1. brotherbrutus
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    brotherbrutus New Member

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    Show, Don't tell: a worthwhile rule?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by brotherbrutus, Oct 3, 2007.

    Everyone is familiar with the adage "show, don't tell," and respect it with an unfaltering reverence. Over the past few months, I have begun to question this idea. I have never been a great fan of the "show, don't tell" motto, because I think it fails to impart the ideas it intends to impart, but I will spare you those thoughts for now. My question is, is showing truly superior to telling? It is something that is drilled into every writer from an early age, but I can't say that I've ever read a piece of writing for enjoyment and come away from it saying "Damn, I wish they had used more specific examples, I understood the general ideas, but the lack of mundane details really depleted the story's potency."

    I have been working on separating my inner writer from my inner reader (relearning to read all writing as a reader, which is much more difficult than I expected it would be). All these years, viewing writing as "good" and enjoying writing have been subconsciously separate for me. What I found was, when I really looked at a story from the perspective of the reader, I didn't want more showing, if anything, I wanted less.

    I think that showing, along with many of the other writing theories that usually accompany the saying, is a very aggressive style, and one that I find altogether distasteful. It is writing that says "Hey, look at me. I am interesting. And not only am I interesting, but you can tell that I'm interesting by the way I was written. Don't you see all the strong imagery and metaphors? Enjoy me!" In years past, I have failed to understand that I do not, in fact, actually like this writing because I have always been to busy explaining to myself why I was liking it.

    I am learning more and more that not only do I not enjoy reading this stuff, but it is bad writing because I don't enjoy reading it, at least from my perspective. Am I the only one who feels that this modern style is over-praised, and given far too great a monopoly on the correct way to write?

    Cheers, BB
     
  2. EyezForYou
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    EyezForYou Active Member

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    So why is telling better than showing, again?
     
  3. heyharris1
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    heyharris1 Senior Member

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    sine nobody has answered your question i will try, I actually dont know what you mean by show, dont tell.Writing is not my best skill, Yet im giving it a 100 percent trying. So i will cut in were you talked about reading. When i read (which i do alot of). i like to fell like im there, witnessing the whole thing. when i finish the chapter, i either wanna be mad, excited, upset, i wanna be drawn into it. For instance if i write it correctly. in the book im doing 1 chapter a brother steal's something from his other brother. when its all done i want the reader to be upset, almost at the point of "why the hell could he do that". not thinking about some metaphore. hell i dont even know what a metaphore is. to me its not show or tell, its i wanna be drawn into it, regardless of how they do it.
    jim
     
  4. EyezForYou
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    EyezForYou Active Member

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    Okay, Brutus and Harris, you guys would make a great couple.

    :D
     
  5. heyharris1
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    heyharris1 Senior Member

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    ok, brutus, i quess its me and you :)
     
  6. Nealo d
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    Nealo d Member

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    Well, I think that this is a point worth thinking about. It's not necessarily smart to simply accept these axioms, simply because other people do.
    For me (and I speak as a writer, on the whole, of non-fiction), writing should be a combination of the two- showing and telling. In fact good writing, great writing even, should blend the two so well that the reader is not aware of where the telling ends and the showing begins, or vice versa. If I am reading a piece of prose and am aware of being battered over the head with a piece of imagery, or a metaphor- however appropriate or effective it may be (like the one I just used, for instance), for me the writer has failed.
    Yes, in so many ways showing is better than telling- an image can be more subtle, more effective in conveying a particular sense or perspective, more psychologically 'loaded' than can simple exposition. But not when what it is saying most clearly is ''Look at me! Look at what a great writer I am, look at what great 'metaphor' I give!''
    In that case, (and let's be honest, there's a lot of this about)-writing becomes arrogant, dishonest and egocentric, more about the writer than the subject matter. And that is bad,bad,bad.
    Ultimately though, either showing or telling become a vacuous, self- indulgent nightmare in the hands of those more interested in being a great writer than they are in doing great work.
     
  7. brotherbrutus
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    brotherbrutus New Member

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    I want to rephrase my question (statement?), because rereading it now, I realize I was so ambiguous in my phrasing that I am surprised that you all managed to answer me as accurately as you did. I do not mean to suggest that showing is inferior to telling; it is certainly superior in certain situations. Emotions, for one, are things that must usually be either induced or shown, and largely not described. I just feel that too often "Show, don't tell" goes too far. There are situations during which every possible combination of showing and telling is appropriate, and to suggest that one is inherently better than the other does nothing but impede and inhibit the creative process. It is far more difficult and less efficient to "show" an idea while at the same time exhibiting strong narrative that is not necessarily aligned with the readers own thoughts. Telling allows the reader to judge not only the events, but also the narration, which is necessary in any writing that utilizes character voice.

    My comments on the modern style were just aimed at those writers who attempt to appear professional by following every one of these rules they can get their hands on, and come off as incredibly ameteur, only to be misinterpreted as good writers.
     
  8. RomanticRose
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    RomanticRose Active Member

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    Find a balance. If you do nothing but show, a simple novel could run to 5000 pages or be very boring, or both.

    Some things need showing, others need telling. That's the fun part of writing, deciding which is which. Oh, the other fun part is staring at the blank page until beads of blood break out on your forehead.
     
  9. Funny Bunny
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    Funny Bunny Contributing Member

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    The modern style it seems to me is a combination of the two. The new journalism, gonzo journalism, and a lot of essentially "beat" ideals were moved to the forefront. I frankly show as much as I tell. Transitions are mainly "telling" scenes. Main action is usually showing. But, you see telling and showing can be quite similar.

    She went to the mirror, she moved the vase, the flower petals fell on the floor. Outside a dog barked She could smell the oder of her mother's gingerbread. She remembered how her brother looked when he came from the army. He loved that ginger bread. It was the last time she ever saw him.

    Is this telling? Is it showing? I say it is both. There is no diologue and no separation of the narrator from the action.

    So. I dont know.
     
  10. DavidGil
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    DavidGil Senior Member

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    It's pretty simple really. People go overboard with the show, don't tell comments in my view. There's a place for both but finding the correct parts for each is the hard part.

    This also applies to the active vs passive argument. There's a place for both of them again.
     
  11. EyezForYou
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    EyezForYou Active Member

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    I find it just the opposite. Novice writers tend to go over with the tell, all tell, method.

    They never show. That sucks. :(
     
  12. Torana
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    Torana Contributing Member Contributor

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    I personally feel that you need to find a balance when it comes to show and tell with literature.
    A writer can over board with telling, but can also do the same with showing. I find that even I haven't mastered the right balance with show and tell in poetry yet, nor in prose.

    I would rather have a piece show more than tell, but that is a personal preferance really.
     
  13. Funny Bunny
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    Funny Bunny Contributing Member

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    The writer needs to give the reader directions as well. A lot happens in transitions and other "tell" parts. Also, as I said, a lot of things that look like telling are actually showing. You can have huge blocks of type that are all showing.
     
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  14. Domoviye
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    Domoviye Contributing Member

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    This rule can be useful as long as it is used in the right situations.
    In horror stories showing instead of telling is usually a good idea to heighten the tension. In romance it can make a really romantic scene go from being the normal "oh I love you so much' to something special.
    As long as showing doesn't dominate every page, and is used to maximize certain aspects of the story it is useful. If the writer tries to use it at every opportunity then it just becomes long winded and loses all effect.
     
  15. Weaselword
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    Weaselword Banned

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    I endorse this wise, succinct and cogent post!
     
  16. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    I would say it would be better to have a balance of the two, show and tell.
     
  17. Scavenger
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    Scavenger Senior Member

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    I've always been a big fan of "show don't tell," but that may be because when I started reading online works, they were all pretty much crap fanfiction with sentences that, as a rule, contained no more than five words. Ever. So I started pretty much screaming "showshowshowshowshowshowshowpleaseshow!" to see if it got me anywhere, and it did.

    My biggest problem with writers who just "tell" is that it a)can treat the reader like an absolute idiot and b)sacrifices some of the artistic quality of the piece. And shwoing isn't always metaphors and fancy words, it is, mainly, the absence of the verb "to be." Actions verbs go a long way toward "showing," and they make for a more interesting read. Adjectives are amazing and adverbs are even cooler, but the verbs are the ones that propel the story and take the writing to a different level. Anyone can say, "She was pretty." But think of how many other exciting and interesting ways you can say it that not only give the piece some life, but allow the reader to formulate his or her own opinion about what kind of pretty she was, and whether or not they agree with the author's assertation.

    That said, it can go too far, and I take it there every time I write. I have become so obsessed with showing and not telling that I refuse to introduce characters. To me, it's out of place and breaks the flow of the story. More often then not, when told from third person, and especially in first person, you do not learn the name of the character until it is told in dialogue, and you don't learn what they look like unless they look in a mirror or someone comments. But the generic paragraph of description bothers me so much, because it's not important. People shouldn't focus on what someone looks like or their name when they should be focusing on emotions and actions and plot and characterization. This applies to backstory as well. I loathe prologues.

    Usually, I use dialogue to convey all of this filler material that usually goes into exposition, and if I can't make it fit naturally, I don't put it in. And so, people have no idea what I'm writing about (taking it too far, see?) I have sacrificed clarity for the sake of style, and it shows. It is not also not good, because leaving the reader in the dark is nearly as bad as screaming the obvious to them.

    So...I guess I do like showing, but there are limits. I don't think this means you should resort to telling, just tone down on the show - and try to keep the presumptuousness out of it.

    Cheers
     
  18. dushechka
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    dushechka Contributing Member

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    I'm very unfamiliar with this rule. So much so, I never even heard of it until I stumbled across this thread.

    Would anyone be willing to give me (in their own words) the definition of both show and tell?
     
  19. Weaselword
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    Weaselword Banned

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    Tell:

    King Street School was a bad school in a bad neighbourhood.

    Show:

    King Street was the kind of school where you slipped on used condoms in the playground. Broken hypodermics littered the tennis courts. The boys generally shaved their heads and had tattoos by the time they were fourteen; the girls pierced each other's nipples in the washrooms with safety pins. When I visited, I decided to park my car a few streets away because I didn't want my tyres slashed.
     
  20. Weaselword
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    Weaselword Banned

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    Incidentally, Dushechka, Chekhov's excellent definition of "show" and "tell" appears in your signature. :)
     
  21. dushechka
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    dushechka Contributing Member

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    Aha! I see.

    So.. it's really just describing instead of blindly believing.

    I suppose that means most of my writing seems to be "tell."

    Is it easier to write showfully in third person, instead of first?
     
  22. Weaselword
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    Weaselword Banned

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    I don't think there's much difference in terms of ease of writing.

    I quite like first person, as a viewpoint, but I'm conscious that I'm in a minority among writers.
     
  23. dushechka
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    dushechka Contributing Member

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    I'm quite fascinated by first person too, actually.

    Anyway as far as the rule goes (from my small knowledge of it at least), I think the trick is finding a balance between both (as many of you have already stated).

    Then again, I may just have a liking for "tell." Sometimes being shown everything (descriptions on how someone looks, what they're wearing, what the pavement looks like) gets tiresome and a waste of words and thought. I like to imagine what characters would look like, without it being force fed.

    <end rant>
     
  24. Scavenger
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    Scavenger Senior Member

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    I don't think it's necessarily easier to write in either third or first. With first person, you'll have a lot more thought process going on, which does make a difference, and that might lead to more of a "tell" style, but I don't think either one is more prone to "telling" than the other, overall.
     
  25. brotherbrutus
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    brotherbrutus New Member

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    First and third person narratives have different traditional roles, but when you get right down to it, the only difference is in the style of the narrative (example: an old man who rambles on and on, a young boy with short sentences and frequent tangents). If the writer is ineffective at this, or chooses not to narrate in a very angled way, then they are effectively identical. A third person can have just as much perspective as a first person, especially in the limited omniscient. First person is often easier for inexperienced writers to build sympathy and perspective, but once third person has been mastered, there is virtually nothing that can't be done with it that could be done with first person.

    Also, I feel that situations in which showing is more appropriate is in large ideas. The fact that a character is sick could be easily told, but also very effectively shown, simply by describing the symptoms without actually saying the person is sick. Where I find that it is most out of place is in showing insignificant examples as part of a description. One recent example from a creative writing class I was in that particularly infuriated me was someone suggesting that "the lawn strewn with autumn leaves" was a boring phrase, because it failed to "show" the leaves were autumn by describing the color etc. If any of you are familiar with the writing of Dave Eggers, you would know just how little he needs to be told to show and not tell. The phrase was in the midst of a description that meant to juxtapose and ailing father with a barren and vacant suburban block. The fact that the leaves were autumn leaves had a peripheral import to the story at best, and yet there are still writers who believe that depth of detail needs to be shown (the image as a whole was very well described, so don't think it was a lack of overall depiction that induced this comment).
     

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