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When you show but don't tell (1 Viewer)

KeganThompson

Staff member
Board Moderator
oh boi...we know this is a big one in the writing community. Usually, newbie writers' info dump and they tell too much and don't show. What if you have the opposite problem? I like movies tv shows (and books) where there are a lot of hints especially when it comes to the characters. I try to mess with that in my stories, see how much I can get away with before a more direct statement needs to be made...
I think it's a combo of me trying too hard and/or me not presenting enough info because its already in my head and I don't realize its not as obvious to me as it is the readers. I struggle with backstory and exposition because I don't know where to put it and how to make it flow. I really like dialogue and I tend to opt out of exposition to tell more info with dialogue/ character interaction. With that said Its something I need to get better at and work on. The current piece I started is longer than the other shorts I've written because I wanted to practice pacing, scene structure, and narration. Since I started it from a burst of inspo, i'm kind of at a loss on how, where and what I want to write. At this point, I have reworked the opening multiple times and the rest of it is just word vomit at this point. I have done some plotting in my notebook but I think i'm going to write and rewrite scenes sloppily in my notebook to get the brain going. It has help in the past with edits and ideas.

Question: Should I write exposition and backstory on in its own doc and figure out how I want to work it in later? Any tips or tricks for that? 😬
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
I discussed a couple of days ago how much backstory, for even minor characters, I just read in a published book by a best-selling novelist. As much as we are cautioned about it, it isn't the deal-breaking mistake it's made out to be. It actually has me thinking about reintroducing three sections of backstory (about five pages total) I sliced out of my first novel. LOL

Not all backstory is a drag on the narrative. If it's interesting and compelling, and/or provides information a reader NEEDS to know to set up characters and events, it should be there. The "and/or" doesn't work both ways. The backstory doesn't HAVE to set up character and future plot points, but it should ALWAYS be interesting and compelling ... like everything else we write should be.

This isn't a blank check to dive into backstory and write on and on. Everything in moderation. ;-)
 
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KeganThompson

Staff member
Board Moderator
I discussed a couple of days ago how much backstory, for even minor characters, I just read in a published book by a best-selling novelist. As much as we are cautioned about it, it isn't the deal-breaking mistake it's made out to be. It actually has me thinking about reintroducing three sections of backstory (about five pages total) I sliced out of my first novel. LOL

Not all backstory is a drag on the narrative. If it's interesting and compelling, and/or provides information a reader NEEDS to know to set up characters and events, it should be there. The "and/or" doesn't work both ways. The backstory doesn't HAVE to set up character and future plot points, but it should ALWAYS be interesting and compelling ... like everything else we write should be.

This isn't a blank check to dive into backstory and write on and on. Everything in moderation. ;-)
I have back story that's relevant, I just dont know where and when to add it in and how much, each piece depends on where the character is currently at in the story. I find it much easier to give context through dialogue then lengthy exposition and narration but I need to do that too (in moderation). Maybe my problem is... i'm stuck with this one and i'm tryin to get unstuck. I was thinking about writing down the back story separately to remember the full idea and change it if needed.. put place holders where i think it should go in my draft , come back to it later. Idk. I'm not sure what i'm doing exactly. Maybe I just need to rethink this one as a whole.
 

Ralph Rotten

Staff member
Mentor
oh boi...we know this is a big one in the writing community. Usually, newbie writers' info dump and they tell too much and don't show. What if you have the opposite problem? I like movies tv shows (and books) where there are a lot of hints especially when it comes to the characters. I try to mess with that in my stories, see how much I can get away with before a more direct statement needs to be made...
I think it's a combo of me trying too hard and/or me not presenting enough info because its already in my head and I don't realize its not as obvious to me as it is the readers. I struggle with backstory and exposition because I don't know where to put it and how to make it flow. I really like dialogue and I tend to opt out of exposition to tell more info with dialogue/ character interaction. With that said Its something I need to get better at and work on. The current piece I started is longer than the other shorts I've written because I wanted to practice pacing, scene structure, and narration. Since I started it from a burst of inspo, i'm kind of at a loss on how, where and what I want to write. At this point, I have reworked the opening multiple times and the rest of it is just word vomit at this point. I have done some plotting in my notebook but I think i'm going to write and rewrite scenes sloppily in my notebook to get the brain going. It has help in the past with edits and ideas.

Question: Should I write exposition and backstory on in its own doc and figure out how I want to work it in later? Any tips or tricks for that? 😬


First off, there are lots of ways to show...besides having the narrator do it. My favorite is to show thru the eyes of a character. How your character reacts to things like their surroundings tells you a lot about the scene as well as the character.

examples:

"What is this place?" Gina's voice was uncertain as she watched a cockroach slither across the toe of her shoe. Without meaning to, she gave an involuntary shudder at the filthy conditions.

or...

"What is this place?" Ignoring the cockroach that clambered across his shoe, Dylan was more focused on the why of the moment. Why had Eliza brought him to this foul place? And more importantly...why would a lady like her even know about an armpit like this?

See, both passages told us that the place is a shithole, but we learned it by THEIR reactions. At the same time we also learned that Gina is pretty whitebread, and Dylan is no stranger to shitholes.
 

Ralph Rotten

Staff member
Mentor
Also note that I did these details DURING dialog.
If your dialog is "..." said Dave, then you likely have too much white-space in your dialog.
White space is a fancy way of saying that your dialog may be underdeveloped.
Dialogue is for more than just talking.
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
I have back story that's relevant, I just dont know where and when to add it in and how much, each piece depends on where the character is currently at in the story. I find it much easier to give context through dialogue then lengthy exposition and narration but I need to do that too (in moderation). Maybe my problem is... i'm stuck with this one and i'm tryin to get unstuck. I was thinking about writing down the back story separately to remember the full idea and change it if needed.. put place holders where i think it should go in my draft , come back to it later. Idk. I'm not sure what i'm doing exactly. Maybe I just need to rethink this one as a whole.
Just write it and get the experience. When you read it back later, see if it reminds you of writing you like, or if it feels off. You can't always know these things until you try them out, and this stuff is written in bytes, not stone. ;-)
 

KeganThompson

Staff member
Board Moderator
First off, there are lots of ways to show...besides having the narrator do it. My favorite is to show thru the eyes of a character. How your character reacts to things like their surroundings tells you a lot about the scene as well as the character.

examples:

"What is this place?" Gina's voice was uncertain as she watched a cockroach slither across the toe of her shoe. Without meaning to, she gave an involuntary shudder at the filthy conditions.

or...

"What is this place?" Ignoring the cockroach that clambered across his shoe, Dylan was more focused on the why of the moment. Why had Eliza brought him to this foul place? And more importantly...why would a lady like her even know about an armpit like this?

See, both passages told us that the place is a shithole, but we learned it by THEIR reactions. At the same time we also learned that Gina is pretty whitebread, and Dylan is no stranger to shitholes.
I write in first person and I do okay with showing...my telling isnt great, I'm not the best at implementing back story and context, especially in chunks of narration because I always prefer dialogue between characters....probably my inner movie goer lol
 

Ralph Rotten

Staff member
Mentor
I write in first person and I do okay with showing...my telling isnt great, I'm not the best at implementing back story and context, especially in chunks of narration because I always prefer dialogue between characters....probably my inner movie goer lol

You ONLY write in first person?
:rolleyes:

Look, you are free to write however you choose, but looking over your responses I see something very common among new writers: You are closed off to feedback.
Re-read your responses and you will notice that you do a point-by-point rebuttal of whatever the other person said. You dismiss their advice by indicating that you do things differently.

I bring this up because being closed to feedback will cause you to develop slowly as a writer. It is actually very common. Ask any of the multi-published authors in this forum and they will tell you they did it at some point in their writing career. Mine lasted for years. I would get someone to read my stuff, then argue with them about how much they liked it. Instead of learning from the feedback, I would dig in deeper.

Tis why I keep a whole drawer of rejection letters...to remind me to not be THAT guy.
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
Mine lasted for years. I would get someone to read my stuff, then argue with them about how much they liked it. Instead of learning from the feedback, I would dig in deeper.
I did the same thing, but I wasn't in a place like this where I could discuss things with other experienced writers. I was getting feedback from people who didn't know any more about writing than I did. All I was getting was "taste chatter", not experienced discussion and critique.

So virtually all of my development came from study and then applying the study to what I'd already written. All the study came from mystery about whether what I'd written stood up after applying educated standards. Some of it did, and I learned and adapted where it didn't.

Outside of "taste chatter" is "style imposition". Style Imposition is a tricky area. There is sometimes a thin line between correcting technique and imposing our personal style. I was lucky in that I was never tempted to be influenced by someone else's Style Imposition, and once I tipped to that element of critique, I try very hard not to do it myself. The rest of the writing world shouldn't write in my style, and vice versa.

An example is the way I write dialogue. I use a dialogue tag once in a blue moon, probably because I'm nervous about overloading dialogue with trite dialogue tags. LOL If I'm not sure I'm going to do it well, I use something I'm confident I can. If I think a reader might be about to lose track of the speaker, I throw in some incidental action to keep it lined up. I gave an example of that recently and someone dismissed it as "wordy". It wasn't ... you find that device used by good authors all over the place ... that was simply "taste chatter". But that's part of my style, and if I changed style for every comment like that, I'd wind up with an intolerable mishmash of pusillanimous drivel.

The upshot of all this is I DO encourage writers to study like crazy and apply it to their own writing, which I believe helps them to learn specifically what they need in areas of improvement, develop their own style, and have confidence in that style.
 

KeganThompson

Staff member
Board Moderator
You ONLY write in first person?
:rolleyes:
I have only written in first pov yes, but I am open to writing in third. I told you I write in first because your examples, though great, wasn't exactly what I was asking for and would be a bit different when writing in first.
Look, you are free to write however you choose, but looking over your responses I see something very common among new writers: You are closed off to feedback.
Re-read your responses and you will notice that you do a point-by-point rebuttal of whatever the other person said. You dismiss their advice by indicating that you do things differently.
I disagree, I am not closed off to feedback, I take it all the time I ask for it quite often. and I've gotten much better for it. I didn't mean it to sound like a rebuttal because I totally agree with Vranger on the points he made, I was just trying to be more specific with my problems to get more honed in advice on what to do. After rereading what I wrote I see how it came off that way. So I apologize @vranger if you thought I was dismissing you.

Actually one of the reasons why I brought it up was due to some of my feedback regarding the LM challenge and other works as well, where people had a hard time understanding the context because I wasn't direct enough. I'm having a hard time with the story I'm referring to in the post in general, thats why I said I should rework the thing.

I agree with you when it comes to being closed off to feedback, and I'm not, you jumped to a conclusion, which I admit was partially my fault for not expressing myself well.

feel free to disagree
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
So I apologize @vranger if you thought I was dismissing you.
Not at all. It's a discussion, not a set of orders. :) You have to take the discussion you read and resolve it against where you think your skills are, and your decisions about your own expression. Sometimes these discussions CAN focus on technique that needs to improve, but often they simply make us consider what we do and decide how it relates to our own writing, or doesn't.
 

KeganThompson

Staff member
Board Moderator
Not at all. It's a discussion, not a set of orders. :) You have to take the discussion you read and resolve it against where you think your skills are, and your decisions about your own expression. Sometimes these discussions CAN focus on technique that needs to improve, but often they simply make us consider what we do and decide how it relates to our own writing, or doesn't.
Yeah...I think I ended up replying to what I was thinking ATM than actually replying to you. I have come to you about my exposition struggles before...maybe I'm just over thinking it.
Or just become a screen writer since I just love dialogue so much. Lol 😆
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
Yeah...I think I ended up replying to what I was thinking ATM than actually replying to you. I have come to you about my exposition struggles before...maybe I'm just over thinking it.
Or just become a screen writer since I just love dialogue so much. Lol 😆
Bear in mind that First Person is an ENTIRELY different animal from various Third PoVs. Because you can ONLY relate incidents your MC witnesses, dialogue they take part in or overhear, and only their own internal dialogue, there is a LOT of license for backstory and other exposition which might be considered a negative in Third.

First Person IS advanced writing. The author bears the burden of how to bring offstage events into the story, PLUS they must keep the narrative dripping with personality. So you're presented extra challenges in both plotting and style. But you DO get to go off into lengthy monologues which would be criticized as info dumps in Third, and it's expected. Stop in the middle of action for the MC to remember an episode from their past? Happens in every first-person novel I've ever read.

But like I mentioned above, you DO take on the burden of making those monologues compelling. Most of this comes from me as a reader, because I've got one 100K novel in first, and I'm 14K into my second. I've got those monologues all over the place, and my strategy for keeping them fresh is to drop in as much humor as comes to mind. I can't do humor in every one, but they need some interesting quality. Info dump about a city? Throw in some mood activity that goes along with it. History? Give some personal observations about it.

It's there to do, but IMO I have to stretch my imagination more writing First than Third to get the same interest factor. It gets easier once I'm able to dive deep into the voice of my narrator.
 
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KeganThompson

Staff member
Board Moderator
Bear in mind that First Person is an ENTIRELY different animal from various Third PoVs. Because you can ONLY relate incidents your MC witnesses, dialogue they take part in or overhear, and only their own internal dialogue, there is a LOT of license for backstory and other exposition which might be considered a negative in Third.
yeah, when writing first the perspective is very limited haha that's why I've thought about writing dual pov (another main character in first lol)
First Person IS advanced writing. The author bears the burden of how to bring offstage events into the story, PLUS they must keep the narrative dripping with personality. So you're presented extra challenges in both plotting and style. But you DO get to go off into lengthy monologues which would be criticized as info dumps in Third, and it's expected. Stop in the middle of action for the MC to remember an episode from their past? Happens in every first-person novel I've ever read.
Considering most of the books I've read (all lately) is in the first person, you'd think I'd be more comfortable with writing backstory and exposition. I've consumed more movies and tv than books and I think that's why I'm hesitant because there is little to no internal dialogue when it comes to that kind of storytelling. Maybe I just need let go and do a big long info dump and then clean it up later lol
Its funny you say writing first IS advanced writing because I'm over here thinking...how would I even narrate in 3rd POV? (It'd be limited 3rd for sure) but its still so different than first I'm like 🤷‍♀️ 🤷‍♂️ replace "I" with "he/she" and call it a day? 😂 jk
But like I mentioned above, you DO take on the burden of making those monologues compelling. Most of this comes from me as a reader, because I've got one 100K novel in first, and I'm 14K into my second. I've got those monologues all over the place, and my strategy for keeping them fresh is to drop in as much humor as comes to mind. I can't do humor in every one, but they need some interesting quality. Info dump about a city? Throw in some mood activity that goes along with it. History? Give some personal observations about it.
One thing I have trouble with and need practice on is going off on a tangent but then reeling it back to what is going on currently, so that way it doesn't feel sudden/ out of place. Idk what I'm doing with my plot so that doesn't help lol
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
One thing I have trouble with and need practice on is going off on a tangent but then reeling it back to what is going on currently, so that way it doesn't feel sudden/ out of place. Idk what I'm doing with my plot so that doesn't help lol
Your tangent is a little story that bears on the main story in some way. So it should have a point that relates ... make that point, including whatever information was necessary, and it's done. I was just thinking as I read your post that in the 14K words in the current first-person novel, my monologues have no backstory at all. They're all about his thoughts and feelings about what's "currently going on". The little bit of backstory is dialogue aimed at giving him the background of the family and family business where the murder has occurred. Whatever backstory I've already written will have to be it. I've got 195 plot points in my Scrivener Corkboard, and in 14K words I've only used 20 of them. LOL

Since I'm aiming at more like 85-90K for a mystery than 140K, I'm going to have to stick pretty closely to those plot points, so the reader is going to learn NOTHING about my MC's childhood and things like that. :) What's going to save me from going over the word budget is: my later note cards give a much more complete "blow by blow" of the story than my early ones. So far I've been filling in a lot of blanks, particularly dialogue which introduces the scenario and characters. The story should be much more compact vis a vis the notes as I continue.
 

KeganThompson

Staff member
Board Moderator
Have you tried simply writing everything you want to write and then going back and cutting what you don't need?
I should give that a go... I'm got a good idea of the back story it's just the plot itself I'm like uhhh idk 🤷🏼‍♀️ the plot keeps changing so it will effect how I will implement my backstory. Which isn't helping my problem. Been trying to plot more...hope to get this sorted soon before I just drop the whole thing 😆
 

Tettsuo

WF Veterans
I should give that a go... I'm got a good idea of the back story it's just the plot itself I'm like uhhh idk 🤷🏼‍♀️ the plot keeps changing so it will effect how I will implement my backstory. Which isn't helping my problem. Been trying to plot more...hope to get this sorted soon before I just drop the whole thing 😆
I started out as an under-writer, then recently I've developed into an over-writer. Lots of redundant sentences that all need to be culled. Point being, so long as I've finished the manuscript, I can cull later... goal being COMPLETING a manuscript. It's far more meaningful to work on polishing a finished draft, then to struggle to finish a draft.
 

Non Serviam

WF Veterans
OK, so, in the platonic ideal of a piece of writing, you show and don't tell. But showing eats up a lot of word-count, and telling is something you can do in a quick aside. Sometimes you've got to tell so as to keep your story moving.

This problem is at its most acute for writers of speculative fiction. You're in an alternative world with different rules, and the reader needs to know what the rules are. That's the whole point of spec fic. And in any world of sufficient complexity to be interesting, you cannot show it all. At some point you have to tell.

So do it in small, palatable amounts. Tuck in the key information, here and there, during the scenes that keep the story flowing. It's an art. Use footnotes if that's your style.
 
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