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Oh, my dearest Kindleboards, good morning! I take it you slept well? Excellent. Would you like some coffee? There's bacon, if you're hungry.

You know, of course, that writers, we are oft reminded, had ought show, not tell. To merely say, to tell the reader, that our dear Imogene is bored is simply not on; we must show her pacing, twiddling her thumbs fretfully, checking her Facebook page for the thousandth time that afternoon, or what have you.

And this is not actually terrible advice, when you get right down to it, I suppose. The problem is that it distills but one possible solution to a moderately complicated issue of writing - passivity versus activity - into an all-purpose panacea that nearly anyone can (mis)understand, spot, and complain about with smug superiority. :) But there is nothing inherently wrong with passivity in writing! Nay, the problem arises when this - or any other thing, really - is used excessively.

Sure you don't want anything, dearest Kindleboards? There are some cookies in the jar over there, just baked yesterday. Recently, I must tell you, I came across a long-forgotten book - Out of the Air - by a long-forgotten writer, Inez Haynes Irwin. It was published in 1921, and is actually a fairly interesting book, insofar as it features a WWI veteran suffering quite badly from what we, today, would call PTSD, who's kind of half-obsessed with, half stalking a young woman, and, um, yeah.

I know, right? But here's the thing. There are lots of obscure and justifiably forgotten books from decades gone past. Why am I bringing up this one, you ask?

Because I've long said that you can learn just as much from reading negative examples - "what not to do" - as from positive ones. Indeed, I suspect it's actually easier to learn from "don't do this" than from "emulate this", but that's a different argument, and one much too substantial to engage in before dinner, don't you think?

I also mention this because, more meaningfully, someone, once upon a time, very clearly told the author of Out of the Air to "show, don't tell". Maybe it was an editor. Maybe it was another writer. You know how fond we are of sharing the latest discoveries about our craft, eh? Or maybe it was a teacher, somewhere, or a fellow student in a class, or some well-meaning artiste she met at a salon in France. Maybe it was some how-to book. Without performing a seance or a feat of time-travel, we'll never know, and that's fine, because it's not terribly important.

Muesli? Really? Live a little, my dear. There's not an ounce of superfluous weight on your frame, you know. You need hardly starve yourself for the sake of vanity. Live a little! Oh, you like muesli? Disregard what I just said, then. But, back to this book. Trouble arises, as it were, because the late Mrs. Irwin (1873-1970) not only took this "rule" of our mutual craft to heart, she took it to excess, even by the standards of the 1920s. The WWI vet, you see, talks to himself, and carries on a conversation of sorts throughout the book with someone who isn't there. (Several someones, possibly, given that he sometimes seems to have flashbacks to the war.) It's sad and tragic, of course, and the whole conceit of it all is the sort of thing you sometimes see as a framing device in books, now and again. Some may hate it, no doubt, and some may like it and most are probably indifferent to it, and that's fine, don't you agree? Oh, it's a bit of a gimmick, and a horrible opportunity to infodump some large expository lumps, but, you know, it's not done utterly horribly, and there's at least a smidgen of logic to it, after all. With me so far? So, one unwell veteran, externalizes all his innermost thoughts, talks to people who aren't there. Fine. But, y'see, he's not the only one who does this! Susannah, the inevitable headstrong young woman of the story, holds long rambling conversations with a painting. No, no, I kid you not. Breathless, page-long announcements of every thought that's recently died of loneliness in her poor, empty, head. I know, right? And all the other characters converse at great length about their feelings and emotions and opinions and whatnot. And most of this, I strongly suspect, the vast majority, happens just so that all of this can be "shown", rather than told. God forbid the author say "Susannah was scared", or show her, y'know, looking apprehensive or uncertain, seeming to shrink in upon herself, acting nervous, jumping at every loud noise. No, that's too "passive", isn't it? Instead, let's have her run off and have another nice long "active" conversation with an inanimate object! Brilliant!

Sorry, sorry. I do love eggs cooked this way, but they're not the daintiest of things to eat, are they? Well, don't get me wrong. It's not a truly terrible book, by 1920s standards. Three stars, probably. Maybe three and a half or even four, if the ending is really brilliant. Yes, yes, I haven't finished the book yet. Don't look at me like that! This is a deep and insightful discussion of craft, not a book review. Anyway, it's an okay book, so far, but I don't have high hopes for a brilliant ending, either. A star and a half by today's puritanical standards, perhaps. One star with lots of hilariously angry comments, on Goodreads, no doubt. Objectively, I've probably published much worse-written things, let's be honest. Anyway, if the book only had the one person, the unfortunate veteran, say, who talks to imaginary people, espouses all this, um, exposition, I guess, it'd be a cute gimmick, a note of mild originality. Refreshing in its novelty, in a way, since nobody would dare pull such a stunt today, naturally. And if it just had the girl talking to her damned painting, it'd be a bit amusing, in a harmless if slightly sad sort of Livejournal fan-fiction way. And if neither of these characters did this, but everyone else carried on long conversations about everything that popped into their head, it'd be just another 1920s novel about empty-headed flappers, and nobody would particularly mind, right?

But, obviously, that's not the case. Much as too many cooks spoil the soup, proverbially speaking, and too many generals spoil the war - isn't that how it goes? Whatever. - the lengths the poor lady has gone to to "show" and not "tell" in a rather heavy-handed way became too much of a good thing.

In writing as in life, eh, Kindleboards? Everything in moderation, and moderation in everything.

Except bacon. If you're not going to finish that, I'll have it.

Thanks for being such a good listener, dear Kindleboards. Have a good day, eh?



(This monologue, which I posted previously, is not a letter being written, or part of a conversation, or a diary entry, or something like that. And these are not her thoughts, some sort of limited omniscient view into her mind. Susannah is talking to a painting, here, so that you, dear reader, can "see" her thoughts, rather than just being "told" them.)

--George, pillage loot and rape and burn, but all in moderation; if you do these things then you will soon rule the nation...
 

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On the scale of Genius vs. Madman, I can never tell exactly which side you lie on, George. Whatever the case, it's quite close to the line, but I'm leaning toward believing it's genius. Maybe a tinge of madness. All the best genius carries at least a little of that, for color, you know.
 
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RobertJCrane said:
On the scale of Genius vs. Madman, I can never tell exactly which side you lie on, George. Whatever the case, it's quite close to the line, but I'm leaning toward believing it's genius. Maybe a tinge of madness. All the best genius carries at least a little of that, for color, you know.
There has been no great talent without an element of madness, good sir.
 

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I agree with your point, George, about showing and telling. But your example supports the Show Circus, not the Moderation Camp, because the intrusion of the narrator in the last line ruined that bit: “All this, she said as usual, wordlessly.” In other words, it’s the telling that wrecks it, not the showing.

Well, actually, her repetition of the painting’s imagined responses is awful too (e.g., “How did they do it?”), but not as jarring as the narrator’s intrusion.


 

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Discussion Starter · #6 ·
WHDean said:
I agree with your point, George, about showing and telling. But your example supports the Show Circus, not the Moderation Camp, because the intrusion of the narrator in the last line ruined that bit: "All this, she said as usual, wordlessly." In other words, it's the telling that wrecks it, not the showing.

Well, actually, her repetition of the painting's imagined responses is awful too (e.g., "How did they do it?"), but not as jarring as the narrator's intrusion.
Well, yes and no. That excerpt was posted in another thread - Dalya's one about said bookism, a week or two ago, because I found the "she said, as usual, wordlessly" part funny. But it is a representative example of how Susannah, instead of emoting, or thinking, talks. Irwin made an effort - a herculean effort - to show everything that could possibly be shown in the book, to, you know, an almost comical extent. And yet, when encountered with something that could not be shown, could not be vocalized by someone, somehow... she told. Which makes the excessive showing... all the more excessive.

Here's another excerpt:



Even for a traumatized vet, there's no real way to "show" this, so she hasn't tried. He's not a distant character; we are privy to his thought processes, we can see what he's thinking, what he's feeling, here.

(And I have no freaking clue what "...consciously but desperately he grasped at his vanishing manhood" is supposed to mean, unless he got literally unmanned in The Great War... okay, okay, I know it actually means he tried to grasp at his, um, fleeting courage. I admit, I stopped and stared for a minute when I first read that, having a WTF moment.)



...and then this is our shell-shocked WWI vet again, talking to... himself. And "circumambient space", which, alas, fails to answer him. Everyone does this, all throughout the book, for no good reason, except to awkwardly make active otherwise perfectly innocuous passive moments.

And on the subject of excess, this whole book is also a great object lesson on the dangers of irresponsible thesaurus usage, as you can see. :)

Okay, one more excerpt, from the department of do-not-do-these-things-not-to-do department:



Sometimes, even the trusty thesaurus fails you, and you must, um, grasp your manhood firmly, yes, and strain yourself, I suppose, to produce, to expel, something, anything. Sometimes what you get is glorious and magical and leaves you smiling.

And sometimes, yin to that particular, um, yang, you receive something like "...so unexpected that it was unexpected even to herself."
 

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Telling can be powerful.

But it requires imagination and effort on the part of the reader.

It requires effort from the reader if the author writes with EITHER showing or telling. If I show, the reader must figure out the emotions and subtext. If I tell, they must make the scene come alive, acting out the appropriate facial expressions.

This is out. Out, out, out. (Based on my observations of reading top 100 bestsellers.)

Many readers seem to want both the showing and the telling. In the better-written stories, at least the telling is subtle and comes after the showing.

It's belt and suspenders time. I'm working on my technique, trying to craft stories in a way that they have broad appeal, yet do not make me feel like a hack.

Remember, Harry Potter was a freaking middle-grade novel. People loved it. MG = not sophisticated due to the age of reader, so lots of showing and telling together.
 

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I see what you mean now, George. I had to read the line about the bit of wonderment experienced over the non-load-bearing post twice. I was sure I must’ve missed something; but no, just a little road to nowhere.

I do think you’re on to something, though. This is not just bad; there’s a kind of unintended badness owing to a misunderstanding and misapplication of writing principles. Things are out of proportion, giving the writing a sort of grotesque beauty.  This line, for example, is a paradigm case of how not to use periphrasis: “Lindsay recognized the motion which inundated him to be fear.” At the same time, it is an attempt at using it. The same goes for that cringe-inducing “so unexpectedly” line, which is an attempt at hyperbole, and all that thesaurus-based cogitation—again, it’s just the defect of excess in everything. And it’s that “right things done wrong” quality that makes it, well, educational, because the misuse of principles is clearly illustrated. You don't get that with just plain bad. 

Now I want to read the book.

By the way, I have it on good authority that grasping your manhood—regardless of its state—causes ophthalmia and metacarpal hirsutism. And they say fiction is harmless!

 

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While I would argue that anything is fair game if the writer can pull it off (yes, giant IF), I would rather just say that your voice is so wonderful, George. I just love your posts. You always complain about selling no books. If that is true, then I think that, if any of us are still being read two hundred years from now, it's likely to be your stuff that's getting the love, and likely on a scale far grander than some brief Cinderella dance on a Kindle list.
 

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John Daulton said:
While I would argue that anything is fair game if the writer can pull it off (yes, giant IF), I would rather just say that your voice is so wonderful, George. I just love your posts. You always complain about selling no books. If that is true, then I think that, if any of us are still being read two hundred years from now, it's likely to be your stuff that's getting the love, and likely on a scale far grander than some brief Cinderella dance on a Kindle list.
This.
 

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George for president.  That is an awesome post.

I must admit I'm developing an allergy to that smug little "show, don't tell" that I keep seeing pop up on writing forums. This is related to something else that I struggle with more though, which is point of view.  I don't like to keep saying "she thought" and "she felt" to make it clear that something is not MY opinion as the narrator, but the character's.

Sometimes you can get away with putting a bit of text in italics to indicate it is a thought, but that mostly only works when the character is actually thinking a phrase, and not for their more general reaction to something.

 

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Masha du Toit said:
George for president. That is an awesome post.

I must admit I'm developing an allergy to that smug little "show, don't tell" that I keep seeing pop up on writing forums. This is related to something else that I struggle with more though, which is point of view. I don't like to keep saying "she thought" and "she felt" to make it clear that something is not MY opinion as the narrator, but the character's.

Sometimes you can get away with putting a bit of text in italics to indicate it is a thought, but that mostly only works when the character is actually thinking a phrase, and not for their more general reaction to something.
You don't really need to put in that "she thought - he thought" thing. The reader will stay with you.

The light came through the window, blinding and hot. She crawled away from it, the old floorboards smoking where the beams hit. She turned back to the door. It was still on fire. Sh!t. This is game over. End of story. That much was obvious. She did the only thing she had left to do. She summoned the genie.

Not great, but hopefully the point is there. You don't need it. It can be useful, especially for beats, but, not a "rule" that means anything. (Like most of them don't.)
 

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John Daulton said:
While I would argue that anything is fair game if the writer can pull it off (yes, giant IF), I would rather just say that your voice is so wonderful, George. I just love your posts. You always complain about selling no books. If that is true, then I think that, if any of us are still being read two hundred years from now, it's likely to be your stuff that's getting the love, and likely on a scale far grander than some brief Cinderella dance on a Kindle list.
Agree. :)
 

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I agree that George is awesome.

And so are goats!

Goats figure prominently in one of my novels, actually. They are part of the Magic Origin Story of Broken Shell Island. There are three commandments on the island and one of them is Do Not Eat the Goats.

I think all of us are getting into each other's subconscious, and I'm glad that George is part of that collective awesomeness we steep ourselves in here.
 
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