1. LordKyleOfEarth
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    LordKyleOfEarth Contributing Member Contributor

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    Telling not showing

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by LordKyleOfEarth, Feb 16, 2011.

    I just finished a short story that is entirely told; I'm pretty sure I didn't 'show' a single thing in the story. I think it's one of (if not the) best things I've written thus far.

    I know that Lolita was also an entirely told story, and that many other examples abound. Has anyone here had any success playing with this narrative style? I'm sorta-kinda loving the narrative voice that it creates.
     
  2. w176
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    w176 Contributing Member Contributor

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    As a view the expression "Show not tell" it not about things being tolk in a narrative voice or not. But about letting things be expressed by indirect means.

    That telling the reader plainly "I liked her very much." says a lot less then letting for example us follow how he retails a scene and trough the way he retails it be shown that he like it.

    So it not about the narrative method, but about showing things indirectly. But if it indirectly through the narrator voice, or indirectly by showing actions is just a matter of choice. IMHO.
     
  3. Heather Munn
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    Heather Munn Member

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    This is interesting, but I'm trying to understand what you mean (unfortunately I haven't read Lolita.)

    Could you unpack this a little or give an example?
     
  4. LordKyleOfEarth
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    LordKyleOfEarth Contributing Member Contributor

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    Heather, here is an excerpt from my short story "The Alley", which illustrates how a scene is shown to a reader:
    In this example everything the reader receives comes from the narrator. There is no room for the reader to interpret details, as the narrator tells you exactly what to think. There are still details about the surroundings, but these too are filtered through the narrator and their appearance 'told' to us. Notice how details are painted out and the reader 'sees' these images in their own mind's eye.

    Compare that to this excerpt from "A Butterfly Affect", in which the narrator 'tells' the scene to the reader:
    I think the story (and that narrative style) work really well in this case. I consider it to be proof that the adage "show don't tell" is less a rule and more a guideline.
     
  5. Dandroid
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    Dandroid Senior Member

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    i am not certain that what is meant by the adage 'show, don't tell' is illustrated here...you do a lot of telling in that first example...
     
  6. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I disagree that either passage is all tell or all show. I'd classify them as follows:

    Show:
    > The night was dark and a heavy blanket of smoke and humidity hung low
    > over The Alley.

    Show/Tell (all of this specific naming is, to me, Tell):
    > Fifty feet off The Alley's overgrown trail sat
    > Mulberry House.

    Show:
    > A few lights were on and music could be heard
    > emanating from inside.

    Show:
    > Further down The Alley, a small gap in the
    > fence

    Tell:
    > provided secluded access to The Hole. Almost no one knew of The
    > Hole and its secret bounty.

    Show/Tell:
    > Sandwiched between The Garage, Mulberry
    > house, and the Damn Tree

    Tell:
    > it provided a safe-haven for anyone who
    > needed to disappear.

    Show/Tell:
    > Across The Alley from The Hole, a dog howled from The Smithwic's yard.

    Tell:
    > It was the fifteenth time in the last two hours.

    Mostly Show:
    > The dog continued to
    > run up and down the shared fence line in pursuit of the stray cats and
    > skunks which frequented The Alley. Nearby, in The Abandoned Lot, Dylan
    > changed the station on his radio.

    Tell:
    > You see, Dr. Veilha knew that the best time to find mature specimens
    > of rhopalocera was in mid-April. I will save you the trouble and tell
    > you that this fact cannot be found in any book. A true collector can
    > feel it in their blood, and Dr. Vielha was such that he could feel it
    > in his entire body.

    Show:
    > “Weather be damned!” he told the authorities in
    > Bossòst when they cautioned against the trip, “Nire lana bete behar
    > dut.” I must complete my work.

    Tell:
    > Anyone who walks the road from Bossòst to the heart of the valley will
    > tell you that it is pleasant and quite beautiful. Dr. Veilha, however,
    > did not see this beauty. He saw only the rock lizards and ptarmigans
    > who threatened to eat his prize.

    Show:
    > “Iberolacerta aranica,” he muttered
    > under his breath, “may the temperature drop and freeze you where you
    > stand!”

    ChickenFreak
     
  7. Reggie
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    Reggie I Like 'Em hot "N Spicy Contributor

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    I learned that a "scene" can help us eliminate "telling," and it kind of helped me a lot. I feel that a lot of telling reveals too much in a story. I understand that it is hard to show a reader something rather than telling. If a person flats out tell someone the outcome of the scene, it is just like giving info dump, especially if you are telling the person how the character feels rather than the character's actions. I belive that showing is a series of concrete narrative descriptions as exposed to just narration.

    Hee is an example that I had from one of my stories:

    Telling: Jason had lived a good life with Wayne. They always had fun together, helped each other out whenever they needed to, and so on. Their friendship was smooth until Wayne found out that Jason has been flirting with Wayne's girlfriend. Their friendship was now on thin ice.

    Showing:

    The breaks from the bus sounded and stopped as the squeaky door opened. The lights inside of the bus switched on where everything can be seen. The door closed as the wheels on the bus spun flush down the road, always reaching its destination. A train was riding up the railroad track, blocking the bus' way as they both approached, coming to a complete stop. Inflation sounded. It sounded like it came from the tires.

    "Hey what's up, buddy?" Wayne asked, with a friendly punch on Jason's arm, both had a brief hand-shake.

    "What's--What's good?"

    "Nothing really. Just trying to get home. So where is you heading to?"

    "Home. I need to see my--see my dad. We're moving tomorrow."

    Jason slowly leaned forward, staring at Wayne's girlfriend, smiling. She stared, returned a smile and turned her head toward the window. He leaned back.

    "Well, your girl is cool. We had a fun talking,” he said.

    Both of Wayne's eyes grew large as they swept upon Jason. "You mean you're flirting with her?"

    "No--no," he said, raising his palms up. "I would never do that! I swear!"

    "You better not be lying either!" He balled his fist.

    "Whoa, chill, chill. I wasn't. I swear."

    "My bad man. Didn't mean to get prixy," he replied, taking his seat, glaring into Jason's eyes with a nasty one. Like he really believed him. Whatever his mind thought, the driver ushered everyone off the bus.

    “What a relief,” Jason said, his hand swayed across his forehead as he breathed a sigh of relief, stepping off the bus.


    Do you see the difference here?

    I admire your question here, and I hope you get enough support on showing vs telling.
     
  8. guamyankee
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    guamyankee Contributing Member

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    Reggie, that's great. Thanks for the crystal clear explanation.

    I like it so much that I've copied it into my notepad on my ipad.

    Hope its not copyrighted, lol.
     
  9. Manav
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    Manav Contributing Member

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    Yes, you are right; there are no definite rules in fiction writing. I truly believe every writer have, and should have, his own way of writing a story. It will do good for a writer to remember that there is no definite rules. However, a writer should understand all techniques and ways to write a story before he forms his own rules.

    Show or tell, just ways of writing a story and it's the writer's call which way to go, and as a reader I don't care, but I should feel satisfied in some way after reading your story. If you can provide me that just by 'telling' then good for you, but when you go about writing a story thinking "I am just going to 'tell'", then that shows you are fixated to the 'rules'. That, I think, is not a good approach. Just write your story until you feel readers will feel satisfied reading it, and if you end up 'telling' everything then stick with it, there is no reason for you to change anything to 'show'.
     
  10. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    Most first person is (at least theoretically) this mode of storytelling; that is, the narrator is subjective in their narration. As others have noted, it's different to what is normally meant by 'show, don't tell', since your narrator can still 'show' in their narration, however their 'showing' is coloured by their subjectivity.

    This mode of storytelling requires the reader to be much more self-conscious about the act of reading. You can't simply lose yourself in the story, since you have to be constantly aware that what you are reading may or may not be entirely reliable, or the narrator may be attempting to mislead or subvert the reader's expectations. This is the case in Lolita, for instance, where the narrator's voice and manner is exaggeratively charming, intellectual and cultured to divert the reader from the horror of his crimes.

    Personally, I find it to be a much more interesting narratological device than mere limited third person.
     
  11. Leonardo Pisano
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    Leonardo Pisano Active Member

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    'Show' engages with emotion - 'tell' engages with rationale

    I am a newbie and when I came across the "Show, don't tell" rule and researched the issue, I concluded that "showing" engages with the senses of the reader; it has an emotional touch. Telling is the ratio part. In other words, left vs right hemisphere of the brain.

    If this conclusion is true, it makes perfectly sense that you need both in the story. The rule is, I think, created because most people tend to forget the emotions, the feel, when writing. Reading fiction is all about emotional engagement, so the "show, not tell" is not bad advice. It would be interesting what more experienced writers can say about this subject.
     
  12. Terri
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    Terri Senior Member

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    You're absolutely right that showing engages the readers. As writers isn't that what we want to do? However, a well written piece will have both show & tell. Personally, I think a mostly 'shown' piece is more enjoyable. I want to see the action, not an explanation.
     
  13. Leonardo Pisano
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    Leonardo Pisano Active Member

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    I tend to agree, Terri. However, sometimes showing can be too complicated, and you can describe (IMHO) a part of it and leave the rest to the readers imagination. By way of example, if you say "Pete stared through the window and stroke his chin while thinking about what she just said" I think it is pretty much showing the essence. You don't have to say how exactly he stroke his chin (left or right hand, which fingers he used, how fast, ..).

    Telling would be: "Pete was thinking about what she just told him". The difference is that the first (showing) visualizes the scene, while the second (telling) is neutral and "cold". But I don't think you need to drag the reader by an emotional whirlwind. I think that telling can be good now and then to allow the reader to take a step back, to disengage, so he could take a breather. It's alternating both styles cleverly that makes a story compelling, I guess. But I am a newbie, so I am interested to learn from others how they see this.
     
  14. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    I actually have no issue with telling instead of showing - sometimes its nice to be told a story which is why I love reading non fiction.
     
  15. Terri
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    Terri Senior Member

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    You must have not read my post properly. I state "a well written piece will have both show & tell." I personally just happen to enjoy more show than tell which is why I try to write that way.
     
  16. Leonardo Pisano
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    Leonardo Pisano Active Member

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    Sorry if I expressed myself not clearly. I have English as second llanguage and that makes it even harder to be unambiguous than in one's own language.

    I intended to react on your "Personally, I think a mostly 'shown' piece is more enjoyable", to rationalise on the subject if you want, so you yourself might get a more refined touch on this matter. I don't want to sound a know-it-all-better. Your comment was very helpful.
     
  17. LordKyleOfEarth
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    LordKyleOfEarth Contributing Member Contributor

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    Thanks for this excellent break-down of the difference between 'show' and 'tell'.


    I think this is more what I meant to say (I just worded it terribly). In hindsight, wording it as: untrustworthy, close, first-person, with a very active narrator may have been a better description. I saw it more as the narrator is very much telling me a story, and I'm just along for the ride.
     
  18. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    Think about any good non fiction books you have enjoyed, maybe it is just me but I can become as engrossed in their story as I can in a fiction book. They are telling.

    Have to say though after spending a year writing first person I am showing much more than I did last year. To get the hang of it takes awhile.
     
  19. The-Joker
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    The-Joker Contributing Member Contributor

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    Here's a question.

    I always like to show as opposed to tell wherever I can. Especially when editing, I'll turn stated emotions into actions and expressions that depict such feelings instead.

    Now with regards to first person, I always run into difficulty here. Should the narrator be frank and tell the reader how he feels. Or does he also fall in with the other characters whose feelings should rather be shown.

    eg. tell: When I saw the painting, anger pulsed inside me.

    show: When I saw the painting, I frowned.

    The second one sounds more unatural to me.
     
  20. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    Of your examples I would probably do

    The anger pulsed through me as I gazed upon the painting. For me frowning doesn't indicate anger its more displeasure or just he doesn't like it, it isn't clear enough.
     
  21. The-Joker
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    The-Joker Contributing Member Contributor

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    Okay good point. And you've chosen the path of telling. So am I correct in saying that for the first person narrator, it's okay for the majority of the time to simply tell the reader the emotion he/she is feeling?
     
  22. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    No I would say a mix - often I will tell AND show something.

    For example (and it is a bad exmaple lol)

    As I stare at the painting anger causes me to ball my fist and smack it into my palm.

    Or you can show it by having a conversation by the person next to you etc.

    painter: What a rip off he stole my idea
    art critic: oh but he did such a good job
    painter: you total cretin how dare you say that

    However I am learning I can go chapters in first person without telling just showing by my MCs reaction.
     
  23. Reggie
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    Reggie I Like 'Em hot "N Spicy Contributor

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    I honestly don't like the thought of writing in the first person, because it seems that I can easly tell the story, which probably makes my story boring. I am sure that other people are more confortable with first person than third person. But I will also have to somewhat disagree about simply telling the readers in the first person isn't always a good advice. Maybe I am an inexperienced writer when it comes to showing vs telling. But I didn't think that telling in the first person was acceptable, because my critics tell me that I should never tell my emotions flat out in the first person. Think of it this way, if you feel like telling rather than showing, that is up to you, and I'm not sure if there is an accual rule against telling.
     
  24. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    This is only my view i am an inexperienced writer as well however there are different types of first person - there is the one where the first person is just a narrator/observer that lends itself to more telling.

    Then there is first person which is right inside the narrator's head. When a mix works - you show his emotions but sometimes he is just talking to the audience. Often you can show that emotion. However I also have scenes where my MC is talking to himself or a thought is crossing his mind - those are when I use tell. Then I have the ones where he is telling the audience how he fels.
     
  25. LordKyleOfEarth
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    LordKyleOfEarth Contributing Member Contributor

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    You can just as easily 'tell' a story in third person. I actually thought it easier to avoid excessive telling when in first person because it allows the writer to imagine the scene through a single set of eyes, then report what they see.
     

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