This is topic Show and Tell in forum Open Discussions About Writing at Hatrack River Writers Workshop.

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Posted by YNRedef (Member # 9390) on :
I was wondering about Showing vs Telling and Telling vs Showing... The entire concept confuses me. I've been told I show too much and I tell too much on different pieces... Can some please give me some sense direction.
Posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury (Member # 59) on :
My rule of thumb involves how many words (and therefore how much reader time) is dedicated to something.

You signal to the reader that something is important by spending a lot of words on it--showing it to the reader. If it's important and you don't spend enough words on it, then someone may ask you to "show, don't tell" that part.

If it isn't that important, then you summarize, or "tell" by not spending so many words on it.

Example: if it's important to know exactly what your character does when he wakes up in the morning, gets ready for work, and goes to work, then you "show" that in careful description, using a lot of detail (words) so that the reader can "see" it happening. If, however, it isn't important what he does and how he does it, then you can just "tell" that he got up, got ready, and went to work--very few words at all.

So if something (a scene, an item, a person) is important to the story, you spend lots of words so you can "show" it to the reader. If it isn't important, you spend as few words as you can to "tell" the reader, and get on to the important parts.

If you only "tell" the reader things that the reader wants to know more about (that the reader thinks are important), then you need to "show" that part instead. If you "show" things that the reader doesn't think are important (and which bore the reader to tears), then you need to cut the wordage and just "tell" that part.

I hope this helps.

Posted by Osiris (Member # 9196) on :
I think when people tell you 'show, don't tell' they mean they think you should spend more time on either sensory experience, internal dialog, or emotion. It really depends on what the person is telling you to 'show, don't tell' about.
Posted by enigmaticuser (Member # 9398) on :
Wow, Kathleen that was awesome.

When I was first told about show don't tell (SDT) I always heard it as don't, only later did I find out that tell don't show (TDS) is just as important.


Posted by enigmaticuser (Member # 9398) on :
A really good tutorial would be watching Mystery Science Theater 3000. A lot of the scenes in bad movies leave us going "why did we have to see him walk all the way from the car across the field?" That's an example of when you should TDS.
Posted by LDWriter2 (Member # 9148) on :
Seems like for at least two years I had a steady diet of Don't Show enough. But recently I have read two columns about tell and show. Both are important to those pro writers depending on what you are doing.

I won't go on since I believe Kathleen already stated that concept pretty well.

However I will say that one Pro writer (100 novels this year) told me that he doesn't do Show instead he works in all five of the senses every two pages. That sounds good to me since it seems like at least half of the time I get something that is half way in-between tell and show. My mind finds it hard to twist itself around the concept of Show.

Posted by MartinV (Member # 5512) on :
I prefer to think of this as controlling the pace of the story. In the usual way, I will use a mix of 'show' and 'tell', wherever and however they are needed. If I wish to slow down the pace to make something seem important, I will 'show' completely. On the other hand, if I want to skip something such as travel time (I never describe the travel but just skip to the end, unless something really important has come up) I will use 'tell' and simply say: "They travelled for many days..."

Dan Brown's books are completely 'show', as far as I remember. That's why he can make a 500 page book with nothing but an afternoon of happenings.

The extreme form of accelerating the pace is to simply make a scene cut and only briefly mention what happened in between.

One other thing to note: using 'show' can also be a signal to the reader to pay attention because something vital will be revealed. This can also work against you if you're trying to surprise the reader later on. If you ephasize a detail too much, the reader will know it will be important later and will not be half as surprised as you had hoped. The trick is to reveal the most important detail as non-chalantly as possible and hope the reader will register the detail but won't think about it as important.

Posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury (Member # 59) on :
Here is a discussion of "Show" and "Tell" using a scene from a historical novel by David Farland. I strongly recommend it because it offers some great additional insights into showing and telling.


Posted by MattLeo (Member # 9331) on :
The "shown not tell" rule given to novice writers because it addresses a common fault new writers have. But it's not really a rule. Both "showing" and "telling" are done by most if not all writers, because each addresses a distinct need:

(1) Immersion: to make the reader experience the story as if he were taking part in it. For this you must "show": to deliver into the reader's imagination the feelings, sensory impressions and action *as it unfolds*.

(2) Information: to give the reader background data he needs to understand what is going on. For this you may either "tell" (give the reader a kind of briefing) which packs the most information into the least space, but you can also inform the reader through action. But unless you're writing a stream of consciousness novel you'll probably choose to do *some* telling.

Immersion is really the point of reading. Everyone knows this, but novice writers, particularly fantasy writers, seem to think that background information is itself immersive. That's because once we've really bought into a story, things like the appendices in Lord of the Rings become very interesting to us. But it wouldn't be interesting to us unless we felt like we've actually *experienced* life in Middle Earth.

I think we do a disservice when we shoot from the hip with the "show not tell" rule, as if it were an unbreakable rule of grammar and punctuation. That leads to writing which has been twisted to avoid technically violating the "rule", yet fails to accomplish what the rule is about: putting us in the POV character's skin. For example dialog like this:

"It's a long way to walk," Alice said. "Can you ride?"

"Indeed I can," Bob replied. "As you know I was raised on the Great Plains of Knork, where my people were forced to live in the year 1021 because the evil sorcerer Malodious despoiled our land. There we adopted a hardscrabble, but hardy nomadic lifestyle. Why even our small children can ride like centaurs and shoot gnat off the top of your head at full gallop, although I myself have deep personal issues with taking human life, because I accidentally shot my best friend when I was eight. Can you?"

"No I cannot," Alice said, "for as everyone knows my people's psychic powers spook horses, although we can sometimes read the feelings of animals. It is a strange power that we can only control and only seems to work when the plot requires it. Of course the ancient prophecy says that when one of us learns to master a horse, say by being adopted by a barbaric but noble tribe of nomads, that one will learn to master his powers and vanquish the evil sorcerer Malodious."

Of course such sugar coated information pills can sometimes be carried off with great charm, especially once the author has us hooked and we're really interested in the fate of the characters. But mostly they're a drag,especially early on.

"Show not tell" sounds so pithy, though. It's like catching a kind with his elbows on the table, or splitting an infinitive. A more elaborated version of the rule might be (I think):

(1) Write scenes that put the reader in the skin of the scene's point of view character, experiencing what the POV character experiences and feeling along with him as the action unfolds.

(2) Write scenes that matter to the story and the characters.

(3) Characters should do, say and think things that make sense _in the scene being depicted_. It's terrific if you can also impart background information that way, but don't twist things.

(4) Tell when it's the best way to keep the story moving. But do it succinctly.

(5) Until you're confident you've got the reader hooked, keep the background information to the bare minimum needed to understand what's going on. Be sparing even then.


Posted by hteadx (Member # 6563) on :
Here is a simple exercise by Chuck Palahniuk on how to incorporate show vs. tell. He accomplishes by suggesting writers avoid thought verbs i.e. knows, hates, loves, etc.

Now, whenever I want to use a thought verb, I stop and think about how I can get around using it by showing using the five senses or showing an example of why my characters think a certain way.

Posted by Pyre Dynasty (Member # 1947) on :
Scene and summary is my mantra in these situations. If they say you are telling too much, then you are summarizing things they think are important. If they say you are showing too much, then you are going into too much detail about something they deem unnecessary.

Posted by LDWriter2 (Member # 9148) on :
Found this ad for an online class about Show and Tell with Writer's Digest.

If anyone is interested there's info on the class but what I wanted to mention is a short description of Show Vs Tell. You may have to scroll down a bit, it's at the end of the section on the class.

Even though short I thought it too long to put here even with quotes.
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
Much of the previous posts give intermediate to advanced advice on show and tell. For a rudimentary approach I'll start with first principles.

Tell is simply a recital voice, typically from a narrator though easily from an author voice as if a lecture given directly to an audience or implied readers.

Show is rendering or enacting in scene a selected imitation of a viewpoint character's direct, immediate experiences as if from the senses and thoughts and causes and effects' actions and reactions of the viewpoint character. In other words, character voice.

Tell opens narrative distance. Show closes narrative distance. Narrative distance simply is how close a narrative voice is to a viewpoint character's voice. Narrator or author reporting removed from the scene of the dramatic action, remote narrative voice, tell or recital. Character reporting from the immediate presence of persons, times, places, situations, and attitudes of the scenes of the dramatic action, close narrative distance, scene rendered or enacted in show.

The ancients have two terms for distinguishing show and tell: diegesis and mimesis. Diegesis loosely translated means recital. Mimesis means imitation. Exegesis is another form of narration with ancient roots, meaning explanation, which is another kind of tell distinct from diegesis, which is more summary than explanation. All three terms while Greek are used in some English discourse communities in exactly those senses as loan words.

Diegesis, recital, tell, lecture, summary.
Exegesis, recital, tell, lecture, explanation.
Mimesis, render, enact, imitate, show.

[ January 11, 2012, 01:10 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]
Posted by LDWriter2 (Member # 9148) on :
Oops, obviously forgot to paste the link.
Posted by johnbrown (Member # 1467) on :
Great posts. Also, what Kathleen and MattLeo posted resonates a lot with what I do.
Posted by johnbrown (Member # 1467) on :
BTW, YNRdef,

You're getting a prescription from your readers. Their prescriptions and diagnoses might be totally wrong. If I were you, I'd ask some clarification questions to see if you can't uncover what was happening to them as they read--were they bored or started skimming, could they not "picture" what was happening.

I'd focus on Card's three grunts--clarity, belief, interest. So were things unclear, unbelievable in some way, or boring?

Once you know the symptom, you can decide if it's a minority reaction and needs no response. If you think it's going to be a common response, then you can figure out what really the issue is.

Like others here have said, I don't find focusing on showing and telling to be too helpful. I do find it helpful to focus on:

1) Transporting my reader--making it vivid enough for them to "be there". There are simple techniques for this. Multiple senses. Using direct description, e.g. The man walked through the door vs John saw the man walk through the door. Vivid nouns and verbs. The telling detail. Metaphor. Not overloading working memory limits with laundry lists of details, names, etc.

2) Making sure the big events get time like Kathleen said.

3) Making sure any transitions between events are clear, i.e. readers know who, when, where stuff right at the beginning of a new scene.

4) Making sure that the story--what's going on and why--from the reader's perspective is clear.

BTW, I have a hard time, sometimes, categorizing tell and show. And I DON'T agree that tell is necessarily boring.

Card, for example, can tell/summarize things and make it very interesting. I'm thinking of a snippet in front of one chapter in a book I can't remember the title of where a man and dog crash, and the dog ends up eating the man to survive. As I recall it was mostly in a narrative/summary form and was fascinating.

Mette Harrison did the same in her opening for THE PRINCESS AND THE BEAR. I can't tell if it's tell with a bit of show or just tell. But I found it very interesting.

Anyway, I find if I focus on transport and making it vivid and letting the reader be there for key events and decisions that it seems to work.

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