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show vs tell

Switch Blayde
Updated:

Don't worry, I'm not going to debate the merits of showing vs telling. But it's a question that comes up often on wattpad with young writers trying to improve and not understanding the principles of writing fiction. People tell them to show rather than tell, but when they ask what that means the answer is typically to write a lot of description which, in many cases, is purple prose.

The other day, I gave an explanation that several people have said helped them understand it so I thought I'd copy it here. You can agree or disagree. That's your prerogative. My goal isn't to convince you, but maybe it'll help someone.
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Telling
You're sitting in a room with someone and that person tells you what happened to him the prior day in school. He says things like: "I felt so sad when I found out..." or "I was angry when..."

Showing
Imagine a camera looking over that person's shoulder with a microphone attached (one that can even hear his thoughts). Now watch how his day went in school. The camera won't tell you he's angry. It will show his anger by his actions and words.

Showing isn't a lot of description. And there might not be a one-to-one relationship between a telling sentence and a showing paragraph like many people think. You might tell the reader the father is abusive in one sentence, but to show it right, it would take several scenes. In one scene he may be hitting his daughter and yelling at her. In another scene he may humiliate her in front of her friends. In another scene he may lock her in a closet. You never actually tell the reader he's an abusive father, but the reader will sooner or later sit up straight and say, "Damn that guy's abusive!"

Replies:   graybyrd  aubie56
graybyrd

@Switch Blayde

It works for me. Good job.

aubie56

@Switch Blayde

Under the "showing" example, by the third abusive action, I am bored, dropping the story, and looking for something with more positive action.

Just saying.

graybyrd

@aubie56

by the third abusive action, I am bored


Whatever floats yer boat. Keep in mind, it ain't the formula so much as it's the execution. Some write good, some don't. It don't always get boring. But it do take an attention span to match.

tppm

@aubie56

Under the "showing" example, by the third abusive action, I am bored, dropping the story, and looking for something with more positive action.

Just saying.


Remember these scenes will, or should, be spread throughout the story, not all bunched together as in the example.

Crumbly Writer
Updated:

@aubie56


Under the "showing" example, by the third abusive action, I am bored, dropping the story, and looking for something with more positive action.


That was my reaction as well. To 'show' something successfully, you don't SHOUT IT. Instead, you show the father losing his temper, then apologizing and treating the daughter well, only to react negatively over another innocent example.

The point isn't to TELL the reader that the father is abusive, either by showing or telling, but allowing them to piece it together for themselves.

@Switch


Imagine a camera looking over that person's shoulder with a microphone attached (one that can even hear his thoughts).


Your explanation is excellent, Switch, but ... I always tense up every time I read the 'movie camera' technique to highlight showing because many authors aren't interested in writing screenplays, they're instead interested in literature and rebel at the though of everything being reduced to movie terms.

It's a useful analogy, experiencing rather than relating, but it'll just rub a few people (like Aubie and I) the wrong way.

Dominions Son

@Crumbly Writer

Instead, you show the father losing his temper,


Except if you "show" the father speaking in a normal conversational voice, my impression would be any anger is feigned and he's just a sick sadistic bastard.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
richardshagrin

@Crumbly Writer

And then we can argue about Tow versus Sell. Tow is where you tie a noose around the readers neck and pull him through the story. Don't let him think about anything else. Make it a quick trip before he strangles.

Sell is were you use gimmicks and doodads like coupons, discounts and green stamps to give the readers incentives to buy or download your story, hoping he will then pay for the sequel, or other stories by the same author.

(I made these up, and the cheap underpinnings may show I can't tell a story.) I am getting a little tired of Show versus Tell. Good authors do both, depending on what they want the reader to be interested in. Bad authors misuse both. Lets use a chapter to show how tall the main character is. Lets use a short paragraph to tell how stupid he is.

Crumbly Writer

@Dominions Son

Except if you "show" the father speaking in a normal conversational voice, my impression would be any anger is feigned and he's just a sick sadistic bastard.

My idea is that it helps to portray more than a single dimension to your evil overlord villains. Showing only a single dimension (i.e. "my father hates the very ground I walk on") is as bad as telling the reader something (ex: "He was an abusive father"). Both are examples of 'telling', only one tells by showing.

(Confusing, but I'm making this up on the fly.) 'D

@richardshagrin

And then we can argue about Tow versus Sell.

I prefer Toad in the Cellar with a Candlestick! 'D

Replies:   Dominions Son
Dominions Son

@Crumbly Writer

My idea is that it helps to portray more than a single dimension to your evil overlord villains.


Agreed, but you can't properly show emotion or tone of voice using only dialog.

Actions and tone of voice that don't mach create a disconcerting conflict.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Switch Blayde

@aubie56

Under the "showing" example, by the third abusive action, I am bored, dropping the story, and looking for something with more positive action.


Tim understood.

Switch Blayde

@Crumbly Writer

To 'show' something successfully, you don't SHOUT IT. Instead, you show the father losing his temper, then apologizing and treating the daughter well, only to react negatively over another innocent example.


I don't know about the apology part, but his abusiveness isn't being SHOUTED. You live the story through the girl being abused. My only point is that there's thread after thread on wattpad where someone says for someone to write a telling sentence and then someone else write the showing version of it. My point was it's not a one-for-one. It could show something throughout the story, not just in one paragraph or even a scene. Your example was fine, with the apologies and all.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Switch Blayde

@Crumbly Writer

I always tense up every time I read the 'movie camera' technique to highlight showing because many authors aren't interested in writing screenplays,


It is not a screenplay. It's living the "whatever" through the character, rather than a narrator telling you about the "whatever." The movie or camera analogy is simply that you don't have a narrator (or author) telling you how the character is feeling.

It's the difference between Subjective POV (telling) and Objective POV (showing). It's no coincidence that Objective POV is also known as Cinematic POV.

Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

I don't know about the apology part, but his abusiveness isn't being SHOUTED. You live the story through the girl being abused. My only point is that there's thread after thread on wattpad where someone says for someone to write a telling sentence and then someone else write the showing version of it. My point was it's not a one-for-one. It could show something throughout the story, not just in one paragraph or even a scene. Your example was fine, with the apologies and all.

Understood, Switch. As I said, I thought your initial piece was excellent! My only caveat, was that a few authors might take offense because of the 'camera' reference.

Hell, I started writing because I hated all the 'made for the movies' books I read! If I want to read a movie, I'll read the manuscript. I read fiction because of the story, not the film scene. But again, that's my hangup, not your wattpad authors'.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Crumbly Writer

@Dominions Son

Actions and tone of voice that don't ma[t]ch create a disconcerting conflict.

Hee-hee. And it's conflicts which drive stories forward. I'm not saying you can't provide descriptions, just that ... again ... showing a villain with no redeemable qualities is equivalent to telling the reader he's evil. I prefer stories that show flawed good guys, and bad guys with morals. It makes for more compelling stories where I don't feel I'm being lectured to.

But enough about my wants and desires, I've taken up enough of the discussion for issues which have no bearing on the topic.

Replies:   graybyrd
graybyrd

@Crumbly Writer

I forgot ... what was the topic again?

(chuckles)

richardshagrin

@graybyrd

Shell versus Tow, or something like that.

Switch Blayde

@Crumbly Writer

My only caveat, was that a few authors might take offense because of the 'camera' reference.


You're taking it too literally.

Imagine watching a movie where there's a scene where Joe blows up and starts cursing and throwing things. Now imagine watching that same movie where, instead, the screen goes black and you hear a voice telling you Joe was angry and lost his temper.

Yeah, kind of farfetched, but that's what the movie reference is all about. You'd never see that in a movie. Well, actually some movies do have a narrator telling you stuff, but that's the exception (the "Bucket List" is one).

The point is, it's easier to visualize showing in a movie than in a book.

Replies:   Dominions Son
Dominions Son

@Switch Blayde

Imagine watching a movie where there's a scene where Joe blows up and starts cursing and throwing things.


Yes, but with a movie, you can hear tone and volume separate from the actual words of the dialog. If you never use any dialog other than said in a written version, you lose that and you lose and important dimension of the story.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Ernest Bywater

In either case you're using words to tell the story. Because it's words, I find the camera analogy fails miserably due to being a totally different media.

I've seen many people try to describe the difference between Show and Tell and yet to find two that actually describe the same processes. Each person seems to have a slightly different concept of what's involved.

In the past I've heard people say you need to include more dialogue to make a scene more show than tell - yet some of the worst scenes I've read are due to excessive dialogue and the story would've greatly benefited from having a short summary instead of the long to and fro of the dialogue in it.

My understanding of the difference is it's all in the way you use the words to delivery the scene. In one case it's like a financial statement or an academic essay describing the event in a dry manner, while the other is a more colourful presentation of the events in the scene. I look at it being more to do with how expressive the words involved are, and how well the sentences are structured. An action scene needs to be described, not spoken about. While conversations need to be dialogue.

I'd summarise showing as using active words and colourful words to convey the contents of the scene in well paced manner.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Switch Blayde
Updated:

@Dominions Son


Yes, but with a movie, you can hear tone and volume separate from the actual words of the dialog. If you never use any dialog other than said in a written version, you lose that and you lose and important dimension of the story.


As I said in the OP, I'm not going to debate show vs tell so I'm surely not going to do that with dialogue tags. But something that happened on wattpad recently is very apropos to your question. Someone asked:


Can you grumble a thought?

Can you write this: Oh great, another surprise quiz, Dave grumbled to himself.


Someone came up with this way of doing it:

Dave sighed. Oh, great, another surprise quiz.

The action (sighed) and the words used in the thought (internal dialogue) set the tone for him grumbling to himself. That's what separates the skilled writer from the amateur. The skilled writer can use words to set the tone without relying on "telling" words.

Replies:   Dominions Son
Dominions Son

@Switch Blayde

and the words used in the thought (internal dialogue)


the words in dialog (normal or internal) can never contribute to setting tone of voice.

"Oh, great, another surprise quiz."

Those exact words can be said/thought at least three different ways with three very different meanings.

1. speaker is a nerd/brain and loves taking tests, happy/excited.

2. Speaker is a nerd/brain and is bored with school. This speaker would sigh, but would probably not grumble.

3. Speaker is average or struggling student, hates tests. sigh and grumble.

Oh great, another surprise quiz, Dave grumbled to himself.


Clearly shows 3.

Dave sighed. Oh, great, another surprise quiz.


Without a lot more context, this leaves the reader struggling to figure out if it's 2 or 3.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde

@Dominions Son


Without a lot more context, this leaves the reader struggling to figure out if it's 2 or 3.


And that's where the author earns his keep. In the context.

Replies:   richardshagrin
richardshagrin

@Switch Blayde

Convicts with cellphones, texting each other. So authors can write about the con text.

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
Ernest Bywater

@richardshagrin

the con text.


Isn't that what they call it when someone runs a scam by text messages?

Crumbly Writer

@graybyrd

I forgot ... what was the topic again?

(chuckles)

I always have to check the title bar in my browser to remember wtf we're discussing in any topic.

Shell versus Tow, or something like that.

Easy fix, we'll tow all the problem stories to the local shell station, where they can change the oil, fill the tires and get the author back on the road.

@Switch

You're taking it too literally.

Imagine watching a movie where there's a scene where Joe blows up and starts cursing and throwing things. Now imagine watching that same movie where, instead, the screen goes black and you hear a voice telling you Joe was angry and lost his temper.

This really isn't worth belaboring, as it's my pet peeve, which isn't shared by anyone else, but I understand the point you're making, and I understand why you keep referring to a camera capturing the events rather than the author telling the reader what's happening. But it seems the majority of new authors for some time come to fiction hoping to write the exact same thing they currently see in film--the same action/explosions/technology, jumping from scene to scene with little exploration of emotional issues other than one trauma followed by another.

As a fan of literature, I'd rather see authors focus on story telling and crafting stories, rather than following a formula crafted by non-authors in Hollywood.

But again, that's my pet-peeve. No one else seems upset by that kind of story, or that kind of emphasis in training new talent.

Crumbly Writer

@Ernest Bywater

I'd summarise showing as using active words and colourful words to convey the contents of the scene in well paced manner.

That's been my focus lately, especially as I'm trying my hand at editor to guide other authors. Instead of lecturing them on what the current 'hot' buzz-concepts are, I focus on which techniques produce the most bang. Instead of harping on 'show don't tell', focusing on 'active vs. passive terms', 'eliminating redundant or obvious explanations in scenes' or focusing on action upfront, and moving the character development and back story to later in the story, so the author doesn't lose the majority of their readership right off the bat.

No one is ever going to agree on how to implement 'show don't tell'. If you ask 12 people, you'll get 33 different explanations and techniques to try. You're better off (for both parties) by focusing on how to make the existing story more powerful, rather than forcing newbie authors to follow in your footsteps.

** Grumble Off! **

Having ducked into a nearby coffee shop, I'll remove my 'old man' costume and slip away in my virtually invisible 'starving artist' personna by donning a pair of glasses.

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