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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Show vs. Tell

   
Author Topic: Show vs. Tell
Dazgul
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After a few paragraphs of the necessary ditilled compliments that must accompany any short-story rejection that is not a form letter, I was told by the delightful Magazine of F & SF editor who had rejected my work that I should "Show vs. Tell". What do you have to say about this rather cryptic message.
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TheUbiquitousMrLovegrove
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Hey, you got a personal response. That's good. All I ever got from SF&F was the standard form letter.

"Show Vs. Tell" is a very tricky subject, because, I've read books on the subject, saying "Show, don't tell" but that advice, I find is wrong-headed.

What he means, in case you didn't know, is that your "Camera", or point of view, is that detachted, and uninteresting. When you "tell" your stroy (according to this thinking) you are too far removed from the actual events. Here's my example:

"Terran went to the galatic gates, and met Derano. Derano was very moved by Terran's requested on behalf of the Water Faries, and swore to him that he was do everything possible to aid him. However, Terran had no way of knowing that Derano had already met with the Black Wing, and a sizable sum of money was transfered to his credit acounti n exchange for his cooperation."

Ok, I just made that up, but the "Show Vs. Telling" theory says i should do it this way.

"The galatic gates loomed high above Terran's head, and in the starry night sky, bright sparks of fire marked the passing of the ships between them. Terran stepped into the telemissions square, and knelt on one knee. A robot flew slowly out of some hidden door, seemed to glide through the air as it approached him. "What do you seek form us, mortal?" it asked him.

"I am Terrian of Earth. I seek audience with Derano, to make a request on behalf of the water faries."

The robot hung silently in the air for a moment, then a whirling sound camefrom it's metal innards. "Derano knows of your arrival and will see you."

Light erupted form the pad and suddenly Terran found he was in the audience chambers of Derano. The ancient lord sat upon his massive throne, and Terran's heart stopped for a moment when he saw the great being. To think, this man had lived for longer than some universes have existed! And his shear size! Terrian thought he must have appeared as an ant to Derano...."

See the difference? Now I just made up that example, so it's not the best, and of course it makes no sense, but do you see the difference.

Now here is where the problem comes in. Look at those last two-three lines in that "Showing" verison. Aren't I telling you how Terran is feeling? That's what the Showing/Telling advice can get confusing.

Check out the the main page of hatrack, and go to OSC's writing lessons. I know that one of those lessons has his advice on the subject, and he explains it's better than I could.

I'd also suggest a series of writing aid books that explore this subject and many more. Card has written one of the books in the series himself, about character and viewpoint, but I can't remember the name of the series.

Basically, my opinion is, (and my personal experience) is that th way "Showing v. Telling" was explained to me didn't help me much, but if some says, You should show and not tell, it really means your having troubling setting up scenes and sequels correctly, or perhaps your writing to passively.

Anone, hope this helps. This is only the tip of the iceberg on the subject, but I hope it's make it a little clearer.


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Evil Star
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But..but!

What about the water fairies!?

Was the request honored or what?

Dont leave us hanging man!


=)


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TheUbiquitousMrLovegrove
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Hey who knows? Your asking the wrong guy.. But it's funny. 6 minutes of writing off the cuff could provoke a great idea later..

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Good examples, TUML (first time I saw that here, I was confused, but then I realized it was a good way to abbreviate your "name").

If I may offer another explanation of the "Show vs Tell" idea.

When you "show" in a story, you are describing what happens in a way that makes readers feel that they are actually watching it happen. This can also be referred to as "scene."

When you "tell" in a story, you are conveying what happened in less detail because what happened isn't important enough to actually have the readers "watch" it. In other words, you are summarizing.

The amount of wordage you spend on something in a story is a clue to the readers about how important they should consider that thing.

If you spend lots of words, you are more likely to be "showing" and you are saying that "this is important." If you gloss over it, with only a few words, you are "telling" so you can get to the more important stuff.

Some things you should "tell" because not everything is that important. But you should "show" the important things.

So, when someone says "show, don't tell," they may actually be saying, "you summarized the important stuff and you need to spend more time on it." If this is what they are saying, they don't really mean you shouldn't "tell" at all. You just need to "show" more than you have.


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Architectus
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Even if you're writing a scene, you can still be telling too much.

Showing too much would be: She sat down on the square wooden structure that had four legs and a back rest. VS: She sat in a wooden chair.

You can also show too little.

In the backyard, on the grass, two kids pounded each other's face in until they were bloody.

I think showing comes down to micro managing, but knowing what parts to micro manage (slow down.)

In the backyard, on the yellowing grass, Jay and Brad stood toe to toe, breathing hard, their fists up. Jay threw a wild punch, smashing it into Brad's temple. Brad pounded his knuckles into Jay's cheek, sending splintering pain behind his eye, obscuring his vision. He screamed in pain, and they pummeled each other with fists, knees, and elbows like a tornado.

When they were finished, they both bent over gasping for air.

But I think there is more to showing than mirco managing a scene. What if the scene were about an old man?

The old man squinched his face as he rose from his rocking chair, as he grasped his cain with a shaky hand.

No doubt that is showing. But we could show he is an old man without saying so.

Mr. Crawford squinched up his wrinkled face as he rose from his rocking chair, as he grasped his cain with a shaky, liver spotted hand.

There are other aspects of showing not telling as well. For example, you could simple tell what a person is thinking, thus explaining their actions, or you can write the scene so well that we know what the person is thinking based on what we see in our mind's eye.

You can tell us what is implied in conversation, or you can show us using subtext. Subtext is one of the most satisfying joys of reading, IMO.

"Can you do the dishes again? I'm running late."
"I would rather not, but okay because I love you." << telling

"Can you do the dishes again. I'm running late."
She clenched her fists and flexed her jaw. "Sure, honey. No problem."
Before he walked out the door, she ran to him and kissed him slowly on the lips. << showing

The fact she doesn't want to do the dishes but does so because she loves him is implied in the subtext. We have to read into it, infer it. This is another way of showing.

You can check out this four-part video series on youtube.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LmDMTHHgAZM

I didn't proof read this post, so I'm sure there are errors in it. Ignore them.


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Merlion-Emrys
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I think Kathleen has explained this pretty well and also touched upon a lot of my trouble with "show don't tell" as its often used.

I think the phrase isn't really very good and doesnt convey much, given that all writing is telling and you cant by any means "show" everything, nor should you.

As she says, "showing" is for the important stuff. Action scenes. Creating and describing your setting. That sort of thing. Its for creating detailed images and scenes in the mind. Telling is for directly conveying information...especially information that is technically necessary but not all that interesting.

Dialogue, by nature, is telling.

Thoughts must be told, they can't really be shown.

Emotions, now there is the real sticky bit. You're not going to win on this, because some people like emotions told clearly and unambigiously, whereas some want them shown via action and expression. And some times you'll find those that consider one version inherently better than the other, but as near as I can tell it's a matter of taste and a matter of peoples different ways of percieving and proccessing things.

Personally I consider it rather poor, lazy and borderline uselss feedback to simply be told "you need to show, not tell." Without specific context its more or less meaningless as in the end "showing" and "telling" are just different techniques, like to different size paintbrushes or drillbits. You just need the right one for the right job...thing is with this, the right one for the job is more or less totally subjective.


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Zero
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TheUbiquitousMrLovegrove is officially my favorite name on here.
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MAP
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LOL, thanks for pointing that out zero.

You have be careful with subtext because it can be misinterpreted by the reader.

For example:

quote:
"Can you do the dishes again. I'm running late."
She clenched her fists and flexed her jaw. "Sure, honey. No problem."
Before he walked out the door, she ran to him and kissed him slowly on the lips.


This shows a lot more than someone who is doesn't want to do the dishes but is willing to because she loves her man.

The woman comes across as emotionally unbalanced maybe even bipolar or at least a drama queen. Her reactions are over the top. "clenching her fists and flexing her jaw," is a little much for not wanting to do the dishes, as apposed to "she sighed."

Then running after him to kiss him is such an abrubt change (and also screams newly weds).

This is great if that is what you intended, but if not you risk confusing the reader.

This is the power of show not tell. In a little scene where a guy asks the a girl to do the dishes, you can establish personalities and relationship dynamics.

But I agree with what Merlion said that everything can't be shown. It is a powerful tool to key the reader in on what is really important.


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Merlion-Emrys
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The thing about misinterpretation of subtext is why I've had several people (including editors) tell me, essentially, that "telling" emotions and/or thoughts can some times be better, or at least clearer and more reliable than trying to "show" them.

In this example scene, as you say, some may interpret the wife to be a bit crazy and see the emotional changes as a bit abrupt. Also, I've had some people tell me these sorts of "showing" things for emotions actually make them feel distanced rather than pulled in, because showing is more or less always external to the character.

Whereas in this case you could state the wife's inner thoughts/feelings directly. It would be "telling" but for many it would be clearer and/or more immersive because your "in her head" rather than having to decide her exact feelings/thoughts/motivations from external actions.

I don't think one is actually better than the other. I think it depends on 1) what your trying to achieve in terms of voice/style/narrative etc and 2) the audience, since some prefer one aproach, some the other and some a mix.

You can't really do much about 2 (unless your submitting to an editor whose preference you know) so thats why I advocate not worrying too awful much about "show/tell"...its best, I think, to simply view them as stylstic tools. Means to the end of achieving the goals of your story.

[This message has been edited by Merlion-Emrys (edited September 29, 2009).]


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Wolfe_boy
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Kathleen is (as usual) pretty spot-on. I also find that Show vs. Tell can also be applied to state-of-mind explanations. If the narrator states Joe was angry, that is telling. If you can show me that he is angry (through action, observation, a change in his dialogue or its delivery) then I am more involved in the story and more likely accepting of Joe's emotions.

I have to disagree with Merlion (once again) about dialogue and thought being showing vs. telling. Dialogue, when it comes naturally from the characters point of view, is a strong use of Showing. Having a scene where two characters argue over a piece of bread (including their dialogue, perhaps some thoughts, and some stage directions) is showing, plain and simple. The narrator saying Bill and Joe argued over who should eat the last piece of break is telling. Like Kathleen said, if Bill & Joe fighting over bread isn't important to the story, feel free to gloss over it with a single line vs. a long involved scene which might not hold any real purpose in the grand scheme of the story you're trying to tell. When you get to the important parts, however, don't forget to allow your characters to show the story to the reader.

The crux of the discussion between Show & Tell (allow me to drop in the wimpy conditional phrase for me), lies in who is relaying the scene to the reader. If the characters own experiences, senses, actions, and even dialogue and thoughts are what is driving a scene forward, it can be interpreted as Showing. If the writer/narrator is describing things to the reader, that is Telling.

Wikipedia's article is helpful, though it's final line ('The issue of when to "show" and when to "tell" is the subject of ongoing debate.') pretty much summarizes the discussion you can expect on this.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Show,_don't_tell

[This message has been edited by Wolfe_boy (edited September 29, 2009).]


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Wolfe_boy
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Just ran across this article... it's actually a great description of this potentially confusing issue.

http://www.zumayapublications.com/blog/2005/02/once-upon-time-show-vs-tell.html


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genevive42
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Just thought I'd refer back to one of OSC's articles on this site for anyone who might have missed it. It's concerned specifically with showing vs. telling motivation but it gives a good perspective on the whole concept.

http://www.hatrack.com/writingclass/lessons/2000-08-02-4.shtml


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Merlion-Emrys
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Wolfe-boy:


So far, you and the person in that article are the only people I remember encountering who consider "show don't tell" a POV issue. What your basically saying is "showing"=super-close 3rd person POV or 1st person POV. "telling"=any other POV.


I have several problems with that. One, the idea seems to be that if your writing in any POV but 1st person or extremely close nearly 1st 3rd person POV, then everything your writing is "telling." I disagree with this because great description...the creation of great imagery and scene is quite possible in other POVs. Also since the overall idea seems to be "telling"=bad or "weak" writing it also seems to follow that any POV but those two are automatically "weak."

I don't know for sure if thats what you mean or think, but based on the article that seems to be the ultimate conclusion. If telling is bad, and anything not in 1st person or very close 3rd is telling, then anything in 3rd person omniscient or even a slightly less close 3rd person is close is telling and therefore bad.

Thats basically the fundmental problem I have with what you/that article are saying...and indeed with all versions of the "show VS tell" discussion is that it generally involves a lot of the idea that some ways or styles of writing are inherently "bad" and some inherently "better" a notion I reject entirely.


Now as far as the definition, like I said, yours in my personal experience is in the minority. Nothing wrong with that (all though the fact that there are a couple different "major" defintions and a lot of subtle varitions in definition within them is one reason I dont consider "show don't tell" anything that even resembles a "rule"...if it was a real "rule" it would have a specific pretty much universally accepted nature)but it is what it is.


Many people who've done crits for me or who I've discussed with this would call much of what you consider "showing" to be "telling." For instance some, no matter how in POV it is, don't want to hear a person simply thinking their emotional state...they want it "shown" externally via action or expression (but then theres plenty who want the reverse). Visual stuff. Most people I encounter define "showing" in more or less visual terms. When they speak of "showing versus telling" they basically mean "descriptive versus declaritive" regardless of POV.

POV stuff aside your definition of "showing" seems to be more tied to the words meanings of "expressing" or "presenting" rather than the more usual visual aspect. You "show" someone a picture, but you don't show them a song, because a song can't be seen. Thats why most I know of consider dialogue to be "telling"...because you can't "show"(describe) dialogue. However, it can "show" in a broad sense, a characters emotional state.


So basically, like i said, its all a matter of preference and interpretation. Theres no right or wrong definition of "showing" or "telling" and likewise as far as I'm concerned, both are just tools.

My advice to you, Dazgul (and anybody) would be don't worry about whether your "showing" or "telling"...worry about whether your accomplishing what you want to accomplish stylistically, narratively, in terms of reader reaction and whatever.

[This message has been edited by Merlion-Emrys (edited September 29, 2009).]


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Merlion-Emrys
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I think the trouble is "show don't tell" is basically shorthand...but its shorthand for a variety of some times unrelated things all of which are too complex and subjective to use shorthand to describe.

Basically, I think it would be better, in crits and advice, if people would "show" a budding writing what they mean specifically (and why) instead of just "telling" them "show, don't tell." :-)


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Wolfe_boy
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quote:
My advice to you, Dazgul (and anybody) would be don't worry about whether your "showing" or "telling"...worry about whether your accomplishing what you want to accomplish stylistically, narratively, in terms of reader reaction and whatever.

Sure, I can get behind this to a certain degree - write for yourself, and damn the rest. However, there is the little problem of wanting to become published. If editors are consistently commenting you that you are telling too much, and you desire to become published, it behooves a writer to understand what part of his or her writing is, infact, causing the editor to make that comment, and to change it. To do otherwise and still hope for publication is, I believe, the very definition of insanity.

Beyond this, I tire of discussing show vs. tell with Merlion. Best of luck in the future, Dazgul.


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Merlion-Emrys
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quote:
If editors are consistently commenting you that you are telling too much, and you desire to become published, it behooves a writer to understand what part of his or her writing is, infact, causing the editor to make that comment, and to change it.


If its consistently, maybe. One isn't consistently though. And more than that, theres the issue of definition. If all the editor said was "you need to show more and tell less" or something similar, then its not really very helpful without knowing that particular person's definition of the concept, since obviously theres more than one.


quote:
To do otherwise and still hope for publication is, I believe, the very definition of insanity.


With that editor, sure. But they all have different tastes. And again, you can't change something if you don't understand what it is that needs to be changed. And this thread certainly hasn't answered the question, at least not in any clear way. Just shown what a subjective concept it is.


quote:
Beyond this, I tire of discussing show vs. tell with Merlion.


We're not really discussing yet, since you haven't responded to my respones to your opinion. You tire easily :-) Basically what you call showing I call writing in one of two certain POV types and what you call telling I call...everything else. By your definition most of what I've written...and at least half of what I've seen from other writers, published and otherwise, is 100% pure telling begining to end, since I and others frequently right in 3rd person POV's that are more distant than what you describe to qualify as showing.

I'm curious as to your definitions of the things I call "showing" and "telling." I'm I really the only person you've encountered who defines "showing" as descriptive or scene writing and telling as declaritive regardless of POV? Guess I don't get to find out.


For general purposes, my personal exmaple of "show versus tell", at least as I understand most to define it.

"Telling": There was an apple on the table, surrounded by lace.

"Showing": On the table an apple sat, a band of finely-made lace encircling it.


"Telling" Ulric swung his sword and cut off the orc's hand. Black blood poured from the stump.

"Showing" Ulric brought his sword down on the orc's scabby wrist, severing it's sword hand in a burst of dark blood.


Not very good, but that seems to be the overall concept

[This message has been edited by Merlion-Emrys (edited September 29, 2009).]


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Meredith
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And to prove the point, my definition is somewhat different. I think the level of detail is only part of showing vs. telling.

My opinion FWIW:

Descriptions that set a scene--an apple on a lace doily--are always telling, no matter how much detail you go into. And the amount of detail should be proportionate to the importance of the setting.

For me, show vs. tell is more about an approach. Both detail and POV are part of it, but only part. It's also proportion. What (thoughts, feelings, actions) and how much (detail) does the reader need to clearly picture what I'm trying to convey? And how much does it matter to the story?

For example, in one novel I have a couple of paragraphs which tell what the MC is doing over a period of time. Nothing important happens during that time. The purpose of those paragraphs is primarily to mark the passage of time. Some of what he does could easily be made into a scene (shown). For example, he meets some girls but doesn't like any of them because they all remind him of his ex. Yes, I could write that as a scene. (It was suggested.) But to show it would give it an importance it just doesn't have. I'd cut the couple of sentences about him meeting anybody before I'd make a scene out of it.

Those paragraphs, if I went back to reread them now, are probably third omniscient, or close to it. When things get important, I move to a closer third POV. And how close often relates pretty closely to how important I think the scene is.

Some things are told because they're not important enough to show. Or because you only really want to show it once and all previous or subsequent occurrences are merely told. ("He did it again.")

For me, POV is part of it, but it's not all of it. Writing an action scene, I'm rarely in close POV. Maybe I'm not comfortable there. Maybe, unless it's a character's first battle or something, I don't think it's the place for a lot of thoughts and emotions--those can come later. And often, there's simply going to be too many things going on at once for one character to notice it all in a coherent manner. Unless the character is sitting on the sidelines and then why are you writing the scene in that character's POV? That's a case where I think detail becomes important in making the distinction between saying "There was a battle." (telling, extreme case, granted) and spending several paragraphs to give the reader the individual fights that make up the battle in more detail (showing, by my definition).

But, for me, both POV and detail are tools. Proportion (also a tool) is the key element. You just can't--and shouldn't--show everything. War and Peace would be considered light reading and an average novel would run to more than a thousand pages if we all did that.

And some people will say, with justification, that when you describe a character's emotions, even in close 3rd POV, you are telling, rather than showing.

It like an onion--and an ogre. It has layers.

JMO

[This message has been edited by Meredith (edited September 29, 2009).]


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Wolfe_boy
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Okay, I'll play a little while longer. My fatigue was more in the fact that we have discussed this in many threads, and have (my long absence notwithstanding) since you first came to Hatrack.

Showing is, flat-out, anything that the character does of his own accord. It is the reader experiencing the world through his eyes, ears, nose and mouth. It is the reader getting to know characters through their actions and what they say. It involves an active participation on the part of both character and reader.

Telling is the author intervening to point out, explain, or just describe to the reader what he wants the reader to see, or even to make characters say think things that are unnatural to the character.

That's it. That's my definition. POV has nothing to do with it.

Scene description is not necessarily only telling, though it can look an awful lot like telling. If we are seeing the scene through a particular characters eyes, and the description is told in a manner that is consistent with who is seeing the scene, then that would fall under the showing category for me.

You also mention that you can not show someone a song. The point isn't that you can't show something intangible, but that you should show me your characters reaction to a song rather than tell me how they responded. I don't want to be told That song always made Sarah sad, as it reminded her of her father.. I want to see what her response was. I want to see her get a tear in her eyes, the memory of her father fixed in her minds eye as she whispered the words they both sang together. That is showing vs. telling. If you want a more distant POV maybe we don't hear about her minds eye, but we can watch her mouth the words to herself with a sad smile on her face. If she's not the POV character than someone else can see her response and interpret it how they see fit - maybe as the weakness of a bleeding heart, maybe as a strong sentimental streak that will propel their mission forward.

Yes, showing vs. telling is a stylistic choice to a certain degree. It's also a storytelling device, allowing a writer to skim past unimportant points in the plot to arrive at the scenes that drive the story forward. I tell a fair bit. For example, in something I've been editing recently, I noticed several pages of telling, as my main character walked across the city he was in. If I included any scene-setting items though, I made sure to tell them from his point of view, and in a sensory way so that the reader is experiencing his long journey in his shoes. I also paused halfway because there was an important encounter that occurred, and I needed to show that whole encounter in detail rather than just tell the reader that it happened.

Your two examples of showing vs. telling are, in fact, not the point at all. Both of the first examples are (sans context) strictly telling. If we know that a character is seeing the apple, then it could be thought to be showing, but that's a pretty difficult line to tread down. The second example could be inferred to both be showing - we're seeing the action through Ulric's eyes, and while the description of the first is pretty plain and prefunctory, both are reasonably being told through Ulric's POV. Again, move further in, move further back, or move to another person's POV, the description stays the same so long as it's consistent with whoever is experiencing it.

Whether or not you agree that show vs. tell is an important distinction, or whether or not it should even be something we say to writers looking for a critique, I think that this definition is not that far-out.


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dee_boncci
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Emotions are sometimes best conveyed through thought:

She was scared when the man stepped from the alley with a knife. (telling)

She trembled when the man stepped from the alley with a knife. (showing, but only the outer physical aspect)

She watched the man step from the alley with a knife. What was that dull look in his eyes? Anger? God, no, it was worse. Beyond lust, beyond hatred. The man was insane. She knew it was not her body he wanted--it was more: her pain, her silent horror while her guts slipped through the opening he intended to make with that blade. Oh God, was he really smiling? She screamed and ran out into the empty street. (showing, thoughts revealed first, then outer physical reaction)

In general I think of showing vs telling by likening it to a movie. Showing is writing that parallels a dramatized, acted out scene. The reader hears the lines spoken, sees the gestures, actions, thoughts, etc., as they occur in time. Telling is like a voiceover narrator that summarizes events between scenes, and/or draws conclusions for the reader.

As has been alluded to, it's sort of a gray scale. It would take huge amounts of page space to capture what one can see in the briefest glance, so there's always some amount of summary, or abbreviation, or omission going on. Often you see both mixed together.


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extrinsic
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The show don't tell maxim is a distinctive paradox. Like many principles of creative writing, what's a tell and what's a show don't fit a neat definition and often one excerpt might be either in different contexts. The first absolute is there are none, save the one, that there are no absolutes, the penultimate creative writing paradox.

Ultimately, the critical thinking faculties of a writer must determine what's most effective in every case, unraveling writing paradoxes, for example, but an audience consensus will determine if any given feature is, indeed, effective. Commenting screening readers who indict for ineffective features will use shorthand comments to address a deficiency, when they deem it appropriate to comment at all. However, it's up to a writer to fathom meaning and address said deficienies as indicated, as desired, as a creative vision requires.

[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited September 29, 2009).]


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rich
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quote:
Ultimately, the critical thinking faculties of a writer must determine what's most effective in every case, unraveling writing paradoxes, for example, but an audience consensus will determine if any given feature is, indeed, effective.

There you go. We have a winner.


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Architectus
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MAP subtext can be interpreted different ways, but after the characters and context is established, there is not much risk of that. If you think a certain part might be missunderstood, you can always spell it out a few paragraphs later by using instrospection. At least this way, those readers that got it, will feel smart when their understanding of the subtext is confirmed. Those that missunderstood, will be like, "Oh, I get it now."

Subtext is not something that shouldn't be used very often in YA novels and should be used carefully.


But there are subtle ways to use subtext. Let's say a character has been practicing running on water and keeps falling in during his last few steps.

Nox sprinted for the pond. He dashed across the water as if he were light like the wind. Maybe he would do it this time. I counted ten whole steps before the water broke beneath his feet.
He walked out of the pond soaking wet. "Dang it. I almost had it."


It never says he actually fell into the water. There are other ways to do this as well.

She walked to the window. Outside, parked on the street, a car leaned to one side, its back tire deflated, rim almost touching asphalt.

We know she looked out the window; even though, it doesn't tell us so. We know the car has a flat tire.

Jill swung her open hand, pop! Mary held her red face.

Jack swung a wild hook. Then Bob's head snapped back.

[This message has been edited by Architectus (edited October 02, 2009).]


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philocinemas
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I'm surpised this thread didn't get more traction back in 2000.

That said, I've heard OSC, himself, say that "all writing is telling". Everyone has had good points, and this only proves that the "show, don't tell" maxim is ambiguous at best.

I liked Kathleen's original definition of show:

quote:
When you "show" in a story, you are describing what happens in a way that makes readers feel that they are actually watching it happen. This can also be referred to as "scene."

Maybe a better word, instead of show, would be engage. "Showing" is about reaching the reader emotionally. With this change, I wouldn't call all dialogue "telling". I agree with a lot of what Merlion has said, but I think Wolfe_boy
was more on the mark regarding the meaning of the term, though I don't entirely agree with everything said about tell. Dee_boncci had some great examples of show.

KDW also said:

quote:
When you "tell" in a story, you are conveying what happened in less detail because what happened isn't important enough to actually have the readers "watch" it. In other words, you are summarizing.

I see telling as reaching the reader intellectually. Classical and literary writers do this the best in fiction. I believe it has a lot to do with how they were or have been educated (not how much). There is a New York Times kind of influence on modern literary writers. Writers predating the early 1900's had culture as there main influence.

IMO, culture has had the greatest influence on "show vs. tell" (emotion vs. intellect). There should be room for both in literature; there was during the 1800's especially. I feel that Dickens and Austen, as well as many others, effectively incorparated both in their writings. Even Hemingway, who aparently started the dumbing-down trend (I know this will get some comments- ) in writing, seemed to do an awful lot of telling.

What I see literary writers do today is use showing and telling to pace a story so it fits better in "real time". Often the showing occurs close to dialogue, which tends to be emotionally charged. The telling occurs during straight narration, either at the beginnings and endings of chapters, or during less emotionally charged parts of the story. These often fill in time gaps that give the reader a sense of the passing of time.

I believe the changing nature of magazines is why "show, don't tell" has got so much notice. Showing gives the reader more information in a more powerful burst, where telling is like a tea kettle needing to graduate up to a slow boil. Both are effective tools, but magazines don't tell too many serialized stories anymore, and they have limited space as well. Plus, they want readers to be more emotionally stimulated as opposed to intellectually stimulated.

Of course, as just about always, this is only my opinion on the matter and I'm sure others will disagree. Therefore, no offense meant and none taken.


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extrinsic
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Not to belabor philocinemas' noteworthy comments with a summarization so much as my spin on the show don't tell paradox; I conceptualize show as reader immersion and tell as reader alienation. Immersion for its power to immerse readers in a personal, private, individual, intimate trance that no other media offers yet. Alienation for its power to incite a conscious, critical reading experience and for its at times necessary distancing from overtly visceral or objectionable topics.
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Zero
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I've always been of the opinion that a failure to "show" is usually a failure to be deep enough, or constricted enough, to the point of view character's point of view.

So I think "show don't tell" is really bad advice because it encourages writers to drown their prose in uninteresting arbitary details (the kind that don't contribute to setting) which only ruins their pacing and makes the writing worse not better.


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Wolfe_boy
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quote:
...it encourages writers to drown their prose in uninteresting arbitary details (the kind that don't contribute to setting) which only ruins their pacing and makes the writing worse not better.

Uninteresting arbitrary details will crop-up regardless of whether or not a writer is attempting to show or is focusing on tell. That's merely a sign of bad writing, not a stylistic choice.

If an editor is telling you to show more and tell less it's probably not because they want more setting details. They probably want to feel more connected with what is going on in the story, to experience what your characters are experiencing, rather than being held at arms length. They probably have an aversion to the kind of obnoxious hand-holding that telling tends to imbue on weak writing as well.


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Zero
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You may not realize it, wolfe_boy, but I think we agree on this point. That "show don't tell" really is an issue of pov.

I think "show don't tell" is sort of a misdiagnosis for "write better in pov".

The reason why more boring setting details will often appear when an amateur writer is told to "show not tell" is because "show don't tell" is a bad way of phrasing the advice.


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extrinsic
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In the tone attribute of narrative or character point of view there's dramatic meaning for a story's details, what the circumstances mean to a character or narrator.

In causation there's dramatic meaning for a story's details, what effects circumstances cause for a character.

In MICE's attributes those circumstances become dramatic objects as characters influencing a viewpoint character's conversations, actions, recollections, introspections, sensations, and emotions.

[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited September 30, 2009).]


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HuntGod
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Show don't tell is lazy advice and a polite way of telling you that the editor didn't find your work interesting enough to actually give you a useful critique.

Just being brutally honest. I've unfortunately received that response a few times myself.

That doesn't mean it's not correct advice, it just means it's really pretty useless for autopsying your work.

When you find one who actually goes into detail about where you have failed, hang onto them, even if you completely disagree, you have at least found someone who cares enough about what you have written to give it reasoned consideration. Also the advice will invariably reveal something usefull that you can carry over into another area.

I also disagree with the assumption that one style over another is inherently better or worse. Each have their place, though i would always re-examine any passages where the 'tell' seems to be greater than the 'show' to see if the balance is right, or if the scene or info wouldn't be best cut and reintroduced in another way.

I try to weave the two together, though I prefer writing in first person, so often when I find myself telling something I am actually butchering my POV :-)

Cheers...

[This message has been edited by HuntGod (edited September 30, 2009).]


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philocinemas
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It was a dark and dismal day
that I decided I would slay.

(mine - I won't worry about loss royalties)
The point is that millieu affects the character.


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Merlion-Emrys
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quote:
Showing is, flat-out, anything that the character does of his own accord.

See this is one big thing I'm having issues with. I am having trouble understanding relating the word "showing" to whether what the character is doing is of their own accord.

I'm also not sure I understand the of their own accord concept. Depending on your point of view, everything a character does is of their own accord...or everything is controlled by the author.

Also, what about things not having to do with the character at all? Setting stuff for instance or scenery. You'll probably say its showing if its as the character percieves it but that, again to me is a point of view issue.

It seems like your defining things in terms of what is being written...I think of show/tell as more about how its being written.


quote:
It is the reader experiencing the world through his eyes, ears, nose and mouth.


Ok, you say point of view has nothing to do with it, and I accept that as far as that thats how your percieving and using the terminology. However, this here is more or less exactly the definition I've been given of very close 3rd person POV. So you can see where I'm coming from in saying that to me, your using "show" to describe what most people I've interacted with call "very close 3rd person POV."


quote:
Telling is the author intervening to point out, explain, or just describe to the reader what he wants the reader to see


To me this is also POV related, as its been explained to me at least, and related to whether or not there is an invisible narrator, or the character is essentially narrating. This again, for me, is related to the distance from the characters "head" not to the concept of "showing" or "telling" as I've heard them explained.

quote:
or even to make characters say think things that are unnatural to the character.


Wouldn't that be a characterization issue?


quote:
POV has nothing to do with it


Ok. I accept that. Now I ask you to accept this: What you describe that I've quoted above that is your definition of "show" and "tell" is more or less identical in most parts to what more or less everyone I've interacted with uses as the definition of highly close 3rd person POV and a more distant 3d person POV respectively, and has little in common with what I've been told by most as regards "showing" and "telling."

Theres nothing wrong with that. You can define it however you want and there is most definitely some overlap (mostly I think because all writing concepts have some overlap in my experience.)


quote:
You also mention that you can not show someone a song. The point isn't that you can't show something intangible, but that you should show me your characters reaction to a song rather than tell me how they responded.


You misunderstood. I wasn't talking about how to do it within a story. I was talking about word definitions. The word "show" has strong visual connotations. I looked it up and among its number 1 defintion is "to have someone see something." Now it is also used more broadly as "to present something" yes. But lets say you've just painted a painting. You might say to someone "let me show you my new painting." But if you've just written a new song, you're not going to say "let me show you my new song." Because even though "show" can mean "present" in general most people when they hear "show" think of something visual.

Thats why I find it odd to use the word "show" in the way that you do, for things that have so little to do with its primary definition. And thats why in my experience most define it in it in writing as descriptive, detailed writing as oposed to more vague, declaritive writing (telling.) Same thing with the word "tell" the first definition of which is "to convey by speech"...and thats also why to me regardless of its quality or POV or whether or not its in character I consider dialogue a form of "telling" even though it can, in a broad sense "show" things about a character or situation.


quote:
I don't want to be told That song always made Sarah sad, as it reminded her of her father.. I want to see what her response was. I want to see her get a tear in her eyes, the memory of her father fixed in her minds eye as she whispered the words they both sang together. That is showing vs. telling.


Putting the definition part of the discussion aside for a moment, I've encountered folks who want exactly the oposite of what you want. They want to be "told" the thoughts and emotions not "shown" them, because for them the showing of responses is too external...they want to know explicitely, specifically what the character is thinking and/or feeling.


quote:
Yes, showing vs. telling is a stylistic choice to a certain degree. It's also a storytelling device, allowing a writer to skim past unimportant points in the plot to arrive at the scenes that drive the story forward.


Ok, but if I'm understanding how your defining the concepts, if your doing the skimming in a character consistent way, isn't it still "showing" even if its brief and perfunctory? I guess what I mean is if you define showing as anything a character is doing of their own accord, whether its being skimmed or not it'd still be showing, such as in the scene you mention with the character walking through a city. if its of his own accord its showing, right?

quote:
The second example could be inferred to both be showing - we're seeing the action through Ulric's eyes, and while the description of the first is pretty plain and prefunctory, both are reasonably being told through Ulric's POV.


So we're back to POV again. Showing is in a characters POV, telling is out of it. This seems, note I say seems, to contradict both the definition of show/tell I've always heard and the one you present above or at least your statement that its not about POV.


quote:
Again, move further in, move further back, or move to another person's POV, the description stays the same so long as it's consistent with whoever is experiencing it.


Ok...but again it seems to me that your talking about POV and about character-based narration versus invisible narrator narration, none of which, to me, has anything to do with showing or telling.

quote:
Whether or not you agree that show vs. tell is an important distinction, or whether or not it should even be something we say to writers looking for a critique, I think that this definition is not that far-out.


Well like I said, its one I've never heard before. Or rather I've never heard the definitions you give applied to showing or telling...the definitions you give are the definitions I've been given repeatedly of several other writing concepts such as certain points of view and narration types.

quote:
I think "show don't tell" is sort of a misdiagnosis for "write better in pov".


I'd say that in these cases what it is is someone saying you need to write in closer POV (of course I realize to many people closer POV="better" POV) and make it all more character-centric and "in the head" but they don't want to take the time to properly explain it.


I also think the importance factor is a biggy. I'd say many of the times I've had a scene critiqued with "do it this way so your showing it instead of telling it" whats basically going on is the person feels that scene is important and so needs to be given greater emphasis by being written in the "showing" (descriptive, detailed, dynamic) manner rather than the more perfunctory basic "telling" mode.

quote:
In general I think of showing vs telling by likening it to a movie. Showing is writing that parallels a dramatized, acted out scene. The reader hears the lines spoken, sees the gestures, actions, thoughts, etc., as they occur in time. Telling is like a voiceover narrator that summarizes events between scenes, and/or draws conclusions for the reader

This is pretty much how I see it and why I consider dialogue and thoughts to be telling...its straightforward declaritive narration no matter who's doing it, and whether its in character or of their own accord or not.

To sum up I think "show dont tell" is vague, poor and unhelpful advice and most definitely not a "rule" (in the Wikipedia article it even mentions that some big authors including OSC have said it can be tricky advice because showing is mainly for important and/or emotive scenes and events, not everything since it consumes to much time/to many words) and that its even truer if your basically using "show don't tell" to essentially mean "use close POV and stay in character" because I think when most begining writers hear "show don't tell" they hear "describe dont declare."


[This message has been edited by Merlion-Emrys (edited October 01, 2009).]

[This message has been edited by Merlion-Emrys (edited October 01, 2009).]


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MartinV
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Show vs Tell. Hm...

I don't think like that. Personally, I think about the pace of the story. If there is something I want to take my time with, I go for the show. If I'm just explaining the background, I go for the tell. Other than that, I don't think about it at all. Comes by not once going to writing workshops, I guess.


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Wolfe_boy
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Okay Merlion, let's leave the POV issues aside for a moment, and just focus on the one specific area that I think we can actually clear up.

Dialogue is, generally speaking, not telling.

A sentence like Sam was angry, and everyone around her knew it is telling.

Dialogue that specifically identifies this, that shows Sam being angry and maybe even the responses of those around her, is showing. Like this...

quote:
"God, you guys are such idiots!" Sam said.
Wolfe & Merlion looked up from their computer screens. "What are you talking about?" they asked in unison.
"You're sitting across from each other in this stupid internet cafe, arguing with each other across the internet!" Sam stood up from the workstation he was at and stormed over to where they were sitting. "I thought we were coming here to hang out!"
"We are hanging out, I thought," Wolfe said. Merlion simply shrugged his shoulders.

This is, I believe, some of the crux of show don't tell. If this scene wasn't important to the book, it could be glossed over with a quick one liner and just told to the reader. If it is important, then the characters should be allowed to show what happens to the reader.

[This message has been edited by Wolfe_boy (edited October 01, 2009).]


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dee_boncci
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Merlion-Emrys,

I suggest sticking with Kathleen's "definition" or one of the others very close to it if you are trying to grasp what the concept of show vs tell is getting at. I understand there is a variety of opinions among this group, but what Kathleen speaks of is exactly what I have encountered in any other place or context where the show vs tell strategy is discussed as it pertains to written fiction.

The other discussions are interesting in terms of characterization, artistic approach, POV, and the like, but if you are struggling to reconcile them in the show vs tell context, it's probably because this overall discussion is much broader than show vs tell.

Someone else discounted show vs tell as lazy advice. I disagree with that. "Showing" is one of the most effective tools a writer has to put life into their stories and engage a reader. Telling is often conveying an idea, something abstract. ("She was scared"). Showing gives the reader the "data" to form opinions, conclusions, and emotions. It's great advice. Admittedly, the phrase is an abbreviation, but it refers to a demonstratable and powerful concept in writing.

[This message has been edited by dee_boncci (edited October 01, 2009).]


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Merlion-Emrys
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Sorry I haven't been keeping up on this I got a little busy.

Wolfe_boy:


So if I understand what your saying about dialogue is that its not "telling" because it is or can be part of a complete, fully realized "scene" as oposed to just a statement. I can certainly see that point of view.

The reason I call it telling is because of the actual base meaning of the word tell which is basically to convey something with speech (or by extension words.) Dialogue, generally, doesn't describe anything and has no visual cues, it is direct declaritive (or interrogative or exclamatory) sentences.


For me in situations like your example there, the actions are "showing" and the dialogue is more or less "telling."

Truthfully in the end though I think dialogue is to some extent a seperate thing and largely outside of the show/tell concept in most forms of it I've encountered.

quote:
This is, I believe, some of the crux of show don't tell. If this scene wasn't important to the book, it could be glossed over with a quick one liner and just told to the reader.


Yeah, thats basically what I've been saying all along. Telling is un-detailed and un-descreptive, showing is descritptive and detailed.

quote:
If it is important, then the characters should be allowed to show what happens to the reader.


See this I think is where we differ. To me, "showing" is not necessarily an inhrently character centric concept. Often times it does involve characters since a lot of what gets (and needs to be) "shown" descrepitively is action...whether it be combat, escapes, some types of travel situations and the like. But whether say an action scene is being done in a manner consistent with the POV character (if there is one) is a POV and/or characterization issue, not a "show VS tell" issue. If the events are being described in an in-depth, detailed cinematic manner I consider it showing.


Then of course theres the issue of emotions and thoughts...and both what constitutes "showing" or "telling" of them...and which one "should" be used for them. I've frequently tried to convey emotion in ways that some criticised as "telling" but others loved and likewise I've tried to "show" emotion through action and expression and had some like it but others dislike it because to them it's too external...they want to be "told" what the character is thinking and feeling, unambigiously.


quote:
I suggest sticking with Kathleen's "definition" or one of the others very close to it if you are trying to grasp what the concept of show vs tell is getting at.


I'm not. I know what most people seem to mean by it. This last bit of conversation has been me trying to understand Wolfe_boy's particular take on it, which I've never really encountered before.

Basically, "show VS tell" is "getting at" any number of things based on who is using the phrase.


quote:
I understand there is a variety of opinions among this group, but what Kathleen speaks of is exactly what I have encountered in any other place or context where the show vs tell strategy is discussed as it pertains to written fiction.


Yeah I'd say the "declaritive VS descrpitive" and/or "detailed versus un-detailed" is/are probably the most common definition(s) overall. However...

quote:
Someone else discounted show vs tell as lazy advice. I disagree with that. "Showing" is one of the most effective tools a writer has to put life into their stories and engage a reader. Telling is often conveying an idea, something abstract. ("She was scared"). Showing gives the reader the "data" to form opinions, conclusions, and emotions. It's great advice. Admittedly, the phrase is an abbreviation, but it refers to a demonstratable and powerful concept in writing.


Well...no. It kinda doesn't. Because while some definitions may be more common there are still enough different ones...and nuances even of the common ones that the phrase "show don't tell" by itself as some general axiom is still not that helpful. Even as mentioned in the wikipedia article many established writers have said its tricky because you cant and shouldn't "show" everything. Just the three words "show don't tell" indicate you should be showing everything and thats just not accurate.

I think in the end just the phrase "show don't tell" by itself winds up being grandly unhelpful because it basically winds up trying to condense several relatively complex and very subjective concepts into three words.


Obviously there are some issues since the OP didn't really know what the editor that said it to him meant. Thats why I'm not usually real big on quick short hand phrases and the like, they are fast but often cause a lot of confusion and misunderstanding.


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dee_boncci
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M.E.,

To me "show" and "tell" in the context of fiction writing are relatively straightforward concepts. The art of applying and selecting between the two approaches: when and how much (in a sense they are two ends of a continuum), is obviously another matter. If I was advised, "show, don't tell," regarding a particular piece of writing, and decided to follow it, I would have a substantially clear picture of what kinds of things to look for and ideas for how to change them.

You appear to have have certain concepts associated with those two words. I have one that I use; and apparently there is too much difference there for us to engage in any meaningful discussion on the topic. Sorry about that. Good luck with your writing endeavors!


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Wolfe_boy
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quote:
apparently there is too much difference there for us to engage in any meaningful discussion on the topic.

I have similar thoughts.


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