5

I hope this question is not mainly opinion based, I'm really just looking for a writer's handbook/source/acclaimed author saying this is either good, okay or bad. I think it might not be so good, which is why I'm asking.

In the very first sentences of my book, I introduce Nick, the main character. At the time of writing, I thought little of the words I jotted down. But now, reading it in retrospective, something was off to me. Take a look.

Splinters flew as Nick chopped the logs. A great pile of firewood towered beside him. Deep ravines laid in the haft of the axe, shaped by Nick’s hands. The axe had belonged to him since a young age. He was soon to be the lumberjack of the homestead, like his father before him. He died, along with Nick’s mother, a winter night. Such was normal for low-level servants of the King. So, without his mother of father, Nick was without family. The closest thing he came to family was Brad, who was his best friend, and the other servants on the farm.

Sorry if the excerpt was a bit lengthy, I know this is not a critique site. Now, at first it's OK, I'm just describing what he's doing. But it quickly gets into how his parents died and all that. This is not a vital part of the story, not at all, I just wanted to tell my readers why he was the lumberjack. And also to illustrate what kind of situation he's in. But when I think about it, is it too soon to say these things? Perhaps the reader can just wonder about these details for a bit. Here's another example of this, coming straight after the first excerpt.

-Hey, you done soon?

Millie was exhausted. She did all the small jobs on the farm, like transporting the firewood from the chopping block to the shed, or the fireplace. Since she was just twelve there wasn’t any specific job given to her yet.

Once again, the details are not very important. Her age could be told in a different way, through her actions for example. So, is it "bad" to say details like these, and background material, so early in a character's introduction?

Also, sorry if it looks like I want you to critique the entirety of my story. That is not my goal, I simply want to know if the potential problem of mine is a problem.

  • 2
    You might want to clarify that "He died" is referring to Nick's father, because following the subject of the previous sentence it appears to be referring to Nick. – Alex Jul 3 '18 at 23:36
  • That's true, though it is not a problem at the present moment. I've completely changed the paragraph so that it only mentions Nick's father was a lumberjack, but nothing of his parents death. Nice observation though @Alex – A. Kvåle Jul 4 '18 at 13:22
9

There are many styles of story-telling. Consider, for example, the start of the Lord of the Rings:

Bilbo was very rich and very peculiar, and had been the wonder of the Shire for sixty years, ever since his remarkable disappearance and unexpected return. The riches he had brought back from his travels had now become a local legend, and it was popularly believed, whatever the old folk might say, that the Hill at Bag End was full of tunnels stuffed with treasure. (LotR, book I, chapter 1 - a Long-Expected Party)

In this passage we are told, rather than shown, that Bilbo is rich, peculiar, has had adventures etc.

This style of telling rather than showing was common in medieval (and earlier) stories, which served as one of Tolkien's sources of inspiration. You might also find it today in the fantasy genre, inspired by Tolkien. (Though you might also find this style in other genres, and many fantasy works do not lean that much towards telling rather than showing - this is a tool, that an author might or might not choose to use.)

Now that we have established that a preference to tell rather than show elements of the character's background is a tool, let us examine how to use this tool.

First, your language cannot be dry. You are not reading facts off a list - you are telling a story. Compare

On his brow sat wisdom, and in his hand was strength (LotR, book II, chapter 1 - Many Meetings)

to "Glorfindel was strong and smart". The first is flowery - it sets the scene as much with the language, as much as with what is being said. The second is dry and boring.

Second, telling works very well when you are informing the reader of static details that would be well known to the characters around your MC. That is, you use telling to paint a picture: blonde hair, blues eyes, no parents... Dynamic aspects (that is, things that are not true, have been true for some time and not likely to change soon) are better shown than told. Telling something that everybody around the MC knows allows you to paint the picture quickly, instead of creating a scene where the piece of information would be brought up, but would elicit no reaction in other characters, since they are aware of it all already.

tl;dr: As others have mentioned, you are telling rather than showing. If telling rather than showing is a conscious choice on your part, that is perfectly fine. To make it work, you should make the telling engaging, and you should keep it to facts that are static and well-known (in-world) about your character.

  • Thank you, this answer brilliantly painted the picture for me. I always thought telling was always bad, but there's a greyzone, telling with interesting language. Though I have a follow up question: Is a hybrid OK? Most of the time I will show, but sometimes I will tell, with beautiful language. Would that work, or does it have to be one or the other for a writing style to work? – A. Kvåle Jul 3 '18 at 20:44
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    @A.Kvåle Of course you can also show things. You should also show things. Using one tool doesn't mean you can't also use others. Consider Bilbo: in the example above, we are told some things. But when it comes to his sense of humour, or the effect of the Ring on him, for example, we are shown rather than told. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Jul 3 '18 at 20:56
5

This feels like a classic example of telling rather than showing.

Think about it. In both of your examples, the narrator is telling things to the reader. There's no real story going on there; it's just facts. The only actual story is that Nick is chopping wood. You aren't even showing us how the wood ends up on that great pile, if indeed it does. Maybe that's where he's taking it from, and chopping it into smaller pieces?

If the facts that are being introduced don't matter to the story, then you should really consider whether they belong in the story at all. (Setting a scene can be a valid use of introduction of "unnecessary" elements, but you should be careful to not overdo it. Chekhov's gun and all that.) And even if they do belong, you should consider whether they belong right where you're introducing them, as opposed to somewhere else.

So we're being told by the narrator, for example, that Nick's parents are both dead. But does it really have to be the narrator that tells us this? Why can't Nick do it himself? If the narrator tells us, then who knows about it in-universe? Does the fact that Nick's parents are both dead even matter to the story you're telling? For example, why can't someone ask Nick about his parents, and Nick can tell this someone that they are both dead, how they died, and when, to a reasonable level of detail given the setting in that moment? That way, you can weave this into the story in a way that shapes the rest of the story for the character that asked that question. If it's somehow a secret of Nick's, you could weave it into the story by way of his ambivalence whenever the subject of his parents comes up, for example.

Similarly, we're being told by the narrator that Millie is 12 years old. (You're also thinking in terms of a market economy, not a household economy, but let's not go there too much.) But surely this isn't the first time the reader finds out about Millie? Surely she has time to bring up her upcoming thirteenth birthday at some point, for example. Or the way in which some other character interacts with her highlights her young age, or lack of physical strength and endurance, or whichever. You can focus on the effects of her young age, rather than simply telling the reader that she is young.

"Show, don't tell" is a good rule of thumb in writing. Like all rules of thumb, it can be broken; but if you're breaking it and the result feels "off" somehow, then you're probably doing it wrong. At that point, going back to the rule of thumb is often a good idea; it's standard advice for a reason...

5

I don't think the problem is that you are saying things like this at the beginning of a story. I think it's how you're saying them. It seems to me that are are telling rather than showing.

Here's an excerpt from a website that demonstrates the difference quite nicely:

Telling is summarizing. Telling gives the readers the bare facts, with little to no illustration.

Showing is elaborating. Showing gives the readers the details of a scene, including what the character(s) are seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling, thinking, and feeling emotionally.

On the same web page: Showing and Telling: The Quick and Easy Way to Tell the Difference is a rather nice example of how telling and showing can be written.

I feel sure that your story will benefit enormously when you look into this important aspect of writing.

I wish you luck with your story.

2

Yes, your instincts are correct. You are outlining your characters, which you need to know for yourself as the author, but you are putting that down on paper within the story - and - we do not need to know it any more than we need to know the town he was born in, or how long his mother's labour was, or whether he had colic.

Trust your instincts. They are right on the money. You are showing he is a servant already, (or at least not nobility.) Most of the stuff you tell us in the second part of each paragraph (telling, in each case) will come out naturally later through context.

Cut the telling.

Your instincts are good.

2

As the others have said; you are doing too much telling. As a rule of thumb; don't impart information about the character or environment if it is something they would not be thinking about at the time, or would not be affecting them at the time.

Try to relate such reveals to character interactions or thoughts that make sense in the context of what the character is doing, or who they interact with. Nick can pause to throw would on the stack, and despite its height consider it inadequate, even project how much he will finish by the end of the day and consider that inadequate, something for which he may be judged harshly if he didn't hurry up. Get inside Nick's head.

Don't tell us his history. Beginning writers do this because they think it will inform the reader of Nick's character. But this is indirect and very unreliable. Does Nick not mind that his parents died? Does it make him sad, or is he as neutral about that as the author seems; just "that happens." Did he love his father? Hate his father?

How does Nick being an orphan affect his attitude and character?

Does Nick want to be the lumberjack, or hate the idea, or like his parent's death, is he neutral on that subject?

Telling instead of showing is a shortcut; showing things requires far more words. If you are going to open with Nick, open up Nick to us. Imparting these facts does not work like you think it will (you must think it will or you wouldn't write it); readers skip over these laundry lists of facts and forget them. They will not do the work of trying to imagine how these events or this culture have affected Nick. They just won't. They want you to show them that, not by citing facts, but through Nick's thoughts, feelings, and interactions with other people.

The same for all the rest of your world building exposition, just don't do it. Do not rely on readers to care about social arrangement until they mean something to Nick. That implies a conflict; somebody wants him to leave the lumberyard and he has to explain he won't, it would mean abandoning his career of chopping wood.

What you are doing is called an info-dump. The reason this doesn't work is because facts are boring if they are not tied into a conflict; and you are asking the reader to memorize a lot of information you might use later. It is too much to ask. If you want readers to learn about your world, they have to do it through a character they care about; and not a character reciting dry facts but a character in some sort of struggle, even if it is a minor verbal argument with somebody they love.

A line like, "Well you feel free to go tell King Alfred that. I'll expect your head back here in a bucket, John, and that will sadden me greatly."

Then the reader gets it; King Alfred is in charge, and though this may be an exaggeration, you don't cross him. Nick is at least cautious dealing with King Alfred. And, you conveyed this as a conversational retort in a verbal argument, the conflict sustains the world building effort. You don't tell the reader Alfred can be ruthless, Nick reveals that as part of an emotional response to John, which also builds the character of Nick, and to an extent John.

The lack of conflict in this scene is also a problem for an opening scene. Not that it should be a fight scene, but Nick should be doing something besides routine work; he should be in conflict, too, solving some everyday problem.

See my answer to the question, How To Open A Novel.

  • My initial plan was to tell the readers that his parents died, and later show what effect it had on him. On the outside he seemed pretty neutral, "it's just how the world is", that kind of thing. But on the inside he is deeply hurt. But then again, not as much as most people would be, since they died when he was pretty young. But I have now completely changed the entire paragraph so as it doesn't mention the death at all. – A. Kvåle Jul 4 '18 at 13:25

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