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Author Topic: Robert Silverberg on Showing and telling
JenniferHicks
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Robert Silverberg, in his column for Asimov's, wrote this month about how "show, don't tell" applies in science fiction. I thought it was interesting and informative, and I wanted to share.

http://www.asimovs.com/_issue_1003/ref.shtml


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Robert Nowall
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Ah, you saw that, too...I skimmed it but didn't digest it, though the gist of it contradicts some theories of writing held by some here.
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Merlion-Emrys
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Jennifer you must be some sort of goddess. You found a "show dont tell" article I actually like and that isn't written in an off-putting, pretentious imperative manner.


Basically hes coming out and confirming the fact that if you go strictly by "show don't tell" you can't really do a lot of explaining. You run the risk of the reader feeling lost and not knowing whats going on, wanting more background etc. And with emotions you run the risk of misinterpretation and of alienating those readers that don't want to interpret the characters emotions, they want to know them.


On the other hand, too much "telling" and some readers feel they are being "written down too"...they WANT to figure it out for themselves rather than have things explicitly put forth by the author.


This is especially interesting for me, because while I hear "show don't tell" a lot I also get a lot of feedback from readers saying I don't make enough things clear enough and basically leave too much up to the reader to figure out or whatever...which is basically what showing does, with respect to many things. The author just depicts what is happening, the reader has to figure it out.


I think this is the first time I've seen an article discuss this concept in such an open balanced way. He acknowledges that both modes have their place...and basically that rules are made to be broken as the story dictates.

[This message has been edited by Merlion-Emrys (edited February 20, 2010).]


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JenniferHicks
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Merlion, you've hit on what I really like about Silverberg's article. He acknowledges that science fiction is a different beast from literary fiction, in which it's much easier for the reader to figure out what is going on without the writer laying it all out. Because sci-fi is introducing completely new worlds and new concepts, at least a little telling is sometimes necessary. But then he goes and introduces Heinlein as a writer who mostly defies that, so there's a balance to everything.
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tchernabyelo
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I've always understood the "show, don't tell" maxim as applying more to emotions and characterisation - which are more likel to be universal across genre - rather than setting and milieu. There's no doubt that the exotic settings of SF and fantasy need descriptive passages, but that's not what I think of as the "show vs tell" dichotomy.
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Merlion-Emrys
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quote:
I've always understood the "show, don't tell" maxim as applying more to emotions and characterisation - which are more likel to be universal across genre - rather than setting and milieu. There's no doubt that the exotic settings of SF and fantasy need descriptive passages, but that's not what I think of as the "show vs tell" dichotomy.


And thats a great example of the other issue with "show don't tell," the one he doesn't touch on. Everyone has their own definition of it. The one presented in this article is what I'd always assumed it meant...scene VS narration, explanation VS presentation. But I've since learned many people have other definitions.


As far as emotion and characterization...while they are largely universal across genre, they aren't necessarily universal from person to person. Thats where the trouble comes in with attempting to "show" emotions...it works great if the person reading "shows" a given emotion the same way your having your character show it, or if they are less character oriented readers. But if there is a disconnect it can create ambuiguity, especially with more subtle emotions, since people express them differently. And, a given action...an expression, a gesture...could mean different things with different people.

"showing" is great at presenting the "what" of something. But its not always so fantastic at the "how" and in many cases isn't very good at all for the "why."


For the setting stuff its much the same. Those adamantly in the "show don't tell" camp would say that you should just present your magic or super technology or weird world via scenes, and not explain it to the reader via narration, because that would be "telling." However again, if you really want your reader to know HOW a ray gun or a spell works your probably going to have to do some "telling" (at least by some definitions.) Same in many instances with WHY something works, or does what it does and even the motivations of people...unless its an obvious, immediate reaction.


Thats why I view both as simply modes that you use as needed to do whatever your trying to do.


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tchernabyelo
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Absolutely. Both modes are valid in their place.

When someone critiques saying "show, don't tell", by that token, it is simply saying "in my opinion, you have used the wrong mode".


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genevive42
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It's a good article and it serves to remind us that writing, along with most everything else, is a matter of balance.
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Brendan
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Is hard science fiction considered an exception? There are many times that a description of a concept/setting/scenery is much better than getting it a little at a time.
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tchernabyelo
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Brendan, I'm not sure whose comment that question is aimed at. An exception to what - the 'rules' of "show, don't tell"? For a start, as I've tried to explain, I don't think most people (here on Hatrack or elsewhere) mean, or apply, "show, don't tell" in the way that those who argue AGAINST the maxim are pretending. There's a lot of straw man argument going on here, with people claiming that people have said X and then arguing that X is clearly wrong, when I'm not actually aware of people saying X in the first place (e.g. Merlion, above, says "Those adamantly in the "show don't tell" camp would say that you should just present your magic or super technology or weird world via scenes, and not explain it to the reader via narration, because that would be "telling." " - but to my recollection I've never seen that suggested in any critique thread or discussion on what "show vs tell" means here on Hatrack. Actually, that's not true, I have seen it suggested, but only by people who were arguing that other people meant that and that those people were wrong).

"Show, don't tell", in my experience here and predominantly elsewhere, is advice to mke your writing more alive, more convincing, more immediate. It's about not baldly stating things, but making them feel real to the reader.

"John was angry. He hit Jane. Jane cried." That's the sort of narrative style (in a rather extreme example) that critiques refer to as "telling, not showing". It's all summary; it's all about the fact, and is utterly uninvolving. "Showing" usually involves putting more layers of detail into the basic scene to bring it alive.

I dont think it has anything whatsoever to do with eschewing descriptive passages, which appear in virtually every SF and fantasy novel, no matter what POV it might be in.

[This message has been edited by tchernabyelo (edited February 22, 2010).]


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Merlion-Emrys
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Do you think maybe we can possibly avoid telling people what a third party is thinking, arguing, or "pretending?" Can you maybe stick to putting forth your own ideas, instead of trying to put mine forth for me only to shoot them down, and then restate them as your own a few paragraphs later?


quote:
Merlion, above, says "Those adamantly in the "show don't tell" camp would say that you should just present your magic or super technology or weird world via scenes, and not explain it to the reader via narration, because that would be "telling." " - but to my recollection I've never seen that suggested in any critique thread or discussion on what "show vs tell" means here on Hatrack.


quote:
"John was angry. He hit Jane. Jane cried." That's the sort of narrative style (in a rather extreme example) that critiques refer to as "telling, not showing". It's all summary; it's all about the fact, and is utterly uninvolving.


????

I'm just not really sure how it is that I'm not allowed to breath a word about how people critique or comments they leave, but you can come in here and basically pick a fight?! Would someone explain that to me please? You do realize your doing the very things you've accused me of in the past, and that you seem to be trying to instigate the very sort of arguements or discussions you keep saying you so desperately want to avoid.


[This message has been edited by Merlion-Emrys (edited February 22, 2010).]


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Brendan
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quote:
I don't think most people (here on Hatrack or elsewhere) mean, or apply, "show, don't tell" in the way that those who argue AGAINST the maxim are pretending.

Err, let's look at the article. Robert Silverberg said

quote:
Ernest Hemingway, fifty years later, was a prime advocate of letting dialog and action carry the tale... generally he lets his stories be told entirely through action and implication... Nowhere is there any solid slug of explanation...

He (Robert A. Heinlein) adopted — whether consciously or by independent invention, I have no idea — the show-don’t-tell technique of Hemingway, adapting it cunningly to the special needs of science fiction... Heinlein’s great innovation involved thrusting readers into the future as a going concern and forcing them to figure things out as they went along.


Now the article did meter this somewhat, but it FIRST argued for a technique that suggests that good stories could be devised without any explanations found within. I fully understand that there is no hard and fast boundary, although many seem to weigh in on the don't tell anything viewpoint as being the current primary valid viewpoint. I liked OSC's view on that, which is even more balanced that Silverbergs.

My question was more, are there any subgenres where there is an expectation from readers for more explanation than is expected/acceptable in other subgenres, and wondered if hard science fiction was one such subgenre that expects explanation?


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tchernabyelo
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Merlion, go and read your own post again - you should be able to, you manage to quote my exact quoting of it. You EXPLICITLY state what "other people" would say in order to refute those "other people". And then when I say that you may be misinterpreting other people, your immediate response is "Do you think maybe we can possibly avoid telling people what a third party is thinking, arguing, or "pretending?" " - well, you clearly can't, and when someone tries to point out that those people may have meant something else, you go off the deep end big time.

What your point is with extracting the second quote and a bunch of question marks is, I have no idea. I really can't parse what you are trying to say - it looks as if you are trying to use it to refute the first quote but I honestly can't see why/how.

I'm done with Hatrack. I really am tired of this.


[This message has been edited by tchernabyelo (edited February 22, 2010).]


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Merlion-Emrys
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I refered to people of the "show don't tell camp." Meaning anyone, not just on Hatrack, of the belief that one should essentially always "show" and never "tell."

Such as those of that persuasion mentioned in the article that this thread is about. Such as Ernest Hemingway is mentioned in the article, as quoted by Brendan. I don't think I was misinterpreting that part of the article. I do think however that you were quite intentionally misrepresenting me to someone else for reasons I dont understand.


You assume that everything is addressed to you. It isn't. I posted my thoughts on the article presented. You then felt the need to dissect my post to someone else, mentioning me personally and making various assumptions about who and what I meant. After all the bellyaching you've done for months about not wanting to get into arguements with me, you use another posters question as an opportunity to basically launch an attack on me. Thats what the question marks are for...asking you to make up your mind. Do you want to argue with me or not? if not, stop seeking out and attacking me as you've done several times lately and I've tried to ignore but it just keeps happening again and again and again even when i dont address your posts...

[This message has been edited by Merlion-Emrys (edited February 22, 2010).]


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tchernabyelo
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Merlion says "Some people would say X, and they are wrong"
Tchernabyelo says "I think those people are actually saying Y"
Merlion says "How dare you! Stop putting words in other people's mouths! And stop picking on me all the time!".

[This message has been edited by tchernabyelo (edited February 22, 2010).]


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Merlion-Emrys
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quote:
Ernest Hemingway, fifty years later, was a prime advocate of letting dialog and action carry the tale... generally he lets his stories be told entirely through action and implication


I think its pretty clear whats being said here. That was all I was refering to.


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JenniferHicks
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I will point out to the argument that Silverberg's article is in defense of "show, don't tell" -- and therefore not as balanced as it could be -- that he's not done yet: "And so, having devoted this issue’s column to a defense of the classic writing-school slogan, “Show, Don’t Tell,” I’m going to come back to the theme next time and discuss the importance of not taking that slogan too seriously."

I think "show, don't tell" is an excellent technique that has its place in writing. I also think "telling" has its place and can be done in such a way as it doesn't feel like telling. I hope that is what Silverberg will tackle next month.

[This message has been edited by JenniferHicks (edited February 22, 2010).]


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dee_boncci
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That was a good article. The goal is balance, and I don't think anyone espouses a complete disallowance of explanation. And of course a person is free to make their work one long explanation if they choose.

In the realm of emotion and characterization, gestures can indeed ambiguous, and other reflexive reactions such as trembling or flushing of the face do not distinguish one person from another and are ambiguous (several emotional and physical states can cause one's face to redden, and virtually everyone will blush if they are deeply embarassed). The thoughts behind the gestures, and those that precede the reflexive reactions, can mark individuality.

Transcribing those thoughts (the technique on the show side of the spectrum)is effective in that regard, and is often used in combination with the physical responses.

Summarizing/describing the thoughts with an abstraction, e.g., "He got mad" (the technique on the tell side of the spectrum), helps clear the ambiguity concerning a gesture or reflex reaction, but often does not reveal the uniqueness of the character.

Both have their place, depending on what a writer is trying to achieve with the character.

[This message has been edited by dee_boncci (edited February 22, 2010).]

[This message has been edited by dee_boncci (edited February 22, 2010).]


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Pyre Dynasty
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*Reminisces back to the time when two people who really rubbed each other the wrong way just simply ignored each other, sometimes by edict. If remember correctly such a thing happened to Zero and Survivor.

Anyways back on topic. Scene and Summary. Scene and Summary is my mantra for this area. Too much summary and you have an outline, not a story. Too much scene and you are probably pontificating about something pointless.
If someone tells me show don't tell, it tells me that I am summarizing too much. If they tell me it's boring it means I have to cut the fat a little. If they tell me I'm an idiot I smile and run off and do a happy dance.


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Devnal
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lolololol


-------------

Merlion says "Some people would say X, and they are wrong"
Tchernabyelo says "I think those people are actually saying Y"
Merlion says "How dare you! Stop putting words in other people's mouths! And stop picking on me all the time!".

---------------

This made me laugh....lots


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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I was hoping an edict wouldn't be necessary.

Guess not, though.

EDICT:

tchernabyelo, please just ignore Merlion-Emrys, and please don't leave Hatrack.

Merlion-Emrys, please try to ignore tchernabyelo.

If you notice that my "edict" is worded differently to each party, please ignore that as well, even though I did it that way on purpose.

[This message has been edited by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury (edited February 23, 2010).]


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