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  1. Wodashin
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    Wodashin Member

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    Show vs. Tell

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Wodashin, Jan 22, 2011.

    This is my greatest folly. I'm a teller, and cannot get my head around the showing. Showing is supposedly a much better way to represent stories, showing how things happen, rather than just explicitly telling.

    Any advice on this?
     
  2. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Forget the whole show and tell nonsense. Just figure out what's effective for your story, when, why, etc. Showing can be irrelevant and mundane, and telling can be relevant and engaging. It's the kind of flawed advice people cling to because it seems, on the surface, easy to understand. But in the end, there are far more important things and fare more methods of producing good writing than trying to even figure out what show and tell even mean.
     
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  3. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I feel like I need more question in order to be able to answer. :) That is, I do understand your general question, but, for example, what do you currently do to try to get yourself to "show"? What goes wrong? What part is confusing?

    I think (I may be wrong) that I tend to be a natural "show"-er, so I don't have any tricks for getting myself to show; it just happens. (Whether it's successful or not is another question.) In fact, I think that there are often times when I'd do better to just tell something once in a while.
     
  4. Wodashin
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    Wodashin Member

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    Well, writing this - http://www.writingforums.org/showthread.php?t=31667 - a long whiles ago, I came across the whole 'show vs. tell' thing.

    " Let me preface this review with an admittance of failure on my part. I was unable to finish the whole two chapters. With that said, I think it would only be fair for me to say any criticism I give can be passed off as my inability to read through certain genres of literature.

    To be absolutely blunt: the story didn't feel like a story, but rather a lecture being told to me by my old High School science teacher Mr. Boyarsky. While the details were great - even the ones I don't understand - I think you fall into the trap of telling your audience what is happening, instead of showing them. I think this is most evident with the character interaction. You immediately tell the audience that Baines hates McFadden, giving them no room to figure it out themselves. The story you've written has this strange, almost oxymoronic quality to it. On one hand, you trust your audience to be intelligent enough to understand all of this science talk, but on the other hand you spell out the emotions and the feelings of the characters. Humans are complex, but certainly no more than space travel. "

    A review someone gave. I am apparently a teller. I don't know how to show, I don't understand what it means. Sorry for the example, but I haven't written online in a long whiles.
     
  5. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I absolutely agree with this.

    A lot of writers make the mistake of trying to show something when a simple statement telling readers the same thing is a better alternative. Reading a lot of fiction will give you a better feel of when to show and when to tell. Other times, you'll have to rely on your intuition to guide you.
     
  6. Reggie
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    Reggie I Like 'Em hot "N Spicy Contributor

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    I get this problem too, that I tend to tell rather than showing, and my critics tell me that I do that, and there is hardly no way on Earth I will be able to pull off Ernest Hemmingway's theory of painting a picture. Maybe writing a message like "He tried to kill himself" and then writing a scene about him attemping suicide rather than saying "he tried to kill himself." I'm not sure exactly how to show instead of telling.
     
  7. Wodashin
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    Wodashin Member

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    Exactly, it's just odd. I mean, if I'm describing a scene, obviously that is 'showing', but I don't get it. You guys are saying it doesn't really matter, perhaps you are right. I'm planning on writing something soonish, so I guess I'll see what the response to it is.
     
  8. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    One of the huge problems with 'show' is it doesn't really work on anything internal. It's almost purely a surface technique. So, if you have a character angry, instead of getting that directly, preferably through the character's actual experiences, we get an awkward game of charades where the writer 'shows' the character's face turning red... oooh, he's choking. No, grr, so the writer shows the characters face turning red and the character making a fist... ummm, he's having a heart attack and it hurts really bad? Sometimes it's easier to just be direct: John was so pissed off he looked for a puppy to kick.

    Bad telling is like a character enters a room, and we practically get a list of the stuff in the room. Bad showing is instead of getting a list, we're 'painted a picture' of a bunch of useless stuff that has no relevance or bearing on the story.

    Good is something that engages the reader, is interesting, relevant to the story, builds empathy for the character, maintains authority of the writer (if it's a tiny room, there's NOT a full sized elephant in it, or the reader loses trust in the writer), gives back-story or history, etc, etc. This can be done in all sorts of ways, and usually show and/or tell are terms that quickly fall out of the vocabulary of experienced writers who realize the end result is far more important than the method used to get there.

    But yeah, won't give my whole speech on show don't tell, as I've already written that blog and don't feel like repeating it here. :p
     
  9. thewordsmith
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    thewordsmith Contributing Member Contributor

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    Oooohhh. Thank you! I could just curl up here with a little pot of tea and be happy for a long long time! I am so tired of the "Show don't tell" mantra that people regurgitate without really knowing WHY!

    But, Wodashin, to say "You guys are saying it doesn't really matter," is not quite accurate either.

    The truth is, there must be a fair balance of each in order to make the story work - at least work well. To continually say this or that is what's going on will get boring after a bit and you will lose your readers. But, to always have somebody shoving a fist through something to show how angry they are would be tiresome, too. Don't rely solely on one or the other. You don't eat just applesauce or mashed potatoes or cheeseburgers with bacon. You'd quickly tire of such a monodiet. Same goes with what you read/write.

    Little bit of salt. Little bit of pepper. Every now and then a bit of paprika!
     
  10. Taylee91
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    Taylee91 Carpe Diem Contributor

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    ^True, wordsmith. Balance is key. But to find that balance is hard.

    Show vs. Tell. . . I would love if a best selling author could give us a seminar or two. I don't know how they do it. Like if it comes natural as an instinct or what.

    My advice: try to read a lot of fiction. Classics and new.
     
  11. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    That reminds me, I'm hungry.

    Errr, I mean that reminds me of my 'show, don't tell' food analogy. It's like wanting to be a chef so you go to a fine dining restaurant to pick up a few ideas. An amazing entree comes out and you start pointing at things going "meat" "vegetable" "meat" "grain" "fruit." Eventually, most people just start to ignore you and assume you're insane, but the people paying attention, who may also be there to improve their cooking skills, want to murder your face. Yes, yes, that's meat, good job, but that does nothing to explain why this meat tastes really good and your steaks at home taste like crap.

    The show and tell thing is the same to me. Someone points at a piece of text and says "show" and are glad they knew something. Then nudges their buddy who wants to be a writer and says "see, that's showing." But meanwhile, pointing out what is and isn't showing, and even coming up with the thousandth definition of the terms, is doing nothing to explain what is working to make a passage effective.

    In my experience, by the time someone is to the point they're looking for advice and investigating texts, they're already beyond the 'show, don't tell' mantra and should just move on to more useful things.
     
  12. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I fear that the discussion so far may not welcome examples, but I'll provide them anyway. :)

    Telling:

    Jane disliked Judy. She was unwelcoming to her at the annual dinner dance.

    Showing:

    Judy dropped into a chair, with a grin. "Wow, we got great seats, didn't we?"
    Jane studied her for a moment, unsmiling, before answering, "That's John's seat. We got here early to get this table. It's full."


    Telling:

    John didn't seem to like his steak much.

    Showing:

    John took a bite of his steak, then put his fork down and reached for the steak sauce. Shaking it generously over the meat, he said, "They've never understood what 'rare' means at this restaurant."

    Telling:

    Jane was excited that John was returning home. It seemed to her that he'd been gone for a very long time.

    Mostly showing, with some telling, at least telling thoughts:

    Jane stretched to see over the crowd at the gate, searching the faces of the disembarking passengers. There? No. Over there, behind the old lady? No. She had a terrified moment of wondering if, after so many months, she might fail to recognize him? It would be worse than horrible if he had to walk up and tap her on the shoulder. Maybe she should... no! Over there!

    She shouted, "John!" The man in front of her winced and turned with a glare, but Jane was too busy squeezing past him to notice. John cleared the turnstile just as she made it through the crowd, and she all but knocked him over with her hug. "You're back!"


    -------

    But none of this tells you why it matters. I'd say that showing often tells us more about the characters, and does a better job of allowing us to identify with them. And showing makes a better movie in my head--I want to see what's happening and make my own interpretations, rather than being spoonfed exactly what the author wants me to know and think.

    So showing allows ambiguity - the reader may not "get" exactly what the writer is communicating, and different readers may get different things. It requires more trust in the readers, and allows more interpretations of the story, and I like that.

    I think that the first "show" example gives us a better idea of just how Judy would feel at that moment, than the "tell" example would. The second gives us an idea of how John behaves when he's dissatisfied. The third puts us deeper in Jane's mind, sharing her excitement.

    At least, that's what they're intended to do. :) They're quickly written examples, so they may not be doing their job at all, but my goal is just to talk about what "showing" is good for.

    ChickenFreak

    Editing to add: But you don't _always_ need to show. For example, it may be important to the plot to communicate that the restaurant continues to serve food that John doesn't like, but it may be a complete waste of time to "show" it ever again. The next incident might well be covered with, say:

    Another lunchtime, another overdone steak, this time with charred mushrooms as a bonus. Afterward, John caught a cab to the courthouse...

    So "telling" isn't inherently bad. When it's like a book report or a list, it often is, but that's not just because it's telling, it's simply because it's poorly written.
     
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  13. Pen
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    I think those might be special cases, though- feelings and so forth are things that really should be shown, along with things that are more generally intangible. A narrator could plausibly deduce feelings and report them- "Now that certainly did seem to piss old Wilko off, seeing as how tore across the classroom wielding a textbook like a club", but a blunt statement of "Mr. Wilkinson was annoyed", without any indication would seem a bit overly blunt.

    If you're describing objects, things that can generally be agreed on, you can go nuts simply telling- the building was pink, the birds were blue, the car landed in the third storey windows.
     
  14. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Many modern conventions seek to do away with the narrator all together. In a limited, close third person or non-reminiscent first person, the narrator can effectively be killed. So you don't need the narrator or writing trying to guess and report on a character's feelings. The pov can be written in such a way that the reader is experiencing the world through the character, feelings, motivations, thoughts, all coming directly.

    So instead of a distant, narrator based interpretation like "Now that certainly did seem to piss old Wilko off..." we can get the experience through Wilko: Wilko couldn't believe someone would say something so callous. It struck Wilko that that sort of thing deserved a good old fashioned clubbing like his daddy used to deliver, so he picked up his textbook, hellbent on tattooing "General Psychology" across Bill's forehead."

    We don't need a narrator guessing at Wilko's thoughts and intentions. If we're in the character's experience, we can get them directly by putting the reader right into the shoes of Wilko, insane rage and all.

    Whether that's telling or showing, I don't care. The debate goes on (until someone comes in with the 'but if you're writing, everything is told since it's just words and text' argument that makes everyone facepalm). The more important thing imo is accurately representing the characters experiences in the moment, building empathy, controlling time, pace and choreography, delivering the 'truth' of the moment with authority and surety... err like being interesting and not boring.

    Do these sorts of things any given moment or scene in a story, and the terms show and tell are suddenly irrelevant and obsolete.



    If you're describing objects, things that can generally be agreed on, you can go nuts simply telling- the building was pink, the birds were blue, the car landed in the third storey windows.[/QUOTE]
     
  15. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think that you could get even less distant, by letting the reader understand that the thoughts are Wilko's, rather than explicitly telling them so:

    Wilko's eyebrows raised to his hairline. Mighty callous, that. Sounded like something that deserved a good old fashioned clubbing like his daddy used to deliver. He picked up his textbook, hellbent on tattooing "General Psychology" across Bill's forehead.

    I don't know if this is a "show versus tell" thing, though I am inclined to think that it takes the action a bit more in the "show" realm.

    ChickenFreak
     
  16. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    I find a good mix of show and tell works - mine is first person so sometimes I will show the action and he will tell his feelings. I am in the process of rewriting my first chapter of my completed novel as I have decided to send it in for a competition and whilst I think it is good enough to maybe get published its not that good either.

    Show is something I have learned over time it is also much easier after first draft when you know characters well and story better.

    I still don't agree that show is always better then tell though.
     
  17. Boring Editor
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    Showing is important. Let's not underplay the value of "show don't tell" here. If you apply it absolutely, then of course it will fail; but telling me Mary is nervous around men will always be less effective than showing me.
     
  18. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    even if Mary tells you it after you have read about her undergoing a terrible experience? She has tears in her eyes and is nervous of you.
     
  19. Youniquee
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    Youniquee (◡‿◡✿) Contributor

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    Balance is teh key.
    I don't like over the top showing, because it's just like...Why didn't you just say so!?
    And too much telling makes the story boring...
     
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  20. JeffS65
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    JeffS65 Contributing Member

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    I think this thread has proven it is a matter of opinion and possibly proportion. Reality is, it's what is right for the piece that the author is writing. In my opinion, there isn't some inherent determinant to how much show v. tell us right.

    I prefer more show than tell. But I think when folks say 'too much tell, not enough show', it's that the writer has dumped a block of info hat has turned off the reader. I remember in college creative writing, my Prof's would give me the 'show don't tell' deal and I didn't really get what they meant until one pointed out that I was pretty good with dialogue and she, not even intending to say explain a 'show v. tell' thing just told me; 'Dialogue is a really a good vehicle for telling the story'. I finally got what show meant (though I get that it's not all dialogue either.

    In short, weave facts and telling within the actions of he characters. 'Tell' needs to be there but it doesn't have to be a block. It is part of the tapestry of a well written piece.

    My thought...
     
  21. Taylee91
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    Taylee91 Carpe Diem Contributor

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    ^A very good thought, Jeff. There isn't a specific, exact amount of show and tell a writer would need to insert in a piece. It would be insane to balance the scale between these two since some tell would be extraneous and some show would be as well. The bottom line is to keep your readers attention going. Don't fuss over info. If it is necessary, of course put it in, but if you don't exactly need to, move on.

    I don't know, but I think show vs. tell has some part to do with POV. If you're the all knowing narrator (omniscient) you'll be telling quite frequently. This could also be said for first person. But in third, I'd say there would be a more generous addition of show not more than tell however.
     
  22. Melzaar the Almighty
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    I think the basic-est rule is tell when it would be boring to show, show when it would be boring to tell.

    Transitions, for example, are almost always told unless they become a scene in their own right. If I'm writing someone walking to the shops as a story, then I'd focus on all the emotions and details of the walk. If, however, they were in their living room in the last scene and for the drama of the next scene they bump into a guy they don't want to meet at the shop, it'd be fine to write "I hurried to the shop with my hood up to keep off the rain, thinking of nothing in particular" summarising what in the first example was 500 words of text in one line before the drama starts.

    Backstory and important information is usually told because it'd just be too hard or irrelevant to the story to include it. Going out of your way to show these things can get a bit tiring. On the other hand, sometimes a flashback or cutaway scene can really work to show it in detail... If there are extra descriptions that would crop up that are too important not to include, but would make for paragraph after paragraph of telling anyway.

    Really, if you're worrying about it, just keep reading what you've written, and say, "is this telling too much, or am I spending too much time showing and describing things that aren't relevant?" and edit appropriately. If you have paragraph after paragraph of descriptive information then people are going to be crying for something to just HAPPEN. If everyone's just being announced as this that and the other and no analysis is offered, nor their actions portrayed in a way that wouldn't be at home in an instruction manual, then you might want to slow it down.

    I think if it's a scene where you're aiming for a particular mood - suspense, romance, whatever - then it's best to show a lot. If it's a scene with plot information and action, then a lot more telling can sneak in. Usually it's best to vary the types of these scenes within the story.
     
  23. Wodashin
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    Wow guys, this has been a ton of help. I really like this community. Thanks for all the input.
     
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  24. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Another comment: I think that "show, don't tell" is advised so often not because showing is always inherently better, but because it's not always intuitively obvious that you _can_ show certain things.

    It's most obvious to tell the reader, "Jane was angry, because her mother had always criticized her clothes, and now her sister was doing the same thing." And it may require an outside critic to suggest that you could give the reader a better emotional understanding by showing those facts in a scene rather than telling them, or that you already have shown them and you should trust your reader to get the point rather than telling them what you just showed them.

    It's like an experienced cook telling a new cook, "Onions are sweeter with long, slow cooking." That doesn't mean that the more obvious method of cooking onions hot and fast is _always_ wrong - you don't always want them sweet. It just means that there's a piece of information that the cook needed to know.

    ChickenFreak
     
  25. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    This is exactly right.

    And keep in mind, in reality it is ALL telling (barring images in your book) :D
     
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