A better dichotomy than 'show vs tell' - Enabling vs Disabling

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Thread: A better dichotomy than 'show vs tell' - Enabling vs Disabling

  1. #1

    A better dichotomy than 'show vs tell' - Enabling vs Disabling

    It's hard to make progress as a writer without moving past the early stepping-stone of thinking one has to 'show' rather than 'tell'. The longer this 'rule' is put into effect, the more its inaccuracy is realized: you can only 'show' something in a story by 'telling' the reader something else. The two are actually inherently cooperative.

    But a bigger problem also becomes apparent - both what you 'show' and 'tell' in you work are known, intended quantities from your perspective as the author. Yet, the joy of the art of writing rests not in what you limit your work to, but in how you enable your reader to go further with your ideas than you have on the page. How you enable their agency as a participant in your craft.

    In the preface to his tales of Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman emphasizes that the point of myths, and the stories that compose them, is not in the telling, but rather the re-telling. I don't think this is restricted to the larger, grander narratives of mythology: every story achieves its true goal not when it's told, but when the reader wants to, to some degree, retell it.

    Everyone here became a writer because they read something and decided that reading and receiving a story wasn't enough - they wanted to tell a story of their own. A children's story best proves that it has captivated its audience when it manages to enter a child's individual space of fantasy play. Likewise, a story has only truly achieved the life of a work of art, I believe, once it has captured the imaginations of others to the extent that they want to stretch it, squeeze it, poke at it, take it apart, put it back together again, add to it, adapt it - and so on. Not in the case that it's dissatisfied people, though, as that too can lead to people wanting to make adjustments. When a story naturally prompts the brain to say 'do more with this' - that is when it has become more than just another narrative.

    Because of this belief, that storytelling is only successful in execution if it encourages some kind of retelling, I've come to cling to a dichotomy that I find better than 'showing vs telling' for thinking about how to engage and excite your reader - 'enabling vs disabling'.

    The simple question is this: does what you've written, from a word to a paragraph to a whole chapter, encourage the reader to do more than what's on the page?

    Exactly how much from you've given them can never be a definitive quantity, but you can get a feel for whether you're being rigid with the imagination you're allowing your reader, or expansive. Withholding certain bits of information or worldbuilding can enable your reader to fill in those gaps themselves for the time being, as questions and curiosities. Withhold too much, or the wrong things, however, and you can disable your reader from being able to think ahead. Think about mystery fiction - the reader needs enough clues to be encouraged to piece together what they think happened, but not too many or they'll consider the case too simple, or see too many possibilities to care about dwelling on any of them.

    'Enabling' the reader includes the facet of 'showing' something rather than telling it: you're enabling them to imagine it for themselves. But when you think about enabling, rather than simply showing, you can keep your mind open to the agency of the reader. Does this thing need to be 'shown' to the point that nothing else can be imagined, or can it be left more vague, more questionable, so that the reader feels drawn to the details around it even more, to try to figure out a more exact understanding of it themselves? Enabling the reader, giving them space, can be enough encouragement in and of itself for them to roam around that area. But you can also set up particular moments in your scenes to give the reader more of a 'push' towards thinking about something more on their end. It's rewarding when you respond to that push as a reader, and start to realize that the narrative is written with a great amount of depth for you to delve into.

    'Disabling', of course, also includes 'telling' something - you disable the reader's ability to reach that idea themselves. A reader feeling too disabled by the way a story is written can exacerbate any concerns they have for attachment with the characters. It can feel even worse, however (or at least, it has for me), when the attachment is there but the room for the reader to have their own independent thoughts and feelings is missing: the characters live on the page, but feel dead beyond it. The effect of a book of film being 'instantly forgettable' is akin to this. Some people describe this as simply a 'lack of depth', but I think it's more often a case of cave without an entrance. There's always some kind of room for the reader to think about the characters of a story more on their own, but is there a way in? It doesn't matter how 'deep' you consider your characters to be, as a writer, if what you've written lacks an access point for that depth. You have to put yourself in the shoes of your reader.

    While 'showing' and 'telling' can remain to be helpful concepts for thinking about the sentence-by-sentence expression of the events of a story, I think 'enabling' and 'disabling' are more productive terms for both the reason why we show and tell certain things, and the management of the 'woods' of the story as opposed to the 'trees'. An enabled reader receives what you've written and becomes eager to make something more of it themselves, whether that's delving into the depths of what meanings can be made beneath the surface of your story, or building new narratives on top of it the firm foundation for imagination that your storytelling proves. You have to enable your readers if you want your work to be remembered beyond the last page. It's not enough to simply tell your story - you have to make your audience want to take part in the telling too.
    Sleep is for the weak, or sleep is for a week.
    -------------------------------------------------------------
    I write about anime and internet culture at Hidden Content

  2. #2
    Interesting piece, Jerry Maguire.

    I always think of the term enabling in negative terms.
    Must be an AA thing.

    So I am curious, how would enabling and disabling actually look in practice? Would a show/tell paragraph be markedly different than an enable/disable paragraph?

  3. #3
    First, how much I tell, versus what I hope my reader figures out, is an important part of writing to me. Even something as simple as a joke can be ruined by telling too much. So I think about this issue all of the time.

    But I am not sure about "enabling". Suppose she looks up and he has a weapon. I would never allow the reader to decide if it was a gun or knife. In fact, I would think it good writing to say some details about the knife. That would be making my scene come to life, right?

    This comes up all the time for emotions. If my character's emotional reaction to something is obvious, I can leave it out. But I don't want ambiguity -- that probably will not work for the plot, and I want my characters to sometimes have unexpected (but reasonable) reactions.

    So I spend a lot of time telling my story and leaving out the parts that aren't relevant or can be figured out. I am not trying to give my reader freedom in how the story is imagined. (Some exceptions.)
    How to write a good start: Hidden Content . Useful, original information. Long and thorough.
    Includes Hidden Content (do you start with description?), Hidden Content (a favorite with publishers apparently), starting with Hidden Content (a lost art), and more.

  4. #4
    Personally, I'm only tempted to 'do more' with a story when there's an interesting world or concept that being used or executed poorly. The Harry Potter books are a prime example. As the series progressed, I felt the quality decreased. Yet the first one established the world and characters so well that I was tempted to speculate on how the later ones could have been better.

    If the quality of book one had been on par with book seven, I doubt I would have been tempted to do anything other than chuck the book aside.

    Maybe 'engaging' is better than 'enabling'. A story has to engage the reader. If the reader is not drawn into the story, the rest is pointless. I think most stories and books that fail do so because they are not engaging.

    I do agree that 'show, don't tell' as an axiom is too rigid and will also cause failure. Although that failure will be due to boring the reader, even if the reader was initially drawn in.

  5. #5
    But I am not sure about "enabling". Suppose she looks up and he has a weapon. I would never allow the reader to decide if it was a gun or knife. In fact, I would think it good writing to say some details about the knife. That would be making my scene come to life, right?
    Well, that's a moment where you don't want to 'enable' possibilities for what the weapon might be, if it's important to the scene or plot. You would 'disable' the reader's capacity to follow the action if you didn't clarify what the weapon was. But say the knife is a very particular knife, and very important to the plot: say it's an ancient artifact, a relic of great magical power, but at this point we don't know what yet. With the detail you give of it, you can 'enable' the reader to think ahead about what its power might be, or you can 'disable' them by outright telling them the power it has.

    For the latter, if you wrote 'In her hand she held the blade of warflame. The edge was superheated by fires channeled from the hilt, and anyone struck by it would have their flesh ignited from within' - that would explain to the reader how the blade works, but it would be a disabling description: now we know how it works. Now we aren't able to think about for ourselves.

    But to 'enable' the reader, and put them in the shoes of a protagonist who has never seen this weapon before, we could say something like 'the dagger in her hand was large, and the usual coldness of steel was replaced by a searing glow. The handle seemed to send jolts of a hot, feral energy up into the blade, like a heartbeat'. With that kind of detail, we're focalized into a position of lacking knowledge about the weapon - we're enabled to think about the extent of its power for ourselves, rather than just told that power. But at the same time, we're not 'shown' the exact power it has - it's suggested to us, and as the fight commences we will see if the estimation we gather from that description is similar to different to what the weapon does - either way we'll find an engagement that would have been lost if we had been disabled from considering the knife's power for ourselves.

    On the mironarratorial level, 'enabling' is for things that don't need to be specifically known but will be engaging for the reader to think about, as opposed to showing, which is for things that need to be specifically known but are best known as a result of the reader's inference.

    I think those two examples above should also serve to illustrate Ralph Rotten's question.

    Maybe 'engaging' is better than 'enabling'. A story has to engage the reader. If the reader is not drawn into the story, the rest is pointless. I think most stories and books that fail do so because they are not engaging.
    I'd consider enabling to be a fact of engaging. The reader can be engaged in the specifics, in the known, but if that's all they're engaged with then they won't care about your work beyond the printed page. Enabling is the act of engaging them in the unknown.
    Sleep is for the weak, or sleep is for a week.
    -------------------------------------------------------------
    I write about anime and internet culture at Hidden Content

  6. #6
    You seem to be talking about getting the reader to think, rather than 'just' read. To me, that's being engaged. When a reader is not fully engaged, the book or story is simply read. If there's no engagement at all, the book or story is chucked aside.

    I see engagement as a kind of continuum. There's degrees of engagement. Yes, I want my readers fully engaged. But that's different than readers wanting to rewrite my story. I see a desire to rewrite as a sign that I've failed.

    Now wanting to write more stories in the world I created might be a good sign. But that's not what I think you're talking about. True or false?

  7. #7
    that's different than readers wanting to rewrite my story. I see a desire to rewrite as a sign that I've failed.
    It depends what kind of rewrite. If it's trying to 'fix' something, then that's not good. But a lot of fanfiction exists because readers love the story so much that they want to build something new on top of it with the materials that it provides. That fanfiction comes about because of a macronarratorial kind of enabling: a story's world and characters leaving the reader saying 'more! I could make more of this!'. And they do, whether that's in the imagination, or as some form of media.
    Sleep is for the weak, or sleep is for a week.
    -------------------------------------------------------------
    I write about anime and internet culture at Hidden Content

  8. #8

    Quote Originally Posted by Jeko View Post
    It depends what kind of rewrite. If it's trying to 'fix' something, then that's not good. But a lot of fanfiction exists because readers love the story so much that they want to build something new on top of it with the materials that it provides. That fanfiction comes about because of a macronarratorial kind of enabling: a story's world and characters leaving the reader saying 'more! I could make more of this!'. And they do, whether that's in the imagination, or as some form of media.
    As I said, writing new is different. Rewriting is, to me, a sign of failure.

    Unless we can agree that rewriting is different than writing, there's not much point in continuing the discussion.

  9. #9
    Very interesting post but I’ve just read down to the last post and concluded this is a discussion for Fantasy writers, and my opinions are not a natural fit. However, I started to reply and for what they are worth these are they…

    It's hard to make progress as a writer without moving past the early stepping-stone of thinking one has to 'show' rather than 'tell'. The longer this 'rule' is put into effect, the more its inaccuracy is realized: you can only 'show' something in a story by 'telling' the reader something else. The two are actually inherently cooperative. I interpret showing as playing out the scene as opposed to recounting it. If the narrator is unreliable or the narration is First Person, which can have the same result albeit presented differently, the reader is forced into enablement.

    But a bigger problem also becomes apparent - both what you 'show' and 'tell' in you work are known, intended quantities from your perspective as the author. Yet, the joy of the art of writing rests not in what you limit your work to, but in how you enable your reader to go further with your ideas than you have on the page. How you enable their agency as a participant in your craft. I expect the reader to participate by thinking… ‘Oh my God, I see what’s going to happen to her.’ or ‘I wasn’t expecting that!’ To be limited by the information available not to anticipate or ‘write’ beyond the storyline I have laid down.

    In the preface to his tales of Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman emphasizes that the point of myths, and the stories that compose them, is not in the telling, but rather the re-telling. I don't think this is restricted to the larger, grander narratives of mythology: every story achieves its true goal not when it's told, but when the reader wants to, to some degree, retell it. A minstrel's artistic license?

    ... When a story naturally prompts the brain to say 'do more with this' - that is when it has become more than just another narrative. Sounds as though the writer has failed.

    Jusy saying, qwerty

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