Show-Then-Tell "the Essay"


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  1. #1

    Show-Then-Tell "the Essay"

    I run into this problem a lot when I'm critiquing. I figured I'd start calling it "the essay". I happens when you can't quite figure out if you want to show or tell, so you go ahead and do both.

    Here's a random example I just made up:

    "Everything seemed out of place. A coffee pot was on the stove; the curtains hung over the table."


    I would consider this an intermediate-level mistake. It's obviously better than just saying "everything seemed out of place". But that little thesis statement is a lot of dead weight on the prose.

    There may be exceptions, but I can't think of any right now.

    I have a feeling these "thesis statements" are usually carried over from a more synoptic early draft. I've started putting my synoptic draft statements in quotes or brackets so I don't forget to delete them later. It helps a little bit.

  2. #2
    Depends, it can do some work as well.

    Everything was out of place, a pistol had been left on the table, a shotgun against the wall.

    Everything was out of place, trainers on the floor, dumb-bells in an arm chair.

    Everything was out of place, papers everywhere, he pulled a bottle from the filing cabinet, 'Drink?'

    Very different places. I always say that you can break any rule so long as you are doing it deliberately for a reason, papers everywhere and whiskey in the filing cabinet may be the norm, they may need to know it isn't, and saying something twice, show and tell, is a simple way to add emphasis. It is not always applicable, but rule nothing out. The one that always comes to mind is a Hemingway piece of dialogue where someone is describing the result of a storm, a list of disasters, each separated by 'and' rather than commas, and you can hear the man's anxiety, he is freaked out.
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  3. #3
    Quote Originally Posted by EternalGreen View Post
    I run into this problem a lot when I'm critiquing. I figured I'd start calling it "the essay". I happens when you can't quite figure out if you want to show or tell, so you go ahead and do both.

    Here's a random example I just made up:

    "Everything seemed out of place. A coffee pot was on the stove; the curtains hung over the table."


    I would consider this an intermediate-level mistake. It's obviously better than just saying "everything seemed out of place". But that little thesis statement is a lot of dead weight on the prose.

    There may be exceptions, but I can't think of any right now.

    I have a feeling these "thesis statements" are usually carried over from a more synoptic early draft. I've started putting my synoptic draft statements in quotes or brackets so I don't forget to delete them later. It helps a little bit.
    I think it depends on POV. I agree with the concern generally, but I would usually refer to the POV and the effect I wanted to create. It might be as simple as trial-and-error.

    "Everything seemed out of place" <-- I would use that in conjunction with the observations of the coffee pot and curtain, if I wanted to imply it was the character's assessment, what they were thinking as they looked.

    If I wasn't wanting or needing the judgment, if I felt that the character was ambivalent to whether it was out of place, then I would generally dispense with the 'tell' and rely on the 'show': A coffee pot was on the stove; the curtains hung over the table.

    If you're in a situation when you don't know whether to show or tell, it's almost always better to show. Tell is good when you don't want to complicate the meaning or leave anything open to ambiguity, in which case 'everything seemed out of place' with or without the coffee pot/curtains is fine.

  4. #4
    The places for this to be done well are few and far between. Using a colon, in my mind, only makes it more obvious that you're saying the same thing twice. It literally means "equals".

    This is literally an example from the wikipedia page on colons:

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  5. #5
    Quote Originally Posted by EternalGreen View Post
    I run into this problem a lot when I'm critiquing. I figured I'd start calling it "the essay". I happens when you can't quite figure out if you want to show or tell, so you go ahead and do both.

    Here's a random example I just made up:

    "Everything seemed out of place. A coffee pot was on the stove; the curtains hung over the table."


    I would consider this an intermediate-level mistake. It's obviously better than just saying "everything seemed out of place". But that little thesis statement is a lot of dead weight on the prose.

    There may be exceptions, but I can't think of any right now.

    I have a feeling these "thesis statements" are usually carried over from a more synoptic early draft. I've started putting my synoptic draft statements in quotes or brackets so I don't forget to delete them later. It helps a little bit.
    I'm not sure why you are calling this phrase a "thesis statement". A thesis statement is a main point of a thesis, that a body of empirical research sets out to prove. Generally a Masters thesis takes 15,000 to 20,000 words and a significant quantitative survey to argue the thesis statement. (Perhaps I'm overly sensitive having had to prove my own thesis statement, that took six months of research to do.)

    Even if you are using the term "thesis statement" as a metaphor, it doesn't really work for me here, because your points don't prove the opening phrase. A coffee pot on the stove and curtains hanging over the table seem perfectly normal for a typical kitchen, not "out if place".

    However, I think the point you are making is that you may not need to both show and tell, but I think it's best to just go with what feels natural. If you find that you don't need the first "telling" part of the sentence you can always take it out. It doesn't hurt, as you say, to put it into your first draft as they help set the scene in your mind as you are writing.

    But I like the idea of putting these scene setting phrases in brackets. I might adopt that myself!
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  6. #6
    The first time I encountered the term "thesis statement" (in regards to fiction) was way back in 2011, in one of Chuck Palahniuk's craft essays.

    In it, he argued that the thesis statement summarizes what's going to happen in the scene (or in part of the scene), thus draining away tension and ruining the surprise/immersion.

    At the time, I agreed. After all, Mr. Palahniuk had said it, and Mr. Palahniuk was a talented, popular, successful writer. Therefore, he's automatically correct, no?

    Well . . . since then, I've come across many talented authors who do use thesis statements (or lines that are similar in effect), and with good results. Anthony Doerr is the first to come to mind. He uses such statements quite often in his writing. His award-winning short story, "The Deep", is chock full of thesis statements, on nearly every page. And that story had me riveted from the opening line.

    I could rattle off a dozen more examples, but the point is that I eventually realized Mr. Palahniuk's "beware the thesis statement!" advice is, like most things in writing: just an opinion. It may work for some people, it may not for others.

  7. #7
    The thesis statement as Kyle describes above, when followed by concrete examples is essentially a redundancy, best avoided, or at least kept to a minimum.

  8. #8
    Quote Originally Posted by Kyle R View Post
    In it, he argued that the thesis statement summarizes what's going to happen in the scene (or in part of the scene), thus draining away tension and ruining the surprise/immersion.

    At the time, I agreed. After all, Mr. Palahniuk had said it, and Mr. Palahniuk was a talented, popular, successful writer. Therefore, he's automatically correct, no?
    Actually no, I don't think he is correct, in his usage of the term. A "thesis statement" is not just a summary. It's a statement to be proven. So even in fiction, you have to look at the other meaning of thesis:

    "a statement or theory that is put forward as a premise to be maintained or proved."

    - Oxford Dictionary

    A thesis statement for a Literary Analysis Essay states the main idea of the entire essay:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8kaRzCBCI-0

    Perhaps it is an idea he put forward, and because he is popular it got traction. But to me it is fundamentally not a correct use of the term.

    And I also agree with you that it's only an opinion that may not work for some. So no need to beware of it. (Whatever you want to call it). I think he is trying to make a "notable" point, but it doesn't hold water for me....
    Last edited by Taylor; August 10th, 2020 at 08:30 PM.
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  9. #9
    Quote Originally Posted by EternalGreen View Post
    I run into this problem a lot when I'm critiquing. I figured I'd start calling it "the essay". I happens when you can't quite figure out if you want to show or tell, so you go ahead and do both.

    Here's a random example I just made up:

    "Everything seemed out of place. A coffee pot was on the stove; the curtains hung over the table."


    I would consider this an intermediate-level mistake. It's obviously better than just saying "everything seemed out of place". But that little thesis statement is a lot of dead weight on the prose.

    There may be exceptions, but I can't think of any right now.

    I have a feeling these "thesis statements" are usually carried over from a more synoptic early draft. I've started putting my synoptic draft statements in quotes or brackets so I don't forget to delete them later. It helps a little bit.
    Not sure what you mean by "thesis statements". This example seems okay, other than the fact that a coffee pot being on a stove and curtains hanging over a table doesn't see that "out of place"-ish. I guess too many more of them and things might get a bit was-heavy; things existing rather than being invoked or acted onin the context of some plot motion.


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  10. #10
    The problem with thesis statements or “telling” is that it explains the action or development of the work. It’s as if the author doesn’t trust the reader to figure out what’s going on. The narrator is giving a background analysis of the action. So the reader is not able to experience the action as if he were a participant. He is relegated to observer, with running background commentary. This is not a first hand experience. It’s a spoon- fed experience. Maybe some readers want that but for me it makes the story a lot less interesting if I don’t get those Aha moments.

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