1. Letoatreides3508
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    Letoatreides3508 Member

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    Help with Show, Don't Tell

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Letoatreides3508, Oct 9, 2014.

    Hi. I was wondering if I could get some assistance practicing 'Show, Don't Tell' in my writing. I understand the concept somewhat... The idea is to use descriptive passages rather than declarative statements to describe objects, characters, scenes, etc. But I'm having a little difficulty putting it into practice with my writing, and was wondering if I could get some assistance...

    For example:

    "John didn't want to get his groceries because it was raining outside."

    The above example is of a declarative statement, describing the weather in the simplest terms possible. 'Telling'.

    "Noticing the milk carton in his refrigerator was almost empty, John debated whether or not to go to make the trek to Safeway to resupply. He thought better of it when he gazed out of his window and saw an endless downpour of torrential rain, falling from the sky as if God had suddenly rescinded his promise to never again destroy the world of men with a flood."

    The second example is my attempt to 'show' the audience the rain that kept John from the grocery store rather than just simply tell the reader that it was raining. But more often than not when I attempt to put this into practice with my writing the descriptive paragraphs just don't sound right when I read them back to myself. I'd really like to clock some practice time with this, so I was wondering if anyone feeling charitable with their time could post some sample declarative statements that I could convert into "Show, don't tell" descriptive passages and maybe critique me on how I'm doing. I know everyone on this board is at least as busy as I am, but any help on this would be greatly appreciated.
     
  2. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    My version of "show, don't tell" is "demonstrate, don't explain." And I'm afraid that I see both of your examples as being "explain" or "tell."

    What's your goal with this passage? To set up a good reason for John to go out and and get eaten by the zombie? To demonstrate his loneliness, home with an empty larder because his girlfriend left him last month, and only now does he appreciate how much she made his home feel like home? To demonstrate that John is slowly becoming agoraphobic, coming up with more and more reasons not to go outside?

    I would rewrite your example with more focus on John's thoughts than the narrator's explanation. In my voice, going with the second goal in the list of possibilities, it might be:

    John opened the fridge and studied the sticky, empty shelves. Half an inch in the milk jug. Broccoli browning on the edges. And that nervous-making smell that signals bad happenings in the depths of the crisper. If Jane were here, this would be the signal for "Grocery time!" in that terrible chirpy Scarlett O'Hara voice. He'd never have to hear that chirp again. Thank God.

    But he really wouldn't mind a slice of her meatloaf.

    Feh. Who needs meatloaf with a restaurant on every block? He shut the fridge and studied the window, watching as the rain rain down behind the...yeah, yeah, fine, so the glass was dusty, so what? A man has better things to do than chirp "Cleaning time!" and bustle around with lemon oil and a feather duster.

    Feh.

    Feh.

    Don't you dare cry.


    You see that I abandoned the grocery for a restaurant, because that fit in better with what I was demonstrating--Jane went to the grocery, so he's not going there. He's a restaurant man now.
     
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  3. A.M.P.
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    A.M.P. People Buy My Books for the Bio Photo Supporter Contributor

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    @Letoatreides3508
    There's much more to show, don't tell then adding flowery prose and that's a common mistake.
    The best way I know how to explain it is by saying to write from the characters perspective rather than telling a story.
    Get inside their head and mention what they think and feel much like ChickenFreak did in her example. The character went through some stuff and experienced it rather than "He noticed, he though, he debated, he saw... etc."
     
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  4. jonahmann
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    jonahmann Active Member

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    From D Thiel - Crossroads: Creative writing exercises in four genres (2005): Turn abstractions into images and action.

    Description is imagery, and consequently is showing, not telling. "Want" and "rain" are actions, so your first example is showing.
     
  5. Nilfiry
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    Nilfiry Contributing Member

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    You should focus on getting the point across without resorting to being unnecessarily descriptive if you can. With respect to the context of the passage, if it would sound better and easier to understand to just say, "he did not want to go because of the rain," then you should just do so. Do not be too concerned with trying to "show" everything. You tend to end up with something ridiculous like your second example when the first one could have worked better. The key is all in timing.
     
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  6. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I have to disagree. "Want" and "raining" are verbs, certainly, but you can't have a sentence without verbs, so a sentence with verbs is not assured to be "showing". "Wanting" doesn't suggest an action to me; you can stand stock-still and want things. "Raining" is descriptive, so you could argue that it produces an image, yes.

    (I also strongly disagree with the abstractions/images/action definition, but there are so many definitions that I can't say that any one is definitively right or wrong.)

    Edited to add: Though I do agree with Nilfiry that the first example is better than the second one.
     
  7. Empty Bird
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    Empty Bird Member

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    I think the problem is your example.

    "John didn't want to get his groceries because it was raining."

    Does that even need showing? To be honest, as a reader, I couldn't care less about whether or not John didn't want to get his groceries. Do you get it? Basically, when speaking of "show don't tell", it can't possibly link to everything. Some things, I'm afraid need to be told as they are.

    The important information, the thoughts and feelings need to be shown.

    For example, if you're dealing with John who has some sort of problem, writing:

    John was sad.

    Is telling. Writing:

    Screwing his eyes shut, John dug the heels of his hands hard into his eyes, biting down a sob that crackled and rose from his chest.

    That is showing.

    Do you get it? :) Not everything can be shown, or should be shown. Just the important parts.
     
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  8. jonahmann
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    jonahmann Active Member

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    How about just saying "John didn't get his groceries because it was raining." This shows that he didn't want to.

    EDIT: Or if in the story he does get the groceries, "John stalled before he got the groceries because it was raining."
     
    Last edited: Oct 9, 2014
  9. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hi Jonah,

    Both of your sentences are telling, not showing...and why not? Sometimes, you have to tell the reader that John either got or didn't get his groceries. The thing is, does him getting his groceries really contribute to the story? You (the author) need to show us that John cares about something or we won't care enough about him to read on. If you include a couple of hundred words giving a blow-by-blow account of the mundane details of his life to give the reader the sense of ennui that John is suffering from, the reader may well give up...it might be better to cut it to a simple statement to the effect that John was bored of how mundane his life was, and then get on to some action, some movement, some change.
     
  10. jonahmann
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    jonahmann Active Member

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    I think you're falling down daemon's trap of everything being telling. If not, why are the sentences telling, and how would you show that he got the groceries?
     
  11. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    Here's a good thread we recently discussed this in. I think you'll find it helpful. I'm also trying to dig up a direct example of show vs tell I have, I'll edit it into this post if I manage to find it.

    ps. ok, found it. I hope @Mike Hill won't mind me using his example. The post is here:
    http://www.writingforums.org/threads/how-to-describe-this-dress.134414/#post-1267396

    Every scene will have it's own unique ratio between show and tell, it depends on a lot of factors. I hope it helps!
     
    Last edited: Oct 9, 2014
  12. plothog
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    plothog Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    To show someone buying groceries, you'd actually have to create a scene which included them buying the groceries.

    Edit: oops bear with me there's meant to be somewhat more to this reply. I hit reply to soon.
     
  13. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think that both sentences are "telling" in the sense that they are simple facts...whether you tell it in as few words as possible, or dress it up with a page of flowery description, at the end of it, John has his groceries. But does it matter? Jack Bauer, in 24, - like the hero and heroine in a Romance - never goes to the toilet. Why? Because it's boring and doesn't move the story forward. It's words for the sake of words.

    As Empty Bird says "John was sad" is telling, "Screwing his eyes shut, John dug the heels of his hands hard into his eyes, biting down a sob that crackled and rose from his chest." is showing.

    So, to answer your questions:
    1/ The sentences are telling because they're a simple statement of fact.
    2/ I wouldn't show that he got his groceries, not unless it was relevant to the story. If it was relevant (it got him to the grocery store just as the armed robber burst in, or it's central to the plot that he's got a brand-new jar of pickle) I'd probably tell (not show) as economically as possible, so as not to bore the reader with detail.
     
  14. plothog
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    plothog Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    By a lot of definitions of showing, you need to be creating the impression for the reader that they're experiencing your characters lives in real time.

    The act of going shopping takes long enough, that summing it up in a single sentence is unlikely to create that impression.
    Some time has passed in the character's life and you've summarised what happened during that time. This is telling, but is the sort of instance when telling might be more appropriate. You want to skip over the boring bits.

    To show someone going shopping, you could create a scene which included them picking produce of the shelf or paying at the checkout. It would be a bit dull unless other stuff happened at the same time. Telling could very well be better.

    If you wanted to show someone had been shopping previously you could write something like.
    "John placed the bag of groceries on the kitchen table."
    This being a short enough action that it could easily be placed in a scene and still keep it feeling like it was happening in real time.
     
    Last edited: Oct 9, 2014
  15. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Telling is not automatically bad. In fact, showing is always encapsulat2d in telling.

    What you need to do is find the right balance between showing and telling, and to know which better fills the needs of the scene.

    See the blog link "Show and Tell" in my sig for more explanation and some simple examples.
     
  16. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    "Noticing the milk carton in his refrigerator was almost empty, John debated whether or not to go to make the trek to Safeway to resupply. He thought better of it when he gazed out of his window and saw an endless downpour of torrential rain, falling from the sky as if God had suddenly rescinded his promise to never again destroy the world of men with a flood."
    It's not bad. Could maybe be a little better:

    John lifted the milk carton to his lips tipping it all the way up. A couple drops wet his tongue. He shook the empty carton watching two more drops splash into the sink. "Who puts an empty milk carton back in the fridge?" He shook his head then sighed, looking out at the equivalent of Noah's downpour whipping against the window and the driveway absent his car.​
     
  17. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    John filled the bowl with corn flakes. He opened the refrigerator and picked up the milk carton, shook it, and chucked it in the trash. He muttered under his breath, grabbed the car keys, and opened the front door. Wind-whipped rain made it hard to see the car in the driveway.

    He closed the door. Scrambled eggs sound good, he thought.
     
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  18. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    I like these both. It's interesting to me what the different styles and story interpretations evoke.
     

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