1. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Show, don't tell with example

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by GingerCoffee, Aug 28, 2015.

    Yes, it's another 'show, don't tell' debate discussion. :agreed:

    (Title is supposed to say, examples.)

    Why? Because the more I discuss it, the better I get at doing it. And, because I want to specifically address the misconceptions as I see them about what the concept is. Also, it's an off-topic discussion in the Secret to Length thread and I don't want to keep hijacking that thread.

    I don't claim to be an expert, certainly everyone's opinion on a topic like this should be considered. This is my take and some explanations of show, don't tell contradict my POV. I see again and again people thinking showing just means a better description of what is going on in the scene. It's a natural assumption, and I think a natural step along the road to better writing. But the way I see the issue, it's not exactly what show, don't tell is about.

    I can see why people get the wrong idea. When I look at a lot of the writing advice blogs on the subject, your find overkill examples filled them with so much showing the forest gets lost in the trees.

    Take this example:
    Instead of illustrating the concept, Jerz, the blogger, gets carried away with 'showing' an elaborate story that wasn't in the 'telling' sentence. No wonder people don't understand the concept when the example is so cluttered with showing it doesn't convey the point.

    Let's try it again.​
    [Telling] Winning is important to me. It doesn’t matter to me what I do, so long as I win.
    There is one main point to be conveyed, the guy wants to win at any cost. The 'showing' example was all about bragging and an inflated ego. That's not even the same thing.​
    [Showing] I kissed the trophy then held it high over my head to the cheers of the crowd. If they didn't see me cheat, that was their problem.​

    There's no need for elaborate descriptions or introspection. Think instead what symbolizes winning at any cost?

    Here's one of Grammar Girl's examples:
    In that example, it's longer and more elaborate. It also enriches the writing. I think it's a good example of showing, not telling. But it might be distracting to the author trying to learn the concept. If you just wanted to show the original telling sentence you have two concepts going on, Mr Bobweave's weight and one trait, ungrateful.
    Mr. Bobweave heaved himself out of the chair and cursed that dreadful girl who was late again with his coffee.​

    The example Grammar Girl gives elaborates the showing and is much more interesting than just the bare minimum 'fat and ungrateful' symbolism. Just don't let, "As his feet spread under his apple-like frame and his arthritic knees popped and cracked in objection," distract you from the point.

    Here's another example I think misses the point altogether:
    Most people can easily see that passage is all telling.

    Instead of illustrating showing, the blogger, Joe Bunting, takes the 'describe it more fully approach':
    It continues, that's only half the example. It's awful. No wonder when people see examples like that they come to believe showing is no more than filling out the details.

    I don't like his example. I see filling out the details in the story as something different from show, don't tell. It overlaps, certainly. Many of the filled-out details will be showing. And filling out the details is an important part of writing an interesting story.

    But the concept of showing is to let the reader experience the story rather than hearing the story. It's not necessarily filling in more details.

    Grammar Girl's examples in this case are good ones, the other two bloggers, not so much.​
     
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  2. Elena Schmetterling
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    Elena Schmetterling Member

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    Thanks for this!
    I agree with you about the last "example" though, looks more like a waste of words. There are better ways to do it.
    The thing to look for would be the verb "to be", which is generally a sign of 'telling'. The second sentence in the first one is a little harder to spot; I also think that the expanded version was well written but could have worked better elsewhere (basically, if it weren't trying to 'show' what the last version 'told').
     
  3. GingerCoffee
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    "To be" and also 'to do', 'felt', 'thought', and a number of other filter words can be indicators of telling.

    See, hear, feel, think, looks, watch, - all of these are often 'tell' words one can consider showing. What is seen? Heard? What creates the feeling or thought?
     
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  4. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Good post. Good to see some examples of a writing "rule" taken too far getting deconstructed and shown for what they are.

    But I still do not find it useful to lump a bunch of very different (and perfectly good) writing techniques under the "show, don't tell" umbrella. This is because:
    • All writing is telling. If you want showing, then go see a movie.
    • Everyone has a different idea of what "show" and "tell" are.
    • Calling them "show, don't tell" relies on the listener's intuition to figure out how to accomplish it. But as the OP proves, it is not at all intuitive -- that is why so many people misunderstand it and write worse as a result.
    So, we agree on which techniques are useful; I just think it is better to call them something different.

    To identify some of those techniques (although I do not have catchy names for them yet):
    • Instead of making a descriptor the topic of its own sentence, make it a modifier in a sentence about something else. In Grammar Girl's example, the topic of the "telling" sentence is three facts: that he is fat, that he is old, and that he is ungrateful. In the second "showing" sentence, the topic of the first clause is the action of standing up from his chair, and the fact that he is fat is made into a modifier ("apple-like") that modifies "his frame".
    • Instead of using a term that refers to something, describe what it refers to. (This is where most of the bad examples come from.) Bad example: tell = "he opens the door"; show = "he turns the doorknob and pushes the door inward on its hinges so he can enter." Good example (Grammar Girl's): tell = "he stood up from his chair"; show = "his feet spread under his apple-like frame and his arthritic knees popped and cracked in objection".
    • Instead of referring to a fact, refer to a consequence of that fact. Grammar Girl's "telling" sentence refers to his age. The "showing" sentence refers to his arthritis, which is a consequence of his age.
    • Instead of referring to a mood or personality trait, write in a diction that embodies it. Grammar Girl's "telling" sentence refers to his ungrateful personality; the "showing" passage evokes a crotchety personality, while staying tongue-in-cheek, by personifying inanimate objects ("knees popped and cracked in objection") and by using diction that the reader could imagine coming from someone with that personality ("that dreadful girl who was late again").
     
    Last edited: Aug 28, 2015
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  5. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    The only thing I will to add to this discussion is that regardless of what one's opinion is of the meanings of show and tell, the part that absolutely needs to go is the don't part. I know full well the difference between the two, but the statement show, don't tell is fundamentally fractured and denotes that one thing is wrong to do and the other thing is right to do. This adds a completely fallacious layer of obfuscation to the explanation of the difference between the two and is, in my opinion, a huge factor in why there is so much disagreement in their respective meanings.

    ETA: For those not in the know, the OP did not coin the phrase show, don't tell. The wording of the phrase is not her fault. It's the most common way one hears this paradigm expressed and is everywhere seen in "how to" books, forums, blogs, etc.
     
  6. Aaron DC
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    Tell: "Would you be so kind as to attend to my words," he pleaded, energetically.
    Show: "Listen up!"
     
  7. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    I agree, @Wreybies. I will try to remember to call it show vs tell.
     
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  8. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    I only point it out because it is written that way everywhere. When people run across the topic, that's how it's nearly always stated, and, again, it adds a layer of... judgement (maybe there's a better word) that confuses the matter entirely.
     
  9. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Thank you.

    This dismisses the concept on semantic grounds.
    That's what I'm trying to address.
    I agree, there's a problem when the critique is not fleshed out more.
    That's a bit complex. Not sure it's easier to understand than show vs tell if you can teach people what show vs tell means.
     
  10. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yes, it is complex and challenging to understand.

    It is easy to understand what you want to accomplish. You want the reader to have a vivid mental picture of what you describe.

    It is harder to understand how to accomplish it. As I said, it is not at all intuitive. One does not just intuitively figure out that one way to create a more vivid mental picture is to use a descriptor as a modifier instead of making it the topic of its own sentence any more than one intuitively figures out that one way to solve an integral is to factor the function and integrate by parts. We get better at solving writing problems and math problems by identifying problem solving techniques individually and mastering them consciously.

    I revise what I said earlier: "show" vs "tell" is a fair way to refer to the concept of "the reader has a vivid mental picture" vs "the reader merely comprehends the facts". But it cannot be expected that people get it right until they learn the specific techniques.

    Do you know any other techniques? I am always interested in expanding my own toolbox.
     
    Last edited: Aug 29, 2015
  11. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    For starters, I think it helps to know the difference between showing with those vivid images and showing by adding more details to the scene.
     
  12. jannert
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    I like the idea of letting readers draw their own conclusions. Give them a clear picture of what's happening, but don't tell them what it means. Let them figure that out for themselves.
     
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  13. Capricorn42
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    Capricorn42 Member

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    I get the importance of showing rather than telling, but i would say that you can use anything in dialogue.

    "Mr. Bobweave was a fat, ungrateful old man," Elsie snapped, and added, "I'm quite glad he's dead."

    So hopefully this shows that Elsie is a rather self centred and mean spirited person. Just a thought!



     
  14. Aaron DC
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    It shows through her dialog that she was mean spirited, yes. You don't need to use "snapped", I don't think it adds anything, and IMO the dialog is too long for a snap.
     
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  15. JonasDerHeld
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    I think showing is about writing in a way that creates an image in the reader's head.
    Mr. Bobweave was a fat, ungrateful old man. Does not tell what he looks like at all. I'd have to create my own image, which I can't. What does an ungrateful man look like?
    He opens the door. Shows me an image of a person opening a door. So in my opinion it is more show than tell.
    He turns the doorknob and pushes the door inward on its hinges so he can enter. Just shows the action in more detail. This perspective might be more appropriate for a horror story.

    And since "example" is already in the thread title. Can you recommend any books that do this well, preferably in modern English? (Is the previous sentence grammatically correct? I think I'm asking for the recommendation to be in modern English, but I'm not sure how to write this correctly. )
     
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  16. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Except for one thing: "that dreadful girl"

    Here, I'm guessing the opinion is supposed to be Bobweave's, yet it's written as if it's the narrator's. That kind of muddies the waters. It straddles the fence between third-person limited and third-person omniscient. I'm thinking in 3rd-p omni ATM, so this is my take on it:

    Mr. Bobweave heaved himself out of the chair and cursed. "Where is that dreadful girl! Coffee, dammit!" When she finally scurried in, he tore off his wristwatch and shoved it in her face. "Five past! Five past, you horrible wretch!"

    She blinked his spittle from her eyes.
     
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  17. Wreybies
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    I missed this statement on first read and would like to add that I agree here. Show and tell are rather poorly chosen terms as descriptors for the two concepts. They fit to an extent, but that extent is rather limited and sadly doesn't come nearly far enough as regards more ambitious endeavors of creative writing. Would that we all had been there on the day the internal lingo of the writing world had been decided. I cannot think of any better at the moment, though I have tried. Flat fact vs. derived. Reduced vs. extrapolated. I'm afraid mine would be no better for the average Joe and Jane, even if they feel more exacting to me.


    All of these (with which I agree for the most part) answer to a one-step-removed paradigm. Hmmm..... Degrees of separation? Would that work as a better descriptor? I like that it implies a spectrum for a single phenomenon rather than one-size-fits-all boxes for things that may or may not fit well within any of the given boxes. ;)


    I was dead tired after a fourteen hour shift
    is clearly a tell statement. It delivers the information flatly and directly. Even if I flower and fluff it up with more words: I was utterly dead tired after the grueling fourteen hour shift to which I had foolishly volunteered, is still 100% tell. There is no degree of separation from the fact of my exhaustion and the level of complexity in its delivery to the reader.

    After fourteen hours on my feet I gave serious thought to working as a hustler. Someone's bound to want a "daddy type" for a roll in the sheets. That's show. At no point do I make flat-fact mention of my exhaustion. It's there, it's obvious, but it's a degree of separation removed. The reader is given to infer that I'm dead tired by the fact that I'm actually considering prostitution as an alternate job.
     
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  18. Aaron DC
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    I fell into bed despite the stench from 14 hours on my feet in the sweat shop. A shower could wait. Time to sleep.
     
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  19. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Even that is dependent on what in the story you're talking about. Using the standard definitions of "show" and "tell" that people use when talking about fiction, most writers are going to use some combination of this, deciding what to dramatize in the way that evokes an image in the mind of the reader and what to present in a more summary form. That decision is ultimately a stylistic choice that the author makes. There's no wrong answer to how much to "show" and how much to "tell," there's only whether the choice you've made works.
     
  20. 123456789
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    @daemon is exactly right in his advice. Show don't tell in my mind is always really about dynamics. By showing the "consequence of the fact" you are painting context for the reader and things are in a constant state of development in terms of both event and character. In Daemon's bad example of show, all he was doing was micromanaging a tell. He simply divided a telling action "he opened the door" into smaller connected telling actions.

    In fact, Daemons "good example" of show might be the only good example of show I've seen used this far. Aaron's example is pretty good too. It's dynamic.
     
  21. peachalulu
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    I wanted to find some telling that worked so I pulled out Ramona the Pest.
    ( now one could argue that a children's book might have an author putting more tells so her reader will get it - but I never find that the case with Cleary she totally understands how smart kids are and never talks down to them. I think her tells are part of her style. )
    Had I seen this on a few other sites - people ( myself included ) might be going oh well, Ramona should have a facial reaction to show us that she didn't enjoy being called her mother's baby - which would actually wreck the rhythm of that wonderful sentence. Or - show Ramona's disappointment don't tell us. Or in the last sentence - you've shown Ramona's excitement you don't need that last sentence.

    I think the tells work because they add rhythm, important information and reemphasizing a state of mind. I mean takes sentence number 2 for a talkative child like Ramona to admit she had nothing to say is more wonderful than - her face fell with disappointment. And repetition in the first sentence has more beauty than anything involving an action. And for the last sentence it just reemphasizes and draws out Ramona's excitement.
     
  22. Adhulari
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    Thank you everyone for the great advice... I've already applied it on something I'm working on and what d'you know, it's better already! :D
     
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  23. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Yes. Again, it is a stylistic choice, and you can make a good combination of both 'show' and 'tell' work in any given story. The idea that every emotion, reaction, or act of your character has to be conveyed through showing is nonsense. You have to pick and choose when to most effectively use one versus the other.
     
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  24. oTTo
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    Is this at all able to show more than tell?

    "And that is how it is going to be." The President finished saying. The room, filled to capacity with a mix service men and women.

    In a fervor the room full of soldiers disputed the President, their Commander in Chief. The first rows stood to their feet and began pressing forward. An atmosphere of rage swelled in the crowded room. The Secret Service agents surrounded the President, pistols drawn and aimed at the crowd of soldiers, trying to shield him from their shouts. As the huddle of agents and president made their way from the podium the soldiers rushed. A row of agents posted away from the huddle fired at the first aggressor to move passed their small line. One after another blasts from their pistols penetrated the crowd.

    Blood sprayed the soldiers from each inflicted wound. It was only a second after the first shots and bodies falling that the crowd surged onto the agents with a lust for revenge. It was only seconds later that each of those agents were death themselves.

    The last agents and the President huddled in the corner, pistols extended towards the crowd. They were already out of ammunition but reacted none the same as if they had full magazines. The soldiers stood fast, angry and screaming shouts and slurs, they didn't press on the President.

    It wasn't until the senior most officer made his way to the front of the crowd. His arm dripped with blood from a bullet wound, a makeshift bandage having been made to apply pressure. A thick white mustache and salt white hair, his uniform bared remarks of a life of dedicated service to his country. The soldiers around him were a testament of his command of his troops, and their loyalty to his command. He raised his good arm high, silencing the crowded room of angry and hurt soldiers.

    "Mr. President, you are under arrest." General Priam stated commandingly. The soldiers erupted in cheers from behind him.
     
  25. Wreybies
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    All of this is tell. These are all flat-fact recounts of events. But - and this is the most important part - that doesn't make it bad. It just means you've related the facts in their most direct way, unadorned, without metaphor, without making things into other things to evoke a different image or emotion.

    Do I see the scene? Of course I do.
     
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