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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » show versus tell -- why?

   
Author Topic: show versus tell -- why?
arriki
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We all agree that showing is better than telling. Probably we all realize that you can't "show" every happening in a story. You have to resort to "telling" some or the story would be too long.

What I'm wondering is why showing is better than telling. I have my own idea that I mentioned on another thread, but what do you guys think is the difference and reason for valuing show over tell?


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Aalanya
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Telling holds the reader at a distance from the story. Showing involves the reader a lot more. If you're showing, the reader feels like he or she is part of the story--seeing, feeling, speaking.
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Zoot
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It's funny, I was thinking the same thing the other day. Why show and not tell exactly?

It leaves all the hard work to the reader, perhaps?

I thought maybe showing is also a more subtle and evocative way of painting a picture in the readers head, less obvious than just stating facts or whatever. More artistic.

Having said that, it depends on the subject matter right?
Sometimes telling is better suited to a particular piece than showing.

Both have a role to play I think.

[This message has been edited by Zoot (edited March 09, 2006).]

[This message has been edited by Zoot (edited March 09, 2006).]

[This message has been edited by Zoot (edited March 09, 2006).]

[This message has been edited by Zoot (edited March 09, 2006).]


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Christine
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Telling:

When Jenny finally had enough, she went to the hardware store in a driving rainstorm, bought an axe, then returned home to chop her husband to bits.

Showing:

Jenny stumbled backwards under the weight of David's fists.

"Slut!" he roared. "Bitch!"

She fell backwards, striking her head against the coffee table. "Stop, please!" Her head stung, but no worse than it had at any other time. She felt hot tears on her face.

"What am I going to do with you?" David roared, but he did not hit her again. He strode up the stairs two at a time and went into their bedroom.

Jenny lay there on the floor for a minute longer, feeling sorry for herself, but this time she felt another emotion brimming at the back of her conscioussness: anger. She touched the spot at the back fo her head where David had pushed her into the coffee table. Dampness. She looked at her fingers and saw blood there. He had never drawn blood before.

"That is," Jenny murmured under her breath. She grabbed her car keys and went outside, scarcely aware of her disshevelled hair or the driving rainstorm. She had no idea where she was going or what she would do when she got there, but she knew she had to go.

It surprised her when she pulled up to the Ace hardware store on the corner. She should probably go to the police or maybe even a hospital, but she could not get the car to drive any further. It had stopped here, and here she would go.

The axes were right out in front, in a seasonal display along with fireplace pokers and lighter fluid....


#


So yeah, it does take MUCH longer but as you can see (I hope) one is a story, the other is a thing that happened. That's the difference between showing and telling, plain and simple. That doesn't mean there aren't parts you can't just spit out and say (especially things that are of minor importance...some peopl eare better at figuring out which are which than others) but basically, show it to me.

In the example above, if this is the crux of the story you're going to tell you'd better show it. If Jenny is a minor character, for example, and all we need to know about her is her husband beat her and she killed him than the telling version may be enough.

[This message has been edited by Christine (edited March 09, 2006).]


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Beth
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telling is boring. You don't want the important bits of your story to be boring, usually.

There are times when you need to summarize (tell) something that happened so that you can get back to showing the important parts.

Christine's example is a good one.

[This message has been edited by Beth (edited March 09, 2006).]


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Elan
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Showing is a close-up look, telling is a wide-lens panoramic view. Both are useful tools and should be used at the appropriate times.

The problem is knowing which lens to use. When you seek the nitty-gritty detail, the emotional texture and flavor of your story, you need to show. Telling is a tool when you need some distance to summarize and zip along at a faster pace.

[This message has been edited by Elan (edited March 09, 2006).]


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ethersong
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The great thing about showing is that it does the same thing as telling but also moves the plot along, gets you to know the characters, allows you to be more artistic, and actually...write.

This is especially important at the beginning of a story because you have to give us some reason to care about the story. Setup is only half the battle of the first 13 lines--in fact I'd go so far as to say that set up is not even necessary. All you need is something interesting and a character that I can begin to imagine. But telling does neither of these things.


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pantros
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Pure Economics.

I can tell the same story in 2 pages that I can write in 350 by showing.

Would you pay $7.99 for a 2 page story that you will read in 20 seconds?


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JohnArden
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The difference is this:

He bit the large hunk of watermelon.

He hoisted the large unk of watermelon in his five-year-old hands, and his eyes widened with wonderment. He had never seen a piece so big. He plunged his mouth into the reddest-looking part of the slice's peak, salivating with anticipation of the summer-soaked sweetness of the first cool, wet bite. he bit a hunk, and the sweet, translucent, pink juice squirted from a corner of his mouth, glinting in the sunlight. Some trailed down his arm and dripped onto his thigh. the coolness of it was welcome; it was the hottest day of summer yet.


Which bite excites the senses more? The more often you excite someone's senses, whether subtly or blatantly, the more intimately connected they will feel with what you are trying to share with them.


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Silver3
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"Showing" is not better than "telling". It's just more suitable to some situations, particularly climaxes.

Christine has nailed the point pretty accurately. I'll just add that I don't want you to "show" your MC buying food unless the food turns out to be crucial. You can "tell" that, and we'll both be happier.


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paraworlds
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I find myself going bonkers sometimes reading two pages about how someone is just about to push a button. Push the dang button already! I'm probably not as patient as most others. I like the showing but not when it bloats the book to the point that there really isn't much of a story behind all that showing.

Telling is good when you want to condense a situation or share information without making your characters do dumb things. But then you could get into info dumping and that's another story all together.

Sometimes people just sit and talk. They don't knock their hand to their face or gasp when they get an idea. I find it laughable that in some books the characters have to be continually doing some sort of action with every single line of dialog. This especially bugs me when I'm not too interested in the topic of conversation. I just want it to end, but nope, I have to wade through five pages of "showing" for the author to get a one-sentence idea across. I must be weird. Maybe, but I think it deals more with patience. High action movies have ruined me.

Telling is boring. I agree. But a two-page, detailed travel log of walking from one side of the room to the next is even more boring...and irritating.

My opinion is to show, but remember to not overdo it.


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AstroStewart
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It's true that people don't constantly move about while talking, but assuming the author only delves into dialogue when what is being said is significant, I would suspect that, whoever the POV character is, his thoughts about what's being said will not be at a standstill. After all, if you find out something important, or debate ideas or courses of action with someone else (or any other kind of important dialogue) I doubt you'll just stand there talking like a floating head, without any kinds of body language or internal dialogue.

It's true though, sometimes I think authors show a little more than they should. I, especially, get annoyed at descriptions. Just tell me the MC is sitting at a table. You don't have to describe the stains on the table, or the kind of wood used, or the texture, or the grain, or a chip on the corner of table. Unless the exact nature of the table is of importance to the story, don't bother.


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Christine
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I think we're now confusing showing with description, especially unnecessary description. We've talked about relevant description around here many times and, IMHO, it's a separate issue. I can show you a character pushing a button without spending two pagse on it.


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paraworlds
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The watermelon example someone gave earlier in this thread is a good example of what I'm talking about. The scene by itself is good. But if the boy then reaches for a slice of pie and we get another paragraph of his first bite, and then he reaches for a drink . . . and then . . . and then . . .

The watermelon is fun, but a detailed log of each bite and morsel of food he takes is not fun. It's fine to eventually say, “He finished his meal . . .” without showing how he finished his meal.

I think another thing that is helpful is to write your sentences with active verbs, instead of passive ones (i.e. be, to be, am, is, was, were, are, or been). Then your writing will tend to show more than tell. “He was happy” compared to “A feeling of bliss engulfed his soul and forced the corner of his lips to curve into a smile.” In the first sentence, I’m telling you that he’s happy. In the second sentence I’m showing his happiness without actually saying he’s happy.

For those of you interested in learning more about active/passive verbs, go to these websites:
http://owl.english.purdue.edu/handouts/grammar/g_actpass.html
http://www.onestopenglish.com/Grammar/Reference/Passive/passive6.htm
http://www.englishpage.com/verbpage/pastcontinuous.html


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Silver3
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"to be" is NOT a passive verb !

Sorry, that one always gets my hair up.

There's nothing passive about "He was a tall man." Sure, it's a bit bland, but that's not the issue here.

"He was run over by a car" is passive.

Sorry, I've contributed to derailing the thread.


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wbriggs
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Right. "Show don't tell" is a bad rule, and impossible to follow. OSC says, "Show what needs to be shown, and tell what needs to be told." The part that needs to be shown is the interesting part; the part that needs to be told, so we can get through it quickly, is the dull part.
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Silver3
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quote:
"Show what needs to be shown, and tell what needs to be told."

This is gonna be my official motto

But, yes, it's one of the worst writing rules ever devised, mostly because it leaves so many things out.


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paraworlds
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I agree Silver3. I should have done a better example. I was trying to show the difference between showing and telling and how passive words help contribute to the problem. You'll notice that the other two web links I included talk about the exceptions to the passive verb rule. I kept getting critiques from people who said I needed to get rid of every single "was" and "were" in my book. Then I found those two weblinks and realized that the critiquers were misinformed about passive verbs.

In a nutshell, there is a phrase called "past continuous" that throws the "was/were" rule out the window. Example: "They were playing music" is not passive.

http://owl.english.purdue.edu/handouts/grammar/g_actpass.html
http://www.onestopenglish.com/Grammar/Reference/Passive/passive6.htm
http://www.englishpage.com/verbpage/pastcontinuous.html


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cvgurau
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I recently read King's Desperation, in which he spent two or three pages describing the process of making a cell phone call. This in itself is not very interesting (we all make several a day), but in this case, the caller was in mortal peril, and was hoping that the call would save his life, which doesn't happen quite as often.

A good example, I think, of the circumstances in which you should show, not tell. I doubt the call would have been as detailed if the caller was ordering pizza (unless the call introduced the cook, who would become obsessed with the caller, begin to stalk him, begin to believe that they're soul mates and belong together forever, and tries to get rid of the caller's "wrong" family. Knowing King, this is not entirely unlikely.)


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arriki
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This is all very interesting and has given me a lot to think over.

My thought on the subject of show and tell seems to be a little different. “I” think the big difference is that with showing you let the reader draw his own conclusions.

Over in the 13 lines thread I was talking about this. The author had written something like --

They didn’t like to eat late but had to because of their jobs.

And I said it might be more interesting to phrase it in a more showing than telling way as –

They were dining at nine, again. It was the fourth time this week.
After the waiter had left with their drink order, John quickly explained. “I had to wait for this phone call. From Hong Kong, you understand.”

The told version gives a single, bare bit of information. The shown version gives specific details from which the reader can generalize background. Also in the shown version there are tantalizing hints about character.
They ordered drinks. He explains “quickly” before she says something. He is involved in (we assume this is happening in the states) international something.

How much else could we gather from this tiny exchange? About their relationship? Wealth? Etc.


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arriki
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Alanya says:

Telling holds the reader at a distance from the story. Showing involves the reader a lot more. If you're showing, the reader feels like he or she is part of the story--seeing, feeling, speaking.

I think she and I are trying to say the same thing.
This involving the reader in the story...that is done by letting the reader see what is happening and make his own decisions about what is going on -- are we on the same wavelength here?


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arriki
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I just went through and moved to a file on my computer all the neat things you guys have had to say on this subject. If you don't mind, I'm going to post that list here.

I thought maybe showing is also a more subtle and evocative way of painting a picture in the readers head, less obvious than just stating facts or whatever. More artistic.

There are times when you need to summarize (tell) something that happened so that you can get back to showing the important parts.

Showing is a close-up look, telling is a wide-lens panoramic view. Both are useful tools and should be used at the appropriate times.

The great thing about showing is that it does the same thing as telling but also moves the plot along, gets you to know the characters, allows you to be more artistic, and actually...write.

Which bite excites the senses more? The more often you excite someone's senses, whether subtly or blatantly, the more intimately connected they will feel with what you are trying to share with them.

"Showing" is not better than "telling". It's just more suitable to some situations, particularly climaxes.

I find myself going bonkers sometimes reading two pages about how someone is just about to push a button. Push the dang button already! I'm probably not as patient as most others. I like the showing but not when it bloats the book to the point that there really isn't much of a story behind all that showing.

Telling is good when you want to condense a situation or share information without making your characters do dumb things. But then you could get into info dumping and that's another story all together.

"Show don't tell" is a bad rule, and impossible to follow. OSC says, "Show what needs to be shown, and tell what needs to be told." The part that needs to be shown is the interesting part; the part that needs to be told, so we can get through it quickly, is the dull part.


Is there anything here that we can't all agree on?

[This message has been edited by arriki (edited March 10, 2006).]


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