1. S S
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    S S Active Member

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    The Difference Between Showing / Telling and Should We Always Strive to Show?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by S S, Sep 25, 2014.

    I gave a piece of my work, which I was rather happy with myself (although, that's just me), to a friend of mine for critique earlier today. He said that I tended to 'tell' far too much rather than 'show'. I usually try very hard to show what I am describing without telling the reader straight out, but sometimes I find this near impossible. For example, I described a lady giving birth as having a face 'contorted in what some might think fury'. He said that this was telling the reader rather than showing. However, I found it quite difficult to describe the face in a 'showing' manner.

    Can telling always be avoided, and should it be avoided at all costs?
     
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  2. Swiveltaffy
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    Swiveltaffy Contributing Member Contributor

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    In terms of your example, I suppose you could simply go about showing her anguish and then a reader would second-handedly imagine her face being contorted due to her pain. If we imagine someone struggling to catch their breath, for instance, we rather automatically imagine their facial structure that comes as consequence.

    Regarding your question: I don't think telling should always be avoided. With everything, dogma tends to permeate here. Telling affects presentation; showing affects presentation. It depends on the desired effect.

    I think people tend to say "show more, tell less," because people more naturally, when writing and starting off, try to tell more and think that they need to tell despite the reader not needing to be lead in such a way. But, if telling alters the way your story is read in such a way that it better expresses what you're trying to get at, then tell.

    As a bad example to futilely attempt to convey myself in a way that is mildly explanatory:

    If I am writing a story about being fed up with bureaucracy, then telling everything could lead to a reader feeling bombarded by useless machinations, leading them to be fed up and want to abandon the whole experience of reading my work. Regarding my desired theme, creating this feeling, I think, would accurately communicate what it feels to be subjected to strict bureaucracy and why it might be bad or whatever.

    Just an example. I'd be careful using tell willy-nilly, though. Ask yourself what the point in writing anything in any way is. Maybe I'm being overly specific, but any mode of writing presents information differently, and this difference communicates to the reader. I know, it's obvious. These rules don't mean anything besides convention. If you can't think of a good reason to break the convention, then stick to the convention, I'd say. However, remember that these conventions create a standard (an oft arbitrary one at that), and going against that standard causes a reaction in the reader, which could be important. It just depends on what you're saying.

    Then again, I guess there are ideas of voice and whatever. So, if you like tell, I guess use it just because. It's really whatever, depends on what you're after. If you just wrote tell, because that's how it came out, I'd question it, but that doesn't mean automatically remove it.

    Ask your friend why he felt like you should remove the sentence because it was tell. Ask him how the telling of it made him feel. If you don't like how it made him feel, if it slowed the passage down for (and let's pretend you don't want that to happen) him, then change it.
     
  3. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    I need to rant:

    The insistence on show vs. tell is possibly the thing that annoys me most in criticism of writing.

    ALL WRITING IS TELLING. By definition. If I wanted to be shown something, then I would watch a fucking movie.

    Everyone has his own idea of what is telling-writing and what is showing-writing because there is no reasonable way to distinguish between the two. Therefore, there is no useful way to use those terms except when contrasting very specific devices like "she was angry" vs. "she was glaring". But when the terms are used so specifically, they become useless for generalizations like "show, don't tell." That statement is about as meaningful as "use verbs, not nouns."

    The OP's example seems perfectly reasonable, at least independently of any context. Telling me the character's expression looks like a furious person's expression helps me visualize an expression, which contributes something constructive to my experience of imagining the story.
     
    Last edited: Sep 26, 2014
  4. Swiveltaffy
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    Swiveltaffy Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'd agree with this. However, I'd still pay attention to how you're (OPs direction) saying anything (you know, like how I by all accounts don't).

    Clarification: I'm not saying @daemon said that one shouldn't be attentive to wording, structure, blah.
     
  5. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    That's not exactly what 'show don't tell' means, @daemon. If someone is erroneously identifying the difference, that doesn't make the meaning of 'show don't tell' vague and only subject to opinion.

    It does fall on a continuum, so some sentences are going to be closer to the midline. But there is a specific reason for the advice*.

    Bill was a tall man. - telling
    Bill ducked under the doorframe. - showing

    Mary hadn't noticed how tall Bill was until she saw him come through the door. - telling
    Mary watched Bill duck his head to come into her room and smiled. -showing

    *It's advised because it makes the writing better, it's not an absolute rule. Sometimes telling, such as exposition, is a reasonable way to manage some information. Examples might be backstory or to explain all the clues the super-sleuth used to unravel the crime.

    If someone is repeatedly telling you to 'show, don't tell' in the critiques you are getting, chances are making an effort to write more showing would improve your writing. If you're stressing over one or two sentences, it's probably not a big deal.


    The idea is to let the reader see the scene, don't tell them the scene. The reader will be more interested, more involved in the story if the reader can see what is happening rather than being told what is happening.
     
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  6. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Here's an example from my WIP that has both telling and showing. This is not in the final edit yet so cut me a little slack. :)

    This morning, shaking from an overdose of adrenalin, I had run until I was exhausted, hiked for hours in too hot heat, then climbed a 30 meter canyon wall. I crumpled just over the top, every muscle in my body weak like jelly. After a few minutes recovery I sat up, dangling my feet over the edge. I searched the vast landscape of the canyon floor and beyond. Nothing larger than a bird moved. The sun was low on the horizon. Occasional whiffs of sulfur continued to interrupt the warm dry air. Nothing interrupted the silence.​
     
  7. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    OP, I see nothing wrong with your example - in fact, unless your character actually WAS furious, I'd say it's a good example of showing. If you'd said "She was furious", that would be telling. But if you describe her expression and let us figure out how she's feeling, that's showing.

    With that in mind, I'd say that if just one person is telling you there's too much telling, and that person is the same one who called that phrase 'telling', I wouldn't pay too much attention to the critique, unless your friend has serious credentials in fiction writing. A lot of new writers pick up on one or two 'rules' and go crazy with them, rather than looking at the writing as a whole.

    Overall, there's times to tell, and times to show. If a LOT of readers say you're telling too much, listen to them.
     
  8. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    Showing vs telling is a lot more sophisticated than just refusing to say straight out what's happening and beating about the bush. It's about learning where you need to slow down the narrative and paint a picture for the reader (this you can do using literary devices, such as descriptions and metaphors and internal monologues and dialogues with subtext or what have you) and where to speed up and just recount what happened.

    It's also about allowing your 'actors' (characters, milieu) to act out 'on stage' what's happening versus you narrating directly what's happening. This has a big effect on pacing but also characterisation, mood, atmosphere and also, it lets you pick and choose which events you'll present to the reader, and in that sense, it creates a story.

    It's ok to write a mainly (or purely) 'telling' short story or a chapter, but it doesn't work for a novel because people are looking to experience the story, and they do that mostly during successful 'showing'. But it is a difficult skill to master, don't expect to get there without a lot of practice.
     
  9. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Both are telling. Either you tell me Bill is a tall man or you tell me he ducks under the doorframe.

    From the fact that he ducks under the doorframe, I can infer he is tall. Which is an effective technique. It gives context to his height. It integrates a fact with the consequence of the fact.

    Maybe what you are trying to get at with the "continuum" is that every statement makes some information explicit and it causes the reader to infer some other information, and that the explicit information is "told" whereas the information inferred by the reader is "shown". But then it makes no sense to say that a statement either "shows" or "tells", or even that it exists on a continuum between "show" and "tell". It only makes sense to say every statement both shows and tells. But once that much thought is put into the use of the terminology, the terminology loses its usefulness. It is more useful to identify the information the reader should know, and to decide whether it should be stated explicitly or implied. There is no way to generalize about whether information should be stated explicitly or implied, because once you write a statement to imply one thing, you find it explicitly states something else. It is recursive.

    “Wind is blowing” implies there is an unstable boundary in the atmosphere between warm air and cool air.
    “Branches are rustling” implies wind is blowing.
    “Leaves are falling” implies branches are rustling. It also implies the tree’s foliage is dying, which in turn implies winter is coming.
    “Leaves are crunching under her feet” implies leaves have fallen.

    et cetera ad infinitum.
     
  10. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    No, telling cannot and should not be avoided completely. Each has its place, and you must find the optimal balance for your story or scene. See the blog post link in my sig for more detail.
     
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  11. ChickenFreak
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    It absolutely can't always be avoided. You have to prioritize, and "show", or, my preferred term, "demonstrate", when it counts.

    In your example, I see two issues:

    - I don't necessarily see a need to describe beyond "contorted". The word is pretty descriptive already.

    - If you do want to describe beyond it, the phrase "what some might think of..." both weakens the description, and distances us from it. We don't care what "some" faceless multitudes might think, we care what the viewpoint character thinks. Or if you're omniscient, with no viewpoint, then I'd say give the reader the viewpoint and tell them that they see fury. If you're afraid that they'll think that she really is furious, you could add something that adds uncertainty without so much distance. ("her face looked furious" comes to mind, though it's bland.)

    Now, despite all that, I think that your example is "showing." That's because my definition of "showing" is something that goes one level of abstraction away from what you're trying to communicate, to demonstrate that thing, rather than tell it flat-out. You want to demonstrate important things because they have complicated nuances that are hard to describe flat-out; to get what you want, you have to enlist the reader's imagination, and its infinite level of complexity and detail.

    I assume that your character isn't furious, but that she's experiencing a complicated tangle of pain and emotion that looks that way, a complicated tangle that you want the reader to imagine. You don't say, "She was feeling eighty percent pain, fifteen percent desparation, and the remainder was equal parts blah and blah..." You let us see what the mixture does to her face. To me, that's showing. I don't care that you didn't tell us every line and nuance of color in that face in a visual way; "fury" is, IMO, expressive enough.

    And in fact, I take my first point back; I kind of like "fury". I stick with my second point; if you're going to hit them with a furious expression, hit them, instead of dancing around with "some might think of..."

    Now, if she were furious, then you'd be telling us something flat-out, and fury is also a complicated emotion that you want to demonstrate. In that case, instead of fury you might give us the red face, the set jaw, the clenched fist--except those things would be whatever your character shows when she's angry in that particular way.

    Unless the fury itself isn't important. If the thing you're trying to demonstrate is that a barista is having an overwhelmed moment behind the counter, then "furious" might be all you need for describing the customer that's serving as one of their sources of stress.

    Now, you may well be explaining (telling) too much in other areas. I'd be curious to see more examples. But I think that your example above is indeed showing.
     
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  12. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    From just this paragraph, it is actually unclear what you refer to as "show" and what you refer to as "tell".

    "show" slows down to paint a picture so that the reader visualizes something, whereas "tell" informs the reader of what happens?

    Or "show" uses action to help the reader build a mental image dynamically (e.g. a character moves through a building and the reader gradually maps out the building mentally), whereas "tell" slows down to describe something statically (e.g. the layout of the building is described without any motion through it)?

    Now there are apparently at least two dichotomies "show vs. tell" could refer to: "explicit vs. implied" or "dynamic description vs. static description". That is the main reason why it annoys me so much when the "show vs. tell" dichotomy is invoked regarding writing. There are far more specific (and therefore, far more useful) ways to refer to the dichotomy you have in mind.

    Persistent use of a vague term to refer to several important things can perpetuate not only confusion, but also bad ideas, since the way we refer to things affects how we think of those things. "show vs. tell" is an example of that problem.
     
  13. ChickenFreak
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    For tell/show I'm permanently sticking with 'explicit versus implied' or 'explained versus demonstrated'. For the walkthrough versus static description, my terms are 'scene versus summary.' I have no idea why I'm explaining this; I just felt like it.

    Edited to add: And I never, ever interpret "show" as being about visual descriptions, or even more general sensory input. It can have all that, but sensory input is neither necessary or sufficient for show/demonstrate.
     
  14. jazzabel
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    Without getting bogged down in semantics @daemon, the concept of 'show vs tell' is reasonably well-understood one amongst writers. There's nothing annoying about it, imo, as long as you can accept that it's a complex principle that can be broken down into smaller and smaller parts, whilst retaining the essence of the whole (like fractals). In other words, it can be applied differently in different contexts, but generally it refers to what I stated above.

    So sometimes, showing is needed to literally 'show' emotion on someone's face, other times, it'll be in dialogue, 'showing' through subtext all the hidden animosities between characters, instead of just stating that they have animosities, other times still you can 'show' the state of a certain building without just calling it 'decrepit' etcetera. Each time, it will most likely slow down the narrative somewhat, because what could take a sentence or two might take a whole paragraph or more. In that sense, learning when to 'show' vs when to 'tell' is learning how to tell a story trough peaks and troughs (obviously there's a lot more to it, but this is one aspect), at least longer works like novels profit from this approach most. I'm sorry if you are annoyed, all I can say is, don't use the term if you don't like it :)
     
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  15. Ben414
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    There have been some good points above, and I just wanted to add that POV is something that I consider wholly relevant to showing v. telling. Both showing and telling are necessary, and not easily separable. IMO, what matters more is how it fits into your POV.

    For example, if want a tight third person limited POV, then the "tell" method "she was tall" may not fit into your writing unless your character would explicitly think that. That's where a "show" method would likely work better because that fits the POV, such as "she towered over all of us." A third person omniscient would have more leeway because its descriptions would not have to fit as neatly into the specific character.
     
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  16. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    See, I mostly disagree with what you stated above, and I don't think I'm wrong any more than you think you're wrong. :) The concepts that you describe are important ones, but they're not what I think of when I think of "show versus tell." (Edited to add: Well, most of them aren't.) So I do think that the terms are pretty ambiguous. I use them anyway, because they're a starting point for communication, but I'd be happier if "show versus tell" were thrown away and replaced with something less ambiguous. (Or several somethings.)
     
  17. Poet of Gore
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    sorry man, but show vs tell is very important. they are not both "telling" the reader sheeyat. they are both conveying information. one with talent and one in a simple lazy way.
    if you want to insist on telling instead of showing then be prepared to be unpublished. even the hacks know how to show and not tell.

    think about all these "tells" and how brutally they suck
    He was very anxious about the meeting.
    She was nervous being alone with him.
    He was mad about paying a lot for that muffler.

    if someone wants to read this crap then that person and his friends will be the only ones reading it.


    chuck palahniuk site has a good lesson on show vs tell for free.
     
  18. MilesTro
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    I believe you can show and tell as long as you do both. Show what your characters are doing whether than telling it. If it is too hard, then tell it anyway a little. To show a woman giving birth, here is an example:

    She was sucking deep breathes while her face boiled in red with her eyes closed tightly as sweat dripped down her face, covered in agony. And she screamed across the room as if she was charging into battle.
     
  19. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I strongly disagree. It's simply impossible to write a story without ever just saying something flat-out.
     
  20. Swiveltaffy
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    Swiveltaffy Contributing Member Contributor

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    @Poet of Gore : I think you've made a very large claim by saying "simple lazy way." I would posit further that it is an unfounded claim.
     
  21. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    Really? Admittedly, my list isn't exhaustive, but certainly falls within the parameters of 'show vs tell' that I've seen everywhere (including this forum, since we discussed it enough times :) ).

    So what do you consider 'show vs tell to be? I'd be interested to know.
     
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  22. GingerCoffee
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    They are not both telling within the concept of writing advice. Words do have multiple meanings. That's not an argument that showing is telling in the context of writing advice.

    Until you recognize the concept of context, it makes no sense to debate your out of context argument.
     
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  23. GingerCoffee
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    Definitely, this ^.

    Showing is not just through the senses. You show by how people react to things, how they move, what their offices and homes look like and things like that.

    The pompous West Point sergeant belittling the female cadet has office walls full of self congratulatory plaques and awards. (That was brought up in the critique group last night.)

    Here's Carly Simon showing in "You're So Vain"
    You walked into the party like you were walking onto a yacht
    Your hat strategically dipped below one eye
    Your scarf it was apricot
    You had one eye on the mirror as you watched yourself gavotte


    Hopefully it's obvious how much better that lyric is than writing, "he was a conceited SOB."

    But as has been mentioned, sometimes writing, "he was a conceited SOB," is called for. :)
     
  24. ChickenFreak
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    Grabbing the post:

    To me, this pretty much is show versus tell. I wouldn't call it "beating about the bush", I'd call it demonstrating, as opposed to explaining. You can use a lot of techniques to demonstrate, some of which you describe below, but the fact that you can use those techniques to fulfill that goal does not, to me, make those techniques equivalent to that goal, or part of it.

    These are a variety of techniques that you can use to achieve the "show" goal, but you can also use them to achieve almost any writing goal.

    I would call this scene versus summary.

    Oh. Yeah. This didn't actually answer the question. Hang on while I edit this post.

    Oh, yeah, again: I already explained, in this post a few post up, so I'll just put in a mini-quote to make it linky.

     
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  25. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Your inability to think about the meanings of a word tells me you are the one who should prepare to be unpublished.
    You kinda just made my argument for me. I criticize "show vs. tell" because it unnecessarily depends on context. It has multiple meanings within the context of writing advice, depending on the sub-context. It depends so much on the sub-context that when you contrast writing technique A with technique B, you would call A "tell" and B "show" in one sub-context but you would call A "show" and B "tell" in another sub-context. I proved that earlier. Why use a term that depends on context when you could use one that does not? Especially when it gives rise to a maxim like "show, don't tell" that merely confuses new writers and encourages them to form habits just as bad as replacing "said" with fancy words like "ejaculated"?

    If there is no reason, then we fall back on using "tell" in its most literal sense: to use words instead of stimuli. Hence "all writing is telling".

    The reason why "show vs. tell" particularly bugs me is that it is not merely ambiguous, but it carries the connotation of pretending writing is something that it is not. A movie shows something to the viewer. "Show, don't tell" connotes that a book should be less like a book and more like a movie. (And that statement is not contradicted by the statement that words have different definitions in different contexts, because a connotation is different from a definition, and a connotation is carried over from one context into another context.) The difference between a book and a movie deserves to be embraced.
     

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