Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Show vs. tell

I really enjoy critiquing. Yes, it's work, and I can't always do it--I have to weave it around my own writing, not to mention my Real Life. But I always learn something from doing it, and I always love seeing glimpses into such different worlds. I've just done three crits outside of my normal crit group rotation, and once again, I'm struck by how different and unique each person's writing is.

One thing the crits made me think through was when it's appropriate to tell, and when it's better to show. I think sometimes writers get a little too uptight about The Rules, as if they can NEVER be broken, ever. Eradication of adverbs! No dialogue tags except for "said"! Never tell, always show! In general, most of the time, those are good things. But I don't think it's 100% bad to use an adverb! Or to, once in a book or so, let someone snarl instead of say a line. The telling-showing thing is most on my mind right now. Here are the kinds of things you should probably show in your writing:

--key plot movements
--key emotional points
--scenes that show decisions, changes, or character growth
--scenes that show important aspects of the relationship between characters

This is what I think telling is good for:


As for the passing of time in a book, I think you need a mix. A small, specific, showing instance to sort of stand for all the other instances you aren't going to show. Besides, text on the page = passing of time in the text world.

Something that really helps necessary telling go down well is voice. If you can "tell" in the voice of your POV character, it just slides down like syrup. Rachel Hawkins's book Hex Hall did a good job with this, I thought. The voice let her tell the transitions and skip ahead to all the interesting parts she wanted to show us. And of course, JK Rowling is brilliant at balancing the two as well.

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