Monday, May 10, 2010

"Ask the Inkpot" Question

Hello Inkpotters! Here is a question for you from the Inkpot inbox. (And, readers, if you have a question for the bloggers, be sure to send it to Thanks! Administrator

Dear Inkpot,

Every writer is familiar with the rule "show don't tell." But how exactly does this rule apply to beautifully written, award-winning third-person omniscient books such as Charlotte's Web by E. B. White ("Fern loved Wilbur more than anything. She loved to stroke him, to feed him, to put him to bed."); Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo (Once, in a house on Egypt Street, there lived a rabbit who was made almost entirely of china.); and Holes by Louis Sachar ("There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. There once was a very large lake here, the largest lake in Texas.)
These stories, as with fairy tales of old, "tell" the reader a story, yet they are evocative, powerful works of literary art. What are the rules for telling without "telling" in third-person omniscient?

Many Thanks,Perplexed


  1. This is a terrific question. Of course there can be parts of stories that are told. I use narrators all the time--I can't help myself. The trick is that we don't hold the reader at a distance by letting EVERYTHING be told. The narrator holds out hand and takes us into the story, but it's the characters who keep us there. It's by watching the things they think, say, and do that we are absorbed. When you tell us how to interpret everything, you're engaging us only on an intellectual level. But when you make the reader do the hard work of identifying with the character, you've engaged them on an emotional level. So, yes. Have a narrator. Tell us things. Lead us in. But then show us through actual scenes, give us hints of the emotional texture through showing us actions and reactions. But let us figure it out ourselves.

  2. Thanks, Anne. This IS a terrific question, and an illuminating response. I hope that more of the Inkpotters will weigh in on the subject. As a reader I enjoy the company of a charming narrator; as a writer-in-training I am working to master the show-don't-tell doctrine, trying hard to get out of the way of my characters. However, I am looking forward to the day when I am allowed to take down the "No Trespassing" warnings and invite an arch narrator or two to the party.

  3. What a terrific question! Can't wait to hear more from the Inkpot about this one. In the book ON BECOMING A NOVELIST, John Gardner wrote that you can tell almost anything, but the only thing that must always be shown is emotion.

  4. Ah, yes. Show Don't Tell. It has come to the point of this phrase being somewhat annoying as well as confusing. I agree with Anne--there can be times when things are told directly. Descriptions: "She had a moon face and a jelly laugh." Places: "We lived just outside of Pittsburgh, PA during the steel mill heyday." Actions: "They reenacted the ambush that had brought down half the men in their father's platoon." Emotions: "Sophie was very. very angry." That is all telling.
    In fact, no one ever says, "Show me a story." They say, "Tell me a story."
    The trick is to tell the story so that the reader can SEE it in their minds. That they can fill in blanks with their own imagination and understanding of the world (or their attempt at understanding). The writer tells just enough so that the reader can see the rest. It's a very tricky balance, which is why writing is so hard. Many writers, myself included, make the mistake, esp in early drafts, of telling way too much and not leaving the necessary room for things to be seen and experienced. Remember your readers want to feel smart--and it is likely that they are already smart.

    The telling of emotions is trickier. Emotions are often best left to the reader to figure out by being told what the characters are doing and saying, and by seeing what is going on around the characters. It's fun for the reader to understand emotions without having to be told directly all the time. This is why adverbs are best avoided.

    However, in picture books, emotions may be told more frequently while illustrations do the showing. Never show things that a picture can illustrate. It's redundant. You use the text to tell the basics with minimal but distinct language, and let the pictures show the setting, the descriptions, sometimes even the action, etc..."Alicia has a bad day." We know everything already--all that is left is to see why and how her day is bad and if it gets any better.

    Show Don't Tell is a useful phrase that teachers use ALL THE TIME, but once you get to a certain level you realize writing is all a fine, calculated balance of showing and telling. Knowing your audience helps, too.

    That's my long-winded two cents...

  5. We are, after all, storytellers, not storyshow-ers.

    I think telling gets a bad rap--and heaven knows I've used the phrase when talking about work with students and looking at my own--because it's the easiest label to put on clunky writing.

    Telling--assuming it's not clunky--is one of many helpful techniques in the toolbox, and one that's especially helpful for controlling pace.

    Take Back the Telling!

  6. What are the rules of telling w/o "telling" in third-person omniscient?

    In order to answer this question, it is important to understand the history of storytelling and compare the differences. For instance, Janet Burroway, author of "Imaginative Writing," compares nineteenth-century fiction with twentieth-century fiction.

    In a nutshell, Janet Burroway suggests the all-knowing quality found in 19th century fiction (the omniscient or god-like character), involves a lot of telling, using the feeling words such as, sad, angry, happy, etc., rather than writing from the "objective viewpoint."

    In the objective viewpoint, the author writes from an observation viewpoint(outside him or herself), whereby he or she honors the reader’s ability and attributes to discover, interpret, and identify what is happening. (Janet Burrow suggests reading, Ernest Hemingway's "Hills LikeWhite Elephants” to grasp this viewpoint.) This style of writing allows the reader to make his or her own conclusions; such is the case of visual art, like paintings.

    When you ask about the rules, the only thing I can suggest is to build a character that readers can identify with and of which honors the reader’s imagination, abilities, and capabilities to interpret, perceive, and identify the story’s purpose.

    I know this doesn't answer your question, explicitly, but I hope my excerpt guides you towards discovering your own answer!

    Burroway, Janet. "Imaginative Writing--The Elements of Craft." New York: Penguin Academics, 2007.

    Madeline Gouin

  7. Hey, ET Schoenfeld, what a good critical thesis this would be!

  8. I worked w/ Alexandria LaFaye on some fairy tales last spring and she recommended something that she calls "dramatic telling." The telling still requires powerful language, just as when we are showing a scene, and can be used to move the reader forward more quickly in time, or to represent a stage of development in the story. In the quote above: "Fern loved Wilbur more than anything. She loved to stroke him, to feed him, to put him to bed." Other passages of the book show us specific moments when Fern and Wilbur are together. These telling sentences intensify Fern and Wilbur's relationship by suggesting that even when the reader is not watching, Fern is caring for Wilbur almost every free moment of her day. Fern's obsession with Wilbur is directly related to the plot of the book, because otherwise she wouldn't be tuned in enough to hear all the animals talking, and we wouldn't see her personal growth throughout the book. But if readers were to actually witness enough scenes to "show" this idea, the book would lose its pacing. Definitely a good place for dramatic telling.

  9. Not to gang up on the lovely, brilliant Ms. Schoenfeld, but what Anne said.

  10. Hey Madame Ursu, "Fantasy Show and Tell"? Sounds like a strip tease AND a great critical thesis. Julie Checkoway has "The Lingerie Theory of Literature" in Creating Fiction. I'll take a peek.

  11. To follow up with what Cheryl said, maybe the rule is "Show, don't tell," but for goodness' sake, don't show EVERYTHING. You slip in some active exposition so you can get your reader right back to the actual plot.