers to augment his novels.

I am thinking of fictional scientist Burton and his account of Solaris, the sentient planet that could give you back or repair -- or to replicate what you have done wrong in your life.

I seem to be on that planet right now, thinking what ruthless bastards writers can be. Sell your grandmother for a page of print!

Charles Gramlich said...

ArtSparker, the two issues with that are 1), I’ve personally run into at least one editor who took the show don’t tell mantra absolutely literally, even though she didn’t really understand it. I’ve also seen new writers screw themselves over trying to follow it. It can’t be taken literally. 2), the point is that most readers don’t care who writers use as their role models. They only care about the story and don’t obsess over the little things that writers often do. I read The Da Vinci code and thought it was OK, although not very well written. I certainly hope I don't write like Brown, but I would like to sell like Brown

David J. West, yes, there’s no way to escape telling at times and it is the best technique. But if the whole book was telling I don’t think many folks would read it. It’s a balance as you say.

Angie, yes, I think the oversimplification hurts new writers at times and helps them at others. Some people who’d like to write don’t really know what ‘showing” is and need to have it called to their attention. But they also need to find out when telling is acceptable or even desirable.

Bernita, yes indeed, showing is always longer. A major point.
writtenwyrdd, yes, that’s really my ultimate point. The story’s the thing for almost all readers and they don’t care nearly as much how you get there. Readers and writers sometimes have different feelings about the process of getting the story out.

ninthmuse (roz m), I’ve read or tried to read books like that and they just make you tired. Although “telling” is OK in places, another big, important decision is how much to tell for sure.

ivan, and you know, I like that kind of thing. In fact, I’ve done it for an SF story I have where I have an “encyclopedia” type entry. I think it’s fun and ads a sense of verisimilitude to a tale.

laughingwolf said...

'show don't tell' works best in scripts, tv, stage and film, cuz they're visual mediums...

small infodumps are good where one cannot assume the reader knows a subject as well as the writer does

Heff said...

Hmmm....Would "Self-Editing for NON-Fiction Writers" would be any different? It makes you wonder, lol.

Charles Gramlich said...

Laughingwolf, exactly.

Heff, I can think of lots of titles that begin with "Self-**** for ****" I'm sure you can too.

sage said...

There are few hard-fast rules in art... As for self-anything, on must be careful for one can never be objective whether doctoring or editing. Thanks for the thoughts,

Rick said...

You know, Dan Brown gets whacked around a lot, but almost always by writers with less sales.

I think "show don't tell" makes for good "teacher-talk" and ranks right up their with "economy," as though the only alternative was excess.

The fact that HK Rowlings and Dan Brown have so many readers that enjoy their work ought to teach us something.

People with their noses up in the air might look down at them as "unsuitable literary role models" but so what? I like to read R.E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft and Mickey Spillane and- I'm sure I'll go to literary hell for this- I love to read Edgar Rice Burroughs.

So, "show don't tell" is okay but I think it was commanded first by the same guy who said women should dress modestly.

Michelle's Spell said...

Hi Charles,

I don't worry too much about this dictate anymore as it was POUNDED into me in graduate school and now I find it useful to an extent. Myth indeed. I think it's more important in fiction to show (but not always) and you can tell a lot in creative nonfiction and in fact are required to explain your sorry self which is why I prefer fiction in many ways. But I suffered under too much showing early on -- she walked across the room, turned the door knob, walked through the doorway, stepped on a step. I'm not the brightest bulb in the tanning bed to be sure.

Steve Malley said...

Real rule of thumb should be, info dumps allowed in direct proportion to how interesting the info is.

Then, every budding writer should have tattooed on the backs of their typing hands, 'Your info is not that interesting.'

DVC got away with its incredibly lame info dumps because the subject matter struck a chord with lots of folks. ALso, a great deal of the exposition popped up in the form of puzzles-- a kind of conflict directly engaging the reader. Do not try this at home.

For most of the rest of us, the info we're trying to dump is boring. Sure, we're excited about it when we're the writers, but as readers, not so much.

Hmm, maybe it's time for me to post again...

BernardL said...

I've never minded info dumps as long as they weren't pages of flowery scenic description that make you regret every moment your eyeballs move along the lines. :) It all goes back to style rather than rule. The best sellers break the rules without consequence because the author's talent transcended editorial parameters.

Anonymous said...

I think there are two different kind of readers:

Those who like info dumps and those who don't. Am I oversimplifying?

Personally, I can't stand reading thrillers that meander and detail the exact workings of a high-tech weapon for pages and pages. But that's me. I once tried to read a novel by the other Brown (Dale). Definitely not my cup of tea!

Angie said...

Dale Brown specifically writes military techno-thrillers, though. To readers of that genre, the pages of techno-babble are a feature, not a bug. :) I think it's more a matter of knowing the genre or subgenre so you know what's standard and what you're likely to get. Dale Brown had a bazillion fans of his own, or he did at the height of his career, and they were all people who loved that stuff.


Stewart Sternberg said...

BRAVO!!! I have banned the use of the phrase from any literary discussion. It is absolutely meaningless. It's basically a cliche used by people who don't know what else to say about something they've read.

Information dumps are sometimes necessary. In books like DaVinci Code they are part of the genre.

Travis Cody said...

Oversimplified...yes, I'd agree that "show vs tell" isn't a black and white issue.

For me, what I want as a reader is a mix of experience and information. Sometimes I can't appreciate the experience without the information. But spread it out and don't hit me with too much at once.

As a writer, I try to avoid page after page of info dump. But I don't want to leave out all of the information I think might enhance the experience for the reader. So I try to present information as quickly as possible, and use dialog or action to impart it as much as I can.

Here's one thing I cannot stand...introducing a new character at the beginning of an action sequence, and then giving us paragraph after paragraph of life story before finishing the action that brought the character to the page in the first place. I see that in political thrillers and it drives me nuts.

X. Dell said...

I think I might have said this before, but in conspiracy narratives the information dump is often the most compelling part. The Da Vinci Code is a perfect example.

Harry Markov said...

I would continue to argue that it is not busted at all. It just means show how the information you share is relevant to the story and not just simply tell it unhinged from the actual story. Showing means giving whatever you write soul. At least this is how I interprit it.

As far as using Brown as an example, I am sure that technically speaking the guy is not one of the best, so I am accrediting something else as to his success and his readers tolerance for the mini lectures.

steve on the slow train said...

And I've been spending hours editing my info dumps into the narrative. But it wasn't time wasted. I don't have the talent for giving fairly well-known information as though I were revealing a secret (Brown's "secret" passageway between the Castel Sant' Angelo and the Vatican in Angels and Demons. Kathleen said, "Everybody knows about that.") Oh, well.

Lana Gramlich said...

I've got something dramatic to show ya. ;)

Charles Gramlich said...

sage, yeah, you’re right, and I guess that’s what makes them arts in the first place.

Rick, I was pointing that out last night to someone about Dan Brown. Obviously many readers aren’t on the same page with the writers who criticize Brown. Of course, pretty much ever writer has less sales than Brown.

Michelle, I did the same thing early on, not realizing such cases that “showing” was slowing the story down far too much.

Steve Malley, exactly. Most information is not intrinsically interesting to most people. You have to work to make it interesting. I do see some possible blog posts in that.

BernardL, a big question is whether it is the writer’s talent per se, or the readers who are driving the thing. The readers have much more power than we writers might tend to ascribe to them sometimes.

Christine Purcell, I don’t mind info dumps of certain types, if they are short and about things I’m interested in. Ultimately, I suppose it’s a selfish thing for most readers.

Angie, I’ve never read any of Dale Brown’s stuff. I’m not a big techno thriller fan. I don’t mind some description of military type gear, though.

Stewart Sternberg, I believe we are in agreement! I can see that info dumps might be needed in thrillers, especially where lots of foreign cultures and experiences are concerned.

Travis Cody, oh there are certainly better ways to introduce information, even if you are telling. I had to do a fair amount of telling in the Talera novels but I tried to intersperse it with “showing” if you will.

X. Dell, In fantasy fiction sometimes the info dump (about the past of a land or a hero) is often very interesting too. Most of us are trained as schoolkids to take in info in this fashion.

Harry Markov, The rule would have to be modified. Show what needs to be shown, but tell the stuff that allows you to get to the material that needs to be shown. Lol. That’s kind of convoluted.

steve on the slow train, I spend a lot of time trying to make my info dumps seemless too. It’s certainly an issue the writer has to work at.

Lana Gramlich, show don’t tell IS a rule there.

BernardL said...

I agree readers have the power... but only after some editor promotes the manuscript into a position where a reader will see it. There are a lot of short sighted people and sometimes nonsensical parameters between a Word manuscript and the display shelf at a bookstore. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Bernardl, yes indeed there are. The middle men! Or Women.

Harry Markov said...

It's not exact science and times change. What was valid once has been altered or disregarded. However, in the basic principle this rule applies.

G said...

Okay, so I'm a little slow on the uptake and took me forever and a day to understand "show and tell".


Anywho, I think with my early crappy writing I was very much show, show, show, show, show, show, show, and just a faint whiff of tell.

I would like to think in the past four years that my writing has evolved to the point of telling what needs to be told, and showing what needs to be shown. For me, I try to keep it relatively basic to just certain kinds of scene descriptions/settings.

Charles Gramlich said...

Harry, indeed times and fashions do change, even in what readers want and what writers do who sell big.

G., it's a tough concept too, partly because it's so vague when you come to applying it.

Cloudia said...

There are always exceptions to prove the rule.... they are rules of thumb, heuristics, not absolute. Writing can never be rule-driven and be true Writing. Know the principle, then you can break it in the right way, at the right time, to great effect...

Aloha from Hawaii

Comfort Spiral

Charles Gramlich said...

Cloudia, yes, I suppose that's what makes it an art instead of a science.

Shauna Roberts said...

I myself usually enjoy reading info dumps. Descriptions too. And passages of introspection. That's probably why I enjoy reading 19th century novels and usually avoid suspense novels unless a friend has written it.

Greg Schwartz said...

good points. i think for novice writers, "show don't tell" is probably good advice, but like you said, it gets a lot more complicated than that.

Charles Gramlich said...

Shauna Roberts, I like descriptions a lot, info dumps of some types. I can't say I enjoy introspections much though.

Greg Schwartz, it's a handy thing to keep in the back of your head, and to ask yourself as you go along whether you are telling when you should be showing.

Amy said...

Just stopped reading a Richard Russo book in the middle because the telling, largely in past perfect tense, was getting to be a big, slow, drag. Showing was about 10% of the whole text. Good God. And the plot crawled and had no hint of lightness. Maybe that was part of it.

Rachel V. Olivier said...

I agree simply because if you read novels from a century ago, they had no problem with a few info dumps along the way. I think so many people are used to TV/Movie attention spans (or editors and writers think they are) that we've forgotten that some of that is actually good to have in the story.

Lisa said...

Thank you! Finally someone has hit the nail on the head!

I've thought the whole show-and-tell rule wasn't quite spot on. A lot of really popular writers do a great deal of telling. Maybe that speaks to our culture. We want it now, we want it fast. Maybe not.

This post was great!

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