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Katzaniel

Show vs Tell, an Essay

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((A note on intent: This is my opinion - an essay. It's not really meant to teach or instruct except near the end where I attempt to give some advice on applying this. Indeed, I am hoping that it provokes a discussion and that is why it is in the Cabaret room instead of anywhere else.))
My husband has been re-reading the earlier Wheel of Time books and when we went on a recent long car ride, we got Lord of Chaos on audiobook and we both listened as we drove. And as I listened, I realized that in my opinion, Robert Jordan takes "Show, don't tell" too far. (Or perhaps misunderstands the intent of that advice.) Now, I realize that my opinion isn't the only valid one here, and I will get into more detail on the opposing ends of the spectrum and what it might mean in a story, but I do believe that at the very least, this example shows that it's possible to take it too far. Certainly, the length of the Wheel of Time books is widely criticized and I think that this is at least a part of that.
Without getting into details, there was a scene wherein the point-of-view character was waiting, watching others read through papers, and getting bored. This is a scene that could have been summarized after the fact, or skimmed over, or covered with certain parts rushed, or - as Robert Jordan chose to do - described at length. Rather than telling us that the character was bored, the author chose to show us that she was bored by describing the reasons for her tedium in detail. When something suddenly happened that made things interesting, it put some perspective to why this scene was in the book at all, but still I felt that he should have chosen to gloss over the first part of this scene.
The question of which scenes to include in a story, how much background to cover, and what order to describe things used to baffle me. I knew that there were good and bad ways to do it, but nothing about how to evaluate my options. I won't claim that I'm an expert now, but I've gained some perspective on this matter in the past five years or so. Ironically, much of that learning did not happen by reading or writing. It happened by running tabletop games.
If you're not familiar with tabletop games, here's a quick explanation. One person, the Game Master (GM) is basically in charge of entertaining several other players, who each control a Player Character (PC). PCs are very similar to point-of-view characters in a story: they are supposed to be the ones who the story revolves around. Sometimes they control the flow of events and sometime things happen to them, but the story is most interesting from their point of view. So the GM is usually in charge of describing the world: people, culture, physical laws of the universe (e.g, whether/how magic works) and so on. The players describe how their PC wants to interact with the world, and the GM determines the results of those actions. In some games, the players are given more power over narrative results than in other games, but it's been my experience that if the GM doesn't have any story in mind at all, the game isn't as interesting. On the other hand, if the GM is too determined for the story to go in a particular way and doesn't allow the PCs any control at all, then that's a problem too. That part is less useful for a single author planning a story, but I'll explain in a moment why I think it isn't a completely negligible factor, either.
Now, it used to be that my friends and I played a certain style of game where we always tried to account for every moment that occurred in the game. (This is the first end of the spectrum: not necessarily a bad thing, but one extreme.) Everything was chronological and if the PCs were travelling for eight hours to get to a destination, we would roll dice for every couple of hours to see if they randomly encountered some resistance. We would worry over whether they had brought enough food, how much they could carry, who kept watch, or even what order they walked or rode in. Again, I repeat: this isn't necessarily bad - but we didn't know there was any other way. The thing is, this end of the spectrum sets a specific tone to the story. It's gritty and focussed on survival.
We played a few other types of games over the years, but although the setting changed, our style didn't vary much. Again, we didn't realize there was any other way. That is, until I was reading a GM guide for a very recent system and it talked about what a game in that system was expected to look like. Every session of play was supposed to focus on a plot element: an episode of a show; a chapter in a book. Play revolved around scenes: you resolve one plot element, and then move on. If the players are travelling, the GM should ask themselves whether there's anything to be gained by having them encounter opposition during their travels. If so, a scene starts directly as the action starts. If not, eight hours of travel are skipped over. The GM is told to "zoom in" on interesting moments in time and "zoom out" on less interesting ones. As you have probably guessed, this is the other end of the spectrum; the other extreme. The tone here is cinematic and focussed on action. (That's not completely true: it's focussed on whatever you want it to be, whichever things you slow down for and treat as scenes. Usually action or story.)
One problem with the hour-by-hour method is that it can get boring. For my own preference, I have moved away from that extreme considerably. However, there's also a big problem with the scene-by-scene method in that players get upset when things are skipped over. "Why are we jumping into this fight scene?", one might say. "I would have been keeping better watch than to be surprised by that." Or, "What? We're travelling already? But I wanted to go shopping before we left." I think that's valid, and so I don't go to far into this other extreme, either. If the players want to role-play a visit to the market, I let them. But if it turns out not to be about the role-playing (character development) and it's not about progressing the plot either, I try to hurry them along. We don't need to haggle for every last bit of currency every single time you buy something; your character is good at that sort of thing and we can assume you get a good deal. Of course, you also want to let your PCs be awesome. If they have some clever trick they want to play on the shopkeeper that showcases something about the PC, you should do it.
I'm getting away from writing a bit here, but it's very similar, I think. You want to consider why you are writing each scene, but you don't want to skip too much, either. And when I talk about players complaining that their character is being assumed to do something (or why the GM isn't the only one to control the story), that's relevant too. It's relevant to any author who has ever sat down to write a scene with a specific outcome in mind, and discovered that the characters wouldn't act accordingly. Your character takes on a life of their own as you write, and suddenly you realize that this action you had planned for them is simply not something they would do. So there's danger in trying to skip too much. You either need to re-write part of that character's personality, or allow a portion of your plot to be flexible. If a character's actions are uncertain, or if they can't be summed up quickly without sacrificing character development, then there's a good reason to "zoom in" and describe the scene in detail. But if all you're doing is painstakingly cataloguing how they spent every hour, then you might want to consider glossing over it.
Okay, so how do you know whether or not to include a scene? That has to be a decision that you make yourself, but my most recent thoughts on this are that every scene should do one of the following things:
  • Advance the plot.
  • Allow a character to grow or develop or allow the reader to better understand a character's motivations.
  • Explain how or why something happened. (Especially if the the reader would be confused without it.)
  • Allow a character to be awesome. This is distinct from development: the reader might already know that a character is supposed to be really good at certain things, but it's still exciting to see them show it off. Especially if you've spent a lot of time allowing the character to improve to that point. Zoom out, or show-don't-tell, whatever you want to call it: but let the reader revel in it.
I would suggest, then, not including it as its own scene if no one learns anything, no one gets to be cool, nothing is explained, and nothing happens that can't be summarized in another scene. It's a guideline, at least.
Finally, before I close off, I'd like to talk a little bit about the ordering of scenes. In particular, where do you start your story? Well, this might not help you, but it recently helped me considerably: What is the main thrust of the story? Sure, things may have happened years ago that set things up and allowed this to happen. But what is happening right now that is making a story? If years pass between events, then consider either 1) just writing more than one book, or 2) having old things happen in flashbacks. This might sound obvious to you, but when I first tried to write On Distant Soil, I began by covering several scenes that set things up, but that happened when the point of view characters were children, and then I zoomed forward several years. When I started to re-write it, I made the considerable improvement of skipping those scenes, but for some reason, I thought I had to leave them out entirely. They're flashbacks, so they don't have to be chronological in order to be included. They explain quite a bit about why the characters grew up to be who they are now. So I've been going through the story and re-inserting them at appropriate times. Now I start as the action starts, I introduce the characters in the present, and I set the tone of the story I'm about to tell. I don't leave the reader confused, but I don't give them all the details all at once, either. Once I've done all that, then, I rewind and explain how this happened. Not all at once, but a single flashback scene every so often at appropriate times during the novel, and then back into the story I'm telling.
All right, I'm done. If you have a different opinion or want to expand on anything, I'd love to hear it.

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I really like this. As a GM, I adhere strictly to what I call the Rule of Awesome -- if it increases the Net Awesomeness of the gaming experience, I try to make it happen. I apply this rule when we're talking character concepts, when I lay out the House Rules, and any time somebody says "I want to do <some ridiculous stunt.> Can I do that?"

 

It also plays in during Scene Selection -- does it make the gaming experience more Awesome in some way? Playing out a shopping scene CAN increase the net Awesomeness by increasing the sense of immersion -- especially if done at location that serves as a plot hub, as it allows you to make the shopkeeper into a recurring NPC. It can serve as a means of conveying valuable information about the local goings-on.

 

If I don't think it serves to make the game more fun in any way, I skip it. Same thing with Random Encounters -- a lot of times, I'll dispense with them. Usually, I just bring them out once in a while at fairly random intervals to keep people from feeling as though the world is safe and devoid of threats.

 

On the other hand, Random Encounters can serve as a very effective way of driving home the idea of being in hostile territory. If the players know that it's up the dice whether their characters are going to get a full night of uninterrupted sleep, it instantly instills a sense of stress and paranoia that can be very difficult to create by other means. Players may not enjoy it, but done to the correct extent it can increase the level of immersion and provide opportunities for more -- and greater -- triumphs.

 

I suppose that's the way I feel about writing as well. "Does this chapter/scene/line/character serve a function? Does it have any drawbacks? Can I think of a way that is more effective or has fewer drawbacks?"

 

On the whole, I like your list of criteria for whether a scene needs to be included. The really cool scenes tend to do more than one -- for example, advancing the plot while showcasing a character's awesomeness (outsmarting and thwarting the evil mastermind, for example,) or furthering a character's evolution while laying the seeds for future developments (which could mean anything from an uncharacteristic show of compassion to a training montage at a Fancy Pants Wizard's College, among other things.)

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I think I get the idea here, I like what you two are saying. I wonder if that part about "zooming in" is from Legendary? In any case, this is stuff I don't really think about haha. I tend to just kinda... write, without putting much thought into it. I should really try and take this advice to heart; there's lots of good points here.

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Jordan, until him, I thought no one could get emersed in so much detail as King - I swear I've read a book of his where he takes, something like, 2 pages to describe a candy wrapper blowing by.

 

I agree with pretty much everything you put forth. There are times extreme detailis needed and there are times when a quick gloss over will suffice. But, I'm like BPO, MOST of my writing is spur of the moment, stream of thought, 1 draft stuff - I start rewriting and I NEVER finish.

 

On the game front, I was always one to roll for a chance something may happen and go from there. Nothing happens? Give a brief synopsis of that part and skip ahead.

 

In the end, I believe it's up to each inividual to decide what they 'feel' should or shouldn't be included - doesn't mean they'll be right though!

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I'm not sure what Legendary is - it might cover that, but I happened to get it from Fate.

 

I never thought much about "which scenes to include" until I started trying to organize a whole novel, and then suddenly it mattered a lot. So that's probably part of it.

 

Totally agree about it being up to each individual. (Although certainly, if you're running a table top game and the players don't get a say, you'll hear it from them in other ways...)

 

Oh, and there was something else I had wanted to mention about ordering: if the "start of the story" isn't obvious in terms of, "just before the main character embarks on his/her quest" or "just before the wizard shows up" or whatever, you might also consider "just before people start getting awesome" because it's nice to be able to witness the characters start in their natural environment and then learn through challenges to be better than they were before.

 

Now I just have to figure out how to apply that to my next thing (which is already bubbling in my head).

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No wait, Legendary isn't a thing, I was thinking the Marvel RPG. The way you described it seemed to fit the way it works. Anyways. The odd time when I'm running tabletop games, I tend to think of an over-reaching story arc, and major events within that arc. There are usually places I'd like my players to do, but ultimately it ends up being more about making a world and let them run around in it. As such, I've found that it doesn't work really well if you try and force their hand, so you have to be prepared to adapt to what they want to do. Unfortunately, I think I've fallen victim to the "day-by-day" narrative style though. Although I do enjoy the randomness of consulting a chart and saying "okay, now this happens". It may not always be that relevant to a story, but I think that's kinda like life in that we're not really following a set story, and as such sometimes random stuff just happens. The next time I GM something, I'll also be keeping these notes in mind.

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I think Marvel does that too, yeah. I haven't read through the GM's guide, but it's very similar to Fate, which I have.

 

I think you're right, and this is part of the reason I don't entirely succumb to Fate's scene-by-scene style... it doesn't allow for the flexibility of having an arc and allowing the players to explore it, which is super fun. It takes an experienced/flexible GM to be able to sit down at the table and let their players do *anything* but I do tend to have a few "random-ish" encounters planned that I might throw in to slow a group down if they go in an unexpected direction, so that I can do a little more thinking after the session and before they arrive at their destination. Gaming groups tend to like combat, after all. But I learned the hard way about setting up a dungeon and just expecting the players to explore it for no good reason. In Fate, you can just sort of toss them in there and say, "This is what this episode is about"... but I don't think that means you should. Then again, Fate is really good about letting the players have a hand in what the world looks like, so it probably wouldn't happen like that. It works well if you have a skeleton of a world planned and a few partially sketched-out plans for episodes and you let the players guide you toward what they're interested in doing based on what they start to explore.

 

But I don't any of that is relevant to single-authored story writing, unfortunately.

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When it comes to games, I tend to have my 'world' in sections and have a list of possible occurances for each. I find that this helps when players go 'out-side-the-lines'. I always figured that scenes I want to happen will happen when the players stumbled upon them. Having a, somewhat, predetermined situation for each section helps with game flow. I'm not saying that certain events WILL happen in any given section, just that I have several that are POSSIBLE for each. One possiblity is that nothing will happen - that's when I give a brief narrative and move on.

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