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How do you get better at showing and not telling

lordorion7

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This is my biggest struggle with writing. How did you all get better at showing as I been writing for about two years and I am still struggling.
 
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Chris P

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That is what I do but man is it still difficult

HOW are you doing this? Taking notes on passages that particularly work/don't work for you? Discuss these scenes with someone? Write "practice" scenes trying out some of the things you've seen to see how they work? Beta readers? There are dozens of ways this could be done. Finding the ones that work for you is the key.
 

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For me, feedback helped. Not saying you have to share your work, but it does work. Others set their writing aside for a few days to a month or two to a year so they can read it as impartially as possible.

If you have your first story, try reading it with the knowledge you have gained over the time you've been writing. If not, try with the oldest story you have access to.

A psychology grounding technique might help. Instead of yourself, think what can your character see, hear, smell, fell, touch in the scene. Use one or as many as appropriate.

It's not just physical senses. Quick example time, I think.

Telling: Jane couldn't stand her boyfriend's yappy dog, so she went out to work in her garden until she calmed down. It had rained last week, if nothing else, she should check that the plants were all right.

Showing: Jane couldn't take another moment with that damn dog's yapping. She went outside, in her backyard. She wondered if she could ever afford to replace the chain link with a wooden picket fence, a tall one for privacy. She didn't bother with the trowel, just started pulling the weeds. Slowly, the ache in her shoulders eased. Dug her hands deep into the sunwarmed soil. Just a hint of moisture. Good, the roots hadn't gotten waterlogged in that downpour last week.
 

lordorion7

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HOW are you doing this? Taking notes on passages that particularly work/don't work for you? Discuss these scenes with someone? Write "practice" scenes trying out some of the things you've seen to see how they work? Beta readers? There are dozens of ways this could be done. Finding the ones that work for you is the key.
I read alot and more slowly and pay attention how the author is writing the scenes.
 
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CMBright

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I read alot and more slowly and pay attention how the author is writing the scenes.

That is good. It isn't always enough.

When I find I have a weak point (and I've found a LOT of weak points), I start with a google search on keywords such as writing showing vs telling. Then I start reading. If it makes sense, I incorporate the information into how I work. If it doesn't I keep reading until I feel I have the information I need to improve my writing.
 

neandermagnon

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I think if you're struggling to think of ways to show things rather than telling it, then it's more mental work you have to do. Telling is pretty straight forward:

"Jack likes to play football."

(by which of course I mean soccer, because I'm British)

Showing takes more creativity: how do I show that Jack likes to play football? Maybe he can have a conversation with a team mate about football. Or maybe I can write a scene where he's just finished training or just about to go to training. Or maybe I could bring one of his games into the plot somehow...

The thinking/imagining part of writing stories can be practiced just as the writing part can, except you're not constrained to butt in chair staring at a screen/page type of practice... you can do the mental work anywhere you're able to let your mind wander. It's especially good when you're stuck in a situation where you'd otherwise have to be bored and annoyed, like being stuck in traffic. Rather than mentally hating on other drivers, roads in general, the local council and its bizarre ideas about what constitutes good town planning, and whoever else, I can be dreaming up scenes in my head that I'm going to write later on. It's less stressful too.


An important thing to understand though is that showing isn't automatically better than telling. Knowing when to tell and when to show is just as important as figuring out how to show things. Sometimes writers aren't actually struggling with showing, they're trying too hard to show too many things all the time, and when it doesn't work, they think it's because they're crap at showing rather than realising it's not working because it's a situation when it's better to tell.
 

lordorion7

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For me, feedback helped. Not saying you have to share your work, but it does work. Others set their writing aside for a few days to a month or two to a year so they can read it as impartially as possible.

If you have your first story, try reading it with the knowledge you have gained over the time you've been writing. If not, try with the oldest story you have access to.

A psychology grounding technique might help. Instead of yourself, think what can your character see, hear, smell, fell, touch in the scene. Use one or as many as appropriate.

It's not just physical senses. Quick example time, I think.

Telling: Jane couldn't stand her boyfriend's yappy dog, so she went out to work in her garden until she calmed down. It had rained last week, if nothing else, she should check that the plants were all right.

Showing: Jane couldn't take another moment with that damn dog's yapping. She went outside, in her backyard. She wondered if she could ever afford to replace the chain link with a wooden picket fence, a tall one for privacy. She didn't bother with the trowel, just started pulling the weeds. Slowly, the ache in her shoulders eased. Dug her hands deep into the sunwarmed soil. Just a hint of moisture. Good, the roots hadn't gotten waterlogged in that downpour last week.
So for example showing may be

Dove stared into the sun. Its intense heat wrapping around her pale skin, and her divine eyes being unphased by the burning light. If she was a regular mortal, she would have went blind. Instead, she squinted her eyes almost as if the sun was a human lightblub.

Yeah I will need to practice that grounding technique alot but I feel like that will help.
 
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CMBright

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So for example showing may be

Dove stared into the sun. Its intense heat wrapping around her pale skin, and her divine eyes being unphased by the burning light. If she was a regular mortal, she would have went blind. Instead, she squinted her eyes almost as if the sun was a human lightblub.

Yeah I will need to practice that grounding technique alot but I feel like that will help.

Feels like I'm next to Dove in a desert, given how hot it seems. Good showing.
 

Chris P

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I read alot and more slowly and pay attention how the author is writing the scenes.
Great! Immersion is a great way to get a gut feeling for how things are done. I, however, tend to be too analytical for my own good (for real--I can get too caught up on if something fits a particular formula) but it serves me well in that I can identify specific tools and have examples of how they can be used well (or not, as the case may be). If my gut is telling me this particular showing is super effective, I can linger on it and look at the dialog tags, the actions, the descriptions of objects and actions, etc. If something is coming off as particularly clumsy or talk-downy, I ask myself what tool the writer was using in this case (see the other thread on As You Know, Bob), and what might have been a more engaging way to do so. I also look for when a tiny bit of telling is a good thing, versus when it's a bad thing.

The bad examples are always easier to identify, since it pings our radars. The good examples are harder because we cruise right through them; the writing is invisible in that way!
 
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CMBright

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Some blogs write as if a particular method is the only valid method. Ignore that. If the method works, use it, if it doesn't, find one that does.
 

Infinimata

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I had a teacher once who said something like "Show the things that need showing more than telling, and tell the things that need telling more than showing." A lot of how we put that advice to work was up to us, but the idea was clear to me: sometimes you do need to "just tell" the reader something -- e.g., to get the story moving at a decent clip -- and sometimes you do need to "just show" the reader something -- e.g., when an image or a demonstration will be far more efficacious than a mere explanation.
 

lordorion7

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I think if you're struggling to think of ways to show things rather than telling it, then it's more mental work you have to do. Telling is pretty straight forward:

"Jack likes to play football."

(by which of course I mean soccer, because I'm British)

Showing takes more creativity: how do I show that Jack likes to play football? Maybe he can have a conversation with a team mate about football. Or maybe I can write a scene where he's just finished training or just about to go to training. Or maybe I could bring one of his games into the plot somehow...

The thinking/imagining part of writing stories can be practiced just as the writing part can, except you're not constrained to butt in chair staring at a screen/page type of practice... you can do the mental work anywhere you're able to let your mind wander. It's especially good when you're stuck in a situation where you'd otherwise have to be bored and annoyed, like being stuck in traffic. Rather than mentally hating on other drivers, roads in general, the local council and its bizarre ideas about what constitutes good town planning, and whoever else, I can be dreaming up scenes in my head that I'm going to write later on. It's less stressful too.


An important thing to understand though is that showing isn't automatically better than telling. Knowing when to tell and when to show is just as important as figuring out how to show things. Sometimes writers aren't actually struggling with showing, they're trying too hard to show too many things all the time, and when it doesn't work, they think it's because they're crap at showing rather than realising it's not working because it's a situation when it's better to tell.
Is there a risk that someone may do purple prose if they show too much
 

Infinimata

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Is there a risk that someone may do purple prose if they show too much
That's a matter of how something is shown, not to what extent. It might become a little too granular, though -- e.g., Hemingway's fetish for paragraphs of filler action that don't really add to the story.
 
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I know your'e kindof hesitant to share your work, but maybe sharing one scene might help. And say at the start "the thing I really want to work on is improving showing vs telling, could you please focus your feedback on that?" And then see what people have to say.

Purple prose is when stuff is too ornate to really be understood. My (kind of not nice) feedback to that is "gee, you sure did right click ==> thesaurus in Word, didn't you?" And I can get the feeling this is what someone did because they are using a word that is really long/complex (a "ten dollar word" or "SAT word"), which sticks out because the rest of the text doesn't have words likes that, and, this is the big thing, the word has the wrong definition/vibe than what the writer intended. The memeable example that you'd see in fanfics is green eyes being described as "smargadine orbs." Like, okay, orb instead of eyes. It works, but it's kind of awkward and not really cool/beautiful/sexy/whatever. "Smargadine" is a ye olde word meaning "pertaining to emeralds," like the gemstones. And/or the color of emeralds. Which is green.

But "smargadine" has a really awkward sound to it. Most people aren't going to know what the hell it means (this is the "too ornate to really be understood" part). It's going to take the reader out and say "what the hell is this." But some people think that using big words makes you sound more smarterer. That REAL WRITERS need to have voluminous vernacular, or else how else will people know you have a colossal cortext? Word choice is a tool in storytelling, which means you need to know what the use of the tool is and when to use it. Which is why you need to crack open a dictionary and look at the vibes (slang, colloquial, academic, insult) and exact definition of a word.
 

neandermagnon

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Is there a risk that someone may do purple prose if they show too much

Purple prose is when you use too much flowery language, excessive description and overly fancy words. It's not quite the same as too much showing. Too much showing will slow the story to a snail's pace, but it isn't necessarily purple. The story simply doesn't go anywhere because you're showing literally every detail rather than just saying it. It is possible to combine purple prose with excessive showing and the results would be... interesting.

Showing isn't necessarily the same as describing. It's about letting the reader make inferences.

Jane was sad. (telling)

Jane slumped on the sofa, tears rolling down her face as she ate the entire pack of Jaffa Cakes. (showing her emotions through her actions)

However, you can take showing to an even deeper level through conveying to the reader what made Jane sad. That way, they feel sad for Jane and you don't need to describe tears rolling down her face. For example, if you show how much Jane loves her dog through how she interacts with her dog, cuddling him, taking him for walks, etc... then have a scene where the dog's sick and Jane takes the dog to the vet, and the vet says that the dog is gravely ill... the reader's going to know how sad Jane is, because you've shown how much she loves her dog.

(Note: a lot of readers will hate you if character's dog dies in your story - the above is to explain the concept.)

(Also note: you don't need to be sad to eat a whole pack of Jaffa Cakes. And you don't need a reason either. Just never ask a group of Brits if they're a cake or a biscuit.)
 

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You know the common tweet structure, "Tell me you're [a thing] without telling me you're [that thing]"? That is the essence of showing vs. telling. It really means "Show me you're [that thing]."

Figure out what it is you want your reader to know -- that the weather is unseasonably cold? That your POV character is a lonely teenager? That the economic system in your story's world is based on barter instead of currency? Whatever aspect of setting, characterization, worldbuilding, backstory, plot that you want to convey, set it clearly in your mind, and then pretend your readers asked you to "tell me [a thing] without telling me [that thing]."

- Tell me the weather is unseasonably cold without telling me the weather is unseasonably cold. --> Show me the weather is unseasonably cold (usually through the actions or perceptions of a character).
- Tell me the POV character is a lonely teenager without telling me the POV character is a lonely teenager --> Show me the POV character is a lonely teenager (usually through the actions or perceptions of the character)

and so on.
 

Chris P

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I echo what everyone says above about the purple. Related to purple but separate, is detail for the sake of detail ("overshowing"?).

To riff of Neandermagnon's example:

Jane slumped on the sofa, tears rolling down her face as she ate the entire pack of Jaffa Cakes, the yellow-orange empty wrapper crinkling in her sticky, chocolate-stained hands as she clenched her fists and shouted to the heavens "Why? Why me?!?"

A good bit of that is not necessary to show that she is sad. The stuff I added is not helpful, even if it paints a more detailed mental image.
 

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I found a lot of advice on this in blogs etc was too black and white and the art of exposition reduced to show VS tell. A lot of writing advice is now served up like fast food and I’m not sure that’s for the best.

I find a balance of both show and tell where needed works and it’s more about finding which is important to move a scene on or make a character and setting feel real than NOT to do something.

One book I read, Showing and telling - Laurie Alberts offered some good insights into creating a balance. Might be worth a look. It helped me think about what was appropriate vs what was convention.

If you read a lot you’ll find authors do both showing and telling in the right places. The thing to avoid is doing so much telling that the story doesn’t make the reader feel anything. Or so much showing the story is full of unnecessary stuff and doesn’t progress. If I’m stuck I consider both showing and telling and find if I think how the scene plays out it makes it easier to choose one or the other. If you default to only being able to do one of the two you can just get stuck.
 
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MMarquez

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This is my biggest struggle with writing. How did you all get better at showing as I been writing for about two years and I am still struggling.
Reading scenes or actually, the whole MS out loud to myself helped me find areas where I was doing a lot of telling instead of showing. As I'm reading I'll catch something and start thinking of better ways to word it so I'm describing rather than telling.

Also, reading a lot! When you read the way other people show it gives you ideas. So you're not copying you're just learning from them.
 

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This is my biggest struggle with writing. How did you all get better at showing as I been writing for about two years and I am still struggling.
Show effectively, and tell effectively.

I like The Emotional Craft of Fiction, personally. It has great tips on the kinds of showing that matter (external action) and the kinds of telling that matter (internal emotions.) It walks the reader through how to do these things effectively.
 

lordorion7

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I echo what everyone says above about the purple. Related to purple but separate, is detail for the sake of detail ("overshowing"?).

To riff of Neandermagnon's example:



A good bit of that is not necessary to show that she is sad. The stuff I added is not helpful, even if it paints a more detailed mental image.
Will you risk the reader skipping through it if it too much information
 
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lordorion7

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You know the common tweet structure, "Tell me you're [a thing] without telling me you're [that thing]"? That is the essence of showing vs. telling. It really means "Show me you're [that thing]."

Figure out what it is you want your reader to know -- that the weather is unseasonably cold? That your POV character is a lonely teenager? That the economic system in your story's world is based on barter instead of currency? Whatever aspect of setting, characterization, worldbuilding, backstory, plot that you want to convey, set it clearly in your mind, and then pretend your readers asked you to "tell me [a thing] without telling me [that thing]."

- Tell me the weather is unseasonably cold without telling me the weather is unseasonably cold. --> Show me the weather is unseasonably cold (usually through the actions or perceptions of a character).
- Tell me the POV character is a lonely teenager without telling me the POV character is a lonely teenager --> Show me the POV character is a lonely teenager (usually through the actions or perceptions of the character)

and so on.
Oh I get it. For example if I want to show someone is cold, I can have the mc say he is cold via dialogue