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Is "Voice" "Telling"? (1 Viewer)

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EternalGreen

Senior Member
I found this article in another thread. https://lithub.com/the-three-words-that-almost-ruined-me-as-a-writer-show-dont-tell/

It's unclearly written and somewhat bombastic, but the author makes a few interesting points.

I agree that, as writers, we should stop disciplining each other with the rod of "show don't tell."

Out of all the pieces I have posted to the workshop, the few that contained lengthy examples of telling received positive comments pertaining to "voice."
Dramatic writing can be beautiful, precise, high-resolution, lurid, etc. But it usually does not have a strong "voice."

Telling is fine, essential even. But showing has it's own place.

Let the voice flow.
 
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EternalGreen

Senior Member
Example from Shakespeare's the Merchant of Venice.


Antonio:
In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:
It wearies me; you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it, 5
What stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn;
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me,
That I have much ado to know myself.
Salarino:
Your mind is tossing on the ocean; 10
There, where your argosies with portly sail,—
Like signiors and rich burghers on the flood,
Or, as it were, the pageants of the sea,—
Do overpeer the petty traffickers,
That curtsy to them, do them reverence, 15
As they fly by them with their woven wings.



Do you see any "showing" at all? I don't.
 

BornForBurning

Senior Member
I agree that, as writers, we should stop disciplining each other with the rod of "show don't tell."
I don't. Maybe this is confusion over what 'show don't tell' actually means. The way I've always taken it (and I believe, the way my creative writing teacher explained it to me my freshman year of highschool, and yes, I was blessed enough to have an actual creative writing class as a fourteen-year-old) is that you're meant to feel the emotion in your gut, so to speak. The language transcends the page and becomes a spell, working its power on the reader's body and mind. I've always seen 'voice' as falling easily into this category. To your point, voice is an excellent way of transmitting expository information because the transmission itself shows us something about the speaker. Voice is the simple acknowledgement that how someone reads off a grocery list can communicate gobs of information about their emotions, attitude, state of mind, etc.

So while I acknowledge that some people have taken this advice the wrong way, I never have. Maybe the phrase 'show don't tell' is dated or awkward, but I believe the principle it is digging at, that art is fundamentally about establishing an emotional link with your audience, holds true. Within the context of the advice, 'showing' is defined as the act of constructing language such that the audience cannot help but feel emotion, while telling is defined as authoritatively demanding the audience feel such emotions without ever eliciting them properly in the first place. Maybe this isn't relevant to the WF.com crowd, where nearly everyone is competent, but in a class of high schoolers, where at least half of the stories consisted of: "The monster came out of a portal. Jill and Max felt scared," it was very relevant.
 

bdcharles

Wɾ¡ʇ¡∩9
Staff member
Media Manager
I found this article in another thread. https://lithub.com/the-three-words-that-almost-ruined-me-as-a-writer-show-dont-tell/

It's unclearly written and somewhat bombastic, but the author makes a few interesting points.

I agree that, as writers, we should stop disciplining each other with the rod of "show don't tell."

Out of all the pieces I have posted to the workshop, the few that contained lengthy examples of telling received positive comments pertaining to "voice."
Dramatic writing can be beautiful, precise, high-resolution, lurid, etc. But it usually does not have a strong "voice."

Telling is fine, essential even. But showing has it's own place.

Let the voice flow.


There's overlap, sure. I think of the rule as "show versus tell". In my opinion you can, and sometimes should. tell with voice because you're also showing character (via the same voice). An example for me that works is the opening of A Tale of Two Cities - "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...".

I would however be wary of telling when there isn't much of a narratorial or POV voice. That's when the text can seem thin and bland which is what telling can result in, and why people are warned off it. That being said, I've just finished reading The Evening and the Morning by Ken Follett and there are examples of tell there, without any sort of voicey sheen. But it's part of his accessible style, plus he's got 26 novels under his belt so...

Earlier on, in the summer, I read Kane and Abel by Jeffrey Archer. I never thought it as possible to have a book that was 100% non-voiced tell but he managed it. I won't re-read it though. I suppose like anything it is about moderation, and using the right tool for the job. In fairness, I see a fair bit of advice saying just this - use both.
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
Earlier on, in the summer, I read Kane and Abel by Jeffrey Archer. I never thought it as possible to have a book that was 100% non-voiced tell but he managed it. I won't re-read it though. I suppose like anything it is about moderation, and using the right tool for the job. In fairness, I see a fair bit of advice saying just this - use both.

I know Archer has a laundry list of published work, but I read a couple and thought they were dry. Could be I got the bad ones, but that's the business. It was one strike more than I normally give an author.
 

Kehlida

Senior Member
I had trouble processing the idea of showing instead of telling for the longest time because I feel as if too many new writers want to follow all the rules, accept all the advice, and employ other writer's methods early on to somehow fast-track their own journey.

If you're too rigid and completely negate any form of "telling" from a full length novel is going to become tedious and bland, especially if it's told in the third person. Though, in a first person it's best to remove the filter of "telling" when possible. It helps connect with your characters as they experience the world mutually.
 

Tettsuo

WF Veterans
I found this article in another thread. https://lithub.com/the-three-words-that-almost-ruined-me-as-a-writer-show-dont-tell/

It's unclearly written and somewhat bombastic, but the author makes a few interesting points.

I agree that, as writers, we should stop disciplining each other with the rod of "show don't tell."

Out of all the pieces I have posted to the workshop, the few that contained lengthy examples of telling received positive comments pertaining to "voice."
Dramatic writing can be beautiful, precise, high-resolution, lurid, etc. But it usually does not have a strong "voice."

Telling is fine, essential even. But showing has it's own place.

Let the voice flow.
Voice is like the paint strokes of an artist. Some have long smooth strokes and other have shorter strokes. Although both artists are painting an apple, they're expressing the same image very differently. For writers, it's based on word choice, what you focus on, which metaphors your using. Voice would show through whether you're showing or telling, because it's a how of your writing and what you're expressing that shows who you are. How you write and how I write is very different, and voicey writers tend to lean into the things that make them who they are as artists.

I agree that some writers who give advice never touch on the other side of the show versus tell idea. Telling is important and has a place in writing, and all of the great writers tell. The skill of knowing when to show and when to tell is what separates those that are new to writing and those that are skilled.
 

luckyscars

WF Veterans
I feel like all of these debates are kind of missing the point. Good writing is writing that reads well.

Sometimes that is showing, sometimes it is telling.

More often than not, showing is better than telling.

But not always.

Like, just write it how you want and read it back and if it doesn't read well then change it up. It's that simple.

So long as you're not a medical moron and you read enough good quality writing (two hours a day every day, please) you can spot the difference pretty easily. I'm a borderline moron and I can. Everything kind of makes sense intuitively after awhile.
 

luckyscars

WF Veterans
I had trouble processing the idea of showing instead of telling for the longest time because I feel as if too many new writers want to follow all the rules, accept all the advice, and employ other writer's methods early on to somehow fast-track their own journey.

If you're too rigid and completely negate any form of "telling" from a full length novel is going to become tedious and bland, especially if it's told in the third person. Though, in a first person it's best to remove the filter of "telling" when possible. It helps connect with your characters as they experience the world mutually.

You're right, of course, but you know the problem with this, right?

The problem is people hear what you say -- that not all rules are sacred cows -- and interpret it as "SO THEREFORE THERE ARE NO RULES, ANYBODY WHO SAYS THERE ARE IS A SQUARE/FASCIST, AND I AM RIGHT".

They are then shocked and appalled when they can't get anything published.

It's the same as anything else that constitutes wisdom or knowledge. People feel the need to dwell on the exceptions, magnify those, and flick the bird at whoever came up with the rules as somehow telling them what to do as opposed to merely suggesting. There's a basic lack of common sense and critical thinking that goes into these things.

If you pick up the average modern-published, well-received, competently written story you will see that it blends both show and tell but that the important and relevant parts, where possible, are shown rather than told and that the writer will, usually, lean towards showing a scene where possible.

Why? Because it's usually better, that's why. There's a reason people don't read essays recreationally very often.
 

Jk_Sl

Senior Member
You're right, of course, but you know the problem with this, right?

The problem is people hear what you say -- that not all rules are sacred cows -- and interpret it as "SO THEREFORE THERE ARE NO RULES, ANYBODY WHO SAYS THERE ARE IS A SQUARE/FASCIST, AND I AM RIGHT".

They are then shocked and appalled when they can't get anything published.

It's the same as anything else that constitutes wisdom or knowledge. People feel the need to dwell on the exceptions, magnify those, and flick the bird at whoever came up with the rules as somehow telling them what to do as opposed to merely suggesting. There's a basic lack of common sense and critical thinking that goes into these things.

If you pick up the average modern-published, well-received, competently written story you will see that it blends both show and tell but that the important and relevant parts, where possible, are shown rather than told and that the writer will, usually, lean towards showing a scene where possible.

Why? Because it's usually better, that's why. There's a reason people don't read essays recreationally very often.

Hi, most definitely you are right.

J.
 

MistWolf

Senior Member
I just got the chance to read the article. The reality is, it has nothing to do with the axiom "Show. Don't Tell".

It's about the author being unable to tell her darkest secrets. It's about being caught in an abusive relationship for ten years and keeping it secret. I know what that feels like.

To the subject at hand- "Show. Don't Tell".

I do not like stories that just tell. That often involves telling me what conclusions I should draw and what emotions I should feel.

Stories that show without telling are also boring. They ramble and get nowhere.

When we show, we do so in a way that also tells. It should move the story forward and impart information to the reader. For example, if we show someone folding the front seat flat in their Rambler at a Drive-In movie, it also tells the reader a bit about the driver and the era.

When we tell, we should also show something about the world, the character, the story. If we tell the reader what movie is playing and how the characters react to it, it should show something about the characters and their personalities, even if just a brief one.

I think showing that tells is better than telling that shows. However, I'm not dead certain this is right. I do know, there is a place for both.

If this appears to blur the line between showing and telling, you're right. But I feel it's a good way to keep pushing the story forward without losing your reader.

I suppose a better maxim would be "Don't tell without showing. Show to tell".

Voice is independent of showing or telling. Voice is how the author writes. Even authors of the driest tech manual have voice.
 
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Llyralen

Senior Member
Using words to show not tell is kind of an oxymoron, isn’t it? There is probably a better way to say that somehow... like basically give the audience enough to explore on their own a bit and be able to draw some of their own conclusions yet I know that the conclusions I draw are different from the next person’s but how far does an author want to let that happen? Shakespeare usually lets the conclusions be completely up for grabs. His parameters for moralizing are only to agree that death is bad and love is good and maybe even that will turn out to be the reverse? Nevermind on any morals... we don’t know with Shakespeare what is good or bad. Like life. Shakespeare is such a realist. The piece from Merchant of Venice is showing us someone describing their emotions even while all words are telling. So describing any emotions or thoughts is showing and telling where if you didn’t describe more then it would be more like reporting.

So maybe instead of “show don’t tell” it should be “describe, don’t report” although even that is an oxymoron. Maybe “give detail to where you can walk with the character, and don’t be vague or generalize to the point of not being able to connect.”

But then, at the same time, if you have ever written in present tense you know that it gets ridiculous.... you don’t want a play-by-play of someone blowing their nose... although I make a challenge for someone to do that interestingly in the poet’s forum.... but “show don’t tell” is not the best phrase to let us know what is really needed. We do need a mix. You can get too detailed and you can also get too general, and knowing what to do where might take me a lifetime. Also... pacing is a part of this equation. Great pacing is an art form between detail and general or showing and telling. Skip the mundane or make the mundane interesting with detail.

I’m not sure if Voice comes from detail. I think it might come from the choice in detail plus tone of a piece. Basically... what does this character find interesting? What does Voice mean anyway? I’d say a clear attitude/clear character? Well-described (detail and choice of subject) thoughts emotions and opinions?

I think it was Indianroads who I was talking to about first person feeling invasive for him and for me I do need to kind of feel like I agree with the person in first person or else some of the things they do could make me feel tainted or affected. Basically I don’t want to be in someone’s head anymore. Or I might go so far exploring another mind just as an experiment but it might be tough. Well... voice can be too strong for some and back-fire. So sometimes voice can throw someone off. I love it when I find a voice that is strong that I truly like or maybe even love to hate? Everything is so much more complex than the rules. I guess it’s all more like Shakespeare. We don’t know what is good or bad... but here it is on a stage.
 
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Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
We do need a mix. You can get too detailed and you can also get too general, and knowing what to do where might take me a lifetime. Also... pacing is a part of this equation. Great pacing is an art form between detail and general or showing and telling. Skip the mundane or make the mundane interesting with detail.

Absolutely! There can be too much of a good thing. I find reading a piece that is 100% showing, can be exhausting.

It would be like going to a yoga class and doing only a series of tree pose, crow pose and headstands. No child's pose, downward dog or Shavasana...like playing a game of tennis when you are only allowed to hit winners...eating only filet mignon and chocolate cake for dinner.

Imagination is complimented with the mundane.


I’m not sure if Voice comes from detail. I think it might come from the choice in detail plus tone of a piece. Basically... what does this character find interesting? What does Voice mean anyway? I’d say a clear attitude/clear character? Well-described (detail and choice of subject) thoughts emotions and opinions?

Voice is hard to describe. There is so much that makes up a voice, like tone, syntax, diction, attitude...basically all the choices a writer makes.

But I think authors should, read, watch people, study history, follow politics, learn about economics and vocations, observe nature...contemplate life and whatever else interests them. And then when they write, they should only be doing one thing, listening to that voice as it speaks naturally and telling their story.

I agree with EternalGreen, let the voice flow! And don't get bogged down with rules or literary gymnastics.
 

bdcharles

Wɾ¡ʇ¡∩9
Staff member
Media Manager
Using words to show not tell is kind of an oxymoron, isn’t it? There is probably a better way to say that somehow...

So maybe instead of “show don’t tell” it should be “describe, don’t report” although even that is an oxymoron. Maybe “give detail to where you can walk with the character, and don’t be vague or generalize to the point of not being able to connect.”


Well put. I try and tell people: "Don't inform the reader what went down - make it happen with words."
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
Well put. I try and tell people: "Don't inform the reader what went down - make it happen with words."

Sometimes I don't do either. If a sequence of action seems too straightforward, I skip it. I'll catch the reader up in a sentence or a short paragraph, and move on.

Fritz Lieber used to tease readers like that. His story would OPEN with, Fafred and the Grey Mouser returned to Lanhkmar with the dragon's treasure, then ... onto the real story. :) He'd leave fascinating stuff covered with a sentence. You have to use your imagination. I intend to read all that stuff again one of these days. It's already waiting on my Kindle. Problem is, I have more stuff already waiting on my Kindle than I likely have years left to read it all. LOL
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
I believe 'voice' communicates mood, depth, and texture to both showing and telling.

Yes, but mostly I think "voice" carries an author's personality ... as applies to a single work (or series). Sometimes an author's voice is consistent throughout a career. Sometimes an author's voice--and this is getting to your point--morphs to the requirement of a particular story.

As examples: Ron Goulart is pretty much the same voice in every book. It's an entertaining voice, so he has an extensive bibliography. His voice is so unique that when the "Tekwar" series was published, ostensibly by William Shatner, I knew right away the books were ghost-written by Goulart. I checked back at the front of one of the books and saw acknowledgement to "assistance from Ron Goulart". My immediate response was, "Yeah, assistance by writing every word of every Tekwar book". LOL

On the other hand, compare Heinlein's "The Door into Summer" to "Glory Road" to "Starship Troopers" ... all three first person, and all three with utterly unique "voices". Goulart was an entertaining author. Heinlein was a master. Don't get me wrong. Some of Heinlein manifests in each work, but it doesn't dominate each work like Goulart's voice did.
 

bdcharles

Wɾ¡ʇ¡∩9
Staff member
Media Manager
Sometimes I don't do either. If a sequence of action seems too straightforward, I skip it. I'll catch the reader up in a sentence or a short paragraph, and move on.

Fritz Lieber used to tease readers like that. His story would OPEN with, Fafred and the Grey Mouser returned to Lanhkmar with the dragon's treasure, then ... onto the real story. :) He'd leave fascinating stuff covered with a sentence. You have to use your imagination. I intend to read all that stuff again one of these days. It's already waiting on my Kindle. Problem is, I have more stuff already waiting on my Kindle than I likely have years left to read it all. LOL

Yeah. It's tempting, when one is fully in love with all one's characters, to detail their every move in a manic relatability land-grab. And for early drafts I'd say that's not always a bad thing, it breathes life into them. But it can be very easy to overdo it imo.

Not read Fritz Leiber. That sounds like a pretty interesting approach.:)
 

luckyscars

WF Veterans
So maybe instead of “show don’t tell” it should be “describe, don’t report” although even that is an oxymoron. Maybe “give detail to where you can walk with the character, and don’t be vague or generalize to the point of not being able to connect.”

Again, I just think a lot of this can be resolved with critical thinking. By constantly asking the question 'what is the minimal amount that the reader needs to know to achieve what I am trying to achieve?"

There's no one size fits all answer to that question. Telling is almost always more efficient, showing is almost always more interesting. The instinctual response that underpins 'show don't tell' is that readers prioritize interest over efficiency. And that, in many ways, is true.

But...we have a story to write and, despite what people claim, word count is important. More important still is pacing. Eradicating tell entirely will result in either confusion or such pondering slowness while every single action is represented visually that you simply won't get there. Eradicating show will result in an infodump, a police report style narrative.

Another way to look at it is TELL is an interaction between the writer and the reader, whereas SHOW is an interaction between the reader and the character. In TELL you -- the writer -- are rendering a commentary. In SHOW you are rendering interpretation.

You NEED to grab the reader immediately. That is, generally, where 'show' comes in. But you also NEED to show a transition between the beginning and end of a scene or chapter that cannot, reasonably, go much over a few thousand words. You NEED to stay on target and be consistently moving.

So, the answer is to be selective and careful. The reason the 'minimal amount' matters is because time and attention is a form of cryptocurrency. You only get a certain amount from a reader and it's value is highly volatile. By addressing each sentence with a view to minimizing lag and writing it according to anticipated investment of that currency ("is this detail sufficiently important that I think the reader will be willing to invest what is needed?") you avoid the pitfalls.
 
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