1. That Secret Ninja
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    That Secret Ninja Member

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    Showing Rather than Telling

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by That Secret Ninja, Apr 24, 2010.

    I've looked at some other peoples works (here and around the inter-web) and have scanned the constructive critiques that help the writer improve their faults.

    A lot of times, people are told that simply, their narrative relies too heavily on telling, and not showing.

    So my question is "Can you effectively use both to form a story?" obviously using showing much more.

    As I was re-re-re-drafting my short story, I noticed my earlier draft being guilty of too much telling, and not nearly enough showing.

    Now that I've redrafted it four or five times in total, I show what happens to characters as they react physically and mentally to events/actions/settings, and also show how they react physically and mentally in relation to other characters and their actions and thoughts.

    But I've found that I still use some telling narrative. Now, should I change that? and have it all be shown to the reader?

    Also I assume it's a good thing that when I try to actively show rather than tell, that my short stories are much longer and descriptive. that's a good thing right?

    I'm still working on what amount of showing is right for the story. as I think some re-drafted portions get a little long winded, although they have their purposes, if they didn't I prollly would not have written them. Should I then somehow streamline them into much more meaningful showing than a long-winded form of the same events?
     
  2. Kursal
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    Kursal Senior Member

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    To be honest, and perhaps to fly in the face of some conventions on here (I'm not sure), I am worried that you are re-drafting your story too much.

    You see, redrafts can be a form of procrastination. There's an old saying "You only get paid for done" and, where as I don't quite like the wording, the sentiment helped me a lot in writing. The difficult bits, of course, is telling when your story is complete and letting go. From what you've said in your last two posts I am building a picture of you being fairly new to writing and still finding your feet. Because of this, every time you learn new techniques, or see the way some other writer has attacked something, you want to try that out in your own work. Am I anywhere near the mark there?

    I think you might be better releasing a draft here for review whether you think it finished or not. Then you can make a list of what you would change and see if it marries up to the comments you get back. That way you shall know if you're going down the right path with all of the changes you want to make.

    The good thing about it being here is that you don't have to be rejected by publishers left, right and center before getting any feedback.
     
  3. That Secret Ninja
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    That Secret Ninja Member

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    Absolutely true, I am a fairly inexperienced writer. While I see your point in saying that I might be re-drafting the story too much. I think that my re-drafts have made it into something that could stand out from all the other '1st' short stories people write. I know of some of the trappings that most inexperienced writers fall into. and when I don't, I simply ask a question to the knowledgeable crowd on this forum. This allows me to preemptively strike at my own work before you fair people have a chance to point out my failings.

    The re-drafts I have made are most likely for the better. As I only add in what I think necessary, and remove what I think does not work toward the finished piece. My second draft was incredibly amateurish and lacking any action at all, just me telling what happened, i.e. boring stuff.. Each time I would identify what I saw as a personal weakness and addressed it. Once I know my identifiable weaknesses I will be willing to share my writing to the masses. So that they could see what I am blind to.

    Procrastination would only play a role in my situation if I didn't have a goal in mind for this story. And I most certainly do. I'm re drafting for my own benefit. Each draft has been profoundly more descriptive and a quasi form of blossoming literature in my mind's eye.

    But enough about my re-drafts....

    Showing, not telling. What's your opinion for a new writer?

    Should I only Show?

    Should I mix the two styles?
     
  4. Kursal
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    Kursal Senior Member

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    Sorry, I don't want to put your off re-drafting because it is an important tool for improving your story, but I have seen so many people fall in to the trap when starting out.

    Anyway, to showing and telling:

    Sad to say, the jury is still out on the subject. There are some people who would say that you should always show and never tell but, personally, I don't hold with that.

    That doesn't mean you should ignore the advice however. Just qualify it a little more. Perhaps like this:

    Wherever possible it is better to let your reader discover what is happening through the interactions of your characters.

    Of course, telling can be important too. Even in books, there is a lot that is left out from the whole. You very rarely find, for example, that a character has had to have a loo break. Telling is a good way to skip over areas like this and move the story along. It can give your story a much better pace if used in the right places.

    Thinking about how I handle it, I show when there is a dramatic scene that needs the audience to be connected with it, that needs your reader to emote. I tell when I need to impart information about the story quickly.

    Now, that changes slightly when I'm writing in the first person because you should, at that point, only describe things that are of importance to the protagonist. That changes the dynamic of your story somewhat.

    We probably give the wrong advice to new writers. Yes, showing is important. Where possible, where it is dramatically important (and definitely where your audience needs to emote) you need to show. At other times, the choice is yours. The thing to remember is more to do with pacing. Tell when you need to increase the pace of your story and only as a bridge between two points of showing.

    Does that help?
     
  5. Unit7
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    Unit7 Contributing Member Contributor

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    If I have learned anything while on here, its that you should strike some sort of balance between it. Telling in itself isn't bad, but if you can show it. Then thats what you probably should do. Telling has its place, and some telling isn't all to bad. But if you can show that the character is angry, happy, then don't tell us. Show us. If a character is a bit eccentric, don't tell us, show us by the way he acts and his quirks.

    If I have this wrong, someone please correct me. Because I struggle with this alot in my writings.
     
  6. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    The important thing is knowing when a detail is worth revealing through showing and when it is better to tell. You can tell us someone is embarrassed, or you can describe ("show") all of the physiological reactions as they experience them. Sometimes, one will be better than the other, but there certainly isn't a hard and fast rule that says you must always show.

    I disagree with the idea that if you can show something, you should. Sometimes saying "I was happy" is a much better choice than saying "My cheeks were starting to hurt from smiling so much". Let context dictate which to use. After all, words, especially words for emotions, exist solely for the reason to conveniently summarise all the things that you would otherwise be wasting more words on explaining. If, for instance, during a heated exchange between two characters one of them says something that embarrasses the other, you can either break the flow of the conversation describing all the physical reactions brought about by embarrassment, or you can tell the reader "He was embarrassed." The result is the same, and you probably haven't disrupted the flow of the conversation as much as you would've.
     
  7. Kursal
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    Kursal Senior Member

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    See, that goes back to the problem inherent in defining the process of writing. There are no hard and fast rules (even in grammar now) and, yes, context plays a huge part in what you should be doing.

    I said "Wherever possible" for a reason. I would take your example as a place in a story where it is not possible to show something, for precisely the reasons you laid out. If you don't make these distinctions then it is quite easy to write a story that does nothing but show. I don't think that it would be written in the best way possible.

    I still think that saying "Wherever possible it is better to let your reader discover what is happening through the interactions of your characters." is much less ambiguous than the adage "Show, don't tell", even if (as a rule) it could do with expanding.
     
  8. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    I wouldn't even say "whenever possible." I'm a big fan of showing, but you still need to balance it against the simple directness of telling.

    Telling is just fine when what you are exposing is straightforward, particularly if you don't need to emphasisize it.
    That is perfectly adequate after a long day of work in the stables, and the conciseness works well.

    But emotional states are often more complex, so you don't do them justice with a simple "She was furious". If you show the circumstances, you can convey not only the anger, but the sense of humiliation and self-blame she is feeling, and let the reader feel the confusion over which emotion is truly dominant.

    I have a blog post about this: Show and Tell
     
  9. MJ Preston
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    MJ Preston Banned

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  10. Humour Whiffet
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    Humour Whiffet Banned

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    Click on cogito's blog post above!
     
  11. Fallen
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    I hope Cog doesn't mind if someone else has a say on this (two, three, four heads together and all that...):)


    The forest was beautiful. (telling)

    Heated bracken crunches under foot as the soft scent of Jasmine wrinkles his nose. Sun simmers the surface of a lake, catching his eyes and making him smile his gaze away. (showing)

    telling = abstarcts (beautiful (you can't 'see' words like that)
    showing = use of concrete language (you describe 'beautifful' without actually using the word: heated brken, Jasmine, lakes, they're beautiful (to the narrator)).

    telling also = verbs such as 'is' 'are' 'was' (the forest is beautiful)
    showing also = action verbs: run, jump, skip, hop, ('crunches', 'sizzles', in the showing example)

    But you can use dialogue to help 'show' that too:

    Heated bracken crunches under foot as the soft scent of Jasmine wrinkles his nose. Sun simmers the surface of a lake, catching his eyes and making him smile his gaze away. 'Well worth a second date,' he whispers to himself.

    'Huh? Who, me?'

    He nuzzles into Sue's throat. 'Yeah,' a blush brushes cheeks, 'course I meant you.'

    Telling aids the exapnsion and contraction of the showing you use: they're good dance partners. Too much telling sends doesn't let the reader 'work' and enjoy connecting the dots (in the showing example, the reader draws the conclusion 'It's a beautiful forest'). Too much showing c an push your reader away because you're asking too much of them when it comes to connecting the dots.

    So back to dance partners, and any dance partner will know, one will take the lead over the other. It just depends on the dance.
     
  12. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think that showing can have the advantage of leaving some ambiguity, too.

    For example:

    Tell: She said, with controlled fury, "No."

    Show: She took a slow deep breath, released it just as slowly, and put her glass down with care. Only then did she look at him. "No."

    In the Show, it's not absolutely clear that "she" is angry and controlling herself, and sometimes this may be good - you may want that uncertainty.

    ChickenFreak
     
  13. MJ Preston
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    MJ Preston Banned

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  14. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    It's not silly. The distinction can be somewhat blurry, because in orrder to show, you still must tell something. Sometimes you can only make the distinction in context, because only in context can you be sure what the real message of the sentence or paragraph is.

    One place showing shines through is in third person narrative, when you want to get into a character's head without actually intruding into thoughts or feelings. When you look at someone, you can generally see whether he or she agry, happy, depressed, or confused. But you don't actually see the emotions or hear the thoughts. You infer it from visual cues. Nathan's fists are balled, his eyes are narrowed, and he is uncharacteristically silent: you infer that Nathan is angry and trying to hold it in. Violet is smiling, keeps looking at Brad when he isn't aware, and finding reasons to offer him some help: Violet is infatuated with Brad.

    Telling is drawing the conclusion and stating the infedrence to the reader. Showing is displaying the observed signals and letting the reader draw the inference.

    The real beauty is that the observations often allow multiple inferences with different degrees of subtlety. Not only is Violet infatuated with Brad, there is no open relationsip there. He may or may not be aware of her attraction to him, but he is at least pretending to be oblivious.
     
  15. Kursal
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    Kursal Senior Member

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    To extend this slightly, and give a slightly different twist to the subject:

    Certain publishers or publications have a preferred ratio of show to tell. It won't be anything published, no empirical figures, it's more to do with editors own preferences. From reading the other things they put out you can get some idea of what they might be looking for in a story and write accordingly.
     
  16. black-radish
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    black-radish Senior Member

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    I have a question on this subject.. what if you say:

    "I gasped, the view was beautiful! The world bathed in a golden light as the sun went down. The blossom danced in the air as a cool breeze stroked my skin."

    Is that show or tell?
     
  17. Colonel Marksman
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    Colonel Marksman Member

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    A few years ago, I started studying the art of prose writing. Within 2 years time, I got my hands on some 30 writer's magazines filled with helpful articles (like The Writer, Writer's Digest, etc.) and 2 How-to's. I decided to go a bit deeper and got 3 more How-to's and compared all that information to a few more just browsing the bookstore.


    Almost every single one of them had the phrase "show, don't tell" in them somewhere. It's pretty safe to say that there's something behind this. But only a small handful of these references even brushed up on exactly what it meant. The ones that did... (citing my sources here)

    “10 Ways to put the THRILL in Thriller” – Jay Bonansinga
    “Push Your Writing to the Edge” – By Arthur Plotnik
    Writing the Novel (From Plot to Print) – By Lawrence Block
    Writing Mysteries 2nd Edition

    And a few others, all mentioned the exact same things. I compiled all the information together into a "Writing Recipe" that I've shared with writers and published authors here and there. Here's what I understood about "show, don't tell."



    Verbs and Nouns
    Strong verbs and nouns define showing instead of telling the story. Action (anything the characters or objects are doing) is what you want to detail and define. Very good nouns and verbs will help carry the bulk of the muscle of your writing. This is part of “showing” instead of “telling”.

    This means: lay off the passive and helping verbs! I don’t know how many times I have to emphasize that. The word “had” in writing is amongst the bigger killers. What’s wrong with the word ‘had’ you ask? The word ‘had’ makes the action sound like something that already happened, and if you read closely, it even overpowers your very awesome and strong verb, as well as becomes part of excess (now you know why). You also want to give your readers the feel of being in your setting at that moment. When you tell them something that happened, you fail to put your reader into a setting happening. You don’t want to tell them the story, you want to put readers in the story, so show them, don’t tell. Take this simple example: “He had stabbed his father.” Why not, “He stabbed his father.”? The word “stabbed” is already in the past tense, and as chilling as the word it may be, the word “had” just destroys it. Try it out for yourself using other, tense verbs.

    Here is a list of words and things to avoid: Has, had, was, were, be, am, is, are, will, have, etc. I’m sure you can pick more up and add them to the list. Now verbs that point out mere existence cannot be helped. If all you want to do is point out existence, then you really don’t have much a choice but use that word such as ‘had’ or ‘was’. Here, your strongest verbs are those because none other exists, unless you rearrange the sentence to something else. It just isn’t right to type out “he exists.” it's a bit too much.

    Nouns follow the same general rules as verbs in the case of strong writing. They must be exact. Use a thesaurus. Do a bit of research. Try and find more powerful nouns that may shorten description. I have trouble expanding my vocabulary, and I’m sure there are complex nouns that can shorten whole phrases of mine.


    When you put nouns and verbs together, you create a scene with action. You are showing the reader details, not telling them. When you are describing something, anything, you must leave no room for opinion. Some readers prefer imagining the character’s total image on their own, and there’s always room for that, but don’t keep readers guessing. There is a fairly large amount of people who prefer to know who is who, and they tend to overpopulate the ones who prefer imagination.



    I found similarities also with some of the other "rules" from the other sources. The good examples used by these authors to make a point are stories that “Show, Don’t Tell”, have “Strong Writing”, are “Believable” or writing that will “Suspend Beyond Belief”, “Identify with the characters”, about which the authors “What They Know”, and keep “Suspense”.

    Pick up a few random how-to's on thrillers. "A good thriller..." or any other genre. "A good mystery...", "A good romance..." heck, you know what surprised me the most? When I wrote a college research paper on writing children's books, the references I picked up had the exact same suggestions for the thriller and the mystery writers. "To write a good children's story..." and there they were, including "show, don't tell."



    I don't know about you, but when 20+ published authors are repeating each other like broken record players without even knowing it, thinking these ideas only relate to their genre of expertise, something universal to good writing is up.
     
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  18. black-radish
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    black-radish Senior Member

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    Hey colonel,
    thanks for posting this! It's really usefull! especially because you have examples about the passive and helping verbs! :D
    I'll go check some of my writing now, see if I used it.
    Thanks again! :)

    ~ Lola
     
  19. Elvis
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    Elvis Member

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    Forgive me for not actually adding anything to the conversation, but it literally took me years to figure out what the hell "show, don't tell" actually meant.

    I had been hearing that phrase since middle school, but nobody bothered to actually explain it to me. I remember thinking, "What do you mean, 'show, don't tell'? It's freaking writing. What am I supposed to do, draw a picture?"

    It wasn't until I read a book about writing that gave techniques on how to show (not tell) that I figured out what all my English teachers had been babbling about all those years.
     
  20. Colonel Marksman
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    Colonel Marksman Member

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    If you don't mind me asking, what book? I got mine mostly through magazine articles; I'd love to add another book to my list of references.
     
  21. Elvis
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    Don't remember, exactly. I've read several books about writing. The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, 30 Steps to Becoming a Writer, Writing the Breakout Novel, On Writing Horror... off the top of my head.

    I don't remember exactly which book covered what topics.
     
  22. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    I actually did a Masters project on this!

    You not only can, you should. Showing is a lot more lively and engaging than telling, but it's also more verbose. It's also harder work for the reader because they have to interpret rather than being handed the interpretation on a plate. It's in that hard work that the reader will get satisfaction from your text, but only if you make them work hard in the places where that reward is to be found.

    If you only "show" then you will spend a lot of words on stuff that simply isn't moving the story forwards, and the text will get bogged down. If you only "tell" then the text will read like an old-fasioned text book, and your readers will get bored or feel that they're being lectured. The trick is to get the balance right, and because telling is a lot easier than showing the balance usually fails in the direction of too much telling. Typically, you will use telling for moving concisely between bits of action or development, for scene-setting and so on, and you will use showing for the actual substance.

    Look at the opening of Steinbeck's "East of Eden": a long passage telling the reader about the landscape in which the story is going to undold. It's beautifully written, and is entirely appropriate. But sooner or later -- and better sooner than later -- Steinbeck has to actually set a story in the landscape he has told us about, and he shows the action of that story.
     
  23. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Showing is often more verbose than telling, but showing often communicates far more than the telling it is intended to replace. This is especially true if you are showing an emotional state. Telling slaps a label on one dimension of emotion (furious, lonely, wistful, contented), but the emotion displayed in a sentence or two of showing can describe subtleties of emotion that would be difficult to sum up in a complete paragraph.
     
  24. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    Indeed. The question for the author to decide is whether the extra that it's communicating is relevant. As I say, the rule of thumb is to show the important bits, and tell to link the important bits together. Too much showing and the story no longer stands out. Fine if you're writing À la recherche du temps perdu, but not generally what's wanted.

    Admittedly "too much showing" is a very rare fault, but That Secret Ninja was asking whether telling needs to be eliminated completely, and that would usually do it!
     
  25. Colonel Marksman
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    Colonel Marksman Member

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    That's easy in my opinion. Things that you want to describe in detail is going to be in part of controlling time flow, and action versus the world around it.

    Example, in a car chase scene, think about where the camera is going to be focused as if your book is a movie. Two cars turn the corner at a crowded intersection in the story. Don't stop and write 500 words about the pavement, the colors, the brick, the bunny rabbit statues, the past life of a child standing there watching.

    And then give 1 sentence about the impact into the shop. A rather extreme example, but I hate to say that I have seen it before.
     

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