Craft Chat CRAFT CHAT: "Show, don’t tell" is a load of old tosh!

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Rich.

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Provocative title, eh? But before I attempt to explain it, I'd like to mention a few things. First, a big Thank-you! to @Carol Rose for giving me the opportunity to guest here in the Craft Chat forum. Second, please do familiarize yourselves with Carol's guidelines for engaging with Craft Chat. And third, please be aware that this discussion will be open for five days only (until Friday, April 5) and then locked for posterity. Thank you!

Right, on with the...

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Show, don’t tell is a load of old tosh.


What? I hear you cry. The writer’s mantra is rubbish? The scribe’s sacred cow is nothing but nonsense? How can that be?

Well, hyperbole aside, Show, don’t tell is useful shorthand for something deep, complex, and less amenable to being summed up in a pithy phrase.

It’s shorthand for the idea that written fiction should seek to dramatize key story events in such a way that readers are forced to ask questions and develop emotional responses while simultaneously maintaining their immersion in the story, and the more engaging the questions and the more visceral the emotions, the better.

So, how do you do that? You show, right? You don’t say:

The girl held back her tears.

You say:

The girl threw back her head and set her jaw, but the expression lasted no more than a second before her lips pursed and her gaze found the ceiling. She shook her head, inhaled through her nose, and laid her forefingers in the hollows under her eyes.

That is, you write in a direct way about concrete actions. You show. But what happens if we tweak that paragraph to include a little interior monologue?

The girl threw back her head and set her jaw, but the expression lasted no more than a second before her lips pursed and her gaze found the ceiling. She shook her head, inhaled through her nose, and laid her forefingers in the hollows under her eyes. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of seeing her break. The bastard could whistle for it.

Those last two sentences of inner monologue aren’t really showing, are they? For a start I’m writing in third person and have chosen to report the monologue – to tell it – rather than present it directly (it’s still dramatic). But the real issue is: how am I going to show you a thought? Thoughts, as we commonly understand them, are not physical objects. They cannot be described in the same concrete terms as actions. I can’t show you the abstract. I can only tell you about it.

Let’s throw in a simile and a metaphor to drive the point home.

The girl threw back her head and set her jaw, but the expression lasted no more than a second before her lips pursed and her gaze found the ceiling. She shook her head, inhaled through her nose, and laid her forefingers in the hollows under her eyes. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of seeing her break. The bastard could whistle for it. She’d been running his errands like a hollowed out geisha for years. He was a slug. He was a fat, greasy slug, sliming his way through her life, drowning her in his foul stinking goo.

In those last five sentences, I’m not showing you anything, am I? I’m telling you what she’s thinking in the hope that you’ll develop emotions that connect you to her. But I’m still taking care to do it in a way that preserves the vitality of the action, the sense of things playing out in real time, and the drama inherent in the moment. And if you look closely – that sentence about the geisha – I’ve even managed to throw in some backstory, some straight up exposition right there in the middle of the scene.

My point is this: Show, don’t tell is a weak and superficial way of saying that you should dramatize your story’s key moments. It does not mean that telling is bad. It does not mean that you should only show (if you did, you would have a long and boring story with no rhythmic or tonal difference between the vital organs and the connective tissue). But Show, don’t tell – once we dig down to its foundations – does mean that you should strive, at all times, to use the most appropriate range of narrative devices in the most compelling way to engage your readers. But that’s hard, and horribly subjective, isn’t it? Yes, it is.

Beware of pithy rules. Taking them at face value will cripple your writing. Writing is a craft. It’s an art. It’s messy, subjective and contradictory. It cannot be reduced to an algorithm. These rules we throw around are codes for complex ideas. We forget that at our peril.

And now it’s over to you. Does anything I’ve said here resonate with you, excite you, make your spines bristle?

Let the discussion begin!
 
Beware of pithy rules. Taking them at face value will cripple your writing. Writing is a craft. It’s an art. It’s messy, subjective and contradictory. It cannot be reduced to an algorithm. These rules we throw around are codes for complex ideas. We forget that at our peril.

I am entirely with you on this, particularly the above. TG someone has come out and said this!

I'm sure if anyone were to count the number of times that Show, don’t tell mantra is repeated here, every day... they'd get very bored before they finished. Certainly hundreds of times in a year, if not thousands. Heading for ten times in each Chat attached to Pop-Up.

My natural writing style is, broadly, a lot of scenes in dialogue, with links in-between that (hopefully) take the narrative forward. Recently, since becoming a Litopian (which has, of course, many outweighing pluses), I've found myself pausing and querying my links, on the ground that they might be too much 'telling'. Not exactly crippling, but certainly applying the brakes.
You are so right.
 
The girl threw back her head and set her jaw, but the expression lasted no more than a second before her lips pursed and her gaze found the ceiling. She shook her head, inhaled through her nose, and laid her forefingers in the hollows under her eyes.

Howlllll.

Coughing now.

Yes. There is a fair bit of something like that in some of the subs on Pop-Ups. No so extreme, but you don't half wish they would just tell you then shaddap and leave it at that. They are adding NOTHING.

Jesus activated his lachrymal glands.

Jesus wept.
 
I think if you take 'show, don't tell' this literally as you've done above @Rich. then it obviously doesn't work. I don't mean to be harsh, but I think your examples are borderline sardonic.

Show, don't tell isn't really to do with breaking down an action into its minute components, because fundamentally, whatever you do, you are always telling to a degree because you can't directly insert images into your reader's brain. You are just trying to paint the best picture you can in your readers mind, which you do by showing as reasonably as you can.

In the example above "The girl held back tears", when you think about it, is actually a show! The girl's action isn't a visible one, but assuming that we are in her POV it is a conscious choice. Therefore the sentence 'shows' us two pieces of information without 'telling'. This statement a) shows us that the girl is upset about something & b) that she doesn't want people to know she's upset or is perhaps attempting to suppress the emotion to herself. "The girl held back tears" boils these two ideas into the simplest possible action. The key is what information the action conveys without actually having to 'tell' that information.
 
In the first draft of my WIP I posted on Litopia I got a lot of flak for too little happening in my opening scene. It was because I felt obliged to show every character as I introduced them, show the world and show my MC's backstory. I think show not tell is obviously true if, as Rich says it means dramatising your story, not reporting it, but too much show can grind the pace to a halt.
 
A Famous Russian playwright called Anton Chekhov once said -

'Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.'
 
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Show us the bits you (the writer) want us (the reader) to feel deeply, tell us the bits that need to move the story fast.

Show us the action; it doesn't have to be blow-by-blow, it does have to be felt. Which words do it best? Only the writer can know that.

Do we ever stop learning? Somehow, I doubt it because the reader of the next decade may have expectations removed from what we see today. Will our work be remembered, seen as a classic because it (the character in the story) was deeply felt?
 
As they say - "There is a right way and a wrong way to put Humpty Dumpty back together again."

For me, Showing and Telling both have a part to play in writing. They both have an individual purpose and can be put to good use when needed. And the key to that is understanding their respective strengths and use each to your story's best advantage.

Showing does three things, it evokes, sometimes presents and occasionally channels. But, most importantly it has to be immediate it has to make the readers feel they're in there: feel as in smell, touch, see, hear the full works really and make them believe the actual experiences of your characters.

Basically create a convincing, persuasive illusion that makes the readers think they are your Main Character (The film 'Matrix' springs too mind.)
@Rich. Is that what you are trying to Convey?

Telling
does three things too, it informs, sometimes explains, and occasionally helps and makes the readers understand. And we shouldn't be put off by telling to the point we won't use it all because it's very valuable: It plays a huge part of making a story come alive, it easily keeps things moving and maintains the reader's attention where it really matters and at the same time it stops your story, your prose from becoming static, boring and as you know our stories must always be on the move, always. Otherwise if nothing happened reading would be a bore and everything would just be flat. Reading must be a turbulent ride for readers, it must have twists, turns, it must have calm after and a storm, it needs to be static sometimes and most of all it needs to play and flirt with our emotions and demand our attention in more ways than one.
And, for me the best thing about Telling is you can still colour it with a Character's voice and POV - Make it showy even we you are simply covering the ground, the basics and filling in the gaps.

My Own Examples:-

Telling/informing:
Liam O'Shea was a doctor and apparently in more ways than one. He didn't have an ounce of fat on him. He was all muscle and that's what made him so attractive to women. Being so lean, accentuated his chiseled jawline and defined his cheek bones. He was charming to them that they fell for him immediately and never guessed how little he cared for them. He wouldn't pick them up in his Mercedes-Benz on a rainy day if they called him but he was more than willing to let them drive his joy-stick and put his back seats to good use.

Showing/evoking: Show how Liam O'Shea stands at the bar running his hands through his quiff of brown hair and flashes his bleached white teeth as he eyes up a busty, blonde next to him called Millie. How does he chat her up, show Millie looking up into his face and seeing love in his smile...and how straight away, she is besotted with him...Then show us what Liam says as he takes a long leak in the gent's toilet, confiding in his mate Dan about how easy a catch Millie is and how confident he is at the fact she'll be going home with him - Millie may already be waiting in a taxi outside for him and she'll be paying the Taxi Fare - And he can be telling Dan that her name won't matter in the morning and that it is just another name added to his long list of one night stands or all the woman he has bedded so far. Show how he has already forgotten her name. And show us what he says when he's got her knickers off, the deed is done and the fact he will do all he can to make-sure she doesn't discover his address, so she doesn't come back to his place ever again.
 
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@Rich. love the way you built up that "show" paragraph :) Fantastic explanation :) That's helped me immensely, can't wait to reach a spot in my MS to apply it.

I think "showing" and "telling" is a balancing act, but there's a further balancing within showing - too much "stage direction" slows the reading. Stories are often told in the white space. If we take out the stage direction within our showing, we leave some white space, which involves the reader even more.

Without looking hard, this is an example of showing (IMHO) with crisp stage direction, not too much, (it's Hannibal in his cell, just before his gory escape) and there's even a little of the kind of telling @Robert M Derry mentions (well, I think so):

The napkin was in the air a long time, brushed the table leg, flared, sideslipped, stalled and turned over before it came to rest on the steel floor. He made no effort to pick it up, but took a stroll across his cell, went behind the paper screen and sat on the lid of his toilet, his only private pl
ace.

Harris, Thomas. Silence Of The Lambs (Hannibal Lecter) . Random House. Kindle Edition.

The way Harris shows speeds up the pacing. Very interesting how you can use showing to control your pacing (sorry, I know mentioning pacing is slightly off topic, they're just so intertwined).
 
What an interesting 24 hours of discussion!

It seems that @E G Logan and @Leonora have had some experience of the debilitating effect of Show, don't tell. @Katie-Ellen Hazeldine and @Robert M Derry also commented on how taking show to extremes is a bad idea. I would add that the Pop Ups seem to indicate that for every writer who shows too much, there is another who tells ad nauseam. @CageSage, @RainbowNerdAlix and @RK Capps stressed the need for a balance of narrative devices, and @Kirsten introduced some fascinating ideas from the post-modernist school of thought (I particularly liked the observations on melodrama).

@RK Capps, you apologized for mentioning pacing. Please don't! I'm not sure it's possible to talk about any aspect of craft in isolation. This writing lark's a holistic thing, isn't it?

@RainbowNerdAlix, you mentioned Chekhov. I believe that quote you posted is the source of the whole Show, don't tell idea. It would be good if we could ask him what he meant, right?

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To all of you, how present in your mind is Show, don't tell while you're writing? How exactly do you use it to guide you? If you don't use it, do you have any personal rules that cover the same ground?
 
A very simplified version of what I learned re: show versus tell:

TELL:

"Don't tell me what to do!" she shouted angrily at him, shaking her finger in his face.

SHOW:

"Don't tell me what to do." She shook her finger in his face, resisting the urge instead to punch him right in the mouth. It took considerable effort to calm her breathing. This man was her boss, but he damn well had no right to run her personal life.

Why is the first sentence considered TELL? You've TOLD the reader how to feel. What emotion to embrace with this sentence. Using the adverb as a dialogue tag further reinforces this. The exclamation point is redundant. Basically, you've smacked the reader over the head with She's angry and I'm making triple sure you know that!

But the second sentences are more subtle. There's no exclamation mark. You don't need it. There's an element of control there you show with the internal monologue going on. This is what @Rich. describes in his initial post. This deep third POV way of writing which some beta readers do not understand as internal thought or internal monologue. They stamp it as telling and say BAD! BAD! BAD!. But what you're really doing here is giving your readers further emotional cues about her state of anger and the control she's exercising. It's a lot more dangerous than the first example, because you've left the reader with the impression that any second now her control could snap and the poor guy standing in front of her could end up with a bloody lip. You've also given the reader a reason for the anger and dwindling self control, something missing in the first sentence. So in a roundabout way, it is show. Emotional show, if you will. :)

I don't think of show versus tell as an easy concept at all to grasp. There are subtleties writers and beta readers could easily miss. As your writing matures, you find new ways of incorporating show, and you also find instances where tell is perfectly acceptable, and even preferable. As previously mentioned, if you tried to write an entire novel in show only, it would be a monstrous thing, and likely a chore to read. :)

As also previously mentioned, it's up to the writer when to show and when to tell. Pacing comes into it. Characterization comes into it. It's very personal and specific to each story. No one size fits all where this concept is concerned. :)
 
I actually think in most cases, too much "showing" is worse than too much telling because the story becomes so unwieldy, I can no longer follow it. Or maybe I just get bored with all the blow by blows. This is why sometimes it's frustrating to get critiques where every instance of the verb 'to be' is highlighted as 'show, don't tell.' You can pick up almost any published novel off the shelf and find was/were/is/are/etc on the first page---and if it's a best seller, it's likely there'll be more than one.

I've been thinking about this a lot today, editing my own work and I thought to myself I think the balance lies in the picture you are trying to create. Language is a tool. When we use it creatively we are literally trying to paint a picture in the mind of the reader. The showing is the color, the shape and the dimension. But the telling is the intent....it guides the reader toward what we want them to see. All of it should be concise. Sometimes the images aren't really part of the story, they are just intended to evoke emotion or suspense, like the floating napkin @RK Capps mentioned.

That's part of why love of stories is so subjective, the painting I see is going to be different from every single other person's who reads the same work. That's why, to me, the most valuable critique is the critique of a reader. What was the story about? One good way to check on this is to ask readers, what did you see? What did the street look like (a check for tone)? Is this character short or tall? The answers can be really surprising.

You might think you made your character tall by showing that he 'towered' over someone (this happened to me recently). But I was informed my character was normal height. Therefore a casual, 'he was tall,' thrown in for good measure, was considered and taken up by the committee.
 
Why is the first sentence considered TELL? You've TOLD the reader how to feel. What emotion to embrace with this sentence. Using the adverb as a dialogue tag further reinforces this. The exclamation point is redundant. Basically, you've smacked the reader over the head with She's angry and I'm making triple sure you know that!

Using a 'manner' adverb to tell the reader how the character feels removes the reader from the experience. These moments also short-change the reader as an intelligent creature - they have to be told? And more than one way, or they won't get it?

I'm with Carol Rose - there are times to do a tell, but if there's a manner adverb in there it's an insult to the reader. Read on for the proviso.

Yes, there are plenty of books out there that do it (the manner adverb, tut-tut), and some of them are best-sellers, but if you look to the main reader group for that story, it's easier to understand why the group demographic for the story is accepting of the choices.
Male readers (it seems 18+ readers in particular) prefer more tell. They don't want to waste time having to feel too much. A little bit is okay, but not too much. There are also more female readers of fantasy (in particular with rules of magic) where they feel the need to be told how it happens, and only show a bit here and there as the character struggles with their new life.
In general, though, female readers prefer a lot more show. Why? Because they are more likely to read to 'become' the character, to live in the skin as they read.
These are huge generalisations because I'm not going to set up a proper research methodology to test it; I've asked people, I speak to everyone I see who's reading, or has a book on their shelf, or wandering the bookshelves in a shop ... and particularly the library (get there before opening time and start up a chat ... it can be enlightening).

If you know what your demographic expects in the style/genre you write in, you'll know how much to tell, where to do it, and the moments to show the deep connection/emotion.

Just my two cents worth, as usual.
 
I was taught to use Showing and Telling as Jigsaw pieces to build the bigger picture. And they can either work solo or as a duo depending on what jigsaw/picture you want to make/create and use it is a camera test by choosing to create short or long distance. And as my tutor said at the time you must have your hands on the camera at all times, you most be the one in full control, you must be able to take one jigsaw piece out and replace it with another not because you have too but because you can and you want too. And he said, that is when you know you have mastered Showing and Telling. I'm still trying to master it.

I studied Performing Arts and Creative Writing for 3 years but sadly I couldn't finish because my dad had a Heart Attack and it left a continuing shockwave after but I was awarded a Dioplma, which was better than nothing, all considered.
 
"Don't tell me what to do." She shook her finger in his face, resisting the urge instead to punch him right in the mouth. It took considerable effort to calm her breathing. This man was her boss, but he damn well had no right to run her personal life.
I feel in this instance less would be more.
"Don't tell me what to do." She shook her a finger in his face.
The rest, in my opinion, is just window dressing and perhaps detracts from the power of what is actually spoken. Maybe you don't even need the shaking finger bit?
 
It's an interesting point, @Tim James. The difference between your version and @Carol Rose's is the inclusion or exclusion of the interior monologue. Some would argue that the unique power of written fiction is its ability to delve into the mind of its characters – something not readily achievable in film or theatre, for example (nobody mention clumsy voice-overs! ;)). On the other hand, if you're more of a Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club, kind of writer – of the minimalist school – you'd stay out of your characters' minds at all costs. Again, it comes down to the individual tastes of the writer and their readers. And it serves to highlight how difficult it is to pin down exactly what we mean when we toss these rules around, don't you think?
 
I guess you could say it comes down to whether you are the literary equivalent of a sketch artist, who only uses a pencil or an oil painter with a full pallet, that covers the whole canvas with colour. Neither is better than the other and some can be excellent at both, eg Leonardo Da Vinci.
The genre you are writing may affect this aspect a lot.
 
I think you're right, both about the range of styles in literature and genre's part in shaping them.

And, minimalists aside, it got me thinking about what @CageSage said earlier about (to paraphrase) the connection between showing and feelings (self-reflective feelings, I understood – the kind you might expect to find, say, in a romance novel). But I reckon you can find examples of showing@Carol Rose's deep 3rd POV – in some unexpected places.

From Lee Child's Jack Reacher novel, Tripwire (which I haven't read but have on my shelf for some reason):

Reacher changed his plan. Took a guess about the true nature of the store's transactions and what was stacked up down in the cellar.
'I want a silencer,' he said. 'For a Steyr GB.'
Rutter smiled, real amusement in the set of his jaw and the light in his eyes.
'Against the law for me to sell you one, against the law for you to own one.'
The singsong way he said it was an outright confession that he had them and sold them. There was a patronizing undercurrent in the tone that said I've got something you want and that makes me better than you. There was no caution in his voice. No suspicion that Reacher was a cop trying to set him up. Nobody ever thought Reacher was a cop. He was too big and too rough. He didn't have the precinct pallor or the urban furtiveness people subconsciously associate with cops. Rutter was not worried about him. He was worried about Jodie. He didn't know what she was. He had spoken to Reacher but looked at her. She was looking back at him, steadily.

A lot of telling there, right? As you'd expect from this kind of thriller. Well... actually... I don't think so. I think this is in fact an example of Carol's deep 3rd POV. Let me play that paragraph again with some annotations:

Reacher changed his plan. Took a guess about the true nature of the store's transactions and what was stacked up down in the cellar.[a bit of narrative summary, telling, to set up the next interaction]
'I want a silencer,' he said. 'For a Steyr GB.'
Rutter smiled, real amusement in the set of his jaw and the light in his eyes[Reacher observes and interprets].
'Against the law for me to sell you one, against the law for you to own one.'
The singsong way he said it was an outright confession that he had them and sold them[Reacher thinks]. There was a patronizing undercurrent in the tone that said I've got something you want and that makes me better than you[Reacher thinks]. There was no caution in his voice[Reacher thinks]. No suspicion that Reacher was a cop trying to set him up[Reacher thinks]. Nobody ever thought Reacher was a cop[this is a constant feeling Reacher has, a certainty that feeds his self-confidence – this shows part of his emotional foundation, right here, right now, as the scene plays out in real time]. He was too big and too rough[this continues the deep feeling]. He didn't have the precinct pallor or the urban furtiveness people subconsciously associate with cops[as does this]. Rutter was not worried about him[Reacher thinks]. He was worried about Jodie[Reacher thinks]. He didn't know what she was[Reacher thinks]. He had spoken to Reacher but looked at her[Reacher reflects]. She was looking back at him, steadily[Reacher observes and interprets].
Before continuing, I would ask that we refrain from discussing the merits of any particular writer and focus on the myriad applications and deep meaning of show and tell. But I wanted to share this because I think it's important to bear in mind that Show, don't tell! is meaningless if you take it at face value.
 
I feel in this instance less would be more.
"Don't tell me what to do." She shook her a finger in his face.
The rest, in my opinion, is just window dressing and perhaps detracts from the power of what is actually spoken. Maybe you don't even need the shaking finger bit?

I prefer to add the inner dialogue/monologue, but that's just the way I write. Others may feel differently. :)
 
I prefer to add the inner dialogue/monologue, but that's just the way I write. Others may feel differently. :)
Personally, I think the use of Showing and Telling comes down to personal preference, our choice as a writer regarding the story we are telling.
In reality, in life we are individuals. We are all different. We have different personalities and that is reflected in our style and the way we write, that's what I think, that's how I see it. :)
 
Without doubt. And I don't think anyone is suggesting there is a specific recipe of narrative devices that should always be applied. Each writer bakes their own cake. I see this discussion as being about what the ingredients are and how they support each other, not about how they should be combined.

When I wrote the opening post in this thread, I wanted to demonstrate that Show, don't tell, taken on its own, isn't particularly helpful. Again with an eye on the Pop Ups, it seems that many writers take it too far – see @Katie-Ellen Hazeldine's salutary warning against lachrymal glands – while at least an equal number have never heard the rule at all and drone on interminably, telling, telling, telling.

That quote ascribed to Chekhov – don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass – now that we've been chatting for a while, can we have a stab at interpreting what he meant?

Make me care, I reckon. Make me sense the scene and viscerally connect to it. Employ the various narrative devices in the best way fit, for you and your audience, to make this happen. But [says I not Chekhov] it helps if you know what they are in the first place.

What would you add or take away from that?
 
don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass
To me it means use inviting detail, it's when both the text and the reader meet, a mid-point if you like. Together they complete the picture, the text just gives us the lens, we have to do the rest through our own interpretation, that evokes a personal/emotional response. Isn't it the way we look at a picture/painting that gives it a significant meaning is it not?
 
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