Writing 101, a tutorial on fiction

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Comments

  • I will defer to Ron and to Em_Press on that one.
  • Just KevinJust Kevin Lulu Genius
    I often feel insulted on here.
  • I think a lot of new writers struggle with 'show versus tell.' Some writers seem to not even agree on the definitions of 'show' and 'tell,' and some agents and publishers don't seem to care. For example, one extremely popular book by a first time novelist--which I won't mention--got a six figure advance and a movie deal despite its first 75+ pages being almost entirely telling versus showing. But I care because even if my book gets a six figure deal, I want it to be well written.

    I considerate myself to be intermediate. I've done a lot of writing over three decades or so but didn't formally become a novelist until quite recently. Nevertheless, I too sometimes struggle with showing versus telling and find myself unconsciously slipping into too much telling.

    It should be said that telling is often necessary. You have to when being expositional or conveying trivial information. Nobody needs to have your uneventful train trip on the way to solve a mystery fully described with pleasant but superficial exchanges with other passengers in dialogue quotes. "Nice weather, isn't it?" "Yes, the countryside is lovely." A simple, "I caught my train and made it to New York by 10:30" would suffice!

    Nevertheless, my rule of thumb when dealing with show versus tell is to never simply tell how a character is feeling. Rather show how he or she is feeling by their actions. Rather than saying "I was sad," you could say, "I hung my head, fighting to hold back the tears, my shoulders shaking with the effort."

    What are some other helpful hints that might help writers resolve the temptation to tell rather than show?

    Michael
  • I think a lot of new writers struggle with 'show versus tell.'

    Me too! and I am not a new writer. I have no idea what 'Show' even means (as I have said before.) Even though I have looked it up. It's just some Buzzword coined by a single person some while back. To me Show uses images only, as in 'A Picture is worth a 1000s words,' or whatever. Tell uses words. Written or otherwise. The word Show only started to be used in this forum this year, as if it's some word recently learned by those who read How to Write guides.

    Some writers seem to not even agree on the definitions of 'show' and 'tell,'

    Indeed. Even some on-line 'how to write' guides by successful writers seems to treat the word Show with scorn as just being a meaningless Buzzword.

    and some agents and publishers don't seem to care.

    No reason why they should. They will be looking for a good story well-written, that they can sell to the masses, not worrying about the techniques used or what they are called.

    For example, one extremely popular book by a first time novelist--which I won't mention--got a six figure advance and a movie deal despite its first 75+ pages being almost entirely telling versus showing.

    No reason why you cannot mention the name. Was it 50 Shades? There's little rhyme or reason in what books are taken up for films and what are not

    But I care because even if my book gets a six figure deal, I want it to be well written.

    Someone must have thought it was well-written! (And 50 Shades was not ...) But the film industry is not at all the same as the written word industry. They will rewrite things, they are famous for it, and also it's the epitome of Show.

    I considerate myself to be intermediate. I've done a lot of writing over three decades or so but didn't formally become a novelist until quite recently. Nevertheless, I too sometimes struggle with showing versus telling and find myself unconsciously slipping into too much telling.

    So you know what Show means then? Really, both Show and Tell simply refer to the use of descriptive words.

    It should be said that telling is often necessary. You have to when being expositional or conveying trivial information. Nobody needs to have your uneventful train trip on the way to solve a mystery fully described with pleasant but superficial exchanges with other passengers in dialogue quotes. "Nice weather, isn't it?" "Yes, the countryside is lovely." A simple, "I caught my train and made it to New York by 10:30" would suffice!

    But it could help to set the mood. She got on the train and became pissed off because all the seats were taken and was jostled by other standing passengers. As she arrived at New York Central, she looked out of the window and saw that it was now pouring down. The train was ten mins. late.

    So, a little bit of description of the journey can add a bit of colour.

    Nevertheless, my rule of thumb when dealing with show versus tell is to never simply tell how a character is feeling. Rather show how he or she is feeling by their actions. Rather than saying "I was sad," you could say, "I hung my head, fighting to hold back the tears, my shoulders shaking with the effort."

    Why would she be saying that though? Who to? But some writers use the method of saying what the person is thinking, and there's no harm in that, either. Some films use the thoughts as a narrative. Should that sample not be, though,  she was sad. You could say, she hung her head, fighting to hold back the tears, her shoulders shaking with the effort. otherwise she is telling someone ...

    What are some other helpful hints that might help writers resolve the temptation to tell rather than show?

    The idea is, whatever the terminology used, is to create images in people's minds, using only the words they are reading. In one way, the reader is Showing to themselves. They are generating the Show. What the writer has to do is to try to make that image the same as they imagined when writing it.

  • It should be said that telling is often necessary. You have to when being expositional or conveying trivial information. Nobody needs to have your uneventful train trip on the way to solve a mystery fully described with pleasant but superficial exchanges with other passengers in dialogue quotes. "Nice weather, isn't it?" "Yes, the countryside is lovely." A simple, "I caught my train and made it to New York by 10:30" would suffice!

    But it could help to set the mood. She got on the train and became pissed off because all the seats were taken and was jostled by other standing passengers. As she arrived at New York Central, she looked out of the window and saw that it was now pouring down. The train was ten mins. late.

    So, a little bit of description of the journey can add a bit of colour.

    You're making my point here. Rather than deciding to give expositional information in a 'tell,' you're suggesting showing the actual events. Dialogue is one way of doing this. However, it makes no sense to do it if it does not advance the story. Color, in my opinion, is not sufficient reason to have a scene. I say save color for your prose in the midst of writing your story. However, in your scenario, if it was important to let the reader know that the woman is pissed off when she arrived--maybe she goes off on another character as a result--then, yes, I agree that it serves the story. 

    Why would she be saying that though? Who to? But some writers use the method of saying what the person is thinking, and there's no harm in that, either. Some films use the thoughts as a narrative. Should that sample not be, though,  she was sad. You could say, she hung her head, fighting to hold back the tears, her shoulders shaking with the effort. otherwise she is telling someone …


    I think you might be confusing first person narrative style with telling. In a sense, you are right, a first person narrative is in effect someone telling their story, but a third person omniscient narrative is also doing this, albeit more invisibly to the reader. However, this is not the same as 'show versus tell' in the sense I'm talking about, which is to announce someone's feelings rather than demonstrate them, to simply say they do something rather than describe their actions.

    Michael

    P.S. The book in question was "Ready Player One."
  • You're making my point here. Rather than deciding to give expositional information in a 'tell,' you're suggesting showing the actual events.

    No, I am telling them, using words :)

     Dialogue is one way of doing this.

    It depends what it is, and if she/he is actually speaking to someone, or perhaps to themselves.

     However, it makes no sense to do it if it does not advance the story.

    Why? Not everything has to advance a story, some things can simply be used to stop a story not seeming to be real life. Making a story seem more 'real' makes it more, well, real.

     Color, in my opinion, is not sufficient reason to have a scene.

    Yes it is. There's a lot of it in fiction, otherwise it's just some kind of report. Far too dry. What should be in fiction?   Some one was murdered. I Looked. I found the culprit. He is now in prison.

     I say save color for your prose

    Using the definition of prose, most if not all fiction, uses prose.

     in the midst of writing your story.

    No, all the way through. It makes it more 'human.'

     However, in your scenario, if it was important to let the reader know that the woman is pissed off when she arrived--maybe she goes off on another character as a result--then, yes, I agree that it serves the story.

    In instances like that, how would your mood be? It denotes a potential mood without actually describing it. Characters have many moods, they don't change what they are, they have changing emotions.

  • I think you might be confusing first person narrative style with telling.

    I don't think I am. Just who was she talking to? And in such an odd manner?

     In a sense, you are right, a first person narrative is in effect someone telling their story,

    Indeed.

     but a third person omniscient narrative is also doing this, albeit more invisibly to the reader.

    That would not use " or ' then.

     However, this is not the same as 'show versus tell' in the sense I'm talking about, which is to announce someone's feelings rather than demonstrate them, to simply say they do something rather than describe their actions.

    There's no reason both cannot be used.

  • Kevin, seriously, again?

    The fact that you do not understand the metaphor does not make it a bad metaphor. Please, please, please stop whining -- sorry, whinging -- whenever someone mentions show versus tell. It was cute the first time, but now it's just... old...

    Please get over it and let the rest of us move on.
  • Skoob_ym said:
    Kevin, seriously, again?

    The fact that you do not understand the metaphor does not make it a bad metaphor. Please, please, please stop whining -- sorry, whinging -- whenever someone mentions show versus tell. It was cute the first time, but now it's just... old...

    Please get over it and let the rest of us move on.
    I can second that.
    __________________________________________
    Black Cat Studios http://www.black-cat-studios.com/
  • Frankly, I would appreciate some insightful comments about the issue rather than a blow-by-blow takedown of everything I say. The discrimination between the writing forms exists, Kevin, whether you believe it exists or not, or cannot see it. There are countless professional writers that will say so.

    I don't pretend to be an expert, but I, at least, do believe that the issue is a valid one; indeed, it is fundamental to the art of writing.

    Michael
  • Kevin, seriously, again?

    The fact that you do not understand the metaphor does not make it a bad metaphor. Please, please, please stop whining -- sorry, whinging -- whenever someone mentions show versus tell. It was cute the first time, but now it's just... old...

    Please get over it and let the rest of us move on.

    And you learn to respect other opinions, and judging by a lot of content on the internet from other writers, and famous ones, it's not just my opinion.

  • Frankly, I would appreciate some insightful comments about the issue rather than a blow-by-blow takedown of everything I say. The discrimination between the writing forms exists, Kevin, whether you believe it exists or not, or cannot see it. There are countless professional writers that will say so.

    There are even many that say it does not, it's just a trendy buzzword that actually contradicts the meaning of the word. Like Bad and Sick.

    I don't pretend to be an expert, but I, at least, do believe that the issue is a valid one; indeed, it is fundamental to the art of writing

    It is somewhat irrelevant because many methods are used by many well-known writers, and many people still buy and read them, even though they are not aware of the methods.

    It's also noticeable that only the start of  my replies that say that Show is a wrong term to use for text, is all that's being replied to. No one is replying to what else I am saying. It's somewhat puzzling because what you say is the 'wrong' way to write is actually very common in all of fiction by famous writers.

    But go your own way ...

    Michael

  • Frankly, I would appreciate some insightful comments about the issue rather than a blow-by-blow takedown of everything I say. The discrimination between the writing forms exists, Kevin, whether you believe it exists or not, or cannot see it. There are countless professional writers that will say so.

    There are even many that say it does not, it's just a trendy buzzword that actually contradicts the meaning of the word. Like Bad and Sick.

    I don't know of any authors who deny that the discrimination between the two exists. Please name some. A quick Googling of the issue revealed some dissenters like yourself who think the issue is overplayed, which is not even something I necessarily agree or disagree with, but even they seemed to understand the difference and illustrated that difference with examples. Here's one I found: http://readjennymartin.com/2012/06/30/when-show-dont-tell-is-really-bad-advice/

    Showing only (Excerpt altered. All telling parts omitted/edited):

    “We just stand there silently. The grimy little station comes into view. The platform’s thick with cameras.
    Peeta extends his hand. I look at him. ‘One more time? For the audience?’ he says. I take his hand, holding on tightly.

    Showing with Physical Gestures: (Excerpt altered. Telling parts omitted/edited and replaced with physical gestures/reaction):

    My stomach twists into knots. We just stand there silently. The grimy little station comes into view. The platform’s thick with cameras. When Peeta extends his hand, my eyes widen. ‘One more time? For the audience?’ he says, his jaw relaxing. I take his hand, holding on tightly. A shiver of dread runs down my spine.”

    Showing and Telling (Excerpt as published, unaltered):

    I also want to tell him how much I already miss him. But that wouldn’t be fair on my part.

    So we just stand there silently, watching our grimy little station rise up around us. Through the window, I can see the platform’s thick with cameras. Everyone will be watching our homecoming.

    Out of the corner of my eye, I see Peeta extend his hand. I look at him, unsure. ‘One more time? For the audience?’ he says. His voice isn’t angry. It’s hollow, which is worse. Already the boy with the bread is slipping away from me. I take his hand, holding on tightly, preparing for cameras, and dreading the moment when I will finally have to let go.”

    Suzanne Collins, THE HUNGER GAMES


    Nobody's disputing the idea that telling isn't necessary at times, or maybe even a lot, depending on your style of writing. Even I said that it was necessary from the beginning. The point is that there is a difference, the difference does in fact matter, and the use of each technique is something to be weighed by individual writers. Thus, having reached that conclusion, it is necessary to help new writers, like myself, understand the differences, regardless of the exact percentage of each used in a given work and the dispute about how important they are. In the end, it's all about the tools in your writer's toolbox.

    You, on the other hand, seem to think that there's no difference at all, which I frankly find quite bizarre. Are you proposing that people who talk about it are merely delusional?

    Regardless of what you might think, the concept and issue surrounding it are a valid subject for any forum on writing, and simply shooting down the idea when it comes up isn't helpful.

    Michael

  • You, on the other hand, seem to think that there's no difference at all, which I frankly find quite bizarre.

    What I am saying is that the word Show is used out of context. Show is, or was, the use of images, as in a graphic novel. That is the actual difference, what's bizarre about that?

    Call me pedantic if you like, but I live in the land that invented English.

    This is Show >>   https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/show

     Are you proposing that people who talk about it are merely delusional?

    It's simply a buzzword, and as I have said, only recently used by the others in here who are replying to you. When they first started to use Show or Tell here, that's all they said. Just the two words, as if it meant something to everyone. It took me a while to get them to explain what they meant, because who they were replying to did not know. It was around then that I suggested they did not use the two words, just explain the different methods, as you have done.

    Regardless of what you might think, the concept and issue surrounding it are a valid subject for any forum on writing, and simply shooting down the idea when it comes up isn't helpful.

    No, I am not shooting down the use of any type of descriptive writing, just the use of the word Show in relation to words. What I have already said explains that, and many times. I often wonder if I am typing in English. However, different opinions here seem to be taboo.

    Perhaps this clears up what I mean >>   https://study.com/academy/lesson/descriptive-writing-definition-techniques-examples.html

    Notice that it does not even name the techniques, it only describes them, with examples. That is all that is needed when new fiction writers ask.

    In actual fact I sometimes use many methods, and at times even in the same paragraph. I just use adjectives. and call them that.

    Oppi, having expected it, because he had orchestrated the ‘escape’ with one of his little devices, is faster on the up-take. He comments, “well I have no more plans here at this moment and had intended to leave this backwater planet. So …”

    Still she does not utter a real reply, she is frowning and sucking her lip, perhaps in thought. And she is. About how manufactured inventions can emulate ‘magic.’

    “Well my dear?” he enquires even again, his nictitating eyelid flashing across and raising his brows, “I asked if I could accompany you, but you seem not to be moving!” he hootingly chuckles.

    Lilium looks up at him again to admit, “I am not quite sure what … where …”


  • Kevin, seriously, again?

    The fact that you do not understand the metaphor does not make it a bad metaphor. Please, please, please stop whining -- sorry, whinging -- whenever someone mentions show versus tell. It was cute the first time, but now it's just... old...

    Please get over it and let the rest of us move on.

    And you learn to respect other opinions, and judging by a lot of content on the internet from other writers, and famous ones, it's not just my opinion.

    Kevin, I'm trying not to get personal about it.
    I do respect other opinions. I change my mind sometimes -- examples are found on this board -- when a well-thought-out response prompts me to do so.
    I do not respect most of your opinions, because they strike me as shallow knee-jerk reactions instead of carefully thought-out opinions. I actually cringe when I see someone mention show vs. tell because I know that you're going to make us go through this yet again.
    Seriously, get over it, please. Please. Please.
  • Oppi, having expected it, because he had orchestrated the ‘escape’ with one of his little devices, is faster on the up-take. [telling]. He comments, “well I have no more plans here at this moment and had intended to leave this backwater planet. So …” [telling, second-hand]

    Still she does not utter a real reply, she is frowning and sucking her lip, perhaps in thought. And she is. About how manufactured inventions can emulate ‘magic.’ [telling]

    “Well my dear?” he enquires even again, his nictitating eyelid flashing across and raising his brows, “I asked if I could accompany you, but you seem not to be moving!” he hootingly chuckles. [telling]

    Lilium looks up at him again to admit, “I am not quite sure what … where …" [telling]

    The same example, in the type of writing that most people immediately grasp is meant by "showing" would read more like this:

    Oppi was faster on the uptake. "Well, I have no further plans here at the moment, and was intending to leave this backwater planet..." He smiled a wry smile.

    She frowned and sucked her lip. Oppi glanced at her, but she seemed lost in thought. "Magic," she muttered.

    "Well, my Dear?" he enquired, yet again.His nicitating eyelid flicked across. He raised his brows. "I would like to accompany you, but you seem not to be moving." A grin flashed across his face.

    Lilium looked up at him. "I'm not sure what... where..." she admitted.

    So, first, the entire passage is in the present tense. While it's called the "present" tense, you shouldn't give us so much of it. A story flows better in the past tense. In the past tense, we feel the flow of the story, and we can lock into it. In the present tense, we feel like facts are being recited by a disinterested third party. We don't want to be a disinterested third party. We want to be partisan, to feel like we're vicariously taking part.

    This has nothing to do with "adjectives" and everything to do with effective storytelling.

    Note that in my version, I don't tell you that she's lost in thought. Instead I "tell" you that Oppis looks at here, and she seems lost in thought. This "shows" you that she's lost in thought because your mind has to engage in order to agree with Oppi that she's lost in thought. We can be hyperliteral and say that I'm still telling you something. But I'm not telling you the main point (she's lost in thought) but allowing you to reach it on your own.

    A passage like this, that's mostly dialog, is a poor sample for such a demonstration, so the point may not come clearly through. But surely you will agree that the example I gave you is a more effective passage at conveying the ideas to the reader and engaging the reader in the passage.
  • greyowlstudiogreyowlstudio Author
    edited September 2018

    Frankly, I would appreciate some insightful comments about the issue rather than a blow-by-blow takedown of everything I say. The discrimination between the writing forms exists, Kevin, whether you believe it exists or not, or cannot see it. There are countless professional writers that will say so.

    There are even many that say it does not, it's just a trendy buzzword that actually contradicts the meaning of the word. Like Bad and Sick.

    This response seems to indicate rather pointedly that you do not perceive a discrimination between the forms of writing.

    You, on the other hand, seem to think that there's no difference at all, which I frankly find quite bizarre.

    What I am saying is that the word Show is used out of context. Show is, or was, the use of images, as in a graphic novel. That is the actual difference, what's bizarre about that?

    Call me pedantic if you like, but I live in the land that invented English.

    This is Show >>   https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/show

     Are you proposing that people who talk about it are merely delusional?

    It's simply a buzzword, and as I have said, only recently used by the others in here who are replying to you. When they first started to use Show or Tell here, that's all they said. Just the two words, as if it meant something to everyone. It took me a while to get them to explain what they meant, because who they were replying to did not know. It was around then that I suggested they did not use the two words, just explain the different methods, as you have done.

    Regardless of what you might think, the concept and issue surrounding it are a valid subject for any forum on writing, and simply shooting down the idea when it comes up isn't helpful.

    No, I am not shooting down the use of any type of descriptive writing, just the use of the word Show in relation to words. What I have already said explains that, and many times. I often wonder if I am typing in English. However, different opinions here seem to be taboo.

    However, the point of this post (edited) appears to backpedal and claim that you only have an issue with the word 'show'. Which is it? If your issue is merely with the words 'show' and 'tell,' then I'm sorry, yes, it is pedantic. And, while it should be said that I have enormous respect for the country in which you live and could be considered something of an anglophile, it should also be said that no one's country of origin entitles them to be an expert in their spoken language. We must all go to work to earn that.

    Just Kevin said:
    However, different opinions here seem to be taboo.
    I find this a somewhat ironic statement since the tone and subtext of your initial rebuttals was precisely this: that the subject I had brought up was ridiculous and that I was an idiot for proposing it as a topic at all. The motivation of these rebuttals appeared to be an attempt to suppress the issue altogether and their intensity, frankly, bordered on being rude. I realize you may not have intended it that way; you are probably just passionate about your opinions. Please note however that while it is indeed true that the text is sometimes read in the mood of the reader, the purpose of good writing is to eliminate that variable and insert a mood into the reader's mind through the author's 'sorcery.' 

    However, if my interpretation of your comments above is correct and we have moved passed the superficial attribution of 'show versus tell' as an objection to the topic in general, let us proceed to discuss the issue and its relevance in a productive manner.

    I'd be interested in hearing more comments from others as well.

    Incidentally, I found the Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi to be a helpful resource in creating descriptive text for a character's emotional state rather than simply announcing how they feel. And the opening pages did an excellent job of explaining the 'show versus tell' issue.

    Michael
  • This response seems to indicate rather pointedly that you do not perceive a discrimination between the forms of writing.

    It at times worries me when some writers, and specifically potential writers of fiction, do not understand what others write. My response said nothing of the sort. None of my responses have. In this or other threads that mention Show and Tell before you even started to post in the forums.

  • However, the point of this post (edited) appears to backpedal and claim that you only have an issue with the word 'show'.

    No, both the use of the words Show and Tell. Just the use of the words, but yes, I suppose mainly the word Show, and as I have explained a dozen times. I have even pasted links to advice on writing, by writers, that never mention the terms at all.

     Which is it? If your issue is merely with the words 'show' and 'tell,' then I'm sorry, yes, it is pedantic. And, while it should be said that I have enormous respect for the country in which you live and could be considered something of an anglophile, it should also be said that no one's country of origin entitles them to be an expert in their spoken language.

    Well, often it does. But I only said that to again point out what it says about the words in one, if not the, oldest dictionary in the world. And what it still says in the updated yearly version.

    We must all go to work to earn that.

  • I find this a somewhat ironic statement since the tone and subtext of your initial rebuttals was precisely this: that the subject I had brought up was ridiculous and that I was an idiot for proposing it as a topic at all.

    Ermm, you need to read my reply to your initial posting in this thread. I implied nothing of the sort. (I have just reread both.)

     The motivation of these rebuttals appeared to be an attempt to suppress the issue altogether and their intensity, frankly, bordered on being rude.

    Nonsense! What on earth were you reading? I even agreed with you that the two words when used to do with writing causes confusion, and I pointed out why that's not surprising.

     I realize you may not have intended it that way; you are probably just passionate about your opinions.

    There's nothing in my first reply to you that even hints at being scathing towards what you posted, and particularly not towards you.

     Please note however that while it is indeed true that the text is sometimes read in the mood of the reader, the purpose of good writing is to eliminate that variable and insert a mood into the reader's mind through the author's 'sorcery.'

    Or perhaps some read between the lines, even when there's no need to. 

    However, if my interpretation of your comments above is correct and we have moved passed the superficial attribution of 'show versus tell' as an objection to the topic in general, let us proceed to discuss the issue and its relevance in a productive manner.

    I thought we had passed that point very early in the discussion. But what I say is ignored, otherwise it would all, every bit of it, be replied to.  Including bits from example texts.

    I'd be interested in hearing more comments from others as well.


    Yes. Nowadays, I hope for that also, but very very few people seem to use the forums now. Years ago 100s would reply to everything. Nowadays it's often just me!

    Incidentally, I found the Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi to be a helpful resource in creating descriptive text for a character's emotional state rather than simply announcing how they feel. And the opening pages did an excellent job of explaining the 'show versus tell' issue.

    Ah well, they obviously like the new buzzword  :) but a situation dictates what words are used. If people are talking, for example, they could very well simply say, "you don't look well," stated a worried Horrace. "No, I don't feel well," replied Joan miserably.

    Well, that sums that up does it not?

    There's at least one who uses the forum that would say that is the wrong way to write it, but really there's no right or wrong way. Which I believe is being said in another thread, and not just by me.

  • Skoob_ymSkoob_ym Teacher
    edited September 2018
    So, as the above discussion shows, there seems to have been an omission in this series of essays, namely, a thorough discussion of Exposition. Let us now correct this omission.

    Exposition -- revealing facts which provide context and environmental clues to the reader -- is the broccoli of writing. It is the Spinach, the Brussels Sprout, the Asparagus of writing. It's necessary -- you need those vitamins in the story. But it tastes horrible.

    That is to say, to the reader, straight exposition is boring. It goes like this:

    He stood on the road. The road was long. It was covered in black macadam. It was narrow and had a white stripe down the center. One end of the road led to Omaha Nebraska. That's a city. It's the capital of Nebraska.

    Yuk! Am I right? That's not to say that straight exposition has to be horrible. Kurt Vonnegut, with his "telegraphic style of the planet Tralfmadore," made straight exposition truly funny, partly because he was nearly always tongue-in-cheek about it. He could go on for pages telling you facts, mostly irrelevant, and keep you reading, because he was a literary genius. Misguided, but genius.

    For us pedestrians, straight exposition is best in the smallest of doses. We need to dress it up, provide scenery for it, So we might put it all into a context, like this:

    He stood on the edge of the long, narrow, two-lane road and put out his thumb. He gazed down the long strip of black macadam, staring at the spot where the white line met the vanishing point. He wondered when a car would emerge out of that vanishing point, to take him just a little further, a little closer to the state capitol at Omaha.

    Okay, what we've done here is like pouring cheese sauce over those brussels sprouts. We've dressed them up slightly, hidden them a little, made them more pleasing to the eye and more pleasing to the reader. If one were inclined towards the metaphor, noting that some people (*ahem*) are not, and need not say so, one might say that we have moved from telling -- lecturing the reader with a bunch of facts -- towards showing, that is, placing the facts into the background as we tell the narrative.

    We're still getting our iron, thiamine, B12, and copious amounts of riboflavin, but it doesn't taste so bad. The exposition -- revealing the setting and the context -- is still there. It's just not quite as obvious. We can do better.

    Let me digress here, and talk about what I mean by "Context." I can tell you that:

    She looked him in the eye and asked, "When shall we three meet again? In wind, in fire, or in rain?"

    I, as the writer, know who she is and why she said that. It's a line from MacBeth, but she could be a Shakespearean actor, running lines with a man; she could be a first-responder, remarking that she only meets this particular man when they both respond to emergencies; she could be a wife ironically telling her husband that she'd like him to be home for dinner more often. She could even be one of Shakespeare's three weird sisters, since I haven't ruled out a re-telling of MacBeth.

    To provide you that context, I need exposition. So let's go back to our hitchhiker, and see if we can make it less painful still. We can put exposition into dialog, and while it can be clunky, we can make it work:

    He looked down the long, narrow, black strip of macadam, tracing the white line with his eye. "How far to Omaha?" he asked.

    "'Bout another fifty miles, give or take," she replied. She looked up at him, wondering how she had ever allowed him to talk her into a cross-country hitch-hiking trip. "Any cars out there?"

    "Nothing," he replied. "You can see as well as I can."

    "I'm short," she said. "You have a farther horizon." He looked at her, raising an eyebrow. "What?" she snapped. "I'm only five-three!"

    Okay, by comparison with the first try, we have revealed much more information, and we've made it much smoother. Let's take it as a contest: Using fewer than five paragraphs, provide more information than I have about the couple hitchhiking to Omaha, in a more pleasing way. Be sure to describe the road (black macadam, white line, narrow, long) where the road leads (Omaha, Nebraska), and that at least one person is standing on the road. Don't pad. Don't stretch. Don't lecture. Just reveal.

    Go.
  • In a nutshell, only say what is relevant.

    I am currently reading Rama II by a great writer (two in fact) but good god is it boring! I am now up to page 100ish (with a smallish font) and still they have not got in to space! Little has even been said about it! A chapter was even spent at some huge, posh, New Year's party in Europe. To me it added nothing. Get on with it, I kept thinking. But I will keep at it to see what happens.

  • Well, no; quite the opposite.

    If we only say what is relevent -- A man stood in the road. The End.

    We want to paint the scene. Why is the man standing in the road? What kind of road is it? Where does it lead? Is he alone? What are his intentions? Who is he?

    That's the asparagus, right there. I can give you the asparagus straight up, raw, and it's going to taste like raw asparagus. Or I can cook it, add seasonings, provide a sauce or a garnish -- it'll taste okay. Or I can bake it into a casserole or roll it into a sushi, making it a small and potentially overlooked part of a tasty dish.

    So in a way, the casserole -- the story line that encompasses the exposition -- is a byproduct (to the goal of laying out the context) and at the same time the main point (because it moves the story forward). What we're trying to avoid is raw exposition.

    I can recite directly to the reader why the man is standing in the road, where the road leads, and so forth -- but that's boring. Or I can encapsulate it into the story itself. The trick is to tell the reader things without the reader noticing that you told him something. This is especially effective when you let the reader figure it out from clues. So the goal is to lay those clues in the most subtle possible way.
  • In a nutshell, only say what is relevant.

    I am currently reading Rama II by a great writer (two in fact) but good god is it boring! I am now up to page 100ish (with a smallish font) and still they have not got in to space! Little has even been said about it! A chapter was even spent at some huge, posh, New Year's party in Europe. To me it added nothing. Get on with it, I kept thinking. But I will keep at it to see what happens.

    Haven't read the book myself, but I suspect that the party is more important than you think. First, there is the fact that it is posh. This is a clue that the person who held the party had money and prestige. The party most likely contains dialog that sets the characters into a context -- we learn which character is secretly shoving shrimp up his sleeve (because it may be quite a while till he eats so well again) and which character is sipping champagne and waiting for the host to trip on the carpet. Assuming that such things happen.

    These things give us subtle character clues. Or set the stage for later events.

    when you say that it's boring -- is it possible that in your haste for an action scene, you're overlooking the important exposition that's being slipped into your coat pockets?

    As an example, in Herman Wouk's book Youngblood Hawke, q.v., there is a Christmas party in an early chapter. If we skim through it lightly, we just see Youngblood talking with various people. But if we look for the interactions between characters, we see that the hostess is trying to seduce him, the agent is lying to him, the stylist adores him, and the old friend and poet from West Virginia has only gotten back into this elite circle because the publisher is desperate to keep Youngblood with the house.

    It's a dinner party: no guns, no car crashes, and no fires. But it is pivotal to the remainder of the story. Wouk takes the essential facts that he could have recited raw, and instead gives them to us as part of a storyline, carefully blended to reveal just enough about each character, and about Youngblood himself.
  • Now, Kevin does raise an important question here, namely, when is there simply too much exposition?
    Well, in my opinion, when the exposition is obvious to the reader, it's too much. There are other signs: If the exposition is only likely to be meaningful to a selected few individuals, then it's too much.
    The title "Crossing Delancey," a successful 1988 movie, while very meaningful to about 8 million New Yorkers, means nothing to the rest of us. Is Delancey a person? A city? A park? A street? Oh, it's a street! Okay, so what's significant about crossing that street? Is the border of two ethnic areas? Two gang territories? To vending machine routes?
    A title is not exposition, but if you were to say, "He crossed the tri-borough bridge" -- okay, a non-NYCer will not know the triborough bridge from any other bridge. And explaining it will not make it better. Too much exposition.
    I just finished a book in a series about a Tennessee lawyer. Book one was a bit rough, and had some over-exposition, but the next book I bought -- Book 5, it turns out -- is an archipelago of dialog and actions buried in a sea of exposition. If we mention John Doe, we hear John Doe's life history. If a character makes a remark, we hear a detailed explanation directly from the author about what the character meant by that. Much of this could have been -- should have been -- baked into the storyline. But no, it's served raw.
    So I will not be buying a third book by that author. I don't like having the facts of the storyline lectured at me.
  • We want to paint the scene. Why is the man standing in the road? What kind of road is it? Where does it lead? Is he alone? What are his intentions? Who is he?

    That is still only saying what is relevant. And if he is only standing on it for 1 second, its description is hardly relevant. The rest of the details can be in another part of the script.

  • Haven't read the book myself, but I suspect that the party is more important than you think.

    Not really.

     First, there is the fact that it is posh. This is a clue that the person who held the party had money and prestige.

    Most of the characters are rich. A lot of those points have already been covered in the text.

     The party most likely contains dialog that sets the characters into a context -- we learn which character is secretly shoving shrimp up his sleeve (because it may be quite a while till he eats so well again) and which character is sipping champagne and waiting for the host to trip on the carpet. Assuming that such things happen.

    None of it matters. It was an entire chapter created to point out that two of those going to Rama II hate each other. Such can be put across with far fewer words, and we already knew it anyway.

    These things give us subtle character clues. Or set the stage for later events.

    This is 100 pages in. 100 pages describing what type of people they are ...

    when you say that it's boring -- is it possible that in your haste for an action scene, you're overlooking the important exposition that's being slipped into your coat pockets?

    No. You talk as if I have never read or seen anything before, or know how to write. They are using the annoying method that Disaster and horror movies use. Use 2/3rds or more of the film to make you like or hate some of the characters, so you have or do not have sympathy for them when the action does start. In fact I have just skipped an entire chapter after reading a few paragraphs. About one of them at 7 years old living with her African tribe for a while. (This is around 100 years in the future!) It adds nothing to the actual story, about an alien spaceship visiting the solar system. Get on with it.

    As an example, in Herman Wouk's book Youngblood Hawke, q.v., there is a Christmas party in an early chapter. If we skim through it lightly, we just see Youngblood talking with various people. But if we look for the interactions between characters, we see that the hostess is trying to seduce him, the agent is lying to him, the stylist adores him, and the old friend and poet from West Virginia has only gotten back into this elite circle because the publisher is desperate to keep Youngblood with the house.

    Then that perhaps has a purpose. How many pages covering the characters precede it? however It sounds like a Who Dun It though.

    It's a dinner party: no guns, no car crashes, and no fires. But it is pivotal to the remainder of the story. Wouk takes the essential facts that he could have recited raw, and instead gives them to us as part of a storyline, carefully blended to reveal just enough about each character, and about Youngblood himself.

    And? Have you read Rama II?

  • Just KevinJust Kevin Lulu Genius
    edited September 2018

    Now, Kevin does raise an important question here, namely, when is there simply too much exposition?

    Indeed. I think some writers like the 'sound' of their own text too much.


    Well, in my opinion, when the exposition is obvious to the reader, it's too much.

    Yup.

    There are other signs: If the exposition is only likely to be meaningful to a selected few individuals, then it's too much.
    The title "Crossing Delancey," a successful 1988 movie, while very meaningful to about 8 million New Yorkers, means nothing to the rest of us. Is Delancey a person? A city? A park? A street? Oh, it's a street! Okay, so what's significant about crossing that street? Is the border of two ethnic areas? Two gang territories? To vending machine routes?
    A title is not exposition, but if you were to say, "He crossed the tri-borough bridge" -- okay, a non-NYCer will not know the triborough bridge from any other bridge. And explaining it will not make it better. Too much exposition.

    Although simply stating that it is New York at the start would be sufficient, then the various place names could 'transport' the reader there. Then again, I would expect that most people would recognised NY because it's used so much in films. But if the story is situated in some place in the US that even people in the USA may not of heard of then street names would be pointless. Although it would be a clue that the writer does actually know the place.


    I just finished a book in a series about a Tennessee lawyer. Book one was a bit rough, and had some over-exposition, but the next book I bought -- Book 5, it turns out -- is an archipelago of dialog and actions buried in a sea of exposition. If we mention John Doe, we hear John Doe's life history. If a character makes a remark, we hear a detailed explanation directly from the author about what the character meant by that. Much of this could have been -- should have been -- baked into the storyline. But no, it's served raw.
    So I will not be buying a third book by that author. I don't like having the facts of the storyline lectured at me.

    One of the things that often irritates me is when writers say everything that every one is thinking. In real life that's not possible, unless you are telepathic. In real life you only have facial expressions and body language to go off, and tone of voice.

  • If the writer places himself in the role of a character -- for example, telling the story in the first person -- then he cannot know what others are thinking. If the writer puts himself outside of the story, speaking as if he were a narrator, then he CAN tell us what everyone else is thinking. This is known as the Authorial-omniscient perspective.

    Many great writers use this, including, for example, Tolstoy. In one scene of War and Peace, he uses this technique to allow us to compare the same event (a card game) as seen by Nikolai Rustov and by the villianous Dolokhov.

    Authorial-omniscient viewpoint can be overdone. In that case, the results are sometimes derisively called head-hopping because the author seems to leap from one person's thoughts to another. The careful writer will draw himself out of one mind before leaping into another. For example, if we are hearing one character's internal dialog in real time, we need a transition through hearing her thoughts indirectly, then not hearing them at all, then moving to another mind.

    If this were a scene in a movie, we would call it a slow pan instead of a jump cut.

    Example, using the hitchhikers from the posts above:

    He looked down the long, narrow, black strip of macadam, tracing the white line with his eye. "How far to Omaha?" he asked.

    "'Bout another fifty miles, give or take," she replied. She looked up at him. How on the green earth had she ever allowed him to talk her into a cross-country hitch-hiking trip?  "Any cars out there?"

    "Nothing," he replied. "You can see as well as I can."

    Smartass, she thought. See what happens next time you ask how far to Omaha again.

    "I'm short," she said. "You have a farther horizon." He looked at her, raising an eyebrow. "What?" she snapped. "I'm only five-three!" She shot him a look; the look of doom.

    He returned her look with a blank face. What the hell is she so pissed about now?

    He wondered if he would have been better off traveling alone.

    Note that we pull the camera out of her head, first giving her dialog to speak, then pulling out to her face, and expressing her thoughts through her expression. We go from intimate involvement in her thoughts, to less-intimate involvement in her speech, and less intimate still, interpreting her expressions. Then and only then can we peek into his thoughts.

    If we were telling the story in first person -- a limited perspective -- then we need her to express her thoughts verbally or by facial expression:

    "Nothing," I replied. "You can see as well as I can."

    She narrowed her eyes and pursed her mouth, like I'd said something smartass. "I'm short," she said. "You have a farther horizon." She put ehr hands on her hips as if daring me to deny it.

    I looked at her, raising an eyebrow at her weak response. She must have been mad.

    "What?" she snapped. "I'm only five-three!" She shot me a look; the look of doom.

    I returned her look with a blank face, hoping not to make things worse. What the hell was she so pissed about now?


    So now then the hitchhiker can't see her thoughts, and we get the opacity of the communication. He can only guess from her expressions, and the author can't tell us what's wrong with her.

    There are authors, of course, who have blended Authorial Omniscient with First Person. Kurt Vonnegut used to do it often; Galapagos is a great example. He is speaking as the ghost of a man killed during the construction of the ship, but he knows what the various characters are thinking. As we said earlier, Vonnegut is an anomaly.
  • I have not read Rama II, but thank you for the invitation. While I disagree with your interpretation, I will defer to your experience in having read it.

    Youngblood Hawke is not a Who-Dun-It? It is a novel about a heavy equipment operator, a Sea-Bee from West Virginia, a mountain of a man, who aspires to be a writer. It tells of his successes, his pitfalls, his failures, and his eventual -- well, don't want to spoil it. It's a fine novel, and great literature, by the author who brought us The Caine Mutiny.

    You wouldn't like it.
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