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Reading this amazon.co.uk book review...

The writing style itself isn't bad but overall, the story is flat and the action is often told rather than given.

"...told rather than given" - I suppose this is a criticism of the writer's descriptive style, but I can't quite imagine an example.

My question is two; what does this phrase mean, and what might be an example of "told" action?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

I think it's a clumsy way of saying the action is told rather than shown. "Show, don't tell" is a fiction writer's mantra, and it means that, rather than simply telling the reader that, for instance, a character is angry, the writer should show that she's angry by having her scowl or throw chairs. The reviewer appears to have the metaphor wrong, or else this is a version of it I haven't heard before.

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Told: The store blew up, and the shopkeeper died soon after.

Shown: I sensed a short, deep silence, followed by a tremor I felt throughout my body. As I looked, I saw the bricks of the local shop erupt from the wall and spray onto the street. A grey smoke took shape and expanded from under the ceiling, venting itself up the side of the building. Then I saw a short man, eyes cast to the street, his balding crown burnt and scarred, stagger to the curb. Before I could even step he fell to all fours, then slumped into the road, and did not move again.

Telling, or exposition, is important to get the reader to important parts of the story. Once there, you want to draw them into the experience of what's happening by creating and fixing an impression of it. Often when readers express frustration with being told, they mean a lot of things that could have been interesting were only related as facts.

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A simple sample of told vs. shown:

Told:

"I have bad news for you, though," Fred said sadly. "You are not the boy's father."

"What do you mean?" George said, astonished. Then, angrily: "I can't believe it! How can this be?"

Shown:

"I have bad news for you, though," Fred said, his voice soft and his eyes downcast. "You are not the boy's father."

"What do you mean?" George cried. He sat back abruptly in his chair, his eyes wide and his jaw slightly agape. Slowly his expression hardened. "I can't believe it! How can this be?"

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