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Thread: "Show, Don't Tell"

  1. #1
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    Default "Show, Don't Tell"

    This is confusing me a bit, so I want to hear answers about this topic.

    Well, without making sentences wordy, how do you do "show, don't tell" without like making so much fallacies or lacking explanation in a reasonable way? It makes me a bit lost when I try that technique. Like when I say that a person came out of a place, looking sad, then she says out the reason later.

    But how should I do it to avoid run on sentences? Yes I am still learning basic English things in high school, but I just want to know to avoid any frustration on writing.


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    Quote Originally Posted by Quilava42 View Post
    Well, without making sentences wordy, how do you do "show, don't tell" without like making so much fallacies or lacking explanation in a reasonable way? It makes me a bit lost when I try that technique. Like when I say that a person came out of a place, looking sad, then she says out the reason later.
    That's "telling, not showing", by the way, especially when she just gives exposition. If you want a more effective way to show her emotion, we should actually just see what happened to her in whatever place she's at, so that way we don't have to get entire sentences/paragraphs of exposition from a character's mouth. Even if she were to run into someone and tell them about her experience, we shouldn't get a word-for-word re-explanation about it. Just have it fade to black/transition elsewhere/or say "She reviewed all she could remember to them."

    When you're "showing" us what happens in a scene, while we don't exactly want too much explanation (there's such a thing as being too wordy), we do want enough to know what's happening in the scene, such as the atmosphere, the emotions the character's going through (we also don't want to be told "they were scared", have their body language tell us), and other psychological details. We want to be able to see this in our own minds without being told exactly what it is. We like to be able to paint this picture ourselves, you're just giving us little directions on what it looks like instead of saying, "So-and-so was scared stiff" and things like that.

    Basically what I'm trying to say is we don't want the narrator, or another character (or even that very character) telling us everything that's going on, especially when it comes to thought. Thus, you need to be careful with how you word things around, and what perspective it is you're showing it in. Make sense?

    In fact, I suggest looking at this link for a much better explanation until Jax comes in and gives a much better statement than I have. I'm just not very good with words here at the moment when I'm kinda in a small hurry, so I might come back and fix this up.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Kutie Pie View Post
    Basically what I'm trying to say is we don't want the narrator, or another character (or even that very character) telling us everything that's going on, especially when it comes to thought. Thus, you need to be careful with how you word things around, and what perspective it is you're showing it in. Make sense?

    In fact, I suggest looking at this link for a much better explanation until Jax comes in and gives a much better statement than I have. I'm just not very good with words here at the moment when I'm kinda in a small hurry, so I might come back and fix this up.
    I fear that she may come. I kind of get on what you are trying to say. I used to think of like explaining it later since like I was told to explain things, but I felt like it would feel like info dumping things later since it's a chapter. I am lost on that since it was like telling me to include that detail.
    Last edited by Quilava42; 20th January 2013 at 2:01 AM.


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    Jax isn't the fanfiction mob boss. You've nothing to fear, jeez.


    Bascially, as a writer you don't just want to "tell" a story, right? You want to immerse someone in the world you've made via the English language. "Telling" often is exactly as it sounds, telling someone what's going on in a story. Like your example: a young girl walks out of a place looking sad. It is what it is, there's no emotional attachment to that statement, it leaves us with nothing but an "eh" feeling because frankly that's all we see - just a girl looking sad.

    When you show something, you're going into detail about what's going on, not overloading us with massive descriptions, but giving just enough so that we feel something when reading this scene. That's the whole goal of sharing a story - getting others invested and involved with what's happening.

    So, your "a young girl looking sad", becomes "a young woman running out of the pokecenter, using her long dark hair as a curtain to hide her tear-stained cheeks and runny nose."

    Ugh, that's a terrible example, but the idea is to describe or put emphasis on something and not just say what's going on.

    I'll give you another example:

    A knight chops off the head of a dragon.

    Here, I am telling you a knight chopped off the head of a dragon. There's no more detail about it, there's nothing else to it, really. If I were to show you what happened, it would bear some resemblance to this:

    The knight quickly side-stepped to his right and dodged the flaming pillar of fire, wincing from the sheer amount of heat engulfing the spot where he had just stood. Seizing opportunity, he snapped his wrist and brought his long sword up to meet the dragon's neck, making a clean thorough cut and beheading the raging beast.

    I am terrible at impromptu examples. Hopefully you get the idea. It's really hard to explain without knowing what it is in your story that you're having trouble with.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Azurne View Post
    I am terrible at impromptu examples. Hopefully you get the idea. It's really hard to explain without knowing what it is in your story that you're having trouble with.
    My story is right here, which is why I decided to talk about this since I am confused with that.
    Last edited by Quilava42; 20th January 2013 at 3:09 AM.


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    It'd be a bit more helpful if, rather than linking to your whole story, you pull out a specific passage that demonstrates what you're asking about. Choose a paragraph or two where you're not sure whether you're showing your readers something or telling it to them, or a place where you think you're showing something but you're not sure you're doing it effectively. Even if you think the entire fic has this problem, it's always easier for others to help you when you point out examples of where you need that help. Then you can apply that help to the rest of the story later.

    In a nutshell, think of the difference between "telling" and "showing" this way:


    Scenario 1: You're sitting with a friend and chatting about nothing in particular. Your friend says, "I am enjoying this conversation."

    Scenario 2: You're sitting with a friend and chatting about nothing in particular. As the conversation goes on, you notice that your friend has started smiling, that there's a twinkle in their eyes, that they're chuckling appreciatively when you mention something you thought was funny.


    Scenario 1 is exactly what it looks like: your friend just straight-up told you that they were enjoying the conversation. They said words and you immediately understood what those words meant, no extra thought required. It's short, sweet, to the point, and there's very little chance that you misinterpreted your friend's message.

    Kutie Pie touched on a good point when she mentioned body language, because that's exactly how Scenario 2 works. As you are a human being and you've grown up interpreting the body language of other human beings, you can make an educated guess that a laughing, smiling person is happy. You know your friend is enjoying the conversation even though the friend hasn't explicitly said the words "I am enjoying this conversation" as they did in Scenario 1. Effectively, your friend has shown you that they are happy.

    "Showing" involves a lot more than just body language. Compare "It was a dark and stormy night" to "Lightning flashed across the sky, illuminating his surroundings for just a heartbeat before everything faded back into inky blackness". Even that's not a stellar example (it's 4 AM and why am I not sleeping yet?), but hopefully you caught the difference between the two. In the first I told you that the night was dark and stormy, while in the second I showed you that it was by pointing out what the lightning did and what the darkness looked like after the lightning flash.

    Showing is generally preferred to telling because, as Azurne said, readers like to feel as though they are involved in a story. It's far more interesting to stand out in the night and experience the storm raging around me, lightning flashing and thunder roaring and the moonlight struggling to break through the clouds, than it is for someone to tell me "it's dark and stormy outside tonight" while I sit safe and dry in my room and stare at the internet. Your story aims to involve the readers in the action, and they'll feel much more involved if they "see" the lightning and "hear" the thunder in your storm.

    The problem with "show, don't tell" is that it's often preached to new authors without additional explanation, and when those authors take that information to heart they end up describing every little detail even when it's not actually appropriate. If I understand correctly, where you think you're having trouble is knowing how to "show" something without dragging things on too long. The first thing you should realize is that sometimes it's acceptable, even preferable, to tell about something instead of showing it. It's hard to say exactly when to do one or the other because ultimately it depends on what you're writing, but generally speaking it's okay to tell whenever the readers need to get information quickly, or whenever you're talking about information they already know. For example, if it's stormy tonight in your story then you may want to describe it to your audience, but if the exact same storm is still raging tomorrow night you can safely skip a second description. Nothing has changed about the storm, so the description you gave your readers last time is enough to give them an idea of what's happening now. If the storm is somehow different from last night's storm, however, if the clouds are suddenly blood-red and crackling with magical lightning, then that bears mentioning—but only because the previous description of the stormy night no longer applies.

    Even then, you may not want to describe the first night of the storm at all. The general rule is that you only spend words describing things that are actually important to the story, so if the storm is just an ordinary storm and no one is having nightmares about it or in danger of being struck by lightning or anything, you can get away with just telling the reader that it's stormy and then move on to describe whatever is important about that scene.

    The rule about only spending words on important things also applies to showing itself. The more detailed you are when you describe something, the more important your readers will assume that something is (and the more disappointed they'll be if it turns out that it wasn't important after all). So, to oversimplify the answer to that part of your question, you shouldn't give lengthy descriptions for things that are not critical to the story you're telling. A common belief held by new authors is that the main character's exact appearance is critically important information, and they spend ages discussing the precise shape of their heroine's eyes or each color of the pattern on their hero's favorite shirt. The reality is that what the character looks like is rarely relevant to the story being told—are the heroine's lovely almond-shaped eyes somehow going to help her outsmart the evil overlord? if so, tell me all about them, but if not then we probably have more interesting things to cover—and so anything more than the character's basic appearance is actually best left to the readers' imaginations.

    Lengthy descriptions vs. short descriptions can also determine the pacing of a scene. If you're writing about a pokémon battle and focus on the sparkle of every little golden star that flies across the field as the sandshrew uses swift, then your readers are going to focus on the sparkling stars as well—it'll almost feel like they're watching the battle unfold in slow motion, as they'd have to be to notice that level of detail. If you say that the sandshrew launched a bunch of stars at the pikachu, the pikachu grimaced as it was hit and then immediately rushed in to strike the sandshrew with a slam attack, you're giving us information about several different actions in roughly the same amount of words as the lengthy description of swift, and the reader feels like more has happened in the same space of time. The shorter descriptions make it feel like the battle is moving along at high speed rather than low speed. In most cases you'd expect a battle to move quickly, to be energetic and exciting, and so you'd probably keep the description short and to the point, but depending on what you're writing you may actually want the reader to experience the battle one detail at a time.

    That's why I said it's hard to give specific examples about what to do when—showing vs. telling, long descriptions vs. short descriptions, they all have their place in a story and it's up to you, the author, to realize when you need to use each one. That's the kind of thing that comes with a lot of practice in addition to seeking help from other writers, so do your best to judge what your story needs for any given scene and experiment with it. Even without other people offering you tips, you can often tell when the choices you've made are helping the story flow along the way you want it to.

    Aaaand of course that turned into a giant wall of text. Sorry about that, haha. Hopefully it was helpful, anyway; if not, then try as I suggested at the beginning and pick out a specific line or paragraph or scene from your fanfic so that we know exactly what you feel you're struggling with.
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    Other people have already said more or less what I would, but I did want to pop in and point out that this:

    Quote Originally Posted by Azurne

    A knight chops off the head of a dragon.

    Here, I am telling you a knight chopped off the head of a dragon. There's no more detail about it, there's nothing else to it, really. If I were to show you what happened, it would bear some resemblance to this:

    The knight quickly side-stepped to his right and dodged the flaming pillar of fire, wincing from the sheer amount of heat engulfing the spot where he had just stood. Seizing opportunity, he snapped his wrist and brought his long sword up to meet the dragon's neck, making a clean thorough cut and beheading the raging beast.
    is not an example of going from telling to showing. The difference between showing and telling isn't whether or not you "show" what happened; it's talking about implying something rather than stating it explicitly. In your second example, after removing all extraneous words, you still have "he beheaded the dragon." You state it explicitly. If you had wanted to "show" that being the case, you could instead do something like, "'Is it over?' Fen asked, peeking out from behind the boulder. 'I suppose you could say that,' Galen replied, tossing the head at the elf's feet and smirking as Fen flinched away." There's no way to transform this to "the knight chops off the head of the dragon," and yet you get a pretty good idea of what went down nonetheless.

    The weird thing about "show, don't tell," and the reason I think it confuses people a lot, is that what it's really about is allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions. It doesn't necessarily involve more words than telling something. And there isn't really any such thing as "showing" in writing to begin with--there's only telling different things. Azurne's first example, of the sad girl, is an example of "show, don't tell." In the revised version, it's never stated that the girl is sad, but you can kind of figure it out from the other information provided.

    It's very subtle, but if you compare the two examples Azurne gave, you can see that in fact they illustrate completely different principles. Or consider Phoenixsong's thunderstorm example: "Lightning flashed across the sky, illuminating his surroundings for just a heartbeat before everything faded back into inky blackness." This implies that it's a) storming and b) nighttime. But you could do exactly the same thing by writing something like, "A shattering crash brought him awake in an instant, his heart pounding and eyes straining against the black," and that doesn't talk about the sky or the storm at all.

    A great example by someone way more talented than me is this, an excerpt from Terry Pratchett's Night Watch:

    Boards had been nailed over the tiny window at street level. This wasn't a place where light was welcomed. And all the walls, and even the ceiling, were padded heavily with sacks stuffed with straw. Sacks had even been nailed to the door. This was a very thorough cell. Not even sound was meant to escape.

    A couple of torches did nothing at all for the darkness except make it dirty.

    Behind him, Vimes heard Nancyball throw up.

    In a strange kind of dream, he walked across the floor and bent down to pick up something that gleamed in the torchlight. It was a tooth.
    This scene is all about telling, not showing. What's it showing? "Horrible things happened in this cell." But it's powerful for the very fact that this is never stated outright. Especially that last sentence, "It was a tooth." What a punch in the gut! You wring so much dark and sinister out of that understated little sentence that would be difficult to manufacture even out of a couple of paragraphs describing exactly what did go on here. Or take perhaps the champion example, one you've probably seen before, from Hemingway:

    "For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn"

    The "tell" version of this story would be (in extremely brief, it's much more nuanced than this and there are many different interpretations--thus showing how powerful the concept of "showing" or, more accurately, "omitting" is) "She was going to have a baby, and then didn't." The show version has essentially no description. It conveys three facts. But when the reader processes it, they can spin an entire tragedy out of those six words. It's the same thing that's going on with "she was sad" versus "three days later, she still wasn't eating, and even a visit from her best friend couldn't draw out a smile", but if you're framing "show, don't tell" as necessarily involving description, you would probably miss it.

    So, the tricky thing about "show don't tell" is that, taken to its extreme, you're showing absolutely nothing at all. Kind of an unfortunately-named concept imo.

    It's not that it's a bad change ("he slew the dragon" to the brief scene); it's just not a case of telling vs showing.

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    Now I can't help but really beg to ask if my work is severely telling instead of showing the story.

    Because it dampened my confidence right now. Maybe that's why my work (which has a link by clicking my banner) is severely stale.

    But I can agree that a balance on Telling and showing is crucial. But from my own understanding:

    First Person:

    60% telling and 40% showing

    Third Person:

    60% showing and 40% telling
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    Quote Originally Posted by jireh the provider View Post
    Now I can't help but really beg to ask if my work is severely telling instead of showing the story.

    Because it dampened my confidence right now. Maybe that's why my work (which has a link by clicking my banner) is severely stale.

    But I can agree that a balance on Telling and showing is crucial. But from my own understanding:

    First Person:

    60% telling and 40% showing

    Third Person:

    60% showing and 40% telling
    This, I agree.


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    My biggest fear with show don't tell is my same fear with using complex and theasaurus words: readers might be stupid.

    If I'm showing things, I want to make sure people are following what's happening, and I'm not sure the current educa... nevermind. I doubt anyone here falls to that level, but in general.


    Although one thing I fear about show don't tell, is that even when 'showing' you're technically 'telling' someone something.


    I'll use Night Watch as an example.

    In a strange kind of dream, he walked across the floor and bent down to pick up something that gleamed in the torchlight. It was a tooth.


    This sentence is TELLING us that the guy was in a strange dream, and that he walked, bent down and picked up a tooth.

    Unless I'm understanding show don't tell poorly.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Dilasc View Post
    Although one thing I fear about show don't tell, is that even when 'showing' you're technically 'telling' someone something.


    I'll use Night Watch as an example.

    In a strange kind of dream, he walked across the floor and bent down to pick up something that gleamed in the torchlight. It was a tooth.


    This sentence is TELLING us that the guy was in a strange dream, and that he walked, bent down and picked up a tooth.

    Unless I'm understanding show don't tell poorly.
    Well, not exactly. It is telling us those things, yes, but it tells us those to show us another point. It tells us those separate facts, useless on their own, to imply that terrible things had happened in that cell. There is nothing intrinsically important about that tooth; it plays no part in the story itself (unless it does, but I doubt that). But it shows the point of the example without actually saying it.

    I mean, maybe at some level, all writing is telling. But "show, don't tell" refers specifically to the level where you tell one thing to show another, rather than simply telling the story.

    We do it subtly and we see it in most literature. For example, taking the simple nursery rhyme Jack Be Nimble. All we're told is that Jack is quick and nimble, and that he jumps over a candlestick. But (and maybe this is just me) there is an implied 'daring' characteristic to Jack. For what other reason would he have to jump over a candlestick and risk burning himself? It's not a great example, but I thought it up on the spot. The point is, "showing", as we define it here, is one of the most prevalent factors in literature, and it is pretty much a requirement to at least be able to use it, in modern writing.
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    I hate to bring up an old topic, but where is that level at which we are forbidden to tell and must show or else be a bad author?

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    Stop acting like this is some weird arbitrary rule the breaking of which just magically makes you a Bad Author even though you haven't done anything wrong. Some things should be told and some things should be shown; exercise some judgement to tell which is which. You don't generally want to imply everything that happens in the story, for example, because then reading it is going to feel like squinting through a thick mist trying to even figure out what is going on (it works with something as simple as "For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn", but you can't convey a complex sequence of events through implication alone). On the other hand, you'll want to show your characters' personalities, abilities, emotions and so on most of the time, because if you say they're smart or quick-tempered or sad without showing them actually acting like it, it's just going to be unconvincing (and if you are showing it, you probably don't need to say it explicitly, though it could come up naturally at some point). All in all, the idea with "Show, don't tell" is to avoid explicitly stating a conclusion, and instead state things that would lead you to draw that conclusion on your own - which ultimately strengthens the conclusion, because instead of taking your word for it, the reader can see it for themselves. But of course, you don't need to strengthen everything, just like emphasizing every word in your story doesn't actually give any of them more impact in the end.

    Really, it's good to just think about how your daily life works here. You perceive or are told about some things directly and explicitly: the events of your life, simple objective facts about things you see or hear, the news you hear on TV, or the facts you learn in school, for instance. And sometimes someone will explicitly tell you, "Oh, you're working with Joey? Watch out - he's got a really quick temper." But generally you perceive the feelings and personalities of people around you implicitly: you see how they act and react to things, and you draw conclusions from there. The attitudes and mores of the society you live in are probably things you picked up on while growing up, from, again, watching how people act and react to things. Some events and facts you don't get told about, but you can get some idea about them from various kinds of external evidence, as with Negrek's prison cell example. (The "external evidence" is often characters acting and reacting, yet again - carefully-written character interaction is a goldmine of good showing.) The general guidelines for showing and not telling end up being a lot like how this plays out in real life - which isn't a coincidence, because writing something close to how a character would organically perceive things tends to bring a reader closer to the story.

    Of course, sometimes you don't want the reader close to the story at the moment anyway, for any of a number of reasons, and then you'll not want to show in this natural way. Even when you do have the reader close to the story, some things would just be impractical to show or aren't interesting enough for it to be necessary or warranted. And so on.

    So, again, use some common sense. Showing is a tool. There are times you should use it and times you shouldn't, and part of being a good writer is knowing which is which - but not because somebody made up a Good Writer Code where so-and-so many things must be shown every chapter, but simply because often showing is more effective at conveying what you want to convey, and a huge part of being a good writer is being able to effectively convey what you want.
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    When it comes to this I have a general rule. Only show if the scene calls for it and is relevant in some form. So the writer showed me an apple? Is that apple important? Will that apple mean something later on. If it isn't relevant there's no point in showing it imo, I would just say the girl ate the regular apple since it's not a special item. It's just a piece of fruit that's about to be eaten.

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