Re: Any tips for "Show, Don't Tell?"

#1
So, as of right now, I am re-writing my entire story from all the extras to the last chapter I posted, which was the epilogue of Part 2 (I'm currently editing Chapter 6 of Part 1, but I am having problems with showing some events in it.) before I start writing Part Three. Now, what I've noticed during my rewrite is that my past self mostly used "Tell". I tried showing, but I find it extremely hard to do for some reason. In some cases, I do actually use show and I think I've done well, but in some times that I do show, I fail miserably due to my lack of knowledge of how to do so.

All I know is to balance Show and Tell, and only use Show for important events. Does anyone have tips for me on how to especially Show? Thank you in advance.

Re: Any tips for "Show, Don't Tell?"

#2
I'll try to pass on a few common tips I've read.

Style-wise, try to focus on verbs. Describe what people are doing, not what they are like. For example, "he couldn't keep his eyes open" shows more than "he was tired". This is small-scale stuff mostly.
For descriptions, focus on the senses. What can your perspective character see, hear, smell, feel, maybe touch? Maybe focus on one important detail that brings the scene to life.
There's also the guideline to avoid naming emotions. Instead, show what the character is feeling, how the emotion might have a physical reaction (sweating, feeling cold, etc.) and how it colors their actions.
In general, 'showing' is taking a more close-up look. If you 'show' something, you'll probably need more words than if you would 'tell' it, because 'telling' summarizes. Of course, this is a sliding scale. For example, dialogue is 'showing', and that's why you shouldn't add sentences that reiterate what the characters are talking about if you do show their dialogue. The guideline to this could be immersion. Do you feel like you're right there alongside your character, or is it more like you just hear what they've been doing?
Of course, it's important to not show everything. For example, two characters making small talk with no bearing on the story can just be summarized with "They exchanged pleasantries." Consider how that compares to if you would actually narrate what they're doing, showing what each of them says etc. This is a lot shorter, isn't it?
Personally, if I think something needs more showing, my quick fix is to add more details. Maybe with sensory descriptions or describing what the character feels viscerally, or just unraveling an event into the actions that make it up.

Re: Any tips for "Show, Don't Tell?"

#3

Tejoka Wrote: I'll try to pass on a few common tips I've read.

Style-wise, try to focus on verbs. Describe what people are doing, not what they are like. For example, "he couldn't keep his eyes open" shows more than "he was tired". This is small-scale stuff mostly.
For descriptions, focus on the senses. What can your perspective character see, hear, smell, feel, maybe touch? Maybe focus on one important detail that brings the scene to life.
There's also the guideline to avoid naming emotions. Instead, show what the character is feeling, how the emotion might have a physical reaction (sweating, feeling cold, etc.) and how it colors their actions.
In general, 'showing' is taking a more close-up look. If you 'show' something, you'll probably need more words than if you would 'tell' it, because 'telling' summarizes. Of course, this is a sliding scale. For example, dialogue is 'showing', and that's why you shouldn't add sentences that reiterate what the characters are talking about if you do show their dialogue. The guideline to this could be immersion. Do you feel like you're right there alongside your character, or is it more like you just hear what they've been doing?
Of course, it's important to not show everything. For example, two characters making small talk with no bearing on the story can just be summarized with "They exchanged pleasantries." Consider how that compares to if you would actually narrate what they're doing, showing what each of them says etc. This is a lot shorter, isn't it?
Personally, if I think something needs more showing, my quick fix is to add more details. Maybe with sensory descriptions or describing what the character feels viscerally, or just unraveling an event into the actions that make it up.



I see. I've done the style-wise tip in some of the chapters, and it has worked well.
As for the descriptions, that's where I always have a hard time doing it, since I do this format:

He was scared, his legs were trembling in fear as his heartbeat kept accelerating every second he breathed the cold air around him. Chills went down his spine as the sound of the killer's footsteps echoed in his ears.

I'm not sure if this is correct, if it isn't, please correct me.
As for the "immersion" thing you said, I'll try to focus on improving that part as well.

Thank you very much!

Re: Any tips for "Show, Don't Tell?"

#4
You're welcome! I'm still struggling with this issue myself, so I won't pretend that I know everything about this.

For your example, I think it's pretty good. What I noticed is that you give the same information two times: "He was scared" and "... trembling in fear". Also, you describe three bodily reactions that show his fear. That might be a little much, but it depends on the context. Also, it might be better to shorten the sentences in this instance.

It might be better (but certainly not perfect) this way:
His legs trembled and his heartbeat kept accelerating as he sucked the cold air in. The sound of the killer's footsteps echoed in his ears, sending chills down his spine.
Or maybe:
He had to lock his knees to stop them trembling. His heartbeat droned louder and louder in his ears as he sucked in gasps of cold air. The killer's footsteps echoed in the silence, and he shivered as chills raced down his spine.

There are probably many different ways to describe this well. Just go with what seems best to you. Maybe try reading different versions out loud and see which flows best.

Re: Any tips for "Show, Don't Tell?"

#6

Tejoka Wrote: You're welcome! I'm still struggling with this issue myself, so I won't pretend that I know everything about this.

For your example, I think it's pretty good. What I noticed is that you give the same information two times: "He was scared" and "... trembling in fear". Also, you describe three bodily reactions that show his fear. That might be a little much, but it depends on the context. Also, it might be better to shorten the sentences in this instance.

It might be better (but certainly not perfect) this way:
His legs trembled and his heartbeat kept accelerating as he sucked the cold air in. The sound of the killer's footsteps echoed in his ears, sending chills down his spine.
Or maybe:
He had to lock his knees to stop them trembling. His heartbeat droned louder and louder in his ears as he sucked in gasps of cold air. The killer's footsteps echoed in the silence, and he shivered as chills raced down his spine.

There are probably many different ways to describe this well. Just go with what seems best to you. Maybe try reading different versions out loud and see which flows best.

I see, thank you very much for this!

David Wrote: I actually wrote a whole post about this here. :)

Sorry for the late response, there was a blackout here. I'll check this out, thank you very much!

Re: Any tips for "Show, Don't Tell?"

#8
Before I give my thoughts on how to do more Show than Tell I want to first begin with why you might not always actually want to Show given the right circumstances and why Showing is so good advice in general despite that.

Show/Tell is a process that happens throughout the entirety of your prose, and pervades all of your writing, which means a small difference when consistently applied to how you Show/Tell across all of your prose is a simply and effective was to impact the entire reading experience. The major goal is getting the reader immersed into the story, characters, narrative, prose, wolrdbuilding, etc. There is no point at which you can ensure that the reader is definitely immersed, but there are countless things in writing that encourages being immersed and avoids obstacles that prevents certain readers from becoming immersed into reading.

Prose is a major factor because the reader must literally be able to ignore to some extent the prose in order to be more immersed, which means that prose on the whole should preferably not draw attention to itself while simultaneously being the vehicle through which the reader is able to imagine the world of the story. What happens with Show Don’t Tell is that when someone tells you a fact like “Bob is really irritably today” that someone (the narrator in our case) telling you something and calling attention to themself, which places distance between you and that sweet sweet visceral experience that is Bob in person. When you actually see Bob in person you do not have the luxury of someone explaining that he is irritable, but most likely there are several signs that will show you that he probably might be irritable and bog-brain reader that you are you can figure it out yourself and there’s nothing that pulls you out of the experience of being locked in a room alone with irritable Bob.

This “distance” between being the reader that’s aware of the story and being the reader that is immersed in “experiencing” the story is what I call a sort of dissociation between them and the narrative which I discuss somewhat in another forum post:
https://www.royalroad.com/forums/thread/104350?post=860216#pid860216

Now let’s look at this:

staggen_mx Wrote: He was scared, his legs were trembling in fear as his heartbeat kept accelerating every second he breathed the cold air around him. Chills went down his spine as the sound of the killer's footsteps echoed in his ears.



If you want to boil things down to it there are several ways to cut out the “unimportant” parts from this paragraph. The important bit is that Guy was scared, so we can get that just from “He was scared.” and move on if we want as little text as possible. Since we usually prefer immersion we could just include “Chills went down his spine as the sound of the killer's footsteps echoed in his ears.” because that has all the important bits plus dramatic effect. We could even just go:
Chills went down his spine at the sound of footsteps.” and be even more mysterious and tension building with teasing out the unknowns and toying with the reader’s ignorance and expectations. But that ignores another potentially important part:
His legs were trembling in fear as his heartbeat kept accelerating every second he breathed the cold air around him.“

Let’s assume we like cutting extra words. So let me just...

His legs were trembling, and his heartbeat accelerated with every breath of cold air.“

That part tells me three things: he is trembling (especially in the walking department), his heartbeat is accelerated, and the air is some indeterminate level of cold. Presumably, my first guess would be that these facts are just there for embellishment and don’t mean much, but potentially they could have been included deliberately because? His walking ability might be impaired and he’s gonna get screwed by werewolves? His quivering heart is gonna get him screwed by the ultra-listening of vampires? There’s a ghost around somewhere and he’s gonna get screwed by some undead horror? Point is those are facts and they might be very important, which would give good reason to include them, but since we might want to focus our craft of writing we might just want to say he’s scared and be done with it because that’s the only part we actually care about narratively speaking?

Just saying “He was scared.” can’t just be thrown out either, because just outright saying that fact in such a short poignant sentence can have a lot of dramatic weight if wielded correctly. Authors who get a handle on Show Don’t Tell tend not to Tell much so when they do Tell like that it can mean a lot of contrast and emphasise the statement pretty well. Just sayinng “He was scared.” also has the effect that you have to acknowledge that This Guy is in a very human way frightened and that he is a human person with feelings. Which can be a very effective use of prose if set up properly, which would be a great usage of Tell Don’t Show because on the rare occasion it is actually potentially more impactful than Show Don’t Tell.

Now, if you want to learn how to Show you just need to think of it as narratong the tangible things that are there (in the world we are imagining which we call this “story”) instead of interpreting what is happening for the reader. They are alone, in a room, with Bob, and “you”, are not supposed to be there to explain things for them. If you suddenly shake their shoulder and give them tips it’ll completely ruin the effect Bob is going for with this whole roleplay thing he’s got going on! Try to depersonalize the things that are doing stuff like saying “and arm reached out and laid a finger upon the smooth granite lips of the carven figure of Saint Irritable Bob the Most Perturbed” rather than saying “Nick poked the statue he made of Bob on the lips to annoy him.” and such. You mentally associate everything with gestalt concepts, such as fleshbags being “people” and an horizon of white cloth being “innocent civilians” or the general area around where I’m standing being “Private Property” and a row of to es being a “national border”. These are all lies you tell yourself, because when I break those things down into their component parts you can never point to a piece of those things which somehow turned them into this whole “living person” thing you speak of. Your mind automatically translates the host of complex objects and relations into abstract associations and events and then narrate that to the reader instead of the tangible experience of being in that fictional world and sensing all that is happening there. It’s the same cognitive issue which leads people to assume things they are familiar with are simple even though people not familiar which those things always disagree, because our brains like to skip over the details and get to the big picture, which involves the author explaining everything going on instead of just describing what all the details would look like. Because why play guess the image with white and black splotches and back drawing abilities when you can just say it’s a cow and get it over with? If we skip to the abstract concepts of the things we don’t have to go through all the laborious details.

Now, what happens with Show Don’t Tell is that it might not actually be necessary. Sure, if you’re a newbie writer and the readers don’t have any special trust in your book as an author you want to play it safe, and Showing with a Fast Pace, and lots of Drama and Conflict is the safest way to hook readers to ensure the best chance to get results, but if you can trust readers to play along more with sitting down and listening through your story because they respect you or whatever, then there’s is less urgency to hook them with. Authors with more reputation get away with long boring introductory sequences more often, and in fact my guess is that forcing such readers to sit so patiently to get to the good stuff train them to go along with how the author implies they should experience the work more readily, and makes them more receptive to the ideas and drama of the book and such. Also I think there are also uses for not trying to have the reader as immersed as possible at all times, much like a slow pace can have advantages. The same applies to a very intense book that is constantly exciting or frightening or thrilling,  because I think there are also advantages to being less intense (especially since overstimulation of emotions can be exhausting in its own right, and even desensitizing at times).

So, I would say that learning how to Show Don’t Tell is extremely important, because it teaches you how to control what you are doing within the prose and the story narrative a lot more deliberately, but it is also important to be able to understand that you are not learning how to do it because that’s always the best way (though on average it’s usually the “better“ choice of you’re not going for anything specific that needs something else) but that you’re learning it so that you can do it better when you choose to do it, as well as doing better when you choose not to do it.

Re: Any tips for "Show, Don't Tell?"

#9

Endless Wrote: Try to depersonalize the things that are doing stuff like saying “and arm reached out and laid a finger upon the smooth granite lips of the carven figure of Saint Irritable Bob the Most Perturbed” rather than saying “Nick poked the statue he made of Bob on the lips to annoy him.” and such.

This is where I usually have a hard time doing it, because most of the time I do the latter.
Endless Wrote: Because why play guess the image with white and black splotches and back drawing abilities when you can just say it’s a cow and get it over with? If we skip to the abstract concepts of the things we don’t have to go through all the laborious details.


I'll try to remember this, which might be a good motivator for me to determine when to show or tell.
Endless Wrote: but that you’re learning it so that you can do it better when you choose to do it, as well as doing better when you choose not to do it.


This is my true goal, I want to first learn how to properly do Show, don't Tell, then improve my skills by doing it as well.

Thank you for the essay! I actually quite enjoyed reading that. Thank you so much!  peolove
Oskatat Wrote: It's a good post, I can highly recommend it

I have read it yesterday, and I have learned a lot. (especially with the second post, about the adverbs and stuff)

I have both of his pages bookmarked and I open them whenever I start writing.
 

Re: Any tips for "Show, Don't Tell?"

#10
staggen_mx Wrote: So, as of right now, I am re-writing my entire story from all the extras to the last chapter I posted, which was the epilogue of Part 2 (I'm currently editing Chapter 6 of Part 1, but I am having problems with showing some events in it.) before I start writing Part Three. Now, what I've noticed during my rewrite is that my past self mostly used "Tell". I tried showing, but I find it extremely hard to do for some reason. In some cases, I do actually use show and I think I've done well, but in some times that I do show, I fail miserably due to my lack of knowledge of how to do so.

All I know is to balance Show and Tell, and only use Show for important events. Does anyone have tips for me on how to especially Show? Thank you in advance.



Be careful. Balance is only needed where showing makes sense at all. It's also important to not use 'show' where it is wrong. Failing to use 'show' can also be a sign that you are trying to apply it where it is wrong. (While you can even train to use 'show' in places where it is wrong, what you are actually training then is overcoming your own instinct for language, getting used to bad writing). Though it can also be lack of training to use it properly. The hard part is knowing which of those it is.

To get the difference, it is import to be clear what you are doing (or why) and not just how to do it.

'Showing' has a couple of advantages, some of those are:
  1. People are more likely to believe things they figured out on their own. By not telling the reader the conclusion but showing them something that makes them go to that conclusion, they accept it easier, becoming more easily immerged in the story.
  2. Using showing you can tell the reader about something the one telling things does not know about. It's a bit tricky to get this right, but someone not aware of something can still unknowingly show things to the reader.
  3. Showing is some cheap source of adding words, making your story longer. Stories only seldom get better by being made needlessly longer. But if things are too terse (or you are paid by the word), it can help. Also more words gives you more chances to use the right words, perhaps adding some feeling of realness or adding some flair.
Each of those aspects also lead to some disadvantages:
  1. The reader has to make those conclusions. This takes mental effort and can even fail. If the conclusions are too complicated reading your story can become straining for the reader or even incomprehensible if they fail to get those conclusions right. On the other hand things too easy can easily leading to cliche and (in the case of perspective smuggling can break suspension of disbelief why the character unaware of it does not know about it).
  2. Showing uses more words. More words without more content makes a boring read or downright exhausting the reader. It can use needless detail, distracting from important things.
Or downright show-stoppers:

Showing is easy if you are doing a movie, TV series or (to some extent) a play. Without a narrator the only possibilities you have there are showing or dialogue. With a text there is no visual communication (except for very special cases, like adding pictures to a book, or the LitRPG-windows as tables). Writing is inherently telling, so showing is actually telling something that transfer some mental image that is then 'seen' by the reader (as if shown). Or described differently, in texts showing means telling details instead of conclusions. But people do not tell just anything at random and as humans readers are trained to look for motivation and coherence in what is told. That causes some problems:
  1. In any direct or indirect speech by some character, there very little room for show. When humans look at things, scenes or situations, they don't infer details, they infer meaning. Descriptions by humans are very high level in abstraction (except perhaps mystical beings like Sherlock Holmes). Humans using 'show' knowingly are limited to few situations. For example a very eloquent and manipulative character might use 'show' to make people come to conclusions to avoid being the one who said it. Or it might appear additionally to telling as an proof for what they told: "He was totally frightened, losing all color in his face and shaking like leaves". As humans hardly remember details and even less often tell them, the way to get smuggle 'showing' in what a human speech is usually facilitating misunderstandings.
  2. For the narrator it depends on the what type of narrator you have. If the narrator is some in-scene character, you have all the problems of things told by characters. Otherwise those exist to some lesser extent, but are still there. The more perspective the narrator has or the more human-like, personal the narrator is, the more strange it is to get told details instead of conclusions. While the more impersonal your narrator is, the more you can show stuff at the cost of no longer being able to tell what motivates the characters.

Re: Any tips for "Show, Don't Tell?"

#11


whoever Wrote: Showing uses more words. More words without more content makes a boring read or downright exhausting the reader. It can use needless detail, distracting from important things.





I shall remember this exact sentence just to make sure I won't make this mistake while I'm re-editing all my chapters, as what I've seen so far I usually do this, but I corrected it with my latest edits.

Thank you very much!
whoever Wrote: Showing is some cheap source of adding words, making your story longer.


I feel guilty on this one

Re: Any tips for "Show, Don't Tell?"

#12
Think of your characters as actors on a stage, or in a movie. They almost never stop, break the fourth wall and try to tell the audience anything. They act out the drama. Novels are a form like this. Characters emote, move, see, feel, until the reader understands the tale, "Gets it".  Why speech writers and textbook authors are different animals from novel writers. Novels are their own media, and writing one a peculiar skill. For modern lit, use narration sparsely and in an active voice, usually. Demonstrate using your cast, not with a tell, what is needed.

Re: Any tips for "Show, Don't Tell?"

#13

FAHyatt Wrote: Think of your characters as actors on a stage, or in a movie. They almost never stop, break the fourth wall and try to tell the audience anything. They act out the drama. Novels are a form like this. Characters emote, move, see, feel, until the reader understands the tale, "Gets it".  Why speech writers and textbook authors are different animals from novel writers. Novels are their own media, and writing one a peculiar skill. For modern lit, use narration sparsely and in an active voice, usually. Demonstrate using you cast, not with a tell, what is needed.

What you have just said is quite interesting, thank you very much!

(I'd give you more rep, but I can only give one :( )

Re: Any tips for "Show, Don't Tell?"

#14
> Showing uses more words. More words without more content makes a boring read or downright exhausting
> the reader. It can use needless detail, distracting from important things.

> Showing is some cheap source of adding words, making your story longer.

I so completely disagree, it is almost painful!

Then again: that's the fun of a forum like this, we *are* allowed to disagree :-)

Okay, my 2 cents...

When SHOWING something, you add texture, flavor, you describe the world as it is, not as the character experiences it.
When TELLING something, you talk about the perception of the character.


An example:

Show: The traffic light was red.

Tell: He saw a red traffic light.

Both forms are required for a good story.


Now think about it, is a good story just about 'action action action action done', or does it need to describe a situation, put the reader at the spot of the main character, and experience the setting?

I'm not a good writer, but lessee' if I can come up with a better example... Mmmm...


Tell, no flavor:

' Peter looked at the girls and thought they were nervous. Behind them, the old house rose up in the night sky. They saw the old man waiting for them. The old man hesitated, then invited them in. The followed through the front door. Inside they walked through a hall, entered a kitchen, sat at a table and had tea together.  '


Show, flavored:

At the corner, the two girls were waiting, looking nervous. Behind them, the old house rose up like a dark, foreboding mounting, blocking part of the night sky. A bird croaked in the distance, the only other sound in the sleeping city. In front of the house sat the old man. He slowly stood, nervously eyeing their arrival, but after a short hesitation, he did ask them in. They followed through the massive wooden front door into a hallway, then turned left into a small kitchen. "Tea?" the old man asked. '

Yes, a lot more words, but it also adds more of a feeling, a tone.


It has even more impact when dealing with first-person, regardless if it's present or past tense. I'm working on a first-person present-tense story (yeah, it's on Royal Road, and it's crap, but don't tell anyone :-)) and it is incredibly easy to fall in the 'tell' trap...


Tell:

I see the two girls, waiting at the corner. I notice they look nervous. Behind them, the old house rises up. I can hear a bird croaking in the distance. It's the only sound in the sleeping city. I see the old man sitting in front of the house. He stands up slowly, nervously eyeing our arrival, but after a short hesitation, he asks us to follow him in. We follow into the kitchen, where he serves tea.

Show with some extra flavor:

' Two girls are waiting at the corner, looking nervous. Behind them the old house rises up, a mountain of darkness blocking part of the night sky. In the distance a bird croaks. It's the only sound it this otherwise silent, sleeping city. The old man stands up slowly, eyeing our arrival. After a short hesitation, he asks us to follow him in. The girls and I exchange shrugs, and we step through the heavy wooden front door into a small hallway. Inside, the first door to the left leads into a brightly lit kitchen, a fire blazing in the hearth. "Tea?" the old man asks. Not knowing what else to do I nod, and we all sit. '


Now in LitRPG it's aften about action / score / action / score, like in a computer game, but books without flavor are rather bland and boring, they tend to become summaries instead of compelling stories.


Of course, that's only my 2 cents :-)




Re: Any tips for "Show, Don't Tell?"

#15

Nine Wrote: and it is incredibly easy to fall in the 'tell' trap...

agreed. most of the time I fall down that trap.
Nine Wrote: It has even more impact when dealing with first-person, regardless if it's present or past tense



I see... I'm planning to write a spin-off for my story which will be placed in a first-person perspective, so your insight really intrigues me.

Thank you for your 2 cents!  peolove

Re: Any tips for "Show, Don't Tell?"

#18
It's been said before, but I'm throwing my thoughts on the heap:

With a tell, you give information as a given. With show, you let the audience draw their own conclusions.

example:

A poor man was begging at the roadside. 

or

Along the road stood a man in a worn and patched up coat, asking for spare coins.

or even

along the road stood a man wearing a long overcoat, even though the weather wasn't that cold. The coat itself was worn and had numerous patches, especially at the elbows. He called out to us as we passed. "Gods bless you, kind sirs! Spare a copper or two? A small deed of kindness on this fine day."



Not the best example, but it will do

The idea, for me, is to let the people reading it come to their own conclusion about who the man is and what he is doing there. That way, they get more invested in the story.

Another advantage I see is that I'll be able to turn things around or change the behavior without it feeling artificial. If you're told the man is a beggar, but suddenly you're told he is actually an assassin, it feels like you've been lied to. If you came to the conclusion he's a beggar by yourself, but it turns out he's actually an assassin, you may feel the author successfully fooled you and played with your expectations. Good job author, you surprised me there.


A part mentioned in other posts already is to elaborate on emotional states. Instead of telling us the girl looks nervous, tell us that 

'the girl was unable to sit still. Constantly changing her posture, chewing on her hair and looking this direction and that'

We all recognize it as nervous behavior. Most readers will take this as a cue that there is something to know here and will want to know why. For both goes, if it's not important, why bother mentioning that she is nervous in the first place?


One of the things that instantly makes me wary of a novel would be things like 'MC is smart', 'MC is kind' and such. I'll be the judge of that. Show it through the story, don't give it to me as an indisputable fact

Re: Any tips for "Show, Don't Tell?"

#19
One thing I do to make the telling feel more showy is to break up the narration and internal monologue by adding in a couple active thoughts.

"That worked a lot better than I expected," the MC decided. "I should probably do that again next time."

If I feel like I'm starting to write a wall of expositionary text, I'll insert a couple lines like that. Even if they're not physically doing anything, having the characters stop to think gives the scene a bit more activity and shows engagement with the character.