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Showing vs. telling vs. "good" telling

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NancyH

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Hi all,
There's a great post and discussion over at Mary Kole's kidlit.com (6/23/10) about showing vs. "good" telling.

I found it both fascinating and very helpful. She gives examples of how sometimes telling is necessary/better than showing and then a whole lot of people chime in with other examples and then critiques of the examples in the comments.

I especially like the comment someone made about telling/showing being a false dichotomy and really, there's just good narrative. I agree, mainly because in the "good narrative" paradigm, the author has room to construct a story using all forms of narrative available, while maintaining that balance that allows the story to both flow and ring true.
 

RJK

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I haven't read your reference, but I agree with you. You can't have a novel with nothing but "Show." It would be unnecessarily long, and begin to bore the reader before long. As with everything in life, telling works in moderate amounts. You must balance it with showing and it is appropriate where the incident/activity isn't that important, or showing would be monumentally difficult.
 

maestrowork

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We writers should understand the concepts behind show vs tell and what they achieve, instead of just blindly following things like "show, don't tell." it's all about effectively telling a story so that the readers are kept in that fictive dream. Great writers do it so effortlessly you cant help but feel like you are in the story yourself.

The problem with all tell and no show is that the readers are TOLD of the story and they'd feel like they are just reading something. The good thing about show is that they would feel like they are in the story, become part of it. Everything is about balance and clarity, and choosing the right details to show or tell. If you understand what a fictive dream is and how to keep your readers in it, then you've accomplished the goal. Show vs Tell is part of the writer's toolbox.
 

dpaterso

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Ah, show don't tell, my familiar friend, it's about time you made another guest appearance. :)

As said before, often, it's a subtle balance/blend of the two that gets you the best taste. But, as general advice for new writers eager to learn the ropes, "show, don't tell" leans in the right direction.

-Derek
 

Elhrrah

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I always think of The Chronicles of the Black Company when the entire 'showing versus telling' argument crops up. That series is a prime example of how 'telling' can be pulled off with the right sort of narration.
 

Kalyke

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Actually I agree. I try to show when ever I can, but in truth, you read the better books and telling is actually more predominant. Dialogue and description are the two basics of writing. When I see the instructions to show, not tell, it is usually focused on a certain area of the narrative that is sagging.
 

Jamesaritchie

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Good advice, but dangerous. Most of those Harry Potter sentences are tell at all. Just as many, particularly agents, don't understand that there's active voice, passive voice, and voise that is neither active nor passive, there is also show, tell, and none of the above.
 

Fallen

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Will not...must not...get...drawn into show/tell...again...
 

Macy

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For important back story, backflashes are my worst enemy. Telling in moderation makes for less painful back story, and if told almost as a description of how thing are, especially when something is setting/enviroment driven,then telling can be quite nice in my opinion.
 

WriteMinded

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Keep The Topic Going Please

I hope more of you will comment here though I take it this particular topic has been done before. And before that. I'm new. I'm struggling with the concept and questioning every paragraph of my (first) novel since joining the forum and finding "show don't tell" a part of so many threads. I keep hoping I'll stumble upon the one comment that will clear away my confusion. Maestrowork just came very close to doing that. Here is the biggest wall I hit: What I have to say can be "told" in one sentence. It can take twenty or thirty sentences to "show" it and by now I'm fumbling.

The same thing happened when I found I needed a grammar refresher. The more I refreshed, the more confused I became about how sentences and paragraphs should be written. The more I edited my work, the more I disliked it. One day I came upon a book - a book about writing - that changed all that. It did that by "telling" me I'd been doing it right in the first place. It "showed" me by giving beautifully written examples. It didn't solve my comma problem but you can't ask too much from one book now, can you?

Hints on what to read would be welcome.
 

maestrowork

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What I have to say can be "told" in one sentence. It can take twenty or thirty sentences to "show" it and by now I'm fumbling.

The question you have to ask is: do you want your readers to EXPERIENCE it, or if a summary is enough?

Like I said before, you have to pick and choose the right details and the end goal is to keep your readers in your world without yanking them out and make them aware that they're just "reading" something.

Is it okay to just summarize: "She was beautiful" or is it better for the readers to "see" and realize/experience her beauty themselves? Is it okay to say "he had three dogs and he loved them very much" or is it better to show us how he played and kissed and hugged his three dogs?

It's all a matter of what makes sense to your scenes and plot, and how much detail is enough (or too much, too little) to keep your readers involved in the story.

Learn the concept and internalize it. Is there a "rule book" on what should be told and what should be shown? No. That's why writing is both a craft AND an art. YMMV as a writer.
 
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dgiharris

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This topic comes up so often that i've created 3 crit/links that address it.

Read them in thier entirety, they take about 5-10 minutes each.

Anyways, I read the article OP was talking about, not bad, learn something new everyday. Here is a link to that website, the 6/23 blog

http://kidlit.com/

Writers story
Info dumps

http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?p=1670047#post1670047


as you know bob info dump

http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?p=1358914#post1358914


tuxedo info dump link

http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?p=1348838#post1348838

Mel...
 

Ken

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... as mentioned in the thread title, there is such an animal as "good telling." If done well, telling can be as engrossing as showing. And by the same token, clunky showing can become the 'don't' in the law. When choosing which, it depends in part on the story. Some lend themselves more to telling, others to showing.
 

Kalyke

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Here is the biggest wall I hit: What I have to say can be "told" in one sentence. It can take twenty or thirty sentences to "show" it and by now I'm fumbling.

Well, here, the job is not to sum up. 20-30 sentances are what are needed. You must make the writing come alive, not give a summary of the action. I feel this can be done by knowing the scenes (outlining) and deciding which scenes are needed to fully explain the story. Those scenes you give the 20-30 (or more) sentences to. Novel Writing is long distance writing, not an "executive summary." I think that the subject of this post has gotten confused. Just because you can "tell" is not an excuse for not "showing." Certainly anyone's life can be summed up with a few words, but the object of the game is not to sum up. It is to make it immediate, real, and inspiring. It is to effect reality in a way with an artificial character.
 

dgiharris

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I believe that this is where the 'art' part of writing comes to play.

The art is recognizing those few times when telling is better than showing, or when you should mix in some tell with show.

There is no hardline formula that we can recommend nor that you should follow. Sure, usually it is better to show not tell as the saying goes but it is not an absolute. And as the OP's link shows, there are times when tell can be labeled as good tell and enhance the scene.

I think that is the real measuring stick. Does the 'tell' make the scene better? If yes, then tell away, if no, then don't. If 10% tell and 90% show optimizes the scene to its utmost ability to captivate the reader, then that is the right mix. Or maybe the mix is 20/80, 40/60, 50/50, etc.

Again, that is part of the 'art' of writing, figuring the best way to convey that all important scene or plot point.

Mel...
 

Linda Adams

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This topic was just posted on by Mark Charan Newton. I think always it should be whatever the story needs, and that doesn't always fit cleanly into absolutes. There are times where showing would become very tedious and actually show the story down and telling works better. Many thrillers have very complicated story lines with huge casts where telling helps keep the story moving. It's not always as cut and dried as all the standard advice makes it out to be. There are a lot of gray areas.
 

HisBoyElroy

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My favorite books show almost exclusively. Any telling is embedded in the drama and in the context of the current action. Can't and won't stay with a telling book for very long.
 

Mr Flibble

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The question you have to ask is: do you want your readers to EXPERIENCE it, or if a summary is enough?

As I general rule of thumb, show the exciting stuff - ZOMG the building just exploded! - and tell the boring stuff that would drag at your story - showing the whole three weeks in the hospital afterwards would be unnecessary. Of course if someone tries to blow up your protag while he's in the hospital....that goes back to exciting stuff.


Okay that's an extreme, but hey you don't need to show your protag getting dressed, brushing his teeth etc (well unless something else is happening too, or you feel it's essential) you can just say 'X got ready'

Paraphrasing Hitchcock - fiction is life with the boring bits taken out
 

DaughterOfAthena=)

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Showing and telling (merged with Showing vs. Telling vs. 'Good telling'

I have a bad habit of telling when i should show. I have had some poeple tell me thats my problem. And ive read a thread that says its okay to have a mixture, but i can't even do that. I tell to much. does anyone have any ideas of how to help Show intead of tell?
 

Maryn

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The biggie is learning to tell the difference. Do you understand the difference when people use simple examples?

Telling: Maryn was furious. Her dog was scared. He ran and hid.
Showing: Maryn shrieked wordlessly. Muffy squirmed under the sofa and trembled in the darkness.

Can you recognize telling in your own work? That can be harder.

Once you can reliably identify telling, it's your decision what is important enough to show the reader and what is of lesser importance and can be simply told.

Maryn
 

Bufty

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I'm not sure I follow the problem. You seem to be aware that you tell when you should show.

If an event or series of events contribute nothing to the advancement of the story don't even mention them. If one or more events do move the story forward and warrant relating in detail by giving the reader the sense of experiencing it/them through the POV character's senses - show them.

If nothing happens between John leaving the house and reaching the office you don't need to mention the journey at all. Pick up the story in the office, provided, of course, something happens there to advance the story.

It's your judgement call as a writer. You just have to slow down and ask yourself if a particular scene or a particular event warrants covering in more detail than a passing 'telling' mention.

Read books of the type you wish to write and see where those authors show some scenes/events and cover others with a brief 'tell'.

If someone asked you to tell them what happened on the boat trip when a fellow passenger was arrested for streaking, you wouldn't give them all the boring details about how you travelled to the dock or picked your clothes and packed your suitcase and phoned for a taxi, blah, blah, blah, and gloss over what happened on the boat would you? You would simply 'tell' -I boarded the boat on Friday and all hell broke loose on Tuesday. Then show -give all the juicy details -show what happened as you experienced it. I had just finished my breakfast when.....

Does that help -or not?

I have a bad habit of telling when i should show. I have had some poeple tell me thats my problem. And ive read a thread that says its okay to have a mixture, but i can't even do that. I tell to much. does anyone have any ideas of how to help Show intead of tell?
 
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Fallen

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To help a little further (and using Maryn's examples)...

Telling: Maryn was (telling verb) furious (an abstract word: you can't see 'furious' in your head). Her dog was (telling verb) scared (abstract). He ran and hid.
Showing: Maryn shrieked (see the difference between 'was' and 'shrieked'? You can 'hear this' andother associations come with it too) wordlessly. Muffy squirmed ('squirmed' again, that difference between 'was' and a verb that gives you an instant picture of what's going on) under the sofa (you haven't said 'the dog hid' you've done by letting the reader infer it by using 'under the sofa) and trembled (again a good solid image you can easily picture) in the darkness.


Telling usually comes when you relate one abstract (like furious) through 'is, are, was, were':

The car was colourful
She is happy letting Maryn do all the work
We are loving
You were beautiful then.

Showing comes when you exhchange those realtion verbs 'was, were, is are' and when you change abstract language (beautiful, happy, colourful) for words you can easily picture (house, car, settees -- anything that the reader can quickly and easily picture in their heads).

Ad tht's the basic of show and tell: one makes the reader work hard visually (tell) the other makes the reader work intellectually (to connect the given images to the plotline)

Using both will help your work in so many ways.
 
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Kathleen42

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Pick up a copy of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. It has a very good chapter on showing and telling.
 

Bufty

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Oh, F, F, F, Fallen....
 
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