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Viking ZX


Author of Science-Fiction and Fantasy novels! Oh, and some fanfiction from time to time.

More Blog Posts1046

May
26th
2014

Being a Better Writer: Show Versus Tell · 7:16pm May 26th, 2014

Hoo boy. What have I done?

I sat down to look at today's blog topic, thought to myself "I should do something quick and easy since it's Memorial Day," and promptly my brain started buzzing on this topic.

Great job brain. Fortunately, this shouldn't take long.


Alright, so Show VS Tell is one of those areas in writing that is almost guaranteed to start some sort of debate. If you want to troll a writing panel without asking a loaded question (like how they feel Twilight matches up as a *shudder* classic of American literature, more on that another time), start asking them about "show don't tell."

Because to start with, that phrase right there is wrong. It is not ever show don't tell. Ever. I'm going to repeat that, bolded and italicized, so we can make this perfectly clear.

It's Show versus Tell, not Show don't Tell.

The first is a balanced document that serves both as an active description of events as well as a direct informant of the parts that matter. The second is a flowery piece of overdone prose that is like a peacock: gaudy, overdone, and ultimately doing little else but looking pretty.

Worse, show don't tell (the false one) persists, because a lot of amateur writers take it to heart and then pass it on to others, often in the process coming up with long-winded examples of "always show" and "never tell." I've seen writing advice blogs on this site as well as other prominent *cough cough* sources of fanfiction review in the community take to huge lengths to drive home this idea of "show, never tell."

This is 100% wrong, and usually, a case of someone or some group deciding that they're smart enough thanks to their four weeks of reviewing fanfiction to start giving out advice.

It's Show versus Tell, not Show don't Tell. Yes, I'm going to repeat that a lot in today's post.

Alright, since I've beaten this point almost enough so far (show versus tell, not show don't tell), let's get a bit more into the meat of things. What is showing, and telling?

Oh boy, here we go again. Because this is an area where once again there's a bit of a difference of opinion. In fact, I can recall one week on this site where two different fanfic writers (both of whom knew their stuff pretty well) each did a post on showing and telling. Taken alone, both were well-thought out and decently informative (if a little obtusely verbose in one's case). The amusing part however, was where they both used similar examples ... and then disagreed with one another over whether it was showing or telling.

Uh-oh.

It gets worse, too. I've seen forum threads dedicated to rewriting sentences so that they are more show, less tell, and watched debates spring up for both sides as some writers claim a rewrite is show, while others claim it's just more words to a tell. So clearly we have a disconnect here.

Which means that no matter what I'm about to write, I can guarantee that there are going to be a whole host of people that will actively disagree, and will try to debate me on it. Which isn't going to happen, because I've got better things to do than argue with a random person on the internet over whether or not my showing is actually showing or what the proper balance is (more on that later).

So, here's my take on things. Showing, and Telling. First of all, let's tackle Tell, because it's where everyone starts out. Which is why in grade school you'd be pressured with show don't tell; you had one down, but not the other (and as a reminder, it's Show versus Tell, not Show don't Tell, last time,).

Tell is a direct statement, coming from either a character or the narration. For instance, if you're reading a scene and there is a line that says "The sun was bright overhead," well, that's tell. You could do the same with "the room was cold" or "there was a green sports car parked in the drive." Tell can be in narration or in dialogue (after all, most of the time when we speak, we're very direct), and it's one of those things that will come up anywhere. But it's easiest to think of telling as a direct statement of something in a state. "Melissa was running," for example. Or even "he ran towards the door." Again, I'm telling you what's going on here, or what you're seeing.

Now, what happens with show? I tend to think of show as writing what the character experiences. Others have described it as "writing what the camera would see" or "writing so the reader sees it" rather than just understanding what happened. Others have called it "putting in the details." Me, I like the first one, because my writing is very character-centric. I want the reader to experience what the character does, rather than just reading about what he/she did. So let's revisit one of those earlier lines. How about "the room was cold." Let's change this up and make it show, not tell, that the room was cold.

"Samantha suppressed a shiver as she moved into the room, clutching her arms tightly against her sides. Her breath misted in front of her, wispy and faint, and the telltale prickle of goosebumps spread up and down her arms as the room's chilling cold seemed to sink into her."

Ooh, that's different. It's a little rough, but following an edit, it would probably be fine. Now what we have is two sentences that show our characters reaction to the cold room, rather than just telling our reader outright that the room is cold (note that if you want to be anal, you can still say that I'm "telling" you about her arms or goosebumps, but big deal, it's showing that the room is cold, so deal with it).

Fortunately enough, there are plenty of other examples online, so I feel that I don't need to get too deep into this. The point is, when showing, you're painting a picture. Often this is where prose comes in (which has been described as the art of using as many words as possible to say as little as possible), to give the descriptions and whatnot a little more punch. In any case, it's what it says on the tin. You want to show the reader something rather than tell them. If you want some more examples of this, the internet is full of written examples of show. Crud, pick up one of your favorite books and read a chapter, try to find an example of show.

Now, let's look at one last thing. It's Show versus Tell, not Show don't Tell (I lied about the last one being the last time). No story is going to be entirely show. Why?

Because that's boring. Ever listen to a speaker who kept droning on and on about stuff that really only slightly related to the actual topic at hand? One who seemed to take ten times the time to get to the point? That's showing. There are times when showing works and spices up your story, and there are times when it doesn't. This is why it's show versus tell. You need both.

Case in point: fight scenes. No one wants to read a fight scene where every move is a long, drawn out show of a paragraph. Which is why a fight scene will often be a barrage of fast, rapid tells mixed with show ... the reader wants the impact, but they also want the fight to be over before they finish the book. So a good writer will mix the two, using tells to cover the stuff that needs to be covered quickly, while saving the show for the stuff that you want to really impact the reader.

This works in standard writing too. You're going to write scenes where you want to mention something, but don't want to go into a ton of detail on an obscure portion. Sometimes, we want to tell.

What's your balance going to be? Well, that's up to you. You don't want to be 100% one way or another, but you'll want a balance of some kind. Will it be 50-50? 70-30? That's up to you, and your story. It's even up to your character. When I write a character like Steel, who is very direct, I use a lot more tell than when I write Sabra, who is a very "thinky" individual. You'll find your own balance with each work.

In the end, the important thing to remember is that is a balance. Showing and telling are both equally important to your story. Show is the tool for engaging the reader, for bringing details to life and making your world live, but tell is also vital to keeping your story from bogging down under it's own details. Too much of one or the other, and your readers will let you know (or worse, leave).

So, if I had to summarize things today, I think it would be it's Show versus Tell, not Show don't Tell!

Alright, I kid, but I really wanted to drive that point home. Like many things, showing and telling are a balancing act. It's up to you to decide when and where each will fit, and how they will fit. You can't do one or the other, and it's important that you know what each one is so you can use them to their full potential. A story with a great balance of Show versus Tell will still be a slog if all what should have been told is shown and vice-versa.

So, figure out which is which. Practice taking sentences that are tells and turning them into shows. Pay attention to how your favorite authors mix the two. And then, try to put what you've learned into play with your own writing. Take what comes back at you with a grain of salt (as I said, there are a lot of low-level critics out there who have no idea what they're talking about), and keep looking to make both your show and your tell work for the story.

Good luck, and I'll see you next week!

Oh, and for a writing prompt: write a few tells, and then try to show that tell. Then decide which works better.

Have a wonderful Memorial Day everyone, and don't forget what it's for.

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Comments ( 18 )

No, trust me. I agree with you. The whole show "not" tell thing is an epidemic and I don't think most people understand the point of this, so it gets bandied about constantly in simple, meaningless terms. The point is to get the idea across as appealingly as possible and in most cases this needs a combination of the two.

Then again, I'm one of those people who is pretty lax on "you must do this" and much more "you might be better off this way" because I realize that even I can make mistakes and there are very few absolutes in this world. :unsuresweetie:

Well, yes, you need both show and tell... but the reason you have 'show don't tell' is that so many beginning authors vastly overdo the telling, and their ability to show is limited... If you can get them to try to do 100% showing, that might get them up to maybe 30% showing, and the piece actually becomes more readable.
(But then that falls apart as -- with practice -- that writer learns how to show and becomes capable of doing 100% show... and still thinks he should.)
(Can you tell that I spend far too much time editing for first-time authors? :facehoof:)

Anyway, good show there, though I would have spent more time on identifying showing/telling rather than spending so much time on which one should be doing, because, personally, that's what I struggled with for the longest time: just figuring out what 'telling' was, and how to spot when I was doing it. *shrug* I guess that's up to you, though. :twilightsmile:

(I lied about the last one being the last time)

I trusted you! :raritydespair:

You may remember from a previous blog I've had some issue with this. Wanting to show a dialogue tic but having a hard way to go about it. I've also had a bit of an issue with "infodumping," since my fics are Doctor Whooves crossovers. Though in that case I think a bit of tell is necessary. Take a moment, give the relevant facts for those who don't know the other material, move on with the story. The tricky part to my mind is doing it without interrupting the flow too much.

I don't even know which to use anymore.
Time and time again I have search for advice on this damned age old thing.

I have long since been rendered incapable of deciding which would be more effective to use at a point in time. With all the conflicting feedback, it is hard to get one's bearings down to a T. At least you have a solid idea on what to write. Lucky you chap.

Can't say the same for myself, and possibly quite a few others here on the site.

I am nearly certain that the whole show vs. tell thing is a complete mis-identification of the underlying problem, and I am dead certain that most of what is written about it is dogmatic nonsense.

Like epicycles in medieval cosmology, I think some bright person will eventually come along and junk the entire approach. Here's to the heliocentric approach to story-telling, may it come soon!

2147497
Yeah, I've really had it, as you could tell. Especially when until recently, even some sites and reviewers in the fandom would run the wrong one by people as a rule (and quite a few pre-readers for various places seemed to have a "zero-toleranace tell" policy, which was ridiculous).

You're right though, I didn't spend much time on actually exploring the differences between show and tell, and I had two reasons. First was that it was a holiday, and I wanted to try and get things done. But second was that so much has been said on it, if I had gone any further, I'd only have been retreading ground that so many other dedicated places on the web have already tackled. Show versus Tell is something that fills so many websites, I felt like I wouldn't be adding to it if I gave a lot of examples.

Granted, if you guys disagree and would like to see me make an addendum post, then I can oblige.

2147504
Most people "hunting" for offending tells in work will completely ignore that idea that tells are necessary and everywhere. Yes, you want a balance, but that balance means both, and a mixture that's up to you. If you want an interesting take on this, check out Michael Crichton's The Lost World, which is very tell, almost as if it's a documentary. I mean, check out these chapter-opening paragraphs:

Thorne unlocked the door to Levine's apartment, and flicked on the lights. They stared, astonished. Arby said, "It looks like a museum!"

Levine's two-bedroom apartment was decorated in a vaguely Asian style, with rich wooden cabinets, and expensive antiques. But the apartment was spotlessly clean, and most of the antiques were housed in plastic cases. Everything was neatly labeled. They walked slowly into the room.
—Page 75

Toss that to most on this site without telling them who wrote it and where it's from, and they'll savage it. Crud, I can think of a few fanfic promotion places that would likely reject it for "using too much tell" if they didn't know who had written it or what it was (this attitude is also why I'll be doing a little feature on the high-class literati and Shakespeare). A lot of these people have no clue what they're talking about. Is that quote full of tell? Yeah, that's pretty much all it is.

And yet, The Lost World holds an average of 4-stars on Amazon, was one of the top selling books of 1995, sold out it's initial print run of 2,000,000 copies (your average book is lucky to hit the five-digit range), drew praise from every major book review site, and still sells so many copies a day that Amazon has it just shy of being inside it's top 10,000 best selling books today, 19 years later.

Don't be afraid to tell. Show when appropriate. Tell. when appropriate. Where you do both is up to you and your narration.

2147571
My advice then would be to stop being afraid of doing one or the other and just write. Let yourself go, and then go back after the fact and start hunting yourself just for areas that you feel need more show and should draw the reader further into the experience and sensation. Then make adjustments. Make mental notes if these edits seem to share common traits, and then when you next right, automatically assume that you're going to want to make those areas of your new work more show, and react accordingly. But whatever you do, don't stop writing.

2147709
Quite honestly (and this opinion, I realize, will not win me friends in some circles) I think most of the time it's just people using the anonymity of the internet trying to self-aggrandize themselves by passing off judgement on things they really don't understand. Show versus tell remains one of the most common critiques of work I see online, and quite a bit of the time I find myself shaking my head because it's clear the critic has very little idea what they're talking about, but is bandying about terms in order to sound important and try to add weight to their claims (my personal least-favorite is someone who reminds you that they've checked "X manual of English style," as if that somehow means something. I can read an automotive manual cover to cover, but I have very little idea of how to replace a transmission).

For crying out loud, I once posted in a forum where someone asked for demonstration of how to change a sentence from tell to show and had a bunch of people slamming the rewrite I submitted, claiming it wasn't show but just more tell. When asked to offer their show, they responded with some of the most overblown purple-prose ever, to the point where the original poster pointed out that the entire point of the sentence had been lost.

:facehoof:

There's a lot of misconception out there. That's one of the reasons I write these guides.

As to a replacement of the entire idea for something much clearer, that's a good idea. I'll think on that one.

2149008

I think most of the time it's just people using the anonymity of the internet trying to self-aggrandize themselves by passing off judgement on things they really don't understand.

:rainbowlaugh: That is a very common thing in many more areas of the arts than writing. I can't count the number of times I've heard some people at art shows and galleries throw around the term "negative space" in an attempt to sound knowledgeable. :facehoof:

For what it's worth, your guides are very succinct and nut-and-bolts practical to my mind.

2149008
Glad to see that one of my suggestions made it already onto the blog. The whole reason why Show don't Tell comes about is because too many people use tell when it's not appropriate, hence the constant drive to avoid telling.

"I feel angry"

is the most common example I see when explaining the problems with telling. The inherent flaw in the statement is that they are using tell in the wrong way. Trying to convert this to show starts to border purple prose territory, from what I've seen.

Blood raced towards his face as he tightly clenches his fists.

Or something to that sort. Works wonders with upping your word count, but I feel that dialogue could be changed to something that still expresses the intent of anger.

"That, that wretched scoundrel!"

I guess this is a very context-sensitive topic, and doesn't have a clear answer. Writing style definitely plays a part in show vs tell balancing.

Also,

For crying out loud, I once posted in a forum where someone asked for demonstration of how to change a sentence from tell to show and had a bunch of people slamming the rewrite I submitted, claiming it wasn't show but just more tell. When asked to offer their show, they responded with some of the most overblown purple-prose ever, to the point where the original poster pointed out that the entire point of the sentence had been lost.

Really curious to see what the sentences were now. There's a reason bad fanfic is hilarious to read aloud.

2149008

my personal least-favorite is someone who reminds you that they've checked "X manual of English style,"

Especially when they then go on to tell you that your grammar (in an example that can be done multiple ways, like using em or en dashes) is absolutely wrong because that manual says so. :facehoof:

...This is 100% wrong, and usually, a case of someone or some group deciding that they're smart enough thanks to their four weeks of reviewing fanfiction to start giving out advice.

:rainbowlaugh: That just made my day.

Very nice blog post, I will be keeping this in mind while writing. :twilightsmile:

I think "Show Don't Tell" is more of a movie term, where you should show a thing instead of showing a character expositioning about that thing. In literature, well, I'd just point to the above blog.

Every considered collecting these together into a "How to Books" book?

2152655

No, I never have. Would you buy one?

2152711
Probably. Sounds like it would be both interesting and useful.

Row, row, row your doublepost...

2152711
...uuuhhh... I... kind of already did it.
I mean, I printed all your previous "How To be a Better Writer" to keep them... what's the word? "Handy"?
Whatever, it's good stuff. Hope is not a problem. I mean, you posted them so that anyone can read them, but you still are a pro.
Also, if you were to write a guide to be sold, count me in.

2155716
Tears of pride ...!

No that's totally cool! I'd never even thought of doing any more than putting them up here! Glad you guys are finding them so helpful!

Which means that no matter what I'm about to write, I can guarantee that there are going to be a whole host of people that will actively disagree, and will try to debate me on it. Which isn't going to happen, because I've got better things to do than argue with a random person on the internet over whether or not my showing is actually showing or what the proper balance is (more on that later).

Well, okay, but this will make your post more confusing than enlightening for many people, since you're using a definition of "tell" that's quite different from what most people seem to use, and orthogonal to mine. As in, when I talk about show vs. tell, I'm using the same words to talk about entirely different issues.

This was super helpful to me, thank you so much! If I didn't read this, I would still think that my writing was well rounded even with it completly missing and show! One of the most important thing I've learned is that it's Show versus Tell, not Show don't Tell!

Again, this was really helpful to me, thanks! Now I've got a story to go revise. :yay:

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