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Show Don't Tell

Posted: December 19th, 2009, 2:12 pm
by marccolbourne
Hello everyone,

This is my first post here on Nathan's site (bravo Nathan on the new site, by the way!).

I just came from a meeting with my critique group. They reviewed and provided feedback on a few chapters of my work in progress and some of the advice I received was the dreaded "Show. Don't Tell". I know that this is a common refrain in the writing world and something that I admittedly struggle with. I am just wondering if there is anyone else out there who has received the same feedback and also if there is any advice or techniques that people have used when revising their work to overcome this dreaded 'telling'.


Re: Show Don't Tell

Posted: December 19th, 2009, 2:40 pm
by polymath
I've surveyed my workshop groups for what "show don't tell" means. I wasn't surprised to encounter a range of vague definitions, some in diametric opposition.

I found insight into showing and telling for my own writing rules and principles in the ancient and noble explications of Aristotle and Plato.

Diegesis; [sense 2] telling, recounting, as opposed to enacting. A narrator directly tells a story orally to an audience or directly to an implied reader. Epistolary stories or passages directly address a real or implied person, sort of like a letter addressed to a particular person or audience. Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions is told in large part in diegesis, a direct address.

Mimesis; imitation, representation, depiction, resembling, showing. Stories or passages narrated in Free Indirect Discourse don't directly address an implied or real audience. They contrarily personally engage by being personally indirect. The Potter stories are told in Free Indirect Discourse. A potent audience engagement occurs right at the narrator-narratee interface in Free Indirect Discourse. (A topic discussed at Wikipedia, among other Web sites.)
"Though they conceive of mimesis in quite different ways, its relation with diegesis is identical in Plato's and Aristotle's formulations; one represents, the other reports; one embodies, the other narrates; one transforms, the other indicates; one knows only a continuous present, the other looks back on a past."
Wikipedia: Diegesis.

Though show don't tell is widely stated principle, it is by no means absolute. Distinguishing when one or the other modes is most effective comes from understanding it and assigning a weight to when one or the other is best for dramatic effect. It's not all that rare that telling is, in actual fact, showing at the same time, or vice versa.

Re: Show Don't Tell

Posted: December 19th, 2009, 7:39 pm
by SmurfHead
For me, it helps a lot to read through something and keep an eye out for characters or moments that feel bare or unexplained. Nine times out of ten, that means I'm TELLING and not SHOWING.

For example, one aspect of my current WIP is the main character's disconnection from the "ordinary" people in her life. I had a lot of this as narrative summary, but when I started editing, I didn't feel as emotionally engaged with that part of the story as I should have been. I realized I needed to add some scenes to SHOW this disconnection happening, rather than just recapping it later.

There's also smaller stuff, of course. I catch a lot of lines like, "She felt cold" that would read better as, "She shivered." When I see myself use the word "felt" or "was," I can usually find a more demonstrative way to say something.

Hope that helps!

Re: Show Don't Tell

Posted: December 19th, 2009, 9:24 pm
by gpetersen
From an amazing piece of literary criticism, the Rhetoric of Fiction by Wayne C. Boothe, essentially takes on this whole concept of where the showing versus telling argument comes from and addresses its strength and flaws on both sides. Now, a very simple way of thinking about showing versus telling is thinking:

Showing: The Author is directly showing you what is occurring without any kind of wall to separate the reader from the action in the story. It simulates an unmediated reality that the readers enter without any form of Author's intrusion. In other words, we don't get a sense of the Author narrating a story, rather we get the sense of the Author showing.

Telling: The Author is obviously manipulating the story. We see the Author directly involved in the story and rather than seeing the action, we are hearing about it. Using techniques like summary, second hand accounts of what is going on, etc.

Now, why a writing group will probably tell you that is "bad" is because most readers nowadays like just seeing a story unfold before their eyes. They don't want the Author tell us about the character and what they are doing; we want to see what they are doing and decide what is happening.

Now, telling is useful when you need to just summarize what is happening or what is going on. Also, it is the best way to direct the feelings and emotions of the reader if just unmitigated observing doesn't do it.

I hope this helps.

Re: Show Don't Tell

Posted: December 19th, 2009, 9:48 pm
by Kaitlyne
This one's a toughie, isn't it? Hm...I'm going to throw in my own two cents, but keep in mind that I'm both unpublished and not a professional (aside from once being a writing tutor lol) and this is based mostly on my own experience so take it with a grain of salt. Hopefully people smarter than me can come along and let me know if I'm way off in something.

I was on another forum recently and there was an argument about showing versus telling, and I had pointed out there that this isn't necessarily a hard, fast rule. Now, yes, showing is better, but it can be taken to an extreme in the same way telling can, and telling is mostly bad, but there might be some cases where it works. So I got to thinking about when it's usually used incorrectly, and I can think of basically three things. (warning, examples might suck hardcore :P)

1) In dialogue. Example: "You have no right to tell me what to do!" she shouted angrily.

It's probably already obvious that she's shouting and that she's angry based on the words and context. Saying, "she shouted angrily" is telling because you're basically telling the reader how to read the sentence when it should be obvious--and if it isn't obvious, there's a problem with the writing.

2) Infodumps. You need the reader to know something, so you just tell it in one big paragraph (or five pages lol) of nothing but telling.

Example: Dr. Crazymadscientist rested his hand on the lever and looked back at Awesome McAwesome, tied up and helpless in a chair. Dr. Crazymadscientist was pleased. He had spent months getting to this point. Now he was only moments away from throwing the switch and getting rid of McAwesome for good, and then he could finally carry out his plan to take over the world. Without McAwesome around, there would be no one to stop him from spray-painting Antarctica black, by which he would cause the ice caps to melt faster and raise the sea level of the ocean and inundate the coasts and the nations of the world would bow down to him as the only one who could save them.


3) Uh...I forgot what three was. If I think of it later I'll put it back in. I think it had something to do with descriptions lol. :D

But yeah, from what I've seen, those are the two most common misuses of telling. Obviously, there are a lot of more subtle ways people use telling and a lot of times I can recognize it but I wouldn't be able to really explain it. I think the main thing to keep in mind is that we want the reader to be a part of the story, and usually telling is something that drags you out, as someone mentioned above. I have a feeling this post was not helpful in the least. Oh well, gonna post it anyway because I liked the Awesome McAwesome story. :D

Re: Show Don't Tell

Posted: December 20th, 2009, 6:17 am
by poptart
I used to think it meant punching someone's lights out instead of just telling them how much they made me sick, but that's not recommended (for health and legal reasons).
For me it means making value judgements about a character instead of demonstrating their traits in the story. For example, if I say "John was a tight-fisted son of a bitch", that's telling. I'm imposing my values on the reader. But if instead I show in a scene how John buys the cheapest present for his wife, I'm letting the reader make that judgement. Showing is regarded as better because it's a way of letting the reader discover the character for himself which should in turn make him care more about what happens to him.

Re: Show Don't Tell

Posted: December 20th, 2009, 6:44 pm
by Kaitlyne
Poptart, your answer cracked me up. :) Good explanation as well.

Re: Show Don't Tell

Posted: December 21st, 2009, 4:08 am
by poptart
Kaitlyne wrote:Poptart, your answer cracked me up. :) Good explanation as well.
Thanks! :-)

Re: Show Don't Tell

Posted: December 22nd, 2009, 10:35 pm
by tabwriter
Poptart - LOL!! :)

There is a simple rule of thumb that you can apply to all of your writing to determine whether you are telling instead of showing.

Show = Action

If you ask someone to show you how to do something, you aren't expecting a list of steps. You're expecting to see someone perform a task, to see how he accomplishes it. The same is true in writing.

Poptart's example of imposing your own views is a good one. If you are telling the reader THAT a character said/did/thought/etc something, that's telling. What you want to do is tell the reader HOW a character says/does/thinks/etc something.

Focus on the action (even small actions like the way a character fiddles with his keys) and the writing will become more realistic, as well as easier to connect to.

Re: Show Don't Tell

Posted: April 14th, 2010, 10:14 am
by bcomet
I am interested in thoughts about this subject in regards to a story being told through one point of view.
If being inside one character's head and thoughts is important to the story,
how much balance is in order between their inner thoughts and outer action?

Looking at this, in YA, I find a lot of variance.

I find in some novels the thoughts of the character are what make the character interesting.

I can also get bored when the showing details go on and on, i.e., showing every bite of lunch when one will suffice.

Re: Show Don't Tell

Posted: April 14th, 2010, 11:00 am
by tameson
Stealing a quote from Daniel Abrahams:
1) "Show, don't tell" is a beginner's strategy. Dramatize when it's time to dramatize, summarize when it's time to summarize. Knowing the difference is the job description.

He has his ten rules for writing up on his blog (he is published with an amazing fantasy series that manages to be very unique and satisfying and thought provoking).

Sometimes showing that Jenn is a gossip is good, sometimes, just tell us quick, so we can get to the actual story.

Re: Show Don't Tell

Posted: April 14th, 2010, 11:26 am
by Margo
The show-vs-tell issue looks to me much like the tension and conflict issue. At a workshop on tension, an agent mentioned that a writer can indeed have too much relentless tension, line after line, page after page...but he's never seen it...ever. In fact, the vast majority of the ms.s he sees are pretty much flatlined as far as tension is concerned, so he doesn't preach about moderating tension in a ms. Show-vs-tell is another of those. I very very very much doubt most aspiring writers need to worry that they are showing too much when they could be making artful and strategic use of telling.

The book Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell does have a great section on manipulating the balance between showing and telling to control and escalate scene tension. However, since quite a few people have trouble distinguishing between telling and showing, that might be putting the cart before the horse. Trying to explain to a child the subtle differences between the persimmon crayon and the tangerine crayon is useless when he doesn't know the difference between orange and purple.