1. vyleside
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    vyleside Member

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    Showing, not telling

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by vyleside, Feb 10, 2009.

    I've heard a lot about "show, don't tell," and I understand it, but I find that I have trouble actually adhering to it.

    For instance, if I'm describing a character who is tall, or who has blonde hair, I'll say that they're blonde and tall. I can't seem to SHOW how they're tall.

    I've used "He had to hunch through the doorway," before, but sometimes, there are no nearby doorways. Sometimes, the person is tall, but not gigantic, so that wouldn't apply.

    Does anybody have any tips for how to come up with ways to 'show' rather than tell?
     
  2. Rei
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    Rei Contributing Member Contributor

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    With things like a character's size, I think you might be worrying too much, especially if their size is not essential to the story or the character's personality. It just happens to be the way the character looks.
     
  3. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Sometimes it IS best to just come out and say it. Trivial details, if they are needed at all, don't need to be shown.

    What you really want to avoid telling is emotions or character traits like impatience. Instead of saying Patrick is angry, show him slamming a door, or answering in short phrases (or not at all).
     
  4. vyleside
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    vyleside Member

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    That makes a lot of sense, actually, thanks.
     
  5. JohnNoZ
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    JohnNoZ Member

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    As has been pointed out, there are times when telling is just fine. However, for key points of characterization, you can almost always show, rather than tell.

    For example, if the character is tall, he can duck or bump his head on a doorway. Or you cant juxtapose the character to the height of another, more minor character; something like, "Frank dwarfed the poor man standing helplessly next to him at the bus stop."

    This is especially important, if Frank has other characteristics that play into (or against) his physical size. For example, if he is an exceptionally quiet man, despite his threatening size, then showing is far more effective than just telling that, "Frank was quiet, despite his impressive height."

    If you want to show that a character is blond, place them in a room with darker haired people, and point out juxtaposition and how they stand out. Or, characterize another (minor) character as jealous of that character's long, blond hair, etc.

    For more on this, see "Stein on Writing". Great book.

    Just some thoughts.
     
  6. RIPPA MATE
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    RIPPA MATE Contributing Member

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    John has some good points, but firmly note, A characters physical appearance is not and important part of charactorisation. Unless it directly relates/affects how the character will acts. (If he's missing a leg then yes that will be important to the story and charactor. Same if he wares glasses).
    Point being, its not necessarily important to 'show' physical appearence ie. the blond hair.
    What you want to do is 'show' is actual characterisation. That is, frank's quietness, his habits (which could be forgetting to lower his head) and how he reacts to certain situations, what he does.
     
  7. vyleside
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    vyleside Member

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    I've tried to re-write a section of a story with showing, rather than telling. Could somebody tell me which one tells you more about the character/shows more?

    Version 1:
    A man paced back and forth between the green-house and the kitchen sink, watering can in hand. Despite sporting grey hair and what appeared to be an ancient cardigan with a rose corsage on the breast pocket, he possessed a build that would shame a boxer. Jake watched as he approached a row of plants. He reached out to one and took the sprout between his fingertips, making Jake cringe.

    The man looked like he should have snapped the delicate shoots with well meaning clumsiness. Instead, he delicately examined the plant with a tenderness that would have seemed more likely from a grizzly bear.

    version 2:

    A grey haired man strode back and forth between the green-house and kitchen sink. His lined forehead and distinguished moustache hinted at his age, yet he radiated an unnatural youthfulness. His biceps strained against the frayed sleeves of his cardigan while his legs bulged in a pair of tweed trousers that would age anyone by at least ten years. His fingers barely fit through the green, plastic handle of his watering can.

    As he approached a row of plants, Jake held his breath. In his mind, he saw the man drowning the seedlings before crushing them with well meaning clumsiness. Instead, he delicately watered each one, giving just enough water. He retrieved secateurs from his pocket and clipped at the fragile seedlings with a dexterity and tenderness that would have been more likely from a grizzly bear.

    With the seedlings content, he turned his attention to a bed of roses. He considered the flowers for a few seconds, then snipped the largest flower from the shrub. Glowing with satisfaction, he pinned the flower to his breast pocket.
     
  8. RIPPA MATE
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    RIPPA MATE Contributing Member

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    The first version is the best version. The description you give there gives a clear image of the man, it also leaves room for the readers imagination. The sentence part 'making jake cringe' instantly shows jake's character. Right their you know Jake is an over protective obsessive plant head.
    The thing is in both paragraphs you are showing. For instance paragraph 2 of version 2 could have easily replace 'He reached out...jake cringe...grizzly bear.'

    I think what you're doing is trying to show the 'physical appearence.' You did particularly this in version 2. But what you're really doing here is not 'showing,' but adding more description (tell) to the man and not adding any character at all. Character is about actions and reactions. Notice, 'jake cringed' and 'jake held his breath.'

    My tip to you is to stop trying to 'show' physical appearance. Focus on 'showing' what a character does and how he reacts to things.

    RM
     
  9. vyleside
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    vyleside Member

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    Thanks for that. The section I'm trying to write in particular that's giving me trouble is this very bit. The thing is, it's important that the guy is old, yet well built, yet dextrous. The rose is also important to him later on in the story.

    I think I'm getting it now, though. Tell enough of a character's appearance to form an image, but not too much to make it clunky and rob the reader of their own image. Replace that with examples of the character's actions to show their personality/mannerisms.

    I might try to do a third version of that section later, to see if I can apply this knowledge.

    This writing lark can be quite difficult, can't it :eek:
     
  10. Rei
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    Rei Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think that rewrite was probably another case of worrying too much. Just relax and let it happen. You showed us that he was old by refering to his hair colour and the condition of the cardigan. You showed us his physical condition by comparing him to a boxer. Keep it simple. If the character is nervous, you don't always need to describe every tiny detail of how the body reacts to nervousness (though sometimes it may help tone), you can simple say that his palms were sweating or he was fidgety.
     
  11. JohnNoZ
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    JohnNoZ Member

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    Hey. Yes, I agree that very general physical characteristics are not important enough to waste time and energy on showing in this manner (reader's or writer's time). However, often you may create physical features that play into or against personality. Then these raise to a level that is important to characterization. If a girls long blond hair is provided as a source and symbol of her obsession with her beauty, that trait becomes important to characterization.

    Likewise, if Frank's physical size exists in the character as counterpoint to his meek nature, then it is important to characterization.

    Paying attention to these details, and showing rather than telling, can well be worth your while.

    The key question is, "Why did I give this character this striking feature in the first place?"
     
  12. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Even showing involves some telling. If you are showing a building irritation, you will tell the reader about the tightening jaw, the pause to silently count to ten, and the outraged thought, Just who does she think she is talking to like that?

    The thing is, emotions demand more than a single word. Angry can vary between silent annoyance that passes a moment later to a rage that sets in motion a plan for a three state deadly rampage. Showing is far richer for the reader.

    Also, if you're already showing, don't bother telling as well. Don;t give the reader cause to say, "Duh!" If Mary's face is aabout to turn red in the next sentence, and she will be running out of the room to hide in a bathroom stall, don't spoil it by beginning with, "Mary was completely embarassed."
     
  13. RIPPA MATE
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    RIPPA MATE Contributing Member

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    Yes I agree with you here, how physical appearance does add to the character if it is somehow striking and will affect the way he will act etc.

    However what i was pointing out is that you can't really 'show' that someone has blond hair. It is very hard to show physical detail. Well not neccessarally 'hard' as such but its very hard to implement the showing effectively. Telling in this instance can be the best way to go.

    Even in franks case, you arn't showing his physical size. you 'tell' that and then add the 'showing' of his meek nature later. Your counterpoint thus ends up as a mix.

    but yeah... i'm just being annoying and creating an argument. I do agree with you :D
     
  14. KP Williams
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    KP Williams Contributing Member

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    Ugh. I used to do this one all the time. And I do mean that literally. For some reason, I thought the reader just wouldn't get it if I only did one or the other. :confused:
     
  15. Enslaved
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    Enslaved New Member

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    haha same here, this thread made me rewrite a LOT of stuff :D
     
  16. Rei
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    Rei Contributing Member Contributor

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    Ah, yes, that's an important thing to think about. I've said it before a lot,, and yes I am qouting Stephen King, but don't kill me. You have to trust your reader to understand what you are saying. Now he was talking about certain uses of adverbs like "he said sadly" when it should be obvious from the context that the person is sad and "sadly" doesn't really describe the voice anyway. But it still applies here. If the reader can't figure out mood and personality from clear visual/audio descriptions of behaviour etc, it's an issue of the indiviual's reading comprihension, not our writing
     
  17. Atari
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    Atari Active Member

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    This is known as 'contradistinction'.
     

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