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Bad Horse

Sufficiently advanced friendship is indistinguishable from magic.

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Writing: Other ways to look at "Show, don't tell" · 4:53pm May 30th, 2014

I'm reading The Writer's Notebook: Craft essays from Tin House. I like this book a lot, even though I don't like the stories in Tin House much. (They're good, individually, but they're all meandering, inconclusive stories about helpless characters that end sad.)

Peter Rock's chapter, "Telling that shows", suggests some new ways to look at "Show, don't tell":

If you can tell it, tell it.

If all you have to say is that Ruth is upset, say that Ruth is upset. "Show, don't tell" means that you should have more to say. Your characters' thoughts and feelings shouldn't be so simple that they can be summarized in a few words. (If they should, then the story should be told, not shown, like fairy tales.)

Show things that you're not sure about.

Sometimes we slip into telling because we can't really imagine our characters doing something, or how they would do it, or how it would happen. That's a sign that that part of the story is fake, the writer pushing the characters along where they don't want to go. Telling quickly plasters over that weak spot, but the joints show.

Tell the things that could generate confusion but not drama.

Scene changes can confuse readers, especially if you try to "show, not tell" time, location, and point-of-view shifts. Unless the shift is dramatic, which it usually isn't, just say "Two weeks before Christmas," or something like that.

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Comments ( 9 )

You also want to show unreliable narrators or just plain liars. Estee did a fine job of that with Five Hundred Little Murders, where Flitter's thoughts, actions and words clash. In general, where you have great emotional upheaval that is being hidden, there will be considerable obvious differences between what is said and what is left unsaid (and therefore shown).

Think you could expand upon this blog post? This is an interesting topic I'd like to hear more of.

THIS Is how one of my buddies explained it to me.

2159244 I've already written a bunch of posts on show & tell. See here.

I may have already mentioned this somewhere, but telling is also preferable to showing when you have a character who is much better at something than you yourself are. If Fine Verse is supposed to be a world-class poet, telling us that is going to be much more effective than attempting to show us, unless you can come up with some world-class poetry to show.

I thought about what you had to say. And about how Corejo 2159244 wanted more details about it. I have an example.

It's from a short story, from my collection 'Tales Of Los Pegasus', from the chapter 'Cinco: The City In Violet'. The story is a sequel, a follow-up to my very first story here on Fimfiction, 'The Big Respawn'. In it, my two characters Liam and Dylan have been living as newfoal ponies for several months, waiting for the arrival of the Equestrian Barrier to sweep over the west coast and absorb that part of the world into Equestria.

Dylan and Liam have been best friends for most of their lives, though they have only truly admitted this reality since they became ponies. They have lived together as a sort of 'Odd Couple' sharing apartments for years, and have basically been buddies. But there is an undercurrent of affection between them which has been unspoken, and it is starting to come out.

In one scene, Dylan and Liam have an emotionally complex moment together, one with many hidden emotions at play, all conflicting with each other.

To 'Tell' that scene, it would be fairly short, and fairly empty of emotion, despite the situation. But to 'Show' the same scene involves the reader and makes the emotions palpable.

Here would be the scene as a 'Tell' example:

Dylan felt bad about how he had dissuaded Liam from even considering taking the pony name of 'Violet Fetlocks'. He felt bad about it because now, as a pony, he suddenly cared more about how Liam felt than about whether the name sounded silly or vaguely effeminate. Dylan wanted to apologize, but he didn't know how.

Liam, who was very intuitive, figured out what must be making Dylan moody, and tried to cheer his friend. Liam jokingly suggested that 'Violet Fetlocks' truly was a stupid name, and that Dylan shouldn't feel bad about it anymore.

The two walked on, making simple jokes with each other, as they approached the market.

Now this is functional, and it tells a story, but it is very empty, and very cold. It tells us what happened, but it does not involve the reader. Too many stories are like this.

Now try this 'Show' example. Here, nothing is stated obviously, and the passage is much longer - it has to be, because it contains more information, specifically emotional information. The key is that the emotional information, the same described above in the 'Tell' version, is not told to the reader at all, but is instead literally shown - as an experience, in the way and manner that real people would experience things. This forces the reader to decode the emotions the same way they would in real life - and that immediately involves the reader in the story.

"Take any name you want. Be Violet Fetlocks if you want. I don't... I just want you to be you because..." There was nothing else in his head to say. His heart wanted to say more, but his head wasn't able to parse it, what did come through was scrambled, like a bad signal. Dylan felt stupid just standing there, staring at his hooves, and the ant that had decided to crawl nearby.

Suddenly his face was in shade and he felt a soft, slow nuzzle against his cheek. "I understand."

Sunshine hit his eyes full on as he raised his head. Liam was standing proud with the sun above and the vast, approaching Barrier cutting the sky in half. "You know, 'Violet Fetlocks' wouldn't do at all!" Liam smiled broadly. "I mean, I'm more than just a set of pretty fetlocks!" Liam put on a pose that looked like something one would expect to see in a Dress Club, where the ponies put on socks to be outrageous and sexy.

Dylan couldn't help but laugh at the display. "Yes, yes you are. Exactly what, I won't say. Besides, you need to get those things trimmed, dude. Your hooves are starting to look like dust mops."

"Um... really?" Liam looked almost hurt. He was freaking pouting. It was a joke, a joke!

"No... NO! Sweet biscuits, Liam, I'm just kidding. I'm the one that trims them, so if they're too long, it's my fault anyway. They're perfect... uh...wait. You're messing with me, right?"

Liam whisked his tail across Dylan's startled face. "Race you to the market!"

Now, note that the second example is much longer, yes, but also note that is spends a lot of time describing and providing visual and other sensory information.

The core principle of 'Showing' rather than 'Telling' is to engage the senses. Telling is information. Showing is describing - describing how something looks, how it smells, how it tastes. How a character moves, how they talk, the way they talk, the very cadence of their speech, or the way that they stand. What they look at, and whether or not the direction of their gaze expresses their feelings.

In the example above, Dylan looks at the concrete and his hooves, avoiding eye contact. This is emotional information being shown, rather than told. When a person won't meet your gaze, it means something. It means they are hiding something inside, that they are afraid of their eyes giving them away. This is a clue we use in real life.

To show those emotional clues, and force the reader to interpret them, makes a story come alive. To tell the reader what happened and what every character precisely felt destroys engagement, immersion, and flattens the characters into cardboard cutouts.

Showing means living through a scene, telling means... simply stating what happened.

Showing always takes longer, often much longer, and it requires the author to 'live' through the events inside themselves, essentially simulating the situation and watching what happens and how everyone acts and behaves at the smallest level - and then commit that to descriptive text.

This is my simple take on the issue of 'show' versus 'tell. I hope it is mechanically helpful, which is to say, communicates how to 'show' and how 'showing' differs from telling.

2159327 I haven't heard it explained that way before, but it makes a lot of sense. Honeycomb wrote that. Direct links:
Part 1: Explanation
Part 2: Examples

2160267 I'm going thru my old Show & Tell posts to prepare a talk, and I see that I never thanked you for posting this detailed explanation, which unfortunately hit the conversation a bit too late to get replies. So, thanks!

You are welcome. It can be hard to learn how to show, rather than tell, I think. I personally find two traits in me that make me want to tell rather than show: one is exhaustion - sometimes, showing an event, even if it is necessary, seems overwhelming and even boring to do. The other trait is the speed of ideas - sometimes ideas come so fast that I may feel like I have to tell, because there is more beyond to show that is better, or there is just too much overall.

My cure for these traits is to ask myself what I, if I were a reader, would want. Would I get mad at the author if they skimmed over something by telling about it, rather than showing me. I also will ask my editor-spouse about it too... a second opinion is always useful. Unfortunately, it seems people who are not me always want everything shown, in vastly greater detail than is reasonable. So... the opinions of others have to be tempered.

I never believe everything in a story needs to be shown, but important, emotionally impactful things do. I follow a simple rule - if an event changes a character in any significant way, then because it is an emotional turning point, it must always be shown.

Thank you for finding worth in my examination of the issue!

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