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Show, don't Tell...How do you do it?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Androxine Vortex, Sep 10, 2012.

  1. Androxine Vortex

    Androxine Vortex Archmage

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    I've heard many people on this forum say "show don't tell" when it comes to describing things and giving detail. I've noticed that in my stories I tent to "tell" a lot. I will be in the middle of telling the actual story and then I will have to kind of pull-over and give the reader some background info. Not necessarily an info-dump but it never looks good when I go back and reread it. But there are some parts in books where it seems you have to give the reader some background info that could be crucial to understand. Anyone care to help me out with this and better explain it to me?
     
  2. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    Regarding incorporating background into the story so that it doesn't appear like an infodump:

    You need to practice the art of misdirection. The problem arises when, lets say, the heroine is going to use a letter opener to kill the bad guy. You have to mention the letter opener, obviously. How you do it is the important thing. Typically, you'd probably think to show her opening a letter with it and going on. The reader thinks, "Oh, that's going to be important later."

    Instead, focus on the letter opener as a symbol of something else. Her noticing the letter opener leads into her thinking about a former lover who wrote her letters. This way, the reader thinks you put it there for an entirely different reason, and the use at the end comes as a surprise.

    This isn't exactly what you asked, but it's the same concept. Think about each detail you add to your story. What is the reader's likely expectation regarding that detail? How can you subvert that expectation to surprise them? By adding subtlety and layers to your writing, you'll feel that it's less predictable.

    Another word of advice: most of the time when you feel you have to explain something about the background, you really don't.
     
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  3. yachtcaptcolby

    yachtcaptcolby Minstrel

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    Often this applies to emotions and attitudes. Don't just say someone's angry; show him stomping around, breaking stuff, and screaming. Don't just say someone's uncomfortable; describe his sweaty palms or a nervous tic that suddenly manifests.
     
  4. gavintonks

    gavintonks Maester

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    avoid they did this and then they did that

    engage your characters through the pov that is why you have one

    Then look at the action through dialogue and interaction of your characters as if you were describing it in real life

    John walked into the forest
    John walked into the forest, his clothes blended perfectly with the autumn leaves I would not have noticed if it were not for the deer I was hunting
    I saw john walk into the forest
    John was furtive tonight and kept looking over his shoulder when he entered the forest as usual tonight
    "Jane," I whispered why is John walking into the forest?"
    John had no idea when he walked into the Forrest how many eyes were watching him
    "here comes John." the mouth below the eyes whispered, "pass it along if hissed," the voice dripped with hunger and he was to be lunch.

    You have to explore what engages the reader and makes you want to read more and find out why and what John was doing instead of telling us what John has just done or is doing
     
    MamaZia and Androxine Vortex like this.
  5. Androxine Vortex

    Androxine Vortex Archmage

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    Here's an example from my WIP

    Mogruk did not mind being sent off to hunt. In fact, it thrilled him and he felt that it was the only time he was at peace. He was not the greatest of hunters but the joy of killing and the stimulating hunt indulged him. He recalled that one time he killed a lone wolf in these woods many years ago. It's pelt was still wrapped around his loins. Unconsciously, he traced the small scar on his forearm that the wolf had given him with it's razor sharp claws. But having scars to an orc was an honorable thing. They were trophies of your battles and meant that you were victorious. It also meant that you've got a good story to tell later around the fire when everyone is drunk.

    I wanted to let the reader know that Orcs view having scars as honorable and was accepted in their society. Is this fine though?
     
  6. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    This is a telling passage and is not needed. Let Mogruk's actions show that he enjoys hunting. Have him caress his spear (or whatever). Have him lovingly mend his camo outfit. Show him existing in the hunt as a man at complete peace with his surroundings. You get the point.

    See my comments above. You seem to feel the need to tell the reader everything about your character. If you show him acting, the reader will come to these conclusions (or draw their own). The reader doesn't need to know he's a bad hunter to experience the hunt with your character. If you show someone more skillful or show the others making fun of his ability, they will come to understand that he's not good. That's much better than you telling him.

    Question: Do you realize that these sentences are telling? If so, that's a good first step. If not, tell me and I'll see if I can help.

    Advice: For each of these sentences, ask yourself "how can I show this to the reader instead?"

    This is much better. You're showing him tracing a scar which leads to remembering. I'd take it a step further and start the first sentence with: The feel of the pelt wrapped around his loins transported him back to the time he killed a lone wolf. He traced...

    This is also telling but, IMO, is more acceptable. Why you ask? My thinking is that you want to reveal character through action. Any facts about your character need to be brought out through demonstrations. It's more acceptable, on the other hand, to reveal facts about the society though telling. It's not ideal, granted, but it's much better than doing the same with a character. After all, to reveal everything about a society through demonstation may take up far to much space than is warranted. Alway, though, consider trying to show these details if you can work them into a scene.
     
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  7. Lorna

    Lorna Inkling

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    Some of it's good but some parts still stand out as telling.

    Here you're telling the reader what Mogruk's emotions are rather than describing how he feels. I don't know Mogruk so wouldn't know how to describe his emotions exactly, but to me the thrill of the hunt sounds like a release from some kind of inner pain. Could you describe this thrill in terms of his physical sensations ie. blood racing, pulse lifting as well as the lifting of the burden of his inner conflict and desire for peace?

    What about killing brings Morgruk joy? What kind of anticipation is he feeling? Does he lust for the chase, for the blood, does he enjoy watching slaughter? What kind of indulgence is he seeking? Thinking through these questions will provide more concrete depcitions of Morgruk's emotions.

    This is really good. Here I'm seeing into looking into Morgruk's mind. I'm observing his memory and seeing him trace his scar.

    I like what you're doing here. Could you make it less telling by re-working these as Morgruk's thoughts. Describe his sense of honour in his scars, his feelings of victory, the complements of his fellows and the story telling.
     
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  8. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

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    If you wanted to take it a bit further yet, you could combine this with the previous sentence. "Unconsciously he traced the small scar left where the wolf had clawed his forearm -- proof that he had emerged victorious from the fight." Or something like that. You may not want to, and that's fine too.
     
  9. Ankari

    Ankari Hero Breaker Moderator

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    I agree with trying to show more than tell, but sometimes it's needed. In this case, showing Mogruk enjoying the hunt is great, except that we wouldn't know it's actually not something he is supposed to enjoy. Not the bold words. He doesn't mind it, that means that most people do mind it. This is a good example, in my opinion, of a case where telling is acceptable and necessary.
     
  10. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    The phrase is missing a word. It should be "Show don't tell... sometimes." Its application can be very nebulous. The most simple application is with emotion. Like mention above, instead of saying Fred was angry, you can say Fred threw a frying pan across the room. But sometimes if your prose around sets it up just right the phrase Fred was angry can be very powerful too.

    One of the lessons I learned about writing is sometimes it's perfectly fine to tell, knowing when is the true skill. It's all very story dependant. For example, do you show the journey of your characters between say two cities or do you just tell and summarize it? Both are perfectly valid options, but you have to think about what the story needs. If the journey doesn't reveal anything important, it's probably better to just skip it.

    But there are other applications to the concept. For example if you have fast running zombies in your world, don't have a character saying we have fast running zombies, have your characters encounter them. OR if you're trying to express a theme or message, don't have your characters just monologue about it. Find a way to express it in a scene and through your character interactions. Here's a example from a move I just rewatched, No Country for Old Men. Small spoiler alert.

    The movie explores this question of violence. There's an appearance that violence has gotten worse in recent times. There's a scene where a character is told that there was violence happening long before and there will be more long after. That this isn't a country for old men.

    Now at the end, this is illustrated (shown) to us in a very subtle scene. The killer that's been running rough-shot through the whole movie like a force of nature get's t-boned in his car. He gets out and he's pretty messed up, broken arm with a bone sticking out. A couple of kids come riding up and they're "Holly crap are you OK, Mister?" The bad guy offers money to the kid for his shirt. The kid goes, "Heck if you need it, take it." The kid literally gives the guy the shirt off his back. The killer gives the kid the money anyway and walks away as sirens scream in the distance.

    This is how I read the scene. The reason why there appears to be more violence is as kids we don't see it, were not aware of it even when it's in front of us. The kids don't see the evil killer. All they see is a man that's hurt and they're willing to do what ever they can to help him. The killer doesn't harm the kids because they're not apart of that violent world yet, but giving them that money brings them one step closer.

    This scene encapsulates an idea, a statement. It doesn't tell us it shows it to us by having it play out before our eyes.


    Now as for relating back story. To me, it's less about show not tell, than know then tell. What I mean by that is know when you can reveal back story and know how much you can reveal it so it feels natural. If a character meets an old friend, it's perfectly fine to reveal a little of their history and any sort of conflict they have because of that history. How much you reveal right then and there is dependant on relevant it is to the present situation. Generally the less relevant the less you need to reveal.

    I'm finding it a bit hard to articulate further, but I'd suggest peeking at one of your favorite authors and study one of their chapters. See how they handle these things.

    Hopefully this helps a bit. Sorry for being so long winded.
     
  11. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    OP,

    Anytime you have a Show Don't Tell thread, you're going to have someone post saying that sometimes it's okay to tell.

    At this point in your learing of the craft, I'd say that learning how to show is much more important than learning when to show. Once you really understand the difference and what each method does for the reader, you can make informed decisions on when to show and when to tell. For now, I think that you will find your writing much more engaging if you do more showing and less telling.

    The paragraph as you had it is not likely to pull the reader in. A scene in which you have good emotion and tension in which you show these things will engage the reader and make them feel closer to your character.

    Hope this helps clear up any confusion.
     
  12. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    I think the way that he expressed it was not engaging. Period.

    Is it possible to include that sentence as a part of an engaging piece. Probably.

    I'm not sure the reason for the quibble.
     
  13. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    Overall I don't think this is bad at all. You slipped in that bit bit of back story about killing a lone wolf nicely and I think you got your point across in a natural manner.

    I disagree that the first sentence is too telling. It actually does a lot of work. It establishes that Mogruk didn't necessarily go on the hunt voluntarily. He was told to, suggesting he's not one of high rank and possibly weak. It also reveals that he kind of likes hunting although it may not be his thing, which as we're told later it isn't. I think it's fine.

    Also I think the second sentence about the joy of killing isn't bad either. You could expand on what the stimulation of the hunt does to him, but as is, it's simple and straightforward and establishes who Mogruk is quickly. We're in his head right now, which is fine, but don't stay inside his head too long. There has to be a balance between exploring the internal and the external world.
     
  14. Ankari

    Ankari Hero Breaker Moderator

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    Because removing the "telling" portion in the first sentence changes the impact of the paragraph. Again, I do champion the efforts of showing. I do commend you and everyone else who is helping the OP learn what is telling and how to correct it. I don't agree with piecemeal advice.

    You gave him detailed, awesome feedback on the way to identify and transform telling into showing. Why not write a couple extra sentences and point out to the OP that even though something (like the first sentence) is telling, it's OK because it sets up a contrast.

    A book that is all show and no tell will come off as a bit murky.
     
  15. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I liked the initial sentence. I think it works well, and accomplishes the things Ankari noted above. You know Mogruk is hunting, the phrasing tells you he is alone, it also tells you he may be unusual in his attitude toward hunting. It also tells you that he is under the authority of someone who told him to go hunt, because he was 'sent.' That's not a bad load to be borne by nine words. (EDIT: Good points, Penpilot; great minds and all :) ).

    It is not an uncommon way of opening a piece. I dislike teaching something incompletely, with a mind to fixing it later (e.g. we'll teach you to show all the time, and then later teach you how to know when to tell). Writers should understand from the beginning that every piece will be a mixture of showing and telling, and what's more they have to determine for themselves the proper balance between the two. It's not like either telling or showing is "incorrect" in and of itself. They are both perfectly acceptable ways to write. Good writers can use telling predominantly and write a good story. Good writers can also use showing predominantly.
     
  16. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    Truthfully, I have a hard time seeing how you can use that first sentence effectively. Maybe you can.

    If I were the author, I'd would try to work the detail he provided into the work and show his reactions.
     
  17. gavintonks

    gavintonks Maester

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    First off what or who is the pov?

    "Mogruk, go and get something to eat," The old woman screeched at him,"What do the gods feed us, she stumbled and feigned a kick at his backside,>' they all laughed, He smiled, he did not mind being sent off to hunt. He jogged down the path with his weapons, clean and ready for use, his mind now at peace with the world. he drew in a deep breath, almost a sigh of contentment.
    I am sure they send me to hunt for practice, probably would starve if they relied on me only, he though a little more seriously. His prize hunted wold pelt reminded him a it had grown a bit stiff and chaffed his leg as he ran."need to get another." he shouted to the forest, this time he will prepare get better, it was a reminder of how long since he had caught and killed anything.

    He thought of the tooth scar and now that bloody would was getting its own back on him, will have a chaffing scar as well, he was so used to moving the pelt for better comfort now. Well at least the elders had tease him about the tooth, calling it a thorn snag, they were proud of him.

    Well at least he had a story and a scar for naming day, he needed another more exciting one though if he was going to be named the xxxxxxxxxxxxxx.............
    good luck with your story
     
  18. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    Regardless of what you like and dislike and what good writers can do, I truly believe that the OP, who earlier today posted saying that he is discouraged with his writing efforts, would be better off trying to learn how to show. I think he'll find his piece more engaging and will thus be more encouraged by his efforts.

    The OP also said in the title: Show, don't tell... how do you do it?

    I'm doing my best to do just that: teach him how to show. Is it really helpful to him at this point in time to get into the same argument again about when to show and when to tell?
     
  19. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    See. This is much more interesting than the original paragraph. It drew me right in.

    Good job using that sentence, btw. I like it the way you worked it in.
     
  20. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I think part of teaching someone to show is teaching them when to do it as well as how. Knowing when to do it, or not to do it, or when either choice will serve you, is part of the 'how.' You can certainly show instead of tell, here. There's nothing wrong with that approach. But there's nothing wrong with mentioning, as well, that it is OK to tell. That's the nature of a discussion thread, and I don't see a problem with divergent viewpoints being shown.
     
    Last edited: Sep 10, 2012
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