1. madeleinefarraday
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    madeleinefarraday Member

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    Showing vs. Telling just takes so much LONGER...

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by madeleinefarraday, Aug 10, 2012.

    I've been reading about show-vs-tell, because this is a thing that still plagues my writing, very much so, along with using the passive voice too much. I can see it in other people's writing, and I can see it in my own, but when I try to rephrase, I get all tied up in knots. I've been reading about it, and I definitely understand the difference, but I think the biggest thing for me is that the 'showing' always seems to take so much LONGER than telling. I can see that it sounds tons better, but sometimes I think to myself - why should the reader CARE about a 3 paragraph digression talking about something that could take just 5 sentences?

    Case in point:
    http://www.mariavsnyder.com/advice/showvstell.php

    The final scene on this page is what I'm talking about. The scene where there are 2 people talking while 2 others are fencing. The telling example is quite flat, I can see that, and honestly, that looks like MY writing. (Uggggh....) The showing example is wonderfully written. Great! But...it's also about a page long. And I lost interest several times while I was reading through it, well written or not, I just couldn't believe how much the paragraph grew. Just for the sake of showing.

    What is wrong with me? I like flash fiction, and I like short, succinct things. When it's flash, I can edit it down to something that reads very well, and it all seems to gel together quite smoothly. With my longer works, however, I get so paralyzed by show-vs-tell that I end up unable to write. It's awful.

    Am I just lazy, that I don't want to take the time to 'show'? I'm too impatient? I want to write it all out and be done with it. I think that's my main problem.

    Sorry for the angst.
     
  2. captain kate
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    captain kate Active Member

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    While the differences are important, to a point, if you completely try to lock yourself into one mode, you will cripple your writing. There is always going to be elements of showing and elements of telling in every book. Some best sellers and well known novels are telling. Work to improve your ability to work a character arc, and you will have a good yarn. One thing to remember: you have to know the rules to break the rules, which authors do quite often. Even the best written scene will have elements of telling in it too. So don't stress yourself out completely, and just write the best YOU can, that's all you ask for anyway.

    However, there will be times that words like "was" will be used, even if considered "passive" because of what you, the author, are doing. I have a lot of first person thoughts switched the third in my writing, which brings "was" into play some, and in action scenes at time. People won't notice the "passive voice" if the description, or action, draws them into it.

    People don't remember what you write, or how you do it, they remember how you made them feel.
     
  3. madeleinefarraday
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    madeleinefarraday Member

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    Ok thanks. I am trying to learn the difference, and when one is needed as opposed to the other. :)
     
  4. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Showing for me , is more about setting a mood, then just a list of descriptions - it's like music. Depending on the tone
    you set up for the next telling scene or comment , you'll have less work to do, because the reader will get it. The 'music' will tip
    him off that this scene is scary , sensual, tense etc. Thus, a sort of dance is created between the showing & telling ,
    each complimenting one another.

    When I start to sound like I'm writing directions for a stage play that's when I know I'm slipping
    into passive voice. Sometimes sheer logic will help you to
    eliminate the passive voice -like - John saw the living room - if he's awake , his eyes are
    open, he better be seeing something.
     
  5. Lost72
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    Lost72 Member

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    'Was', depending on where you place the word in the sentence, doesn't have to be passive.

    That's the key, isn't it? I used to get so bogged down with show versus tell that it stifled my writing. Now, putting it bluntly, I'm fairly not giving a sh1t, and... succeeding in varying degrees. It's all about learning what's important to your readers and what isn't, and knowing your genre. Intuition plays a part, too, as does a keen ear. I know, sometimes, that's all easier said than done.

    That's not passive. The living room was seen by John - that's passive. However, I agree with you; he's awake, we'll naturally assume he can see unless told otherwise.
     
  6. captain kate
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    captain kate Active Member

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    It still comes full circle to the yarn you tell. If it's good, captivating, and can draw people in, then they won't notice passive voice. Our job as authors is to know our target audience and make sure the book fits it. My sci fi novel is for the 18-34 crowd, and people who crave action instead of the Vampire/Werewolf/Demon stories. Just, while I pay a lot of attention to characterization, there's plenty of action with some places to allow them to take a breath. It reads a bit like a summer blockbuster with more attention towards the MC's.
     
  7. E. C. Scrubb
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    E. C. Scrubb Active Member

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    Showing doesn't have to be longer than telling. If it's done tight, it can be the same length, or shorter.

    Telling ". . . but when Johnny opened the door, he was gobsmacked at the two bears in tutus that were dancing the merengue. He quietly closed the door and walked away."
    Showing ". . . Johnny pushed the door open, and froze. Bears . . . in tutus? Dancing the merengue? He turned on his heal, quietly closing the door behind him."

    That's another very important point. A lot of times, showing and telling can be interspersed. Show an action scene, but then to a little telling so the reader can catch his or her breath, then jump back into showing another action scene. You can really pace a book by weaving these two items together in a particular way.
     
  8. captain kate
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    captain kate Active Member

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    Exactly, the first main action scene in the last 1/4 of the novel then has a short period of interchange between MC 1 and the now introduced MC 1b. From there on out, it's shorter breathers, a short walk before scenes, or quick planning of what to do next. They all are used to control pace. In DAD, I used the second half of chapter 6 and all of 7 for a breather since the first 5 had been action back to back. Pacing definitely is a part of our writing that is a key
     
  9. LuminousTyto
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    LuminousTyto Senior Member

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    Whether you decide to show or tell your entire story (NOT RECOMMENDED) doesn't really mater because you won't have a novel length work until you hit around the 90,000 word count. So does it really matter if you have to show things in certain spots, even if it takes 5 times the space?

    Besides, telling is to skip the boring parts. The good parts of your fiction NEED to be shown or else there won't be any tension/suspense, which will make for a pretty bad read. Scenes need to be shown, and the amount you show depends on the level of intensity of the scene. The more intense the scene, the more you show.

    If you can't do this then you might bot be cut out for writing novel length. Maybe you're a flash fiction/short story person.
     
  10. Krystle Robison
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    Krystle Robison Member

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    Im bad at telling i write down every single little detail in the first draft then when i go back to edit i do more of the showing where i think i told to much
     
  11. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    If you lost interest, then, IMO, it was not well written. Sure, it was competently and correctly written, but that's not the same as "well written". I don't really think that the example illustrates its point very well.

    Also, two out of the four examples of passive voice on that page were, in fact, not passive voice. I think I'd suggest better writing advisors. :)

    I find "showing" versus "telling" to be fairly ambiguous descriptions. Instead, I think of layers of meaning, and avoiding what I call "spoonfeeding".

    For example, let's take a classic passive-aggressive female remark:

    Janet paused to study Margaret. After a moment she asked, "That's what you're going to wear?"

    That remark has the potential to mean any number of things, right? Are you going to explain that fact, and explain every little thought that Margaret has, and how Margaret's relationship with her mother makes her extra sensitive to such remarks, and blah blah blah? Or are you going to just let Margaret respond?

    Margaret glanced down at her lily-green chiffon skirt, then looked up again with a grin. "Yep."

    Again, do we need to _explain_ whether Margaret is obliviously happy, or rebelliously happy, or hiding hurt feelings, or blah blah blah? Or do we just let Margaret do what she does and let the reader figure it out?

    All that explaining would be what I call "spoonfeeding". Letting the reader watch Jane and Margaret and draw their own nuances from their actions avoids spoonfeeding.
     
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  12. Leonardo Pisano
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    Leonardo Pisano Active Member

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    Madeleine, I am not sure whether this helps but I interpret showing vs telling as that showing allows the reader to draw its own conclusions, whilst in telling the author draw the conclusions. That explains why showing is more engaging. If you say "John looked angry" that's simply telling the reader how John feels, and it says not much about to what extent John actually grew angry. If you say something like "John's face grew red and he balled his fists" the reader can visualize John better and s/he will no doubt conclude John grew angry.

    HTH
     
  13. madeleinefarraday
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    madeleinefarraday Member

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    Thanks for the replies, and the help. Interesting that people found inaccurate info on the page I cited.

    I was not being notified that there were new responses... Frustrating. I will post a more in depth reply tomorrow since it is late here.
     
  14. Edward M. Grant
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    Edward M. Grant Contributing Member

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    My rule of thumb would be: tell (or skip) the boring parts, show the interesting parts. There's nothing wrong with telling when you do it for a good reason, and I've seen a lot of new writers who believe that you should never do so.

    For example, if characters in a fantasy novel are going to spend six weeks riding from one city to another and nothing happens along the way, there's no reason to show that. Either say 'Then they spent six weeks riding to the next city,' or just have a chapter break and start the next chapter after they arrive.
     
  15. captain kate
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    captain kate Active Member

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    exactly, and showing doesn't have to be wordy either. I have a general two paragraph excerpt I give from my novel that shows the scene, is completely described, flows, and is about 100 words. Wordiness if ok, it you're flowing and making good use of your words. Sometimes, you can combine two small sentences into one longer, flowing sentence, and get your point across at the same time. It's up to your own style to exactly handle what you want to do.

    I just finished a battle scene in my novel I'm on, there's a combination of telling and showing there, because the pace needs to roll, and it'll drag if you do too much showing.
     
  16. fwc577
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    fwc577 Member

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    I'm not a fan of this example and heres why.

    While I do agree with most of what you say I hate the female's response. It is far to ambiguous. Grin is for sure the wrong word choice in that sentence because it doesn't convey enough. You're character up until this point could be portrayed as non-bubbly but then that line could make her seem bubbly and out of character.

    While you want to let the reader decide for themselves you want to manipulate them into drawing the specific conclusion you desire without outright telling them that conclusion.
     
  17. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I have no particular investment in the example, but I don't agree with this guideline. There's nothing inherently wrong with the reader wondering, "What did Margaret mean by that?" and having to watch Margaret a little longer to find out. When you meet a stranger, you don't instantly know their thoughts and feelings; meeting a character in a book isn't necessarily all that different.
     
  18. fwc577
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    fwc577 Member

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    That's fine and all but that isn't what I said either.

    Using such a weak descriptor of "grin" is terrible form. There are plenty of ways a person can "grin" that infers entirely different meanings. Deliberately deceiving your audience with weak descriptors isn't going to make us think, "What did she mean by that" it's just going to be confusing. Something like "devlish grin" or "wicked grin" or "flirtatious grin". Those leave us with a sense of, "Oh man, Margaret has something planned, I cannot wait to turn the next page and find out."

    "she grinned" "with a grin" "Margaret grinned" all of those are far too weak.

    If she doesn't have anything planned and she's just a "bubbly" individual then maybe just "grin" is a good word. But "bubbly grin" still conveys a stronger message.

    You need a better descriptor than, "with a grin" because that is about as ambigous as "she wore a green dress" (you do a nice job of describing her dress a moment earlier in the sentence.)
     
  19. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    To me (and to try to make sure that this doesn't go off topic for the thread), this leans into the spoonfeeding that I was trying to avoid. In my view of the world, when a person tries to hide her feelings behind a smile, you can't always read what's going on behind that smile. In your view, it sounds like you can. Or maybe your narrator can, while my narrator is closer to a POV character who can't. I think that either view is fine, but we're obviously each going to write based on our view, and my view can't read that smile confidently enough to support any of those adjectives. Therefore, to me, those adjectives add up to the narrator feeding conclusions to the reader, thus, spoonfeeding.

    If I wanted a more obvious signal, and my POV were omniscient or close on Margaret, I could have gone with,

    Margaret looked down and smoothed her lime-green skirt, lips pursed for a moment. She arranged them into a smile before she looked up. "Yep."
     
  20. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Showing isn't always longer, by the way, especially when what you are trying to reveal is as complex as an emotional state. Sure, you can briefly say, "Markham was furious." That is fewer words than showing him balling his fists, turning red, and glaring silently at the other character. But to compare two renderings of a moment, you have to compare equally precise versions. You can show a level of emotion far more concisely than you can tell it adequately.

    Besides, some of your markets pay by the word. So if they are good words, and not just fluff, use them to advantage. :)

    This may help: Show and Tell
     
  21. Program
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    Showing is not necessarily longer than telling. Showing is usually longer than telling when a writer would like to take a shortcut and just get done with it. Many times, a simple telling statement, such as "he is mad" is extremely ineffective. In this case, although telling is shorter, it does nothing useful. It's not interesting, it's not unique - it doesn't even tellthe reader anything useful really. Using some actions to show "he is mad" would make much more interesting writing.

    You could think of it this way: Telling could be just a normal car on the street. Showing could be a really expensive car on the street. Although it's probably easier and cheaper to make a normal car than a luxury car (and both of them do the same thing - they drive you places) a little deeper down, what you aren't noticing is that the luxury car could look better, be more comfortable, be more fuel efficient, be made of higher quality materials, etc. than the normal car.

    Let's look at one of the examples you posted:

    The problem with "Valek was angry" is it literally tells nothing. It leaves the reader wondering what type of "angry" is the writer talking about? That's a type of statement that can make a reader shut the book. Is Valek angry like a little child that was told to take a time-out? Is Valek angry like a man who has lost his job and can't find another one? Is Valek angry because someone did something wrong? Or is Valek just insane and angry for no reason at all? There are too many questions left unanswered, and the showing just does a much better job.

    If we know that Valek took an effort to hurl a rock at someone, then we know that he is extremely angry and the person who was the target must have done something wrong. The fact that the narrator froze could hint at the narrator being scared and not expecting this reaction. With more context, maybe the reader would deduce that Valek is normally not like this, or something the narrator said did not come out the way s/he intended it to sound. The fact that the stone whizzed past and exploded on the wall suggests that Valek is very strong if he can break a stone by hurling it at a wall.

    If you were to tell this all out, you would have to say this:

    I said something wrong. Valek got very angry, but Valek is not usually angry. Valek is very strong. He threw a stone at me and it came towards me at 80 miles per hour. I was shocked by the fact that he wanted to hurt me and was very scared.

    The two sentence example of showing can tell us at least five sentences of telling.
     

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