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Sunday, May 2, 2010

Never Tell A Story: I Saw the Light


Quite a terrifying title don't you think? Yeah...me too...makes me shiver in absolute and complete terror.

Cue creepy music.

In all seriousness, I hope it's obvious that I don't really mean to tell you all never to tell another story ever in your entire life. I'm not telling you to quit writing or that imagination is morally wrong.

Quite the opposite.

Don't tell a story.

We've all heard the rule "Show, don't tell" haven't we? I think most of us have. The problem with repeating this catchy little phrase all the time is that the majority of writers have no idea what this means. Most don't have a clue.

I am editing my novella, The Guardian's Tree, as many of you know. And one of the bigger problems I am having is this idea of telling. So I got the brilliant idea: I should blog on this.

Now there are many points to "telling", too many to go into in a single post. So today we'll take the following sentences:

Sir Win turned and saw Sir Fail walking toward him, blade drawn. Sir Fail was angry.

Okay, so most of us would agree that this is an awful scene. But let's look at the why's behind it.

The specific issues with these two sentences are the words "saw" and "was angry". Why? These are both POV errors--point-of-view infractions.

Cool Nathan, you used a lot of big writer words.

Most stories are written from a perspective called Third Person Limited, meaning that the writers stays in one character's mind at a time and that this character doesn't know everything. Everything in the narration, dialogue, thought-bubbles comes from this one character's point of view.

This was something I never really grasped for a long while. I used to write from a third person omniscient point of view, meaning that the narrator knew everything. But the more I read and the more I studied the craft, I realized that this is not the most accepted style today.

So let's look again at the sentences. We are in Sir Win's point of view. He turns and what? "Sees" Sir Fail walking.

The problem with this scene is that I told you he "saw" Sir Fail. If you follow me, you don't need to tell the reader that Sir Win "saw" him. Why? Because we are in his point of view. If you write him turning, and then write that Sir Fail is walking, the reader will assume that Sir Win sees this.

Other examples of this kind of thing are the words "revealed" "examined" "noticed" and anything like that. This is an error sometimes called Author's Voice or Telling. You may read these phrases in classical works or even some modern stuff but most people agree that these words, in most circumstances, are wrong.

The basic gist of this is that you need to stay in the view of your character. Get in their heads. What would they think? Would they think "I am looking at a tree". No! They would think "There is a tree" and we would know they were looking at it.

Secondly, comes the line "Sir Fail was angry". This is a combination of telling and a POV slip.

Telling - angry
POV - angry

So it all goes back to that word. Generally, using any emotional word lends itself to both telling and point-of-view errors. The reason being really quite simple.

POV - We are in Sir Win's head. He cannot know that Sir Fail is angry, unless he's a mind reader o.O Now, he could assume that Sir Fail was angry. How? By body-language. So how can the reader know that Sir Fail is angry? Well, you would need to describe the anger.

Telling - All emotion words are telling. "Love in his heart", "hatred coursing through his veins", etc. When you use a word like this, your scene will come across weak. How can you make it stronger? Describe the emotion. Body-language and other things similar.

Which creates a better image and understanding?

"Sir Fail was angry"
"Sir Fail stormed into the room, fists tight, teeth clenched. "Sir Win!"

Obviously, the best line is the second one.

Notice that I never used the word "angry" and I never told you how Sir Fail was feeling. But, I assume, you knew that Sir Fail was angry. And this description will better imprint it upon your mind.

This is something that even the pros struggle with. And no one completely understands the complete concept of show don't tell. Many writer's intentionally break these rules.

That being said, it is important to know the rules first so that you may know when to break them ;)

This is the dirt and grit of writing. The real nit-picky stuff. But I think it is an important basic rule to remember.

Show don't tell. And actually knowing what that means.

This is just the beginning of telling of course :D

Thoughts?

To the end,
Nathan

31 comments:

Seth said...

Good post. I think you said this near the end, but something you've got to remember that rules are made to be broken. Well, writing rules at least. Without telling writing can seem very bland and unemotional. And at some points you want bland and unemotional, but for most writing you do not. So there's a balance there. For the most part though, it's true that you want showing more then telling.

For back up on the whole rules broken thing. I've actually heard-not read-of a book that was written in present tense, and did well. I heard that it did well by an editor/publisher/writer guy. I wonder who can guess who it was? :D

Galadriel said...

I agree. The only rule in fiction writing is that there are no rules that cannot be broken if you break them well.
Especially since I like 1st person POV

♥Bleah♥Briann♥ said...

Um, I dunno if you do tags. But I tagged you. Its a book tag I thought you might like. It was a while back. so...Um yeah. Do it if you want. :)
With Love and bLessings,
Bleah Briann

Jake said...

I think you can accomplish the same purpose not only by removing the words 'angry', but by rewriting the 'was' passive verb, right? I HATE the Wases... :)

Jake said...

Oh, sorry, let me rephrase that. I really messed it up. :)

I think you can accomplish the same purpose not only removing words like 'angry' and such, but also by rewriting the 'was' passive verb out of the sentence, right?

Wases are the worst... They always manage to sneak into your writing.

Pyrosian Heir said...

seth-um... i know that several of L.E. Modesitt Jr's books swith between present tense and past tense and wat not... kinda hard to explain

Good post nathan... i gotta go through my stuff now to see how often i pull an epic fail on this stuff.

Barie said...

Seth, I hate books written in present tense, haha.

Nice post Nathan!

Seth said...

Heir: No, the book I'm talking about is "A Star Curiously Singing" By Kerry Nietz. Published by Marcher Lord Press. Good guess though :)

Barie: Neither do I. Actually, I might lol. I've never read one in present tense but the idea sounds... odd to say the least :D

Jake said...

@Seth
Haha, I was going to guess that, but I decided against it. I've 'heard-of-not-read-of' it too... Too bad the library doesn't usually carry Christian Spec. Fiction books. :(

Nathan R. Petrie said...

@Seth, I don't think you're grasping the concept. "Without telling writing can seem bland and unemotional."
That's completely untrue. Telling makes the story bland and unemtional. Whereas showing creates a better image and much more emotional.

Tell me, which is more emotional?
"The man wept bitterly for his people, for their suffering and for their pain."
or
"Tears started to fall.
'Father, why must humanity suffer? Why must man’s children face torture and death from birth?'
Outside, the Damans roared, barring their captives the rest they ever so much desired. Alvar wrung his hands on his sword hilt and whisper-shouted, teeth clenched. 'Why must the Damans torture our people'”
...
Alvar lifted his gaze back into the light.
'Guide me in your plan, father. Show me what it means to fight for the tree, and reveal to me how to rescue the people.'
...
“If there is a way to save them, show it to me.” Alvar buried his head in his chest, staining his cloak with tears. ..."

I think we'd both agree the latter is better. A different form of telling is being killed here, but telling nonetheless.

Or we could even go back to the example in the original post.

"Sir Fail was angry"
"Sir Fail stormed into the room, fists tight, teeth clenched. "Sir Win!"

Which is more emotional?

And yeah, present tense stories can be good. But that's not a rule about writing. That's a trend ;)

@Galadriel, fiction, as it is written for readers, has rules only determined by the audience. However, some rules cannot be broken. You cannot write "badly" well. And whatever rules are broken in writing that makes it "bad" you cannot break.
but yeah, in essence...if you break rules and it works...more power to you. But using emotion words and "saw" are not rules made to be broken.

@BB, I will be doing a post on tags shortly. I've gotten a lot....piling up! LOL

@Jake, yup. "Was" "were" etc are all other issues with writing. Passive voice, you are correct. However, this post was on telling ;) I'll do a post on obliberating wases soon too lol

@Heir, yeah it takes a lot of work :) Good luck!

@Barie, yeah....most of the time it really bothers me. I like 1st Person though lol


I wrote a story once that ended in present tense. But the rest of it was in past. Pretty cool haha

Barie said...

Nathan, sounds cool, haha. I can see a little bit of present tense being enjoyable, but I can't stand a whole book of it.
First person . . is awesome, haha.

Gwendolyn said...

How delightful! Chinese comments! ^^

Telling is so easy to do if you ain't watching. VERY easy. But I find that including details that are out of the character's point of view my worst problem. ^^ Who's thinking about the color of their eyes when facing off with an inelegant demon who wants to have a bake-fest using the humans from earth? :P

Present tense? That's good for a few things. But I don't care much for it at all.

Nathan R. Petrie said...

@Gwen, yeah that's my biggest problem with telling. The POV slip. I had something like that inthe opening scene of TGT. Something like "Alvar dropped his hood, spilling curly black hair." Who thinks about their hair color when they're taking off their hat? lol

No I'm not a huge fan. Typically's it's the sign of a newbie writer.

Seth said...

Thing is, most kinds of description are telling. Have you read Self Editing for Fiction Writers? I think it was chapter two or three that they talked about this subject. I can't remember all the details, all I can remember is them saying that without some telling writing can seem bland and dull. I dunno, I'll get back to ya with the page number of the book if you want me to :)

Gwendolyn said...

I don't agree that description is generally telling. Creating the setting is not the same as telling. When a character enters a room, he will naturally be looking about and taking in what is around him. Saying something like this describes, but it isn't telling.

"Before him the cliff stretched high and dangerous. A narrow path wended upwards, dropping off mere feet from the top. His gaze shifted to the bottom of the cliff...to the daisies that blanketed the earth like a white and yellow shroud. He shivered. Climbing that thing would be a nerve-wracking experience. Especially with his fear of heights."

Of course, what I wrote there was not soley description. I threw in a few of his thoughts and followed his thought process as he saw the cliff. But even if the description is in much greater quantity, it still wouldn't be telling.

Telling takes away from the story. If an author switches to telling, it ruins the story for me. Imagine that you're in the middle of reading an exciting, dangerous scene. Your heart is pumping, your palms are sweating, and for all practical purposes you're right there with the hero fighting his enemy. Facing his fears. Feeling his pain. And then ... The story suddenly shifts. You're not there anymore. The scene continues, but you aren't with the character. It's only a story, now. Only words on a page. The enchantment is gone, and you no longer feel the thrill of the adventure.

That's what telling does. It kills the story. Kills it. Annnd... *taps chin* Self Editing for Fiction Writers may say that telling walks hand in hand with description, but I refuse to believe that. ^^ Call it sheer stubborness, if you will, but all the same... :P

~ Gwendolyn

Seth said...

I didn't say that it telling walks 'hand in hand' with description or vice versa, I said "most kinds of description are telling". Take for example...
"The room was painted a deep, dark green color with the ceiling being white. The floor was carpeted and the table seated twelve people comfortably. The seat was of an ancient wood, over two centuries old and the table was made of the same."
Thing is, you can't really show description. There are occasions that you can, like when your character is taking in a scene, but in this case is the character really going to be looking around his dining room? He's ate there a hundred times, so probably not unless they've redone it. Yet you can't skip describing the room because you have to give your readers some measure of description so that they have an idea to go off of.
Of course no author should go into telling in the middle of an action scene, but there are cases in which you break the Show vs. Tell rule.
The page numbers are the bottom of twelve to fifteen if you're interested.

Gwendolyn said...

I realize you didn't say that; pardon me if I offended. I was simply using an idiom to refer to the infered relation between description and telling.

What about describing as you go? Little details woven in throughout the scene can portray the scenery just as well as a paragraph of description. And... Do we actually need to know what the character's dining room looks like if it plays no relevant part in the story? I mean - we all generally know what a dining room will contain. So it's not as if the reader is in desperate need of that description. But if you really want to, or you think it is important to describe what you see in your head, keep it confined to the character's viewpoint. That way it's not boring and it stays interesting.

Thanks. I should check that book out; it seems to have many recommendations. ^^

Seth said...

It's probably one of the top-if not the number one-books on writing. It depends on the opinion on the reader, and more importantly the editor/publishing house. I've heard from many established writers that it's usually better to describe everything at once then to do it gradually. Of course there's exceptions of this, like pretty much everything writing related. If you're trying to keep something hidden or if they rooms dark etc. then it will be a gradual description. But, at least from what I've heard, people prefer to have things described at once. It's an opinion though. If its not described in the beginning, the reader-at least when I'm the reader-am left guessing what the scene looks like and not focusing on the actual writing and what the author is saying.
Eh, just an opinion lol.

Nathan R. Petrie said...

@Seth, I see where you are coming from. But honestly, it's still not right.

You are correct, he wouldn't be thinking about what his dining room looks like. And so you wouldn't describe it. This is where you learn how to describe correctly. Don't describe things the character doesn't care about. For instance, if you want to describe the cloth on the table have him pull on it, or adjust it or something. You don't need him to be eating cereal and then think "the cloth is purple". He knows that, he wouldn't be thinking about it as you've mentioned.

The best way to describe something is always through interaction. Especially in a familiar environment.

I pretty much agree with everything Gwen said lol Your job as a writer is not to be Charles Dickens, who described dining rooms in great detail for no reason and ALL through telling. Your job is the become the character and make your readers the character.

Seth said...

Nathan: Like I said, it's a matter of opinion. But, no offense-I hold you as a great writer and I enjoy getting advice from you-I'll usually take an editor, publisher, established author etc.'s advice over others. I think there's both sides of the spectrum, it all comes down to opinion on the matter. Until I see otherwise I'll stick to what I see best and you can stick to what you see best. There's only one true 'best' way to write, but I don't think man can identify it. We could argue it forever, but it's ultimately useless I think. God could identify it, and if I cared, I would probably ask God that in heaven-but I wouldn't care lol. So, yeah, that's just how I see it.

Nathan R. Petrie said...

@Seth, It's a matter of opinion yes. But not the writer's, the reader's opinion is what counts lol

I'm curious as to what editor, publisher, established author has told you this. Bryan Davis specifically told me to only describe what characters care about, via interaction and such. And I've had editors explain the importance of only describing what matters. You yourself said that you didn't want to read pointless description.

But yeah, write how you want. These are just suggestions. We're all just here to help :)

Seth said...

Yep. I'll tell you some other time who I'm getting these 'suggestions' from lol. I'm not a big fan of Bryan Davis-maybe that's why.

Yes, it's the readers opinion, but the author has to act on that opinion. And there's no definite opinion of the readers-they vary-so the author has an opinion of what the dominant opinion is or what the readers he's writing for enjoy more. Did that make sense? lol

Nathan R. Petrie said...

@Seth, I'm curious lol. You have to tell now haha

Well, I've yet to meet a reader or a writer that enjoys reading pointless information. So.....yeah haha

Gwendolyn said...

I too am curious as to who passes along such advice. *wonders* Is there anything in particular that you dislike about Bryan Davis's books, Seth?

*laughs* Nathan, I happen to appreciate Charles Dickens' works. Exactly WHAT does that say about me?

And I go on the warpath against dull writing as I read and enjoy the same... <_<

Seth said...

@Nathan, I'll tell you sometime. Just remind me on email or chat lol. Perhaps I've dug myself a hole though :D.

@Qwen, his books just fail to keep me captivated. In the middle of Circles of Seven, Tears of a Dragon, and Eye of the Oracle I stopped midway. It doesn't happen with ANY other book, except for Silmarillion-but there's reasons for that, and not just because it's dull.
Funny thing about Bryan Davis' books is that I have more of his books then any other authors in my library.

Gwendolyn said...

A hole? *wrinkles nose* You would not believe how many times I have dug myself into one...

That's odd. I hardly found any of his books disinteresting, although I have seen a few comments that indicate some readers put the books down partway through. I think he strikes a good balance between fast-paced action and spiritual depth, and I like that. Compared to Aristotle and Tolstoy, his works are extremly captivating. ^^ I haven't read any of Tolkien's work, so your comparision is a bit lost on me (simply because I don't have the slightest clue as to what his writing style looks like - apart from long descriptions). And, if you don't mind answering, I have a question. What is it that keeps you captivated in a book? And what makes you put it down?

Seth said...

What captivates me? Too broad a subject. Many things in a book captivate me. And many things make me put it down. I plan on doing a blog post sometime soon on this subject, but it would be way too long for a comment.

Chris said...

I think, if you want to make something bland or unemotional, you should use bland or unemotional words, not telling.

"Billy sauntered to the door."
"Billy walked to the door."

Only one word is changed, but the second sentence is far less vivid.

Nathan R. Petrie said...

@Seth, Gerke didn't say that :P Just saying LOL

@Chris, yup. You never need telling lol

Seth said...

@Nathan, Uh, yeah, he did :P If you didn't see it it's okay, but he did say it lol Also, there are times that need telling. Rare, but there are times that call for it.

Nathan R. Petrie said...

Gerke's word isn't law even if he did haha. So whatever. I still can't think of a time when telling would be "called for". But we're cool :)

"Stand tall now and proclaim what you have seen, speak in whispered roars..."