1. carsun1000
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    carsun1000 Active Member

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    Showing here or telling?

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by carsun1000, Jul 10, 2015.

    Trying to nail this showing vs. telling thing down...:)

    This is a excerpt from a scene where a principal came to the school counselor's office after he discovered that one of his teachers was sexting with her student.

    I returned to my chair and pointed to the other chair for him to occupy. I watched him crumble dejectedly in the chair. He set the phone down on the desk and just stared at it. I could tell he was at a crossroad the way his facial expression switched between disgust and confusion. His empty stares now directed at the window behind me made him look like he had just been hit by a monster truck. I understood how he felt, but would rather wait till he unloaded what was on his mind.

    Principal Davidson picked up the phone again and scrolled through, this time slowly.
     
    Last edited: Jul 11, 2015
  2. The Mad Regent
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    The Mad Regent Contributing Member

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    Showing = descriptive scenery
    Telling = descriptive actions

    That's how I see it, anyway. I can't fathom what else it could mean. The whole showing vs. telling thing is probably egocentric literary scholars over complicating things as usual.

    The excerpt itself seems fine. Though, I personally would restructure some of the sentences.
     
  3. Nicoel
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    Nicoel Contributing Member

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    The excerpt seems good and I think The Mad Regent's got it right.

    You should change "scroll" to "scrolled" though. :)
     
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  4. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    I returned to my chair and pointed to the other chair for him to occupy. I watched him crumble dejectedly in the chair. He set the phone down on the desk and just stared at it. I could tell he was at a crossroad the way his facial expression switched between disgust and confusion. His empty stares now directed at the window behind me made him look like he had just been hit by a monster truck. I understood how he felt, but would rather wait till he unloaded what was on his mind.

    Principal Davidson picked up the phone again and scroll[ed] through, this time slowly.

    Most of that is telling (red) with a bit of showing (blue) that could probably be spiced up a bit. You have a lot of filter words that are getting in the way of a more dramatic read.

    "I returned to my chair," while it is an action, still reads like telling. What you want to do is show the scene to the reader.

    I waved Principal Davidson into one of the chairs in front of my desk. He slumped down dejectedly. Instead of taking my seat behind the desk I sat in one next to him and put my hand on his shoulder. He set his phone down on the desk and looked at it with an expressionless face. Then he picked it back up, hesitated and set it down again. Ignoring my hand on his shoulder he stared out the window. I waited until he was ready to speak.

    Finally he took the phone and scrolled slowly through the numbers.
    That may not be the scene you are imagining, that's not the important part. Rather, aim for showing the reader the scene in front of them rather than telling the reader what is happening.
     
    Last edited: Jul 10, 2015
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  5. The Mad Regent
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    The Mad Regent Contributing Member

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    Though what @GingerCoffee is saying is completely true, you must always remember that sometimes a simple sentence such as, 'I returned to my chair' is just as necessary. Don't spend all your time over complicating and trying to show everything when a simple telling sentence will suffice. The trick is knowing when.
     
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  6. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    You missed the point, @The Mad Regent. I didn't say not to use simple direct sentences. This is what annoys me about the showing/telling issue every time it comes up in this forum. People can't see the forest through the trees.

    It's not about any single sentence. It's not about never telling. That's not the point at all.

    The point is to show the reader the scene, rather than simply telling them what the scene is. If you don't understand the principle then you miss the forest and only see the trees.
     
    Last edited: Jul 10, 2015
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  7. The Mad Regent
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    The Mad Regent Contributing Member

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    Is that a rule or a preference?

    I didn't miss the point. I understood exactly what you meant.
     
  8. lustrousonion
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    lustrousonion Contributing Member

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    What I noticed most is how much filtering is happening. You're telling the story in first person, which means you don't have to tell me what the main character sees/hears/thinks all the time--it is implied in a first person narrative. (Of course it is okay sometimes.)

    I watched him crumble dejectedly in the chair.

    Unless the act of watching is really important, it's clear that the main character sees all the action happening, and the reader doesn't need to be reminded of it.

    He sat dejectedly in the chair.


    Maybe that's not a better sentence, but now you sort of have some extra room to describe the action in more detail. Maybe you could throw in a metaphor, or talk about a past experience with this person. For example: I hadn't seen him look so dejected since that one time at the PTA meeting.

    Hope that helps a bit.
     
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  9. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Is what a rule or a preference, @The Mad Regent, skilled writing vs unskilled writing?

    I'm going to go out on a limb and say skilled writing is a good rule.

    My apologies ahead of time because this is going to sound like I'm attacking you and I don't mean to. I don't mean to dump my 2 years of frustration with this particular discussion on you personally. It predictably happens almost every time this subject comes up. You try to discuss what showing vs telling is all about, and inevitably someone will enter the discussion dismissing the whole thing with the proverbial, it's 'OK to tell', when no one said it wasn't.

    Do you think the OP paragraph reads well? Would you read a novel written in that style? Think a publisher is going to?

    This suggests that you don't get it, at all:
    It is not about overcomplicating anything. It's about learning the skill of writing. And you can't teach anyone that skill without understanding some basic principles. I speak that from a learner's POV more than a teacher's. I started writing with a story to tell and no skill to tell it. But skills are learnable and writing skills are no exception.

    Do you at least agree there are different levels of writing skill?

    What makes a piece recognizable as skilled, and what makes it recognizable as unskilled?

    There are identifiable qualities in good writing that are describable and learnable. And one of the most important of those qualities is taking the reader into your story. You don't do that with overcomplicated fancy writing.

    If anything that sounds like a description of purple prose and if one thinks showing means writing purple prose, that person doesn't understand showing anymore than the writer who mostly tells does.

    You did miss the point, at least as far as what you wrote reveals (because I don't know what you know). The OP paragraph does not take the reader into to room. The reader cannot see the characters, but rather only hears the author tell the reader about the characters.

    It has nothing to do with complicated fancy sentences.
     
    Last edited: Jul 10, 2015
  10. The Mad Regent
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    The Mad Regent Contributing Member

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    Writers do vary in skill, but also in preference. Like in music, someone might love or hate your music despite the musician being a genius or not.

    As for @carsun1000 excerpt, it tells me exactly what I need to know, but in my opinion, it's monotonous. All the pieces are there, but the writing itself is quite bland. Now this isn't an attack on @carsun1000's writing, it's simply my opinion. Others might think it's fine the way it is.

    You don't always need to be in the room and see the characters. It depends what you're aiming for and your voice in general. I remember one of the first things my old English Literature tutor taught me at college was, don't put things in that aren't necessary or can be achieved with a simple sentence, and that has stuck with me for the last seven odd years.

    I'm not saying you're wrong @GingerCoffee, on the contrary. You're very right as I already stated, but you didn't mention that small but important detail, so I did.
     
  11. carsun1000
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    carsun1000 Active Member

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    Do you think the OP paragraph reads well? Would you read a novel written in that style? Think a publisher is going to?

    Wow!@GingerCoffee, you sure do know how to kill a dream. So no hope for me in getting published just because you do not agree with how I wrote something? Dully noted. One paragraph (if at all) and I'm done.
     
  12. GingerCoffee
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    Hopefully we can keep this an actual discussion, I appreciate that it hasn't deteriorated.

    But how many people prefer unskilled writing and how do you tell the difference between preference and skilled?

    I don't enjoy war stories, but that's a separate issue from writing skill, for example. The reason you want the reader to see the room is because that's more interesting.

    You believe the paragraph is monotonous. @lustrousonion noted the excess use of filter words which is an additional problem. @carsun1000 asked specifically for advice or information on the idea of showing, not telling. The paragraph lacks showing but not because of any specific sentence, it's because the reader cannot see the room and the action.

    What specifically makes it monotonous to you? You read it, you can see it lacks something, so specifically identify it. Are you sure it is simply a matter of taste and preference. Or do you think there are some specific things that are making it less interesting to every reader?

    This is a different issue and sometimes that is the issue that stands in the way of a skilled passage. In my critique group last night one writer presented a short story. The first page and a half was filled with unnecessary things. They didn't take us to the place, they didn't add to the story. They were extra and distracting elements.

    You may be conflating a few things here. One, 'extra' does not mean showing when you could just tell the reader something. In fact, one can often show with less words than telling.

    Showing does not mean filling a sentence with adverbs and other clutter.

    There is no absolute rule that one should never write exposition (telling). Often exposition is just what a piece needs.

    And a skilled author does indeed want the reader to be in the story along with the characters. That's what makes a good story.

    Now, back to @carsun1000, you are doing the right thing, learning. Teach yourself what filters are and how to take them out of your piece. Teach yourself how to describe the scene so the reader sees it in front of them. That's the key to showing, not telling.

    I only started writing fiction a few years ago. And I could see right away that there were skills I didn't have. But, that was fine. It wasn't a bad thing. It didn't mean I couldn't write. It just meant I needed to learn some things. And the good thing was, those techniques were very much learnable skills. One didn't need to be born with them.

    Granted some writers are indeed gifted. There's no denying that. But we can be good enough writers even if we have to learn the craft from scratch.
     
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  13. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    I was afraid you'd read that wrong. Please refer to the end of the above post.

    One thing a person has to do if they want to be a better writer is to take criticism as a learning tool, not as an insult. I would normally have made that comment in a nicer way, but it needed to be said that way to get the point across. When someone says it's fine, just not to my taste, how is that helpful?

    You can be published. But you aren't there yet. If you were you would be asking different questions. It takes hard work for most of us to become decent writers. That doesn't mean we aren't or can't be writers.

    Sigh...
     
  14. The Mad Regent
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    I'll put it simple: skilled writing isn't always good writing.

    I'm not in the mood to talk about this stuff now. I'm trying to have a relaxing Friday evening beer and browse some topics.

    @carsun1000 excerpt is fine. Yes, it can be better, and I'm sure he will get better with time and effort, as will we all. But just because he didn't smear his work with poetic text doesn't mean he doesn't have skill. I've come across all kinds of people on this forum, from those who think bland text is sheer genius to people who say beautiful descriptions are cheesy and clique, and it tells me one thing: it's largely based on opinions. And judging what gets published these days, publishers don't have a fucking clue what's good and what's not, anyway.

    What you said previously is true, and now @carsun1000 is concious of things he needs to take into consideration with his writing. That's the learning curve involved.
     
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  15. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Since the topic has gone to the general applicability of show v. tell, it is important to note that there are some very good stories that are almost all telling, and some very good ones that are almost all showing. And everywhere in between. I think it makes sense to analyze the effectiveness of a writers chosen approach in any given piece of writing, as has been done above. If the writer chooses to tell, then the question is whether she has done so effectively.
     
  16. GingerCoffee
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    ...and with a good understanding of the difference.
     
  17. Sack-a-Doo!
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    My take on this:
    Any actions unimportant to the scene/plot can be summarized (shown?). Any actions that are important need more attention (told?). For me what's missing most is attitude. For instance:

    He plopped into the chair, pouting, and slammed the phone onto the desk. (or whatever)
     
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  18. Steerpike
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    @Sack-a-Doo!

    Actually, a summary account would be closer to 'telling,' generally. Whereas going to greater detail and dramatizing a scene is more likely to be 'showing.'
     
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  19. Jack Asher
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    Jack Asher Wildly experimental Contributor

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    This whole concept actually came from screenwriting, so I tend to think of it in it's progenitive state.

    It works like this, anytime a character brings up a series of events the audience should see it. It's easy with movies where flashback are a common system. In stage plays it's much more difficult, but the principles are there. The audience should never be told about an emotion, they shouldn't be told about events off stage. The actors (and therefore the screenwriter) must show the events, even if this only means that they see the emotion present in the words or the talent.

    One clear breaking of this rule, and it's done very effectively, is from Jaws, where Quint recounts his experience with shark attacks. But that was made for entirely practical reasons. They didn't have the money to spend on making 100 men attacked by sharks on the open water. As powerful as the seen was and as awesome as Robert Shaws performance was, it's unlikely that Spielberg would have done the scene that way if he had a choice.
     
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  20. ChickenFreak
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    This assumes that the primary message of that story is the shark attacks. To me, the primary message is how Quint feels about sharks, and what Quint is like. That is, IMO, better shown by Quint telling the story than by showing the story.

    Show versus tell, to me, can't be determined without knowing what the message is.
     
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  21. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I agree that unnecessary filtering is an issue with the original sample paragraph. I think that the filtering may stem from excessive concern about showing/telling.

    Let's say that a story says

    Jane was angry.

    But Jane's anger is important, so we don't just want to "tell". So out of a notion that showing is about sensory input, we change it to

    I saw that Jane was angry.

    But that's not very sensory either. So we change it to

    I saw Jane throw her teacup against the wall, and heard the tinkle of shattering porcelain. I heard the room go silent.

    Ok, now we have specific events that demonstrate Jane's anger. But we've fallen into the trap of thinking that showing is about sensory input and that we have to firmly tie that input to a set of senses. But we don't. The narrator isn't thinking "I saw Jane throw a teacup! I heard it too! And now I hear quiet!" He's just thinking, "Jane threw a teacup!" And possibly "Yikes, what a noise!" So we take "saw" and "heard" out of it and end up with

    Jane threw her teacup against the wall. The shattering of porcelain echoed across the suddenly silent room.
     
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  22. Sack-a-Doo!
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    @ChickenFreak: Well said.

    I found this on another site:
    Showing is done with imagery. Telling is done with narration.

    It's the difference between the author drawing conclusions (telling) and making the reader draw their own (showing). 'Showing' involves placing the evidence, the data, from which the reader works out what is going on whilst 'telling' gets rid of that step and provides a conclusion.
     
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  23. jannert
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    @carsun1000 , the OP has given us an interesting scene, when it comes to this discussion about showing and telling.

    While to some extent the paragraph over-eggs the pudding (providing maybe a bit too many details to show us the same thing?) I do think it comes under the heading of 'showing.' Why? Because at no point does the POV character (the counsellor, I presume, not the school principal) actually tell us what we, the readers should be thinking. Instead, he lets us see how he draws his own conclusions about the principal's state of mind, by describing what the principal does to create those impressions.

    If the writer had been 'telling' rather than showing, it would have come out more like this:

    I returned to my chair and pointed to the other chair for him to occupy. He was very upset. He sat down in the chair. He set the phone down on the desk and just stared at it. He was disgusted and confused. His empty stares now directed at the window behind me made him look like he had just been hit by a monster truck. I understood how he felt, but would rather wait till he unloaded what was on his mind.


    There is some filtering in this piece, for sure (both versions) but that doesn't really impact on whether the writer is showing or telling. Filtering simply tones down the impact of events. If you filter them (he saw, I watched, I felt, etc) that creates a bit of distance between the reader and the events—which sometimes can provide exactly the effect you want to achieve. However, that's a separate issue from showing and telling.
     
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  24. lustrousonion
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    Here's where I had hoped to somewhat address the show vs. tell question. I thought maybe the OP considered filter words "he saw" (see, I'm showing something!) as a good way to show. Once you take these out, there is some space within the narrative to give more details, to paint a better picture.

    And I do think that is a worthwhile point in the show vs. tell question: what kind of narrative is being used. Because how you show will be different in the first, second, third, omniscient...

    In the first person I can have a reliable or unreliable narrator, and an unreliable narrator will show a skewed version of the world. In the third person I might rely more heavily on actions and sounds. With an omniscient narrator the story can delve into the main character's darkest desires that they might not be aware of.

    Just don't want it to seem like I was completely off topic. ;)
     
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  25. GingerCoffee
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    This makes no sense because you can clearly show actions.

    This doesn't make sense either. If you tell me what the character thinks then it's telling.

    Let's break this down to see what showing vs telling is and to see the filter and other unneeded words:

    I returned to my chair and pointed to the other chair for him to occupy.
    You don't need to say, 'for him to occupy' because we know that. Your reader doesn't need spoon feeding.

    I watched him He crumbled dejectedly in the chair.
    "I watched" filters the action. "He crumbled" is showing us the action.

    He set the phone down on the desk and just stared at it.
    "Just" is an unneeded filter word. Setting a phone down and staring show us an action.

    I could tell he was at a crossroad the way His facial expression switched between disgust and confusion.
    "I could tell ..." is both a filter and telling. The rest of the sentence is partially showing and telling. I can see why people debate it. On the one hand you are showing us the facial expression, but on the other hand, instead of describing the expression you are telling us what the expression is.

    This is a tricky for good reason. Facial expressions are one of the more difficult things to show without telling. 'He smiled' is showing, 'he was happy' is telling. But the line blurs when you describe a facial expression using words like, disgust. Is that a description or telling us what it looked like? It's not worth debating.


    His empty stares now directed at the window behind me ...
    Again, I am being told the stare is empty, I am not being shown an empty expression.

    And again one can see the debate: is 'an empty stare' a description or is it telling us the stare was empty? And again, this sort of thing is not worth debating. There is no right or wrong here and given how difficult it is to describe facial expressions without adjectives like empty and disgust, there is little benefit in debating whether it is telling or showing.

    Describing a facial expression without telling is a difficult concept and the following may confuse the matter further:

    ... made him look like he had just been hit by a monster truck.
    here you are using a metaphor to show. So even though you are telling us what the character looked like, you are doing it by showing us a metaphor.

    I understood how he felt, but would rather wait till he unloaded what was on his mind.
    This last one is a clear example of showing vs telling. Here you are telling us the character had empathy. That's fine, but one can also show us this empathy instead of telling us by using actions like putting a hand on a shoulder.

    It's easy to tell us the character understood. It's harder to learn ways to show us the character understood. And no, one need not show everything. That would likely get very tedious.

    In my opinion, showing the character put a hand on another's shoulder is a lot more interesting than telling me the character understood. As a reader, I'm more engaged if I see that action than if you passively tell me about it.

    But when it comes to something like describing a facial expression, if you don't use adjectives like empty and disgust you can end up with writing like this from a 50 Shades book review on Amazon:
     

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