1. Welcome to the Fantasy Writing Forums. Register Now to join us.

"Show don't tell" and why it annoys me.

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by MauEvig, Nov 8, 2019.

Should you show, don't tell?

  1. Always. Describe every single little detail.

    4.3%
  2. Yes, but some amount of telling is alright. The key is balance and showing when needed.

    95.7%
  3. Tell a story, don't show it.

    0 vote(s)
    0.0%
  4. Other opinion

    0 vote(s)
    0.0%
  1. MauEvig

    MauEvig Scribe

    25
    6
    3
    So I'm going to be blunt, this entire advice surrounding one's creative writing annoys me to no end. Lately I've been getting critiques about how my characters tend to be "bland" (I'm looking at you Ao3!) and how my descriptions fall short. And I just sit and go...how exactly? It's really frustrating.
    I've been told by people in the past that you need to "show not tell." Now, I'm an individual diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. To me, showing something means holding up a picture and pointing things out on it, or pointing something out on the landscape. It's called "Storytelling" isn't it? It's not story showing. Such a phrase doesn't even roll off the tongue nicely.
    So I try to understand it better, but let's face it, despite being an English major metaphors can absolutely baffle me. I'll read a poem about someone walking through a gate in the woods. Then I'm told they're not actually walking through a gate. I just sit and go...what!? But then I'm also told I can't just personally interpret it, I have to go by what it says. Uhm. Yeah that's British Literature for you, but more to the point...
    The given examples I have seen, like for example when they compare two different descriptions. "Ralph was angry." and then "Ralph felt his face flush red like a beet and closed his hands to resemble balls," ok first of all, being the literal person I am, I'm going to imagine his fists literally turning into balls. To me, just saying "Ralph was angry" was enough. But to the rest of the world, it's bland. The more descriptive version gives me a headache. This is why I can't read Tolkien, even though I enjoyed the movies because they were able to shift through the heavy overwhelming details and actually find the story.
    I don't mind some description to give a general idea of the story. JK Rowling I felt did a great job with Harry Potter, but there were times when her descriptions made me think of very cartoonish off the wall things. Then I watched the movie and go...oh. That's nothing how I imagined it. That's not how I pronounced the name.
    Plus I think the editing process has made me so burned out, I'm having trouble enjoying writing. I have recently got a new creative streak, but deep in the pit of my stomach I keep thinking...alright. What are they going to say about this piece?
    I think the big issue I have is...I want to tell a story. Not get so lost in details that I personally find are irrelevant that we get off track. I could care less what the leaf looks like. Just tell me it's orange and call it a day to tell me it's fall.
    And also, I think there are some writers who agree that we can't always show a story, we need to tell it in some ways as well. Describing everything just seems so...tedious.
    So what is your advice? Write, and edit in suggested descriptions later? or try to fit them into the first draft while painstakingly using a thesaurus like a Bible?
    Thoughts?
     
  2. goldhawk

    goldhawk Troubadour

    117
    96
    28
    Saying, "Ralph was angry," is not enough. Nor is giving a description of his looks. Instead, describe his actions because of his angry. OK, you can start a paragraph with, "Ralph was angry," but then tell its consequences. As a different example:

    "Shit," said Ralph as he climbed out of the cold-sleep chamber. His tactical board was awash with the red dots of enemy craft. "I'm fucked."

    Note that there is no describe of Ralph's emotions or his appearance. But the emotional impact is strong. That's what "show, don't tell" means. Show the emotions; don't tell just what is happening.

    Consider the shortest story ever told, written by Hemingway:

    For sale: baby shoes, never used.

    The description is very brief but the emotions are strong.
     
    Hexasi, Darkfantasy and Aldarion like this.
  3. Yora

    Yora Inkling

    411
    183
    43
    Telling means to tell the audience that something is important, the characters are in danger, or what characters are feeling.
    Showing means to tell the audience things about a situation so that they can come to the conclusion "this feels important to me", "I think the characters are in danger", or "I think I know what the characters would be feeling".

    You can have situations where a character says "We absolute must succeed at this and we have no other option", but when the audience is wondering "why is this so important and why does this character care?", it just feels like a bad scene.
    Or you have to characters who never really interact with each other and then at the end they suddenly proclaim that they always loved each other. And the audience is thinking "we've never been given any evidence for that, this feels completely arbitrary."

    Show don't tell is a shorter version for "provide evidence to the audience for why things matter and what characters feel, instead of telling the audience what they are supposed to think about a situation".
     
  4. MauEvig

    MauEvig Scribe

    25
    6
    3
    Alright, that makes some sense then as far as the character is concerned. But how about the setting itself? Sure I might describe the weather as "Rain poured buckets of water over the landscape" or "the roar of thunder echoed reverberating throughout the land" or something along those lines. Show don't tell then seems to imply how a character is reacting, right?
    And I see...providing evidence. I realize that's something we have to do a lot in essay writing, but story writing is also different in so many regards. The interactions between the characters should be the evidence right?
    So it's not necessarily trying to find a bunch of crazy descriptive words to get your point across?
     
  5. goldhawk

    goldhawk Troubadour

    117
    96
    28
    Sometimes, you just have to tell. But don't go overboard. Using a bunch of crazy, descriptive words is the wrong way to go. Describe it in everyday language. Otherwise, you're going to turn off a lot of people.
     
  6. MauEvig

    MauEvig Scribe

    25
    6
    3
    That actually sounds more reasonable. For fun, I thought I would try it out on my cat wanting my donuts. I'm not joking. lol
    So the telling part would be like, "Drifter wants my donuts."

    The descriptive part: Drifter looked at me with those big eyes full of longing. He shifted his pose from laying down to sitting, and he reached out his paw in anticipation as I scarfed down my donuts.

    Maybe I should try little exercises like that to help me get comfortable with it. I appreciate the advice, and I'm sorry about getting so...frustrated as a writer. lol
     
  7. Yora

    Yora Inkling

    411
    183
    43
    Great example. I think that hits exactly what is meant by the advice.

    Regarding the environment, I would say one example of bad telling would be when you just say "the character was afraid being alone on the street at night". It gets the point across and is something that is easy to understand and not difficult to believe. But it can be a lot more interesting and feel more impactfull if a little time is taken to describe the particular streets the character is passing through. For example by mentioning deep shadows between buildings, dim and broken street lights, police sirens in the distance, and poorly visible people shuffling away in the fog. This gives us something to help imagining what the environment looks and feels like, and then we can feel that the character is probably quite afraid.
     
    Reaver likes this.
  8. MauEvig

    MauEvig Scribe

    25
    6
    3
    Thank you! :) It wrote it off the top of my head. Of course, my cats tend to be inspiring in a lot of ways just with their cute and silly antics.

    And that does make sense. It can be scary at night, especially if you don't know what's out there. But by describing the city environment, you find out why the character was afraid of being alone on the street at night.
    So would you then suggest telling, then showing? Or just simply show it? Like for example...a similar situation.
    Ralph was afraid of going out into the woods at night. He cringed at the thought of screeching owls, the winds howling through the dark trees carrying the branches like ghostly hands clawing at him and hungry eyes glaring at him deciding if he would become their next meal.
     
    Reaver likes this.
  9. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    5,364
    2,380
    313
    When it comes to descriptions, I try to give the reader enough information that they can create an image of their own. The human imagination is extremely powerful, and it doesn't take more than a single word to set off images rattling through someone's mind - provided they're a visual person.
    Some people enjoy long flowing descriptions, and they create elaborate images in their mind. Others just want the characters to get on with the action. Then there are people with aphantasia, but that's a bit of a different matter, even if they too enjoy reading.

    The way I see it, showing is about giving your reader the opportunity to create an image of their own. When a reader creates their own images, they're drawing from their own associations and experiences, and they put something of themselves into it. In this way, they become more invested in the story, and it becomes more real to them.

    No single person is going to imagine my main character, or his hometown in the exact same way I do. This is something you can choose to embrace, fight, or ignore.
    You can fight it by making your descriptions as elaborate, precise, and detailed as you possibly can. That's fine, but you'll probably still fail.
    You can ignore it, and just write however you please, and that's fine too.
    Or you can embrace it, and just give the reader enough details that the story makes sense, and then leave the rest to their imagination (perhaps add a little bit of seasoning here and there).

    Showing isn't about writing elaborate and detailed descriptions, it's about making the reader's imagination work.
     
    A. E. Lowan and Reaver like this.
  10. Aldarion

    Aldarion Troubadour

    154
    67
    28
    I think Tolkien is a good example, especially if you want to go into emotions of people in a battle - e.g. his siege of Minas Tirith description. You can feel the emotions.
     
    Reaver likes this.
  11. blondie.k

    blondie.k Minstrel

    70
    24
    8
    People always say to show, and don't tell. For the most part, they're right but I have found that there are just some situations that require telling. I would say that if possible, avoid telling as much as you can. If there comes a time that you can't find any other way around it, then you can tell. Save telling for a last resort.
     
    Yora likes this.
  12. Ned Marcus

    Ned Marcus Troubadour

    113
    46
    28

    Yes, I think so. Describing the weather might be okay, but if you wanted to show it, then you'd need to show the character being affected by it, dealing with it, reacting to it, or you could use it to echo a theme in the story.
     
    blondie.k likes this.
  13. Yes, showing is putting the characters INTO the action instead of describing it from a distance as the narrator.

    Take your sentence above. OK, your character is inside, say, in a small keep, as the weather hits. You want to do more than have them observe/tell visually what is going like a narrator would. Instead, making them physically react to it, even through the simple action of looking out a window:


    Sitting at the abandoned citadel's only window, Ralph's chin rested on his hands, his shoulders hunched forward. The rain, a straight downpour for over an hour, showed no signs of letting up. He stared at the grounds which had, in mere minutes, turned to a formidable muck, one that he had no desire to venture out in. The roads would be worse.

    Lightning flashed across the skies. Ralph stared down into his tin cup and began counting in his head,


    One — two — thr—


    Thunder rolled from east to west. As Ralph watched, the surface of the water in his cup began to quiver. The walls shook and the vibration coursed throughout his entire body, moments before the fear did.

    The storm was drawing closer.

    Rain is turned into more than a detail. It interacts with your characters, it's ominous, it's having a noticeable effect on them. All of which is better than having a distant sentence telling me the rain fell in buckets.

    One thing about detail is, most of it should be relevant. I've lived in four very different areas of the US and rain, other than being wet, is not the same in any of them. Not in how it falls, what accompanies it, the time of year it comes and most of all, what it means to the people living in those places. The timing of rain in North Dakota can make or break an entire season's crops. Rain is Pennsylvania comes suddenly, with rolling thunder and hard lightning, then passes just as quick. Rain on the coast of Oregon can fall every day for three months with only one or two days of sun and we rarely (once a year maybe) hear thunder. It also falls horizontally in the windiest of conditions.

    As for getting that down in a first draft? Nooooooo!!! Not if showing of that nature is not YOUR natural storytelling mode right now, don't worry about it! I think way to many writers waste important inspiration time trying to write perfect sentences, chapters and scenes instead of just getting the words down and coming back to it later.

    It is entirely possible and quite common to work nearly all of the necessary showing in after the draft is written. That's what the editing is for and yes, it's a tedious process but one we ALL go through! Personally, I have to be in a wordsmith mode to go in and do that to the level I strive for. I craft sentences, play with words, and it's simply not natural for many of us to do so in first drafts. Not at the level of a published work.

    Editing is where you can take it line by line, scene by scene and think about the whole picture. What's in a room, what the character experiences and feels, how they react to everything in their environment. Pulling it all together in one cohesive scene. Your character/action is always the main focus but working those details in though their observation and interactions, will make them far more interesting to a reader and keep them immersed in the story itself as they go.

    Another example would be, instead of telling me that a forest takes three days to pass through, have a character balk at the suggestion that the small party she is traveling with is going to do so:

    Linn's eyes widened at the proposal, "Hold on —you want to go through that forest?" She shook her head, a hand working the back of her neck, "It'll take three days, if we're lucky, and there's no telling where we'll come out." She turned to look back at the cobbled path behind them, "I know the road is riskier, but it'll have us there in half the time."
    And everything you might include in a paragraph of narrative exposition about that forest you can likely work in as the party passes through it. The darkness, the impassibility, unusual creatures etc.

    Telling, as I have come to see it, can quickly result in a disconnect between character and the environment or action. A brief initial description of a landscape or room or even of another character seen for the first time is ok, but it's telling, as opposed to seeing it THROUGH the eyes as your character enters into it or meets up with it, adding in their silent thoughts, reactions or little bits of memory or commentary. I think it is better to get your character into every scene as soon as you can. A paragraph about a landscape that is pure exposition is ok and pages long descriptions like that are a part of almost all older fantasy work but when possible, having your character see it, describe it as they themselves first lay eyes on it, is better by todays standards. It has greater appeal. Does that make sense?

    As for characters and how they come alive. It is important to differentiate each from the next. It's small things. Even just in speaking. Their expressions. Use of phrasing. Temperaments and word choices. You should be able to take a page of dialogue, remove your dialogue tags and still know who is speaking most of the time by the way they speak. In real life, this is true. I know two sets of identical twins (one in their thirties, one in their seventies) and if they dressed identically, I could tell them apart by how they talk even though their voices, tone wise, are nearly identical to the ear.

    Being on the autistic spectrum as you described, some of this may come harder for you just as sentence structure, dialogue, grammar, plot development or characters may be for another person for any number of reasons. It's just what we have to overcome to write great stories.

    And critique. You have to, ultimately, be the one to decide what to listen to and what not to. If you believe in a story as you have written it, I cannot tell you it's good or bad, right or wrong. Only you can decide that for yourself. If you want to sell stories. Be a writer professionally, than you always have to work on taking critique and doing rewrites, working it over and over because that is the nature of the beast. : )

    I have heard several writers talk about their process on a novel and say the had to start all over, almost from the ground up, on a fully finished manuscript, because their editors had shown them where it was not working and the flaws were too great to fix.

    I suggest you work towards finding someone you can trust to be completely honest with you and work with them when it comes time to edit a story. Of course, they have to be able to not worry about sparing your feelings and you have to trust them to be able to tell you why something works or doesn't work without using only the cliched terms like "show, don't tell." They have to know their stuff. It's not easy to find but it's a must to do our best work. It took me years to find that person and I cannot imagine my writing without them. She sees things I never would because I am to close to the story. When she points them out, I'm like, "OMG how did I not see that!" Because I know it to be right, but I'm blind to a lot of the details she points out having been immersed in the story too long myself, I miss the technical things. I'm getting better at it, but it's work.

    I hope some of that helps. Again, take what you will from it and ask any questions if I was muddled in any way.
     
    Reaver likes this.
  14. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    5,667
    3,633
    313
    For myself, it's about feeling. I have to *feel* what the character is feeling--as they encounter a situation (the cat and the donuts) or move through a setting (forest at night). This usually means I have to slow myself down. My tendency is to sort of race through a scene, to tell myself what happened, and then move on to the next scene. I've learned to regard this first draft as the literary equivalent of sketching. It's all lines and composition.

    If I can manage to slow myself down, I take the time to imagine myself in that setting. I get specific. It's not just any forest, it's a particular forest I myself have been in. It helps that I really have been in a forest at night and been frightened, because I can recall my physical and psychological reactions. But I've never been in a sword fight, so I have to turn to other sources for details. But I can still take the time to evoke what feelings I can for the moment. Maybe my character was surprised in an alley, but maybe it is a duel at dawn. There will be different feelings for each. The more I can put myself in the moment, the more vivid will be my descriptions.

    And sometimes I do the sketch first. To draw on another art, it's bit like blocking a scene for a play. You have to figure out where the actors go, who moves where when, where to put the couch. Once those details are out of the way, the actors (and director) can concentrate on emotions without getting distracted. Well, as much as actors are without distractions, anyway. If I've got a draft of a scene and I know the details--we're fighting in a forest at night--then I can go through the writing again with attention to evoking the confusion and desperation of night fighting.

    It also matters to work on language skills. Being able to select just the right word on the first pass can make a huge difference in how one feels about a scene, as the author. Very often it's a word or, more frequently, a phrase or sentence that makes the whole scene. It's like hitting exactly the right note with exactly the right tone at exactly the right moment--it can make the whole musical performance resonate.

    Anyway, the key to all this--for me, for me--is to get in there with the characters and feel what they're feeling. Only then do I know what it is I'm trying to communicate to the reader. And that almost always means slowing the heck down.
     
    Reaver likes this.
  15. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Sage

    361
    88
    28
    Showing is far more interesting to read than telling. It also evokes character
     
  16. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    5,667
    3,633
    313
    I'd like to be able to distinguish between tell and show. How do you tell?

    OK, so I couldn't pass up the word play, but the distinction is relevant. It's fairly easy to come up with extreme examples of telling and showing. Do this, don't do that. Most writing, though, is a little closer to the Wide Fuzzy Middle, and for the beginning writer it can be difficult to tell when one is telling. Worse, that beginner is very likely to hand the manuscript over to friends, online critique groups, and so on, which may well have critiquers who themselves aren't very good between telling the difference between "this is showing" and "I got bored here."

    What is an author to do? Damnedifino. I just wanted to point out to other beginner writers that it's not like there's some clear distinction that other writers know all about and you don't. Naw. It's as mushy as mashed potatoes. It's just one of the Thousand Mysteries involved in becoming a writer. Eventually, you develop an ear for it and your writing improves. If you're really lucky, you get an editor who can point out specifics.
     
    Demesnedenoir likes this.
  17. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    2,023
    1,154
    163
    First off, neither example is good. Ralph is angry and Ralph felt are both weak. Both can work at times, but if the bulk of a book does this, it’s going to be junk, IMO. Fact is, I’d take the Ralph is angry over the longer example, it’s just bad. Ralph is angry could be the best way to go depending on the circumstance, the POV, the voice, etc.

    All writing can be called telling. Here I bring in my bastardization of Woody from Toy Story... That’s not flying, it’s falling with style!* Showing is telling with style, telling is the clunk in the reading, and much of the issue is not with a single clunk, it’s the series of clunks, or a clunk where the reader expects some panache or depth.

    * This came to me while watching a lecture from a writing professor at Iowa’s workshop describing a tell paragraph and the show paragraph... both his examples told, but one told with style.
     
  18. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    5,364
    2,380
    313
    I was thinking about this earlier. How a showing is just a grouping of tellings that work together.

    Overly simplistic, perhaps, but...
     
    Firefly likes this.
  19. Yora

    Yora Inkling

    411
    183
    43
    The important thing is the result. The goal is to make the audience understand and feel that things matter or the emotions of characters or scenes.
    What you really want to avoid is telling the audience "this is scary" and the audience thinks "no it isn't". That's where you get a problem and lose the audence.
     
  20. Hexasi

    Hexasi Dreamer

    18
    4
    3
    I believe in many ways comment #2 sums up my views on this subject.
     
Loading...

Share This Page