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Something Provocative This Way Comes, Storytelling in Verse

Show vs. Tell

           Since the crib (figuratively speaking) we poets are taught to Show and not Tell.

Being what I consider a natural storyteller (I positively beam when people accuse me of being a really good liar), the difference eluded me for the longest time. It was not until I began work on a truly long piece of poetic storytelling that the contrast became important.

    In my “Storytelling in Verse” workshop I ask participants to present a tale which incorporates in some form or another each of a story’s component parts: exposition, complication, climax and resolution.

    In the realm of rhetorical modes (which number in the dozens and aid the writer in deciphering how something is written as opposed to what), exposition is what I’m currently describing.

    When data in a fictional piece is presented it is often referred to as an information dump. When done prosaically (matter of fact, dull) it is often erroneously designated tell.

    When this same information is presented with comparative examples (“she smelled as sweet as a rose”) it can accurately be termed poetic and can be described as show.

    In much poetry the use of prosaic description is considered a crime of monumental proportions.

    In story telling it is a double edged sword.

    "Exposition can be one of the most effective ways of creating and increasing the drama in your story. It can also be the quickest way to kill a plot's momentum and get your story bogged down in detail. Too much exposition, or too much at one time, can seriously derail a story and be frustrating to the reader or viewer eager for a story to either get moving or move on."  Robert Kernen.

    “Showing” can make a scene intense, passionate, but used consistently throughout a tale eats up space better used in making specific moments shine more brightly than others.

    In a smaller poem this proves no difficulty. In a larger work where more information must be shared to get the point across, it will leave a reader worn waiting for the writer to “get on with it”.

    Put simply… “showing” needs more words.

    This is not to say that telling needs be dull and unimaginative. There is a plethora of differing categories when using a narrative “information dump”. My personal favorite is the Villain’s Speech where a character will describe every aspect of their plan, past and present, knowing “they can’t be stopped”. Artfully done it can be employed in any number of ways, but never more fun than when Thanos tells Reed Richards and The Avengers how he going to destroy the Universe.

    My least favorite is the Idiot Lecture in which characters tell each other things everybody already knows so that the reader can be in on it.

    Then there is Hemingway and his Iceberg (sometimes called “the theory of omission”).

     “If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”  Ernest Hemingway

    Showing can make a scene intense and powerful, but if all the information required to be moved by such a scene is told in the same time consuming means that scene may never arrive. Worse still, when it occurs it will have lost its uniqueness or importance in the story.

    Therefore a balancing act must be entered into with show and tell. Telling increases the pace of the tale and more efficiently prepares us for the passion of a scene shown to us.

    “Needless to say, many great novelists combine "dramatic" showing with long sections of the flat-out authorial narration that is, I guess, what is meant by telling. And the warning against telling leads to a confusion that causes novice writers to think that everything should be acted out ... when in fact the responsibility of showing should be assumed by the energetic and specific use of language."  Francine Prose

    In my next blog I would like to discuss some of the tools we use to tell our stories without allowing them to bog down when the information is necessarily dumped.


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