Showing versus Telling

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Showing versus Telling

Apr. 30, 5:44pm

So I had this writing mentor who remarked at one point that the advice to "Show, don't tell" is more than a little strange, because it is given to writers whose medium is words, not pictures: nothing is actually shown, it's all telling from start to finish.

She considered the difference between "showing" and "telling" in writing to actually be a quantitative difference not one of differing types. What the advice really means, is "use more detail".

But I have had at least one other writer tell me that my mentor must not know what she's talking about, because showing and telling are clearly two different writing processes.

What do you all think?

Mai 1, 10:28am

I'd say your mentor is correct.

For instance, something like "The house was big," would be considered as telling. To show, you'd have to describe the house in ways that make the reader understand that it is big... ie more details.

Bearbeitet: Mai 3, 9:14am

Naked exposition is considered crude in narrative fiction. Sometimes it's fun anyway, if the writer knows what she's doing.

Mai 2, 10:10am

I've probably said this before, but my take is: don't *tell* the reader how to interpret your writing. Let them draw their own conclusions/form their own impressions rather than handing them interpretations on a plate.

So for me, it's not so much a case of descriptions or details (trying to describe a cinema-type image using words doesn't feel like a great idea to me). It's engaging the reader by letting them do some work. I shouldn't need to say, "(Villain) was a very nasty person." I should trust my reader to notice that through (Villain)'s actions and other characters' reactions etc. If readers don't pick up on that, I've failed in my showing.

Mai 2, 10:32am

>4 MHThaung: agree.

>2 slarken: Godd example. Mostly because 'big' is actually subjective. By just saying 'big' you aren't giving the reader much help, but by describing how the house was larger than any the character had lived in before, how they got lost moving between rooms etc. you show the readers just how big that house was.

It's not just details, it's given the readers the characters impressions of a situation rather than telling the reader what you the author think it should be. The former is much more immersive and brings the readers with the characters. Like all rules I'm sure it's suitably fudgeable around the edges.

Mai 2, 10:37pm

>3 paradoxosalpha: "Naked exposition is considered crude in narrative fiction. Sometimes its fun anyway..."

It's still frequently done when telling folktales and fairytales. As an imitation of a spoken medium, loads and loads of detail are difficult for the teller to remember, and hard for the listeners to process. So different methods are used to create engagement.

When I first decided I was going to take this whole writing thing seriously, I subscribed to some magazine purporting to be for writers, and one of the first articles I read was someone saying "Actually, it's okay to just tell the reader stuff, sometimes.

IIRC (this was thirty years ago or so) an example that was given was somebody getting angry. The article's author apparently agreed with >4 MHThaung: about the "trying to describe a cinema-type image using words doesn't feel like a great idea to me" bit, she first did something on the order of "So-and-so's heart beat more rapidly, his face got redder and his lips pulled back from his teeth. Suddenly he darted forward, his arms swinging..." and then she redid it with a simple, "Anger surged in So-and-so, and he leaped into the fray."

I'm totally hashing the original but hopefully I've conveyed the right idea. At any rate, her second example had much less description, but was far more effective at delivering actual story.

I think its partly a pacing issue? The time to make the reader stop and put together all the visual/sensual clues to figure out that the character is angry is probably not right at the start of a fight scene.

Sort of like when the author stops and gives me a long description of the landscape at the start of a fight scene, and I'm always thinking, "we don't have time to do the scenic overlook thingy right now, author, the bad guys have arrived already!"

It's also a pov issue, though. If we are in the character's head, the character knows themself to be angry, and so to not just tell us so is a little... unnatural.

But what if we aren't in their pov? Do we still say "anger surged in so-and-so and he jumped forward..."?

>4 MHThaung: "don't *tell* the reader how to interpret your writing. Let them draw their own conclusions"

I like that. And I agree with it.
But is it the same thing I was just talking about, or a different related thing?

I mean, when the character is surging with anger we are preempting the reader's conclusion that he is angry, but... if it's super obvious anyway, then we aren't really stealing their prerogative, and if it isn't super obvious, then it probably should be? The reader shouldn't have to be interpreting every muscle twitch of the character in order to work out their emotional state.

I'm thinking it's a different related thing.

>5 reading_fox: "it's given the readers the characters impressions of a situation rather than telling the reader what you the author think it should be"
I was about to say, "ah, yes, you are right, I totally agree with you... and then I realized that I wasn't quite sure I agreed after all.

What about stuff written in omniscient, with the writer giving their own commentary all along the way?

Or does that not count because in that situation the writer is also a kind of a character in the book?

Mai 3, 9:16am

The show/tell distinction can be (and often is) used to distinguish "current" from "past" considerations in a story that's basically linear but needs a little background information. Show what's happening, tell about what came before.

Mai 3, 4:35pm

>6 LShelby: Yes, after I posted my reply, I got to wondering whether I was replying to something other than your original question. I don't think of showing and telling as totally separate: there's some wiggle room. An isolated statement might be a simple "tell," but perhaps it also gives the reader a hint as to something else, given whatever has happened before.

Veering even further off the original thought, readers get tired if they have to put together too many clues over something that should be simple eg the meaning of a novel word that's only really there for SF/fantasy flavour. I like >7 paradoxosalpha:'s distinction - tells are good for orientation.

Mai 5, 9:55pm

>7 paradoxosalpha:
So lots of details in the present, and only a very few details in the past?

>8 MHThaung:
My Cantata and Pavane are apparently a little bit much in the "putting clues together' department for some readers. But other readers love them, so clearly tastes vary on this as with everything else.

...I think it also might matter what kinds of clues, and what the payoff is.

If you called something that looks like a bunny, and hops like a bunny, a smeerp... when the reader finds out it is basically just a bunny, they are almost guaranteed to be disappointed. But when the readers of Cantata discover that the giant sea-creatures everyone has been talking about are not, in fact, whales -- but instead monstrous aquatic reptiles, that's an "ooh, cool!" moment?

Mai 6, 3:06am

>9 LShelby:...I think it also might matter what kinds of clues, and what the payoff is.

You're spot on there, I think. And of course tastes vary. When I'm reading (more precisely, when I'm critiquing and providing feedback as I go along), I see myself as capable of holding a certain amount of information as provisional. I can therefore imagine more than one branch in the story. If X killed the victim, then... but if X is innocent then... But my capacity isn't limitless. So if in addition to the culprit, I'm also having to mentally keep tabs on "Blurfuggle? Oh, they've mentioned that 3 times, but I still don't know what it is, other than some people seem to like it and some not" and "What's up between Y and Z? Their interactions are weird"... well, something's got to give.

I'm probably contradicting myself terribly. Yes, I like the readers to do a little work. But only when it matters: not obscurity just for the sake of it. That trips me up rather than engaging me. And that gets me ranting on about authorial intrusion, when I feel the author is deliberately making comprehension difficult, but I'll stop for now...

Bearbeitet: Mai 6, 10:29pm

I had a huge essay here, then I realized >6 LShelby: said it in less words and I'm just repeating. But I'd steer away from "showing" = "detailed description".

Telling = after-the-fact reporting, like a news story. "John was shot at on the way home." I could spice it up, "John had a close call with a bullet on his walk home." But it's still over and done with. You didn't get to see it happen, I'm just telling you about it. All those big paragraphs of exposition that everybody hates to wade through? It's all telling.

Showing = you're seeing the action as it's happening. "John ducked as he heard a gun, sure he was being shot at." There's more of a you-don't-know-what's-coming-next element to it, and more room to add some mystery about what exactly is going on. "John heard a loud report, and something whizzed past his ear". The telling example doesn't have that kind of flexibility or emotional power.

Think of it as, you can tell somebody what happened to you today, or you can show them. I betcha you're a lot more entertaining when you're trying to show me, lol.

It's not quite as clean as I'm making it out to be. Take flashbacks for example, they often start with telling and then dive into the showing. "John was shot at on the way home. As he was walking down the sidewalk, he heard a loud report ..." In this hybrid structure the telling actually serves as the hook; nothing gets right to the point like a solid telling sentence. But now that you've got the reader's attention, you can march in the showing stuff to play the emotions card,

Mai 8, 10:41am

>11 Cecrow: "nothing gets right to the point like a solid telling sentence"

This made me want to say, "Aha!".

When you have a point to make, you want a good solid telling sentence.

When you want to immerse the reader in the experience, that's when you need good solid "showing".

A novel is a long and complicated story -- if you are going to write a novel, you will sometimes want to go for the "get the point across" and sometimes the immersion.

I love the flashback example.

But I'm sure there are others.

>10 MHThaung: "And that gets me ranting on about authorial intrusion, when I feel the author is deliberately making comprehension difficult..."

The one I always want to complain about is when the author of a mystery/detective story deliberately with-holds the key information from the reader. But the smeerp thingy is even more annoying, I just don't run into it as often. :) The worst is when it's the entire plot, though. We have this mini-rant in our house, (most often targeted at shows we watch, but occasionally at books) "Why did x happen? Because the writer wanted it to!"

No matter how much showing you do, if the hand of the writer is visible in the plot, the reader will no longer be immersed.

(How was that for dragging this aside back on topic?) >;)

Bearbeitet: Mai 13, 3:53pm

This "rule" is supposed to be absolute and ironclad in YA fiction, which is what I'm writing. I'm no expert, but at one point in my recent book, I wanted to describe a teenage girl's bedroom. Instead of using exposition, I had her boyfriend come into the room for a visit, and described his "stream of consciousness" as he looked around. "Hey, I didn't notice that before . . ." etc.

I needed to account for another character's background, so instead of plain exposition, I had him/her flipping through a scrapbook, summoning up memories and emotions. At first I had intended to use a flashback here, but it would have been excessively gory. (A certain amount of gore was necessary to the story, but I attempted to depict it subtly.) I used plenty of flashbacks elsewhere, however.

Of course, the readers will have to judge whether I know what I'm doing!

Jun. 27, 10:35am

I don't believe in iron-clad rules.

Also I read YA fiction regularly (there are over 150 books tagged as Young Readersin my catalog, and I don't believe I have ever in my life read a book that never "tells". Maybe we are defining the terms differently?

But I'm all for finding fun new ways to accomplish things, as long as they don't detract from the flow and feel of the story. :)

If a book is written in omniscient or multiple third, changing a pov to get a better take on a situation sounds like an excellent technique. If the book only uses a few povs, changing to a new one just for the purpose of describing one place sounds like something the reader would find jarring and uncomfortable.

As an aside, using description as a way to reveal aspects of the character who is doing the describing has always been fun for me. I get great joy from comparing how two different characters describe the same thing.