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Friday, April 16, 2010

From Point A to Point B

Yes, we need to get there, but do our readers need to know every detail in between? Of course not. They'd be bored to tears after page one and toss our book to the side. Which is exactly what I felt like doing to the life-like baby my daughter brought home for her Parent and Child Development class last night. Yikes! The thing never quits crying. Isn't that enough for you to hear? Don't you know what a miserable night I had from that? Do you really need me to tell you that he (his name is Ryan) wanted to be fed every hour and a half, changed every hour, burped every two, snuggled constantly? You're probably already sick of hearing about it, and you would have gotten the point after my first sentence, right? A typical characteristic of first drafts is the inclusion of mundane details that really don't matter. They are usually inserted to get our characters from one point to the next, but they aren't necessary. Our readers are smart and can make the connection themselves. This is no joke, and feel free to laugh, but I had a scene in my first draft where I described every detail of my MC getting ready for school. She showered, she dried her hair, she got dressed, and so on. Who cares? No one, that's who. Some of you may decide to call the writing police on me now. I've heard they do exist. But this is an instance when "telling" is appropriate and even preferred. A simple summary sentence would suffice. "After my usual morning routine, I headed down to breakfast." Really bad example, but I figure the writing police are already after me, so what the heck. Besides, that baby stole all my creativity in the middle of the night. My point is, as authors we need to determine when we should "tell" instead of "show." Uh-oh! I hear the sirens now. Do you have any other examples of appropriate telling? If so, please share. I'm leaving town for a baseball tournament today, and yes, the baby is coming with us. It could be interesting. I may or may not make it around to all of your blogs, but I'll catch up with you Sunday. Have a great weekend.

41 comments:

lotusgirl said...

I talked about this last Friday on my blog. I couldn't agree more. Unless there is something significant about the character waking up we don't need to tell the reader all about it. If she's up and doing something, the reader will assume she got up. =)

Heckety said...

I agree totally!
Here's something for you to laugh about: Wed afternoon( in the bookshop, but that's another story!) I get a call from Eldest, who is writing her 'Play' for part of her Uni course: 'Mom? I've a problem- my people are stuck. I know where they're to end up but I can't get them out of this cave.'
I looked around the titles for inspiration- we were in the Cookery section, youngest and I, 'send them home for dinner?' sez I!!
What to do???

storyqueen said...

Shhhh,*looks from side to side, shiftily*, I tell all the time. I try to do it creatively, but.....

Shelley

Jaydee Morgan said...

Totally agree with you - sometimes telling is the best. (Tell the writing police to go away and show them to the door)

Mary Campbell said...

That baby sounds really obnoxious - my babies hardly cried at all - or maybe I have selective memory. Anyway you're so right. Sometimes telling is the best thing to do. Getting someone up to speed quickly may be a time to use and like you said - mundane details do not need to be included in the story. Thanks for the reminder - I've been feeling like I'm putting too much info in lately.

Angie Muresan said...

I agree with you. Sometimes one just needs to tell. Have a wonderful weekend!

Patti said...

In my first draft I started a lot of them with my character waking up. You're great at ending a scene and picking up later. I'm trying to do that more.

Laura Pauling said...

I think all writers start off sharing too much of a scene. I try to start the scene as late as I can and end it as soon as I can. No need to follow the character to bed in order to end the scene.

Dominique said...

I don't have an example that immediately springs to mind, but I do believe there are times when telling is useful. Sometimes, it seems to me, it can just be the more straightforward approach.
I think the key is to ignore the 'rules' and do what works for the tale.

Corey Schwartz said...

Yes, good point. Jack Bauer never seems to eat or pee :)

L. T. Host said...

Narrative summary is okay telling. As long as it's not page after page after page of narrative summary. Much like all the writing laws, show-not-tell can be broken when it's right to do so.

Also-- hang the writing police. Yeah, I said it. :)

paulgreci said...

Great post,Susan! So many micro-decisions that can make or break a manuscript.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Just read some great paragraphs about this in James Scott Bell's Plot & Structure.

Such a practice...to learn this one, incorportating telling at the right times and sparingly.
~ Wendy

Julie Jarnagin said...

Yep. I've cut out plenty of scenes with a character going to bed and waking up the next morning.

Roni @ FictionGroupie said...

I think this is definitely important. We can't show EVERYTHING cause wow, that'd be a long, boring book. And sorry to hear about the crying faux baby--that has to be miserable.

Julie Dao said...

I tell ALL the time. I pretend that the parts where telling is appropriate were ones I'd intended the whole time, but really... I have to practice showing a bit more. And I once had a scene where I described three girls getting ready for a school dance in painful detail.

Elana Johnson said...

Absolutely! Telling is part of storytelling. It has to be there, or stories would lose their magic. The showing part is what makes the magic, but the telling connects it all together seamlessly.

Hey, no one said writing would be easy. And you definitely need both parts.

Carolyn V. said...

It took me a while to figure out what people meant when they talked about telling. I was, "Aren't we telling a story?" But I finally figured it out. =)

Name: Holly Bowne said...

Ha, ha, ha! I have SO been there, Susan! I have the most hysterical picture of my exhausted daughter taking care of her "baby" from her own child development class. (I also have some pretty funny pics of her brother and our dog with the baby when she left the room for a minute!)

As far as the telling instead of showing, I know I'm doing a lot of this with my first draft, but I'm sort of doing it on purpose. So I have a full mental image of what I was thinking at the time I wrote.

I'm totally planning to go back through and cut a bunch out or edit it down. Unfortunately, I'm guessing that job is going to be a lot bigger than I first thought it would be when I started.

Sarah Simas said...

Wowza! When I was in HS we had to carry around hard boiled eggs. lol Easily replacable babies should they 'have a great fall'! I can't imagine what sort of baby they'll think up for my daughter's age group. YUCK!

My CP is such a writer. When describing a scene, she walks you through every single minute detail of the character's process. Sometimes she pulls it off without a hitch and others, well, it's just TMI. Great post!! Enjoy the baseball game! :)

Kathi Oram Peterson said...

Yep. Telling does have it's place. A rule I try to remember is--does this forward my story? If it doesn't I chuck it. Thanks for the great reminder.

Janna Qualman said...

I've been thinking that a lot through my rewrites; that I need to allow the reader to connect the dots.

You know what I noticed in this post? You called it Parent and Child Development. That's a wonderful change! Because, you know, the parents need to be developed first and most.

Heather Sunseri said...

Yes, Susan, I think about this issue quite a bit. I'm afraid I'm guilty of this often. Thanks for the reminder to watch for it.

David F. Weisman said...

I loved your photo of invisible shoes leaving footprints :-)

Amy Jo Lavin said...

Thanks for the reminder. I've been working on making sure that I have more showing and less telling in my writing, but I agree with you. Sometimes the telling part is necessary.

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

So true... Bell talks about this in "Art of War"... I can't remember if it's his words or if he quotes someone else. But he reminds us that stories are life with the boring parts (she brushed her hair, teeth, etc) edited out. Such great advice... something I definitely need to watch out for!

Laura said...

I've got to hear more about this "baby"!

He stole all your creativity in the night -- HA!

Great post, for several reasons. I've noticed the advantages of showing, not telling even in writing nonfiction. Sometimes a short tale or allusion is worth a thousand lists.

Lynn said...

I remember my kids having this little 'pet' they had to take care of at all times. And the times I had to babysit! I feel for you!

I love to show, but I have noticed that my ideas need a bit of telling to link the idea and bring clarity to the situation. It's a fine balance, for sure.

Lily Robinson said...

On her last visit here, G#3's doll kept giggling and cooing. She slammed it in a chair and said, "Enough already!" Hope it's just a kindergartener's phase...

That is my hardest bump with my WIP... too much detail in a span of years. Whenever I finally get back to it, I'm cutting out a huge chunk!

Amber Tidd Murphy said...

Awesome post! I agree that we can't show it all -- no one wants to share in the "showing" of their mc taking a piss or cleaning out her ears with q-tips or whatever.

I love transitions that "tell" to show the passage of time, but I agree that it can still be done creatively!

Stephen Tremp said...

My editor has identified quite a bit of "data dump." I had to take it out becuase, "Who cares?" I have used little snipits of the data dump and inserted them throughout the MS.

Stephen Tremp

Nancy said...

I can feel for you. Hope you enjoy your games in spite of the baby and all of his problems. Your post made lots of sense so I won't be calling any police on you just yet.

Imola said...

Well, we all like using computers (they can be useful...), yet not so many would like to be told how it functions, that it has a hard drive, memory, viruses, programs that interact and cause malfunction...We want it nice and smooth. Similarly, a novel. A text should flow naturally - do you remember Diderot's Jacques le fataliste et son maƮtre? It was interesting to have the narrator draw the curtain from every now and then and remind his readers that all is fiction, or that he is unaware of how the story should evolve, that he is having difficulty in... you got the idea; yet, thought the sky may very well be the limit, est modus in rebus, a limit must exist nonetheless! And, in the case or readers, these limits are only rarely too far away...

#167 Dad said...

I'm in the process of teaching The Bean Trees. Kingsolver includes a heckuva a lot of details but they're always interesting, quirky, or funny...
Enjoy the ball games.

Karen said...

I understand the point of those babies, but it would sure be nice if they'd think up something that doesn't require disrupting the sleeping pattern of everyone in the house.

I've stopped reading more than one novel that had WAY too much detail. I'm pretty smart. I know what all is involved in sending a text message. (I've read TWO separate novels that actually explained the process. In detail.)

SAMUEL PARK said...

Great post. I do find that too much detail can be distracting, unless it's done in a really innovative way. I'm not that hard against telling, as long as it's only one of each--either showing OR telling--but not both. Then i'ts too much.

Tara McClendon said...

Another great post. I don't think I could handle a baby in my house at the moment. I'm busy with my two-year-old. As far as show and don't tell, I'm working on making sure I don't tell the readers what my dialogue should show.

Dara said...

A typical characteristic of first drafts is the inclusion of mundane details that really don't matter.

So. True. I fall into this pattern entirely too much in my drafting phase.

Anastasia said...

Wow. All we got was an egg, or a sack of flour.

Ron Smith said...

Such a great post. I had that same problem for a while. Well how do they get to the party? They have to get in a car right? So I need to show them getting them into the car.

Fortunately, I did what you did and learned to just cut to the chase!

Ruth Donnelly said...

Good post! Sometimes I think it's actually helpful for me to write extraneous detail in a first draft, because it helps me get inside the character's head. (How does this person get up? Wash her hair? etc.) But, yeah, it doesn't belong in a final draft... that's what revision is for!