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Tell, don't recount


Zuri

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Most of you will probably be familiar with the rule/advice "show, don't tell". (Actually, this advice is a little flawed in itself, as outlined in "Bad Character Intros vs Good Character Intros (Writing Advice)" by the YouTube channel "Writer Brandon McNulty", but that would be a whole over topic for another day ).

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What we are focussing on today, will be the telling aspect. Because, even though, there can be good "tell", when "show" wouldn't work, and then, there's bad "tell", which I will refer to as "recount", but I'll get to that in a bit.

To explain what brought be to that distinction, I have to tell you about my experience when writing a short story. I've written it in three parts: The first being the introduction of the unlikable protagonist, ending in the sudden arrival of the antagonist. The third part picks up that plot line and leads to its (somewhat) resolution with an open end. So far, so good. What bugged me, was actually writing the middle part. It's the antagonist's introduction, however, contrary to the protagonist's, it's written as a flashback. And that's where it never felt quite right. Getting the point of the antagonist across properly required me to write a lot of exposition and drop the whole backstory right in front of the readers, because, well, it's a short story after all and we don't have all day. It felt rushed and cramped. But the problem can never be, that it is a short story, but the lack of talent on the author's part or the story just not being the right fit for the short story type in particular.

Okay, let's consider, the story can work as a short story. In this case, we have to assume, "tell" is the only was to get that much exposition across, assuming, again, that it is necessary to convey the antagonist's motives. That leads us to the question of what distinguishes "tell" from "recount". You, depending on your linguistic affinity and ability to draw conclusions, might already have an idea. Actually, I came up with this distinction when editing a short story here on GA. There, it occurred to me, that the way, this necessary recollection of the character's past, that drives them in the present, can indeed be done in a good or a bad way. When you have to tell about the character's past, you probably don't want it to be all show, but it makes a difference whether you condense it to "He had done this, and then he had done that, before moving on to a third thing".

So, what's the difference, then? It's in how a reader perceives it. It feels pretty matter-of-factly. It doesn't help to relate to the character, because it feels lifeless. Not, that recounting things is always wrong, but doing it at length can rob your story from its soul. Even though, it's a collection of past events, you have to slow it down a little and dive it. It doesn't have to be an all-interactive "show" with tons of dialogue (maybe a few quotes here and there), but it should describe a couple of events with a few more details that people are able to imagine them happening. It's a bit like the difference it makes whether your history teacher makes you remember mere year dates or focuses more on the events and their reasons.

Edited by Zuri

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I believe 'show, don't tell' is good advice, but for me it means, 'show when possible, don't tell if you can't make it interesting'. Narration, of course, is an important part of writing, and there are ways to use it to draw readers in. Narration as internal dialogue is one way, as is having action occur in any narration. It can be great for teasing what is to come, or in adding to the characterization or posing questions and curiosity in the reader's mind. In the end, for me it is about balance. Telling can't be avoided... so just edit the hell out of such passages. I turn narration upside down and backwards until it fits and elevates. Still, even then, I am always leery of too much. Story telling is an art, different for each of us, but the goal is to hold the reader, and all we can do is try.  :)    

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Thank you for your comment, @Headstall! I agree, that's why I included the "'Show Don't Tell' is flawed advice" pic. The balance is really the challenge for some, I guess. It shouldn't be showing for the sake of showing, but show can take many shapes and forms one might not initially see—and that's what can make writing exciting at times.

In the end, the chapters have to serve the story lines, the story lines have to serve the characters, and the characters have to serve the story (not necessarily in that order). It's all one big puzzle and it takes some time to get the hang of the current story one is telling to fully understand its characters and dynamics, and in which way these can be utilized to tell this story.

47 minutes ago, Headstall said:

Story telling is an art, different for each of us, but the goal is to hold the reader, and all we can do is try.  :)    

Apparently, nobody ever really stops learning, and each and every new story is both a challenge and a learning opportunity to me.

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6 minutes ago, Zuri said:

Thank you for your comment, @Headstall! I agree, that's why I included the "'Show Don't Tell' is flawed advice" pic. The balance is really the challenge for some, I guess. It shouldn't be showing for the sake of showing, but show can take many shapes and forms one might not initially see—and that's what can make writing exciting at times.

In the end, the chapters have to serve the story lines, the story lines have to serve the characters, and the characters have to serve the story (not necessarily in that order). It's all one big puzzle and it takes some time to get the hang of the current story one is telling to fully understand its characters and dynamics, and in which way these can be utilized to tell this story.

Apparently, nobody ever really stops learning, and each and every new story is both a challenge and a learning opportunity to me.

New stories, new challenges. And no, I never stop learning. Even stories I wrote only months ago, upon rereading, have things I would change. To be completely satisfied lends to not caring, and that can be a death knell for creativity. Just my opinion.

I might be happy with a completed story, but I edit and reedit each chapter right up to actual posting, always going back to the previous chapter and the next one, making sure if flows (that puzzle you mentioned). I'm not patting myself on the back by any means... I am only sharing some of my process. 

As far as what comes first or takes precedence, it is always the characters for me. Everything else should assist readers in understanding and caring about what happens to the character or characters... and what the do has to make sense to the reader when all is said and done. They (the characters) drive the story line. Cheers!

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I was thinking about this a couple of weeks ago when an ARC (advance reading copy) made me sit and shake my head in disbelief. In the first few chapters, the action regularly stopped, completely stopped, while the character's past history was recounted. This, to me, was telling taken to the nth degree. I would've learnt so much more about the characters if their past history (the relevant bits) came out in other ways. 

As in most rules about writing, there's a good point to be made but it's not a cast iron 'thou shalt not'. Different things work for different writers. I agree with Gary @Headstall , as long as it serves the story and so draws in readers, go with your gut. My example above absolutely didn't serve the story and drove this reader to give it a very lukewarm review.

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5 minutes ago, Headstall said:

Even stories I wrote only months ago, upon rereading, have things I would change. To be completely satisfied lends to not caring, and that can be a death knell for creativity. Just my opinion.

I might be happy with a completed story, but I edit and reedit each chapter right up to actual posting

It's similar for me, even though, I might find a dozen places, where I could have done better, once it's posted, I don't change it anymore, because it being a snapshot of my writing abilities then as well as the circumstances I was in while writing, make the story what it was. That cannot really be recreated.

To me, editing an in progress story for posting chapter-wise here on GA vs editing a completed book for sale (got a taste of each) is vastly different—not only in the communication with the author (been in both one's shoes) differs but also the flow: While the former is, of course, more focussed on the chapters as being somewhat self-contained, the latter allows for seeing the bigger picture, meaning story and character arcs and the like. The benefit is that you can go back and hide hints or metaphors in earlier chapters, or tweak a character a little to make their arc work more naturally.

12 minutes ago, Headstall said:

As far as what comes first or takes precedence, it is always the characters for me. […] They (the characters) drive the story line. Cheers!

I wish, I could say the same. That probably what my stories are lacking. I'm not necessarily focussed on the story per se, but on its themes and its arcs and the characters grow along the path that is laid out for them by the aforementioned things.

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Just now, northie said:

'thou shalt not'

One exception has to be made:

You Shall Not Pass Lord Of The Rings GIF - You Shall Not Pass Lord Of The Rings Lotr GIFs

2 minutes ago, northie said:

[it] made me sit and shake my head in disbelief. […] My example […] absolutely didn't serve the story and drove this reader to give it a very lukewarm review.

I have two examples from kinda famous novels:

  • The novelization of Star Wars: Episode III –Revenge of the Sith constantly infodumped pages of backstory, especially in the beginning, that I always had to recall what the characters were doing right before that.
  • In Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf sends Frodo a letter, explaining, who Strider is, which Barliman Butterbur doesn't deliver, so Frodo manages to arrive at the Prancing Pony in Bree and meet Aragorn without it totally fine. The letter wasn't mentioned before that very chapter and, in the end, doesn't do more than dissipating the last tiny bits of doubt, which sure could have been done on their journey just as well. I haven't dug up a letter or something Tolkien wrote, confirming my theory, but it seems to me that he felt it necessary to be included as a last minute change but didn't bother to go back and adjust the preceding chapters leading up to this point.
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5 hours ago, Zuri said:

It's similar for me, even though, I might find a dozen places, where I could have done better, once it's posted, I don't change it anymore, because it being a snapshot of my writing abilities then as well as the circumstances I was in while writing, make the story what it was. That cannot really be recreated.

To me, editing an in progress story for posting chapter-wise here on GA vs editing a completed book for sale (got a taste of each) is vastly different—not only in the communication with the author (been in both one's shoes) differs but also the flow: While the former is, of course, more focussed on the chapters as being somewhat self-contained, the latter allows for seeing the bigger picture, meaning story and character arcs and the like. The benefit is that you can go back and hide hints or metaphors in earlier chapters, or tweak a character a little to make their arc work more naturally.

I wish, I could say the same. That probably what my stories are lacking. I'm not necessarily focussed on the story per se, but on its themes and its arcs and the characters grow along the path that is laid out for them by the aforementioned things.

Unless it is a technical mistake, as in spelling or a missed word, I leave it alone too, though I did do some rewriting of my first story in places re POV. 

I edit the whole story first. I go over it so many times some would think me crazy, until I'm fairly confidant everything is there, especially the pacing. Once I start posting, it is all about fine tuning. Fact is, I enjoy it, and I think it works for me. I do catch things that might not matter to readers, but certainly do to me. Dialogue is paramount for me, and each inflection, pause, word choice, and tone has to feel right to me. The biggest red flag I see is when everyone in a story talks the same. I enjoy dialogue because it is what brings the characters to life and makes them unique. Cheers!

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4 hours ago, Headstall said:

I edit the whole story first.

When only being editor to a story, I usually don't have that luxury ^^ When I'm the author myself, I usually plan the story in my head and rearrange it a dozen times before the first words make it onto paper (real paper, indeed). Once it's there, it already surpassed stages for minor changes and I can focus on more fine-grained changes.

5 hours ago, Headstall said:

Fact is, I enjoy it

Editing whole books in one go can be very stressful, so I usually prefer chapter-wise in terms of communication transparency and stress levels based on what I experienced, working with different authors.

Especially in the German community, where I edited and published, I constantly had long discussions with my editor and the author I edited for respectively, which I always enjoyed. In the end, we usually arrived at a result, I was quite satisfied with.

6 hours ago, Headstall said:

Dialogue is paramount for me, and each inflection, pause, word choice, and tone has to feel right to me.

Oh, dialogue has so much to offer: What characters say as well as what they don't, their vocabulary and their way of expression—and one quirk of mine: Punctuation. You might say, that punctuation is merely on the page and barely audible in spoken context—and you'd be in good company—however, I think of dialogue as if it was a stage or screen play. Most people get along with comma and full stop well enough most of the time. But I can literally hear a semicolon or an em dash, a nuance in a character's speech, and what they might want to convey with that consciously or subconsciously.

As I said, characters could be improved in my case, and that also covers the way they speak. I try to mimic what I envisioned for them, but only to a certain extent. So, it's definitely a considerable amount of work for me to not let some of them sound slightly hard to distinguish at times 😅

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