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  1. Adam Bolander

    Adam Bolander Member

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    Showing vs Telling

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Adam Bolander, Jan 13, 2020.

    Obviously, we all know that showing is better than telling. But am I wrong in thinking that only showing can be just as bad? I feel like that's where a lot of purple prose comes in, because the author thinks they have to add flowery descriptions of everything because they've had "show, don't tell!" hammered into their brains so much that it's the only way to write.

    What do you guys think? Are there any places you think it's better to "tell" than to "show?"
     
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  2. big soft moose

    big soft moose The Moderating Moose Staff Supporter Contributor Community Volunteer

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    yes - telling and showing is a balance... generally you should show the important things and tell the less important things... a manuscript that was all showing would be unbearably tiresome
     
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  3. More

    More Member

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    I don' t know when the, show don't tell mantra started, but it is a bad thing to slavishly believe it. It is often said , you should write using all your senses, so the reader can see , hear , smell and feel the words on the paper. Some of my favourite writers seemed to not know this advise . P K Dick uses a lot of telling , some dialog and a bit showing . He engages his readers with interesting Ideas.
     
  4. Adam Bolander

    Adam Bolander Member

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    That's what I thought. The agent I'm querying says she'll accept my story once I edit it to be more show-y and less tell-y. I can see she's right, but I can only hope that I can insert that while still keeping the fast pace I intended the book to have.
     
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  5. More

    More Member

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    I Can't comment you your writing , but you might be interested in this
    writingforums.org/articles/copywork-exercise-for-writers/
    There is a link to his web site with some highlighted work to look at .
     
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  6. Naomasa298

    Naomasa298 Active Member

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    That's not what she's telling you, if you're talking about the visceral thing. She's telling you to give the writing more colour, so that the reader can emote with what the character is going through.

    Not "my head hit the ground. It hurt."

    "My head hit the ground. I felt my brain rattle as the hammer blow resonated through my skull."

    Or somesuch.

    But at the end of the day, it's your book and your writing. If you disagree with the agent, you can always submit it elsewhere.
     
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  7. Adam Bolander

    Adam Bolander Member

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    She did say visceral. But she also said "The biggest area of revisions needed is in the abundance of telling." I figure, if I can make it better, it's my job as a writer to do that, however I can.
     
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  8. frigocc

    frigocc Contributor Contributor

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    Yup. People take "rules" too far. They don't even consider genre when giving out advice. For example, I like to write absurdist comedy. Sure, I often do show, but explicitly telling can be a comedic device. One of my favorite lines I've written does this, while also showing AND telling:

    Lou didn't follow. "I don't follow," he said.
     
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  9. Naomasa298

    Naomasa298 Active Member

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    It depends what you're writing. I primarily write short stories. In short stories, telling can be important to move the plot along quickly - you don't have the time or the word count for excessive showing. Some authors abuse that to put a lot of irrelevant detail in (I really don't need to know what Uncle Joe had for breakfast unless it's important to the plot, thanks) but again, it's a judgment call.
     
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  10. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Contributor

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    True of just about any "rule" of writing.
     
  11. big soft moose

    big soft moose The Moderating Moose Staff Supporter Contributor Community Volunteer

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    I meant to say on the other thread - there's something odd here. Decent agents are usually inundated with manuscripts - its strange for one to accept one that needs what most would consider considerable rewriting.

    that aside more showing and less telling should speed up the pace since you are not taking time out to tell us things
     
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  12. TheOtherPromise

    TheOtherPromise Member

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    This is definitely where I run into a lot of struggles with my writing. I'm so concerned about telling too much that my writing becomes even more detached and telling in my mind. For example

    If I were to write, "His eyes were wide with fear." Suddenly I'm concerned that by mentioning fear, I am telling the reader he is afraid, not showing it.

    So I might rewrite it as "His eyes were wide, his brows raised high on his forehead. Mouth agape." But honestly to me, this doesn't say much and seems awkward. Now of course part of the problem is my lack of skill, I'll definitely own that.
     
  13. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Contributor

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    Unless you're in a detached POV that doesn't allow for it, I think you're better off with some internal characteristics to describe fear. What's his heart rate? Is he sweating? Is blood pounding in his ears? That sort of thing. Wide eyes, brows raised, mouth agape, could be interpreted in a lot of ways.

    Also, I don't think saying the word "fear" is a problem, it's just that you don't want to leave it at that (assuming you've decided to show not tell). You can say "Fear settled over him like an extension of the darkness. His pulse pounded in his ears and his hands trembled from adrenaline. He tried to speak, but his mouth had gone dry and all that emerged was a rasping croak."

    Or whatever. In that example, you're still using the word fear so the reader doesn't mistake what you're describing (which could be on a spectrum between anxiety and sheer terror, based on the characteristics alone). I see that a lot in writing--some kind of cue from the writer as to what she's going for, coupled with "showing."
     
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  14. Adam Bolander

    Adam Bolander Member

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    The problem I run into with that is that I quickly run out of ways to describe his fear, unless I want to start repeating them. And like I said above, I'm worried that if I start using metaphors to describe it, that it'll become pointlessly wordy.
     
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  15. Naomasa298

    Naomasa298 Active Member

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    In one story, I wrote "It was the most passionate love-making I had ever experienced."

    I really had no inclination to go into any more detail than that...
     
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  16. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Contributor

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    Yes, that's a legitimate concern. There's a balance to be struck, in my view. A little can go a long way. It may be worthwhile to go through some horror novels, where authors are having to describe fearful situations many different times, and look at approached writers have taken.
     
  17. Aaron Smith

    Aaron Smith Contributor Contributor

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    A general rule of thumb is to show whatever the reader needs to see and to tell whatever the reader needs to know.
     
  18. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Contributor

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    I don't think "need" enters into it so much. Show v Tell is as much a subjective, stylistic decision as anything. How much detail to provide and where.
     
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  19. TheOtherPromise

    TheOtherPromise Member

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    That is some great advice for writing how a person might feel fear.

    But with the example I gave I was imagining it as if the protagonist had stumbled upon a character who was afraid. And how I might convey that from the protagonist's point of view (though I understand that with the lack of context, there was no way to determine that was the case).

    So to put more succinctly, the problem I seem to run into is how to convey to the reader what a character might be feeling when I am not from their perspective. (Though I do also need help in describing feelings that the pov character has, so your examples are good place to start on that front. And I thank you for that.)
     
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  20. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Contributor

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    I understand what you mean. I think it comes down to how much you want to describe, still, but when it's someone else's viewpoint, you're filtering through that character and in my opinion it is OK to point out how that character interprets what he sees.

    For a first person example: I turned the corner and almost stumbled over Williams. His eyes were wide, unfocused as he looked up at me. The blood had drained from his face, leaving a mask of pale flesh. He looked like he was about to shit himself.

    There, for example, you get a few descriptive characteristics, but end up with the viewpoint character's judgment of what it all means.

    There's no right or wrong way, in my view. You're going to get a different tone for your story depending on what approach you take. When you're filtering through a viewpoint character, then the closeness of POV and "voice" of that viewpoint character could dictate. Is the viewpoint character a "just the facts ma'am" type of personality, who dispassionately observes the important details around him and reports them? Is he prone to his own fears, and is he already on the verge of freaking out when he comes across this other person? Those two situations could result in very different descriptions.
     
  21. Richach

    Richach Senior Member

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    For me it is 'show vs tell' and not 'show don't tell.' There is a very small but none the less important distinction between vs and don't.

    Every word matters...
     
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  22. GingerCoffee

    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    You describe fear with the scene, not just the facial expression. If you've described a frightening scene then write something like, 'his eyes opened wider than they should have been able to' or maybe something less dramatic, ;) then you've shown the scene.

    If you searched through this forum you'd find the 'show don't tell debate' rehashed a gazillion times. One way to look at the advice is to understand why it is said so often: New writers frequently tell too much and show too little. It's the way we naturally tell stories verbally. When you shift from verbal telling to writing, you usually have to learn how to show the scene instead of telling just the story.

    Read as much writing advice on how to show and the skill will begin to sink in. I find getting the scene down then going back and editing the writing works for me. Experienced and skilled writers get it on the page right the first time. I can't. But by the time I've edited it, it comes out more polished.
     
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  23. Richach

    Richach Senior Member

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    Just to add to the Showing vs Tell thread,

    The bit that foreshadows the show can sometimes appear rushed. Almost like the author wanted to get to the flashy bit they like. That can be ok as a balance needs to be found but, be careful it does not come across as lazy writing.
     
  24. Wreybies

    Wreybies Thrice Retired Supporter Contributor

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    I think the first thing is to attempt that most elusive feat of alchemy - getting everyone on the same page as to what is Show and what is Tell.

    This mistaken idea that Show is magniloquent description, exhaustive detail, or endless dialogue (the usual descriptors) is the reason this particular conversation never gets past the "which is better?" phase.

    Show is none of the things I just mentioned. None of them.

    Tell is flat fact; Show is the evidence of the fact.

    That's it. That's all it is. It's not more complicated. It's not a thing you can granulate down to "is this word show or is it tell?" Such questions are meaningless.

    Tell is flat fact.

    Show is evidence of the fact.

    Use each to their best end effect. They are tools in a toolbox, not rules in a rulebook.

    ETA: Apologies for coming off frustrated and crass. This is a broadly pervasive issue among writers, the inability to agree on the meanings of writing terms, which gives rise to conversations that are wildly polyphyletic in their contributions. I die a little every time I read someone use the term "passive voice" to describe uninspired or lackluster writing rather than the correct meaning of a sentence structure wherein there is no grammatical subject, and the murder is complete when someone else comes along and says something like "just look for 'was' in your writing and rephrase" ignoring the fact that passive and active only come into play when there is a transitive verb and that every structure that is intransitive is invariably going to make use of the copula (is/was), so telling people to look for 'was' is worse than useless; it's malicious.
     
    Last edited: Feb 9, 2020
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  25. Damage718

    Damage718 Active Member

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    I think Show vs. Tell is something we all work on, all the time. Some of us (me) really struggle finding the balance between moving non-vital narrative forward (telling) and the visceral experiences and descriptions of the characters and settings (showing). I'm probably the worst one to offer input on this at the moment. :/

    I've fallen into the deadly trap of "auto-telling" in the sense that I've gotten so locked into my writing persona at my day job (marketing copywriter/editor) where the content I create has to be more told than shown, that switching gears to fiction writing (where it should be the opposite,) is quite challenging. In effect, it's hard to even tell when I'm telling. On the short I've been working on, it's taken until the third round of edits before noticing how blatant some of my 'tells' were.

    Don't fall into that trap! :D:p
     
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