1. Rumwriter
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    Rumwriter Active Member

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    Showing vs Telling: When to break a rule

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Rumwriter, Apr 16, 2012.

    I always hear people say "show, don't tell." I find this works a lot of the time, but sometimes I feel like telling is a better option. I feel like it is quicker, and let's the audience paint their own picture.

    Take for instance the opening line of the first harry potter, in which Rowling states that the dursley's were "perfectly normal in every way." Now, I know a lot of people on here will say "You're using JK Rowling as your example? Pleease.." and that's fair enough, but look at the opening of Poe's Tell-tale Heart:

    "TRUE! nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am"

    That is telling, not showing -- and there's no denying that Poe is a literary great. And for his opening gambit he chose to tell.

    My general thoughts are that showing are good when you want to slow the story down and involve the reader in the details, but that too much of it can really make the story drag. In the Poe example, we get a sense of the narrator in one quick sentence, and we can fill in the gaps on our own.

    That's how I generally feel on the subject at least. How about you guys? Do you ALWAYS try to show over tell? Or when do you choose to do each?
     
  2. GillySoose
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    GillySoose Member

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    "Show, don't tell" only applies to some situations. It's good advice, but maybe it gets thrown around a bit too often. What's more important is to know when to show and when to tell.
     
  3. GeorgiaB
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    GeorgiaB Member

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    My novel is first person, so I do find myself telling quite often. A lot of times my MC knows exactly how she is feeling and she says it. If I can try to show in other ways -- mainly through dialogue -- I opt for that instead. But I at least try to be aware of when I'm doing too much telling, and since I'm only 25,000 words in, I have a long way to go before even thinking about editing. But I don't think it is a hard and fast rule at all.

    Georgia :)
     
  4. Rumwriter
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    Rumwriter Active Member

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    So what are the benefits of showing and the benefits of telling? Would you agree with what I said? Or can you think of others? I used to show WAY too much, and so I got into the habit of telling more, but I wonder now if I may be going to far the other direction. I think finding the perfect combo is what makes a good writer. or at least part of what makes a good writer
     
  5. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    I guess telling works for transitions, either in time or place, or for situations when you need to summarize, things that aren't very important for the story, like to let readers know briefly what happened to connect scene a with scene b. Show don't tell is not an absolute rule, it's more like a guideline for beginning writers.
     
  6. GillySoose
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    GillySoose Member

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    Well yeah, it can certainly be used to set the pacing for the story. Some things might be better off not shown at all because there's nothing worth showing, e.g. describing how your characters had a long, tedious night of studying for an exam or something. It's a lot simpler and probably more efficient to simply say "it took all night and six cups of coffee for us to get through the textbook, and I still felt unprepared the next morning" than actually describe them reading through the book hour by hour.

    Sometimes succinctly telling can be quite effective, really. For example Terry Pratchett (I think?) describes a river in one of his books as being so polluted "even an agnostic could walk across it". I think the reader would get the picture from a description like that :D
     
  7. Rumwriter
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    Rumwriter Active Member

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    Terry Pratchett can make a piece of poop look like a piece of gold with his writing.
     
  8. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    The original (as far as I am able to tell) was "prefer showing to telling", but that requires judgement regarding the balance. "Show, don't tell" is for those who think that creative writing is the sort of objective thing best left to computers. I suspect teachers who want something that they can objectively defend against parents who are angry that little Alice got poor marks on her creative writing assignment.

    All other things being equal, telling is more boring, more text-book like, more distancing than showing, but it's also a lot more compact -- you can usually convey the same in far fewer words if you are telling. Showing tends to be more engaging and more interesting, but it's harder work for the reader and a lot more verbose. If you do nothing but tell then you will end up with something that reads like the dullest of the dull history text books. If you do nothing but show you will leave the reader wallowing in a morass of words. Both errors make absolutely everything equally important, which it almost certainly isn't. So the trick is to show the important stuff, and to stitch that together with telling. In practice the showing and telling will tend to be mixed together in a single paragraph or even sentence (and there isn't actually a black-and-white boundary anyway). It's all part of how a skilled writer will control the pace and distinguishing what they want the reader to be looking at and what is in the background.
     
  9. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't think it's even a very good guideline. Telling can be absolutely brilliantly done, and if it is then it's no problem at all. Rather, if a passage (or a whole book!) turns out to be a bit boring then whether there is too much telling is a useful thing to check as a possible cause.
     
  10. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I absolutely wouldn't call "show, don't tell" a rule. I think that a lot of beginning writers don't realize that they _can_ show instead of telling. Either they just tell, all the time, or they show and tell, both, which is about as engaging as explaining a joke.

    There's always a place for both, at different points in a story.
     
  11. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think it's pretty helpful actually. I know I did way too much telling in the very beginning, because I didn't realize they were two different things. It opened my eyes, and even though it took me some time to learn to put it into practise it made my writing a whole lot better. I just think people shouldn't take every advice so literally, as if it was "either or", like there must be absolutely NO telling whatsoever. Rather do like the OP and try to find out when to use which. But I agree with the uselessness of RULES when it comes to writing, because all of them have their exceptions or different circumstances, and people often misinterpret them.
     
  12. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    This.

    "Show, don't tell" is not a rule. It's not even a good guideline. A writer should know, instinctively, what is important and what isn't, and show the important stuff and tell the unimportant stuff. There might be an important event that dramatically affects Fred's character early in his life, and then he climbs the corporate ladder to become CEO of YippyKyAy Industries. Then the story of Fred's crash and burn really starts, and that's the story you want to tell. You show the event of Fred's early life that helps make him the man he is, and then you say "Fred climbed the corporate ladder to become CEO." You could write a novel about his climb, but that's not the story you want to tell. So you summarize it in a line or two, BECAUSE YOU ARE A GOOD WRITER. A good writer TELLS what isn't important, because it can be glossed over quickly, and SHOWS what is important, because that's the stuff that needs to be dramatized.
     
  13. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Show and Tell
     
  14. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think that's a great example of a case where telling is better than showing. How would Rowling have shown that the Dursleys were perfectly normal in every way? All they ways I can think of would involve paragraph after paragraph of the Dursleys being normal until the reader gets the idea that they're normal in every way. That sort of thing can work wonderfully: Garrison Keillor is a master of it, but his characters think they're exceptional so you have a comedic tension. The Dursleys are proud of being normal, so that tension isn't there and we'd be left with paragraph after paragraph of nothing interesting happening -- and it's not even their story. What a waste of words, and what a waste of the reader's time (if they keep reading). Instead Rowling chooses to tell. She gets it over with in five simple words (not enough for the reader to get bored or feel distanced from the text), we have the information we need and she can get on with the story she wants to tell. Telling is clearly better in that case, and I find it frustrating that there are countless critics, some readers, and maybe some editors, who would object to it simply because it's "telling".
     
  15. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yes -- but in general don't show and tell the same thing.
     
  16. Cassiopeia Phoenix
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    Cassiopeia Phoenix Contributing Member

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    I think it takes a lot of practice for a writer to learn where to use "show" and where to use "tell". I'm still struggling with it, honestly, but when I "tell" is when I don't think there's the need of showing... Like background story between a dialogue and how the character felt in the past. Or when I'm using the POV of a character that I don't use much or is new in the narrative. Now, I rather "show" the feeling of my MC and another dynamic characters that I pay special attention, as I think it's up for the reader to realize what the character is feeling and it helps in getting into the character's mind...

    But as I said, I'm still working on it...
     
  17. Edward M. Grant
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    Edward M. Grant Contributing Member

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    Exactly. There are plenty of times when you should tell rather than show because showing would be irrelevant and boring... and other times when you should just cut to the next scene, six months later.

    As for Harry Potter, I haven't read it but I've seen at least one editor say that the first chapter was the reason why it kept being rejected before a publisher picked it up.
     
  18. NeedMoreRage
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    I've known the difference between show and tell for a while, but I still have problems figuring out how to show something, especially abstract things like ideas. I find it requires more dialogue to show something, but I'm not a huge fan of dialogue in general.
    But the real rule is to know that you need a balance so that the pacing of your book isn't ruined.
     
  19. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    You don't always, or even usually, have to use dialogue to show something, though. For example, if you want to show that a character is depressed, or that he's hungry, or that he dislikes dogs, or that he feels reverential but awkward and uncomfortable in a church, you can show those things with all sorts of nonverbal behaviors.
     
  20. killbill
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    killbill Contributing Member

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    'Telling' has its uses, but most of the time 'showing' trumps 'telling', specially in short stories. More often than not the most important part of a story has to be shown.
     
  21. names
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    Telling is useful in short stories to explain a world, and its surroundings. Also it is good for detail.
     
  22. erik martin
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    erik martin Contributing Member

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    I try to show whenever possible, but ultimately I think of myself as a storyteller and my favorite reads are by story tellers who seem to do a lot more telling than showing. Case in point, I'm re-reading Vonnegut's Deadeye Dick and remarked to myself today that the whole thing is pretty much told, albeit with considerable wit and flair, and is wholly enjoyable to read.
     
  23. art
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    Solid points, Erik. Deadeye Dick is wonderful.

    If the writer lacks acuity, a good deal of showing will be mere roundabout telling. This sort of writer commonly deploys tired and obvious physiological signs and body language tells.

    Too often, the writer who lacks acuity also lacks style. Here, the showing becomes unbearably tiresome and fatuous.

    The object is not to show or to tell but to not bore.
     
  24. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    "Show, don't tell" isn't a rule by any means. However, it is often said that way because novices rarely fall short on telling. Telling is natural, but showing requires a somewhat more methodical approach.

    As I point out in my blog, there are situations where showing is better suited, and situations where telling is preferable. The adept writer understands the strengths and drawbacks of each approach, and chooses which to use at each point in the story. The same sentence may use both.

    And keep an open mind. Shake it up occasionally, to see which works better in a particular situation. Yes, the choice should become nearly automatic, but keep your brain in the loop anyway.
     
  25. Seashells
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    Seashells New Member

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    The "Show, Don't Tell" Rule

    We've all heard the phrase, "Show, don't tell" come up at least a few times in our lives when writing a piece of work. We're told to write as descriptively as possible and to refrain from writing rough and jagged sentences. Everything should flow together. Showing what happens is very useful when writing a long piece of work, like a short story or a novel. It lengthens the plot and gives the reader vivid imagery.

    But, how long are we expected to keep it up?

    For instance, in an insignificant part of a novel, my antagonist might wash their hands. Does the reader expect me to describe the water in which they wash their hands in? The coldness, the warmness, the feeling of it hitting against their palms? It doesn't matter to me, so why should it matter to the reader?

    I do want my novel to have length, but I don't want readers to accuse me of telling them instead of showing them. I also don't want to tire out the reader with unnecessary "showings". Basically, when is "Show, don't tell" appropriate? How much should I show? How much should I tell?
     

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