1. Florent150
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    Florent150 Member

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    Knowing when to show and when to tell (if at all)

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Florent150, Jul 2, 2011.

    I've gotten a little bit hung up on this idea lately. I hear it a lot unsuprisingly; it's a common bit of advice. But I've also heard people say that it's not always the case, and exclusive showing will exhaust the audience. The saying is perhaps a little vague to be honest and therefore potentially misleading. How would you best explain the relationship between show and tell? When is either one appropriate (if at all)?

    Secondly, while I get the general idea, I'm not perfect in my understanding of the difference, and I have a little bit of trouble identifying "tell" and "show" writing. Can somebody explain the real difference, perhaps with a pair of text extracts and a bit of explanation as to what feature makes the text show or tell as appose to the opposite? I can spot infodumping (I think), which is literally as it sounds, and just a load of detail is presenting in a paragraph or more, almost in an encyclopedia style. What gets me though is if it can still be an infodump if characters are presenting. Here's a passage I wrote here; is it a show, tell, or even an infodump? and if which what makes it that?:

    "Shrouded in a thin layer of fog, he could see Compound 11; tents, motor vehicles and soldiers were congregated tightly on the beach in front of a sparse palm forest where flashes of gunfire continually burst from, although through the mist and darkness that cloaked the forest he couldn’t make out anybody shooting. The whole compound was surrounded by a translucent dome, on which rain water ran off the surface, keeping the compound dry. A few miles up the coast to their left was the resort, its floodlights twinkling. He had seen these beaches full of tourists once, the reef waters scattered with luxury yachts, but now it felt barren and cold"

    Because I feel like it's telling, particularly the red section, because the two sentences are stating the scene without doing that through the pov character's sense. If that's the case, could you convert that into a "show" simply by writing "he could see the resort a few miles up the coast...". Like I said though, I'm not totally clear on what counts as tell. The definition I was following by was that "show" is when details of the scene are expressed through the character's senses, whereas "tell" is when details of the scene are expressed through pure naration (descriptions of the pov character's actions don't count as "bad" though), but it gets a little hazy to me, and as I said above wouldn't that mean that simply stating "he could see..." before writing events, straight away turn it into a show?

    I'm basically trying to follow the parameters that my writing should either be Conversation, POV Character's thoughts, POV Character's senses, or Descriptions of POV Character's movement/action. But I'm trying to consider how this works in relation to pacing, action, etc. Does this sound good? (this last bit isn't reffering to the text extract above btw, more my writing in general)

    I appreciate the help :D
     
  2. Trilby
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    Trilby Contributing Member Contributor

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    The example you give above I would say it is 'descriptive'
     
  3. AltonReed
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    AltonReed Active Member

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    I think the idea was, instead of writing:

    'Derek was sad', say 'Tears rolled down Derek's face, his lower lip wobbling slightly.'
     
  4. FictionAddict
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    FictionAddict Senior Member

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    I struggle trying to show rather than tell too. I've been advised and briefly explained what the concept is here in WF, but like you, became more confused than enlightened.

    Motivated by your thread - and my own needs, of course - I made a quick search through the web and found some interesting things I thought it might help you.

    Here it goes:

    "Show, don't tell" should not be applied to all incidents in the story. According to James Scott Bell, "Sometimes a writer tells as a shortcut, to move quickly to the meaty part of the story or scene. Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. If you try to do it constantly, the parts that are supposed to stand out won't, and your readers will get exhausted."[1] Showing requires more words; telling may cover a greater span of time more concisely.[2] A novel that contains only showing would be incredibly long; therefore, a narrative can contain some legitimate telling. Source:Wikipedia

    You know you're showing your story when any of the five (or six) senses are engaged. When you paint a visual with words, you are showing.

    Tell: "He painted the wall an ugly green"

    Show: Jimbo laughed hysterically as he jabbed the paint brush into the can of paint. She wanted green walls in the kitchen did she? Great, he thought. Green it is! The label on the can read 'olive.' It was the color of army fatigues or rotted avocados, of grass mulched under spinning tires in the spring; of her horrid bean casserole he'd upchuck into the toilet this coming Saturday--if she kept to her mundane cooking schedule again this week. He knew she would. He'd been eating her bean casserole every Saturday for the last eleven years. "Oh, yeah," he said with a sneer. "You've got green, baby!"
    Source: Writing.com

    Hope I've helped a little ;) Good luck.
     
  5. spklvr
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    spklvr Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think the "Show, don't tell" mantra should put to rest soon. Whether it's show or tell, what counts is that the writing is good. Fact is, tell can be good writing too. I have read several stories that I have considered to be all tell and yet were really good. All books (I have read) by Diana Wynne Jones for example. FictionAddict had a good explanation.

    But I wouldn't think to much of it. Just write well, and it won't matter.

    That bit is important.
     
  6. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I want a different example. :) This is because while, yes, your example is largely "tell", it's a time when "tell"ing is just fine, IMO. Your character has a base of knowledge about his environment, and you're fairly concisely giving us that base of knowledge as background for, I assume, his upcoming actions. I might tweak that explanation - it's on the verge of turning dry and leading us to say, "Do something, already!" - but I wouldn't try to make it "show", I'd change it some other way.

    I might, for example, hand out the information about the dome and the nearby resort at two different times, to cut the information in half. If his memory of the resort has a strong emotional impact, I might try to make more of that.

    But sometimes you just need to tell, and trying to force "show" in that case can lead to horrible things like Hollywood narration:

    Shrouded in a thin layer of fog, Fred and Joe observed the enemy.

    Fred said, "As you know, Joe, the compound is covered with a translucent dome, keeping everything in there dry."

    Joe answered, "Yes, Fred, I know. It makes me sad that the resort two miles up the coast, once a busy place filled with luxury yachts, is now barren and empty."

    Fred said, "Yes, Joe, I remember that. As you know, I was the child of the resort manager, and my aunt, a famous beauty who once won the Miss Maine contest..."


    You see the horror here; I'll just stop. Forcing natural "tell" information to be "show" information is not always a good idea. If you did want to show the above information, you couldn't shoehorn it in with a horrible stilted conversation like my example - you'd have to structure it into the story and set it up pages, possibly chapters, before this moment. If it doesn't have enough value to be worth that kind of setup, then it probably either (1) should be cut altogether or (2) should be told.

    ChickenFreak
     
  7. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Good writing strikes an intelligent balance between showing and telling.

    Show and Tell
     
  8. thewordsmith
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    thewordsmith Contributing Member Contributor

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    This, I believe, is the penultimate explanation. (Sorry, Cog, but I had to leave room for the possibility of some better distinction somewhere down the road.)

    I have been beating this drum for so long, I've had to replace the drum head three times already! Last time I heard the phrase "Show don't tell" I had to run to the bathroom and vomit. (Okay, that was pretty gross. So I was fighting off stomach flu, but still ...) In any case, those two words should be applied to everything in your writing.

    Intelligent Balance​
     
  9. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    I actually have an ethical obligation to write up the research I did at uni on the linguistic difference between showing and telling -- university rules don't let me put the paper I wrote on line, but I have an ethical obligation to share the results. I must get around to it!

    Anyway, Cog's comment about "intelligent balance" is quite right, but might not help you to find that balance. The original form of the "rule", as far as I can tell, isn't "show, don't tell", it's "prefer showing to telling" -- much less absolute.

    In order to decide on the right balance, I think you need to understand the effect of each style of writing. Telling gets information across quickly and effectively, but doesn't engage the reader very much. Showing engages the reader far more but tends to be much more verbose and less certain that you will communicate precisely what you want communicated. So if you tell the stuff that is driving the story forwards -- the meat of the story -- it is going to end up reading like a history textbook; a mass of dull facts. If you show the stuff that joins all the meat together then the whole thing slows down to a crawl as the reader spends pages reading about something that they need to know but that isn't really driving the story forwards. The advice to prefer showing to telling came about because pretty much all novice writers tend to tell too much, making for dull reading. I suspect most of the telling could be cut out completely; some of what remains would be better shown, and some is ok as it is.

    As for telling the difference between showing and telling -- well, it's tricky, because you show by telling something else. Essentially, telling is giving the reader information directly, showing is giving the reader information from which they can make relevant inferences. The short story attributed to Hemmingway, the entirety of which is "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." might be telling if you already know the whole story behind it, but because you don't you have to infer the story so it's (arguably) showing. What complicates it even more is that showing v. telling is not a black-and-white distinction; almost everything is in shades of grey, and it's about how much you trust your reader to connect the dots. Novice writers, telling a lot, are underestimating their readers. Some literary fiction expects the reader to join so many dots that many readers will be left bewildered.

    All that said, here is what I found by analyzing a mass of texts identified by writing pundits as either "showing" or "telling", in particular analyzing the verbs (or, technically, the processes because I was using an approach called systemic functional analysis).
    • Material process -- physical actions such as running, hitting, throwing and so on -- were significantly more common in showing than in telling (48% v. 26%);
    • Relational processes -- that describe states of being such as "she was small", "she is the new teacher", "he has a piano" -- are more common in telling than showing (42% v. 17%);
    • Mental process -- what somebody senses or thinks -- are more common in telling than in showing (25% v. 13%). That might seem counter-intuitive, but "he saw the girl framed in the doorway" isn't something the reader can see;
    • Verbal process -- speech acts -- are more common in showing than in telling (17% v. 1%)
    • In case you know about systemic functional analysis I should mention that existential and behavioural processes were too rare in the texts that I studied for me to be able to draw any statistically significant conclusions.
    So where you have a lot of things happening and a lot of dialogue then you are probably tending to show. Where you have a lot of description or you keep taking us into the character's head then you are probably tending to tell. But that's "probably". If you are worried that a long and boring lecture (lots of relational processes!) in the narrative, making a character deliver the lecture (making it a verbal process) will not fix the problem! And remember, telling is not a bad thing when you use it to fast-forward to the next key passage.
     
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  10. cruciFICTION
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    cruciFICTION Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'll be honest, I'm tired of this "Show, don't tell" stigma. How about we start a new one? "Write, don't ask (questions on this forum when they hinder your writing)".

    Go write. When you finish, prepare to edit it. Make your own decision on how much telling should be present. But write.
     
  11. Florent150
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    Florent150 Member

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    Thanks, these posts have been really helpful. I think my issue has been deciding when it's best to tell or show. I think I'm much clearer now as to the difference and how to recognise (and therefore write) either way ( liked the "as you know, bob" thing chickenfreak ;) ).

    I think the Show, Don't Tell thing needs to be put down a little mainly because it's so blunt and can be misleading to novice writers who hear the phrase without much more elaboration.
     
  12. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Yes. "Show don't Tell" is often given as automatic advice on writing sites because it is easy to say and requires very little thought. The more difficult approach, although an infinitely more useful one, is to help the writer understand when it is necessary to show, when "telling" will suffice (setting aside the fact that all writing is telling), and how to strike the right balance in any given work.
     

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