1. BookLover

    BookLover Senior Member

    Mar 31, 2014
    Likes Received:

    show don't tell, filters, unpacking

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by BookLover, Apr 5, 2014.

    I've recently learned some new writing techniques. Every time I learn something new I get a bit obsessive about it until I feel I fully understand it, and I don't fully understand yet.

    "Show don't tell" is a new idea to me. It's probably not new to a lot of the people on this forum which is why I'm starting this thread. I'm hoping you can help me understand this concept.

    Here is what I understand, or what I think I understand, and my thoughts around it so far:

    Show don't tell is advice meant to help new writers describe the scenes in their stories better. Telling someone the story makes the readers feel like they're looking in, and they aren't really there. Showing them the story makes the reader feel like they're right there. For instance: "He could smell the cookies in the kitchen." You're telling. "The scent of fresh baked cookies wafted through the house." You're showing.

    Am I on track so far? And if I am, why is it called showing? Shouldn't it be called "being" or something similar. You're actually there feeling what the characters feel, smelling what the characters smell, etc? To me, the words "showing" and "telling" are almost the same.

    Onto filters. What I understand, or think I understand, so far about filters are that they are almost like cheat words. They allow a writer to be lazy, like in my above example where I used the word "smell" instead of going into detail about the smell. Saying how a character felt something instead of describing how it felt, etc. Saying what a character thought instead of describing a scene so that the reader could come to the same thought without the writer ever having to say that's what the character "thought." "Unpacking" I believe is the term Chuck Palahniuk used in some of the essays of his that I read. So instead of saying, "He thought it would rain," you could take away the filter word, unpack it, and write something like, "The clouds above were dark, the air..." and so forth to describe the coming rain and make the reader feel present. The readers are also thinking for themselves and not just being told what the character thinks.

    Am I correct so far? If so, can you expand on this because I know I'm only understanding this on the most basic level right now, as you can probably tell from my very simple examples. Can you list any more filters that I should try to avoid? Also, if I "unpack" everything, aren't I wasting time and getting away from the central plot?

    Also what are your opinions on these techniques? Should they be thought of as gospel? Or do you prefer to find a balance between "showing" and "telling?"
  2. Amphetamine Stoat

    Amphetamine Stoat New Member

    Mar 3, 2014
    Likes Received:
    West Virginia, USA
    I don't know about filters because I'm not really knowledgeable about all the different writing slang and terminology but I can help you out with "show don't tell."
    You're definitely on the right track with "show don't tell." Usually that's the advice given to people who write things like "Jerad felt very sad" when the type of sentence that is encouraged is something more along the lines of "Jerad looked away with tears in his eyes." Your cookie example is also good, and you did a good job of showing it.
    Honestly, once someone starts to get a hold on their writing style they will many times instinctively know the balance between showing and telling. Would I be correct in assuming you're having a bit of trouble grasping your own style?
    Regardless, I guess a good rule of thumb is this: read over what you've written, and if you ever feel like something is tedious to read or unimportantly expanded upon then I suggest you consider taking it out. I may have enjoyed writing about grandpa's wrinkled old face but if my description of it took a page and a half then that's just too much and I should really cut that down a little. You don't have to go on and on about how pools of shadows are contained in the wedges that run along grandpa's face in the morning light. An offhandish description of lines crisscrossing around his eyes (or whatever) would be good enough most of the time.
    The tough thing about writing is that it always seems like there are exceptions and you've just got to write and get experience under your belt to figure out what you should keep or trash.
  3. xanadu

    xanadu Contributor Contributor

    Oct 21, 2008
    Likes Received:
    Cave of Ice
    You're definitely on the right track.

    The idea behind all these "rules" is not to make writing a chore, but to train new writers to think about the way they're presenting information to the reader. The goal is to provide the reader with an experience, a chance to live vicariously through your characters and your story. And the way to give them that experience is to get them to experience the story.

    That means make the reader feel and see and hear and smell. But it's more than that. You want the reader to relate to your character and, ultimately, be your character, at least for a while. You want the reader to go on the emotional roller coaster with your character, growing angry when the villain foils her plans and sad when her mother gets sick. And you do that by making the reader live the scene.

    The world around your character is filled with all kinds of stimuli. She could be sitting in her room, surrounded by walls and posters and furniture and dusty old clothes. And you could describe all those things and set the scene. But that doesn't bring the scene to life, it just gives the reader a checklist of all the items in the room. What engages the reader is character emotion, specifically, how the character reacts to her surroundings. What in the room does the character focus on? Why that and not something else? Does she gaze up at a poster of her celebrity crush? What does that say about her? What does it not say about her?

    That's showing. It's not as mundane as description and leaving out certain words. It's about locking in tight on your character and making her see, smell, hear, and feel certain things. It's about making her react to those things. It's about making the reader understand her well enough to know how she's going to react to those things. Because when the reader knows your character that well, the reader is invested. The reader will care what happens to her, which will make the reader turn the page.

    I think you understand that already. It is about "being," more or less. Show/tell are just words some writer thought up at some point to put the idea of strong POV into a catchy, witty saying. Of course there are times when you need to telescope--time lapse--and summarizing is the way to do it. That's what people will call "telling," and it's perfectly OK to do it. The key is to understand why you're doing it and do it purposefully. But in moments of crisis, or high emotion, that's when you want to drag it out moment-by-moment and make the reader live it--because that's the whole point, to make your reader experience the story.

    Filtering is just another facet of it. Here's the thing--unlike math, in writing you never want to show your work. Hide the cables behind the speaker. Don't let the reader know you're pulling the strings. The key is to evoke emotion without telling the reader what to feel. Filtering adds that layer between reader and character that takes away the emotional response. If you tell me a character feels the cold wind, I don't feel the cold wind. But if you tell me the cold wind bites at the character's exposed skin, I might feel that cold wind bite at my skin.

    If you're locked tight on your character in a scene, the character should be the one telling the story (even if it's in 3rd person).

    I'm less familiar with Palahniuk's concept of unpacking, but to me it just sounds like more of the same in different words. Don't tell me your character knows something. Give me her thought process so that I can deduce what she knows. Same gift, different packaging.

    It isn't about rules. It's about understanding what you're trying to accomplish and doing what it takes to accomplish it. If you can accomplish it without sticking to the "rules," then there's no reason not to. Involve the reader, make him part of the story. Immerse him in your world, make him relate to your character, give him reason to care. Follow the rules or break them, whatever suits you best. Just make the reader care.
  4. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

    Mar 9, 2010
    Likes Received:
    > Show don't tell...

    > Am I on track so far?

    This isn't quite how I think of it. To me, it's not about putting you in the scene, but instead about communicating a message by giving the reader evidence and letting them come to a conclusion, rather than handing them the message fully formed. This means that exactly the same sentence can be "showing" or "telling" depending on its purpose.

    > And if I am, why is it called showing? Shouldn't
    > it be called "being" or something similar.

    I prefer to call it "demonstrating". I'd change the advice "Show, don't tell" to something like, "Demonstrate, don't spoonfeed." Give the user what he needs to form a conclusion, and let him form that conclusion, rather than cooking up the conclusion for him and spoonfeeding it to him. You can spoonfeed the reader the fact that "Joe had a terrible hangover," or you can demonstrate with, "Joe's eyes were red and his skin had a pasty grey tinge. He winced every time the phone rang."

    Also, remember that this is not something that you always need to do--there's always a balance between demonstrating versus just handing the reader a fact. You can't demonstrate every fact, so you demonstrate the important ones.

    Now, the demonstration re Joe above could mean a hangover, or the flu, or any number of issues. The reader has to come to a conclusion. And that, IMO, is a good thing.

    > "He thought it would rain," you could take away the
    > filter word, unpack it, and write something like, "The clouds above
    > were dark, the air..." and so forth to describe the coming rain and
    > make the reader feel present. The readers are also thinking for
    > themselves and not just being told what the character thinks.

    I see your example here as two separate issues. Yes, the description of the clouds, etc., is demonstration, so it's relevant to the demonstration/spoonfeeding issue. But I don't think that it's relevant to the filtering issue. I'm going to provide four sample sentences and label them with where they fall on both issues:

    Spoonfeeds and filters: He thought that it looked like rain.
    Demonstrates and filters: He saw that the clouds above were dark, and he could feel the cold, clammy air on his skin.
    Spoonfeeds and doesn't filter: It looked like rain.
    Demonstrates and doesn't filter: The clouds above were dark, and the air was cold and clammy.

    > Also, if I "unpack" everything,
    > aren't I wasting time and getting away from the central plot?

    If you try to demonstrate everything, yes, you will run astray trying to demonstrate the history behind why your character prefers tuna salad to egg salad when you should be focusing on his effort to catch the serial killer.

    But you do usually want to avoid filtering. Eliminating filtering generally makes your writing simpler and clearer, rather than longer and more complex. Some more examples of filtering and killing filtering:

    Filtered: He heard birds outside the window.
    Not filtered: Birds chirped outside the window.
    Filtered: He saw a car slowly circling the block.
    Not filtered: A car was slowly circling the block.
    Filtered: He felt cold water seep into his shoes.
    Not filtered: Cold water seeped into his shoes.
    Filtered: He knew that Angela would be furious if he didn't bring in the paper.
    Not filtered: Angela would be furious if he didn't bring in the paper.
    minstrel and xanadu like this.
  5. jannert

    jannert Member Supporter Contributor

    Mar 7, 2013
    Likes Received:
    I think once you understand exactly what these terms are—and I think you're nearly there—you'll develop a sense of when to use them and when to just simply 'tell' and 'filter.' And yes, you will continue to tell and filter, mostly when you need the story to move quickly, and what you are 'telling' or 'filtering' is not crucial to experiencing the story directly.

    If, for example, your character goes into a building he didn't plan to enter, and something happens inside that building that is incredibly important to the plot, you don't necessarily need to go into lots of showing and unfiltering before he gets inside. Just get him in there, and let the fun begin. It's perfectly okay to say:

    As soon as the rain started, Brian decided to duck into the nearest shop for shelter. This shop was one he'd never noticed before—The Crazy Pinwheel, according to the gold-lettered sign atop its doorway.

    This is telling AND filtering, but that's not the important thrust of this scene. We don't necessarily need to know what the clouds looked like, or what the air smelled like, or what getting wet would feel like, or what staying dry feels like, or Brian's thought processes as he decides which of these sensations he wants to experience—or even what The Crazy Pinwheel looks like at that moment. It's the nearest doorway, Brian has never been there before, he wants in out of the rain, and that's all the reader needs to know. It's what happens inside the shop that will matter—and that's where the showing starts and the filters come off.

    As Brian let the door click shut behind him, an electronic parrot-like squawk announced his arrival. The curtains at the back of the shop parted, and a bent old man in a faded beret crept out of the gloom to station himself behind the counter. When the man crooked his knobbly finger, Brian took a step closer. Watery eyes beneath bushy eyebrows studied him for a long moment, then the old man cackled, revealing only three yellowed teeth. "Naughty boy," he said. "Naughty naughty boy. But no matter. She won't care."

    As to the definition of telling versus showing, you can think of the two terms in the context of learning something you don't know. Somebody tells you how to make cookies, versus somebody shows you how to make cookies? Which is the more vivid experience?

    The trick is to know when the vivid experience is needed. And that only comes with practice.
    Last edited: Apr 5, 2014
    xanadu likes this.
  6. KaTrian

    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

    Mar 17, 2013
    Likes Received:
    Great replies so far. I agree with @ChickenFreak about the function of showage in the sense that you allow reader to make up their own mind instead of spoonfeeding e.g. moods, opinions, or emotions to the reader.

    Also what @xanadu said; these techniques can help you to stick with the point of view and make the reader be the character, not someone in the sidelines. Cutting down filters can make the scenes feel more immediate.

    I think @jannert put this well. You kind of have to mull it over, what is worth unpacking, what will you gloss over so as to keep the story going. One pretty good piece of advice that I personally like had to do with the idea of pretty much every sentence (not always possible) taking the story forward, and allowing the reader to feel like it is going somewhere all the time. Easier said than done I think, but keeping this in mind has helped me to stay focused when I write and also decide when to unpack and when to "spoonfeed."

    I've been reading The Editor's Blog lately, which I recommend if you're unfamiliar with it. It gives you some idea about why certain techniques are recommended, but also reminds you that they're not the gospel truth either. The "why" behind a recommendation is important to understand, 'cause then you also know when it might be a good idea to deviate from it.
    xanadu likes this.
  7. Poziga

    Poziga Contributor Contributor

    Apr 26, 2013
    Likes Received:
    Wow... This thread is truly a treasury of knowledge and good advices. I learned a lot from it! :)
  8. thirdwind

    thirdwind Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

    Jul 17, 2008
    Likes Received:
    Absolutely not. Too often aspiring writers take such rules as gospel, and it leads to formulaic writing.

    It depends on what the writer is trying to accomplish. Showing and telling each have pros and cons. The great thing about telling is that you can convey a lot of information in only a few words. Sometimes a simple "She was tired" is preferable to a paragraph-long description showing the reader how tired she was. So I only prefer a balance if it makes the piece better.
  9. BookLover

    BookLover Senior Member

    Mar 31, 2014
    Likes Received:
    Thanks for all the advice! It helped clear some things up for me.

Share This Page