Show vs Tell vs Overly Long Explanation

Discussion in 'Historical Fiction' started by Martin Gill, May 19, 2016.

  1. Martin Gill

    Martin Gill Well-Known Member

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    Context: I'm writing a largely historical/very low fantasy novel.

    I'm currently reading Giles Kristian's God of Vengence and while I like his style a lot in this book (a big improvement I feel on his first few) there's a few places I've been jolted by his descriptions of things. Particularly in reference to weapons. I can't find the reference but for instance, he refers to one of the characters drawing a scramasax - then describes it as a single bladed knife blah blah because we don't have a modern frame of reference for a scramasax. Then someone picks up a spear, but we all know what a spear looks like, so that doesn't get a description. However he also uses some highly specific ship terminology (thwarts, strakes, etc) that he doesn't describe. We are also treated to a couple of overly long descriptions of what all the warriors are wearing, all of which doesn't really define character so much as explain what viking weapons and war gear look like.

    My assumption is that if you are reading about a period you either know enough about it to know some of the "technical" terminology, or that you can go research what a term means. I'd rather see more characterful descriptions of their gear - is it gold chased and enameled, is it from a far off land implying they've traveled, is is scruffy and worn and rusting? etc.

    I ask not to criticise Giles - but because I'm wrestling with the same issue myself.
     
  2. Brian G Turner

    Brian G Turner He's a very naughty boy! Staff Member

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    It's a personal choice.

    It's an ideal to keep everything in the character experience, which means what's familiar to the character may not need description. But sometimes those little details really can add to a sense of place to the reader.

    After all, as storytellers we need to bear our audience in mind, and how we're engaging with them.

    However, I personally think that's best done through choice words, rather than paragraphs of explanation. Different writers have different points of emphasis and focus.
     
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  3. tinkerdan

    tinkerdan candycane shrimp

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    That's on page 91 and it's just a brief reference to it being a single edged knife(not drawn-only mentions that Sigurd has one); which was helpful to me who didn't know scramasax until that moment. There is a lengthy description of his double edged sword right after that though.

    And then after that even a description of the swords scabbard. That seemed to be more of an introduction to a weapon that held some significant history for Sigurd.

    The brief mention of the scramasax being a knife is handy because he has several instances where people use one or think about using one.
     
  4. Martin Gill

    Martin Gill Well-Known Member

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    Helpful thanks. What I'm trying to judge is I'm very familiar with the kit, names of less familiar gear, what people would have worn, etc but I am curious about how much/little explanation is needed. I find this in Bernard Cornwall as well - he likes to tell us that Uthgard is wearing iron vambraces, is wearing a mail hauberk and a gambesson, etc. He tends to do it in a way that is Utgard boasting about his wargear, so it does work, but I find myself skimming these bits. Descriptions of pattern welds flaring like frosted dragons breath down a blade I get - that's atmospheric and both authors use these kind of descriptions well in many cases. But its the factual explanations that jar me out of the story (like the fact that a scram is a single bladed knife).

    This is more where I'm at. On reflection I think if he'd told me something about the scram - like how Sigurd had hones it's single straight blade to murderous sharpness, or whatever, thereby telling me something about both the knife and him, then I'd have glossed over it without it feeling like an info dump.
     
  5. Martin Gill

    Martin Gill Well-Known Member

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    And for the record this isn't a criticism of either authors. I'm really enjoying God of Vengence :) This is more of a stylistic analysis/learning exercise.
     
  6. Jo Zebedee

    Jo Zebedee Come away, oh human child - Waters and the Wild

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    I'm finding as I mature as a writer, my style is becoming more settled. I tend towards a lot of character exposition and that is becoming more of the case as I gain confidence. It does slow a story down but, if you keep it close to the character experience, it can also be very immersive. But, each sentence and thought has to work for its money. And, for every person who drinks that style in, there'll be another who hates it.
     
  7. Bizmuth

    Bizmuth Destroyer of Worlds

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    I have noticed a slight tendency for new writers to misunderstand what "tell" is. I had one beta reader accuse (that's too strong a word, really) me of telling in any section that wasn't dialog; i.e. you either have a live-action scene being manifested through dialog and direct thought, or you're "telling". The problem with this definition, even if you wanted to defend it, is that it waters down the defition of telling to the point where it isn't even necessarily a problem.

    My definition of telling (which may also be wrong) is where you are summarizing previous action. For instance, in a WIP written in past tense, anything in past perfect is telling. That's probably a little bit of a narrow definition, but it gives me something to watch for in my writing. Having said that, like most things in the writing world, these be more like suggestions than rules. (Pirate voice)
     
  8. Jo Zebedee

    Jo Zebedee Come away, oh human child - Waters and the Wild

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    No, I don't think that's what telling is. Telling, to me, is where you describe something, instead of demonstrating it.

    So, 'he felt nervous' is telling whereas 'a finger of warning traced down his spine' is showing.

    Or, 'she walked down the plain corridor' is telling, whereas, 'she walked down the corridor, white and austere, lined with closed doors' is showing.
     
  9. tinkerdan

    tinkerdan candycane shrimp

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    I think that we're beginning to highlight the crux of what @Bizmuth is saying when I come in with my own subjectivity to telling:
    Where to me the second example it's the She walked that would be telling while the plain corridor would just be lacking in description and I'd end up trying to mix it up with.
    The corridor, white and austere, was lined with closed doors that hurried by with each step.

    Anyway sometimes you do need to tell because you need to move on and in the case of the knife the sword seemed more important and required the rest of the paragraph and the next paragraph, so the knife was more an 'in passing' thing that required some defining because of it's multiple mentions later. The sword and it's history were much more interesting.
     
    Last edited: May 20, 2016
  10. Bizmuth

    Bizmuth Destroyer of Worlds

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    And that's what I know as 'filtering'. :poop:

    I think the point, though, is that writing isn't as rigorously defined as, ferex, computer science.
     
  11. Jo Zebedee

    Jo Zebedee Come away, oh human child - Waters and the Wild

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    One of the reasons filtering is so frowned on is that it is often a telling form rather than showing. ;) but, it is different as it is a device that is put in place to move the character experience one step away from the reader. But I agree, in principle, these things are fluid just as I agree with @tinkerdan that the key is getting a balance between showing and telling and keeping the story running on. :)
     
  12. The Big Peat

    The Big Peat Well-Known Member

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    It's a tricky one. I like knowing what things are, I don't mind if authors go out of their way to tell me. But too much kills a book, and in general, historical learning in fiction is best used like an iceberg.

    I guess the example here doesn't bother me too much one way or t'other. But... in general, I accept that in historical fiction, sometimes the author needs to info dump on me, and as long as it's done sparingly and is well written, I'm happy.
     
  13. Martin Gill

    Martin Gill Well-Known Member

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    Ah - so this is the crux of my challenge. How much info dumping do you need in a historical novel? Do I need to inform readers that a scramasax is a single-edged knife or can I assume that if they are interested in reading about Vikings they either already know this or are interested enough to go and find out. In the case in point the description is functional, it explains what a scram is but does nothing to further Sigurd as a character other than tell me he owns a knife - which in all honesty I could assume. At no point (that I remember) does Tolkien tell us that either Aragorn or Boromir have knives, but he established them as capable warriors so we wouldn't be surprised if one suddenly whipped out a dagger and shanked an orc.

    Its got me trying to work out now what can be assumed and what needs to be described functionally, or how I weave functional descriptions into characterful explanations that not only inform the reader what the unfamiliar thing is, but also gives them an insight into the character who owns the thing.
     
  14. The Big Peat

    The Big Peat Well-Known Member

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    If I knew how much info dumping you need in a historical novel, I wouldn't be here, I'd be doing lines of coke off of ancient statues in Iberia with Bernard Cornwell!

    I have to say, I think you're partially worrying over nothing. I know readers pick up and get niggled by the smallest things but even so, I'm imagining most people's memories of God of Vengeance deal with whether they liked Sigurd as a character, not whether they appreciated or hated the description of the scramasax. Get your characters right, get your plot right, get your sense of place and time right and that is the battle won or lost.

    This said, to go back to your original post, do not assume everyone reading historical fiction knows the period well. People pick up all sorts of books on random whims; even devoted fans of a period won't know everything. I've read books from Ancient Egypt to the Mongols to Dark Ages Ireland to Civil War USA and plenty of places and times in between; I love history, but there's no way I'm well informed on all of them. No way. And the same probably goes for your potential fans. And I'd rather be jolted be unnecessary description in a book than be left googling what the hell something is (insomuch as that means anything given what I'll actually do is just skim over it and get to the good stuff). Although I'm not actually sure

    Weaving functional descriptions in...

    Lets say, the first time you introduce the scramasax and describe what it is, place it on a warrior who's not your main hero. Maybe he's young and can't afford a sword, so he turns up with just a scramasax - detail and insight combined. Or maybe they're an old guy who tells a younger character to get a good scramasax, because that's what he'll be using in the shield wall, that's what does the killing. We now know that the old lad is a veteran, the younger one isn't, the scramasax is a short one edged blade and a little about ancient warfare.

    I think the best advice I can give is "Tell us nothing you don't have to, but err on the side of caution about what needs telling and make the telling interesting." Which is kinda stating the obvious but hey, see my first line again :p
     
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  15. Martin Gill

    Martin Gill Well-Known Member

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    This has been helpful because its definitely helped cement an approach in my mind of weaving characterful, insightful and interesting descriptions into the functional "its a single bladed knife" stuff. It has also prompted me to think about getting a test reader who knows nothing about the period as well. Most of my friends and regular readers are well enough informed to know any shorthand I'd use. So that in itself is a good thing to remember. When I finally finish :)
     
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