Friday, April 26, 2013

By Order of the Inquisition: Show vs. Tell vs… Respect?

And now, the long-awaited conclusion to that post from two days ago.  Click below for show vs. tell II: the re-redefining-ing.


Three perspectives of showing I mentioned last time are sentence, plot, and story. So what do I mean by show versus tell on a story level?

I’m going to fall back on an example I used in a recent comment to The Descendant. It occurred to me that what I really liked about his style was the ease with which author and reader communicate via the medium of prose. He’s not trying to edge me towards any particular interpretation or mind set: he’s showing me the story. Even the stories I am less enamoured with are generally still pleasant to read for this reason, whereas a number of stories I have received quite damning critiques for trying to force some emotion or conclusion that has ruined my engagement with the story. For a while, I was even rating things in ‘baseball bats to the face’, essentially a measure of how hard the story was trying to beat the plot into me.

Better stories generally give the reader room to manoeuvre. This is what I mean by respect: the author respecting the reader’s ability to form an opinion based on the plot as presented. Often, this factor is severely hampered by a lack of confidence on the part of the author by way of over-explanation or redundancy. As a formula, however, it is no different than show versus tell on a sentence level: show me what’s happening and let me work it out for myself. A good mystery, for example, will allow a completely clueless reader to enjoy it as much as a reader who has worked out the puzzle halfway through. They may have wildly different experiences of the story, but their understanding is not necessary, thus the details are not explained until the end (if at all).

The most common occurrence of outright telling on a story level that I can think of is the borderline, or polarising, effect. A story revolves around some trait that the reader is assumed to agree with in order to stay fully immersed in the story. I’m calling out Dangerous Business out on this one, since it’s a story I had a particularly powerful reaction to. It leant on the paradigm of faith, and where Chris commented that he found it a very positive and affirming experience, I found it to be grating and nonsensical. The story virtually required the reader to have a limited perspective on it for it to ‘work’. Now, it’s fair to assume I’m in a very small minority in that reaction, but every time an author relies on something requiring a certain assumption, he opens himself up to this possibility.

Thus, the optimum is usually to show the events of a story in such a way that the reader can choose his own perspective while trying to draw them towards an intended goal. Every reader wants to be manipulated, either intellectually or emotionally, by a story, but no reader ever wants to really be aware of it. Some stories will absolutely require some of these assumptions, and some authors will simply want to use perspectives that they hold a particular interest or affinity in; both of these are fine, but I think the awareness of it goes a long way towards feeling more like a story that respects its reader.

I’d like to think that this perspective is fairly obvious, but honestly, I don’t see as much of that around as I would like. As always I welcome your thoughts, comments, and mental dribblings on the subject.

Much love,

-Scott ‘Inquisitor’ Mence

P.S. I trimmed out a reference to Getting Lucky by Chicken Vortex, and now I feel mean. So here you go, CV: Go read his story if you haven’t already. It’s my favourite comedy in the whole fandom.


Interesting thoughts as always, Mr. M.  I'm not sure how far the idea of avoiding polarizing assumptions can be taken--I can't think of anything worth writing that doesn't require some shared assumptions, after all (especially in derivative fiction, which by its nature assumes a great number of things about reader's base knowledge and the meaning and composition of the source material), but it's a valid point regardless.


  1. As I said, I don't think they have to be avoided, but how they are handled will rely heavily on how aware of it the author is.

    There was a short horror story centered on Twilight that I read which suddenly threw Rainbow Dash in as a long-time partner. It didn't do any set-up for the pairing, and the author was confused as to why people were commenting about the 'needless shipping'. To him it was an efficient way on increasing the horror (RD's blood was used for a ritual), but with no effort to actually see it, the assumption caused a few readers to lose their sense of horror instead.

    Sure, there will be staunch anti-shippers who will roll their eyes no matter what you do, but my point is that how it is handled makes all the difference in the world. Even a single dissenting opinion in the story can shift the tone from 'X is true' to 'this story assumes X is true', which is a very different experience for the aware reader.

    1. ♫Oh, Rainbow's blood... it's the product of the month♪

      I found it kind of funny that you started the first part mentioning philosophy, and in this you talk about avoiding over-explanation and redundancy. Every philosophy class I took in college suggested the exact opposite when writing an argument XD

    2. I don't think it's so different, actually. Even in a structured philosophical piece, you wouldn't say the same thing twice--not ideally, anyway. More likely, you'll arrive at the same point via different starting points or circumstances. That's more about overlapping and reinforcing than redundancy: you're still adding new information each time.

      Even one of the stories on my favorites box suffers from it, Ribbons and Lace. I don't mind Rarity's fantasies being straight-up clop, but after a couple I was skimming them. We get it, she has vivid fantasies about Fluttershy. The tone and existence of the daydreams was certainly relevant to the story, but the time given to them was not. They got repetitive because they went past reinforcement into redundancy.

      I don't imagine a philosophy paper would be much different, though I've never studied it formally so I bow to your experience, oh Oaty One.

    3. Ah, you've hit on one of my pet peeves (and yes, I chose that phrasing just to annoy Chicken Vortex). I've said before that I hate it when an author throws two characters together and assumes you're going to care that they're in love. My usual advice is for writers to let me see the relationship build so that I get to know it like a character, but of course that's not always necessary or even advisable, as when that development is well outside the story's timeline. An author can't just say, "Oh, by the way, these two are in love" and expect me to fill in that backstory for him. It still has to be broached and grow, if not over time, then conceptually at least, to get me from the canon relationship to the characters in love.

    4. Redundancy may not be the best way to put it. What really made the connection for me was your reference to baseball bats. It's very easy to misunderstand an author's point (as I've done so often with feminists), so one has to really beat into their readers' heads the exact point you're trying to make. There's absolutely no room for interpretation, or else you end up arguing with someone over two completely different things

      *blush* I'm not that experienced, having only taken about seven courses on the subject (they were great for fulfilling GEC requirements). I did pretty well though, so I'll graciously accept your deference :D

    5. I was originally going to include an example from an old paper I wrote, but decided against it before posting. Seeing as you're so interested in philosophy, though - and because I spent forever trying to find said paper - I figured I'd go ahead and put it in Google Docs. You may get a kick out of it, if only to laugh at how bad it is. It got an A-, which proves you don't have to be a good writer - or even know what you're talking about - to do well in philosophy

    6. Grrr! Don't get me started on feminists!


      Anyway, I think I get what you mean, I just don't think it has a place in storytelling. Or rather, it might be a strong indicator of good storytelling over bad. If I read a paper, I'm expecting to be confronted with whatever it takes to get the point across, but if I'm reading a story I want almost the opposite: the absolute minimum to get the point across.

      Definitions are important, as Bad Horse clearly alluded to on Wednesday's post. Twisting a definition into absurdity is fine as long as it's done in full view where the ramifications and alternatives can be discussed. The argument happens when the two sides don't know their definitions are misaligned. Try watching a discussion between an objectivist, a theist, and a relitivist and you'll see how far they don't get because of definitions.

    7. Hehe. A lot of them really aren't so bad. I've learned that most of my disagreements with them come down to language issues - "Oh, that's what you meant! Why'd you word it that way?"

      I wasn't trying to argue for its place in storytelling. They're different mediums, so they have different requirements. I was just saying that I found the contrast humorous

      I partially agree with you on definitions. One should avoid twisting the meaning if an already existing term better serves one's purposes

      I'd think a relativist would just assume everyone's using their own definitions of each word XD

  2. Hey just want to say eqd is doing a survey on the state of fanfictions within the fandom. Just a heads up. =)

    1. Weird timing. I finished the survey just before seeing your comment

  3. This is a good illustration of why the phrase "show, don't tell" is misleading. The post says an author should give the readers information, but let them make their own judgement. Bad "telling" means telling the reader what to believe; good "showing" means telling the reader the facts and letting the reader sort it out. This distinction has nothing at all to do with what EqD pre-readers call out as "telling".

    1. Indeed. In fact, to address your previous comment in tandem with this, I have no issue with twisting definitions if the definitions aren't functioning universally anyway. The whole point, from my point of view, is to demonstrate how the definitions are barely functional in order to generate new ways of understanding the issue.

      I'm just another author-in-training that's trying to make sense of something. It's not just that there are different interpretation and explanations but that there are conflicting ones. That's what got me thinking about the definitions in the first place, and twisting a definition out of shape is just a reductio ad absurdum: a long standing philosophical tool.

      A really good example of how muddy the waters can be came up yesterday when I started reading Joe Abercrombie's The Blade Itself, and uses a lot of simple adverbs without it ever feeling remotely out of place. Adverbs that are exactly what a couple of editing books expressly warn against. I'm going to read over a couple of books today and see if I can't get my head around it. I have a suspicion that I'm conflating dialogue mechanics with narration styles, but time and practice will tell, I guess.

      Onward to research.
      Onward... to science! (ish)