Re: Showing vs. Telling

#1
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“Show don’t tell.” 

It’s a common piece of advice that gets thrown around by editors, readers, and writing teachers. The good teachers actually take the time to explain what it means. The rest just repeat the phrase over and over and assume you’ll figure it out.

I didn’t understand the phrase in highschool, or even college. I always thought, “You’re telling a story. Isn’t it all telling?” 

But as I read more writing books, the meaning became clearer. And once I finally understood the meaning, it made a huge difference in my writing. 

Now, whenever I leave a review on Royal Road, the idea of showing vs. telling is something that inevitably comes up in the style section. By this point, I figured that I’ve given enough individual advice that I could compile it into a quick guide that everyone can see.


So, what’s the difference between showing and telling


To make things as simple as possible: showing is something you can see in your mind’s eye. These things can be nouns (characters, objects, places) or verbs (actions)

So, if we have a phrase like this:

“Leah skipped down the street with a smile on her face.”

That’s showing the reader a character, an expression, a place, and an action. These things are all images and action we can see in our minds.

In contrast, we could re-word the scene like this:

“Leah was happy as she went in the direction of the store."

It’s the same character doing the same things. But instead of concrete nouns and actions, we’re only getting information. As a writer, saying that "she’s happy" is spoon-feeding the reader facts about the character. The former example uses words like “skipped” and “smile” to communicate her emotional state. Those words give the readers a stronger mental image, letting them infer the meaning on their own.

Notice how “went” is also a much weaker verb than "skip". In a way, "went" communicates the same information. We know she's moving from one place to another, but it’s not something the reader can easily visualize. Is she walking? Running? In a car? On a bike? We don’t know.

And the difference between "down the street" and "to the store"? The street is part of the current scene that our character sees. The 'store' is part of a future scene, but for now, it's just information that may or may not be relevant.

Word choice is only one example of showing vs. telling. Another good example is…


Filter Words


These are verbs that increase the narrative distance between the reader and the POV character. Common examples include: saw, heard, realized, felt, thought, wondered, believed, knew, hated, and liked. These words remind us that we’re reading a story. When we see these words, we’re being told about the characters rather than experiencing the world through their eyes.

For example:

1. “Bob heard a wolf howling." vs. "A wolf howled."

2. “I saw a rifle leaning against the door." vs. "A rifle leaned against the door."

3. “Leah smelled baking bread." vs "The scent of baking bread filled Leah's nostrils."

4. "I felt hungry." vs. "My mouth watered and my stomach started eating itself."

5. "My fingers felt cold." vs. "My fingers were numb and shaking."

See the difference? On the left, we’re being told about these characters. On the right, we’re seeing what they see—experiencing what they experience. We're deep in the character's head with no boundary between us.

Next up...


Emotion Tells


Emotion tells are when the writer labels the character’s emotions and spoon-feeds them to us. For example:

1. “Emma was happy.”

2. “John was angry.”

3. "Claire was grieving”

4. "Bob was surprised"

Labeling emotions like this can damage your writing, much more so than the above examples. As a writer, you want readers to feel what your characters feel. It’s hard to care about these characters when we’re merely being told information about them. What’s more, there's no subtext for us as readers to figure out.

Instead, try showing the emotions through body language:

1. “Emma leaned against the door and hugged herself. She couldn’t keep the smile off her face.”

2. “John clenched his teeth and curled his hand into a fist. If he didn’t leave now, he was going to punch someone.”

3. "Claire broke into a cold sweat at the sight of the picture. Her eyes burned, and the room spun around her.

4. "Bob's eyes widened and he jumped a full foot in the air."

Notice how in the second example, the emotions themselves are never labeled. Even so, the message is clearer than before. We have a mental image this time, and that’s the difference between showing and telling.


More examples


We've covered the basic senses and emotions, but what about those other filter words? How can we show that a character likes something or dislikes something? How can we show what a character is thinking, wondering, or realizing?

Here are some examples where we’re told a character’s thoughts:

1. "Mary stepped into a puddle. She wondered where it could have come from, considering it hadn’t rained all day."

2. "John liked Leah as more than a friend. He realized that if he didn’t tell her now, he would never get another chance."

3. "Leah hated bob’s shirt. She thought pink was a terrible color on him.”

To show these thoughts, we have a couple of different options. For starters, we could put the characters' thoughts into italics to make them feel more immediate. For example:

1. "Mary stepped into a puddle. Where did that come from? It hasn’t rained all day!”

2. “John held his breath as Leah rested her head on his shoulder. I have to tell her. It's now or never."

However, this isn’t a perfect solution, and it can get old quickly. It might work for the first two examples, but imagine it for example #3:

3. "I hate Bob’s shirt, Leah thought. Pink is a terrible color on him."

Italic thoughts need to be treated like dialog, and it can feel awkward to give so much attention to something so inconsequential. After all, as terrible as Bob’s shirt might be, is it really worth so much mental effort on Leah’s part? Would she really take the time to label her own feelings in complete sentences? Besides, we still have all the same filter words as before (hate, thought) so we haven’t really solved anything.

For the third example, let’s save some page-space by working Leah’s thoughts directly into the narrative:

3. "Bob stumbled into the room wearing the most ridiculous shirt Leah had ever seen. Pink? Seriously? As if the rest of him wasn’t pink enough."

This goes back to the original definition of showing vs. telling: if something is shown, we can see it in our mind's eye. If something is told, it's just information.

We can't imagine Leah "hating a shirt" because hatred is just an abstract concept, so we're being told the information instead. But we can, however, imagine a ridiculous shirt that blends in with Bob's skin.


Closing


I hope this helps! I’d be happy to provide examples for any other situation if people would find it helpful.

As a final note, telling isn’t always bad, 100% of the time. Notice how my “good” examples have a certain level of intensity to them. If someone were to write an entire book this way, it might get exhausting to read. Also, while you normally want to avoid filter words, there are also situations where they fit the rhythm of your sentence better than any alternative.

Every author uses telling at some point, and that’s okay. It’s especially useful when you have to cover a lot of information quickly, or when you need to summarize a non-essential scene.

However, when you’re writing your next chapter, I encourage you to look out for the filter words and emotion tells I mentioned above. Try experimenting with more immersive words, see what works, and watch your writing improve!

Re: Showing vs. Telling

#6
Another aspects are world-building, descriptions or character personalities and motivations. Instead of experiencing it and seeing it for ourselves (even if it's not strictly thought a pov, actions and thoughts), we are told simple and raw facts about how it works and how it is, like we are children that can't get it in any other way than having it straight up and bluntly as possible.

Re: Showing vs. Telling

#7

flssdd Wrote: Another aspects are world-building, descriptions or character personalities and motivations. Instead of experiencing it and seeing it for ourselves (even if it's not strictly thought a pov, actions and thoughts), we are told simple and raw facts about how it works and how it is, like we are children that can't get it in any other way than having it straight up and bluntly as possible.



Yep, very true. When it comes to new authors, I think many are afraid that people will be confused or won't understand, so they overcompensate. (I know I did this as a new author.r) There's definitely room for another article about worldbuilding and characters. I also didn't get into adverbs or adjectives here, which could be good.

Regarding worldbuilding, I was just reading Burning Stars, Falling Skies by CoCop last night which happens to feature a reptilian main character. The word "reptile" didn't come up once in the first few chapters. Instead, we had descriptions of scales, tails, etc. which was a positive example of showing vs. telling.

 

Re: Showing vs. Telling

#8
I remember when I first figured out the whole 'show don't tell' concept.  A creative writing teacher put up a basic 'tell' scene on the board, then walked the class through turning it into a 'show' scene.  Probably the most influential teacher I ever had on writing.

I also remember a time when a YA author gave a presentation at my school.  It was years before the show don't tell explanation and I don't remember the details anymore, not even the name of the author, but I remember them talking about how important editing is when writing a story.  I just remember them explaining that no matter how good they got at writing, they still made mistakes and editing helped to catch them before publication.  It's one of the reason why every author always says editing is such an important part of the writing process.

I'm obviously no where near as popular or talented as David, but feel like its imperative to add that finding any of the above examples in your own writing doesn't equate to being bad at writing.  I can't speak for anyone else, but I find 'tell' mistakes in my own work all the time, and it's one of the first things I look for when proofreading a chapter for publication.  Even then, I don't catch all of them.  

David, there's one other 'tell' mistake that might be worth mentioning above.  I've always thought of it as 'skimming a scene'.  Its whenever an author sums up a scene in a couple sentence instead of writing it out in detail.  I've caught it in my own work now that I'm trying to write a novel length story, even though it was one of the first things I learned about writing.  Typically, I do it at parts where I'm rushing to the 'good' part, in areas I haven't fleshed out as well, or towards the end of the chapter when I'm brain-fried from writing.
For example, a friend/editor called out a sentence near the end of my first chapter: "Together, they moved on, killing each bandit they encountered along the way and gathering soldiers, until the street was clear."
A single sentence to sum up what should be a whole scene.  I read that chapter multiple times and never caught it, probably because it is near the end of the chapter where I was losing concentration.  I'm not saying that everything should be written in meticulous detail (readers don't need a bite by bite narrative of a character eating dinner), but providing enough detail when necessary is imperative to writing a compelling story.  I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts.

Re: Showing vs. Telling

#10
@Lazy_Contribution:

I would actually argue that summarizing/skimming a scene is one area where “telling" can be potentially useful. I’ve written several 1000+ word scenes that involve characters traveling from one place to another, and while these scenes might be technically well-written and full of descriptions/world-building, they can still be boring. Afterward, I might cut the beginning of the chapter and start where the characters arrive at their destination, briefly summarizing the traveling scene in a quick paragraph.

If I don’t notice these scenes my self, I have some honest beta readers who will point them out for me.

That’s the thing about “rushing to the good part”. Your readers will often agree with you. If you aren’t excited about writing a scene, there’s a good chance they won’t be excited either.

For your example with the bandits, your friend was probably right though. To me, it sounds like the conclusion of a decently sized battle, meaning that it either deserves a full scene or shouldn't be mentioned at all.

However, there are also fight scenes that are better summarized rather than dramatized. For example, if your MC is a powerful fire mage who can kill someone with the flick of his hand, there might be no point in describing him slaying a band of level two bandits. The potential scene has no conflict—everyone knows he’s going to win anyway. Best case scenario, your readers will get board. Worst case, they’ll be bored AND confused, unable to tell where the book’s important fights are because you’re giving every fight equal weight.

Instead, for your hypothetical pointless fight, you could write:

“A group of bandits tried to stop him, and he gave them an impromptu lesson in pyrotechnics and human anatomy.”

This is essentially telling, but it might actually be more entertaining to read this than to read 1000+ words about an OP MC showing off.

It all depends on how important the scene is to your story. Important scenes warrant more showing, while you can get away with “telling” in a non-essential scene.

Re: Showing vs. Telling

#11


David Wrote: I would actually argue that summarizing/skimming a scene is one area where “telling" can be potentially useful.




I completely agree, and tried to explain it a bit above, albeit poorly.  Skimming isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I've found that its worth reviewing anytime I do it to make sure that's the right choice.  It's the difference of how Harry and Hagrid traveling on the subway to Diagon Alley was summarized vs the scene of Harry trying to get onto King's Cross station.  The former is skimmed, with just enough detail to keep the reader engaged, while the latter is played out in detail because it's part of the 'exciting' part of the story.

David Wrote: \
However, there are also fight scenes that are better summarized rather than dramatized. For example, if your MC is a powerful fire mage who can kill someone with the flick of his hand, there might be no point in describing him slaying a band of level two bandits. The potential scene has no conflict—everyone knows he’s going to win anyway. Best case scenario, your readers will get board. Worst case, they’ll be bored AND confused, unable to tell where the book’s important fights are because you’re giving every fight equal weight.



Also agree here, though I'm writing the first novel of a longer series, so most of the fight scenes right now tend to fall in the normal category.  I probably need to take a more critical eye to how I'm writing them, but plan to wait until I've completed the writing challenge.  To provide a real life example though, it's the difference of Rand in Wheel of Time fighting a trolloc in the first book vs the last book.  Then again, most published authors tend to skip the "Hack and Slash" description and stick to the character's thoughts or feelings (arm numbed by the impact or sweat made the hilt slick in his hand).   That's where my main weakness is.  I find the MC's thoughts more compelling, but tend to write the hack and slash description.

Oh well, I've fix it in editing.

Re: Showing vs. Telling

#12
There's another variant of "Showing vs. Telling" that I didn't see covered yet that I'd like to drop in here because once I start noticing it in a story, I start to get irritated and might drop it if it's particularly egregious.

The author tells us that a character is [X] (usually good qualities like being kind, sweet, selfless, clever; etc - though it can also be negative or even neutral qualities) and then actually shows the character being [Y]. There have absolutely been times I've been reading a story and felt like the author was straight up gaslighting me.

An example:
In the story, the author - through the characters, usually - tells us they think the MC is kind. "The servants all happily rushed to obey their kind master/mistress.", "The hero/ine gazed into the face of their lover, moved as they recalled how kind they were."

That's fine, as long as the author also shows the character in question actually being kind. Especially if they don't contradict that image with not-kind actions. I've read plenty of novels where characters were described as "kind" and the "kind" things they did were along the lines of, "smiled at someone" or "gave someone a cookie" or "was actually kind to their most trusted companion". Meanwhile, they were rampaging around slapping people, verbally or physically attacking them over minor offenses, throwing tantrums, crushing people for just incidentally being in their way/connected to other people, and so forth. 

It's not limited to only certain kinds of novels where "It was a different time and place - it's different there! S/he actually was considered kind under the circumstances!" (That example is just fresh after having read a rather lot of a certain style of novel - and some of them were set in modern times with modern characters.)

Let's take it to another example.

Let's say everyone thinks of a character as "strong" in a not-just-physically sense. All the other characters admire his or her strength in the face of adversity.

But then the "adversity" they face is negligible at best, so their strength is not tested at all. Or, worse in my eyes, their strength is tested often and they crumple like paper every time, reacting in weak ways like blaming someone else for their own mistakes/punishing the innocent to save face, refusing to adapt to changed circumstances, throwing tantrums, being wishy-washy; etc. (Note that this is not the same thing as a normally-strong character suffering a setback and needing time to process it, mourning, or getting depressed. You can still be a strong person and do those things.)

All of what I've said is absolutely fine if you're doing it intentionally and with purpose.
  • If it's a commentary on the time/place and you're supposed to get pissed off at someone being called [x] when they're acting [y] - cool, but I also kind of call bull if there's no stand-in for the audience screaming, "WTF." and the author is playing it straight.
  • If it's meant to be a parody of a trope or genre, I love it, give me more - but just be good with the delivery or you're just doing the same thing as the trope you're making fun of. If the author doesn't wink at me, I assume they're not in on the joke either.
  • If it's meant to display that the character is normally perceived as [x] and is actually [y] or is [y] with a specific character, you need to convey that feeling properly.
I'm sure there are times any author falls short of their intentions. (I know I have.) Sometimes you forget you've never had a scene to show your smart character actually displaying their intelligence because you've been just using them as a foil for another character and, dangit, why isn't putting fancy words in their mouths enough? Besides, they're only there so that your MC's off-the-cuff quip can be acknowledged by someone who is "smart" so they can be the ones to say, "Dash it all - that's brilliant! Let's do it!" without it being challenged.

Honestly, stuff like the author telling me "Jack is happy" as opposed to showing me that Jack is happy (and you can tell this because he hummed to himself with a smile as he walked down the street) doesn't bother me much. I've seen what happens to stories when authors follow "show-don't-tell" too closely. The stories that really benefit are the ones where the whole point is that there are things left up to interpretation or subtle signs the reader is supposed to be picking up on or misinterpret. In those cases, the reader is usually meant to be shocked later when they realize what those subtle signs added up to. Alternately, the author makes their story open-ended and counts on the readers to go back through for a second read to either find out the author's true intentions or to make their own judgment call on what it all meant. Any other type of story, though, can sometimes do with a good "Jack is happy" every so often so everyone understands that "Jack is happy". Especially if Jack is going to be another emotion soon and it's important the readers are on the same page that "Jack was happy - and now he's not".

Re: Showing vs. Telling

#13
@Sardonyx: Yep, very true!

A remember when I was reading Throne of Glass, and the book went on and on about what a strong, competent, badass assassin the MC was. Only, we hardly ever see her fight or do anything remotely assassin-like. Stuff like that is a perfect example because it's a story level problem rather than just a scene level problem.

Re: Showing vs. Telling

#14
Sardonyx, you're example of "The servants all happily rushed to obey their kind Master/Mistress" really reminds me of my teacher's breakdown from 'tell' to 'show'. I cringe every time I find it in my own writing.  In case anyone reading this is interested, here's how the teacher did it:

David's Filter Words to change the sentence is probably the easiest way to resolve the issue, and breath a little more life into the whole scene.

Change the explanation to the servants perspective: "The servants often spoke of their Master/Mistress as kind, and leapt to obey his/her commands."

Any cruelty that the Master/Mistress shows later on (to anyone but the servants, at least) changes the reader's perspective from "Master/Mistress is kind" to "Master/Mistress knows how to gain loyalty" without breaking from the narrative.

Turning the statement into dialogue breathes life into the statement:
"My Master/Mistress is kind and don't you say nothing different," the servant said, "Always makes sure my family has a full belly, he/she does. Even asks about them by name and how they're doing.  Never heard of no other nobles that do that, I haven't."

Even if the Master turns out to be Dracula, it wouldn't be that surprising for the servant to say "I ain't never seen him bite no one" to dismiss any rumors.

Re: Showing vs. Telling

#15
Not living up to your username there, Lazy_Contribution. That's a great insight. 

I can say for sure that my impression when I read "The Rebirth of the Malicious Empress of Military Lineage" was completely different from other, similar stories because of precisely this. The female lead was incredibly good at winning loyalty, so when she was called kind by those around her and acted cruelly when she thought that was the optimal play, there was no disconnect because the author was very careful about showing how she won everyone over (and especially when she did it as a power move). Similarly, The Count of Monte Cristo who made no bones about buying peoples' loyalty or terrorizing them into submission and keeping them there out of complacency. Yet there were people who genuinely meant it when they called him kind.

I'll absolutely try to keep that in mind in the future. I'd like to think that it's something I'd do instinctively, but being conscious of it would let me write certain characters more easily.

Re: Showing vs. Telling

#16
While “Show don’t tell.” is usually a good advice, as the new author is using too much tell and hardly any show, it is also important to know when not to use it.

Chosing the right technique at the right time it hard. Especially as this technique is about managing and transporting awareness. Which of the characters is aware of what and to what level. How do you transport this to the reader. And does it match all the other techniques you use in that regard.

While in many situations it is hard, there are some easy indicators when not to use show, but tell instead:
  • direct speech (or the content of indirect speech): Unless you are using some extremely sophisticated writing, never ever use 'show' within direct speech. Any human (and likely any other being capable of speech) instantly involuntarily try to make sense of everything they see. Thus they communicate conclusions (though in-character conclusions that might not be objectively correct). When someone says something, they are telling and relaying what they see. (And even if you do some sophisticated stuff, you should still use the 'tell' form and only let the 'showing' shine through the cracks)
  • perspective: There are many styles where something has not the form of speech but still uses the perspective of some character. In this case never use 'show' for anything the character realizes: Within perspective 'show' is primarily for what the character whose perspective is used does not know about or does not realize.

Re: Showing vs. Telling

#19
One that always struck me in novels and which I'm trying to avoid is about character background. Similar to the traits as posted by Sardonyx - I very much agree with that by the way - many events in a characters past or present situation that classify as character background are often presented 'as is'. He is poor, he had an accident when he was young and became paranoid after that, which is why he took up martial arts training.

Anyway, on to my five cents

Character background:  

It's hard to keep from talking about your favorite character in your novel, but you're going to have to do so. 

I made this error myself. I started my story with a lengthy background explanation of some events that had happened to my MC and about his new work, where the story will take place. I still don't think it was the worst thing to do, there are absolutely times where it's a good thing to do, but in this case I shouldn't have (so I deleted most of it and am currently rewriting the first few chapters).

All I explained would have so much more impact if I made him act on how I viewed his character and reveal why he acts like that later in one way or another. I want to reveal it as part of the story, something happening in the story and not as a 'hey, read this, this is what you should know'. 

If your characters have experiences in the past that shape who they are now, don't tell us. Show it to us in how they interact with the world. At some point, the character can tell us (or just someone) about it over a pint in some smoky bar.

Which is hard when you want to tell everyone about the cool concept you've thought up

Instead of telling people the MC has a bad relation with his/her dad, figure out how it affects how (s)he would react in certain situations. After you've established the behavior, you can create a moment where (s)he talks about it with someone. This creates a deeper and more lasting impression than when you announce it in advance and leave it at that.

Another common trope is the poor MC. Most of the time I've seen it, it's been either ridiculously over the top or completely ignored after it's been established that 'MC is poor'

You may have to do some research if you don't have personal experience with some situations. Maybe you've heard of the game "hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice". The main character of the game is in a psychotic episode and the devs spent a lot of time and effort learning what that really means, instead of going off of 'common knowledge'. The result is impressive. Not saying it's a great game, but the atmosphere they create is fantastic. The mathematician Nash, in the movie 'A beautiful Mind', also has psychotic episodes as part of his schizophrenia. This is just an example, but if there are defining characteristics of your characters that you only know from 'what everyone knows', you might want to look into it a bit more.

Sometimes telling is the best choice. Information about the world the MC knows and that everyone knows, won't come up in a normal conversation. If you're going to do a light sci-fi/fantasy thing in a near-future setting, you can 'tell' about the technological advances and societal changes if it's important to set a baseline of knowledge. You can still make it more interesting by having a character read a news page or attend a lecture or something.

Reincarnation, summoned from another world, memory loss and other tropes are so popular for a reason, because it gives you an excuse to visit the very basics of your world in a 'show' instead of a 'tell', where your character is experiencing it together with the readers. 

Re: Showing vs. Telling

#20
I like to think of showing as demonstrating the concepts, actions, motions, and tactility of the story rather than stating "this happened' in so many words. The difference in seeing a play performed, and listening to an announcer telling about it before a closed curtain. Characters live through the story and create it in there actions, reactions, and motions. not in narrative summary or passive prose.
"An arrow bit my arm with a sear of pain, that bolted through me like an electric shock" > "An arrow hit me."
 Flames roared up everywhere, the heat from them searing...  >The town burned.