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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » "Show, don't Tell" Let's abolish this abusive mantra!

   
Author Topic: "Show, don't Tell" Let's abolish this abusive mantra!
asherahpole
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The "show, don't tell" mantra is the most abused piece of advice foisted upon the shoulders of aspiring writers. Wayne C. Booth in his THE RHETORIC OF FICTION long ago exploded the myth once and for all, but others seem to think that this singularly misguided piece of advice actually helps writers write. It does not, and should be abolished. It makes sense for screenwriters, since they do not have the technique of "exposition" as an available tool in the cinematic medium. But this is not true for short story writers and novelists.

What do you think? Shall we abolish it?


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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If you take "show, don't tell" to mean "go into more detail on the important stuff and don't summarize it" then it certainly shouldn't be abolished.
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JBShearer
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I felt the same way about the "write every day" mantra. The problem isn't with the idea, it's with the application.

Show don't tell- another thread deals thoroughly with the problems of this. BUT, once you understand what people mean by it, it becomes an invaluable tool for editing/writing content. No one can tell anyone else how to write. Any instruction given will be taken a different way - communication isn't perfect. But once you understand the premise, after making your mistakes, I believe that you will find this valuable advice.

I'll just say, I'd heard "write every day" a million times. I was so fed up with the pompous attitude of people who said this. Really, if you only write a little bit every day, you'll never understand.


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Survivor
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I think the problem is that "show don't tell" doens't have a clear definition.

For certain forms of fiction, it means having an actor wiggle his brows to call attention to his manly profile. For others, it means using fragmented grammer and strange forms of consonance, dissonance, and evocative groupings of phonemes detached from conventional dictionary meanings.

And for some, it means writing in character POV

The problem is that when you just say "show don't tell" your target probably has no idea what you mean...otherwise, you wouldn't be giving that advice. Furthermore, you have no idea which meanings your target will already know...or even whether the author you're critiquing has ever had that phrase defined in a helpful way.

As far as I can tell, the only use for "show don't tell" is to demonstrate that the particular advice you're offering is a well worn truism. But since you can use it to mean essentially opposite things...that isn't very useful to the writer.


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asherahpole
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The problem of definition is getting a bit closer to the heart of the problem. What Wayne C. Booth was getting at in THE RHETORIC OF FICTION is that "showing" can become "expository telling" and "expository telling" can become “showing.” Booth sort of deconstructs the pair of definitions informing "show, don't tell."

What is the purpose of "showing"? To make writing more vivid. But the narratives of Scripture, for example, are devoid of dramatizations and depictions of individual characterizations, yet they are no less vivid.

And there are dramatizations that are perhaps rather dull, obscure, and forgettable.

The second problem with the "show, don't tell" mantra is that it does not take into account the needs of the story. Back story, for example, is usually not dramatized, and for a good reason. Most stories need to put back story in its proper place, and that’s is through “telling.”


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Lord Darkstorm
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I think the point of the phrase is to get new writers to get into the POV. I know that when I first started I was doing exactly what now makes me cringe when reading it. I think a more important phrase over "show don't tell" is "keep reading". Even though I do not actually "study" a whole book for how the author put it together, I do analyze it after I'm done.

I think one of the writing books explained that telling was fine, as long as you did not overkill it. Most of the examples showed brief lines of "telling" intermingled with the "showing". I thought that concept was a good one. Since I have attempted to work my stories the same way, I think that in itself helped my writing quite a bit.

LDS


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Khyber
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heh, the truth is that all of us here have the luxury of understanding the various applications of show, dont tell, whereas new writers won't =P so, while we would defend it because we can understand it, new writers may get lost in their own search for its meaning
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asherahpole
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If the mantra "show, don't tell" is fundamentally flawed, as it is, then its use as an editorial device is useless, perhaps even harmful, for a new writer as well as for a veteran.

In place of this misleading mantra, a better one is to write vividly, with detail and care.

[This message has been edited by asherahpole (edited February 29, 2004).]


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JBShearer
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I think "write vividly, with detail and care" is just as dangerous to provoke over-imagery as "show don't tell" without the benefit of curtailing unnecessary exposition.

The point isn't to create an adjective overladen work of pure description. I believe that the point is to write so that the reader feels the emotions for the character, instead of having the emotions handed to him/her.


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wetwilly
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How on Earth do people confuse "Show don't tell" with "use lots of flowery adjectives that bury the meaning of your story in sweet-smelling bullcrap, so you have to wade through the stuff just to figure out what the hell is going on?" The two concepts aren't in any way connected, not even a little bit.

Now, the title of this post seems to be pretty ridiculous to me. Abolish "show don't tell?" I believe the problem with "show don't tell" is that it's used as a blanket statement that high-school writing teachers say ten times a lesson. People seem to think that "show don't tell" is ALWAYS the way to go, which is ridiculous. Sometimes you have to tell. That's why we TELL stories instead of SHOWING them. Of course showing isn't always better than showing. Sometimes (and very often) "show don't tell" is what you need, though. Saying we should abolish the phrase is just as silly as saying we should always use it in every instance.

Just like every other tool we writers have, sometimes it's the right tool, and sometimes it's not. Sometimes you need a hammer, but if you try to use it when a saw is needed you're not going to get anywhere.


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srhowen
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Many many concepts are not understood by those not using them--pretty obvious because if they understood they would not be doing it wrong.

Show don't tell is a big one.

Writers will say but I am showing. They have lots of words like John was angry, volcano angry, black storm sky angry etc.

I like to give an example of Show don't Tell that makes it pretty easy to understand.

Say you and your best friends are watching the super bowl. By some stroke of luck your underdog team is in the game--you are cheering for them. You've eaten junk food and sucked sodas all day--and you have to GO. (you know GO)

You run out of the room and hit the bathroom only to hear wild yelling and screaming from the other room. You finish as quick as you can and run back out.

"What happened?" you scream, looking at your friends now sitting quietly on the couch.

"Oh, (favorite player) just scored the winning touch down."

There is no instant replay. You missed it. All you have is what you are told--that winning touch down happened and you missed it.

Don't make your reader miss out on the action. Being told the touch down happened and who did it--hey that's great, but you wanted to see it happen.

We can tell the reader what happens--but they want to see it as it happens so they are part of it. No that doesn't mean you add a mess of adjectives to your writing that means you take the reader there.

We can say bill went to work and on the way there he had an accident. Or we can follow Bill as he gets in his car and takes off down the street, -- we can hear the screeching breaks and crunching glass etc--or just be told about it.

Shawn


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Survivor
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Okay, I would like to point out at this point that because we are writers rather than videographers, that example made no sense whatsoever.

I'll stick with my original contention, that the advice is unclear and overused. Half the time when I see someone use this about someone's work I'm pretty sure the person offering the advice has no idea what it means either.


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wetwilly
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I'll agree with you on that, Survivor. The advice is given a lot by people who don't understand it at all (ie people who think the fact that they read a composition book in college qualifies them to teach a writing class). That doesn't mean that the advice is invalid and without useful application. It just means we need to understand the concept and how to use it well before we start prescribing it as the miracle drug that will fix all literary ills.

By the way, I thought Shawn's example was a good illustration of "show don't tell."


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EricJamesStone
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For almost two years, off and on, I've been taking an online creative writing class from Caleb Warnock. Fairly early on, he would frequently make comments on my writing that I needed to "show, not tell." After some frustration in trying to figure out just what that mantra meant, I wrote the following:

quote:
Once upon a time in Georgia there was a man named Caleb who owned a peanut farm and an auto repair shop. He got very little sleep, as managing each of those businesses was a full-time job in itself. Fortunately, he didn't have to commute much, because the peanut farm was right next to the auto repair shop, and his house was right across the street.

Unfortunately, the close proximity meant that the employees of his separate businesses would fraternize with each other, often leaving the place they were supposed to be in order to spend time with their friends. One day, for example, he found that one of his farm hands was in the auto shop, performing an oil change with one of his mechanic buddies.

But the final straw came one day when he found his tow truck driver, Eric, over on the farm removing peanuts from their shells for the third time in a week.

"Eric," he said, "I must have told you this a hundred times. You need to tow, not shell!"


::ducks and runs for cover::

[This message has been edited by EricJamesStone (edited March 01, 2004).]


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punahougirl84
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HAHA! I must thank EJS - because of him I started taking Caleb's classes (am finishing the third one this week) and actually finished one of my stories, including rewrites. We have a "crafting" exercise every week that is often in the format of "show, don't tell." As a beginning fiction writer, I really appreciated the way Caleb explained the term and used examples that made a difference. I know my writing is better for trying to show that someone is sad as opposed to just saying they are sad. It was hard work, but now it actually makes writing more exciting to me. On the other hand, I do have some exposition in my current story, in the form of inner dialogue. It is not out of place, but it is telling.

I think the use of "show, don't tell" is really helpful to those of us who have done lots of non-fiction/essay/narrative writing and are now trying fiction. It is a new way of writing, and really gets me to visualize the character or scene, to feel the details. I then decide - should I tell, or would showing be better? As with many things, the truth is a compromise. I suspect this grew out of concern over writing that was all telling and no showing.

The phrase has helped me with my writing, and is not a mantra, but a suggestion. Look, Lee, at what you are trying to say. Do you need to tell the reader, or could you show and let the reader figure it out - experience it? I've enjoyed learning to show, but I find I use telling in moderation too.

(P.S. - a girl in our class was dinged by Caleb regarding cliches regarding certain animals witches often had - so for a while she changed the animal and named it Caleb!)

[This message has been edited by punahougirl84 (edited March 01, 2004).]


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Survivor
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Hah! That is actually a good pun. Especially if you submitted it.
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EricJamesStone
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Yes, I submitted it. He liked it.

I suppose I should comment more seriously on this subject.

I got very frustrated by this advice, because in a way it makes no sense. Since we are writing, we are telling the reader something, not showing it (unless we happen to be talking about a certain arrangement of characters.)

I finally felt like I understood the concept when I looked at it this way: "Showing" is really just indirect "telling."

Let me explain what I mean by that. As you are writing a scene (and the "Show, don't tell" mantra applies only to scenes, not to transitions between scenes), there are certain impressions you want your readers to have about what's happening. Rather than telling them what impressions they should get, you tell them something that will give them that impression.

For example, if it's important to your scene that your character George is exhausted, you could just tell the reader:

George was exhausted.

But your readers will still get that idea, and will also have a better picture of the scene, if you tell them:

George stood on the side of the road, resting his hands on his hips as he panted for breath.

Now, be careful that you don't start applying this rule recursively, unless you really think it's important to show more detail about something. What I mean is, don't feel that you have to "show" something that you are already using to "show" something else. For example, you don't need to go into detail about how George panted, showing us how his mouth was open, etc.

So, to sum up my interpretation: In scenes, show details that will give the readers the impression you want, instead of telling the readers directly what you want them to think.

[This message has been edited by EricJamesStone (edited March 01, 2004).]


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srhowen
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Just for the record I have never had a problem with "show don't tell," so the accusation that I do not know how to use the concept and that's why I am giving examples is more than annoying.

Writing commercial fiction does need an element of the cinematic. Let your characters "act" out the things they do with some details when it advances the story--then let the readers draw the conclusions. He was mad, crazy, tired, whatever.

You can say: It was morning, Sam didn't want to get up. (we have the info Sam doesn't want to get up, we can even guess he was too tired to get up, and we know it is morning. We are given what we need.)

But saying, Sun light burst over the horizon and into Sam's bedroom. Sam groaned and pulled the blanket over his head and went back to sleep. (same info, but we are shown the events as they happen and the reader is allowed to share the experience (which was the point of the example) with Sam and to feel things through the character)

Shawn


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Alias
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quote:
If you take "show, don't tell" to mean "go into more detail on the important stuff and don't summarize it" then it certainly shouldn't be abolished.

I don't think "going into more detail" is necessarily something to seek.

Quite personally, if you are writing within a strong POV, then detail should only be given when it has a purpose. Otherwise it destroys flow.


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Fire-Bringer
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For Survivor:

Normally I think arguing on these boards is so much pointless ego-stroking, but in this case I think you are way off on trashing Shawn's example the way you did, and an apology to her is in order. Regardless of what you may have meant, what you said is rude, and I just don't see how that's necessary on this board (or any other).

Besides, her example is completely valid, and be it videographer or scribe, the job's the same while the media is different: relate what happened.

My question for you is this: What rationale are you using to dismiss her out of hand? I just don't see it.

-F


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Survivor
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Because her example was useless.

I simply do not have the option (as a writer) of having a scene visually recreated in my book as though the reader were watching it on TV.

As Eric says, writers must tell, they cannot literally show the reader anything.

I am sorry if anyone found this statement of obvious fact offensive. Go live in some other universe if the facts of this one offend you.

There, did you like my apology?

Then don't get snippy next time

Look all joking aside, the example of actually seeing it on TV as opposed to having someone tell you what happened really is useless to writers. Sure, if I'm a cameraman, then it make obvious sense. Show the main action, don't show us some guy telling the audience what the main action was.

But really, how often do you see this trick in writing? Other than cases where the POV character is blind or wasn't present for the action (in which cases "showing" would violate POV--in which case why was that character the POV?), how often do you come across examples of another character sitting there telling the POV character what physical action is going on around them?


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wetwilly
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Survivor, that is so obviously not what was meant by anybody when they said "show don't tell" that I can't believe you would even be pursuing that line of logic. Obviously a book is all telling because it's words, and a movie is all showing because it's moving pictures, but that has absolutely nothing to do with the discussion. Showing is not referring to literally putting a visual image before your eyes, and telling is not refering to relating words. What "show don't tell" means has been explained so often in this thread that I'm not going to be redundant and explain it again, but if you go back and read the previous posts again, hopefully you'll get a better understanding of what Shawn meant, because her advice was valid, and very many writers could benefit from it.
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srhowen
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No where did I say make it like a TV show--the point is that when you miss the action in the story, and only are told what the character feels or how he reacts instead of seeing (living in the characters skin) it --then you are telling vs showing.

Useless argument. I do know what I am talking about. And I have helped many people understand the concept. If you look at the example and say oh dumb, like am I going to make it like we are watching TV--NOT! then you missed the point.

The point is that you need to have the reader see the character and interpret and experience with the character rather than being told what you should be feeling. I don't feel angry if the writer tells me--John was angry. If the writer shows me why John is angry, his wife was killed by a gang of thugs--then I will be angry with John and be more into the character.

That was why the TV game example--you can't feel the same about an event you didn't experience first hand but were just told about.

IT HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH THE READER READING IT LIKE WATCHING IT ON TV.

Sheesh.

And I will tell you one of the reasons I have an agent is because my writing is cinematic--the reader experiences the story. Get over the short story of mine you read and were offended by. Or the green monster or whatever it is that drives you to attack others in a rude way.

Shawn


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asherahpole
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What W.C. Booth demonstrated in THE RHETORIC OF FICTION was that the distinction of showing versus telling does not hold up on close inspection.

So, if the distinction between showing and telling breaks down on a fundamental level, then it’s useless as writing advice and needs to be placed in its proper context.

There are, to my mind, only two reasons to obey the rule “show, don’t tell”: One, in screenwriting, due to its special medium; Two, in the case of specifying a particular market.

Henry James was the novelist who got us to think about focusing on dramatic scenes to tell the story as opposed to narrative exposition. James is noted for introducing a cinematic technique into the novel. That technique also affects publishing venues.

But what’s key here is that a writer must know how to use showing and telling for the general good of the story.

Bottom line: the rule “show, don’t tell” has been deconstructed, and we need to move on to more fruitful endeavors.


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Survivor
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Okay, fine, you didn't mean what you actually happened to have said. It happens all the time.

I'm not saying that you meant anything by the "watch it on TV as opposed to have somebody tell you what happened" example you gave. I'm saying that the example didn't help explain the concept at all from a writers perspective.

I'll go back to my first post.

quote:
I think the problem is that "show don't tell" doens't have a clear definition.
For certain forms of fiction, it means having an actor wiggle his brows to call attention to his manly profile. For others, it means using fragmented grammer and strange forms of consonance, dissonance, and evocative groupings of phonemes detached from conventional dictionary meanings.

And for some, it means writing in character POV

The problem is that when you just say "show don't tell" your target probably has no idea what you mean...otherwise, you wouldn't be giving that advice. Furthermore, you have no idea which meanings your target will already know...or even whether the author you're critiquing has ever had that phrase defined in a helpful way.


And there are plenty of other definitions. Some people think that it means violating character POV to 'show' what the character's appearance. Others think that it means immersing the reader in the character's POV, thus 'showing' how that character sees the story. Still others don't think it has anything to do with POV, that certain words are 'showing' and other words are 'telling'.

At least SR's second example (the one with Sam) was usable as an example of two ways of writing a scene.

quote:
the reader is allowed to share the experience...with Sam and to feel things through the character

I would have simply said, "write in character POV." Or words to that effect. But many people don't consider this "showing".

All the same, I never simply state "show don't tell" without supplying a specific definition (not just an example, a definition which can be used to determine whether any particular line is "show" or "tell") of what I mean. I usually only bother saying "this is what is meant by 'show don't tell'" if the writer has expressed a desire to know what that phrase means and how to apply it.

And your intimation that I'm envious of you is somewhat sad. Unless you mean that there was a green monster in some story of yours that I've supposedly read. I don't know whether I've ever read any of your stories, but trust me, I can disagree with someone without feeling personal rancor.


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Fire-Bringer
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Well, I guess there's just no accounting for manners from some people.

I was trying to be nice. Apparently you didn't notice. I'll make myself more clear. I'll make sure I tell you, because your limited imagination has no room for descriptive imagery.

Facts do not offend me. Your manner of speaking and writing to people offends me. Your sense of humor offends me, and I do not think I am alone in this camp.

There are two conclusions I can draw from this exchange with you. First is the possibility that you truly mean no offense by the tripe you throw up on this message board - not only in this thread but on all the others in which you put up a long message full of opinionated stuff - messages to which no one responds because it is clearly useless to attempt any sort of conversation with you.

The second conclusion is that you know and understand full well what you say and how you say it, and have some sick fascination with guaging others' responses to your garbage. If this is the case, then you are an ass, and there are no two ways about it.

You call yourself a writer. If you truly are, I doubt you'd be so careless with your words as to allow yourself to fall under the first category. Perhaps I am wrong about that, but if I am not, you have no excuse for your conduct. And if that was an apology, to me or to Shawn, it is decidedly lacking on all counts.


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Hildy9595
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Backing away slowly from the angry people...

I actually have a question related to the topic. One of the problems I have run into is not falling into too much "telling" when writing short, or especially short-short stories. It seems that the more I try to "show," the longer the piece gets, until it's just galloping out of control away from the word count limit.

I'd love some advice from others who write short or short-shorts as to how they keep their length reigned in without lapsing into entirely "telling" stories. Thanks in advance!


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Survivor
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If you're writing a short story, write it about a short story subject. Don't have a lot of scenes, don't have a cast of thousands, don't cover a thousand years of history unless you're satisfied with a story that's pure telling.

If the subject of the story is a single scene between a few 'flat' (not cardboard) characters, with perhaps one character that develops in the final 'twist' of the story, then your story can easily remain quite short.


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wetwilly
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Survivor, I dislike you personally. I think you are a horrible person.

Dude, chill out, I was just joking. Am I the only one who thinks its faintly ridiculous that people are taking this crap as a personal attack? I disagree with Survivor about the whole show don't tell thing, but I'm not going to take it as a personal attack if he tells me something I just said is a load of B.S. Getting pissed off about somebody's sense of humor is a bit silly. Sense of humor=joke=didn't mean anything by it.

Hildy, let me see if I can contribute anything that will help you. Show don't tell doesn't have anything to do with being more wordy. Actually (even though I'm in the "show-don't-tell-is-good camp) if it's giving you that much trouble, you might be better off not worrying about it for right now, at least not until you have a good understanding of what it really means. It basically refers to showing a character's behavior and letting the reader infer the motivation, instead of just telling the motivation.

Jill was scared--tell
Jill trembled--show her fear
Jill trembled in fear--showing AND telling

not the best examples, but hopefully they at least help explain. Note that the showing example was actually the SHORTEST of the three. That won't always be the case, but it just shows that you can sometimes show with less words than you can tell. Sometimes.


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Survivor
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Well, I detest wet-willies, I think they're unsanitary and disgusting. And they display a juvenile sense of humor.

I'm sort of kidding in that I only mention this for purposes of funning around. But I'm not kidding in the sense that no one should imagine I'm going to like a wet-willy.

Anyway, here we have another classic demonstration of how various people mean different things by "show don't tell". The description of behavior as opposed to description of emotional state is only one possible definition (and hardly the best one, in my book). There are a lot of behavior descriptors that don't tell the reader anything about what the character is feeling, and any number of ways to explore the POV character's feelings that are more powerful than telling what actions the character performs.

Sometimes "showing" means vivid descriptions of scene, sometimes a description of the scene is just "telling". Sometimes character actions are "showing", just as often they are simply "telling". The phrase is just too murky, when you try to define it, everybody turns out to have a different definition...and half the time the definition is, "when I like it, it's showing, when I don't, it's telling."


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wetwilly
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You know what, Survivor? You'ver almost convinced me that it's a dumb phrase. Maybe people should just drop it and actually describe the concept they're talking about if it causes this much confusion. Regardless of which parties are right or wrong, if it cause this much confusion, then the phrase is probably more trouble than its worth. Okay, I've been converted to the abolishment camp. Not because "show don't tell" isn't valid advice in the right situation, but because, damn it, if I'm going to have to debate the meaning of it every time I want to say it, then it's not worth it.

A worthy foe well met, sir. I concede the point.


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Survivor
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Wait just a second there! You started out agreeing with me, you wretch!

I think you're just trying to double collect on the new sign-up bonus.


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asherahpole
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The rather heated debate generated by the issue of "show, don't tell" in terms of its very definition testifies to the fact that the distinction is deconstructed, exploded even. You're all correct in your various and contradictory definitions, so the very concept is flawed. You can't have a viable concept without a clear definition.

That's why you should banish it from your writing. That's all I'm saying. Read Booth's THE RHETORIC OF FICTION, and you will never worry about this issue again.

[This message has been edited by asherahpole (edited March 04, 2004).]


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wetwilly
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Dude, Survivor, why you been acting so messed up towards me? You called me a wretch, and I felt like that really hurt.

Okay, then, I guess I agree with you again. I'm definitely convinced that I disagreed with you at some point on some pretty key issues. The main one being my anti-abolishment stance on the show don't tell issue, which is the issue concerning which I changed sides. I'm now pro-abolishment.


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Survivor
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Oh...well in that case we are disagreeing, because I was never 'pro-abolishment' on the issue. I think I would tend to say that is is advice that should only be given and taken with a prescription from some kind of licensed professional, as part of an overall treatment program

I'm sorry to be so messed up, man (and don't get on my case if it so happens that you are not a man and I failed to pick up on that). I rather thought you were trying to mess me up, since I couldn't clearly see how we'd disagreed on anything.

But now I have a new disagreement with everyone. This is not a black and white argument. "Show don't tell" can often be (and usually is) essentially worthless or even harmful advice even to someone that really needs to do something that could be reasonably described as "show don't tell". On the other hand, carefully used, it can help novice writers a lot, and serve as a reminder to non-novices.

I don't see going to either extreme as being a useful answer. The phrase isn't a panacea, nor it is utterly evil.

To be fair, when I read this discussion, that's what I see most people saying. Even asherahpole (by the way, does that name mean anything like what it looks like it mean?) with the mantra of abolishment and SR who thought it might be useful to demonstrate the literal meaning of the phrase...they don't seem to radically disagree on the problem itself, which is that "show don't tell" isn't perfectly defined.

And they don't seem to disagree with my solution, which is that it shouldn't be used as an undefined bit of advice.

Unfortunately, some people simply disagree with me...not what I actually say, nor the particular words with which I say it, nor even the particular order in which I put those words in order to say what I say when I say anything at all (which I am doing at the moment, though I admit I'm using a lot of words to do it).

But what can I say? If your disagreement is with me personally and not what I say, well then I offer only the fact that I'm not personally present when you happen to see my words (which, having been put into the public domain, are only mine in the most theoretical way), and thus that personal disagreement need not be an issue.

And I think we can all agree on that (and even if we can't, hopefully we are all too bamboozled to mention it )


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wetwilly
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This is, without a doubt, the most confusing debate I've ever been in.

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Kolona
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All we need is the Mad Hatter.
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Survivor
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:evil:

Honestly though, I really didn't mean for this to happen. It was in my mind that we were all coming to some kind of consensus. I blame asherahpole.


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