Sunday, September 26, 2010

'Show vs Tell' in Fantasy-- Not Always the Best Advice

Writing books, workshops, tips from pubbed authors will always include one bit of advice: Show, Don't Tell.

It's great advice--for the most part. But in writing fantasy (urban or epic), it creates some challenges for both the author and the reader in the opening chapters of a book.

Have you ever picked up a new fantasy, begun reading it with great anticipation, gotten to about page ten, and realized your eyes have glazed over? But you soldier on, and by page fifteen, your glazed eyes have crossed and are at half-mast. Because--now you're willing to admit it--you don't know what the hell is going on in the story and, what's worse, you don't care.

That's the byproduct of too much "show" and not enough "tell" in the beginning of a novel.

I've spent the last couple of days judging contest entries for an RWA chapter in the paranormal category. All but one suffered from this problem. They did a great job of starting the story in the middle of a scene. They grabbed my interest. The characters had potential. And then the scene went on...and on....and on...ad nauseum, and after fifteen pages, I had no idea what the characters were gnashing their teeth over, or whether we were going to be dealing with vampires or goblins, or why I should care.

They didn't need tons of backstory--heaven forbid. But, c'mon guys, give me one freaking SENTENCE of context. Ten words of narrative to make all that showing mean something.

I think this is particularly problematic in fantasy and science fiction because unlike regular fiction, there are not necessarily rules of physics and social structures that apply. As readers, we begin each fantasy world with a blank slate. The author has to simultaneously hook us in with a scene that shows, but also must give us enough tell to help us understand and care about the scene. The only way around it is to give us a character so compelling in the first two pages that we can suspend our cluelessness and keep going.

As I went through these entries, I began thinking about some of my favorite urban fantasies and how the authors pulled me in. In Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden series, for example, he begins the first book with the mailman delivering Harry's mail. Not earth-shattering action, but it is showing. It also has told me a lot by the end of the scene--Harry's a wizard. He's broke. He's an investigator. He helps the Chicago PD out with some of their weird cases. He's really broke. If Jim Butcher had only shown the snarky exchange between Harry and the mailman, I wouldn't have known all of that. All the showing was broken up by just a tad of telling.

One series that I really love but that I almost didn't read because of too much initial "show" was Kim Harrison's Hallows series. In the first book, we encounter Rachel Morgan in a bar exchanging barbs with a tinkerbell-sized fairy who's sitting on her earring and trying to catch a leprechaun. I started that book at least twice and put it down because it did a lot of showing but after a chapter I still had no idea what was going on in any big-picture kind of way. Finally, I started it a third time on a friend's insistence and eventually plowed through to the point where it grabbed me. It took a while, though.

So, weigh in--how much "tell" do you want in your opening pages of "show"?

15 comments:

  1. I don't think I want to weigh in at this point, because I'm sick and my brain isn't working well, but this is an amazing post! I have one romance/suspense that everybody loves and the editor, when she first read it, said too much telling - show! show! I left the telling in and readers love the book!

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  2. I think you are so right! When you create a world from scratch you absolutely have to tell something of the world. Something to hook the reader in so they will be willing to wait for the whole story to discover how wonderful this world is...

    But it's a tricy thing to do it right and well!

    Thanks for saying it, it needed to be said!

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  3. Excellent post, Suzanne! I teach a Show vs Tell class, mainly because so many new authors have the opposite problem--tell instead of show the emotions, etc. But it's also true that we need to be sure to let the reader know from the very beginning what's at stake! No pun intended for vampire lovers! :) Great post!

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  4. Thanks, guys! I figured I'd be staked myself for saying we needed to tell a little! Too much telling is deadly, but no telling is just as deadly--especially in opening chapters. It's finding that balance that's the tricky part.

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  5. Great post, Suzanne! Love it. Tell vs. show drives me crazy. But you're right! You need some telling, too. All showing and you lose my interest. I think trends change. Pick up a book from the 80s and hello back story. The current trend is to show. But the balance is key. I write Fantasy, but sometimes I pick it up and they lose me by page 2. If I've got 30 paranormal romances in my TBR pile, I'm going to read those instead.

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  6. Amen, Suzanne. I wonder if we have been reading the same contest entries. LOL. I'm afraid writers are scared-off by contest judges who give points off if they stray from 'show' for one sentence. IMHO, it's very important to worldbuild with a balance of show and tell and draw your reader into the story.

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  7. Great post, Suzanne. You hit on a very important point. My general rule is to have a paragraph of context somewhere within the first chapter. Not much, and I try to make it as subtle as possible, but I believe that putting all that action in context is very important to making the reader feel at home with your characters.

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  8. Thanks for the comments, guys! I think you're right about trends, Marissa. I recently read a Tanya Huff vampire book written in the early 1990s. I was struck by how much "telling" there was in a book from 20 years ago. And now I have to get over the shock of 1991 being almost 20 years ago...OY.

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  9. Both my husband and his entire family of three siblings are very avid readers, but if you ask them if they know the difference between showing and telling they are clueless. Do they know the difference between passive vs. active voice, they have no idea. Which prompts me to believe that an average reader really either doesn't care or don't know or can't be bothered by these concepts of writing. And everyone would find their own liking. When I first started writing I hand no clue of all this, and my initial reviews came this is all telling, show more. So I took a workshop on this, and now I'm showing, but I still believe there should be some telling to propel the plot forward. Do you really need to show everything?

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  10. Excellent post! And it's true for all speculative fiction, not just paranormal. I think you have to have a different way of working when your world just ain't normal in one way or another ;).

    And the comment about Kim's book- YES!!! OMG- I picked that up and put it down so many times the thing should have had a yo-yo string attached! I'm so glad I got past the beginning, but I never thought about WHY I had trouble with the beginning until now.

    VERY good post- got me thinking and everything :)

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  11. I'm seconding what so many posters have already said. In fantasy and SF, unless it's the second book in a series, we have no idea what the cultural or personal context is, or why we should care. We NEED the telling to put everything in perspective or it can seem like disconnected, random events happening to someone we don't know.

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  12. Good points, everybody. Firetulip, I think you're right about readers. Readers just like what they like and don't know or give a fig about POV or showing or telling. These days, though, I think the trends have to be catered to in order to get past the agent/editor gatekeepers, at least to a certain extent. Also, I do think readers (and it's true of me as a reader, too) have very short attention spans. A book has to grab 'em quickly.

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  13. Great points, Suzanne. Guilty as charged.
    And explaining it in a Prologue or Author's Note doesn't do it for me either. I recenly read a big best-selling 2nd book in a series, and almost didn't get to chapter l I was so confused by the "definitions" I think put there so the reader could get up to speed with the series. I think it's better to make them stand alone. And that means you have to tell some things. Tender thread, a reader's attention is (think this was a quote from Yoda). You're right about the today's readers, doesn't take much to sever that thread.

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  14. Great post, Suzanne! I agree that there should be some telling to ground a reader into a story, especially at the beginning of a book. I've always gotten comments about "Show, Don't Tell," and I've been working on showing more, but making sure the story is compelling (and makes sense) is the most important thing for writer's to focus on.

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  15. Like everything else, balance is the key. What defines masterful writing is knowing when to tell and when to show.

    Great post, Suzanne!

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