author pitfalls, explaining in writing, fiction, novels, short stories, show dont tell, strengthening writing, writing, writing donts and dos, writing tips
I 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. My 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
Science fiction has to have some explaining; It’s essential if you want to build a world. The trick is not to have so much that it gets in the way of the plot and makes the whole piece academic and boring.
The best method I’ve found is to put pieces of explanation in the text and not try to separate them out.
For example you can say
“The native life on Eponia included a bacteria that converted the salts of the ocean to chlorine gas. Human terraformers got it under control but there was still enough gas in the air to give the sky a greenish tint and to fill Derek’s nose with the smell of bleach on his first day.”
It sounds a little dry. Right?
Alternatively you can say.
“Derek took his first step out into the Eponian air. There was a tinge of green in the sky and a strong whiff of bleach in the air. ‘Sometimes’ Derek thought, ‘The terraformers don’t catch everything.'”
I think sounds better. And it also makes the good introduction to the new world.
I hope that was sort of what you were asking. I might have missed the point. I do that sometimes!
You didn’t miss the point. You were right on it. 😀 Your example is a great one. Weaving it into the story. But sometimes I think that can be hard and most writers do some form of telling anyway. Especially in novels.
Anne Schilde said:
I agree. One of the most commonly-used and creative ways I’ve seen this done is to have a character who does all the explaining, so like in Avatar, there’s tons of scientific observation that needs to be explained, so Parker and Grace share the responsibility of doing most of the explanation to us by explaining to Jake as part of the story.
“It’s almost magic here, Derek,” Whitmark explained. “In every ecosystem, the microorganisms develop naturally to consume what we commonly think of as waste, but of course they simply serve a natural biological function. The lack of carbon on Eponia has created a world literally structured on the abundance of sodium. These little fellows,” he tapped the side of the microscope, “are your most base form of garbage collectors. Magic has a name you know… We call her Mother Nature.”
Good example Annie! 🙂
That is a great example. Those characters are a creative means of doing it. But at the same time, when a cahracter’s purpose is obviously just to fill in info gaps, I catch onto that it grates me personally. If you can remove the character from the story, and it wouldn’t matter, then I think it hasn’t been done right. But I agree, if it’s done right, it’s perfect.
Anne Schilde said:
I agree with that too, but remember it’s just one of many tools.
Michelle Proulx said:
You know, I know that writers are always preaching on about show not tell, but I don’t think it’s necessarily right for every single situation. Showing is great and flowery and wonderful, but sometimes a quick, well-reasoned “tell” can do just as good a job. I’m probably in the minority about this one, though 🙂
I’m glad you agree. 😀 Sometimes its about finding out what is best for the job, like you said. I think showing should be preferred over telling, but sometimes telling is just what you need.
Nice post. I never really understood what people meant when they said they were told what happened in a book but not shown. Now I do thank you. I will apply it to mu own writing although I think I would have done a little of both anyway. 🙂
I’m glad I could help out. Sometimes author rules are mentioned but no one really ever explains them or shows examples. So yay! It was helpful for writers.
I think it’s necessary to strike a balance. What your instructor wants seems a bit cut and dry for fiction, if you ask me.
He does like things very ambiguous and hates explaining. But I do agree that the idea is important. Tell less, show more. Readers are smart, they don’t need things spelled out for them. As a short story writer (which he predominantly is), I think it’s more important. But I’m a writer in the class as a novelist. Which can be hard to find the right ‘explaining’ balance. Hence the post rant. But as I said, he does make a good point, even though I don’t agree to the same lengths he makes it.
Anne Schilde said:
I think in a large way, this gets back to the outline question you recently asked. I will digress for a moment and say that “explanation” has probably been the most common problem in the writing attempts I see here (including my own) and probably why most of us are writing on blogs and not selling books. But the sin is exponential, and that is why it’s not the same thing as “show don’t tell.”
The double/quadruple sin occurs because most of us explain when we shouldn’t, don’t explain when we should, often do both in the same literary work, and seldom understand the tools of literature that were given to us for the purpose of explanation. Basically, we don’t know how.
I already elaborated on Joe’s comment above to show one example of a tool. There are others. The closest relative is the protagonist musing in her/his own mind. A character can stumble upon written text, etc. but this is not a thesis. I want to point out the simplicity of the value of an outline… even if it’s only in your head and you never write it out.
The most powerful explanation you can ever give in any story is logical thought.
Think about that. Quote me someday if you figure out that none of your highly-paid professors ever said it, but unpaid Annie did.
I’ll say it in the command form in two words: Make sense!
Readers need to be able to follow along the same line of thought you did.
Outlines make sense. That’s exactly what they are: the organized sense of a thought or a collection of thoughts. And that’s why we outline. I could do a whole thesis on this, but the outline, or rather it’s value, is what I want to drive home to anyone who considers themselves a real writer.
If you organize your thoughts before you write them, and then write them well, they will explain themselves.
It’s as simple as that, and I am nothing less than the champion of simplicity.
For anyone who has noticed, this is not my idea. Parents have been beating their children for millennia over the failure to understand one simple rule which I will paraphrase for anyone who has followed me to the end…
Plan before you write.
You perfectly tied those two posts together. 😀 Outlining and explaining. I agree, it is something authors need to master. I loved how you explained when explaining goes wrong – the sin is exponential, and that is why it’s not the same thing as “show don’t tell.”’ It really is exponential. Thinking about explaining in that way should help my writing, and I hope others as well.
I also know that sometimes in the first few drafts of our books, we probably have more summaries/explanations than necessary. It’s through polishing it that we are able to carve some of them out.
I think that tying in how important outlining is raises a good point. If you can jump from one scene to the next but from one solid scene to a next logical scene, the reader can fill in the rest. It makes sense. And it’s intriguing. Readers do like a bit of mystery. But at the same time, they don’t like getting lost. Once again, it’s about finding the right balance. But writing good succinct outlines would be a good start. Unfortunately, for some writers (including myself) sometimes I have to be a quarter into the story until the full plot comes to me. I guess that just means extra rewrites! 🙂
Thanks for sharing your intelligent and thought-provoking response!
I would prefer showing a lot more than telling. When I was in school, we had to take this stupid test and the only reason why I kept failing the written part was because I was explaining/showing the reader everything that I was trying to get a cross. After three years of taking classes just for the test and three years of summer school I finally learned to let it all out and before you knew it I actually ran out of room a few times. I passed it my senior year after failing by one freaking point! Thankfully they sent it back, but back to my point. Ever since then I’ve always went more than anybody wanted thus the reason why writing challenges with specific word counts have always been difficult for me.