Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Mentored: Answers to our Show Don't Tell Questions with Randy Ingermanson

I have had many question about the topic  Show Don't Tell. It's a complicated subject.

Seems to me Show Don't Tell rules make hiking up Mt. Everest look like a stroll on the beach.

Sometimes I feel like no matter how much I edit, I can't fully weed out the "tells." Ah--am I doomed to failure?

Recently the "Show Don't Tell" topic poked it's ugly head up in a loop discussion. Randy Ingermanson chimed in his great insights sprinkled with a dash of humor. I wrote Randy and asked if I could share those comments with you. He said yes:)

Randy Ingermanson thoughts on Show Don't Tell: 

Randy, there's a lot of information available on the topic of Show Don't Tell. I'm overwhelmed with all the rules.

There are absolutely no "rules" about "showing versus telling" (or anything else in fiction writing). The "rules" you are referring to are actually "rules of thumb". "Rules of thumb" differ from "rules" in the same way that good abs differ from corsets.

The whole purpose of writing fiction is to give your target audience a Powerful Emotional Experience. All rules of thumb are intended to suggest ways that you could improve things when a given scene fails to deliver on that pesky Powerful Emotional Experience.

Please remember that if you are delivering a sufficiently powerful set of emotions to your reader, then you don't need to fix your scene. So don't even think about the rules of thumb unless your scene is actually broken.

But I've been taught "Showing" is always better than "Telling".

This is not true. Showing is generally better during the exciting parts of your character's life, but showing is absolutely the worst thing you can do during the boring parts of your character's life. I'm sure you can tell the difference.

Yes, but won't "Telling" or info dumps guarantee a manuscript's rejection in today's publishing field ? --let's leave out authors of days gone by who had pages and pages of info dumps published.

Info dumps at the start of your story will definitely do this, because info dumps are boring. Telling the exciting parts of your story will also get you tossed. You should be showing the exciting parts of your story and telling the unexciting parts. This is obvious enough that I won't bother to try to explain why.

OK, but I've heard in classes and read in books that "Telling" is a sign of weakness and muddies the story with information the reader doesn't need.  

Poorly done telling shows poor craftsmanship. Excellently done telling shows excellent craftsmanship. You can see any number of examples of well done telling in most literary novels. For some wretched examples of telling, go to any critique group on the planet and ask to read the work of the newest member of the group.

Whether you show or tell, if you do it well, it's like magic. Whenever you attempt a magic trick, there's an enormous difference between doing it well and doing it badly. If you disbelieve me, then don't try that trick with sawing your mother in half.

When you sit down to write, forget every rule you ever heard of. Just write. When you go to edit, don't fix what ain't broke; do use the rules of thumb to help you fix what is broke.

Randy Ingermanson
Publisher, Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine

Thanks, Randy!

Have you been bogged down with the Show Don't Tell rules? Please share your thoughts and/or tips.


Image by:

This blog post by Mary Vee

Mary lives in Montana with her husband and loves to hear from her three college kids. She writes Christian young adult fiction (pirate tales, missionary and Bible adventure stories).
She thinks of writing as: Stepping into Someone Else's World.
To learn more about Mary, visit her blog


Anonymous said...

Having just edited my manuscript, I was amazed at how much telling I did. I am sure if I read through it again, I'd find numerous examples of the dreaded tell. Maybe someday I will get to where I show more...and better! ;0)

Mary Vee Writer said...

Yes, But according to Randy, you may have showed and told at all the right places!
Not to say editing isn't good, but what I appreciated from Randy was a freedom to put telling portions in. (the right place, of course)

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Love the tip about forgetting every rule. That's when my best stuff the forgetting and losing myself to the words & page.
~ Wendy

Jeanne Takenaka said...

This post made me think. It led me to a question: How do you "tell well?" Rather than tell poorly? I'm not going to do serious edits till I finish my first draft, but I am now wondering about how to do telling well. :)

Susan Anne Mason said...

Still one of the trickiest things to master in writing, but Randy is dead on!

Sometimes you have to tell. For example when some big time lapse has happened in your story. You could say something like: "In the three months since he'd been away, the flowers had withered and died." (Not a great example but you get the meaning.) The boring bits as Randy said.

Great post! Thanks guys!


Keli Gwyn said...

Wow. Wisdom from Randy. What a way to start the day. =) Thanks for sharing his thoughts, Mary.

I like Randy's distinction between "rules" and "rules of thumb." (As a historical author I like his analogy using abs and corsets, too. =) Those like me who tend to be rule followers can become constrained by them. That corset analogy could work here, too. It's important to know when to loosen the strings and let our stories breathe a bit, such as using telling when it works well.

Mary Vee Writer said...

oooooo Keli, I like your analogy: "loosen the strings to let our stories breathe a bit."

Mary Vee Writer said...

You have a great question. I'll pass it on to Randy and see if I can answer that for you.

Mary Vee Writer said...

I agree, kinda letting you hair flow in the wind. :)

Mary Vee Writer said...

Thanks for clarifying. The passing of time I think is one of biggest moments for "telling." I liked your example:)

Casey said...

This articale needs to be PRINTED and TAPED where I will see it EVERYDAY. "Nuff said. Thank you Randy!! (and thank YOU Mary! :)

Randy Ingermanson said...

Jeanne asked how you tell well. Telling is essentially nonfiction, so you use all the techniques you learned in writing nonfiction.

I suppose somebody could write a book on how to do that, but I'm not the guy to do that.

Basically, be interesting. (Sounds simple, doesn't it?)

I am reading a book right now by Neal Stephenson, CRYPTONOMICON, which has an exceptional amount of telling. Neal's personality comes through in this book.

Mary Vee Writer said...

Thanks Randy for stopping by to answer the question. Sure appreciate your help.

Jeanne Takenaka said...

Just had the chance to read this, Mary. Thanks so much for taking the time to get an answer. It helps. :)