Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Myths and Show vs Tell

Lately I was witness to an online writing class that propagated some misinformation and made my head explode. So I had to write a "rebuttal". The class was theoretically on "show versus tell" which is the writer axiom that you should "show" your reader the action or scene versus just telling them. More on that later.

So, anyway, this teacher equated telling with passive voice (NO relationship exists) and worse, equated passive voice with the use of past progressive verbs (NO relationship exists).

I was appalled because the creation and spread of "writer myths" only serves to confuse ingénue authors. It is a disservice and gives other online presenters a bad name.

So I am picking up the role of the grumpy grammarian—and this is a role to which I'm ill-suited. I'm not particularly good at this either. I mean, I've never been able to make sense of Strunk and White's "Elements of Style" so who am I to set myself up as an expert?

Well, I do check and double-check my information. And I've included the references I used to write this blog. They are at the bottom.

Note: a Tell is a gambling term meaning an involuntary or unconscious gesture, expression, or indication of what someone is thinking/planning. A tell telegraphs what an opponent has or is about to do.

In this article, a Tell is the hint or shortcut way to identify something. It should not be confused with "telling" as in "Show versus Tell". If you know what I mean. J

Here goes.

Myth 1: Show versus Tell

Definition:
Telling is bad, showing is good. Sometimes. Sometimes you need to tell when you just need to move the story along (or have length limits). Telling is to simply tell the reader what the character is feeling, i.e. she felt angry, rather than showing the reader, i.e. she screamed, stamped her foot, and threw a frying pan at his head in a burst of rage.

This has absolutely nothing to do with passive voice, verb tenses or the use of the much maligned word "was".

The Tell for Show versus Tell

Telling: Telling is almost always just an adjective or adverb, and it is a word or two long. Or a brief phrase. So it's really short. That's how you identify when you are telling and not showing.

Showing: Long, long, long. Takes at least a sentence and usually an entire paragraph to adequately show. May actually involve several paragraphs. It is how you "prove" the character is feeling/seeing/thinking something.

Examples

Telling, ex. 1

Terrified, she struggled with her assailant.

Telling, ex. 2

The garden was beautiful.

In the first sentence, you're telling us that she's terrified, but you've shown us nothing to make us feel her terror or prove that she's terrified. The writer might think that it's so obvious that she should be terrified if she's under attack that this brief description "says it all". But that's the seduction of telling and why it's so easy to tell versus show. Because it's efficient, particularly when dealing with the obvious.

This may be useful when you need to move a scene along, or when the scene only involves secondary, unimportant characters. But you can't always tell or your readers will never become engrossed enough in your characters to care about them. Your story will fall flat because you don't explore your character's views, feelings, perceptions, or surroundings.

In the second example, you're telling the reader that the garden is beautiful, but giving us no proof or indication that it is beautiful. Why is it beautiful? What's in the garden that makes it beautiful?

Showing

She panted in short gasps. Her arms shook as she gripped his wrist and pushed it upward. But he was strong—stronger than her—and his blade descended, closer and closer. Fear rippled through her as beads of icy sweat rolled down her sides. Her damp hands slipped a fraction. The tip was just an inch from her face. She was going to die. She could almost feel the cold, sharp metal plunging through her vulnerable eye into her brain. She blinked as if her fragile eyelid could stop that blade. Twisting, she desperately tightened her aching, trembling muscles, using her last ounce of strength to hold him off.

And so on.

In the second example, a description of the flowers in the garden, the style of gardening, and your character's opinion of the garden—what aspects she likes, for example—would show that the garden is beautiful and make it showing instead of telling.

See how long that showing paragraph was? That's the tell for showing. You are showing the reader how the character is feeling, why she is feeling it, what she's doing, and what she is thinking.

And it has absolutely nothing to do with verb tenses or passive voice.

Myth 2: "Was" + "-ing" verb is Telling

The use of was + a verb ending in –ing has absolutely nothing to do with showing versus telling—which involves how you describe your character's emotions or paint the scene. Equating "was" + "-ing" with telling is an incredibly misleading statement and perhaps the teacher of the online writing class just got carried away. Or said something she didn't really mean. It is perfectly acceptable to incorporate varied sentences including "was" + "-ing" verb forms while showing. Ironically, it would actually be hard to incorporate "was" + "-ing" verb forms into something that would be "telling" as opposed to "showing".

She was reading a book when she was attacked.

That's actually neither showing nor telling. The showing/telling point comes when you describe her reaction to this.

Telling

Terrified, she ran away.

Showing

She heard a noise and glanced up from her book, heart pounding. A man was running toward her. Light glinted off the knife in his hand. Who? How did he get in? Moving without thinking, she threw the book at him as she scrambled to her feet and sprinted toward the kitchen. If she could reach the back door, she could escape—she just had to make it make it that far. Just a few yards to the door

Unfortunately, the online teacher also compounded her misleading statement by claiming that was + a verb ending in –ing is passive voice which it is not. It is a progressive form of a verb showing a continuing action (versus an action which stopped already). As in the above example (which is showing) where: A man was running toward her.

And it isn't the verb form that identifies passive voice.

In fact, was + a verb ending in –ing is almost never passive. The only way to make it passive is to add the word "being" in between was and the verb as in: She was being hit.

Myth 3: Passive Voice and "Was" + Verb Ending in "-ing"

Definition: "Was" + verb ending in "-ing" is past progressive. Past progressive means the action is continuing. This verb form is often used to indicate some continuing action that occurs concurrent with some other action, i.e. She was thinking of work when the bus hit her. That sentence is active, not passive. The action of thinking was underway, continuing and concurrent with the action of the bus hitting her.

To break it down:

She was thinking of work when the bus hit her.

Active voice for both clauses: "She was thinking" and the adverbial clause "when the bus hit her".

"She" is taking the action of "thinking".

In the adverbial clause, the "bus" is taking the action of "hitting" the object of the action, "her".

She was thinking of work when she was hit by the bus.

This complex sentence has an active component and a passive adverbial clause.

Active clause: "She" is taking the action of "thinking".

Passive adverbial clause: "She" is both the subject and the object of the action. The action is "hit" and the doer of the action is the "bus". But the "bus" is not the subject. "She" is the subject. So the recipient (object) of the action is also the subject. That is what makes it passive.

Note: in that sentence you probably want the passive construction to keep the focus of the reader on the woman, rather than switching focus to the bus. Who cares about the bus except in the aspect of what it did to the woman?

And "was" + "-ing" verbs are not and will never be tells for telling versus showing. Past progressive is related to how you construct your sentence, not what your sentence is describing. Showing versus telling is about what your sentences are describing, not how the sentences are constructed.

Myth 4: Passive Voice and "Was"

Definition: Passive voice is where the subject of the sentence is the recipient (object) of the action, rather than the doer of the action. It has to do with the subject/object of the verb, not the particular verb form used. "Was" is much maligned. Writers need to get over the idea that using "was" is bad or always indicative of passive voice.

And get over the idea that passive voice is always bad while active is good. This is only sometimes true. Sometimes you need passive voice to retain the focus on the subject (i.e. your character) rather than changing the focus to an unimportant object. However, the reasons to use passive voice aren't the subject of this blog.

The Tell for Passive Voice

Passive Voice: Passive is indicated by the subject. Is the subject doing the action or the recipient (object) of the action?

Another way to look at it

She was hitting the bus. This is active. It is also past progressive.
And most likely, no one got hurt. The object of the action is the bus.

She was hit by the bus. This is passive. It is past and passive. And it is this form that gives "was" a bad rap, and why so many people assume that when you see "was" it is passive. But as you can see, "was" isn't a good tell, because the real tell is if the subject is also the object of the action. The subject and the object of the action are both the woman.

You'll notice that in order to make it passive, you have to remove the –ing verb and replace it. Hinting that "was" + "-ing" is rarely a passive construction.

I've written previous blogs about passive, so I won't go further into it at this point.

And, as promised, here are the references I used in writing this blog:

"Instant English Handbook" by Madeline Semmelmeyer and Donald Bolander

"Harbrace College Handbook" by John Hodges and Mary Whitten

"Plain English Handbook" by J. Martyn Walsh and Anna Kathleen Walsh *This is my favorite

"Creating Character Emotions" by Ann Hood

Good luck and don't believe everything you read on the Internet. Not even me. J

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

Clearest explanation I have heard in a long time. I might even beable to understand showing and telling a bit more now.

annmariegamble said...

Thanks so much for this! My favorite counterexample for never ever use the passive voice: "my mother birthed me in 1962" (instead of "I was born...").

And another fun handbook to learn some grammar: The Deluxe Transitive Vampire, which has more entertaining example sentences.

artlover said...

Great blog. AM self-editing my last book now, book fifteen, tentatively names Victoria's Visions.'Was' is one my bete noirs. Others are 'that' 'had' 'got' and I've a whole list of weak words. Isn't writing fun?

Gwen Hernandez said...

Bravo! You've articulated some of my own pet peeves very nicely. I've seen judges, class instructors, and CPs get this wrong repeatedly. Thanks!!

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

Fantastic insight and I thank you for posting it. I always worry when I use "was" so am glad I can relax a wee bit on that.

Amy said...

Thanks--I appreciate it. Let's just hope that some of the judges and critique partners out there read this and stop immediately going ballistic when they see the word "was". I've been beaten over the head about that in contests and it's more than a little irritating.

I think it stems from folks trying to take short cuts in "diagnosing" writing faults. But the shortest shortcut is understanding what you are reading. :-)

Signed, The Grumpy Grammarian
(Or is that, the Grumpy Wannabe Grammarian?)

Ginger Simpson said...

Thank you so much for posting this. I've been so confused about "was" and "ing" words. This was clearly written and easily understood. I WAS thinking about how much less confused I am. :)

Victoria Dixon said...

Seems like you got Strunk & White to me! :) Thanks!

Monya Clayton said...

Thanks, dear girl! I'm published but the last book was really punished by an editor. The most important aspect of any book is the story, and to be told to be picky about some words can ruin the flow.

I doubt whether readers even notice the grammar, unless it is bad. I believe mine is good; I was educated when English was taught properly and have read so extensively that (!!!) I have an automatic alarm system for grammar.

Not meaning I don't make mistakes! But the story is everything.

(And when I look at my first book again I see I used 'that' much too often.)

Helen Scott Taylor said...

Great explanation, Amy. These silly myths can lead new writers astray. Then it takes them ages to unlearn the bad advice. (And in the meantime they judge chapter contests and penalise other writers with their misconceptions.) It's frightening that an author giving a class has her facts so wrong.

Helen

Carol Goss said...

Thanks for posting this. As an English teacher for many decades and as a writer, these myths need to be exposed. I'm so tired of contest judges and editors who use them as criteria when they don't have a grasp of our native tongue.

Laurean Brooks said...

Thank you, Amy. I've been confused by these myths, and wondered why the best-known authors (according to these myths) constantly break the rules. And their stories are awesome!

Subconsciously, I think my writing style is a reflection of the books I read. So I could not figure why I was NOT allowed to do, it but the famous authors COULD.

That's where the confusion came in for me. LOL

Anonymous said...

I am going to have to print this all out as I was very overwhelmed by all the information. Grammar has never been my strong point, but I tend to focus on story elements, not grammar when I judge or critique. Occasionally, based on some "bad" teaching, I might have focused on the word "was" too often, but the first sentence of my third MS started with the word Was in it and it did very well on the contest circuit TG!

Skhye said...

Hi, Amy! I totally understand your frustration. Great post. Another way people can learn to spot TELLING is to use Jack Bickham's system of delivery... stimulus->internalization->reaction. I call this S-I-R.

Stimulus is external to the POV character, i.e. wind, a leaking boat, an angry ex-lover, the barrel of a gun. Stimulus will be filtered by the POV character and delivered to the reader but not as internalization, yet. Bias is in the adjectives. Ex: "The black boots clicked toward me across the icy stone floor." So, description of the stimulus can have adjectives that indicate a bias--what the POV character is picking up from his/her environment. We're in that POV character's head. Not a problem.

Internalization is internal. (Duh!) It is completely biased and reveals goals, motivation, and conflict line-by-freaking-line on how the POV character is confronted with new conflict and then logically rationalizes on how to handle it by mention of conflict/goal/motivation and leads into the resultant reaction. A+B=C. Logic. ;) Ex: "Had he seen me? Was it possible I could still hide? That murderer wouldn't be the end of me."

Reaction is the result of the POV character being forced to react to a stimulus. Ex: "I sank back into the shadows of the dark chamber."

Note, you don't even need to say the character's heart raced, drummed, etc. That's always superfluous TELLING if you get the characters emotions (goal/motivation/conflict) in the lines. ;)

SCENE & STRUCTURE by Jack Bickham

Huge prize: a cache of Time Guardian treasure. To enter, join me at:
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/skhyemoncrief/.

Skhye said...

Hi, Amy! I totally understand your frustration. Great post. Another way people can learn to spot TELLING is to use Jack Bickham's system of delivery... stimulus->internalization->reaction. I call this S-I-R.

Stimulus is external to the POV character, i.e. wind, a leaking boat, an angry ex-lover, the barrel of a gun. Stimulus will be filtered by the POV character and delivered to the reader but not as internalization, yet. Bias is in the adjectives. Ex: "The black boots clicked toward me across the icy stone floor." So, description of the stimulus can have adjectives that indicate a bias--what the POV character is picking up from his/her environment. We're in that POV character's head. Not a problem.

Internalization is internal. (Duh!) It is completely biased and reveals goals, motivation, and conflict line-by-freaking-line on how the POV character is confronted with new conflict and then logically rationalizes on how to handle it by mention of conflict/goal/motivation and leads into the resultant reaction. A+B=C. Logic. ;) Ex: "Had he seen me? Was it possible I could still hide? That murderer wouldn't be the end of me."

Reaction is the result of the POV character being forced to react to a stimulus. Ex: "I sank back into the shadows of the dark chamber."

Note, you don't even need to say the character's heart raced, drummed, etc. That's always superfluous TELLING if you get the characters emotions (goal/motivation/conflict) in the lines. ;)

SCENE & STRUCTURE by Jack Bickham

Huge prize: a cache of Time Guardian treasure. To enter, join me at:
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/skhyemoncrief/.

Anonymous said...

Now, if we could only send this to every contest judge...

Victoria Dixon said...

Thanks, Skhye! That makes excellent sense. I'll try to work some of that in next. Thanks also for the book suggestion. I've got it on request from the library now. :)

Anonymous said...

Im looking at buying an ebook reader from amazon and I need somebody to tell me the differences between the apple ipad and the kindle (I know the ipad isnt available on amazon yet [img]http://www.freesmileys4u.info/pics/O/e.gif[/img])

Sorry if this is in the wrong place, I'm new to this!

Victoria Dixon said...

The tablet will allow you to do a lot more than just read books. It has internet surfing, gaming, some word processing capabilities and lots of media-related goodies. You'll be able to do stuff as an extension of your reading. It's also in color. :)

Amy said...

Major differences between the Apple iPad and Kindle:

KINDLE
This is a dedicated e-book device with a specially designed display to make reading more comfortable with less glare. The type and display (e-paper) reduce glare and increase letter saturation to provide crisp, clear print. It is strictly black and white/shades of grey.

You can access the Internet through the browser, although it is not a rich experience.

New models do provide support for PDF files.

APPLE iPAD
Color display, but it is a standard display, which means reading is harder on the eyes. It is more akin to reading from a flat monitor computer.

Both are proprietary technologies and lock you into their respective venues.

The iPAD is really just a small laptop sans keyboard. Like a tablet.

Hope that helps.
Rich Internet browsing experience.

Victoria Dixon said...

Not quite. The tablet has a keyboard programmed into the touch screen. I doubt it's as good as a real keyboard, but it does have one.

Amy said...

Well, yes :-)that's what I was saying. It's like a tablet in many ways. Except most tablets have a real keyboard. The iPad does not. Some folks report that they find it uncomfortable if they want to type more than a few words. But others saythe virtual keyboard is just fine.
I think it's a matter of what you want, etc.
I, personally, don't find the iPad all that compelling. If I want a laptop (tablet, netbook, or any variety thereof) I'll get one with a real keyboard.
Since the screen is the same as any laptop/netbook/tablet, it's not that great for reading. But it is in color.
You just have to weigh the various pros and cons.
I should admit that I'm not a fan of Apple products in general due to pricing structures and their general philosopy...but I don't want to go into a rant, so I'll stop there. :-)