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Show vs Tell and when either is best.

Kaeli Bailey

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Where is it act better to tell? Only showing doesn't work, but how do you know when it works well to tell? Is it about what you're trying to emphasize and the goal of the scene? Are there any good rules of thumb to follow? Can anyone suggest things it's generally best to show and things that are fine being told? Examples really help me.
I'm starting on a first go through of a draft and wondering what can stay and what can just be told and not take up space it doesn't deserve.
 

Tocotin

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Hey, I think you have already asked this question in another thread.

There is no rule of thumb except for go with your gut, go with whatever you feel is natural to your story. Don't treat words and sentences, passages and scenes lightly, examine why they are there and whether they do what is required of them: make the story interesting. You are your first reader. Ask yourself if you like what you see, if everything is intriguing and pleasant enough to make you want to spend your time in this world.

And if you are worried about a particular scene, post it in the SYW section and see what others will say. And do take a look at others' excerpts and read the critiques. And do some critiquing yourself. You'll be surprised how helpful it is to identify your own shortcomings by analyzing the work of other writers.

Good luck.

:troll
 

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Where is it act better to tell? Only showing doesn't work, but how do you know when it works well to tell? Is it about what you're trying to emphasize and the goal of the scene? Are there any good rules of thumb to follow? Can anyone suggest things it's generally best to show and things that are fine being told? Examples really help me.
I'm starting on a first go through of a draft and wondering what can stay and what can just be told and not take up space it doesn't deserve.
Maybe it's "does the reader need to know the details of what's happening" or not. For example:

In a sweet-ish romance, two people meet and have an on-page conversation, or two, or ten. That's important. At some point, they may hug, then kiss, then go into the bedroom and (fade to black). All the reader needs to know is that they went All The Way (a la Rhett and Scarlett). That simple fact that they do bonk progresses the relationship and storyline and character arcs. The specifics of how and where and insert-tab-A-into-slot-B and who's on top aren't important. Sex is sex, generic.

In an erotica story, two people meet and have an on-page conversation, or two, or ten. That's important. At some point, they may hug, then kiss, then go into the bedroom and -- what they do there, and how they do it, and why they do it, and how they feel about it, is what progresses the relationship and storyline and character arcs (a la Fifty Shades; or so I presume; I haven't read it). So the actual, on page, explicit sex scene is necessary. If it just faded to black, the plot would fall apart.

So, for each 'what happens next' ask yourself: if I don't show it, will the reader be left adrift? Will the story fall apart? This can help you identify what needs to be shown and what can just be told as a transition.
 

Kaeli Bailey

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Hey, I think you have already asked this question in another thread.
I wanted to ask it a little more thoroughly than as a comment buried in another thread.
There is no rule of thumb except for go with your gut, go with whatever you feel is natural to your story. Don't treat words and sentences, passages and scenes lightly, examine why they are there and whether they do what is required of them: make the story interesting. You are your first reader. Ask yourself if you like what you see, if everything is intriguing and pleasant enough to make you want to spend your time in this world.
I suppose that makes sense...and is the same as the answer to a lot of writing questions. I really do need to share some of my work. I think it might kill off a lot of my self-doubt.
 

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sorry, somehow double posted.
 

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I suppose that makes sense...and is the same as the answer to a lot of writing questions. I really do need to share some of my work. I think it might kill off a lot of my self-doubt.
It's really difficult to give any advice without seeing the work in question. I understand being reluctant to show it to others, but unless you are writing for yourself only, you will have to push your story out of the nest and let it fly on its own one day, so to speak. And people on AW are very kind and respectful, so it's better to show your stuff here first – because the readers and critics of the wide world will be much harsher. By putting your work on SYW and critiquing others, you may find good writing friends worth their weight in gold. I know I have.

:troll
 
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Kaeli Bailey

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So, for each 'what happens next' ask yourself: if I don't show it, will the reader be left adrift? Will the story fall apart? This can help you identify what needs to be shown and what can just be told as a transition.
Is it really that simple?
If I write: It was cold as she crossed the street early morning. Is that okay because the point of the scene is her struggle with herself over the person she's going to see and the cold and the street are just surroundings for the main event?
What about: The boarding house was quite as I took the stairs to the third floor.

Thanks for taking the time to answer my question 🙂.
 
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Like I said in the other thread, look at trade pubb'd books that are a lot like yours. What bits are they showing, and which are they telling? Do they ever double-dip, and why?

Like a kids book might say "Little Bear was so happy, he felt he could fly high up into the clouds." But little kids are still learning things like a frown means unhappy, especially when they're reading those words. Showing a thing AND telling a thing is necessary. Reading "salacious" novels from the 1800s is so funny, because everyone said they were so lewd and sexual and you read it and it shows nothing. It uses really vague gesturings and metaphors to imply sexy times are happening. So there is definitely no showing, and only sort of telling. And still people got their knickers in a (?????) over it lol

A lot of doing an art is just practice and getting a feel for it. If there was a formula or hard and fast rules about how to do literally anything, then everyone would know and be using it. But there's a reason there's countless books, panels, workshops, webinars, podcasts, and videos on how to write. Because there is no absolute answer, as every writer, and every writer's project, is totally unique and requires something different :)
 

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A lot of doing an art is just practice and getting a feel for it.

This.

With practice, you'll stop thinking in terms of show vs. tell - you'll acquire an instinct for how to construct your particular story.

Doesn't mean you won't get critiques that will make you go back and say "Wow, I told way too much there!" :) It's nearly impossible, I've found, especially once you have a solid first draft, to get enough distance from a piece to be your own best critic. You will, though, over time, get a sense of where your stylistic pitfalls are, and you'll get better at polishing your own stuff. But there's no substitute for outside eyes.
 
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Is it really that simple?
Pretty much. If a scene forwards the plot/action and builds the character arc and adds to setting, it's doing its job. If it doesn't do those things, it's unnecessary.
If I write: It was cold as she crossed the street early morning. Is that okay because the point of the scene is her struggle with herself over the person she's going to see and the cold and the street are just surroundings for the main event?
Possibly. It really depends on the story.

If she gets run over by a bus as she crosses the street, you'll probably need to show that.

If she counts each step as she walks along the pavement one two three one two three one two three, carefully not stepping on cracks break your mother's back, reciting to herself over and over the words she will say to the person she's going to meet, obsessing over choosing just the right phrases to tell her long-estranged sister their mother is dead of a broken back, willing her racing heart to slow down, wiping tears off her face, you'll probably need to show that. And she probably won't notice it's cold out.

If she trots across the street and meets the shopkeeper who has agreed to sell her that pretty frock on lay-buy but she gets to take it home today to wear to the party tonight, she can just cross the street and go into the shop.
What about: The boarding house was quite as I took the stairs to the third floor.
I'm quite, quite sure it wasn't ;)
 

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Is it really that simple?
If I write: It was cold as she crossed the street early morning. Is that okay because the point of the scene is her struggle with herself over the person she's going to see and the cold and the street are just surroundings for the main event?
What about: The boarding house was quite as I took the stairs to the third floor.

Thanks for taking the time to answer my question 🙂.
In both those cases, I would pauseto determine whether and why those details matter.

If the fact she's cold is used to illustrate her discomfort, you want the reader to feel that cold and would benefit from showing. If you simply need to get her in front of the door, where she debates knocking, you can skip the "it was cold". If you need the info to explain why she's wearing the coat given to her by That Person, telling works.
 
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Agree with CWNitz. It will depend on context. IMO, within your writing you (we) need a range of showing and telling with variations in between, because the overall rhythm and cadence and pacing needs to work.

Elsewhere on the forum I had fun working through someone's excerpt with a link provided by another AW member. (I can't recall who.) Here is the link. Have a look. It describes seven stages (gradations) of showing vs telling.

Here's the opening to a recent bestseller, Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus. Care to take a whack at it with the advice at the link?

Back in 1961, when women wore shirtwaist dresses and joined garden clubs and drove legions of children around in seatbelt-less cars without giving it a second thought; back before anyone knew there’d even be a sixties movement, much less one that its participants would spend the next sixty years chronicling; back when the big wars were over and the secret wars had just begun and people were starting to think fresh and believe everything was possible, the thirty-year-old mother of Madeline Zott rose before dawn every morning and felt certain of just one thing: her life was over.

Despite that certainty, she made her way to the lab to pack her daughter’s lunch.

Fuel for learning, Elizabeth Zott wrote on a small slip of paper before tucking it into her daughter’s lunch box. Then she paused, her pencil in midair, as if reconsidering. Play sports at recess but do not automatically let the boys win, she wrote on another slip. Then she paused again, tapping her pencil against the table. It is not your imagination, she wrote on a third. Most people are awful. She placed the last two on top.

Most young children can’t read, and if they can, it’s mostly words like “dog” and “go.” But Madeline had been reading since age three and, now, at age five, was already through most of Dickens.

Madeline was that kind of child--the kind who could hum a Bach concerto but couldn’t tie her own shoes; who could explain the earth’s rotation but stumbled at tic-tac-toe. And that was the problem. Because while musical prodigies are always celebrated, early readers aren’t. And that’s because early readers are only good at something others will eventually be good at, too. So being first isn’t special--it’s just annoying.

Madeline understood this. That’s why she made it a point each morning--after her mother had left and while her babysitter neighbor, Harriet, was busy--to extract the notes from the lunch box, read them, then store them with all the other notes that she kept in a shoebox in the back of her closet. Once at school she pretended to be like all the other kids: basically illiterate. To Madeline, fitting in mattered more than anything. And her proof was irrefutable: her mother had never fit in and look what happened to her.

It's a fun open. I'd say there is a lot of showing there. Also telling, and plenty of stuff in between.

I'd say the line: But Madeline had been reading since age three and, now, at age five, was already through most of Dickens. is almost all summary. Telling. Basically exposition.

There is actually plenty of expositional bits in this open, but there is also a lot of specific anchoring details that "show." We get setting and relationships and character "shown" to us. So those "showy bits" make room (they buy credit for the author) to exposit.

I recommend analyzing a book you like for the seven types of show/tell at the link. Here it is again. My suspicion is you are successfully getting your thoughts around this, and I think it might help to think a little more broadly about show/tell.