I’LL SHOW YOU NOT TELLING (something I read somewheres)

James R. Tuck
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So I picked up a book called THE FIRST 50 PAGES by Jeff Gerke the other day because, well, I have a book buying problem. (TBR pile is 68 at last count and I KNOW I’ve gotten a ton more books since then)

Anyways, I wanted to share some advice he gives that to me seemed pretty golden.

Here’s the sum up:

Think of your book as a movie. Telling is anything you write that THE CAMERA DOES NOT SEE.

Stop and think about it.

 Let it sink in.

I know how we writers are. We feel like the reader needs to know all the back story to really understand what we are trying to write….the ins and outs of the plot, the history and texture of the worlds and characters we have created so lovingly.

It’s bullshit.

They don’t. They don’t need to know anything that doesn’t directly relate to the events that happen ON THE PAGE. Your character has a history of fighting with his father, a raging alcoholic his entire life, and this is what gives him his hair trigger anger that makes him go blind with fury and whale on the first person to step to him wrong.

Don’t you dare TELL me that crap.

I’ll figure it out when you do stuff like:

put him in a bar and have someone buy him a drink

have someone step to him wrong

make him interact with his father

Until you write those interactions ON THE PAGE then his history means exactly diddly squat and I don’t wanna read it.

Trust me. I am an oversharer…..read my first three books and I not only told you all the backstory, I REPEATED it like repeatedly like over and over and over again…..then I told you once more for good measure. I was annoying about it because in the back of my mind I didn’t trust the reader to keep p with it. And I got dinged for it in the reviews. Hardcore. Got a boatload of 2 star reviews because of it.

So if you cannot show it, don’t write it. It’s really simple. Use the camera. Use it well.

 

And speaking of cameras: I have taken up photography!! I work under the name Von Tuck.

So now I am an Author, Tattoo Artist, Small Business Owner, and Photographer. Here are some recent pics I took that I am pretty pleased with.

 

The Son doing what he does best.

Taken of an artist who works at my shop. Taken of an artist who works at my shop.

The Son doing what he does best.

 

 

 

More of what I'll be shooting.

More of what I’ll be shooting.

 

Aversion of this will probably be the cover to SPECIAL FEATURES  a Deacon Chalk short story collection coming in Aug.

A version of this will probably be the cover to SPECIAL FEATURES a Deacon Chalk short story collection coming in Aug.

 

 

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21 comments to I’LL SHOW YOU NOT TELLING (something I read somewheres)

  • Neat photos, James! I totally hear you on the TBR pile. Mine’s pretty much the same. Gah!

    And that is a fantastic quote. Thinking of “book as movie” to differ from telling and showing is very useful to remember. Thank you for that.

  • Thanks Laura.
    I was struck by how simple the advice was and yet how true at the same time.

  • Great photos, especially the last one. I could definitely see that as a book cover.

    I also like the camera analogy to differentiate showing and telling. When writing, do you visualize a scene in your head like a movie and write what you see, or is it more abstract? My thinking process is very visually oriented, but I have a friend who thinks strictly in words like a ticker tape. I’m curious about the mental processes different writers use.

  • Dave, they actually had that discussion on here. It had surprised me that some people thought in words or pictures. I’m more a full color and sound movie thinker.

  • Yeah. Back when, I admitted to thinking only in words; almost never in pictures. (I’ve come to the realization that is why I don’t care for movies. I like TV, which is heavy on dialogue, but not so much movies.) Anyway. So I have to be careful with backstory and showing and telling, and the movie analogy rings strongly with me.

    Good stuff, James. I love watching writers learn and hone their craft, and then turn and share all the mental cues and tips and ideas and even philosophy back to others. That’s paying it forward, man. Good work.

  • kwlee

    Nice pictures! And great advice… I totally suck at it, as mainly I have a hard time processing what it means to “Show not tell!” My general thick-headed response to that often repeated criticism is, “Well… you’re reading it on the page, aren’t you?”

    I think the Camera analogy that you’ve shared has better handles on it. Thank you!

  • Ken

    Those are some really good pictures, James. I’ve got a shelf (or two…) that I can hear groaning under the weight of the TBR pile. I’m not quite to the point where I’m making housing decisions based on the potential for book storage, but I’m getting there.

    That is great advice that I fully intend to take to heart. In the every rule has it’s exception category, I’m currently Re-re-reading Dean Koontz’s “Odd Thomas” series where there is a boatload of telling.

    Now, I would submit that any story told in the first person POV is nothing but telling in that that is what’s going on: the narrator is telling the reader a story. In that respect, it’s harder to “Show what the camera can’t see” in a first person POV, but Odd sometimes segues during the telling of his story to relate some small ancedote or to comment on what he’s just told me. These “Asides” don’t really have anything, directly, to do with the story, but they do reveal a lot about Odd’s character and Koontz is consistent with it, not only from beginning to end but from book to book, so it feels natural.

  • Thanks for all the compliments.

    I love figuring our stuff and sharing it. I read that in the book and had my “huh” moment of realization.

    I do NOT see images or movies when I write, it is words on a page….that’s also how I read though so it just feels natural to me.

    It was nice when I found out that Faith and I do the same thing.

  • Kwlee – I think the natural response, for me at least, is to justify what we find comfortable doing…to excuse it in some way. It hurts sometimes to push past what we naturally fall into as writers but you know what that is/ It’s growing pains and you will come out the otherside stronger, taller, and a better writer.

    I know I have :)

    But it is hard.

  • I just put down a book that spent it’s first few pages telling me the whole history of the freakin’ world before anything had happened. And it wasn’t a cool history, it was just dull details. Those few pages were as laborious as pushing a boulder up a hill.

  • I honestly don’t know which is more difficult, seeing film and trying to transform that into words, dialogue, monologue, etc, for others, or thinking in words on a page and trying to get the reader to translate those words into a visual experience in their heads. I suspect both have the same level of difficulty, but in opposite ways.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Word-thinker here. Which means that when I go to try to connect a reader with the physical reality of a scene, I tend to reach for tactile description first, since that’s my favorite sense.

    I think this movie analogy you mention is super handy. However, when I read it, I was immediately drawn to the memory of the awful movie adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender. For someone who’s been learning about the difference between showing and telling, that movie is a fairly hilarious lesson in what it means to tell (and tell and tell) in a movie. Hint: movies should almost never use narrators – fantasy movies especially.

  • I am wordie all the way, but I love movies as much as I do books, so this analogy really works for me. Thanks for sharing!

  • Hmm… to extend the analogy, showing is the movie, and telling is the occasional infocrawl, a la Star Wars (ditto narrator, nothing comes to mind but I’m not a filmie). It can be useful and necessary (and let you jump into a situation without having to do an otherwise-tedious buildup, a common fault of SF films), but it should be limited, as it tends to lose audience attention the moment something shinier comes along.

    Tho it seems to me some of this is modern attention spans… while I’d rather be shown the world than told it, one can’t really fault stuff like… Gormenghast leaps to mind, of very long and detailed tellings. (Which were more interesting on 2nd read than first.)

    Oh, and I’m a wordie too. WTF does that icon mean, where is the label??!

  • I’m such a wordie that the narrative of real-world events will scrawl across my back-brain white space (in courier 12pt, no less) as they occur.

    When I write, the ‘picture’ doesn’t become clear until the words are right. And by the words being right, I’m showing the scene to myself.

  • Vyton

    Vyton’s feet danced while his hunched upper body sat immobile, his eyes scanning the post on his favorite blog. At the sight of the last photograph, he leapt to his feet. “Hallelujah! I have seen the light!” With tears streaming past his thick glasses, he collapsed beside his desk. “I have seen the light.”

  • Johnathan Knight

    Perhaps of note, I think it’s important to remember where your camera is in relation to your MC. I’ve often seen writers pull their camera too far back or position it high overhead, instead of situating it snugly behind the MC’s eyes, or even on the MC’s shoulder. In my opinion, this “overhead camera” creates an unnecessary distance in the narrative and results in a very-difficult-to-pull-off omni POV. When the author was possibly going for a tight, limited third instead.

    I do think telling has a place in storytelling, but I prefer to think of telling in such cases as summarizing. To my way of thinking, summarizing is a great way to bridge important scenes together without bogging down the pace of the entire story.

  • Megan B.

    Nice photos!

    And an interesting post. You made me think about a new way of looking at backstory. Specifically, that there is a big difference between showing backstory “on camera” and telling it. Flashbacks are so widely poo-pooed that I end up tearing my hair out over them a lot (in my own writing, I mean). But maybe it’s truly better to give a full-on flashback than to “tell” the reader something about the character’s past in the middle of current events. If that makes sense. Because a full-on flashback SHOWS the important events. Of course, flashbacks have their time and place, but that’s another discussion.

    Now my mind is turning about a certain story of mine. It really hinges on events that happened in the past, but when I had the story going back and forth between past and present, it apparently was not working. What I have now may be more like “telling” those past events. Just when I thought I had a handle on that story, now I am wondering if it’s still not right. I’ll have to think on it. Some stories are much more challenging to pull off than others, but it’s a great way to give the old writing muscles a workout :)

  • Megan- Flashbacks just have to be used properly.
    I had a 2 chapter 10,000 word flashback in book two. It developed the character, established a part of the world, was exciting, and fit in what would be a down time part of the adventure so it worked really well.

  • Megan B.

    I’m so glad to know that you used a flashback in that way, James. It gives me hope that it really can be done. Thanks.