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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » How to show, not tell...

   
Author Topic: How to show, not tell...
Leigh
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I don't know when it was but I saw in the past few weeks a thread or a single post speaking about showing, not telling. I fall into that category of writers that start out with telling, not showing, and I don't know how to change that.

I want to be able to show, not tell. I do also realise that to change a habit in writing, one needs to keep writing, but if I don't know how to change that habit, the old and annoying one remains.

All I want to know if there is anyone here who can give me a link to a site that explains it, or just some tips, I've been procrastinating too much lately and I want to force myself to write again like I used to, and this is a hurdle that has been stopping me. Thanks before hand


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debhoag
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I screenplay it in my head. If i was scripting the action that would demonstrate what I want to get across, how would I do it? I build up very detailed pictures in my head - so this kind of ties into GBus's backstory stuff. Everything that makes the picture clearer is all good, even if it doesn't make it explicitly into the story. Do you ever draw out your rooms, dress your characters for the scene, figure out what props are there to use, act out the scene in your living room and make your children help you . . .oh, wait. I think there may be child labor laws about that. But there's no law that says we have to work it out while sitting quietly in a chair somewhere.
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lehollis
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Some things can be shown and some things cannot be shown so easily. On the main Hatrack site, OSC talks about the difficulty of showing motivation.

Here is an example of the basic idea:

"Johnny felt angry." (tell)

"Johnny clenched his fists and snarled." (show)

The first one is telling the reader that Johnny is angry. The second one shows that Johnny is angry without actually saying it.


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JeffBarton
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Been there, done that, too.

The story I'm just finishing up has a lot of narrative - telling. Showing comes when the MC acts on what he's told. He does things, has conversations and makes mistakes, all as a consequence of being told stuff. It's an interesting contrast and one "show, don't tell" challenge in a critique made me think about all that telling.

It turns out that the telling is the showing. I want to show the effect on the MC of what he reads in a book. He has to read it. There has to be telling. That shows the book's effect.

Writing this one story has been a real lesson for me - writing and subjecting the work to critiques. The pointed comments about particular scenes did me more good than the general lessons and discussions. Most of us learn best by doing - trial, error and revisions. Putting a story through critique will go a long way to help you learn.


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Rick Norwood
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Leigh, if you would like to post a first 13, I'll be glad to work through the "show, don't tell" thing with you.
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debhoag
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Rick's offer (which I can attest is an excellent one - Rick is a really good person to have read your stuff) is, in itself, a great example of 'show, don't tell'. Take him up on it!
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Zero
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I think that "telling" is often a better style to use than "showing." Because, as a reader, most details don't interest me. I want to imagine the story how I want it to look, and I don't want to read details that change that unless they are plot essential. And the pace is a lot quicker when it isn't encumbered with unnecessary descriptions that add nothing. cough, cough Victor Hugo

I think if you write in a clear POV then you don't have to worry about "show don't tell"


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Sparrol
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In my meager experience, I've found that telling is fine. Just start telling, and you'll see that you've done a lot more showing than you think. I prefer telling, I think, especially since many interesting things are in the character's head and not his actions.
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Wolfe_boy
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Whoah whoah whoah... let's back up a few paces here.

... "telling" is often a better style to use than "showing"...

... encumbered with unnecessary descriptions that add nothing...

... I've found that telling is just fine...

... interesting things are in the character's head and not his actions...

I think there's a little misunderstanding going on here... Telling isn't narration. Showing isn't simply being inside of your characters head and seeing what they see. Descriptions aren't showing or telling - they're setting. The amount of description you include is a decision you make that is completely separate from any decision you make between showing and telling. This is, as I understand it, the difference between showing and telling.

-Telling is the writer indicating something to the reader in a direct way - like lehollis's example "Johnny felt angry". The reader is given no room to interpret what his actions might mean. How Johnny's past might be affecting his judgement or mood.

-Showing is the characters indicating something to the reader in a semi-indirect way. We don't have to know that Johnny is angry, but if we have already established that he is an escaped slave whose parents were killed by their owner, and he is witnessing a slave being whipped, we can assume that his clenched teeth and red face aren't the byproduct of a tooth ache.

In my opinion, this is the difference between showing and telling. Not "The mountains were blue in the rising moon light" vs. "Johnny saw the mountains in the distance, blue in the rising moon light". It's not interesting things in his head vs. interesting things he's accomplishing. Who cares if Johnny has all the conflicted emotions in the world? If he doesn't display any emotions to the reader, then who am I to believe that he is really conflicted? And if you, as the writer, can not show me Johnny's reactions but only allow me to see that "Johnny was angry", or even "Johnny was furious!", punch it up all you want with adverbs and diction, with punctuation and even CAPS. I still call bullshit because I'm being handled by the author, rather than seeing the character respond to something in a genuine way.

There we go. Rant over. Show. Do not tell, or at the very least, keep it to an absolute minimum.

Jayson Merryfield


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luapc
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If anyone hasn't read OSC's Characters and Viewpoint, you really should. Chapter 15, Dramatic Vs. Narative covers this exact subject, and does so very well, with several examples. Basically, it says that not only is it OK to tell things, sometimes it's the best choice. It all depends upon what is necessary to the move the plot along, and to the characters. No story should always tell, and also, no story should always show. It takes both to make a good story work.

It's advice that I find very sound, and the examples in the book make the choices very clear. Another thing he says is that there's not only showing and telling, but also ignoring. Something that is also good to consider, even though most advice doesn't even consider that option.


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debhoag
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Go Jayson, go Jayson, go Jayson!
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Zero
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Semantics semantics semantics....

Jayson, the devil is in the details.

The reason why "show don't tell" is awful advice is that it isn't particularly clear what that actually means.

Show means elaborate demonstration focused on sensory details, tell means direct and explicit delivery.

Only an idiot writer would think one method is absolutely superior for every situation. Every tool in the magic bag is useful depending on what you, as the writer, are trying to do.

As it happens the cliche "show don't tell" has destroyed many-many-many novice stories. I have participated in writers groups before where decent stories were butchered when novices gave each other the buzz phrase "I liked it, but show more and don't tell," and suddenly a passage like Johnny didn't seem impressed with Billy's humor. (which is already perfectly clear and fine) is transformed into Johnny's face erupted in an explosion of creases as his jaw dropped and his sparkling white teeth, which reeked of Colgate, showed vividly his atmosphere of disappointment which is, at best, confusing, sometimes it turns a dramatic moment into something comical-- destroying the scene--but most often it makes it bloody boring.

I think it's bad advice, and at best unclear advice. It's uch more useful for a writer to be concerned that he's writing in a coherent point of view, rather than obsessing over details that might contribute nothing but boredom.


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Wolfe_boy
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I'll ignore "idiot writer" and just press on with the remainder.

Zero, both of your examples are telling. Neither is showing. The first one is obvious. The second is the same telling stuffed full of odious descriptions. "... showed vividly his atmosphere of disappointment..." is telling, plain and simple, but now it is a ruined version of "Johnny didn't seem impressed" stuffed with an adverb (gulp.... I think I puked a little) and topped with crass and disgusting descriptions and attempts at linguistic gymnastics. The correct showing of "Johnny didn't seem impressed with Billy's humor" would actually be something along the lines of "... Johnny remained silent while the others laughed at Billy's joke, a dark look on his face..." The difference between my example here and yours is that you are still telling me what Johnny is thinking/feeling at the time. In mine, Johnny is showing you his response, and you as the reader are required to interpret it. I don't see how my example is "... elaborate demonstration focused on sensory details."

I agree that there are occasions where telling is a simpler shortcut to a less important point you're trying to reach. It is my belief, though, that not attempting to write actively, and not attempting to show rather than tell, is somewhat dangerous. Showing doesn't equate to obsessing over details that contribute nothing but boredom. Showing is asking the reader to become an active participant in the story, to look at the characters and their reactions and come to their own conclusions. To tell is to grab the reader by the scruff of the neck and yell what you mean into his face. Damn you, Johnny is not impressed with Billy's humor, you nattering fool!

All of this being said, I have not read OSC's Character and Viewpoint, so I can not refer directly to everything he has said, or the examples of telling that he seems to think are correct and appropriate. All that I know is that the saying is "Show don't Tell" and not the other way around.

And, whenever some nitwit says something like "I liked it, but show more and don't tell" without giving you good examples of where you could actually employ this technique, they're probably blowing smoke up your ass because they don't know how to properly critique a story, and probably couldn't tell a passive verb from a hole in the paper. Feel free to ignore these people.

Feel free to ignore me as well.

Jayson Merryfield


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Wolfe_boy
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Perhaps I'm being hasty.... (hoom hoom hoom)

Yes, showing each and every thing is a book is going to be an onerous and unnecessary burden on both the writer and the reader. Knowing when to show and when to tell is an important skill to learn. For example, a dinner party....

1. Over dinner important matters are discussed revealing key plot points. It would probably be best to tell setting the table, preparing the meal, and cleaning up. It would most certainly be best, though, to show me the dinner itself. Dramatize it! Don't tell me Sally was uncomfortable with the way Carl was looking at her. Show it to me.

2. Dinner itself is not important, but the conversation Carl and Sally have while they do the dishes (including the crude sexual advances he makes towards her) are the start of a tragic tale of intimidation and mental abuse that flow through the whole story. Again, don't tell me Sally was shocked when Carl grabbed her ass. Show it to me.

Knowing when you are to make these changes between important character and plot details, and unimportant narrative details, is not something that you can learn by asking other people in a general way. You learn by reading and seeing how accomplished writers handle it - and try to stay away from crap writers while you're still looking for positive examples. You also learn by writing and having others critique your stuff... and by asking for concrete and specific examples of where they think you could improve, and taking their comments in stride, but not as the end-all-and-be-all of writing.

Go thou and do your best.

Jayson Merryfield

[This message has been edited by Wolfe_boy (edited August 27, 2007).]


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Lord Darkstorm
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This is interesting. All those who believe telling is the best way to tell a story, how do you get anyone to care about your characters? Also, without mounds of description, wouldn't everything you write be very short?

If you show the reader what is going on, then the reader will become a part of the story. When all you do is tell them what is going on, then we are left taking your word for it.

quote:
John sat in a corner booth and brooded. Wondering what his girlfriend was doing now.

Ok, here we are told john is brooding.

quote:
John flipped a fry over without paying it any attention. How could she go out with such a looser? She had promised to be his girl forever. What difference should it make she caught him making out with another girl?

I didn't have to mention brooding here, but now we are shown not only his actions, but get a taste of why he isn't happy. We get to see how he is thinking and why he feels so wronged when he is the problem.

Where is telling important? When you have time spans that nothing interesting is going to happen. Events that while may be marginally interesting, can be served better with a brief explanation of the event so it only takes up a paragraph instead of pages. Say your character goes to a tractor pull. While some people would find this highly entertaining, if there isn't something very exciting going on, then telling is the way to get it over with quickly.

Telling is a part of writing, but if you don't show your character to the reader, then you leave the reader with only their trust in you as an author. If the reader is very very nice, maybe a couple chapters. After two or three chapters of telling, I'm ready to give it up as a lost cause and move on to something that will be entertaining. If you are going to write for other people, then you have to show what is happening in every major even of the story...otherwise, people won't read it.


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debhoag
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When I think of showing vs. telling, I think of the tell as the narrative voice. In both of the above examples, we are being told stuff. To my way of thinking, a show would be more like:
He flung himself into the seat opposite Greg.
"Joe, what's wrong?"
"Nothing. Everything. Sherry just dumped me." He sat straight and began drumming the table top with his fingers.
"I'm going to call her."
"Not, cool, Joe," said Greg, shaking his head.
"I don't care about cool. I want her back." Joe bolted from the table and headed for the pay phone, digging change out of his pocket as he went.

Not a sterling example, but we are learning things directly from the actions and vocalizations of the characters, as opposed to be told.

[This message has been edited by debhoag (edited August 27, 2007).]


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Wolfe_boy
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I think that Lord Darkstorm's second example is showing, deb, just from a cloer POV - if we read these lines as his internal thoughts, rather than simply authorial exposition, then we are being shown Joe's response to being dumped, rather than being told his response is to sit in the corner brooding. Yours is showing as well, just from a slightly more displaced POV.

What a damn slippery fish all of this is.

Jayson Merryfield


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Zero
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I think our differences in interpretation is exactly why it is a bad prescription. Clearly we can't even agree one what "show don't tell" even means, so how do we expect every young would-be writer to fluently understand how to apply that to his writing?

I think I better understand what you're saying, Jayson, and for the record the "idiot writer" wasn't directed at you, since clearly, you even admit that showing isn't always superior to telling. I was actually referring to myself, however, and trying to say that "I would have to be an idiot to say telling is always better than showing."

I tend to find passages like Johnny remained silent while the others laughed at Billy's joke, a dark look on his face to be effective, so good point there, but melodramatic and often cheesy. Sometimes it's just better to say "he stormed out of the room angrily," than "a dark look masked his face and his eyes narrowed into hawk-like slits, his teeth were clenched and as he pushed through the door he snarled" I agree the second has mor eimagery, and it might throw you deeper into the scene, but it also has the tendency for me to read it and think "this is ridiculous," or "this is overdone" or "this is melodramatic" or "this is cheesy."

I think writers are freer than you think to develop and use their own techniques. But even showing, as you define it, is generally better than telling, (which I could be persuaded to agree with that) it is still (generally) bad advice to say "show don't tell," because it isn't universally obvious what that even means.

Darkstorm,

People care about characters because of point of view. (I cannot stress that enough.) Point of View is the number one most important technique to focus on and stick with, rigidly, once you've decided how to tell the story.

It's like the camera work in a film, snapping a wide angle establishing shot and then bringing the camera in close to the character is a technique that is designed to get the audience to best see the story. PoV is just like choosing the right angles and what order they'd best, most coherently, flow together in.

POV is important in writing for the same reason. Bad point of view is like trying to watch a film with the samera pointed in the wrong direction, and it distances the story.

Writing in a clear point of view, however, is more than enough to make the reader care about the characters involved if the story and setting are engaging. So it doesn't matter whether he "looked disinterested" or if he "yawned wide-mouthed and his eyes drooped and sagged with massive red bags of fatigue" because, frankly, that isn't as important.


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WouldBe
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Theorem: One can tell you how to show and show you how to tell, but you can't show how to show or tell how to tell. Discuss amongst yourselves.

That can't is too informal for a theorem.

"Wait, shouldn't that be "you can't show how to show NOR tell how to tell?"

"No, I think it is "you can't show how to show AND tell how to tell?"

"No, it should be, "you can neither show how to show nor tell how to tell."

"But that would be out-of-voice."

"But narrative can't be out-of-voice."

"First person narrative can."

"There's no such thing as first person narrative."

"Shouldn't that be FIRST-PERSON narrative."

"Shouldn't that be, 'Shouldn't that be FIRST-PERSON narrative?'?"

"Should that second question mark be there?

"Shouldn't you have closed that quote?"

Yo no hablo ingles no mas.

Excusame, inglés es mejor.

Excusame, inglés es mejor.

Parlez-vous français?


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InarticulateBabbler
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luapc said:
quote:

If anyone hasn't read OSC's Characters and Viewpoint, you really should. Chapter 15, Dramatic Vs. Narative covers this exact subject, and does so very well, with several examples. Basically, it says that not only is it OK to tell things, sometimes it's the best choice. It all depends upon what is necessary to the move the plot along, and to the characters. No story should always tell, and also, no story should always show. It takes both to make a good story work.

I concur. OSC even says that it is wrong to say "Show don't Tell" because everything that is conveyed by a writer is written. You can't actually "Show", it's the wrong medium. This discussion and the various interpretations of the saying are excellent examples.

He says the he uses a "Hot" and "Cold" method of PoV to accomplish what is being argued: Hot is everything the character's sensing (seeing/hearing/tasting/physically feeling/smelling), feeling (emotionally), and does. Cold is only what's relevant to move the story along. If you stay true to PoV, then "Johnny didn't seem impressed with Billy's humor" is fine, IF it's not Johnny's PoV. If it's Dennis's PoV, this would be right. If it's Johnny, it's wrong for another reason: Johnny can't know what he seems like to others. This is common sense.

Anyone who hasn't read OSC's Characters & Viewpoint is lacking for it. He, indeed, has some fine examples in an array of aspects essential to telling the story from a PoV and creating deep characters.

[This message has been edited by InarticulateBabbler (edited August 27, 2007).]


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Zero
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Jayson, apologies if I came across as a bit confrontational, that's just my personality.

I think I better understand what "show don't tell" means, at least your definition of it, and that, actually, will probably help me as a writer. So, thank you.

I'm (personally) inclined to think the best advice is "Show AND Tell" kind of like our favorite part of kindergarten.


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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May I offer a possible rule of thumb for showing and telling?

Think of telling as summarizing or skimming over information, and showing as going into enough detail that the reader experiences the story in "real time."

Another way to put it is that you convey to the reader the importance of things in the story by how much story time (wordage, for the most part) you spend on each thing.

If you only spend a little bit of time on something, it isn't all that important, even if it is necessary for clarity. Those kinds of things you can "tell" or summarize.

If you spend a lot of time on something, you are letting the reader know that it's important. Of course, you have to be careful here, because if it isn't important, you will confuse and possibly frustrate the reader.

When someone says "show, don't tell," ask yourself if what they are actually saying is "you have not spent enough time on something that seems to me as a reader to be important to the story." If you think that might be what they are saying, then you know what to do. (Ask them what they want you to "show.")


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Lord Darkstorm
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quote:
It's like the camera work in a film, snapping a wide angle establishing shot and then bringing the camera in close to the character is a technique that is designed to get the audience to best see the story. PoV is just like choosing the right angles and what order they'd best, most coherently, flow together in.

I am afraid I will have to disagree. Film relies completely on visual to get the story across. While there have been good and bad attempts at showing the viewer what is going on inside the mind of the character, film doesn't provide that clearly like a written story can. Proper POV is the method in which we choose to tell the story. Having a firmly established perspective on what happens within the story will make the writing less noticeable while the story will take the lead. If there is one compliment I find more valuable than any other is when someone says they barely noticed the writing. Good POV is the tool that lets us bury the writing behind the story so the reader may enjoy the story without bothering with how annoying the writing it. To continually refer to flowery prose as bad showing is just as incorrect as turning pov into a camera.

The reason telling is discouraged in younger writers is attributed to the dry torture all those trying to be helpful have to suffer through. There is a distinction between telling something, and showing something. While you could argue that all words are tell, I can only reply with, "I wish you luck." The difference in the way we portray a scene, the way we portray the actions and thoughts of our characters, the choices we make in choosing our words and sentence structures, as well as the other numerous skills we have to work into our writing makes the difference between worth reading and worth lining a bird cage with it. Arguing semantics isn't going to help anyone become a better writer. Avoiding taking lessons from bad tv and movies, that is a big plus for anyone.

I can agree that the phrase "show don't tell" is lazy on the part of those who do understand, but I've been guilty of not wishing to explain the concept over and over again. Even more so when someone wants to argue with me over the fact I found the telling boring and as enjoyable as nails on a blackboard.

I have read both of OSC's writing books, and a dozen others. I've found two as good as OSC's, and one I found even better. All of them have had information that proved valuable, some more so than others, none of them a waste of time.

As for why people come to care about a character, well, that skill is still one of the more elusive skills to learn. It isn't just engaging the reader, it is getting the reader to connect with the character. Letting the reader feel the way the character feels, and how it is just like feelings the reader has had in their own life. Caring comes when the reader sees the character as someone who thinks and feels in the same ways the reader has felt at times in their own lives. That comes from showing....not from telling.

[This message has been edited by Lord Darkstorm (edited August 27, 2007).]


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Leigh
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I didn't realise a simple request would lead to all this

I've posted the first 13 in the F&F section for novels to be critiqued so I can get some help, as I have read most of what people have said, understand it slightly but not completely.

Thanks everyone.


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rstegman
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The show- don't tell, does not apply as well to skilled authors.
I remember an example in one book on writing where the author's friend had a book that had hundreds of pages of

The trader met the chief. The trader did not trust the chief, but still did business with him.
The trader left and had to cross a river. It was a difficult crossing and he nearly fell in three times.
he tracked a rabbit for an hour for his dinner.
The trader reached the trading post and exchanged his goods for supplies, He left and.....

THAT is what is called TELLING. There is a lot of action in those few words that could have been discribed in detail, possibly half a novel of it, but was not.
For authors close to our level of writing, showing, not telling, does not apply as much. When we tell someone of our level of show, not tell, we might be asking for the author to add scenery, discription, slow down and show the feeling of persperation beading on one's forehead as you are about to pull the trigger to kill someone who was once a good friend.

Good advice to the rank beginner is not always good advice to advanced people.


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Robert Nowall
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I'm inclined to the "actions speak louder" school of thought, but a lot of time you have to just tell something about the character. If, say, you've got a character who's spent years at a university plus assorted post-doctoral research, and the story is taking place after that, you don't have to write everything that happened to him during those years. You can just say it, or maybe he can just say it.
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Matt Lust
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I don't think prose style, ie terse vs verbose or plain vs flowery, should really be the focus of show don't tell. When I think show don't tell I think of summary vs direct narration.

I posted this example earlier but this is how I see show and tell.

Summary = Johnny walked to the store.

Direct Narration = Leaving the alley and turning on the brick paved sidewalk that ran along Main Street, Johnny waved to Mr. Bishop as he passed in front the Barbershop's large window. After stopping to pet Joey Calloway's dog at the corner of 1st and Main , Johnny crossed the street and entered Mercer's Grocery, the only small town store left in the county.


Its not perfect example but the step by step progress of the story helps the reader experience the story, rather than just learn the story.


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Brendan
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Fascinating discussion.

As a beginning writer, with some improvement (hopefully) behind me yet more still to come, I have heard the mantra "Show don't tell" many times. Sometimes it has helped my writing, sometimes it has harmed it, which was obvious in the rewrite. And I have seen it do both to other beginner writers.

However, OSC's discussion on this website, really made me think.
http://www.hatrack.com/writingclass/lessons/lesson13.shtml

(Kathleen: I hope that this doesn't breach copywrite to quote the following passage. If so, please edit it out)

quote:

You said: "I made it a point throughout the novel to not tell motivations, but try to show them."

And you did this because ... of those morons who told you "show don't tell"? Because motivation is unshowable. It must be told. (In fact, most things must be told.) The advice "show don't tell" is applicable in only a few situations -- most times, most things, you tell-don't-show. I get so impatient with this idiotic advice that has been plaguing writers for generations.


This is fairly strong, and shows what OSC really thinks of that advice. But more to the point, it suggests that any advice really has limited applicability. The difficulty is knowing when you have overstepped those limits or are still miles from the border.

It made me think about the stories that I have been told, rather than shown. Ancient myths come to mind, making me wonder if "showing" is simply a modern approach? eOne of my all time favorites is up there - The Liberation of Earth by William Tenn. This was completely told. It had very little, if any, in the way of characterisation. Yet it was a very funny, entertaining and powerful story. Other greats, like Olaf Stapleton's novels have swathes of telling, and the 19 page prologue in Lord of the Rings is not only telling, it is completely backstory.

So even a "balanced" approach to showing and telling doesn't work, as these stories fail to have a balanced approach. I think that "horses for courses" is the wisest choice. Some stories need more telling than others, and visa versa. Hitting and maintaining a voice may help determine how to meet the right balance for this story. But then, working out what is right for the story is really the art of story telling. Also, for beginning writers, go with your strengths, whilst learning skills that may later turn into strengths.


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franc li
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Does anyone remember "The Preparations for the wedding" chapter of The Princess Bride?

I think I was trained too much to show and not tell when I was young.

But I guess I could use that liability and write screenplays instead of prose.

[This message has been edited by franc li (edited August 28, 2007).]


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Wolfe_boy
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I'm getting the feeling that a lot of this debate is coming down to personal styles. We all know what works for us and what doesn't. Personally I try to write in a minimalist way, at least so far as telling goes - if something like 50% of all human communication is non-verbal body language, I want to try and work that into my writing as much as possible and remove any desire I have to point the reader in the direction I want him to go. I don't know that I'm always very successful (actually I have the feeling I leave my readers dangling in the wind more often than not) but it's what I try to accomplish. I personally think that it is much more exciting to figure something out for yourself as a reader than it is to be told something.

I think I'll have to disagree with OSC as well, about the inability to show motivation. It would be quite difficult to show deep, soul based motivations in a single scene, but if we can establish a certain history for our characters, and a certain personality, we should be able to have them react to a situation naturally and organically without having to state explicitly what the character's motivations are. For example, Ender (thank God for low-hanging fruit). OSC doesn't tell us that Ender is motivated to be better than Peter. He has Ender say it, he has Valentine ruminate on it, he has Graff discuss it. And he has the whole history of Ender and Peter. I don't know if that is telling or not, but it seems to me that it's showing.

Jayson Merryfield


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luapc
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Jayson, I would have to agree. Once a writer has gained confidence in their own writing, (their voice, style, and general writing abilities), it is best to ignore most of the advice out there. I have found that this advice is aimed almost exclusively toward the beginning author. The ones who are still trying to figure out the craft itself, and their own particular talents for it.

Once that is out of the way, published or not, an author no longer needs the advice, as they've found their own place. It is good to note that all authors were once beginners. Someday, no doubt, some of us here will become teachers also, and be considered masters worth listening to.

That said, I think that most of this advice is good advice for beginners. It gives a basis to work from and compare to so you can figure this stuff out. The trick is knowing when you're there, and can start ignoring it, and just write.


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JeanneT
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Brendan,

Thanks for posting that since you saved me doing it. Like a lot of writers, early on I was constantly told to "show not tell" and my writing suffered for it because I thought you were NEVER supposed to tell.

As Mr. Card points out, there are times when you HAVE to tell so the advise just doesn't even make sense. Some things can't be shown. I hardly think he was saying to tell what can be shown, but that you can't be afraid to tell something if that is what is called for.


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Rick Norwood
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I remember reading a Fred Pohl novel, and he was telling us what happened to the main character during several months. Then, we got a paragraph with a detailed description, and I knew something exciting was about to happen.

So, we don't want a detailed description of trivia. Neither do we want to rush through the good parts. Who wants to read, "Hamlet came home from school and killed his uncle. The end."


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lehollis
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quote:
However, OSC's discussion on this website, really made me think.

Thanks for posting that. I was too lazy to look it up.

Personally, I hate the phrase "show don't tell". It's like giving someone a truckload of manure and saying there might be a diamond ring in there, somewhere. I feel anyone who says that, needs to be very clear and specific about what they mean, and I don't think it always means the same thing for every writer.

[This message has been edited by lehollis (edited August 31, 2007).]


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annepin
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link is corrupted, so i'll repost it here:

http://www.hatrack.com/writingclass/lessons/lesson13.shtml

As writers, learning how to critique, we pick up on the buzz words--show don't tell, don't use adverbs/ adjectives, don't switch P.O.V., etc. We are over sensitized to these elements because we've trained ourselves to be on the look out for them. This isn't a bad thing, necessarily, but it's too easy to say, "you shouldn't do this." Imo, the first consideration of any critique, before trouncing on these or any items should be: "Does it work?"

The thing is that readers have a capacity to enjoy a broad spectrum of books. Tolkien did a hell of a lot of telling in LOTR, if I remember. So does Bronte, Austen, etc. This was the style at the time--so again, this whole show not tell thing is a trend of current literature. I read theories that it's related to our love of visual media.

So. "Show-don't-tell" is a guideline certainly worth exploring to figure out what it means for you, as a writer, and how you choose to interpret it. But I think the only rule any writer should ever adhere to this: If it works, then go for it.

Some of the most memorable and daring books I've read are the ones that break convention and take risks, whether in structure or style.


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Zero
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Well... let's not get too far off the wagon. (on the wagon or off the wagon?)

Point is, let's not devolve to the point where all our writing is random and "everything is good," I think it's still useful to have rules. No rules are unbreakable, but we need to be sensitive to the costs. "Don't switch POV" is excellent advice, same with "show the scene more don't push me through it," (as Jayson rightfully pointed out) there must still be an agreeable standard (to one extent or another) that there is a difference between good writing and bad writing...

So it can't all just be useless buzzwords, can it?

[This message has been edited by Zero (edited August 31, 2007).]


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annepin
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So it can't all just be useless buzzwords, can it?
Yes, I am playing the devil's advocate here, but I don't think I ever said that they were just useless buzzwords, and I certainly didn't meant to imply it. In fact, I think I said they were useful. But they are only useful if applied with good reason, not flung around simply because we're told this the recipe for good writing. I am advocating intelligent and critical, rather than dogmatic, adherence.

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JeanneT
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Can't it be buzzwords though? You might read that link and see what Mr. Card says about it, if you haven't.

He has some pretty harsh words for anyone who says you should never tell.

quote:
OSC:

You said: "I made it a point throughout the novel to not tell motivations, but try to show them."

And you did this because ... of those morons who told you "show don't tell"? Because motivation is unshowable. It must be told. (In fact, most things must be told.) The advice "show don't tell" is applicable in only a few situations -- most times, most things, you tell-don't-show. I get so impatient with this idiotic advice that has been plaguing writers for generations.


I don't think he would even consider "show don't tell" to be good enough advise to be a "buzzword."

I have to say after reading this, I realized that I had been killing myself to try to "show" things that couldn't be shown and my writing improved a lot when I started telling more. But I almost never got "show, don't tell" comments, so maybe I just went too far with it.

So... I guess it's for every author to decide for themselves.

[This message has been edited by JeanneT (edited August 31, 2007).]


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Zero
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Well, for those who didn't tune in earlier, haha--I was the primary advocate of telling instead of showing. Because I always tell. But Jayson pointed out where my understanding of what "showing" was, was not the same as how he saw it. And I liked his examples, they were enlightening.

I still think, like you, that "show don't tell" is bad advice because it is unclear, or misleading. But sometimes a writer will glaze over a scene and that can, sometimes, rob it of emotion. So, the advice I tend to give people is

1. Write in a clear POV, be aware (consciously) of what POV you are in when you are writing.

2. Don't waste time with unimportant description (BUT) make sure to include whatever detail will increase the emotional impact of the story.

And these can be applied specifically to any piece of writing. "I thought the scene with Eric and John arguing was too quick, I wanted to see better how they reacted toward each other, feel what they are feeling but you raced through it too fast by telling everything. However the scene with the flying cow was confusing, I thought I was looking through the eyes of the cow at first, but then I saw it fly away, so it threw me off guard. Also, the scene about the Cathedral staircase was too long with too much description. It was boring, cut it down..." etc etc etc


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jhust
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To echo a bit of what Kathleen Woodbury said:

Think about when you are telling a story verbally to your friends or family. You tend to "tell" the boring parts, or the backstory they need. It's short and to the point. Then, at the exciting part, or the punchline, you're often using body language, exaggerating, etc - "showing." The same thing should naturally happen in a written story.

Oftentimes, you don't even really *remember* the boring parts of the story you are telling verbally, so you skip them entirely. It's the same way with a written work of fiction - your PoV character is going to skip over or summarize the boring parts.

In essence, he's going to tell it like he remembers it.


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