Helen (heleninwales) wrote,

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Show, don't tell (Good advice or not?)

matociquala has written some wise stuff here about the show, don't tell advice. Over on rasfc, however, they are going rather overboard on pooh-poohing this advice (in my opinion anyway). The truth is, that like all writing advice, it shouldn't be applied willy nilly. I do find myself writing show, don't tell as a comment on some of my students' stories. Also, as matociquala says it's something that's multilayered or, as she puts it, a koan not a piece of prescriptive advie.

It might be helpful to word in differently. On the poetry course I've just finished, show, don't tell is phrased as:

don't explain your message, exemplify it through the use of images or narrative (my emphasis)

That gave me a lightbulb moment with regard to narrative/exposition in fiction (the parts that I always used to call "joining bits").

Narrative/exposition is fine as long as it's engaging to read and it will be engaging to read if you show little moments in detail and give examples. They don't have to be blown up into complete scenes (a mistake I used to make -- dramatise everything!), but take the vividness of a moment and include it in the narrative summary. It's what Ursula LeGuin calls Crowding and leaping in her book on writing Steering the Craft.

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