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larkin

Why “Show, Don’t Tell” Is the Great Lie

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I have had a very hard time trying to tow the line on this principal so you can imagine how I felt in finding this article.

http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/why-show-dont-tell-is-the-great-lie-of-writing-workshops

Why “Show, Don’t Tell” Is the Great Lie of Writing Workshops

OK, let’s dispense with the obvious—namely, that there is a kernel of truth to the old saw “Show, don’t tell.” Fiction is a dramatic art, and you need to dramatize, not simply state things. The sentence “John was a handsome man” is not a handsome sentence, and though a writer is welcome to use it, she shouldn’t think it will do much work for her. Similarly, in the first workshop I ever took as a student of writing, when someone wrote “An incredible feeling of happiness washed over her,” the teacher said, “First of all, get rid of the ‘washed over’ cliché, and second of all, if in the course of an entire novel you can evoke an incredible feeling of happiness, then that’s a major accomplishment.”

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But it doesn’t follow from this that a writer should never say a character is handsome or happy. It doesn’t follow that all a writer should do is show. To my mind, the phrase “Show, don’t tell” is a wink and a nod, an implicit compact between a lazy teacher and a lazy student when the writer needs to dig deeper to figure out what isn’t working in his story.

A story is not a movie is not a TV show, and I can’t tell you the number of student stories I read where I see a camera panning. Movies are a perfectly good art from, and they’re better at doing some things than novels are—at showing the texture of things, for instance. But novels are better at other things. At moving around in time, for example, and at conveying material that takes place in general as opposed to specific time (everything in a movie, by contrast, takes place in specific time, because all there is in a movie is scene—there’s no room for summary, at least as we traditionally conceive of it). But most important, novels can describe internal psychological states, whereas movies can only suggest them through dialogue and gesture (and through the almost always contrived-seeming voiceover, which is itself a borrowing from fiction). To put it more succinctly, fiction can give us thought: It can tell. And where would Proust be if he couldn’t tell? Or Woolf, or Fitzgerald? Or William Trevor or Alice Munro or George Saunders or Lorrie Moore?

And yet day after day we hear “Show, don’t tell.” And there’s real fall-out. I see it constantly among my students, who are nothing if not adjective-happy. Do we need to know that a couch is a “big brown torn vinyl couch”? We are writing fiction, not constructing a Mad Lib. Yet writers have been told to describe, and so they do, ad nauseum. It’s like the sentence that was popular in typing classes—“The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dogs.” Well, this is a good typing sentence (it contains every letter of the alphabet), but it’s a bad fiction sentence.

If you ask me, the real reason people choose to show rather than tell is that it’s so much easier to write “the big brown torn vinyl couch” than it is to describe internal emotional states without resorting to canned and sentimental language. You will never be told you’re cheesy if you describe a couch, but you might very well be told you’re cheesy if you try to describe loneliness. The phrase “Show, don’t tell,” then, provides cover for writers who don’t want to do what’s hardest (but most crucial) in fiction.

Besides, the distinction between showing and telling breaks down in the end. “She was nervous” is, I suppose, telling, whereas “She bit her fingernail” is, I suppose, showing. But is there any meaningful distinction between the two? Neither of them is a particularly good sentence, though if I had to choose I’d probably go with “She was nervous,” since “She bit her fingernail” is such a generic gesture of anxiety it seems lazy on the writer’s part—insufficiently imagined.

—Joshua Henkin

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I don't think the author of this piece understands the concept of "show, don't tell." It's not a question of describing big brown couches . . . that isn't "showing." That's just description. Rather, it's a matter of depicting actions and reactions by characters in vivid and immediate language, rather than simply announcing a result.

It's the difference between writing "Sarah was very angry" and writing "Sarah picked up the glass paperweight and flung it against the door, her whole body pulsing with fury." Which is not to say that you cannot ever write "Sarah was very angry." Rather, it is a caution not to be lazy and write nothing but conclusionary statements about each character's state of emotion, instead of providing some material from which the reader can draw his or her own conclusions.

R

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Note also that there is a secure place for "telling" where, for example, summary description is used to bridge from one scene to the next, or to avoid slowing down a given scene with needless detail. But that still doesn't mean that the author of the piece above hasn't missed the point.

R

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Thanks for bringing this up again, larkin, it is a discussion we have had from time to time...and quite honestly, it never gets resolved one way or another. It all comes down to a matter of style.

I suppose that show, don't tell works for some authors. I have never been one who adores adjectives unless they are dropped into a line of dialogue. For the writer I think that speech between characters is the breaking point where anything goes if it allows the concepts to flow.

Brown ugly torn couches aside, I groan when I read an author's long winded physical description of a character. Or our favorite, a view in the mirror. I can write a whole page about a character without describing hair color, eyes, mouth, etc. But when one character is trying to communicate to another what this guy looks like it seems unavoidable, unless that becomes the focus of a whole chapter.

In Groms I have the image of a character looking at himself in the mirror while brushing his teeth only to make a joke about him looking like a rabid dog. I think funny is always the exception to any rule.

I run a whole page of dialogue between characters in an upcoming story as they describe someone they are trying to find. It had to be done as it sets up a major plot point. I love not describing a character and dropping hints throughout a story until the readers get the image I am trying to project in their minds. Who says an author can't have fun at the reader's expense?

In many ways it is through action that we learn a great deal about the characters in a story. The physical nature of a man or woman does project an image to the reader and they are the ones we have to satisfy. I don't think of the show, don't tell adage as I write because as I see it good writing is a mixture of both. It's all in the presentation.

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My grasp of this principle is so fleeting that I'm not sure if my work is showing or telling and is there a difference between 1st person and 3rd omniscient in regards to show don't tell?

There there is intentional omission where you leave out physical particulars so that they reader can plug in their own preferences making the character their own. .

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Both showing and telling can and should be used in storytelling. Showing gives an urgency and intimacy, but when neither is appropriate, telling allows the story to progress. We don't need to know the details of a journey that took a 100 days unless that's what the story is about. Being told that the journey took 100 days is enough, and the story can then pick up and show what happens next, if that's what the author wants to do.

As for the big brown torn vinyl couch, that has its place, too. If the author wants to give the impression that a residence is decrepit, or that the family that lives there is poor, then such a description is appropriate the first time the reader encountered that residence. After that, no, that level of detail isn't needed.

Balance between the two is important. Too much telling and not showing is, to me, boring, because I'm not experiencing anything -- I'm being dictated to. Too much showing, however, can also lead to boredom because I lose track of where the story is heading. Too much showing often results in a warm pool to soak in, but you rarely get anywhere.

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I totally agree, Graeme. That's why I keep emphasizing that trying to follow rules when we write simply limits us. We need to figure out how we want to tell a story, then follow our instincts and experience, and if that means using a cliche, telling rather than showing, or breaking three or four more cardinal rules, so be it. It's the story that counts.

C

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Rule #1: All rules are subject to being broken. Rule #2: Repeat Rule #1.

Colin :icon_geek:

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If a story has a sub-text, (a story behind the words) doesn't that constitute showing and not telling?

Not necessarily. It's quite possible it's neither showing nor telling. A plot is neither showing nor telling -- it's the story flow. Showing and telling are methods of presenting that flow. Sub-texts are closer to plot in my opinion -- they're part of the story itself, not the mechanics on how to present that story to the reader.

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At the most theoretical level, subtext could not be considered "telling" because, um, it isn't the text. The question for me would be whether the subtext was amateurishly "on the nose" and therefore tantamount to "telling," or whether it was executed with some skill and sophistication so as to be a little more plausible and realistic and reflective of real life. I think another way of stating this is that to genuinely qualify as "sub" text the degree or depth of "sub"-ness must be more than superficial, and the author needs to handle carefully whether the existence of this subtext is perceived by some or all of the characters in the scene, or only by the reader.

I find subtext fascinating. When I was taking some improv classes a few years ago, we had an exercise one night where the scene partners could talk only about something very mundane, like the weather, while being given a substantive scene assignment. We could not even hint at the actual assigned subject; we could only talk about the mundane stuff

When my turn came, my scene partner and I were told that we were at our mother's funeral. We proceeded to discuss the weather while miming walking around the casket, looking down at it, looking at each other with varying emotions, and so on. Afterward, the rest of the class was asked what was really happening in the scene. They correctly perceived that I was mad at my scene partner because I was convinced my mother always liked him better, that he had been doing dishonest things with her money, and so on in great detail. We never said a word about any of this in the scene -- it was all conveyed by our expressions and tones of voice while talking about an unrelated and mundane subject. I was astonished. That's where I became convinced of the dramatic value of subtext.

But this is simply one tool to use under the heading of "show, don't tell." Others include specifics rather than generalities, and not dumping everything the author knows all at once. There's a whole book about this topic, "Show, Don't Tell: A Writer's Guide," by William Noble, that was published in 1991.

And Graeme is correct that underlying everything, whether showing or telling, is the story. All the techniques being used should serve the story, and keep the reader engaged. I think the concern about "telling" is that it can dilute or depart from the story, and cause the reader to glaze over. The term "show" probably shouldn't be taken literally (I think that's the central mistake made by the author of the quoted piece above), but rather as a code for the family of techniques that enrich story presentation by avoiding "telling."

R

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Here is a discussion of subtext that makes points applicable to written stories as well as screenplays.

http://www.scriptmag.com/features/wendys-la4hire-great-screenplay-writing-part-4-kill-exposition?et_mid=771715&rid=239276265

R

Would David Mamet's, "Glenn Gary, Glen Ross", be a good example of dialog that appears to do a lot of telling but is actually showing the depths and motives of an unsavory personalities?

Not everyone can write like Mamet.

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Ok all you "show, don't tell" folks,

I get it.

You paint a scene by having the characters interact with it instead of describing the set and setting in explanatory form.

In most writing, the set and setting is predictable except for the specifics, you're in a city or by the seashore, you're in a house or an apartment. These things can be revealed off-handedly, through dialog.

This is a re-write done in 3rd person. What I am finding difficult is in a genre like Sifi where the world or the universe is profoundly changed and small details must be part of the description. My problem is that everything is changed and the reader needs to know how and why? My main character is alone and is not very talkative but he has an internal voice.

I excused myself from "show don't tell" by saying that maybe the first chapter could be a narrative involving the main character in a world of rapidly changing set and circumstances.

What would you suggest?

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What I am finding difficult is in a genre like Sifi where the world or the universe is profoundly changed and small details must be part of the description. My problem is that everything is changed and the reader needs to know how and why? My main character is alone and is not very talkative but he has an internal voice.

I excused myself from "show don't tell" by saying that maybe the first chapter could be a narrative involving the main character in a world of rapidly changing set and circumstances.

What would you suggest?

You say "the reader needs to know how and why," but do they need to know everything right now? That is the essence of the show, don't tell philosophy. Don't dump all the information on the reader at once. Show the characters behaving consistently with that information, and if the behavior seems curious, the readers will want to figure out what's going on. But they don't have to have the full backstory right then and there. In fact they may never get the full backstory (though you should have it in mind while you're writing).

Thus, suppose there is a character who reacts abnormally to sudden loud noises. All the reader needs to know right now is that the character reacts abnormally to sudden loud noises. And if they see a setup for something that's going to make a sudden loud noise near this character later in the story, they will know that this character is going to react. But the readers actually don't need to know WHY this character has an abnormal reaction to sudden loud noises, unless (on rare occasions) that information is central to the story. They don't need a discussion of the character's childhood and the events that led to this fear. The readers will just accept that as a given part of the character's makeup, just as readily as learning that a character doesn't eat mushrooms or puts the toilet roll on the dispenser underhand.

In the world of Ender (Orson Scott Card), the government and military authorities have instant visual, voice, and data communication across impossibly long distances using something called an "ansible." But it just appears and is used. There's no discussion of its background or technology, no recital of history. (Actually there is an interesting history that comes out in a later book, but I don't want to include a spoiler here.) The people just use it.

Similarly with Captain Kirk and his team beaming down to a planet's surface. We know how the transporter works (we hear them call it that in dialog) and we know it lives in the Transporter Room. We know that people stand on lighted circles at one end of the Transporter Room, and then Mr. Kyle or some other crew member pulls down some sliders on the control console (after entering the "coordinates") when the Captain says "energize." We know that the people sparkle and shimmer and fade and then reappear on the planet's surface through a reverse sequence of sparkling and shimmering and fading. We, the audience, know all we need to know. We don't need to be told anything about this device -- we can see it at work.

My advice would be to resist the urge to write a first chapter that lays out a whole bunch of stuff in narrative/exposition form. Start right in with something happening. Trust the readers to "get" that there are some things they need to learn. Indeed, if part of the story is that the main character has found himself in a setting that is unfamiliar to him as well as the readers, then all of them will need to learn what's what as a team. Don't just spoon-feed it to the audience. Let it be revealed through key details or events, and be a process of discovery.

R

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Just so you know.. In an effort to tame my work for the PTA and re-write a piece that has some virtue without sex scenes, one per chapter.. requires deeper and more careful writing.

Where I used to write 5 pages a day, now I am writing 1. Rutabaga, you are so kind to take the time to comment in such detail. I really appreciate it.

In regards to Star Trek, we all know beforehand what happens when someone goes into the transporter room, Similarly there are many pictures associated with the idea of government forces that do not need explaining.

My problem is that in an apocalyptic event, (imagine a bomb going off) everything gets turned upside down in an instant and the main character is, alone, and not talking much.

Yes, I have rationed out the info, exposing it when needed but I still have the 3rd person narrator guiding the story and even with the introduction of temporary or secondary characters, I can't get out of the narrator's voice.

I don't have that problem with first person because they usually won't shut-up but this is a 3rd person story.

I think that your recommendations are good and I am not beyond rethinking my approach. What I've done so far was start out with character's back-story leading up to the calamity. Perhaps his back story is better slipped in here and there after the calamity?

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You have to decide whether to tell a story in first or third person, which works better for the particular story as you visualize it playing out. The story should make the decision for you. It sounds like you'd be more comfortable in writing this in first. Is their a compelling reason to write it in third?

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Thank you Cole. I much prefer to writing in first person, I find it easier and more enjoyable to write but in this story, the initial character is not necessarily the main character and the action shifts to other characters from time to time which will not work for first person.

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What I've done so far was start out with character's back-story leading up to the calamity. Perhaps his back story is better slipped in here and there after the calamity?

As a general rule I would say yes, definitely, it's better to slip the backstory in unobtrusively later on, and only to the extent necessary to serve the story, rather than dumping a big piece of background information on the reader as their first experience with your story.

The problem, quite bluntly, is that the reader doesn't care about the backstory -- any of it -- when there's no context for it. Describing the "before" time when everything is fine (known as "happy people in Happy Land") is simply not very engaging for a reader to start out with. The reader doesn't know what information will be important, or why they should bother to learn it. They don't have any stakes in any of the characters or the status of Happy Land at this time. It brings back memories of history lessons at school. The risk is that you will lose the reader before anything of importance actually happens in the story.

Think of it this way. YOU know the significance of the details in the backstory because YOU know what's coming ahead in your plans for the story. But the reader has no idea what's important or why. And even after reading your entire opening chapter, the reader will still not know what aspects of the background information he just read will be important, or why. It's a lot of homework to assign a reader who has no concrete evidence of why it's needed.

The modern convention in fiction (which modern readers generally expect) is to start right in with your character(s) doing things and experiencing things where high stakes are immediately evident. The stakes could be a 4-year-old's beloved doll, as in the beginning of "The Thorn Birds," or survival itself, as in the beginning of the 2007 film "I Am Legend." Readers like it when they can find out early on what the story is about, and about whom.

My suggestion would be to go ahead and write your first chapter, and then see what happens if you remove it and actually start your story at Chapter 2. Or maybe partway into Chapter 2. Writers often find that they do a lot of hemming and hawing in opening paragraphs that should just be cut out. Save Chapter 1 in a separate file somewhere that you can refer to, and update as needed, when you're writing the main story.

Others may disagree with the above but I am confident that it reflects a broad consensus of current fiction thinking. You are, of course, free to fashion things however you wish.

R

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There are ways to work around problems that prevent you from being in first person. You can always start with your main character and then provide what is now shown with the other character in different way, even later as a flashback. Creativity is the mark of a good writer. Don't forget who's in control here—you!

C

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Where else could I have gone to get such great advice?

I usually start with no story, but this is an effort to extend and flesh out an old story where I know most of the elements.

From Rutabaga: The problem, quite bluntly, is that the reader doesn't care about the back-story -- any of it -- when there's no context for it. Describing the "before" time when everything is fine (known as "happy people in Happy Land") is simply not very engaging for a reader to start out with. The reader doesn't know what information will be important, or why they should bother to learn it. They don't have any stakes in any of the characters or the status of Happy Land at this time. It brings back memories of history lessons at school. The risk is that you will lose the reader before anything of importance actually happens in the story.

I think my first mistake is using back-story as character description.

The main character is already in crisis (family divorce and break-up) leading up to an external apocalyptic calamity that paradoxically liberates him from his past life.

When the smoke clears, the character is presented with a completely new set of survival oriented problems and then ventures out into the main odyssey.

This is the approach that I have seen dozens of times in film.

So instead of that, you are suggesting, apocalyptic event first, survival odyssey second and stick the back story here and there in the form of internal asides or behaviors?

Thank God for the word processor!

Cole, changing the point of view can make all the difference but in my old story, there are structural issues. There are 3 main characters that do not always act in a unit and a few sub-plots that separate them. Perhaps I should re-read Cormack McCarthy's grim but beautifully written book, "The Road" and see how he did it. However since I must re-write anyway, I will consider both.

Thank you again. I had the terrible feeling that my 3rd person, omniscient voice was acting as a puppet master, orchestrating everything and this is not good and once started I couldn't break out of it.

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