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Tell, don't Show

Jeff Potts

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So, I had an interesting discussion with one of my beta readers last night.


The novella I'm working on has a couple chapters where the main characters explore a tomb.  Of the entire novella, these chapters were the more problematic of the book.  Both beta readers had issues with trying to imagine the tomb.  Moy wife (beta reader #1) had to actually draw a map of the thing to keep it straight in her head.  And, I guess I described it well enough, as the map she drew matched the imagery in my head.


Bot, obviously, there's a problem.  Two out of two beta readers with the same issues on the same chapters?  There's an issue.


As we were talking about it, the second beta reader said this (and I'm paraphrasing here), "It's like, you were showing when you probably should have been telling."  I had a chance to think about it this morning, and I believe she is correct.


I know I posted an excellent video (in my estimation) about Showing, Not Telling.  However, in this situation, I think I've found the tattered fringe of that rule.

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I'd suspect it's much more a guideline than a rule. A better way to say it might be, "Show when you can, tell when you have to". (I've noticed lots of life's "rules" really boil down to, X when you can, Y when you have to...) You've just found a "have to..."


I've read a number of books that may contain a map, a floor plan, or some other sort of diagram, because understanding position is crucial. Even that's risky though, as I've known many people who can't follow diagrams or maps, so even showing one may not help. I'd imagine that some readers won't bother trying to draw out their own.


It might depend on your intended audience. The mystery genre will pretty much weed out most readers who can't visualize or follow a diagram, so I've seen a fair number of mystery novels that include a floor plan, e.g., Murder on the Orient Express. The intended audience is up to it. Going up a level, some stories include maps and such, just as an enhancement, rather than necessity. So, stories like The Hobbit and LOTR each have maps which enhance the story, though they can be read and enjoyed by readers who can't follow a map at all, and don't bother with 'em.


It could be that either your intended audience must have that ability to visualize, or it might be possible to rework things so they don't need to visualize precisely.

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4 minutes ago, Spaulding said:

@Jeff Potts

Since it's a novella, won't you be using an illustration on the cover or at the beginning? How about having it be the map to the tomb? Two birds. One stone.


As a reader, I don't pay attention to maps in novels, unless I need it.


I'll probably pull back a bit and consolidate the characters experiencing the tomb into a narrative of a couple of paragraphs.  In the end, them stumbling through the dark from one room to the next isn't as important as what they discover down there.


Plus...the novella is already dangerously close to novel territory anyways.

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I find good, artful telling to be particularly useful when I'm skipping ahead or compressing an event which could linger overlong. Here's one of my favorite examples from THE WISE MAN'S FEAR by Patrick Rothfuss.



Several unfortunate complications arose during the trip.

In brief, there was a storm, piracy, treachery, and shipwreck, although not in that order. It also goes without saying that I did a great many things, some heroic, some ill-advised, some clever and audacious.

Over the course of my trip I was robbed, drowned, and left penniless on the streets of Junpui. In order to survive I begged for crusts, stole a man’s shoes, and recited poetry. The last should demonstrate more than all the rest how truly desperate my situation became.

However, as these events have little to do with the heart of the story, I must pass them over in favor of more important things. Simply said, it took me sixteen days to reach Severen. A bit longer than I had planned, but at no point during my journey was I ever bored.



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