16 July 2008

To tell or not to tell...

Advanced writers have had drilled into them "show, don't tell"--but is this a hard and fast rule? In the July/August 2008 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact there's a very interesting article "Hook, Lure, and Narrative: The Art of Writing Story Leads" by Richard A. Lovett. There's a lot of good information here, but I'm going to focus on only one of the rules: "Rule 2: Know when to show and when to tell." The gist of the rule is "showing isn't always better", and he gives some excellent examples, e.g. A Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.", Stranger in a Strange Land: "Once upon a time there was a Martian named Valentine Michael Smith." Can you come up with some other good examples?

A survey of first sentences from The Best of the Best: 20 Years of the Year's Best Science Fiction shows the MAJORITY of the first sentences are telling, e.g. (quotation marks mine), "There is a principle in nature I don't think anyone has pointed out before.", "I awoke this morning to discover that bioengineering had made demands upon me during the night.", "I live in the oldest city in the world.", "Everything felt like a dream.", etc., etc.

Thus, if you want to submit a story with some telling to Electric Spec, this editor says, "Go for it!"


Betsy Dornbusch said...
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Betsy Dornbusch said...

I have nothing against such sweeping telling statements, or even smaller ones, though I think it's more last century's fashion. These starts feel dated to me, giving a story a more noir or even fairytale aura. Nothing wrong with that. Telling can save a lot of pages in a short story.

The problem some readers find with telling and omniscient pov, which often go hand-in-hand, is that a reader must trust the narrator explicitly to accept the telling statements. Some readers find "being told" condescending, and today's somewhat skeptical readership often doesn't accept what they read at face value. Letting a reader watch events unfold via showing is the safest bet, since that reader gets to make up their own mind and apply their own world-view and psyche to what they read. IMO, showing allows for more of a two-way street between narrator and reader, which to me is one of the great joys of storytelling. (In other words, to me a story is unfinished until it has been read.)

All that said, I'm not against telling. I trust authors to write their stories to their own vision, not mine.

David E. Hughes said...

I think there is a progression for most writers. At first they need to work on taking the telling out of their stories because telling is our natural instinct. Then, once they figure out how to show, then they need to figure out what kind of telling needs to get put back in. The first lines Lesley includes in the post are excellent examples. Telling can often be MORE compelling then showing.