Show don't Tell concept is confusing

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The 'show, don't tell' concept in writing has never been my forte. Exactly, what do writers mean when they say that? I've tried to grasp the concept but it's either not explained in enough detail or it's too complex for me to understand. Maybe it's because I don't pay much attention to the finer points as a reader and writer. Is there a simpler way to explain this concept when it comes to writing?
 

millymollymo

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Yes. I agree. It's made worse by the fact that some readers enjoy this style. Sometimes you HAVE to tell.
‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass,’ Anton Chekhov once advised. From:
There's some good examples of the differences on there. But remember, when you're in a made up world, sometimes YOU HAVE TO TELL.
Also remember YOU ARE ALLOWED TO TELL.

One day I will take this advice myself.
 

The Judge

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As milly says, sometimes it's necessary to tell but here's a post I made some time ago which might help The Toolbox -- The Important Bits

And here's a post which is about info-dumping, but which also gives an idea as to how to give information is a more showing and less telling way The Toolbox -- The Important Bits

You'll see both posts are in the same thread which we put together to help new writers deal with some common problems in writing, so you might find the rest of interest.
 

Steve Harrison

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I struggled with that concept when I first heard it, too, until I realised it's really a case of knowing when to show and knowing when to tell. Which is even more tricky as it's a moveable feast.
 

goldhawk

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Show what your protagonist is doing as they experience it. Tell everything else.

sh*t, thought Mel as he climbed out of his cold-sleep chamber. His tactical board was alight with the red blips of enemy craft. I'm f***ed.

What this does not tell; the readers has to figure these out by themselves:
  • Mel is aboard a spaceship.
  • Mel is at war.
  • Mel is in danger.
Some caveats:
  • A supporting character becomes the protagonist in a subplot. For the subplot, show what they're doing.
  • Show what the other characters are doing when they interact with the protagonist.
  • Keep your tells short or they'll become an info-dump.
  • If you're going to info-dump, give it a subplot. Conflict will make it interesting to the readers.
 

thaddeus6th

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The example I remember, maybe from here, or elsewhere, is the corpse in the swimming pool.

You don't have to describe there's a swimming pool if you're showing the corpse floating in it.
 
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@goldhawk Thanks for giving me an example of the concept, but now I'm worried that it's gone over my head. I've read articles and books with this kind of advice before and I still become confused. Maybe this concept is too advanced for me.

@thaddeus6th I don't do well with horror and gory examples. Still, thanks for your input.

@Steve Harrison I agree that the concept is tricky. It would be great if as both a reader and writer if I could understand when to apply both showing and telling. I tend to approach my writing in a similar way to when I'm reading, so maybe I should stop that.
 

msstice

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Like all aphorisms, show don't tell comes across a little bit strict.

My personal experience with show don't tell is that

1. It makes my writing longer (both in terms of time taken to write and number of words)
2. It makes my writing richer
3. It makes it more immersive
4. I enjoy writing more
5. There is a place for it.

When I did not consciously use "show don't tell" I tended to get into these big paragraphs full of adjectives, reading a bit like a tour guide. This is fine, but I realized it made the reader a bit detached. When I got more into showing, I had to think harder from the character's viewpoint. I had to think more what the character would see, hear, taste, smell and then feel. This made my writing richer and more immersive.

I'm always telling. It's just that now I'm telling you things that lead you to see some other things indirectly, because I'm drawing you in. You are a social creature, just like me. You want to be sitting in the seat of the spacecraft, next to me, looking out.

The "Show don't tell" style invites the reader to use their imagination to fill in the blanks.

As you can tell, this shows a particular style of writing. A lot of older books by famous authors spent pages describing a meadow, or a smoky street. Readers liked reading that, in order to get a detailed image of the scene from the book. That works too.

I think it is all an experiment and you have to find how you like doing it. The end goal is to make the same pictures and feelings and emotions you have in your head pop up in the reader's head without boring them.
 

zmunkz

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As other said, telling is just fine sometimes. It adds narrative distance, which is why doing it too often can separate the reader from the story, but often you want to tell and save your words for other places.

It’s not as complicated as some of the articles suggest. If you want to TELL then just be the narrator and write what is happening. If you want to SHOW then sit inside the character’s head and write what they actually experience.

Narrator looks down and might say, “she was saddened.”

The character themselves would never think, “I am saddened!” They probably wouldn’t articulate the feeling at all, they’d merely feel it and react. “Her lip trembled and she blinked furiously as her eyes swam.”
 

Brian G Turner

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what do writers mean when they say that?
A key problem for a lot of people starting to write is that they remain very distant to the events and characters. The result is that you end up with textbook lists of attributes for people, places, and events that keeps the reader distant from the narrative and so weakens it. The principle of "show don't tell" aims to close that distance so that you have a more immediate and engaging character experience.
 

Don

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Thank you for the great thread! Now for an oddball question. Is there a place for "show don't tell" in a review?
 

Joshua Jones

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My go to example for "show don't tell" is Les Miserables. The novel is routinely criticized for spending inordinate amounts of time describing things with excessive detail, such as 14 chapters to open up the book describing the bishop to establish that he, in fact, was a good man, had endlessly given to the community, and only withheld two silver candlesticks and a set of silverware as personal comforts. This does give context to the forgiveness of Valjean, but 14 chapters worth?

In contrast, the musical has three scenes in one song with the bishop; one where he welcomes in Valjean after everyone else has mistreated him, one where Valjean is reflecting on the bishop's generosity and how he suspected his motive before stealing the silver, and then one where the bishops not only forgave Valjean, but gave him the candlesticks as well, informing him that the bishop, "bought his soul for God", which drives the rest of the action of the musical. All these scenes only take 3:26, but they are so effective because they show the kindness and mercy of the bishop as it relates to the protagonist, rather than explain at length that he is kind, as well as cuts out details which are irrelevant to the plot.

And yes, there definitely are times where telling is appropriate and useful. But, I like how one of my writing teachers at university put it: rules are there to be broken, but only after they have been used extensively so you know the strengths and limitations of the rules.
 

Toby Frost

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I think it's about having the confidence to let the reader deduce things from the context of the story. If you write Bob was furious, that's straight-up telling. If you write "What the hell is going on?" Bob said furiously, you're still telling the reader something (the "furiously") that could be deduced from the text. And by and large, the act of deducing is more immersive and draws the reader in more than straightforward telling. Ideally, you'd write "What the hell is going on?" Bob said, or perhaps demanded or shouted as appropriate. It's not just dialogue, though.

Sometimes, it is necessary and easier to just tell, quickly and succinctly, especially when you're describing something that's only distinctive in one way. The castle had high walls and a drawbridge, but the moat was overgrown and choked with weeds. That works fine for me, because it's short and neat. Overall, I think a sense for showing and telling comes with confidence and practice.
 

Laura R Hepworth

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I think a good author does both and knows when to 'show' and when to 'tell.' If you show everything, you can sometimes bog the storyline down with unnecessary description and bore readers. Then again, if you tell everything your writing can fall flat and detached. To me, it's about finding the right balance between the two that that's likely to vary story to story.
 

Robert Zwilling

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With telling you are forcing the readier to accept a judgement of the situation. There might be some play in the words, but the meaning is probably going to be clear to most readers. One problem with telling is when the reader does not like the opinion of the writer as stated in the words. It may be fantasy, it may only be about a fictional character, or speculation, but if the reader doesn't like it because of their personal beliefs, it may become harder to keep the reader engaged. Some readers just don't need facts in their fiction.

Showing on the other hand, allows people to come to any conclusion they want, as based on their beliefs. This can result in two different readers coming to two completely opposite conclusions while still being engaged in reading the story. This allows for a greater size audience to appreciate the writing. You could write tricky dialog to achieve the same effect, but I suspect an entire story like that would lose far more readers than it attracted unless it was an extraordinarily good story.

Personally I like good explanations and the facts don't need to be real. Extended scenery descriptions leave me yawning, as does in depth personality portraits.
 

M. Robert Gibson

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James Scott Bell, in the book Plot and Structure, has this to say:

"The distinction is simply this: Showing is like watching a scene in a movie. All you have is what is on the screen before you. What the characters do or say reveals who they are and what they are feeling.
Telling, on the other hand, merely explains what is going on in the scene, or inside the characters. It's like you are recounting the movie to a friend."

He then goes on to give the example of the scene in Jurassic Park where the visitors see dinosaurs for the first time. We see their reactions first before we, the audience, see the dinosaurs.
"All we need to know about their emotions is written on their faces. We are not given a voice in their heads. We know just by watching what they are feeling."

He also claims that one of the best 'show' novels is The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett.
 

sknox

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>Exactly, what do writers mean when they say ...

Writers rarely mean anything exactly. We are squishy, ill-defined, and gloriously inconsistent. Which also means we'll look like were absolutely exact one day, and lurch off in a different direction another day.

We will often say (however, see above) that each writer must find their own path. In that spirit, I'll ask a question, @Artemis Cromwell: even though you say the topic is confusing, what is your *current* understanding? That is, if you had to explain it to another, maybe a youngster just starting to think about writing a story, who came to you with the question, how would you explain it?

Don't worry about being right or wrong, just see if you can formulate an answer. It will mark a starting point for further conversation.
 
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@sknox I have never been good at explaining things to others. It's unfortunately one of my greatest weaknesses. I'm still trying to develop my current understanding of this topic.

Thanks to everyone for their input on this subject. Though I'm still struggling to grasp this concept, it has been very insightful.
 

The Judge

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Artemis, I appreciate you find it difficult to explain things, but are you able to say what you find confusing about the show -v- tell concept? For instance does this seem clear?

1 Telling -- Treacle looked disgusted after sniffing the plate of cat food -- it's all telling, as there is no room for an inference to be drawn when the reader is explicitly told how she looks​
2 Part-showing, part-telling -- Treacle sniffed the plate of cat food and walked away in disgust -- there's part showing as the reader sees her walk away, but again the reader isn't allowed to draw an inference as to her reaction as it's expressly given​
3 Mostly showing -- Treacle sniffed at the plate of cat food and walked away without deigning to eat any of it -- it's all showing save for that "deigning" which hints at her reaction without specifically saying what it is​
4 Showing -- Treacle sniffed at the plate of cat food and walked away without eating any of it -- it's pure fact, and the reader has to infer why she's walked away, and might draw the wrong conclusion that she's simply not hungry​

If that isn't clear, are you able to pinpoint what exactly is causing the problem? If it is clear, why do you think there is a problem?!

Personally, while I try and avoid episodes of all-telling as per example 1, I'm happy to use the kind of part-showing or mostly-showing of examples 2 and 3 and I suspect that most readers couldn't give a damn one way or another.
 

Toby Frost

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I agree. I've just finished The Pillars of the Earth, and at times I thought "That's a bit telly". It didn't really spoil my enjoyment of the book: it just made it feel a bit more old-fashioned. And I'm someone who's been "trained" to spot that kind of thing.
 
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