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I don’t often talk about what I think about writing, the act of writing; the how-to’s and the do’s-and-don’ts of writing (and I guess, by extension, the how-to’s and the do’s-and-don’ts of reading and reviewing).
But as an outgrowth of reviewing books for fellow indie authors, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing lately.
Most advice for writers online seems to impart information the adviser does not truly understand, advice unable to capture the nuance and complexity of writing (and reveiwing).
The two concepts that are probably the most misunderstood and misused are “showing vs telling” and the disdain for adverbs.
The best example of “showing” in English literature is Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants.” Because it is written in strict 3rd Person Objective, the reader only sees and hears what a camera would see and hear:
The woman brought two glasses of beer and two felt pads. She put the felt pads and the beer glass on the table and looked at the man and the girl. The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.
“They look like white elephants,” she said.
“I’ve never seen one,” the man drank his beer.
“No, You wouldn’t have.” Hills Like White Elephants, Ernest Hemingway
Some of the best examples of “telling” can be found in fiction for children and young adults. If you’ve read the Harry Potter books, you’ve read thousands of pages of examples of “telling,” (“telling” is not inherently bad, it’s just obvious — the reader has no doubts about what a character thinks, how that character feels emotionally, and what that character’s motivations are (and the reasons behind those thoughts, feelings, and motivations). Here is an example:
Harry had taken up his place at wizard school, where he and his scar were famous … but now the school year was over, and he was back with the Dursleys for the summer, back to being treated like a dog that had rolled in something smelly. The Dursleys hadn’t even remembered that today happened to be Harry’s twelfth birthday. Of course, his hopes hadn’t been high… . Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. J. K. Rowling.
Variations of the following are repeatedly provided all over the web as an example of the sin of “telling:” “She was cold.”
The prescription offered to correct this egregious mistake, transforming it from “telling” to “showing,” is always along the lines of: “She was shivering. The snow swirled around her. She blew on her hands then pulled her scarf tighter around her neck.”
The difference between these two examples is not that the first “tells” and the second “shows.” Both are examples of scene setting description, and scene setting can only be told. But since they do not tell you anything about the character’s thoughts and feelings, because they do not function as character development, that they tell is irrelevant with regards to the prescription against “telling.”
The only real difference between these two examples is that the first is a very efficient description and the second is a less efficient description.
Here is another example from Hills Like White Elephants:
The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went to Madrid.
You’ll notice that Hemingway comes right out and tells you it is very hot. In the nearly 100 years that this story has been subjected to literary criticism, this sentence has never been flagged as “telling,” because it tells you nothing about the characters.
Moreover, a succinct description is all that is needed, because the weather is not the point. Hemingway could delete this sentence and it would have no effect on the story. If Hemingway had spent 3-4 sentences establishing that it was hot, the reader would have been lead to believe that the temperature was important, because the time spent on detail is how an author clues the reader in to what matters and what doesn’t.
“Showing vs. telling” is not about the elaborateness of a description; it is about how explicit the writer is in conveying a character’s mental and emotional motivations, along with the reasons behind them. “Showing vs telling” is about how a character is developed.
Another example from Hills Like White Elephants:
They sat down at the table and the girl looked across at the hills on the dry side of the valley and the man looked at her and at the table.
This is perhaps the most perfect example of “showing” you will ever find. It is so perfect, the reader may not even pick up on the significance of this scene until after having read the entire story.
Many online writing gurus implore writers to more write elaborate, lengthy descriptions, full of novel metaphors in order to avoid “telling.” But unless you are a very talented writer, following this advice will usually only serve to draw attention to your writing, which for me at least, is a much greater sin than “telling.”
I think perhaps most writers, and surely all readers, would be better served by Elmore Leonard’s tenth rule on writing: “If is sounds like writing, rewrite it,” than they would by having two extra sentences added to convey that a particular character was cold, so as to avoid the appearance of “telling.” Readers do not want to be constantly reminded that they are reading as they read.
(I’m not saying that “She was cold” is necessarily better than “She was shivering. The snow swirled around her. She blew on her hands then pulled her scarf tighter around her neck;” I’m saying that “She was shivering. The snow swirled around her. She blew on her hands then pulled her scarf tighter around her neck” is not necessarily better than “She was cold.”
I would probably opt for just “The snow swirled around her.” From that it is obvious she is cold, the reader learns it is snowing, and unless her being gloveless is important, and unless the scarf will prove important later on, as a reader, I don’t care. It’s detail I don’t need. My mind provided her with the appropriate attire as soon as I learned she was outside in the snow).
I think writers need to evaluate our writing as a reader would; ask ourselves: If I read this in a book I didn’t write, would I like it? Would I even care? I think we also must trust our readers, have faith that their imaginations will be able to bring our stories to life. While no reader wants to have to play games figuring out how things look, at the same time, they don’t want the way things look to interfere with story itself.
As a reader, and a writer, I find that elaborate descriptions are best left to exceptional writers, and that encouraging writers, in general, to be unnecessarily verbose, does their writing more harm than good.
The following paragraph is, for me, the most beautiful in the English language. I am honest enough with myself to know that it would take me six months to write even a shadow of it. But it provides a good rule of thumb for evaluating elaborate descriptions: The more elaborate the description, the greater the demand that the description be beautiful, and that it be used primarily to establish tone, to create an emotional response in the reader:
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, on the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead. The last paragraph of James Joyce’s “The Dead”
(The last sentence of that paragraph surely ranks with the best poetry ever written).
You’ll notice Joyce had no fear of adverbs. I’m not sure when or how the war against adverbs began. I know Steven King is a champion of the cause to rid the world of adverbs, somewhat disingenuously given the frequency of adverbs in his own writing.
My guess is that the same misunderstanding about “showing vs telling” gave birth to it. Adverbs can certainly be misused, but they are simply another form of efficient description. And as the above excerpt shows, they’re critical to creating a sentence’s cadence and tone.
Even Hemingway, the most famous Minimalist writer of all time, who only “showed,” telling the reader almost nothing about his characters, used adverbs freely. His writing, like all Minimalists, is absolutely efficient, but his sentences are beautiful nonetheless:
The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry. A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemmingway
Not only did he use adverbs liberally here, he repeatedly uses one of the most reviled adverbs of all: very. And he does so with great success, because no sentence ever written has been harmed by making it more pleasing to the ear, which is why the very’s are there.
The beauty of any sentence comes always from its cadence, and cadence is created primarily by adverbs and the word “and” (and commas too–they are the punctuational equivalent of “and”). Many misunderstand this, I think, assuming that the beauty comes from the words. There is not a single fifty-cent word in either Joyce’s paragraph or in Hemingway’s. They both used everyday language. They just used everyday language in exceptional ways.
I think it is probably safer for writers to err on the side of efficiency, and the most efficient way to describe a verb is with an adverb. Verbs are meant to be modified and they are meant to be modified by adverbs.
Far more important than showing or telling or adverbs is being conscious of what you are doing when you write and why you are doing it and what you hope it will achieve. You should be able to explain why you made the choices you did — every one of them. If you can’t, you should probably cut it. I think that is really only advice that any writer can offer another.
And it is what every reviewer should think about before drafting a review. If you do, your review will not only be more fair, more helpful, it will be more honest, because you will be forced to consider if you understood the story, not just if you found it entertaining. There is no shame in writing a review that says, “I’m not sure I got it, I don’t understand why the author did such and such.”
Knowing what worked and what didn’t helps writers become a more effective. Writers don’t always succeed at what we are consciously attempting to do, but that’s okay. The attempt is worthy of respect too.
A useful tool for both writers and reviewers is LiteraryDevices. net . It has definitions and examples of the all of the various types devices employed and available to writers.
[T]he term Literary Devices refers to the typical structures used by writers in their works to convey his or her message(s) in a simple manner to his or her readers. When employed properly, the different literary devices help readers to appreciate, interpret and analyze a literary work.
Literary Elements have an inherent existence in literary piece and are extensively employed by writers to develop a literary piece e.g. plot, setting, narrative structure, characters, mood, theme, moral etc. Writers simply cannot create their desired works without including Literary Elements in a thoroughly professional manner.
Literary Techniques, on the contrary, are structures, usually words or phrases, in literary texts that writers employ to achieve not merely artistic ends, but also give readers a greater understanding and appreciation of their literary works. Examples are: metaphor, simile, alliteration, hyperbole, allegory etc. In contrast to Literary Elements, Literary Techniques are not an unavoidable aspect of literary works.
Most advice on the web and almost all reviews focus exclusively on Literary Elements, to the extent that many advisers and almost all reviewers flag Literary Techniques as flaws, probably because Literary Techniques are optional (the double negative above is a little confusing but that’s what it’s saying!), and are rarely found outside of short stories these days (which is one reason we no longer have Hemingways and Joyces).
I’ll leave you with the best refutation of the assertion that adverbs weaken sentences that there is:
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. The last line of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby