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When to tell instead of show.

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Svrtnsse, Dec 18, 2017.

  1. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    As you've all probably heard at one point or another, there's a piece of advice that goes "show, don't tell" and it's thrown about all over the place when writers are trying to get to grips with their art. I know I'm big on this principle. However, there are times when telling is better than showing. It kind of makes sense that there are exceptions to the rule. I've not really come across any source that tries to explain when it's better to tell than to show, only people that say that sometimes it is...

    Until now.
    Here: How to Write Fiction: When To Tell Instead of Show | Kidlit

    At it's core it's pretty basic.Use telling when you're setting up a new scene/premise and need to bring the reader up to speed quickly. Sometime you don't want to spend too long showing things that set the mood of the scene when it's really the action that's important.

    :)
     
  2. Ankari

    Ankari Hero Breaker Moderator

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    I've recently discussed this in my writing group. Another time to tell is when writing in first person and the narrator is disclosing their own own emotion. Why would "I" describe my own physical traits showing my anger (not to mention, how do "I" see it?), Instead of just telling the reader "I" am angry?
     
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  3. Michael K. Eidson

    Michael K. Eidson Archmage

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    In first person, you can say things like, I wanted to smash his face in, which is not exactly the same as saying, I was angry at him. They're both telling, but the former feels more showy than the latter.
     
  4. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    Showing and telling isn't just about showing emotion through action. It has several levels. The most basic is to show someone is angry by having them punch a wall or something similar.

    Showing applies to the concepts, themes, ideas, relationships throughout the story.

    You don't say two people are becoming friends. You show them interacting and have their friendship play out for the reader in such a way that the statement doesn't need to be made.

    You don't just say killing is wrong. You have the events of the story play out and show this.

    I read this book called Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee. On the surface, it's about a teacher in South Africa who slept with a student and is disgraced because of it. He retreats from the controversy by going to stay with his daughter, but during his visit, bad stuff happens.

    When I first read it, all I saw was the surface level events and took everything at face value. I was confused about why certain characters behaved the way they did. And I wondered about why it won the Nobel Prize in literature. But one day, a long while after I read it, I was driving, and it struck me. The book had conveyed to me quite clearly, through its characters and plot, the complexities and nuances of what the people, white and black, of a post-apartheid South Africa faced.

    The same thing struck me when I saw the movie No Country for Old Men. It addressed the concept of violence in America and brought up many interesting questions.

    Any way, trying make sure to say "Bob punched a wall" instead of "Bob was angry." And knowing when to summarize vs. knowing when to have something play out can be important.

    But to me, what was express as a whole in the stories of Disgrace and No Country for Old Men is really what the true value of showing vs telling is. This the master level execution of that concept.
     
  5. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    ^^^^ To expand on penpilot's thoughts,

    It's like when I'm planning a character arc. I know I want the MC to resent her dad and not wholly identify with him at the beginning, but by the end she has come to understand his point of view and respect him for it.

    So how do I SHOW that? What symbols can I use? What metaphors can I use?

    I have a scene at the beginning where they fight and her dad brings his fiddle to her room to play her favourite song, something he did for years, and she rolls over and pretends to be asleep, mouthing the words to herself under the covers.

    By the end he takes out his fiddle and she is able to sing freely beside him.

    So yeah, it can be so much more than just the line by line "should I show this?" It has so much value in regards to theme, etc.

    How do I SHOW the concept that "dreams can be stolen, and when they are you become a horrible person?"

    How about developing a creature who has the ability to steal dreams and turn them into treasure? Leaving an empty hole in the person, but a shiny object behind that is coveted by others?

    Symbols and metaphors are a great way of "showing" instead of "telling".
     
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  6. Nimue

    Nimue Auror

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    Yes, but I think what that article was talking about is the contrast between “showing” all the time on a line-by-line basis and the difference “good telling” can make. Of course you should “show” the whole theme of your novel—otherwise, you’ve written a synopsis.

    I think I’ve gone through a hump of “all showing” myself, and that can lead to some very verbose, vague, convoluted language instead of a straightforward line that cuts to the heart. It’s easy to get caught up in painting a picture and forget that the point of writing is to communicate things to the reader.

    What helped for me was writing short stories. When you don’t have a lot of room, you start to see the value of a pithy sentence. I’ve found it a relief to realize that a lot of backstory, context, and yes, character emotion is better conveyed by telling the reader what’s going on. No more tying myself into knots trying to imply absolutely everything!

    Of course, this is a frequently-trodden dilemma for a reason: many novice writers tell too much, and many novice writers show too much. It might be more useful, rather than a rule, to have diagnostic criteria. Do readers tell you your writing is too simplistic, too on-the-nose? Or are people always at sea about what you’re trying to convey, what the conflict is? Maybe we could think through the symptoms of over-telling and over-showing...
     
  7. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

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    Some things are better left unsaid. It's a fine balance figuring out what those things are. I think it depends on the message you're trying to give the reader in any given moment, in any given scene.

    Dialogue is fantastic for showing. Author voice is convenient for telling. A good mixture of both requires practice and dedication to learning the craft. I like to focus mostly on emotion: character emotion, reader emotion, setting. Sometimes I want to target reader emotions and so I will focus on invoking reaction when writing a scene. Other times I want to show more character development and will write with that intention in mind. Setting is a strong one. There's a lot that can be done with weather, props, and background characters to elevate conflict. You can show while also telling. You can tell while also showing. Much of this comes down to trusting our ability to tell a story. If we continually focus on the message, practice a lot and continue growing as writers, these sorts of things become more intuitive over time.
     
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  8. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I don't like that telling is often treated as a necessary evil, as though it is better to show if you can, and telling has to be justified by the idea of getting information over quickly, or getting to the good bits more quickly. That's not the case. Effective telling is an important stylistic tool.

    Even in first person, where telling seems more natural, you'll see writers move into showing as much as possible, as though telling is something to be avoided when possible. That notion can be dispelled with examples of great telling. Take the opening of Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I've seen it cited often among great openings (and I do think it is an excellent one). It's all telling, but it is nevertheless evocative and immediately starts to construct an image of the narrator in the mind of the reader:

    "My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenent, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead."

    That's an effective opening, though it is sheer, straight-forward "telling."
     
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  9. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    I wonder how first person vs. third person changes how much telling/showing you do? Like, I feel like when you write in first person you are literally "telling" the story, so reader's expect it more. If you are writing third person it is like you are watching the characters so you have to do more showing?

    Thoughts? I find I almost always gravitate to first person and so I find I use telling a lot more.

    Or is it more about the details your choose to "show"?

    If I look at the example in the article about the thesis statement, I find I do that a lot, so would this passage be showing? Or telling?


    Madame Boucher, our landlady, is the most feared woman this side of the St. Lawrence. It’s no coincidence her names means Butcher. I can tell it’s her by the bleached blonde hair sticking up above the half-moon window on our front door and the way she screeches my dad’s name like a wounded ally cat.

    Usually when she comes knocking my dad curses and escapes through the back door to the small garage we all have behind our single-story units.
     
    Last edited: Dec 19, 2017
  10. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I think first person naturally lends itself to telling, for the reasons you stated. But POVs are basically interchangeable, in my view, so I think the same general principles apply in each circumstance. Let's re-write Jackson's opening in third-person, present tense and see:

    "Her name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. She is eighteen years old, and lives with her sister Constance. She has often thought that with any luck at all she could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both her hands are the same length, but she has had to be content with what she has. She dislikes washing herself, and dogs, and noise. She likes her sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenent, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in her family is dead."

    I preserved Jackson's structure here, though in third person I'd tighten some of this up--for example, "She often thinks that with any luck at all..." instead of "She has often thought," particularly since I used present tense. But I think the overall effect is largely the same.
     
  11. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Yeah, I'm not sure it has the same effect for me in third. It sounds okay, but it it is too distant. In first it had voice and character. In third it is too "telly"....weird.
     
  12. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Probably because you know the "voice" it is now in is not that of the character, but that of the narrator. So then one question is: does it work better if the narrator is meant to be more intrusive? I find that third person works with a lot of telling seem to work best if the narrator has a very distinctive voice, becoming almost a character in and of themselves, even if not explicitly so.
     
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  13. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Yes, like the intro to Voyage of the Dawn Treader:

    His name was Eustace Constance Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

    Lewis has a distinct narrative voice, so it works.
     
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  14. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

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    True, but 3rd with only showing is boring as hell. I see this a lot in modern books. It lacks depth and flavor.
     
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  15. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Another great opening.
     
  16. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    I may be reaching here a bit, but to me, there's a bit of show there and a bit of tell in that.

    First, it shows us this gosh awful name. There's no comment on it, but we know it's terrible. And by telling us this person almost deserved such an awful name, they're kind of showing us how we should be feeling about this character and saying something about who that character is.

    To me, that name works in the same way as describing someone as having beady eyes, twitchy hands, and bucked teeth that always seemed to be gnawing on their bottom lip. It's just that instead of using physical descriptors, he's using the descriptor of his name.

    It's just a more clever and amusing way of going about the same thing, I think.
     
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  17. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    There's a time to show, and a time to tell, and sometimes... showing is just telling with style (to ripoff Buzz Lightyear).

     
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  18. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Exactly. My point though, is that in third person you sort of have to do that. Be more "showy".

    Something I really struggled with in the early stages of writing was finding that "telling with style" and Dem so eloquently put, lol! Like, a few years back I made a post about this as well because I was still confused about the whole concept.

    You could take the intro to American Gods,

    Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough and looked 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 how much he loved his wife.

    Ok, so I consider the above "telling with style". Gaiman has a strong narrative voice. Pure showing would be something like:

    Shadow tossed the coin between his fingers, staring absently at the metal bars between himself and the guard pacing the hall.

    Pure showing, I think, would eventually get boring? It would just be so long, with the author describing every single thing but no real narrative voice? I don't know. I still struggle with finding the balance.

    Maybe a lot of it comes down to personal style and story type?
     
    Last edited: Dec 19, 2017
  19. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

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    Yes! Omg this is what makes books better than anything else (for me, at least). I love how different authors have different voices. Like, no one compares to Agatha Christie for me. I'm in love from word one. What she writes that might be telly for another reader is just a delight in my reading experience. I think we tend to write the way we receive it as well, if that makes sense.
     
  20. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    For me, writing first vs third is pretty similar when dealing with stuff like this. I find that I can zoom in so close with third that it's pretty much right next to first.

    I find that style when I write grows mostly out of the character. Now there are times when a bit of the author, me, pops out, but I try to be careful about that, because it doesn't always fit the story and what I'm trying to do.

    It's been a while since I read, Gaiman, but IMHO, he has a unique storyteller's voice that's outside of his characters. That's something I don't think I have with in me.
     
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