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A Thing about Showing vs Telling, The Importance of Discovery in Reading, and Clop · 7:17pm Jan 22nd, 2016

Because it's time for me to write an enormous blog post pretending I know what I'm talking about.

There’s a lot of bad clopfics on this site. I don’t mean that as an insult or anything, it just means there’s a lot of new writers finding their feet (and it’s not like I haven’t contributed to the mess myself). The fact, however, remains.

Some of them are absolute train-wrecks – garbled messes of misspelled words and grammar disasters that leave the author’s first language in hot debate – while some (really, the most disappointing ones) are almost, but not quite, okay. The grammar’s there, maybe a little iffy in places, but they’re not the unsalvageable rubbish of the ones I mentioned before. Generally there’s three main issues you see with these not-quite-there ones. Pacing, sentence variety, and the more elusive showing vs telling. They can come in any mix and combination of those three, but they’re the main offenders that ruin a potentially good clop story.

(There’s actually a fourth thing as far as I’m concerned -- Emotion -- but that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish that’s a lot more subtle than these and could be a blog post all on its own. I’d argue that it’s the next step up, making the difference between an okay writer and a good writer, but a lot of people aren’t as fussed about it in clop for obvious reasons, so whatever, moving on.)

The first two are simple enough. Pacing issues are usually the author rushing through everything at breakneck speed, desperate to get to the good part, only to blast through that as well and finish at just over the necessary 1k words to get published. This is an unforgivable sin in erotica, where the build up is half the bloody point. Another common issue, particularly with one-shots where development has to be more limited, has the sex taking forever to actually come to fruition, at which point it’s over in a paragraph. Fortunately, these issues are easy to spot, and just as easy to fix.

Sentence variety is the other big hurdle for the newest writers, once the foundations of spelling and grammar have been laid. I don’t just mean mixing up lengths and words and such, but also the actual internal structure.

“Applejack was sad. She sat down at the table in thought. She stared into space, wondering what would make her feel better. She got up from the table and walked over to the window. She was thirsty, so she got a drink of water from the tap. She drank it slowly, enjoying it as best she could."

Exaggerated, of course, but it gets the point across. Again though, easy to spot, easy to fix once you start thinking about it.

But it’s the last one I want to talk about. It’s the last one that’s much more subtle, much harder to think about while you write, and much harder to get advice on because people like to be overzealous about it.

“Show don’t tell!” the voracious readers cry, as Rarity walks through the door. “Don’t tell us Rarity walked through the door, show us!”

No. That’s not what it means.

Again, that’s an exaggeration for the sake of example, but for what is at heart a solid piece of advice, show don’t tell gets thrown around in the stupidest of ways. When it’s brought up with people who probably haven’t heard of it before, it's rarely explained in any capacity, despite the fact that without qualification it doesn't mean much. Which is why I want to talk about it.

So, let's start with the thing I just complained about. It's not about actions. Of course it's not, that would be dumb. Characters would never be able to do anything in your story, they'd just vaguely suggest something about it and then refer back to it to show that they had, in fact, done the thing. So saying 'Rarity walked through the door' is not wrong.

What show don't tell is talking about is motivations. Thinking stuff. More conceptual ideas, rather than simple actions.

I glanced at a story recently with an awful like to dislike ratio, and although it was one of the aforementioned grammar abominations to boot, it was also a prime example of how 'telling is bad'. The first sentence was something like this:

"Shining Armor and Big Macintosh were lovers."

This is telling. This is doing it wrong. See, here's the problem with outright saying something like that: there's no sense of discovery. There's no challenge or intrigue in reading that -- it's just straight up saying what's going on.

Think how much more fulfilling it would be if, instead of this, the story opens with Big Mac and Shining sneaking into a room together. Now, arguably we already know they're fucking because of the description, but forget all that. Your story should always read as though the description doesn't exist.

So instead let's have the story open with the two stallions sneaking into a guest room in the crystal palace, being careful to make sure they're not followed. This immediately creates intrigue, tension. Why are they worried about being followed? Why are they hiding? We want to know (but of course we don't want to be told, we want to see). They enter the side room, a large double bed up against the far wall, and Shining shuts the door, and as soon as he turns around Big Mac is pressing close to him, kissing him passionately.

From this we know:
a) They are totally fucking
b) They're hiding it and are worried about being caught
c) If a) and b) are true, we can surmise that they shouldn't be fucking, but are doing it anyway

And so we understand the main conflict and naughtiness in their debauchery, and all of that without ever explicitly saying it.

This is important.

In fact, it's what reading, and therefore by extension writing, is all about. Readers do not need or want to be told things like that. They want to discover them. They want to experience the story, for it to slowly but surely reveal itself to them. If a story is a striptease, telling is the equivalent of skipping straight to the end. It's unsatisfying, and it's boring. People want to see the boobs, but they don't want to see them right away, that would be missing the point entirely. The thrill is in the chase. The end result is never worth it if it's just handed to you, and the same applies to writing.

But when it's been teased instead, and prolonged, and slowly we get down to the last few lacy garments, and then at last the final remnants of clothes come off and we see the plot reveal in all its naked glory...


So, instead of just telling the audience that they're lovers, we show it with a clearly naughty kiss.

The next line was something like:

"They liked to fuck each other hard."

Stop, I can only get so excited.

No, but seriously, I hope you can see this line is doing exactly the same as the first one. Why is the writer telling us this? If they fuck each other hard, then hopefully (assuming you're into that kind of thing) we're about to see them fuck each other hard. Can you imagine if you were watching a film, and before every scene someone popped up in the bottom of the frame and explained what was about to happen? That's what this is.

Have Shining be slammed against the door by Mac's forcefulness. Have him be hurled across the bed and then ravaged, worried the thing's going to break from the sheer force of their fucking. If all that happens, we'll know they like to fuck each other hard. It'll be self-evident. We don't need to be told it in advance.

The third and final line of the intro paragraph really takes the cake for me, though. It was (paraphrased):

"But they shouldn't, because Shining was married!"

Jesus fucking Christ.

Remember when I said that you should ignore the description of your story, and write it as if it doesn't exist? As far as I'm concerned, this should extend to the show as well. If we watch the show, we're well aware Shining is married. However, when writing you have to act as though this isn't known (which admittedly this writer does, though badly), and that means this is a big reveal.

It's not just a big reveal for the levels of naughtiness (which, if you haven't been keeping track, are rapidly going off the charts), but it's a big reveal that answers the questions we asked earlier. This is why they're sneaking around, worried about being caught. Not only is Shining Armor in a relationship with a stallion, but there's a healthy dose of adultery mixed in too. This is not just a key piece of the puzzle, it's also (presumably) the crux of the story's plot. Well, aside from hunky stallions doing it, of course.

Again, this is an enormous waste of potential, and simply bad writing. So instead we don't say he's married, not for a while. Not until they're on the bed, and things are getting heated (this also has the added benefit of giving the reader themselves the sense of being 'too far gone' once the reveal happens, too, enabling much better empathy with Shining). Now, were he human I'd have him do something like slip off his wedding ring and stick it in the bedside drawer, shutting it out of sight, but since these are ponies we have to get creative.

We could go down the obvious path of having Big Mac do some cheeky dirty talk. "What would Cadance say if she could see her husband like this?" That's almost too easy, though, and super cliche (although it's cliche only because it's a very effective way to show someone's having an affair). Maybe we get in Shining's head a bit. We see the twinge of guilt as Mac's lips press against his own. We hear how it's been so long since the last time. We see Shining get thrown onto the bed, so small in comparison, so different to what he's used to. We see Big Mac join him, and Shining reflects on how it could never be any other stallion, only Mac. He loves how different Mac's touch is, so forceful, so demanding, not like Cadance. Cadance's touch is soft, gentle, loving. Big Mac's touch is wanting and lustful and strong. It feels wrong. It feels more right than anything he's ever done. He remembers standing beside Cadance at the altar, promising himself to her forever.

And then Mac kisses him again, and he forgets.

The difference is the slow unfolding of Shining's stake in all this. The difference is in not insulting the reader's intelligence. We don't have to be told he's married. We don't have to be told he's having an affair. We're shown it, and we understand, and it becomes the feeling of discovery I talked about earlier. It becomes a revelation, and it feels like one. That's the power of showing vs. telling. Telling doesn't give things the appropriate weight they deserve, and it doesn't let the reader experience the story. It becomes a news report instead.

The secret to variety in clop is the different emotions that the relevant parties experience each time, because mechanically, sex is always sex. You can do all kinds of positions, put every combination of ponies together you like, but it's functionally the same without that key ingredient. The change in emotions, the mental side of it (which I know I said I wouldn't talk about but I guess I lied). And telling ruins all that. How can we feel Shining's mixed guilt and lust if we're just told he feels guilty and lustful? You can't empathise with that, you can't put yourself in the character's shoes (or hooves). It just becomes a fact, a stark sentence to float meaninglessly in your mind without any real attachment or emotional connection.

And that's why showing and not telling in clop is just as important as in any other story. If all you do is tell, there's nothing to your story but a list of sexy things happening one after another. And while that might be enough in some cases, more often than not it's going to leave people wanting, because that's wasting the appeal that fiction has over other media.

Now, as always, there are exceptions. Sometimes, and only sometimes, telling can be used for effect. But as with everything in writing you have to know the rules before you can break them. You have to walk before you can run. If you're wondering when to use it, then it's too early. Focus on refining your current use of showing instead of looking for the exceptions, and when you're ready you'll end up using it for effect without even realising quite what you're doing, only knowing that it'll work.

And that's it. A couple of final thoughts. Firstly, I left the title of the story and name of the author out of this on purpose, but I realise it won't be hard to find if you look. It should go without saying, but please don't go off and do anything untoward to the writer or the story in question. I'm pretty sure you're all better than that anyway. Secondly, if you want to read more about this (somehow), Chuck Palahniuk (the author of Fight Club) has a wonderful blog post about this exact thing. Minus the clop. It really helped me getting to grips with it, and is certainly more eloquent than I put it, so I recommend you check it out.

Finally, it's long, long overdue, but I realised the other day that I never pimped Grand_Moff_Pony's Mis-Shapes inspired chapter of his Red Shoe Diaries clop anthology thing. It's about Velvet having an affair (cunningly tying it back in with the rest of this blog post), and it's pretty bloody good. Despite everything I've typed in this post I can't actually link it due to site rule oddness, but it shouldn't be hard to find from his userpage.

As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts below, even if it's just to disagree with me or complain about Mis-Shapes taking so long. Here is a pre-emptive cute apology gif, as well as a thank you for somehow sticking with my rambling to the end.

- Grimm

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Comments ( 15 )

For every 20 or so bad clop fics I read, I find 1 good one, and that fact is very disappointing. :applecry: Not sure it can really be helped though. I think most people just don't care enough to put effort into their work.

Edit: Oh yeah, and I agree with everything you said.

I don't have anything to add except Gimme that fuckin' balloon Pinkie I swear to fuck

Yes, Freaking yes. I've rarely seen someone explain the show don't tell rule so well on this site. I should share this with everyone.

This right here, is one of the reason's I consider you to be among the best writers on this site (clop or otherwise). I hope anyone reading this has the sense to realize this themselves, and take the opportunity to drink deeply from the fount of knowledge.

Past mechanical stuff, I've been thinking a lot about how energy and personality can contribute to a creative work lately. Some of the most interesting stuff to me is stuff that people bring their own individuality to. I've been thinking lately about how the best stuff from a person isn't necessarily going to be the most mechanically impressive, avant-garde, etc. The best stuff from a creative person is usually when they make something that feels like only they could have made it that way.

Excellent words all around.

I don't know about that. There are definitely a few who don't care about improving, but I'd say the vast majority are people who are either young, new, or both, and see clop as an easy stepping-stone to popularity (which it can well be). The problem is that a lot of them aren't at the stage where they should be showing their work to an open audience, but Fimfiction's such an incredibly popular and unrestricted platform that the temptation is hard to resist. Especially if you're not able to evaluate your own writing yet. I hope they don't get too put off if their stuff is ignored or shot down in flames, because no one started off writing well, just like no one started off painting lifelike portraits without a bunch of hard work. They'll get there, it might take a while is all.

Let's hope they're not opposed to 'objectionable' content...

Aww, thanks a bunch, though you're far too kind. Still, I hope there's at least some stuff in there that's useful.

Oh, definitely. The little quirks and personal touches are the things that make different authors interesting to read, at least beyond the stories themselves. If reading is about discovery, then writing is about the way it's discovered. That can vary wildly between authors, and all the better for it. Though I think there comes a point when someone basically only makes stuff like that, when they come into their own and find their voice, and that's a really important step. When you're no longer imitating your favourite authors, but are writing stuff that could only come from you. I don't think I'm quite there yet, but I'd like to be.

Excellent post, and a wonderful explanation of showing and telling that applies equally well to regular and mature stories. Bravo! :)

Oh, and thank you very much for the shout out for Red Shoe Diaries: Equestria. I sincerely appreciate it! (and thanks for giving me some inspiration through your own work!) :pinkiehappy:


and see clop as an easy

I used to think this as well. When I first started to write my story, I thought the clop would end up being the easiest part... I was wrong... so very wrong. Clop always takes me twice as long to do than anything else. idk why...

I do see that a lot though. People just want to get a bunch of watchers so they just do some fast, uninspired clop scene, expecting it to help them become horses famous. But I see that having the opposite effect. They just spend a day or two on some simple, generic sex scene with little to no story and expect people to flood in with likes and follows, but it gets downvoted to hell. At least that's what I've see happen... Point is, it seems like most just don't care about what's in the story, or why the characters are even having sex at all and just write whatever to get fame.

The problem is that a lot of them aren't at the stage where they should be showing their work to an open audience

Yeah, that was me with my first story, but I’m glad I posted it. A lot of people actually came out and offered me help which has helped me to learn and grow. I was pretty lucky to have a story that got a lot of attention and views, and even luckier to have others willing to help me improve.

Anyways, I’m glad you took the time to write all this out and post a guide like this. I just hope a lot of people will see it and take its advice to heart.

No worries, it deserves it! I would have pimped it sooner, but I was trying to fit in that guest chapter I said I might do at the time and figured I'd do a blog post when that was done anyway. Unfortunately, life caught up and that didn't happen, so I figured better late than never.


it seems like most just don't care about what's in the story, or why the characters are even having sex at all

Ah, well that would be the fourth issue I was talking about. Without that, the story can still be 'okay', but I've never seen one be better than that. And yeah, some people seem happy to stop there and not try to improve or push past that, which maybe I can't blame them for if it's popular. But I think actually moving past that to feed emotion into your clop is difficult, especially in one-shots, which is why so many of them feel exactly the same. And why it's the mark of a good writer vs an okay one.

Very true. I can agree with that.

Excellent essay you've written there. All the points you made I actually agree with unlike most other essays regarding something like this. :rainbowkiss:

One piece of pedantry and a quibble:
The piece of pedantry is that unless it is an illustrated work, then both 'showing' and 'telling' are forms of telling, differentiated by their level of detail.

The quibble is that it is not just that something is too trivial to be discovered that makes telling better than showing. It is often clearly or even indisputably better to tell rather than show if it involves a side issue of the story or if the events have already been discovered.

To illustrate the former case, I shall use a quote you used in your post,

"Shining Armor and Big Macintosh were lovers."

If the story is about Cadance having a tryst of her own, for instance, it would be perfectly adequate.

For the latter case, I shall refer to the story Sympathy:
Twilight and Luna have sex, described in detail
Then, Rarity confronts Luna and merely mentions that their tent smells of sex
Then, Rainbow Dash relates the event to Spike by simply saying "Twilight is a lesbian!"
Even if it made sense for RD to 'show' rather than 'tell', a lot of readers would have been thinking "get on with it" or "we already know this".

I'm not really sure what point you're trying to make with your pedantry. If you mean that since it's a piece of writing, that alone means it's being told to us, then I think that's pretty redundant and unhelpful, and I don't know what you're trying to prove about it. I'm not saying you're wrong, just that it's not really relevant. I didn't pick the words 'Showing' or 'Telling'; they're already well-established, and decent descriptors in my opinion.

As for the rest, like I said in the post, exceptions DO exist. However, when starting out it's far better to learn and stick to the fundamentals, and through that learn when the exceptions are suitable. There's no real benefit to looking for the loopholes as soon as you can, because as with all 'rules' of writing you have to know them before you can break them. I also disagree with your examples, which I think in some ways proves my point.

Firstly, even in your completely different scenario, showing that Shining and Big Mac are in a relationship would be better than telling. The manner would be different, of course, because it should be tailored to the story. In your example, I might have Shining and Big Mac wake up in bed after sharing a night together, or even just imply that it's true and Cadance knows it through the things she says and thinks, leading to anger and her own eventual cheating. It's still better and more compelling writing to show that instead of having a single, summary line. Showing doesn't mean the story has to revolve around it -- you can show less important things in one sentence. The blog post by Chuck Palahniuk that I linked illustrates this nicely, and It still reads much better than telling.

Your second example is exactly what I've already said doesn't need to be shown: actions. Of course Rainbow doesn't need to show it. She's simply talking. It's exactly the same principle as Rarity walking through the door in my post.

I think your issues stem from getting too caught up in the terminology, rather than the sentiment. It's the idea that's important, the avoidance of stating things that should be discovered and understood, rather than the words used to describe it.

What show don't tell is talking about ismotivations.

You hit the nail on the head with this one. Showing or telling is not inherently bad in of themsevles—only when the balance is lost between the two. We need to decide what is worth showing and what is telling, and ultimately, motivations and revelations are the scales we use to decide what is better told and what is better shown.

Thank you for writing this blog.

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