Showing vs Telling

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

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  1. Not the Territory

    Not the Territory Active Member

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    Don't tell, show is useless if prescribed to the piece in general, because it is distracting from the actual problem: unfocused narrative. The newer writers will interpret it as zoom in, describe more, when the publishers and agents likely meant know the main purpose(s) of each of the scenes, and demonstrate/highlight that with the prose accordingly.

    The spectrum is purple on one end, as you mentioned, and annual business report on the other. A piece can be blurry in either case.

    That's why if I ever suggest a show approach rather than a tell, it is always specifically, with consideration of where I think the writer intended focus in that particular scene.
     
  2. Richach

    Richach Senior Member

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    I am not sure that show vs tell is straight forward for those of us that are relatively inexperienced. Trial and error delivers experience and that takes time. Sometimes even excellent advice may not always be fully absorbed by less experienced writers, despite the helpful sentiment or willingness to learn. :)
     
    Last edited: Feb 9, 2020
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  3. Naomasa298

    Naomasa298 Senior Member

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    Tell:
    The UK has horrible weather.

    Show:
    The drumbeat of rain on the window was accompanied by the sound of wind as it howled through the trees. A better day than usual, thought Naomasa.
     
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  4. big soft moose

    big soft moose The Moderating Moose Staff Supporter Contributor Community Volunteer

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    tbh even for experienced writers show don't tell is easier to do than explain - I'm currently writing a how to book for people writing their first novel and it isn't easy to distill the essential message down, except by illustrating with examples.

    One of the issues is that of nomenclature - at the end of the day unless you are producing a graphic novel (or non fiction with illustrations) all writing is telling anyway - even when Chekov said 'don't tell me the moon is shining show me it glinting on broken glass' he was still telling the reader that light was glinting from fragments of glass... all show really means is to give detail that allows the reader to form a picture in their heads rather than baldly staring facts
     
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  5. Seven Crowns

    Seven Crowns Contributor Contributor

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    You have to know where you're at in the scene. You don't want to go 90 mph through a school zone, and you also don't want to idle your car on the freeway. Either mistake gets someone killed.

    Tell is when your foot hits the accelerator. The scenery speeds by because it's not where you need to be.
    Show is when you slow down and study the landscape. You might even hop out and have a chat.

    You can absolutely wreck a story with overuse of show, and it's not a rarity either. It pops up a lot when the author's just shooting for word count or sometimes when they're living too vicariously through a particular character and everything becomes fascinating to them. I do think overuse of tell is still the more common sin though. Or not overuse, but usage in the wrong place. For example, the stereotypical MC brushing their teeth and getting ready for the day. It says so little. Those lines should summarized (or deleted outright), and later sections should be built up. No reader cares how minty the toothpaste is. It says nothing and you don't need to show it. Maybe instead, the MC drives by an accident and they find themselves smiling, but they don't know why. That's where the show needs to be. You want the details where they say something new instead of just sitting where they state the obvious.

    When you can detail a section that has hidden implications, that's always more interesting. I suppose you can't totally avoid setting-boilerplate, because the MC needs to be a part of a living world, but the bullseye is when the "show" detail hints at more depth. Questions build tension. You always want tension.
     
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  6. Stormburn

    Stormburn Contributor Contributor

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    I highly recommend 'Understanding Show, Don't Tell' by Janice Hardy. Here's the blurb and link:

    Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.
    https://www.amazon.com/Understanding-Show-Dont-Tell-Getting/dp/0991536436
     
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  7. J.D. Ray

    J.D. Ray Member Supporter

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    Is this true? I hear this a lot, but it seems simplistic and perhaps autocratic, in that if all writing pushes tension, then readers who are looking for a relaxing description of an environment can't have it. I've stopped reading novels by favorite authors because everything is tension and action and declarative dialogue. There's plenty of scene setting (a balance of showing and telling), but I found the reading to wear me out.

    My writing apparently suffers from a deficit of show. The feedback I get, at least for my longer work, is that there is an imbalance; there's some show, but not enough. And others have said that even when I do show, there's a certain je ne sais qua missing. Like that's helpful. I imagine it like cooking, wherein a perfect balance of salt, fat, acid, and heat creates a dish on which you can put any set of flavors to create culinary delight (thank you Samin Nosrat for teaching me this). So it seems that even if I get the right balance of four dimensions, flavor may still be missing.
     
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  8. Richach

    Richach Senior Member

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    Tension can elicit emotions. Then it is just a question of showing said emotions. There is always a catalyst before the emotions can be revealed. It is not like the real world where we hide our feelings. Well, that is just my theory.
     
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  9. Richach

    Richach Senior Member

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    I agree with this. My first real attempts at show were pretty hideous. They were just words filling a page. (Not always a bad things as some decent stuff can rise out of the crap!) I fretted for months until I finally resolved to delete 3 paragraphs at the beginning of my 2nd chapter. That was a big decision for me but it improved the peice immensely.

    Although I deleted my beloved words I could see that in the end, it just wasn't working the way it was. It was only after this that I began to realise what did and didn't work. From that point on it was less the case of me aimlessly writing. Show is tricky but worth the hassle.
     
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  10. J.D. Ray

    J.D. Ray Member Supporter

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    I feel your pain. One of the earliest parts I wrote for my WIP was a prologue, set over a hundred years prior to the main story start, set the stage for the social situation that was to be in play when the story started. In hindsight, it was a hot mess. Killing it and putting in its place a better lead-in was difficult, but necessary.
     
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  11. Bone2pick

    Bone2pick Contributor Contributor

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    I think you always want to captivate your reader, and tension is one means of doing that. But it's not the only means.
     
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  12. jannert

    jannert Who? Whooo? Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I've always felt that the difference between showing and telling is simpler than folks sometimes think.

    You show something when you want the reader to share the narrator's/POV character's experience of an event.

    You tell something when you simply need the reader to know a particular fact.

    You don't have to go on and on when you're showing something ...it doesn't have to be a wad of description delivered in flowery language. In fact, it can be quite succinct, as in @Steerpike's example earlier in this thread:
    The narrator is telling the reader what he thought, in his own character's 'voice,' but he's 'showing' us why he thought it. We're experiencing the event along with the narrator.

    "Telling" in that instance, would go something like this:
    If you simply want the reader to know what the narrator thought, then the second version is fine. If, however, you want the reader to form a clear picture of what was actually happening, then the first version works better.

    Ask yourself—which version leaves the strongest impression?
     
  13. J.D. Ray

    J.D. Ray Member Supporter

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    Last night I bought the Janice Hardy book that @Stormburn recommended above and started reading it. So far it's well-written and appears helpful.

    - or -

    I read @Stormburn's recommendation, and found the idea of an instruction manual for fixing the problems in my writing... intriguing. With anticipation welling in my breast, I clicked "Buy with One-Click" on the Amazon page in the message and wondered if @Stormburn would get any affiliate monies.

    Propped up in bed, iPad in hand, I began, as one would, at the beginning of the book. I was immediately heartened to find ready advice, written in a manner that I could understand. My hope was not misplaced! Anxious to apply what I was learning, I made a promise to myself to read the entire manual before editing my WIP. No sense going off half-cocked!

    :D
     
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  14. Stormburn

    Stormburn Contributor Contributor

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    It's a wonderful book that has really help me grasp the whole 'show don't tell' topic.
    This is something I also recommend: David Michael Kaplan's essay 'Revising Your Prose for Power and Punch'. Even though it's intended to fine tuning your prose it does over lap with 'Show don't tell'. Here's a site where it's posted:
     
  15. J.D. Ray

    J.D. Ray Member Supporter

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    Something is broken with that link.
     
  16. Stormburn

    Stormburn Contributor Contributor

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    Click on the "keep reading"
     
  17. J.D. Ray

    J.D. Ray Member Supporter

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    The link works now, but didn't earlier. Maybe something wrong with our firewall here. At any rate, I googled for the article and found it. Instructive, though maybe a little more "beginner" than the Hardy book. Thanks, though.
     
  18. Fervidor

    Fervidor Member

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    Basically, there are times you want to tell, because not every single detail in your story is worth showing. You don't want to be wasting your reader's time using half a page to lovingly paint a vibrant picture of something completely irrelevant. Sometimes you just need to get the a certain piece of incidental information across quickly so you can move on the important stuff.

    From what I gather, the "rule" that you should always show and never tell stems from the fact that beginners tend to intuitively rely on telling, due to not being accustomed to using the language to show. (I mean, if you think about it, we rarely need to describe things in everyday speech.) Hence, well-meaning creative writing teachers emphasize the importance of telling perhaps a bit too much.

    And if anything, I'd say "show, don't tell" makes a lot more sense in visual storytelling - you know, movies and so on - where you often don't need to use words to explain stuff in the first place.
     
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  19. Richach

    Richach Senior Member

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    I agree. Maybe it's a question of trial and error until one gets a good balance. The only difference between those that are struggling with the concept and those that are not, is a little experience.
     
  20. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    Assuming this is a good agent, I would do what he or she wants. This is your first chance to prove you are easy to work with. That's important. And your agent knows how to sell your book. Really, you're pretty lucky to get this sort of attention and interest. This agent wants to work with you. That does mean you're going to have to work. It's not easy, but do it. However, showing has nothing to do with purple prose. You obviously have a good story. Now you have to flesh it out. Good luck with it! :)

    As a short story writer, I have to disagree. Showing is just as important in the short form. Also, showing does not mean including irrelevant details about what anyone had for breakfast.
     
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  21. big soft moose

    big soft moose The Moderating Moose Staff Supporter Contributor Community Volunteer

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    Point of note according to the other thread the agent didn't say she'd accept it when revised she said "while i am declining at this time, don't be afraid to resubmit when you have made revisions"... imo that's her being polite, not saying she really wants to work with him
     
  22. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    I would still do it. I don't think an agent would invite someone to resubmit just to be polite. And like I said, assuming this is a good agent, he or she probably knows more about selling books than the writer. I've been in a similar position with editors. I regret the times I didn't follow through and the times I did were hard work but worth it.
     
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