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show_don_t_tell_011I took a creative writing course this semester at university and the experience has been mixed. I have been able to gain some skills and reinforce certain writing dos and don’ts. But one writing DON’T has been irking me.

My teacher really hates any form of ‘explaining’. He wants raw dialogue and/or actions. I know that important writing rule of ‘show don’t tell’. I try to show as much as possible. But what about when you’re trying to weave motive, thought, and reflection? Is it okay to tell sometimes?

Some novels rarely explain. I noticed that generic crime books have less explaining. YA has heaps of explaining. So what do I mean exactly by explaining? I will use a segment from Poisoned Waters as an example.

The hairpin slipped into the lock, and like a surgeon, Sylvia probed. There was a reassuring click and the door opened. With the pin back in her hair, she slipped inside Jacobus’ cabin. When she had first thought of breaking in, she had dismissed the thought. But the thought nagged her until she was rattling the doorknob. She wanted her jewels back. They were hers. What right did he have to take them?

Sylvia knew she should’ve talked to Markus. She should’ve voiced her concerns and collaborated with him before taking matters into her own hands. But who had time for that? Markus was always busy with work matters or smoking his pipe with fellow chauvinists. When she had checked the safe to find her tulip necklace was gone, the first thing she did was rush to Jacobus’ cabin. They were rightfully hers and she would take them back with force if needed.

Turns into this after my teacher’s kind of scrutiny:

The hairpin slipped into the lock, Sylvia probed. There was a reassuring click and the door opened. With the pin back in her hair, she slipped inside Jacobus’ cabin.

Now, that’s not to mean I don’t understand what he means and support his point. Don’t explain. As he is primarily a fan and writer of short stories (also a fan of objective third person), I think this holds more true for that form of fiction. Do you agree? We don’t have to know about all the bits and pieces to follow the short piece. In a novel though, sometimes explanations do have to be made. Maybe appropriate explaining has a role.

In this example, both ‘showing’ examples are longer. show_don't_tellMy teacher also likes the writing to be to-the-point and succinct. Is explaining/telling okay when we want to wrap a part of the story up? In the second example, is that explaining AND showing? Or is that just explaining, another form of ‘telling’? To me, the top example is ‘showing’ but the bottom one could be classified as ‘explaining’. What do you think?

In a story like Poisoned Waters, the perspective constantly changes between characters as we have numerous subplots weaving together. Does a writer leave the reader with too little or too much information? I suppose that is part of becoming a good author. Learning how to balance the two. I have definitely taken into account the level of explaining in my writing from his classes but I don’t agree to the extent that he usually advocates it.

What is your perspective on explaining? Are you a zealous supporter for show don’t tell to the point that we never see inside the character’s head? Is the ‘show not tell’ rule different from explaining in novels? Can you be good at showing, not telling, but bad at refraining from explaining?

– Ermisenda Alvarez