Friday, May 14, 2010

Internalization: Showing v. Telling

The recent Internal Conflict Blogfest hosted over at Alliterative Allomorph brought up an interesting question in my mind.

See, I didn't enter the contest because I don't write a lot of internal conflicts. I herky-jerky looked through some of my work and couldn't find much. I found some, sure, but I didn't like it. If I had the patience, I probably would go back and edit it out.

And I didn't read many of the entries, either. I read some, sure, and I liked em, but it made me realize something: I don't prefer the use of internalization during storytelling.

And that got me to wondering why? Why don't I internalize? Why do I skim over passages in books that are hardcore internalization?

This morning laying on the couch with my wife -- we're sleeping on the couches because she's pregnant and she's more comfortable on the couch -- I got to thinking (internalizing) about show v. tell, and internalization.

Cue the epiphany!

Internalization is telling, not showing. There's no action associated with it. It's stagnant, a pause in the story.

Not that there's anything wrong with telling. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle told all of his Sherlock Holmes stories. You never saw Sherlock in action, but you heard about it.

Now let me demonstrate my point.

Internalization: Telling

Should she go to his house, knock on his door? Would he even care that she still loved him? Would he forgive her? The thoughts swam in her head with the wine and she couldn't decide if she'd be better off knocking on his door, seeing him standing there with that look on his face, her being humiliated, or if she could live with herself never knowing whether he'd sweep her into the foyer and forgive her sins right there on the carpet.

But she couldn't just walk up to him, not after what she'd done.

Still. She had to know.

Okay, that was telling internalization. Hardcore, right? That's a typical scene in some genres. Nothing wrong with it, but there's no action associated with it, and I'd skim through it during a read.

Here's a re-write with more action.

Internalization: Showing

She cut off the lights as she turned into the cul-de-sac and darkness swept over his house. She parked across the street and wrung her hands on the steering wheel and then she opened the door, left the engine running and took two steps away from her Civic before she got back in and closed the door, quietly so nobody would wake up.

She played with the radio, but nothing on sounded good. Billy Idol on the oldie station. Limp Biskit on the modern rock, if you could call them modern. She turned off the radio and stepped out of the car again and this time made it to his front door and stood there beneath the burnt-out porch light, her hand a palm's width away from the doorknob, the doorbell, the knocker, her house key in her hand and then back in her pocket, jangling with the blood through her temples.

Turning away the tears came this time and she let them. She deserved the tears.

Metallica rang out on the oldie station. "Anywhere I roam. Where I lay my head is home."

"Fuck it," she said to the radio, and crying she turned on her headlights, pulled into his driveway, shined the lights straight through his front windows, stepped out and when he answered the door all she could say, over and over: "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

See the difference? Showing. Telling. I'm not against telling -- I believe in breaking rules, trust me -- but at least keep some action in the scene.

I think Donna did a good job of mingling internalization with action: Donna Hole's Conflict.

That's just an example of mixing the action with the internalization. You can check out AA's full list of entries and see what other writers did a good job of mixing the two.

Me? I don't mix well. I like action in my stories.

But that's just me.

How about you? Actionator? Internalizer? Is internalization telling the story, and does is slow down the pace? Or is it a necessary part of storytelling that increases a character's depth?

- Eric


Elisabeth said...

Interesting thoughts here, Eric.

In relation to your ideas about showing and telling, I learned the following from an Australian writer, Antoni Jach. You might find it useful. I do.

Jach suggests that writers 'find their voice' through two narrative modes: the mimetic and the diegetic, which roughly translate into showing and telling.

The mimetic, the imitative method is about creating images, therefore showing.

I think that lately the mimetic showing style has become idealised.

I'd suggest though that the mimetic is as much of value as is its counterpart, the diegetic.

It is in fact only a different way of telling.

In the mimetic style we find a discrete invisible narrator which is a hall mark of the realist tradition, whereas the diegetic, present omnipresent narrator is a hall mark of the modernist, post modernist traditions.

In the diegetic the reader is constantly reminded of the narrator, eg W G Sebald and as you mention Sherlock Holmes

In any case the narrator - even when author and narrator are felt to be as one - exists and needs to be handled with care.

Diegetic fiction is an alternative and legitimate form to mimetic fiction.

We need them both, even when we prefer action.

I have a good friend, a writer, who's heavily into action in her writing. From time to time we need to remind her to tell us a little about the story otherwise we get lost in her action.

I suppose I'm trying to say that there's room for both, showing and telling and as well I'm putting in a special plug for the poor underrated telling side of things.

A wonderful post, Eric. As you can see it's fired me up.

Theresa Milstein said...

I used to do the rookie too much telling and not enough showing. I've finally figured out how to do it right. Dialogue is my strength, so even though it was supposed to be internal, my entry from Wednesday has dialogue too.

You give great examples of showing vs. telling. The showing is much better!

Nighfala said...

See, now, this is feeding into a very touchy area for me. When I was in college, I took a creative writing class and the teacher (who stunk at teaching) was all over the "show, don't tell" thing. Which made me think that every story had to be constant, play-by-play action. That made me so frustrated, I quit writing for TEN YEARS, and only found the courage to try again a few years ago.

What I have learned since then is that he taught us completely wrong. Internal conflict is completely valid, and does not have to be accompanied by hand-wringing, fidgeting, and such. In fact, many characters (such as my male protagonist) don't show emotion because they are afraid of being perceived as weak, and internalize a lot of their tension.

I would say the first example you gave IS showing, because we are seeing the way her mind is working. We feel her turmoil, her questioning, her anxiety.

If that was "telling," it would be something like this:

"She was nervous about talking him. She was afraid he would ignore her. But she felt like she had to find out what he would do when he saw her."

See the HUGE difference?

Tara said...

Billy Idol and Metallica on the oldies station. Did you have to go there? Ouch.

I agree with you to some extent, and also with the previous commenter. There really is room for both, imo. I tend to write without the internalization, and have had comments now, from 3 crit partners, that lead me to believe I need to add some in for MC.

Diana Gabaldon is a master at "your way". And Outlander is the only book [series] I've ever been able to reread - numerous times. So I guess there's something to be said there.

The bit I posted was from an exercise. The sole intent of the X was to take what we learned from the SOC and create just the (2nd/action) scene you posted above ;) It workd amazingly well.

Congrats to you and your wife. I cannot believe she is more comfy on the couch, lol!

I tagged you on my blog today.

Nighfala said...

And also, keep in mind that these slower, internal passages should be used in between more active scenes. It's all part of pacing, and giving the reader a little break.

However, when done well, an internal scene can be just as heart-pounding as one with external conflict. It all depends on the story.

Eric W. Trant said...

Woohoo! I do believe I hit an artery! Let the gushing begin, eh.

Elisabeth: Not sure what you mean by mimetic (showing) has become idealized lately. I agree that it's more realist. I'm beginning to think that's my personal taste, at least nowadays.

If you drop back by, I'd love to here more on what you mean by idealized.

Telling is fine, so long as it moves the story along. Doyle does it wonderfully. I never feel bored reading a Holmes story, and some authors (though I can't name one off-the-top) do a fine job of internalizing.

Theresa: Dialogue! My crutch, too. I find myself using dialogue rather than internal thoughts. Right or wrong, that's how my mind is working these days. If you didn't read the other comments on this post, you might look through them again. Some good viewpoints on telling.

Christine: I never took a creative writing class, just for that reason. I was afraid the prof wouldn't like my style, and he/she would try to suffocate me with low grades.

That's a good point you make: some characters won't show it outwardly. Therefore and ergo and as a result and to be honest, you must resort to internalization.

I think we agree, though, that the movement should be punchy, well-written, and with enough pace to move the reader (and writer) into the next paragraph.

There is a certain minimum friction to reading that the pace must overcome to move the reader forward, else the reader stops right there.

Tara: Thanks for the tag! Maybe I need to get some crit partners. I have none, see. I have readers, but they've lost interest since they have already read three of my books.

Readers can only take so much, see... I need new blood!

Haven't read Outlander. I'll put that on the list.

- Eric

Nighfala said...

P.S. I missed this blogfest, but your post prompted me to enter late anyway.

Tara said...

Hm. You might want to check out snips of Outlander first - not sure it would be your thing - although quite a few men are in the forum and enjoy it immensely. I'd need 1000 words to describe it, lol.

You're going to kill me for this; I've already forgotten how to make a link *shrugs, bats lashes*, but here's a great writers site (and you can get to Diana's folder--links on the left--to see snips of Outlander stuff, too).

Elisabeth said...

I've been to 'writing school' many moons ago and this seemed to be our daily fare: show don't tell.

More recently I came to realise that a little telling is okay, even in some instances necessary.

Another writer whose work I value, Gerald Murnane suggests that the telling mode has been elevated since the advent of film, as if stories are written with a film script in mind, scene by scene with the emphasis on action, rather than the emphasis on a narrator, telling the story, however invisible or otherwise that narrator might seem.

That's what I mean by idealising the showing. It as if every writing teacher recommends it as best practice in writing and I'm not so sure it's necessary in the literal way in which many people interpret it.

Eric W. Trant said...

C: I'll have to check out your BF entry.

T: I'll check out your link. click


E: I see, now, and since I agree with him, Murnane must be correct.

Get it? ;)

I'll go further though and say the scene-telling began not with movies, but with Sci-Fi and fantasy, when we stepped into the omni POV and began focusing on setting and world-building as much as character development.

Horror, though, goes the other way, and drives to deep, deep, deeeep internalizations.

While I don't write with the anticipation of hitting a film (at least not yet), I do visualize my scenes as scenes and step away from the character so I can see the world around them, much as Bradbury and McCarthy and Vonnegut do and did.

My earlier works, from 2006 prior, show internalizations. So I used to do that, heavily in some cases. If I'm in strong POV, you'll see more internal thoughts, but lately I've been more like a guy in the bushes taking notes.

I'm a peeping-tom author!

Maybe that's what it boils down to: Strong v. Weak POV. Both require their own technique.

Mix that up with genre and you'll see where show/tell and deep internalizations fit in more clearly.

- Eric

Nighfala said...

Weak POV? Those a fighting words, Eric. Be careful! Each different POV has its strengths and weaknesses, and I'm not really in agreement with current fashions.

Eric W. Trant said...

Christine: Weak POV not to imply it is more or less strong, but that it is more or less inside the character's head.

You'll hear it called shallow and deep POV as well, and maybe some other terms you'll get from various classes.

I see it like this...

Weak POV: Outside the character with a camera, watching the action and taking in the scenery. JRR Tolk is like this. You'll also find your head-skipping omni POVs in this category. Fantasy and sci-fi are usually written this way. Descriptions are related to the overall world and not just to the character.

Strong POV: Inside the character looking out through their eyeballs, hearing through their ears, thinking in their head. King is like this, as are most romance writers, as are most horror writers. You smell, taste, and hear the surroundings as related to the character, rather than to the world as a whole.

Nothing to say about strong or weak writing, simply the strong or weak nature of the POV and how it relates to the characters.

- Eric

Matthew MacNish said...

Personally I think it is all about balance.

Andrew Rosenberg said...

Internal conflict is the only conflict that matters.
Sure, the hero can fight dragons and spies and vampires all day, but it's ten times more interesting if he's conflicted about it, not just challenged.
Internal conflict is about making choices, doing things we don't want to do, seeing both sides of the issue, hurting people we don't want to, dealing with negative emotions, being afraid, and of course worrying.
I think you're conflating inner dialog or internalization with inner conflict.
Inner conflict is what drives characters and stories. It's what makes the reader care about the characters.
I think what you're trying to say is that you avoid solo monologuing which is great, but without internal conflict, your stories would go nowhere. Your characters would just be robots following their programming and never having to make choices.
Internalization is a whole other story, and I think you made some good points about it. Any dialog, whether inner or outer, can be telling if not written well.

Eric W. Trant said...

Matt: Yes, balance is key.

Andrew: It's not the inner conflict I'm talking about. I agree completely that inner conflict is a key element to any story. Without it, there is no story.

But what I saw in the blogfest was a lot of questioning: Should I do this? Should I do that? What if this happens? My oh my I'm worried!

It bumped me out of the reads, because the questions sounded more like the muse asking the writer what happens next, and the writer plugged it into the keyboard instead of translating the muse-speak into character action and demonstrating the results of the conflict to the reader.

Does that make sense? I was hearing the muse, not the story.

Wonder statements do the same thing to me. When the character wonders, it should be quick and back to the action. One sentence is plenty.

Again, that's just me. We all have preferences and genres to cater to, eh, and they all have different best-practice. Horror genre comes to mind, where mulling in the character's head can be a huge part of the terror.

Punchy punchy, though, same as dialogue. Pertinent, saucy, and well-written internalizations.

- Eric

Nighfala said...

First of all, don't dis Tolkein in my presence.

Secondly, what about Jane Austen? Tolstoy? (insert favorite literary author here)

Andrew Rosenberg said...

Well I read this
See, I didn't enter the contest because I don't write a lot of internal conflicts
and I thought
What is he, on dope?
I bet you could have used any page of any decent thing you've written and found inner conflict.
I think what you meant to say was that you don't write much internalization. Which is fine, if you want to be that way, you, you deep POV hater!


Nighfala said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nighfala said...

Okay, I just read about eight randomly picked entries from the blogfest. And they were all good, some truly excellent.

I think the problem is that many of the participants are writing romance. Which clearly isn't your genre, Eric. That's okay, it's not mine either. But romance is characterized by a lot of internal dialogue. Some readers really enjoy all that gushy should-I-kiss-him-or-not stuff.

Impetus... I love your comments! Preach it, brother!

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Really great post, Eric! I popped over from Tara's blog to congratulate you on your award.

Have a great weekend! :-)

Eric W. Trant said...

Truly there are as many different ways to write as there are people writing.

The blogfest just got me to thinking, is all. Nothing wrong with challenging your method.

- Eric

Raquel Byrnes said...

I agree with Matt that there should be balance. I got dinged a bit for having so much action in my entry, but the driving force behind the scene was August's inner conflict, vengeance or justice...his sister's memory drove him toward the higher road...all while choking the life out of someone.

I have read some spectacular internal struggles but they tend to be more in the horror suspense category...if done well, it can draw you right into the MC's angst...its just not my forte.

Great post, I learned a lot from your commentors today. =)

Nighfala said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wine and Words said...

Great conversation going on here. I don't like to be pigeon holed as one thing or another. I do not like thinking of writing as a process or a formula or any other such contructs. I let my fingers walk while my mind talks, and I never know what it will show or tell until complete.

About Me said...


I'm not a huge fan of too much internalizing at all. It's boring and usually slows down the flow of the narrative. If internalizing is to be done in a 'telling' way it must convey some information that otherwise can't be showed, or doesn't warrant a whole scene.

Telling is a useful tool (to be used very carefully) in summarizing. As we know there's no hard and fast rules to great writing and storytelling.

Excellent post.

Anonymous said...


Nice thought-provoking post no matter which side of the fence you're on.

I am more action oriented, but I do feel that there are times a good internalized scene is exactly right for the novel.

Like everything, it's all about balance. Internalization just weighs more, so writers don't need quite as much to make the teeter totter level!


Eric W. Trant said...

All right, dadgummit. I went back through my old works and managed to dredge up something that at least resembles internalization.

It's on da blog. Read or don't, but there it is. I got nothing else.

What a WONDERFUL thought-provoker, though, that internalization blogfest. Got me to ponderizing pretty hard.

Now, though, it's time to track down some Shiner 101. That's a beer, by the way, famous in Texas. 101 is their 101th year, and it's a pilsner (like Bud Lite), rare for Shiner, which is usually a dark and frothy beer, known in the north as syrup.

- Eric

dolorah said...

(ROFL)I'll join you with a glass of wine while I re-read your other post. I was about to comment when I got distracted by the title. (Thanks for the shout out BTW.) God, but this was a great discussion.


Nighfala said...

"there's nothing wrong with questioning your method"... unless you're an already internally conflicted writer with a constant dialogue in their head wondering if you are doing it right, or if you should change it yet again...

Jessica Bell said...

Hi Eric,

Bit late to this, but hey, I took a no computer day yesterday. :)

Ok, I see your point, but, there are lots of different ways to do things. It's all just personal preference. I think you've also confused internal conflict with internalisation. I think Andrew said that too (I skimmed comments quite quickly as I am in a rush).

So, to really prove your point, I would like to put you to challenge. You up for it? You've read my entry, right? Can you tell me how you would put that into action seeing as it is all philosophical thought? Tell me how my entry can NOT be internalised. I'd LOVE to see what you can do with it ;)