1. creativevomit
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    creativevomit Member

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    Show Don't Tell

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by creativevomit, Jan 6, 2014.

    Alright, so almost everything that I post, here or other places, I get the feedback of "show don't tell", and I am not sure exactly what it is that this means. I gather it means something along the lines of; show the reader what is going on instead of telling him what is going on, but I don't really understand how I am supposed to do that. Some feedback on how to shift my writing would be very helpful. I guess I am asking if you guys could show me how to show.
     
  2. Simpson17866
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    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Basically, it's the difference between giving the reader data (which focuses on the characters) vs. giving them conclusions (which focus on the writer).
     
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  3. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    My variant--just as slogany, but it communicates it better for me--is "demonstrate, don't pontificate." Instead of telling the reader the conclusion that he should come to, demonstrate the information that he needs and allow him to come to that conclusion.

    This of course involves the risk that he won't come to the "right" conclusion. But it involves him--a reader who doesn't have to do any thinking is not likely to be very involved. And it also offers more richness and detail than telling the reader his conclusion, because the reader will bring in all of his own relevant experiences and feelings.

    An example I've used more than once is:

    Pontificate: Jane's mother had always disapproved of Jane's appearance, usually expressing that disapproval in an indirect, passive-aggressive way.

    Demonstrate: Mrs. Smith turned from the mirror and studied Jane. After a moment, "Is that what you're wearing?"

    Sometimes you'll be tempted to try to do both:

    Mrs. Smith turned from the mirror and studied Jane. Passive-aggressively, she said, "Is that what you're wearing?"

    Don't do it. Give the reader what he needs to know, and trust him to come to the right conclusion.

    Now, sometimes the conclusion has layers. In the above, you're trying to communicate that Jane's mother is critical and passive-aggressive. What if that fact is what you use to demonstrate a layer "above" it?

    Pontificate: The group of young adults had bonded over childhoods with parents with issues.

    Demonstrate: Jane's mother was, according to James, "the passive-aggressiveness champion of South County." James' father was on his fourth round of rehab. Andrew was scheduled to testify at his mother's competency hearing in January--on the opposing side. And Matilda still drove three hours to her parents' house every Saturday, to wash the dishes and persuade them to bathe.

    This might be seen a lot of "tell"ing, but it's intended to demonstrate a larger conclusion.
     
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  4. A.M.P.
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    A.M.P. People Buy My Books for the Bio Photo Supporter Contributor

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    Like in Chick's example, the first sentence you're telling me this. I have no idea of the characters or how they feel, what they're doing with themselves, or anything. It's reporting.
    In the second part, I, as a reader, can easily imagine Mrs. Smith rudely looking over Jane head to toe and saying "Is that what you're wearing?" in a derisive voice. None of that was said, but as the action unfolded, I, the reader, filled in the details.

    Same amount of information, different presentation.

    The idea is to not report the events but allow the reader to witness them.
    This story is happening RIGHT NOW to your MC. I want to sit in the corner and go "Oh, no she didn't!" instead of "Oh, is that what happened." after the fact.

    You don't need to show 100% of the time.
    It can be wordy at times and it can put emphasis on things that don't need it.
    You can tell a quick bit of info, time passage, or something of the sort.
    Things that are important such as the main scene or something that needs to stand out needs to be shown.
     
  5. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Some basics:

    Telling: He was tall.
    Showing: He bent his head to get through the doorway.
    His suits were always too short, I wanted to tell him to try shopping at the "Big and Tall" but ....

    Telling: The room was decorated in 70s style.
    Showing: The shag carpet screamed 70s.
     
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  6. joanna
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    joanna Active Member

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    A lot of great explanations/examples already -- just wanted to add that telling is not always a bad thing and writers do not need to eliminate all instances of telling. If you're getting the advice of 'show, don't tell,' though, it's likely your stories simply have too much of the latter and lack the former.

    Alice LaPlante wrote a really helpful book called The Making of a Story and there's a chapter on showing vs telling, in-depth explanations and examples, and how to incorporate both in your writing. The chapter is entitled Why it's important to show and tell. At the end of the chapter is an exercise: write a scene first entirely telling and then the same scene entirely showing. Then try to bring both together in a way that's effective but not redundant.
     
  7. Macaberz
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    Macaberz Pay it forward Contributor

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    @creativevomit

    The keyword for me, that made me understand show vs tell, is the word 'evoke'. When showing you are evoking what you want to tell. A simple example is:

    Joe was angry. (telling)

    Joe crossed his arms, "that's bullshit!" (showing)

    Show don't tell doesn't mean you can't tell from time to time though.
     
  8. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Sometimes the people giving the critique don't know what that phrase means, either. So be careful when listening to advice because the critiquers could be wrong.

    I also want to mention that telling, even a lot of telling, isn't necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes telling is more appropriate than showing. In threads like these, I always like to use the first paragraph from Joyce's short story "Eveline" to illustrate the effectiveness of telling:
    The simple phrase "She was tired" is much more effective in this context over using multiple sentences to show that she's tired.

    I think you'll come to understand when to tell and when to show the more you read. The others have given some good examples above, so that's a great starting point for knowing the difference between the two. Now that you understand the differences, the next time you read a book, look at when the author tells and when he/she shows and ask yourself whether the author handled that particular passage in the most effective way.
     
  9. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    I wouldn't describe any sentence as telling because there was a single phrase in it like your example, @thirdwind. But I do think your example makes a good point of not considering the critique, 'show, don't tell' in an anally obsessive way. It's not about each segment, it's about the whole.
     
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  10. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    I feel it is appropriate to check out Cogito's blog discussion, Show and Tell. lol
     
  11. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Find a balance in all things.
     
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  12. Robert_S
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    Robert_S Contributing Member

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    If a character is mad, don't say he/she's mad, have him/her stomp around, slam doors, pound a glass down breaking it into a hundred glistening shards exploding outward from the impact or stand in isolation and silence of the pleas for clemency from his/her spouse.
     
  13. JayG
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    JayG Banned Contributor

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    One definition is that when you "tell" the reader's getting a summation by the author. Telling, for example, isn't in real time. It's often a summation. It's an intrusion of the author, presented from the POV of someone who is neither on the scene nor in the story. And because of that they have to tell.

    One of the reasons POV is stressed is that if you are truly in the protagonist's POV the reader will always view the scene in real-time, and know the scene as the protagonist, not as an outsider. Showing isn't describing so much as placing the reader on the scene as a participant, so they can react to the situation. Telling might make you admire the plot of a horror story, but showing, done well, will make you wet your pants.:eek:

    One rule of thumb you can apply is to ask if the reader is living the scene or hearing about it.

    This article on presenting the scene in real time may give you a better feel for what the term means.
     
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  14. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Telling for me is a bit like recapping a movie to a friend you're telling her about it so you're saying things like Johnny Depp did this and then he said this and there was this explosion. The hearer is not really in the moment. Everything is filtered.

    Showing is when you're watching the movie - the scenes are unfolding before you and therefore you can get involved. You essentially become the protagonist and share his journey.

    Telling however gets a bad rap. A lot of people push no telling when telling is actually necessary. The trick is to know what to show and what to tell.
     
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  15. David K. Thomasson
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    David K. Thomasson Contributing Member

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    Could you show us a passage that you're trying to shift?
     
  16. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I like what everybody wrote here on this thread.

    I was especially drawn to the idea that telling is the author writing down their own conclusions, especially about how their characters feel, or what they are thinking. (Hearing that music coming through the wall again made Jim furiously angry.)

    Showing gives enough information for the reader to draw their own conclusions instead. (When next door's music started up again, Jim hurled his mug of coffee against the wall, and then both of his shoes.)

    This idea works, and it's a good test to run past any bit of your writing you're not sure about.
     
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  17. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    If you posted it twice, I thought I should like it twice. ;)
     
  18. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    @GingerCoffee Oops! The site connection went off in the middle of me posting, and apparently ended up posting twice. I'll see if I can delete one of them...

    Success! :)
     

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