Notes from An Alien

~ Explorations In Writing { and reading and publishing } ~

“Show Don’t Tell”? ~ Hey! Even Showing Demands Words :-)


One of my blogging-buddies and fellow writer, Haley Whitehall wrote, in response to the recent post, Words or Deeds ~ Which One Tells You More About A Person?, “I hope you write that future post of writing’s challenge of expressing deeds with words. I would love to read it.”

Now, I surely can’t promise I’ll write every post a reader wants but this one was sitting in my mind/heart and bubbling with anticipation to be written. Haley’s gentle nudge felt like a clarion call :-)

So, is it one of writing’s inexplicable mysteries that the attempt to show action instead of just telling the reader it happened is “doomed” to depend on words? Movies just Show. Writing is located in that special realm of Words Only.

In response to a comment in the post, How Can You Write About Things You Can’t See?, I referenced a site which said: “One of the most difficult and most crucial elements in story-telling is knowing when to give play-by-play action and when to back off and summarize.”

Still, giving play-by-play action depends on words…

Are writers really magicians because they can conjure actions in our minds and feelings in our hearts by using words on paper?

Maybe… :-)

I think the easiest explanation of this phenomenon is to just say that words are born in our minds and hearts, spring from the more spiritual aspects of our beings and, hence, have the requisite power to create vivid action in our minds and poignant feelings in our hearts.

I could go on and on with my faux-philosophical meanderings but two examples from my favorite author should work to more effect.

I’m drawing my examples from C. J. Cherryh’s, Fortress of Dragons.

The first excerpt is “technically” Telling but notice how she still pulls off a bit of Showing:

A slow procession passed by night, little disturbing the sleep of Henas’amef. Tristen on bay Petelly, two ladies on horses the lords of Ivanor had lent them, with Captain Uwen Lewen’s-son and Tristen’s bodyguard attending, all climbed the hill in a lazy fall of fat lumps of snow.

That families were asleep and shutters were drawn and latched up and down the streets lent welcome anonymity to their passage … for by day the sight of the duke of Amefel riding in company with the red-haired former duchess and her sister would have alarmed the town.

The next example is “technically” Showing and it needs to be mentioned that this showing is “…within the gray space wizards used.”:

“With child, no less”, Emuln said, and turned a fierce and forbidding question toward Tarien Aswydd. “Whose, woman?”

It was harshly, even brutally demanded, so uncharacteristically forceful that Tristen flinched. In the same instant Orien flung an arm about her sister, who shied from answering and winked out of the gray space like a candle in the wind.

Orien’s was a swift, defiant retreat.

The very best writers can Show while Telling and Tell while Showing.

Plus, “Show Don’t Tell.”, is just a rule and rules are guidelines for those of us who have yet to master the art…
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16 responses to ““Show Don’t Tell”? ~ Hey! Even Showing Demands Words :-)

  1. Karla Telega January 24, 2011 at 8:34 pm

    One of the things I love in the Foreigner series is seeing into Bren’s mind. Cherryh is able to paint pictures with thoughts as well. Perhaps that’s different from both actions and summarizing. Seeing a man processing what’s going on around him, especially since he knows that he does not process things in the same way as the people he represents.

    Like

  2. Alexander M Zoltai January 24, 2011 at 9:12 pm

    Cherryh is definitely a Master…

    Thanks for bringing up that important other category of writerly magic–painting pictures with thoughts.

    Then, there’s showing the action of what the character’s thinking in order to tell important information.

    There’s probably 6 X n more variants :-)

    Like

  3. Simone Benedict January 24, 2011 at 10:20 pm

    I really appreciate your point that writing is an art. As artists we need to continue to push outside the box to reach our full potential. The last sentence in your post strikes me as particularly profound! And so very true.

    Like

  4. Alexander M Zoltai January 25, 2011 at 12:41 am

    Yes, push outside the box or, sometimes, crush the box and fly free :-)

    Who, me? Profound? Hmmm…

    Like

  5. HaleyWhitehall January 25, 2011 at 1:15 am

    Thanks for the shout out. I loved this post! Writing is an art but showing while telling and telling while showing is even more of an art. It takes a lot of practice and I’m constantly working to improve. Like Simone, I found the last sentence of your post profound. There comes a time in every novel that an author has to tell something. It is how the information is told that matters and those who have mastered the art are able to do it well.

    Seems like you could write a few more posts about all that writery magic you mentioned in your comment. I love writery magic. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts :)

    Like

  6. Alexander M Zoltai January 25, 2011 at 1:25 am

    Really glad you like the post, Haley! You are the one that nudged me to write it :-)

    Again I’m being called profound… Must look in the mirror and see if I’ve traded personalities with another writer…

    Writerly Magic…

    Just might be part of a future post’s title………………………………………………

    Like

  7. HaleyWhitehall January 26, 2011 at 4:03 am

    I would “like” this post if I could figure out how. Did I just miss the button?

    Like

  8. Alexander M Zoltai January 26, 2011 at 4:09 am

    Should be right above “7 Responses to “Show Don’t Tell”? ~ Hey! Even Showing Demands Words :-)”, though after I post this comment it should be 8 not 7–which is right above your comment….

    See it??

    Like

  9. HaleyWhitehall January 26, 2011 at 4:24 am

    I see it! :)
    Writerly Magic… I’ll be waiting for that post in the future.
    Writers are magicians you know.

    Like

  10. Alexander M Zoltai January 26, 2011 at 4:50 am

    Yep, writers are magicians.

    I just checked the online Etymology site I use often and found for “write”: Words for “write” in most I.E languages originally mean “carve, scratch, cut” (cf. L. scribere, Gk. grapho, Skt. rikh-); a few originally meant “paint”

    Heck, if we can paint with words, we gotta be some kinda mojo-folk :-)

    As far as Writerly Magic in a post all its own… I don’t usually know what my posts will be about till just before I write them. And, even when people like you gently nudge me to write a post, I can never promise because the space I create in myself before I write must call the shots………

    Like

  11. HaleyWhitehall January 26, 2011 at 5:30 am

    I understand that. Perhaps if you think about Writerly Magic for a while something will speak to you. If not, I much just take the topic for myself :)

    Like

  12. Alexander M Zoltai January 26, 2011 at 5:49 am

    O.K., so one of us will dedicate a post to Writerly Magic…

    Then, the other one can respond and we can have Dueling Blogs :-)

    Like

  13. HaleyWhitehall January 26, 2011 at 8:57 pm

    *might* just not much just. Being unable to edit my comments is really getting on my nerves.
    Dueling Blogs I like that idea. Though I am afraid that you will win :)

    Like

  14. Alexander M Zoltai January 26, 2011 at 9:19 pm

    I’m not so sure I’ll win…

    Ya know, being the creator of this blog, I can edit all the posts…

    Just tell me what to change and I’ll pretend I’m a big-shot editor :-)

    Like

  15. Chloe February 3, 2011 at 10:41 am

    Hi Alex :D Finally I get around to your wonderful post – and it was worth the wait!

    I agree that a writer needs to know when to apply both the ‘showing’ element, and the ‘telling’ element in a story. A story based on either one would not work – there has to be a balance. Like you said, rules are there as a guideline only…although I’m not sure anybody will ever fully master the art of writing – and most writers would agree that they are constantly striving to improve.

    Have a GREAT day xx

    Like

  16. Alexander M Zoltai February 3, 2011 at 2:05 pm

    Good to see you here again, Chloe. You said: “…I’m not sure anybody will ever fully master the art of writing…”, an extremely important concept philosophically and psychologically.

    Writers need the self-esteem to see their work as a clear value yet need to retain the perspective that they can never be perfect. I think the process of having one’s work commented on keeps writers “in their place” :-)

    Another point your comment brought to my mind is that language is always growing and changing and, therefore, writers will always have perfection in their craft trailing behind the forward surge of the very tool they use…

    Like

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