1. Agent Vatani
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    Agent Vatani Active Member

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    Show, don't tell.

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Agent Vatani, Oct 25, 2012.

    Yes, the titles says it! If you're a writer there you will know about this. Show, don't tell. It also goes along with the five senses; sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell. Detail is a lot in writing! It is our job as writing to make the readers want to flip the page. So if we do our job the right way, we use show, don't tell. It builds a picture in their minds.
     
  2. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    I don't believe this rule at all, to be honest. I've read many a famous and well regarded book that tells a fair bit. Sure it's a useful rule, but certainly not exclusive. Many writers get locked in to this idea and use it as a golden rule for their entire work. They try and 'show' too much with too much 'poetic' description and their work becomes annoying, boring, and fairly frikkin bad. Sometimes I want a writer to just tell me certain things in order to get on with it and get me to flip the page. It's about balance. It's about what you show or tell and how you do it.
     
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  3. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    The matter has been extensively discussed on these forums, and many disagree with that advice. What is your question?
     
  4. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    There's no such rule. The advice is often given to writers who know no way other than telling. But from what you have written in the initial post, I don't think you yet grasp the distinction between showing and telling.

    What you want to do is find the right balance between showing and telling on a scene by scene basis. This may help: Show and Tell

    As digitig pointed out, there have been many threads on this. Use the search function.
     
  5. Storm Kiernan
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    Storm Kiernan New Member

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    Showing instead of telling.

    I am new to writing, and I've been told that my writing is very flat. The suggested solution to this is to show and not tell. I've read several articles on the topic, and I have not been able to pin it down. Here's an example sentence that I feel is very flat:

    "Asher rose from his bed and dusted himself off a bit."

    I look at a sentence like this and think that the action is very clear. I even ask: "Can the camera see it?" The answer is: yes. But, it still seems flat. Here's a larger excerpt from my current work:

    "Asher rose from his bed and dusted himself off a bit. Seeing the dimly lit ashes of the once heated campfire, he meandered to the nearly dead fire and ousted it for good using a little water from his wineskin. After taking a drink for himself, Asher sat down on an old fallen log near the campfire and picked up his pack, rummaged through it, and pulled out an insignificant lump of bread wrapped in rough burgundy cloth."

    Is there something different I should be doing? This all seems sort of matter-of-fact..and void of any real feeling.
     
  6. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'd say that the question is, what do you want to communicate? That Asher is alone and lonely? That he's tired? That he's living in uncomfortable poverty? That he's gathering himself for an important but upsetting duty? That he's a tired old man with aching bones? That his life is routine and boring? Whatever it is, that's what you want to "show" or, to use my word, demonstrate. A scene of getting up and eating breakfast should be demonstrating something.

    I'd say that the message "Asher got up and ate" probably isn't worth showing _or_ telling. I'd recommend finding the real meaning, or creating one, or cutting the scene altogether and moving on to the first scene that does have a meaning worth showing.

    Edited to expand: And once you know what you're demonstrating, that tells you what details to "show". If it's poverty, maybe he's shivering and rolling up his threadbare bedroll to keep it clean, maybe the bread is stale and too little - or, for contrast, maybe he's usually poor but he lucked into a a few hours' work yesterday for which he was rewarded with a delightful piece of cheese and he's enjoying the rare luxury of that comparatively rich breakfast. He's debating whether to save half but then choosing to soften the cheese on the coals, eat it all, and start his day with a contentedly full stomach. The pleasure of a rare luxury might "show" his poverty in a more engaging way than a lot of sob stories about how poor he is.
     
  7. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Ditto everything Chicken Freak said really. The actions ought to be showing us something more than just actions. If I say, "Sam walked down the street and stopped to look at some shoes" - that's kinda boring. Everyone does that sometimes, what am I trying to show?

    But perhaps "Sam walked down the street and stopped in front of Macy's. A delightful little pink handbag hung from the arm of the mannequin. Sam bit her lip, her eyes glued to the bag. She squeezed her empty pockets and with a sigh, hurried on her way."

    From that, I'm showing that she really wants that bag but she's clearly not doing well financially (to give the reader an even better idea of that might've been to include the price of the bag, or maybe show what her thoughts are - perhaps she's debating whether to skip lunch in order to save up the £30 she needs for the bag, perhaps she's gonna go home and write it down on her Christmas wish list etc).

    A good exercise to do might be to observe people and your friends. How do you know that person's a beggar? Because he wears torn clothes, has dirt under his nails, is unshaven, and is kneeling on the street. Did the beggar tell you any of that? No, he doesn't have to. How do you know you're not welcomed somewhere? Because the people glare at you or ignore you - did they say to you that they don't want you here? No, but they don't have to. Start thinking of outward signs that tell you about the inner-workings on the person, and transfer them into your writing.
     
  8. Fife
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    Fife Senior Member

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    Agreed. I think this advice is given to students and new writers to fix bad habits. Everybody has bad habits, but once you've become aware of them and can work with them healthily, I think it is best to weave your writing without restricting yourself to golden rules.
     
  9. captain kate
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    captain kate Active Member

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    A novel is a mix of the two. The amount depends on how you, the writer, wants to tell your story. I can, however, share something an agent, another author, and professional editor have with me. Check for the word 'had' in your sentence. Most times it's an indicator of telling instead of showing. A lot of times if can be switched to a more active word, and it'll change to showing.

    Just my .02
     
  10. SeverinR
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    SeverinR Contributing Member

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    Found a site that explains this very well in very few words.
    (Show, not tell is a guideline not a rule)

    http://www.critters.org/turkeycity.html
    "The reader should be allowed to react, not be instructed in *how* to react."
    This refers to it as a Cardinal rule, obviously it isn't since many successful writers do "tell" on occasion.
     
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  11. Thumpalumpacus
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    Thumpalumpacus Contributing Member

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    So far, so good.

    Of course the ashes were "once-heated" -- it was a campfire, not a chocolate muffin. "Dimly-lit" reads as if the lighting is artificial, too.

    These are ashes. "Nearly-dead" is extraneous information -- padding. "Ousted" means "overthrown" -- perhaps you mean "doused"? "Meandered" seems a little rich here. Did Asher really wander around aimlessly first?


    Out in the wild "fallen" is not needed to describe a log. The only logs seen standing are power poles and the like, no?

    "Insignificant"? Do you mean "small"? Or "unimportant"? And does the color of the cloth change the experience of eating the bread?

    The thing that is happening here is verbiage, which is not story-telling. If I were to rewrite this passage, here's how it would read:

     
  12. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yes, you can reduce the passage like that. I'm not convinced that it's a good idea, though, except as an exercise. You have removed almost all of the sensory content of the passage (all of which was visual), you have removed the information we needed to infer that the breakfast was inadequate, and you have removed the emotional impact of some of the words. In short, you have removed everything that would encourage and allow the reader to place him or herself in the scene.

    Many people make the mistake of thinking that writing (or language in general) is about the literal meaning of the words. Linguists have studied this, and found that only about 20% of speech and writing is about literal meaning. The remaining 80% is the intangible emotional and social message of the words. So consider the word "burgundy"; you think it's "verbiage", I think it's one of the most powerful and important words in the passage. Firstly, it's one of the most visual words in the passage, helping the reader feel they are present in the scene. Secondly the colour is similar to that of the "dimly lit ashes" ("ashes" is wrong, I agree, they're embers if they're still lit, but they're still needed for just this reason), and that is likely to form a subconscious impression on the reader that the fuel for the person (the food) is running out just as the fuel for the fire ran out. That's a subtle and powerful effect. Thirdly, the colour "burgundy" is named after a rich red wine, and the choice of that word (rather than "dark red" or "maroon", for example) contrasts in the reader's mind with the meager breakfast and makes it seem all the more meager. That's a lot of work done by a single word! In the same way, of course a log is "fallen", but including the word does far more than tell us the literal fact of the position of the log. The passage is full of words that suggest endings, loss and decay: dust, dimly, ashes, once heated, meandered, nearly dead, ousted, fallen, insignificant. Not all of them are correct in the context -- the passage certainly needs editing -- but all of them convey a sense that is far more than the bare literal meaning. The normal reader doesn't notice these things, but they are known to have an effect on how people respond to a passage. I'd say that the original passage shows an excellent ear for language and a good visual sense (maybe it would be worth bringing in some other senses?) and once the passage is corrected -- not significantly shortened -- it should be a very effective passage indeed. Creative writing is not (usually) a competition to get the bare facts across in a minimum of words.
     
  13. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    See, this is why there are so many different writers with different styles. I much prefer the original than this suggested re-write, even though the original did need a serious edit.
     
  14. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    It seems to me to be a difference in philosophy between writing what works (the original, with some editing) and writing to a set of rules (the rewrite). I'd go for the former every time.
     
  15. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    But I feel the need for emotion, a point of view. I'm joining the rewrite chorus:

    Asher was awakened by birds. Not sweet sunlit fluffy chickadees, no--these were gravel-voiced and argumentative, up at first light, shrieking for worms. Or perhaps entrails. It seemed like that sort of forest. Once awakened, he was too aware of damp socks, damp blanket, gravelly ground, to have any hope of getting back to sleep again. He shoved the blanket aside, pushed his feet into his boots, and went to sit down on the log by the fire. It looked dirtier than it had last night, and sagged uneasily beneath him.

    He pulled a lump of bread out of his pack, and experimentally knocked at it with his fist. "Sturdier than the log," he said aloud, then shouted "Shut up!" at the complaining chorus in the trees. In the brief eerie silence that resulted, he gnawed at the edge of the bread.
     
  16. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    I still prefer the original.
     
  17. MilesTro
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    MilesTro Active Member

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    If a reader can not understand the show sentence, like a sentence that describes the character's action or feelings, then what would be the point?
     
  18. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    Ok, I couldn't resist. This isn't a re-write but a fun little activity. This should demonstrate that I don't really know what the hell I am talking about...

    Asher woke to the crows calling out for the dead. Everything was damp and cold, the chill eating at his bones. It took a moment of agony to bend his stiff legs, enough to roll over and crawl across the gravel to the smouldering fire. He made fists above the ashes, trying to soak up some lingering warmth and get his fingers working again. The knuckles cracked, even while he opened his pack and pulled out the last of the bread. Slumped on the ground, Asher picked at his breakfast, watching the fog lift up through the skeletal trees. I picked a bad day, he thought, to give up sniffing glue.
     
  19. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    That's why different readers need different amounts of telling. Children's literature tends to tell a lot. It fades out during the YA phase and settles to a much lower level by the stage of adult literature. But less sophisticated readers still need a bit more telling. One of the complaints critics levelled at the Harry Potter books was that Rowling tended to show and tell. I don't see that as a criticism: I see it as a major reason for the success of the series. It pulled in a lot of readers who didn't read much, and I think the combined showing and telling gave those readers a route in. Remember, telling is only a problem because it can make a story boring. If it doesn't make the story boring then it's not a problem at all.
     
  20. Thumpalumpacus
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    Thumpalumpacus Contributing Member

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    We disagree. I think that much of that passage is extraneous language which pulls the reader's mind away from the bare fact that in the morning, the rising character is hungry. It's heavy with baggage that ought not be carried.

    I'm not worried about literalism, and I do appreciate a good turn of phrase, but telling me that ashes were once heated is like telling me that water was once wet. Ashes are "nearly dead"? What else could they be? Flaring? Blazing? A log is "fallen"? As opposed to what? "Standing"? Such descriptors make for tired writing -- and reading. If you don't trim the fat, don't complain about the coronary.

    Tell me about the goddamned dog. I don't give two shits rubbed together about the state of the embers. I care about the character.

    Assuming the writer is doing his job, of course.
     
  21. MilesTro
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    MilesTro Active Member

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    I guess most critics and publishers believe that most books should only show. Perhaps a lot of adults prefer it that way because they are good at reading a lot of advance description. Took them years to read to that point.
     
  22. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    Sure that original text has it's flaws, like the ashes, but your replacement had no heart. A log may not be a tree trunk that has fallen. It may have been lain. It may have rolled there. It may be stacked. Fallen denotes it fell naturally, as opposed to was placed un-naturally. With the simple word 'fallen' I picture splintered base, leftover branches, a big mess, as opposed to lain, which I picture as cut neatly at either end and perhaps put in place for a purpose. One word, lots of detail. I personally believe that's valuable.

    Oh, and water is always wet, but ashes can either be dying, or completely dead. Given that there are options, being specific can sometimes help if that forms part of creating a mood. Writing isn't just a catalogue of events.
     
  23. Carthonn
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    Carthonn Active Member

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    There is nothing here. No character development and the story doesn't move forward at all. I would cut this out.
     
  24. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    Yes, characters doing things have no place in books. /sarcasm.
     
  25. Carthonn
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    Carthonn Active Member

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    You call that doing something? He might as well describe the guy taking a dump.
     

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