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Let's Talk about Show Don't Tell

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Heliotrope, Jan 16, 2018.

  1. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Nothing is more frustrating for a writer than the old adage of "show, don't tell."

    The first time I encountered this terrible (well meaning) advice was at a writer's workshop for teachers about seven years ago. The instructor used the example of "the milk spilled." He told us that was telling, and we needed to re-write it as "showing"... what would it look like? Smell like? Sound like?

    It all seems well and good and you come away feeling like it is a magical formula for writing immersive fiction... until you realize that if you show every single thing in your story it is going to be a million words long.

    So now what? What do you tell and what do you show? What does show, don't tell actually mean?

    For me, personally, show don't tell is big picture. Not the little line by line incidentals.

    If a writer opens up with a scene showing two sisters nicely playing with dolls, but the writer then goes on to tell me "Suzie didn't really like her sister. She found her annoying." I might pause for a moment and think... well, why didn't you show me that? You have shown me something totally different than what you are telling me.

    When I am planning a scene I make a list of scene goals. They might include something along the lines of "Show why the MC thinks her dad is lazy." "Show her frustration with having to look after him all the time."

    Big picture stuff. Not the tiny, line by line details.

    Another way I think of it is, as Dem puts it (thanks to Buzz Lightyear), showing is just telling with style. I love to use the first lines of American Gods for this example.

    Shadow had done three years in prison. He looked big enough and don't fuck with me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape and taught himself coin tricks and thought a lot about his wife.

    Gaiman could have spent four chapters showing life in prison. Showing Shadow sitting around feeling sad. Showing him taking coin trick books out from the library and teaching himself... but again, then the story would be ten thousand words long. This is where you need to use discretion as an author. About how long do you want your story to be? Be reasonable. Don't say "as long as it needs to be". How much sitting around moping is your reader going to tolerate? Sometimes you have to cut the showing so that you can get to the good parts. Show those. Show the stuff that really matters. For the rest, just use "telling with style." lol.

    What do you think Scribes?

    How do you use the rule of show, don't tell? When do you know when to show and when to just tell?

    How do you define the phrase?
     
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  2. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    It's completely instinctive with me. Some things need 'splainin' and something things don't. I couldn't begin to tell you how I distinguish. I deeply doubt I'm consistent. This extends to crit work. I'll point it out readily enough, but danged if I can tell you what general principle I was following. I doubt I'm consistent there either.

    Helpful, ain't I? :)
     
  3. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    Show don't tell was one of the first pieces of writing advice that I took way too far. Aside from making things waaaaay longer, if you go too far with it, things can get vague. But, there's no better teacher than failure. :D

    Any ways, I'm in agreement. Over the years I've come to realize the most important parts of showing take place in the big picture environment, scene and story level. A writer can make some very powerful statements this way.

    I've mentioned this many times, but one of my favorite books that does this is Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee. And my favorite movie that does this is No Country for Old Men.

    At first I was scratching my head over the endings of these two stories, but when it finally clicked that they were telling me, it was like a light flicking on, shinning a light on to what the story as a whole was trying to show me, or at least what I think it's trying to show me.

    For me, I try to design it into my scenes and overall story, but with the smaller stuff, I just play it by ear.
     
    Last edited: Jan 16, 2018
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  4. Night Gardener

    Night Gardener Inkling

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    HeliotropeHeliotrope I use the 'show, don't tell' adage to the same effect of directors using visual storytelling. If you can watch lengthy scenes with little to no dialogue, and still understand there is a narrative, that's 'show, don't tell'.

    The best example I can give is the first 15 minutes of "Wall-E". Totally immersive, descriptive narrative with virtually no contextual dialogue from characters and no voiceover narrator. Yet, the audience "gets" the story.

    There's some discretion and artistic license, for sure. Sometimes, it's absolutely necessary to voice-over (tell) because it's for the sake of structure, pacing, editing, etc. Your example of Shadow serving a prison sentence for 4 years is an excellent example. Or, when the (omnipresent) narrator is not a passive force/voice and can inform the reader to information/context that the characters cannot know, etc. I'm basically keeping to one point of view (for now) of the MC.

    I think 'visually' anyway, so 'showing' is a natural reflex. The only thing I try to keep in mind is the relevance of what I'm showing, so reader's don't get bogged down in too many details. In that regard, anything that I'm showing has to be purposeful to the story. I don't let myself elaborate too much on details that *I* the author find interesting. Details have to be worth knowing and remembering, for characters and/or readers. It's curbing my world building a bit, but I can always go back and write-in more information. I do elaborate on the details that [should] matter to the characters.

    Hopefully, I'm striking the right balance.
     
  5. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    When I first came into contact with "Show, don't tell" as a writer, I too grasped onto this bit of advice a bit too hard. It took a while to learn that an over reliance on showing resulted in writing that was equally as troublesome as an over reliance on telling. The problem, I slowly came to realize, is that if you show everything, offer up active details and active description for every little bit, nothing stands out. Nothing.

    I now view the "Show, don't tell" rule differently. I show when I want to draw the audience's attention to something, whether it be a character's emotional state, their perception of some object, or any other number of possibilities, in a way that immerses the reader in that moment to a greater degree than just blurting it out would.

    Truth is, telling done well can be just as engaging if it piques interest (as your Gaiman example does, which I also adore as a novel and as an opening). Telling is a broad brush that gives a picture its shape. Showing is a fine point that draws the eye.
     
  6. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

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    I often think about it as I'm about to write something to the effect of ~ She felt X. Then I cut to dialogue, either internal or with another character and let the scene be carried that way (although I do leave felt behind sometimes).
     
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  7. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I have never had the audacity to say so, but I've always viewed Show, Don't Tell as..... well, middle school english class stuff.

    "Okay class, this time we're going to write a story instead of an essay. That means you have to show me what happens instead of tell me what happens. I'm going to circle and take off points for anything that strikes me as telling, so please get into the narrative."

    Or, it's like if somebody asks, "Do you know anything about physics?" and somebody answers, "Of course! Gravity pulls things down."

    Yes, show don't tell is one of those fundamental building blocks to a narrative. But it's so fundamental and so basic that as writing advice, out of some kind of context, it's almost absurd.

    Gravity pulls things down, sure. And up, because it actually pulls things to the center. But it also keeps the planets in orbit circling around the sun, and there's so much other gravity in our solar system that sun moves a bit too, pulling everything with it. But yes, gravity pulls things down, and Isaac Newton got hit in the head with an apple. Let's award you with a degree in physics.....
     
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  8. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    In some ways it is.... in some ways it isn't. I think that symbolism and metaphor and imagery tie into the "show" aspect of thing.

    A masterful writer will be able to find symbols and metaphors to show certain themes. A great one I read recently was a family drama. The woman and man had been trying, unsuccessfully to conceive. The woman went for groceries, and pulled over on a cliff to ponder the predicament. In her rage she started throwing groceries off the cliff. She threw twelve eggs over the edge... exactly the same number of eggs she felt she "wasted" on the IVF.

    This takes some serious skill. This isn't basic level stuff, IMO. This is the sort of "showing" that takes a higher level of expertise.
     
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  9. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I should probably apologize for my tone above - I tend to go through phases of wind up and release, and right now I'm finding myself inclined to vent a little.

    As with a lot of advice and perspectives, people have to find what works for them. If show, don't tell takes somebody's writing to a place like this, then by all means. Honestly, the last thing I want to do is ruin anybody's mojo. I think most of us feel that there's a certain type of energy we have to maintain as writers, and that protecting that energy is one of the most important parts of learning to write. If show don't tell helps keep somebody going, honestly, that person should ignore the hell outta me in this discussion.

    For me, show don't tell doesn't suggest anything like the scene above. To me, I'd be more worried about having to cut the small amount of telling it would take to establish the symbolism between the eggs and the IVF.

    Show don't tell doesn't work for me at all. I personally avoid it as a writing perspective even in those cases where it's appropriate because it feels so excessively... simple.
     
  10. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    So what do you do instead?... How do you present your story to the reader if not with showing and telling? And without symbolism, metaphor, or imagery?
     
  11. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    Again, I don't not show, I just don't think about my writing in terms of showing and telling. It's not a perspective that works for me at all.

    I think about the heart of the scene, and then the flow of different pieces that lead into to it. Sometimes there's layers - like I'll write the dialogue first (if it's that kind of scene), then isolate the big payoff moments to develop them a little more, then fill in the narrative and character voice so that it runs together.

    Show don't tell just isn't useful for me to think about at all.

    I don't really agree that symbolism, metaphor and imagery is showing.
     
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  12. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Okay. But how do you know what is important to present to the reader? How do you know what parts of the story are relevant to the story, and what ones are not? How do you choose what to present?
     
  13. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

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    How about with engagement?
     
  14. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Right. So what does that mean? Elaborate on engagement....
     
  15. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    As an aside, symbolism, metaphor and simile might be showing. They could also, in their simplest forms, be telling.
     
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  16. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    For me it is all either showing or telling. Setting, dialogue, characterization, symbolism, metaphor, simile, imagery.... it can only be either shown or told in my mind. This is why I'm intrigued by how Devor and Chessie see it. I'd love them to elaborate more so I can see it a different way.
     
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  17. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    Okay, here's a scene I wrote recently. It's the third and last scene in a chapter of Ladybug fanfiction. If you want, you can think about what's showing, what's telling, and what's kind of neither while you read through it.

    In this scene, I knew I wanted to do three things:

    - Get through the plot stuff about the kwamis as quickly as possible.
    - Establish that Chat Noir has really given up on pursuing Ladybug.
    - Demonstrate that Ladybug is sad about this without ever admitting it to herself.

    I'm ignoring the kwami stuff at the beginning for our purposes (it makes more sense in light of the rest of the chapter).

    The first thing I wanted to focus on was Chat Noir's sadness. He's decided to give up on pursuing the woman he loves, and is telling her. It's not something I want to show or tell, it's something I wanted readers to feel, constantly, throughout the scene, like there's no escaping it. It's in the way he looks at her, or doesn't. It's in his words and pauses. It's there in Ladybug's observations and reactions. It's the heart of the scene.

    I also wanted readers to feel the jumble of Ladybug's feelings about all this. She comes into the scene thinking she owes him a chance to get to know him better, and that's the moment she's getting what she had always wanted - for him to move on. She wanted to open up just as he finally decided to pull back. How does that make her feel? I needed that confusion to come across so that she can later realize that this moment was a terrible mistake.

    Now, I'll admit, I did type out the above, realize I used the word "show" at one point, and then changed it because, you know. But I don't think of any of this in, what strikes me as a weird battle between showing and telling. I want readers to experience something, and I use every moment in the story that I can to try and drive those feelings home, whether it's narrative, or dialogue, or a character's voice, or a clever turn of phrase, or an awkward narrative insert. The reader's experience is what matters.
     
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  18. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

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    It seems pretty straightforward. I don't feel like elaborating. Sorry.
     
  19. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    This is lovely, and I think this is where a lot of our miscommunication is coming from :)

    When I write a post about show and tell I'm leaving out the "feel"... I had to think about why this is. I think for me, the "feel" is the given. I think we all want our reader's to feel something.

    Now, we differ slightly in how we make that work. I don't believe I can make my reader's feel anything. I think they are going to feel what they are going to feel. It will hopefully be something close to what I want them to feel, but mostly I just present (or show) the story, and my character's emotions, as best I can and hope they feel something.

    You, on the other hand, are trying to craft specific emotions in your reader. Which is totally good and not wrong. It is a noble quest.

    This is interesting, because we go about planning our scenes in a very similar way. Only the language is different. Where you use "get through the plot stuff as quickly as possible" I use "tell".

    Where you use "Establish that Chat Noir has really given up on pursuing Ladybug" I would say "Show that Chat Noir has given up on pursuing ladybug."

    Seriously, the only thing different is semantics.

    No. I don't know? Why? Because you are opposed to the word? Or because you are opposed to the fact that maybe we have more in common than you would like to admit?

    Agree. 100% agree. I have never argued this. When I'm writing I'm not trying to tell a dry, boring, zombified story. I also am trying to show a vast range of truth and humanity, and trying to get the reader to "feel" along with my characters.

    Whether that emotion is fear, anger, sadness, grief, or joy.... I purposely choose what to "show" and what to "tell" to make that happen. Just like you choose what to "Get through quickly" and what to "establish or demonstrate".
     
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  20. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    No... because for the purposes of the conversation I didn't want to conflate what I saw as two different uses of the word. I did want to show readers that Chat Noir felt sad, but on the actual tactical level there was a lot of telling involved in doing so. It wasn't show as opposed to tell but show as in this happens to be a word I use sometimes when listing things I want to establish (by any means necessary) in the scene.

    You can, you know, make of that what you will.

    By the way, did you like the scene?
     
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