1. Fable
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    Fable New Member

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    about showing and telling

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Fable, Sep 6, 2009.

    I tried to search the forum for some help for this, but didn't find anything that satisfied me (or then I just don't know how to use the advanced search properly), so I decided to make my own thread.

    So my problem is - how does one go about developing the necessary skills that are needed to effective, and vivid "showing"? I've been reading the story reviews for a day now and one thing I've learned about myself when reading other people's stories (and the reviews of them) that I really do suck at "showing". So far I've been concentrating almost exclusively in "telling" and now that I've begun to open my eyes a bit, I realize that that may not be a very good practice after all.

    So how does one go about learning how to "show" effectively? Do I just need to read houndred books from the "classic" authors and hope that my skills would become better over time, or is there a more effective way of teaching myself that? Are there any books that concentrate on the subject? How does one go about with this problem. Because I do think that is one of my problem areas that I need to be focusing on from the very beginning...

    How did you develop these kind of skills?

    I know that this must sound like such a "beginners' question" but I don't care. I know my weaknesses and I want to start working on them, so any kind of advice is highly appreciated.

    Thank you,
    Fable
     
  2. Rumpole40k
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    Rumpole40k Banned

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    The method I found that worked best for me when I was trying to tackle this issue was to first write the story out and not worry about showing vs telling. Next, as you edit the story, see how many "telling" lines can be included in the dialogue and how much is honestly unnecessary to the plot. Eventually, your subconscious will begin to make the transition from telling to showing for you.
     
  3. marina
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    marina Contributing Member Contributor

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    Go here to Cogito's blog in which he talks about showing v. telling.
     
  4. DragonGrim
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    DragonGrim Contributing Member

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    I think one can develop the skill without having read too much.

    “Showing” is the skeleton of a story. It’s essential. Example:
    I found the bully with the squirt gun. He stood below me, smoking a cigarette. He coughed and threw the half burned smoke into dry bushes. I shifted the brick, and it scraped. Trying to be quiet, I lifted the brick and dropped it. With a splat, the brick struck.

    “Telling” can make a story more interesting. Example:
    I found the bully with the squirt gun. Yesterday he’d beat me up in front of everybody. He stood below me, smoking a cigarette as if it made him cool. He coughed and threw the half burned smoke into dry bushes. What a thoughtless bastard. I shifted the brick, and it scraped. I don’t want to make too much noise. Trying to be quiet, I lifted the brick and dropped it. With a splat, the brick struck. There wouldn’t be no more trouble with that one. Now for the others…

    No one wants to read too much telling. I noticed a lot of unpublished fantasy novels start out with long histories. Sure, some readers might won’t to sit through a fake history class, but not many. Telling can sound preachy too. Don’t tell the reader how bad the cops are to your pot-smoking teenager and expect the reader to side with the teenager because you said so. Example:

    Telling
    Billy stuffed his pipe in his sock. Damn, I smell like weed, he thought. There’re those caps that always mess with me. The big one’s really a prick. They’d given him plenty of trouble, even broke his nose and said he resisted arrest.

    Showing
    Billy stuffed his pipe in his sock. Damn, I smell like weed, he thought. He walked faster, but the cops’ eyes found him. The big cop can over and spoke. “I remember you. Little Billy Bitch.” The cop put a flashlight in his eyes, and told him to open them wide. He slammed the flashlight into Billy’s nose, causing blood to shoot down his shirt.
     
  5. ManhattanMss
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    ManhattanMss Contributing Member

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    Probably the best way to understand the difference is to reads lots of novice stories. Wherever you feel like "Hey, I already know this," or "So why do I have to know this anyway?" that's a big clue that some subtly or overtly more elaborate way of showing the reader what's going on would be helpful. There is no dramatic line between "showing" and "telling," so much as a matter of HOW you "tell" your story and why (and how interestingly) you include certain details (rather than others), and what any particular detail adds to your story, its atmosphere, or your character's persona. Every tidbit should have some reason for being other than summarizing something for a reader just because you're not sure he could figure it out for himself. I don't ascribe to the theory that details should simply be moved into dialogue, because there's a very big danger that doing so will be perfectly obvious to the reader. The difference between showing and telling is a lot more like the difference between having someone phone you up and describe the story they're writing and allowing you to "experience" the story by what happens to your imagination when you actually read it.

    That's my two.
     
  6. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    other than taking a creative writing course, the only way to 'learn' how is to read lots of writing by the best writers and 'absorb' how it's done... and, if still necessary, study and even analyze the ways our finest writers do it... imo, that's the best of all 'courses'...
     
  7. Fiel
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    Fiel Member

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    IMO all dedicated writers would have such worry some time in their career. I think reading other works do help, but the more effective method is to get on the writing and edit later, which would likely require massive amount of work. Best of all, have some dedicated editor together in the boat (friends, family with high mastery in the language). You'll grow with your work.

    Last word; writing should be fun, editing too. Scan it, hammer it, burn it, hack it all and plant it back. Have fun with language.
    :rolleyes: Just an opinion. I'll be back!


    Hey, I did this too. :D
     
  8. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    A large part of showing vs. telling takes place in connection with emotional states. Telling about a character's emotional state tends to be a bit thin, because emotions and sensation are both subtle and complex. Pinning them down with an adhective or two doesn't do them justice.

    The first instinct may be to say that Zack was angry. You can refine it more by deciding whether he was mildly annoyed, offended, seriously pissed off, enraged, or murderously out of his flippin' skull.

    But assume for a moment you;re not inside Zack's head. He's right in front of you, and you just felt a need to step back from him. Why? What did you see that told you what was going on in Zack's brain?

    Showing is conveying these cues to te reader instead of telling the reader the conclusion you came to. Zack's jaw tightened, and his eyes narrowed. Zack leaned forward, and his hands clenched into fists. Zack stopped talking, and is glaring at you. Or he is talking in a low, tight tone and choosing. His. Words. Carefully. And he is turning red, and his shoulders a scrunching up.

    Or maybe you're picking yourself off the floor, wondering what hit you.

    The thing about showing is that it doesn't nail it down to a single conclusion. If Zack is turning red, is he irate, embarassed, or just overheated? The cues let the reader draw the conclusion, and therefore you restore the subtlety that is lost by telling.

    Even if Zack decks you, is he furious, or is he terrified and desperate? A misture of feelings probably led to the attack. By not nailing it down, you let in the possibility that it could be several feelings all whirled together.
     
  9. Fable
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    Fable New Member

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    Thank you all for your answers. I am sorry that it took a while to answer back, but I've had a long and busy day.

    So, I guess I should start reading other writers' works/books and analyze them as best as I can (yeah, I still suck at analyzing other people's writings - but hey, got to start form somewhere, right?). Do you have any suggestions where to begin. I'd be especially interested of Science Fiction (I don't know why, but lately I've been very fond of Sci-Fi stuff - even though I've very much disliked Sci Fi my entire life), Horror and Humour. What books have you found to be especially rich and vibrant in the way of "showing"?

    I was looking through the local bookstore and came up with Neil Gaiman's Sci-Fi book that looked interesting enough. I just don't remember its' name...
     
  10. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    for the best of sci-fi, read the classic novels and short stories of the acknowledged 'greatest of the greats':

    poul anderson
    isasc asimov
    ben bova
    ray bradbury
    robert heinlein
    jules verne
    h. g. welles
     
  11. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    You need to add Philip K Dick to that list.
     
  12. ManhattanMss
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    The McSweeney's collections of stories have a really broad range of genre stories, from well-known authors to first-timers. You can probably get a real good picture of what works better and less well to your read. I still think a great place to begin to hone your critical skills is by reading novice writers where you will see pretty easily where you feel they need more "showing" than "telling," and you can begin to think about what you would do to make that difference. Others' comments will give you some clues, too. That'll give you some ways of comparing published stories where there may be fewer show vs. tell deficiencies.

    You don't have to review stories in order to learn from them, either, so you needn't feel intimidated by letting yourself make your own private decisions. Just get a feel for what works and what doesn't work, and why that's so for your own reader's ear. Published works tend to make you feel as a reader that if something's not to your liking, it might be because you just haven't read it well enough. I think it's important to learn both what does work as well as what doesn't, and published works will have less of what doesn't than unpublished work where the writer is still trying to learn the very same things that you are. Reading those stories will exercise the critical reader inside you, and that goes a long way toward recognizing what a really good writer has done to make it all work.
     
  13. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    To begin with, try to write exclusively through telling - I mean, absolutely everything that is not physically showable, cut it. The writing will suck, obviously, but that's not the point. The exercise will hopefully let you pick up on ways that you can show the reader something where you might be used to telling them. Almost as importantly, it will show you where showing fails, and where you need (or it is better to) tell a reader something in a more obvious way.
     
  14. Fable
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    Fable New Member

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    I might just try that. Sounds like just the kind of "reverse-engineering" thing that I like :)

    So I went to bookstore today and there were a few books by Isaac Asimov on the desk. "The Complete Robot" seemed great, so I picked it. Robots and androids are the main reason why I've got interested of SciFi so suddenly. And I read a few short stories from it and I was blown away. I loved the stories, and if the rest of the book is anything like that, I can't wait to read it through.

    And I did manage to pick out some parts here and there, where the narrator was showing something instead of telling. I do realize that most of the time I have troubles figuring out wether something is being told or shown. But I guess that comes with time and experience. So I'll be extra careful when I'm reading, and hopefully by the time I've read 10 000 pages of text I will be able to start seeing patterns and understand the logic behind how it all works. Well, here's to hoping at least...
     
  15. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    Remember too that there's no ideal, and it is primarily a stylistic choice as to how much showing and telling you do. You might find some convergance among some writers, but in general it varies as much between person to person as any other aspect of writing.
     
  16. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    I do think that most writers will agree that it's a matter of finding the right balance between showing and telling. It's not as simple as ideally only doing one or the other.
     
  17. Atari
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    Atari Active Member

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    Don't short change this answer, guys. His first example is probably the BEST and most coherent, easily detectable demonstration of mixing showing and telling together that I have ever seen.
     
  18. Robert
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    Robert Banned

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    I would have to respectfully disagree. I think you're best served by reading as much contemporary science fiction as you can. The genre has moved on.

    Cheers,
    Rob
     
  19. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    But it hasn't just evolved in a vacuum. People still build on what other writers have done before them. Its still rare, even in contemporary scifi, to find an author free from the influece of Wells and Asimov, for instance. So while you should be aware of what is going on in the genre now, knowing what came before and how that is still being used today is never a bad thing.
     
  20. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    that was what was asked for and what i supplied, robert, so how can you disagree?

    and what aaron says is true... to become a good writer, one must not read only the current writers' works, but also read and study the works of the finest writers of all ages, to learn what it's possible to do with words, when one has the highest level of skills and talent...

    of course you have to then be aware of what people of your own time are buying and reading, but to be able to write well enough to succeed as a writer, you should study what came before, as well...
     
  21. bluebell80
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    bluebell80 Contributing Member

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    I have to agree with maia here on this. The creative writing classes I took did help me immensely with knowing the difference between showing and telling. My first story that I did for my class was so full of "This is telling, try showing it" that I almost gave up. I didn't though and I learned how to change the telling to showing.

    Almost all authors will fall into telling from time to time. You will know these parts as the slower, slightly more boring parts of the book. But then, for pacing, sometimes authors use them on purpose, but most times they could either be cut out completely or changed to showing to give it more excitement.

    Third Person POV is the most apt to falling victim to telling. It's much easier to start telling the reader what's going on when going with this POV. First person POV makes it a little harder, though still can fall into the trap of telling.


    An example of telling:

    We sat around the table discussing what to do next.


    That is a very simple sentence, and while it could work if you were trying to hurry into the next scene, you could also cut it, or expand it into showing them sitting around the table discussing what to do next.

    Showing:

    Bob squirmed in his chair, "We just don't know what's out there. We can't go running off half cocked into something dangerous."

    "But we can't sit here and starve to death. We have to go out eventually," Jim argued.

    "We need better weapons before we go anywhere," Nina said.

    "Fine. Let's start looking around to see what can be used to protect ourselves." Bob shoved back from the table and headed out of the break room.


    Now if you can see I showed their conversation of what to do next, rather than telling it as the first sentence did. Bear in mind this was from the seat of my pants and not edited to perfection... :) But just a thrown together example.

    You don't always have to "show" everything in a scene. There are some times when a simple "telling" sentence can work to get a point across and move the story along to get to a more interesting place to be "showing."

    Personally, I avoid telling as much as possible. If I don't want to show it, I probably should just cut it, at least that what I learned from my professor. That works great in shorter stories, but sometimes in a longer piece of work a short telling paragraph can get the reader to where they need to be to start the next scene of showing, or sometimes it's just the writers laziness or need for less wordage that motivates a telling part.

    I've read enough stories with bits of telling in them. I usually notice them, since I'm a writer, but I can usually forgive them when they only happy every now and then in a story. If the entire story is telling I won't read it. I have recently come across a story that was almost purely showing. John Dies At The End only had a sentence or two of telling throughout the entire 100k+ word story. I read it in three days of almost non-stop reading. It sucked me into the world and gave me nightmares! It was a really good book in my opinion for a sci-fi book.
     
  22. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Also, the creative writing course doesn't replace reading lots of writing by the best writers. It merely provides a framework for studying those writings.
     
  23. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    true, cog, but in saying that i was referring only to the 'show, don't tell' question, as in how to learn that particular aspect of writing good fiction...
     
  24. Sound of Silence
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    I saw 'show, don't tell' being written on a blackboard of our yr 6 class (11/12-year-old kids), yet in reception a few doors down a lesson on 'show and tell' was underway. There's an incling for a study here on just how much the educational system play in screwing up kids minds over this issue.

    It annoys me because show and tell in a classroom (age 4/5) is no different to show and tell in writing. In the classroom, you're asked to bring a teddy along one week, point out (show )it's torn stomach, ripped ear, missing eye, (also showing how well-loved it really is) then we tell them a little bit a bout it: this is my favourite teddy because.... In writing, we'd simply write (show) 'stuffing fled its ripped ear, cotton dangled from its eyesocket' how 'the boy pulled it close to his chest eveytime another kid got close to it), then we'd tell the reader a little bit about it: James had many teddies, but this was his most favourite of all...

    If they're teaching creative writing, I think teachers should atleast take a creative writing course. Might cross out a few of these bloomin hiccups for those authors coming into the craft.
     
  25. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Good teaching approaches the same ideas from multiple directions. Some people learn best from comparison lists, others learn better by reading examples and drawing their conclusions from a few general guidelines. Some learn better from listening aloud, others by seeing it in text, still others from mapping it out as a diagram.

    A good teacher will try to present the same material in several ways, especially key concepts like balancing showing and telling.
     

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