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larkin

Why “Show, Don’t Tell” Is the Great Lie

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I had the terrible feeling that my 3rd person, omniscient voice was acting as a puppet master, orchestrating everything and this is not good and once started I couldn't break out of it.

By modern standards, the 3rd person omniscient voice has fallen out of favor with readers. It was much more common in the 19th century. My personal opinion is that it is very difficult to pull off well, because it tends to call attention to itself and interrupt the experience of the reader becoming lost in the story.

Far more common is the so-called 3rd-person limited point of view, where, while the events are presented in the third person, it is done in alignment with the point of view of one particular character. The Harry Potter books are a good example of this -- in general, everything is presented from Harry's point of view. The only departures from this occur in the later books, where scenes involving Lord Voldemort (where Harry is not present) are presented in a fairly neutral third person. But the significant point is that we never receive narration from the point of view of Ron or Hermione or Dumbledore or anyone else -- it's always Harry (or no one in particular, in the case of the Voldemort scenes). Third-person limited has enough in common with first person that it should not be an insurmountable task to move from one to another. But I think that readers are less comfortable as you move toward omniscience, or toward a situation where the point of view hops around from character to in the same scene. Thus, we can hear that "Harry felt his stomach lurch" but we can only see external signs of other characters' feelings ("Hermione's eyes grew wide").

Getting to your main point, however, the structure you choose depends on what the story is about at its core. What does the main character want at the beginning? What's stopping him from getting it? If there is a strong sense of this in the time frame prior to the apocalyptic event, and if it ties into the overall goal of the story, then there's no harm in presenting it.

It may be that the main character's answers to the two questions will be one thing before the apocalyptic event, and then this event forces him to change his outlook. Let's say that initially he's caught in the crossfire of divorce, decides he hates his parents and siblings, and runs away. Then the apocalyptic event comes, kills all kinds of people (including his family), and forces him into survival mode. This may cause him to realize that his situation with the family, however dysfunctional, was still a heck of a lot better than he has now.

But if that's the approach, I would not present the pre-apocalypse time in exposition. Better, in my view, to launch into a scene that exemplifies what's going on. Perhaps it's the night he packs up stuff and runs away. Perhaps it's the fight that turns out to be the last straw. Give us something to digest, rather than something you have pre-digested for us and simply announced.

If the backstory isn't really a part of the main character's journey, but merely illuminates certain traits and behaviors, then I would say to save it for brief bits and pieces that are slipped in with care.

R

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I hesitate to tell my story anymore than I already have because it tends to kill it if recounted too many times, but I can tell you a book that had influenced me.

Cormack McCarthy's, "The Road" appears to be just another apocalyptic tale about the end of the world with few survivors and those left have resorted to cannibalism.

But,..It isn't really about the apocalypse. It's about a father's desperate effort to keep his son alive. I went back between posts to go over what I had already read. The story is told from 3rd person omniscient point of view that is practically poetry and, unless I am misinterpreting it, is all tell and no show... The character dialog is spare, economical and secondary to the narration.

It is as if the omniscient voice is watching over the characters. This is a tall order and well beyond my skills but I am impressed by it.

I do think that you know what I mean when I say that my omniscient voice was trampling all over everything.. I really don't want to do that. A first chapter sets the tone for everything.. I will try again.

Maybe I'll take Cole's advice and re-think the approach. Anyone who uses a golden retriever as an avatar must be a trustworthy soul.

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Thanks to the magic of Amazon offering free previews of Kindle books, I was able to read the first chunk of "The Road." Cormac McCarthy is not my cup of tea at all, but there's no disputing that he is an evocative writer.

At least two things jumped out at me immediately.

First of all, although the writing style is a bit idiosyncratic (like not using quotation marks for dialogue), it is immediately evident that this book (at least the first part that I was able to read) is written from the close point of view of the father. It is third person limited, not omniscient. All of the details mentioned are ones noticed by the father, even though there isn't a constant litany of "he thought" or "he noticed."

A specific example illustrates this clearly. After the visit to the abandoned gas station, the father gets out his binoculars and scans the valley below. We read what the father is observing. Then the son asks, "Can I see?" The father hands him the binoculars and the boy looks. Then the father asks, "What do you see?" The boy responds, "Nothing." We do not experience what the boy is seeing when he looks; we only know what he reports to the father.

Second, this excerpt brims with examples of "show, don't tell." It starts out with immediate and specific signs of uncertainty and peril. Evocative details are presented to begin the piecing together of something awful that must have happened. A more elaborate example of this comes when the father returns to the abandoned gas station in order to collect the remnants of oil and other fluids for them to use in the lamp. Without saying so in so many words (that would be "telling") the author illustrates that the world is one of scarcity and deprivation. Indeed, we know something is seriously wrong when the father finds expensive and useful tools abandoned in the vacant garage, and he too concludes that there would be no point in taking them. A bit earlier he concludes that the two of them need to move on because "it isn't safe here." And we have to wonder what is going on when the father observes early on that the sleeping son has knocked his mask off. The reader asks, His mask? What's the deal?

On the whole, therefore, I see "The Road" as a prime example of "show, don't tell."

R

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I agree that third person limited is in vogue right now. I even tried writing in it once, but it's much harder going than either first person or third omniscient, and I quickly found I didn't see the point of writing that way. If I wanted the story told through the eyes of only the narrator, first person was better because of the immediacy that brings to the reader and the ease of identification with the main character. When I write in third person, it's always because of the need to develop lines that don't include the narrator or present things he is aware of in a way he wouldn't.

So I quickly abandoned the third person limited effort and and converted that story to first person. It made for a stronger story.

C

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Even though "The Road" was 3rd person, I did sense that it was from the father's protective point of view. I agree that it is a grim tale, not for everyone but I considered it fine writing.

Third person limited? Does that mean 3rd person but from a singular point of view rather than universal? The is no confusing the voice being that of the boy..

I wish I could, but I cannot emulate that style. I will reorganize go with something more manageable.

Anyway, I thought that this was a constructive chat and I hope I haven't been a pest...

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I have one short story that I wanted to write in 3rd person limited, but I was struggling. What I did was to re-write it in first person and when I finished, I translated it to 3rd person limited -- a largely mechanical task. Apart from a few phrases, it was simply changing "I" to "he", "my" to "his", etc.

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I wanted the short story from a particular character's point of view. However, I also wanted to keep my options open for extending the story into a novella or novel. If I did that, I would definitely need other points of view, and 3rd person limited would give me that.

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I wanted the short story from a particular character's point of view. However, I also wanted to keep my options open for extending the story into a novella or novel. If I did that, I would definitely need other points of view, and 3rd person limited would give me that.

Only if, as the root veggie noted earlier, you cheated a bit and dropped into an omniscient version while expounding those other POVs. That's why I didn't like it. I found the limited part too limiting.

C

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Something that has often troubled me about writing in first person is that a reader is led to assume that because you are writing from within the head of someone and speaking with his voice, you are necessarily in support of that character. That may not be the case. Indeed, if the character turns out to be deeply flawed the reader may feel embarrassed and resentful if the first person narrative, as it so often does, has produced in the reader a failed allegiance that must be renounced.

I have come to think that writing in third person limited offers much greater flexibility, both for the writer and ultimately for the reader.

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Something that has often troubled me about writing in first person is that a reader is led to assume that because you are writing from within the head of someone and speaking with his voice, you are necessarily in support of that character. That may not be the case. Indeed, if the character turns out to be deeply flawed the reader may feel embarrassed and resentful if the first person narrative, as it so often does, has produced in the reader a failed allegiance that must be renounced.

I have come to think that writing in third person limited offers much greater flexibility, both for the writer and ultimately for the reader.

One way to dodge that problem and stay in first person is to have different characters carry different chapters. I'm reading a book by Susan Isaacs right now that does that. The grandmother is despicable, and hers is the main voice, but the voices of her threee grandkids all are heard in their own chapters.

But there have of course been many books in first person where the narrator is evil. Wasn't Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd written that way?

C

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Only if, as the root veggie noted earlier, you cheated a bit and dropped into an omniscient version while expounding those other POVs. That's why I didn't like it. I found the limited part too limiting.

C

There's a variant of 3rd person limited that I've seen called rotating 3rd person limited. That is, write from the perspective of a single character, but different scenes can have different characters as providing the perspective. I find this much easier to read than varying first person perspective because the pronouns don't get in the way. There is no "I" with differing meanings for differing scenes. When "he" is used instead, it becomes much easier and much more natural to drop in a name instead early in the scene to make it clear that the perspective has shifted.

That's the way I've been trying to write most of my non-first person stories.I don't always succeed because slipping into omniscience is so easy, but that's been my goal. So when I said third person limited, I really meant rotating third person limited.

Something that has often troubled me about writing in first person is that a reader is led to assume that because you are writing from within the head of someone and speaking with his voice, you are necessarily in support of that character. That may not be the case. Indeed, if the character turns out to be deeply flawed the reader may feel embarrassed and resentful if the first person narrative, as it so often does, has produced in the reader a failed allegiance that must be renounced.

I have come to think that writing in third person limited offers much greater flexibility, both for the writer and ultimately for the reader.

Another variant on what you're saying is the unreliable narrator. I've tried one first-person short story where the narrator was insane, but I didn't immediately tell the readers. It wasn't a total success in that I think only about half the readers realised that the narrator was unreliable while the other half scratched their heads and frowned at how the story ended. But it was an interesting experiment :smile:

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Something that has often troubled me about writing in first person is that a reader is led to assume that because you are writing from within the head of someone and speaking with his voice, you are necessarily in support of that character. That may not be the case. Indeed, if the character turns out to be deeply flawed the reader may feel embarrassed and resentful if the first person narrative, as it so often does, has produced in the reader a failed allegiance that must be renounced.

There are a number of instances where the author sets up an unreliable narrator, which the reader may not discover until well into the story. I'm trying to think of good examples. This strategy actually trades on the phenomenon you have mentioned, namely, the assumption that the first-person narrator is a straight shooter with the reader (much less the story world). The author deliberately violates this at some point.

One very interesting twist on this theme is Agatha Christie's "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd," where the narrator proves to be supremely unreliable. I won't say more for fear of spoiling it. I guess yet a different twist on this is the early part of Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury," where the reader gradually discovers that Benjy's first-person narrative is not so reliable either, at least by ordinary standards.

Really, there seem to be infinite variations on the theme of viewpoint, and many gradations of both first-person and third-person. I think of "The Maltese Falcon" where Hammett's dry third-person seems to be emulating a camera viewing the scenes, not getting inside anyone's head. We get physical description, and we get what amounts to a stenographic transcript of what people say and do. Then there are the polar opposites in chatty first-person characters such as Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum or Diane Mott Davidson's Goldy Schultz. Or there's the elegant wry wit of Elizabeth Peterson's Amanda Peabody. Or the angst-ridden teen narrators of every DomLuka story (see, for example, Desert Dropping at http://www.gayauthors.org/story/domluka/desertdropping).

I think it's a matter of what the author is comfortable with and what suits the story. There is no absolute right or wrong viewpoint/person, nor one that is intrinsically better than the other. At the same time, one of them may suit a particular situation better than the other, and in all cases they may be well or poorly executed.

R

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There's a variant of 3rd person limited that I've seen called rotating 3rd person limited.

You'd probably get a charge out of a typical Arthur Hailey novel, such as "Hotel." Lordy. He rotates endlessly, setting up all kinds of interwoven threads and popping around from head to head of the characters, then occasionally steps back and describes the scenery or the context or something else. I could forgive him that, but not the way he resolved all the seemingly unresolvable issues in that book. (I won't say more, though I'm tempted to, for fear of spoiling this hack of an ending.)

I think it takes considerable story-fashioning skill to knit together multiple viewpoints as you describe. It's hard enough, in my view, when you have one main character. When you start mixing in other viewpoints, there may be confusion about who the main character actually is, or what the story is actually about. There is risk that the story may morph into a "Love Boat" episode with three separate tales unfolding at once, and none of them standing out particularly. But then again, "Love Boat" made a ton of money for some people, and launched (ooh, bad pun) a number of careers.

R

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I think it takes considerable story-fashioning skill to knit together multiple viewpoints as you describe. It's hard enough, in my view, when you have one main character. When you start mixing in other viewpoints, there may be confusion about who the main character actually is, or what the story is actually about.

Why does a story have to have one main character? Why should it be a problem if the reader doesn't know who the main character actually is?

I did this deliberately in my novel Leopard Skin Cover in that the 'main character' isn't revealed until late in the story. Until then, the reader is left guessing as to who it is.

I'll admit that I find rotating 3rd person challenging to write, but that's mainly because each time I do a scene I have to decide who is the most appropriate character to 'view' that scene. Other than having to make that decision, it's no different to first person. The reader is getting to see that scene from one characters point of view, and that's all. Different scenes have different characters presenting their view because different characters are present in each scene.

I think first person can itself be even more challenging because it requires that character to be present in every scene. How do you present things that that person doesn't know in first person? That's a real challenge unless you're willing to break the rules and use another person's point of view (ie. rotating 1st person, analogous to rotating 3rd person but with the added confusion that "I" means someone different for each character) or to insert 3rd person sections.

When you have a story with a single main character, or a single character focus, first person is very apt. I chose first person for my novels New Brother and The Price of Friendship for exactly that reason. I wanted the readers inside the head of the main character of those novels. But in Heart of The Tree, Leopard Skin Cover, and Leopard Spots, that would be impossible because I have events happening in different places at the same time that need to be covered (eg. one character disappeared, other characters went searching for him -- I needed to cover both streams in the story where each didn't know what the other is doing).

I experimented with a different technique in Falls Creek Lessons, but I wouldn't want to repeat that again. I think it was successful, but it was also partly a gimmick that would lose its appeal with too much repetition.

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Why does a story have to have one main character? Why should it be a problem if the reader doesn't know who the main character actually is?

No particular reason, except that readers tend to have certain expectations and it's risky to violate them. But William Faulkner certainly did so in "The Sound and the Fury" which I referred to earlier. That novel is about, in succession, Benjy, Quentin, and Jason, and to a lesser extent Caddy. The approach was, I understand, fairly controversial at the time, but of course Faulkner delighted in the unconventional.

I guess in the end the only real test is whether people will read the story and find reward in spending their time with it.

I think first person can itself be even more challenging because it requires that character to be present in every scene. How do you present things that that person doesn't know in first person? That's a real challenge unless you're willing to break the rules and use another person's point of view (ie. rotating 1st person, analogous to rotating 3rd person but with the added confusion that "I" means someone different for each character) or to insert 3rd person sections.

Let me first say that I detest rotating first person, because I constantly have to scratch my head to remember who "I" is. I think that if anything like that is attempted the number of people should be very limited (i.e., no more than two) and something conspicuous should be done to differentiate them, such as putting one of the characters' narration in italics. But I would still dislike it, and I would venture to say that I have never, ever, seen an example where the multiple first-person viewpoints were warranted or enhanced the story. Most of the time, in my experience, the multiple viewpoints robbed the story of much of its value. And, adding insult to injury, the inner thoughts of the other characters that were revealed in the rotation turned out to be entirely predictable and clichéd.

I have seen authors of first-person narratives use a number of clever means to fill in gaps of information that the viewpoint character did not personally witness. I mentioned above Elizabeth Peters's character Amelia Peabody, who is the first-person narrator of a whole series of mystery novels set in Egypt. Periodically, throughout the books, the first-person narrative is interrupted by interstitial chapters entitled "Excerpt from Manuscript X." These excerpts contain third-person reporting of events outside of Amelia's immediate experience. As I recall, they are supposedly prepared by her son Ramses; in any event, they bridge over the gaps in the first-person discipline in a way that is palatable to the reader.

J.K. Rowling used a bunch of devices to finagle her way around the gaps in her viewpoint character Harry Potter's personal knowledge. In "Half-Blood Prince," the pensieve in Dumbledore's office allows Harry to take in previous events involving Tom Riddle/Voldemort and his family. In "Deathly Hallows" a book by Bathilda Bagshott provides extensive background about Dumbledore, as do conversations with various people who knew him many years earlier. In several of the books, articles in the Daily Prophet provide other such information.

Mystery stories can use police reports, transcripts of wiretaps, newspaper articles, anonymous letters, and various other devices to achieve this. The challenge is to do so in a way that is natural and organic to the story, rather than seeming hokey.

R

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As I said earlier, I'm reading a Susan Isaacs novel at the moment. It's titled The Goldberg Variations. R, I'd ask you to read it and then tell me you can't remember who's narrating a chapter.

If this style is well done, I at least have no problem at all remembering who's narrating. Good authors can overcome the problems you've mentioned.

And this book is good, too.

C

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I've looked through the Kindle sample, which comprises an initial chapter entitled "Gloria" and part of the next chapter entitled "Matt." From that brief sample it does appear that there is enough difference in attitude and speech patterns that it is not hard to see the difference between those two characters.

It is not enough of a sample to permit me to discern whether I could overcome my normal dislike of round-robin first-person stories. That type of story still calls to mind the formula of a classic Columbo episode on television, where the entire beginning of the program shows exactly who did the killing and what steps they took to carry it out and create misleading evidence that would point away from them. We know everything in the audience. The show isn't about figuring out "whodunit"; it's about wondering whether Lt. Columbo is going to figure out whodunit. It's a different kind of story.

I feel the same way about multiple first-person presentations in a story. We, the readers, gain inside knowledge of multiple players in the game of the story, knowledge that the other characters may not have about each other. We become like the Columbo audience, wondering whether and to what extent the stuff we know will come to light and affect the characters' interactions. It's a little bit like playing poker with marked cards that only I can read -- there's no guessing left.

R

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