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"Show, don't tell" is a popular ethos amongst writers, and one that is very important to writing engaging stories. However, I'm in a situation whereby my protagonist is recounting an event from a previous chapter, revealing something specific that she noticed whilst the events were occurring.

Whilst John was puffing his chest out, getting all hot under the collar, and not doing anything specific to exonerate himself, Lana witnessed Terrence, stood in John's shadow, moving deeper and deeper in to what she perceived as guilt, at least for his part, in the crime.

The part of the sentence I'm having trouble with is:

Lana witnessed Terrence [...] moving deeper and deeper in to what she perceived as guilt

This is, of course, telling rather than showing. However, this is a recount of the event; Lana's perspective, what she felt and what she witnessed. More importantly than what she witnessed, this is how she interpreted what she witnessed. Her perception of the event in this case, is perhaps more important to the story than the actual event itself.

In this case, is 'telling' appropriate?

  • "in to what she perceived as guilt" seems very telling rather than showing. What if you describe the behavior he's exhibiting that makes her perceive it this way instead? – Kit Z. Fox Nov 12 '14 at 18:02
  • The phrasing seems to me awkward, unless Lana is very uncertain about her interpretation of Terrence's motivation. The principle of it makes sense, though; show Lana's reaction by describing her making a judgment call about Terrence's actions. It doesn't really matter if Terrence feels guilty -- at this point -- only that Lana acts out of the perception of his guilt. – lea Nov 13 '14 at 20:54
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Telling is most appropriate when the events are not important to the story.

They can be transitional and probably use few(er) words. For example:

After she fell into the pool, they went inside while she changed her clothes.

@DanHanly said:

Her perception of the event in this case, is perhaps more important to the story than the actual event itself.

A Solid Clue

That should be a clue to yourself that this is what should be shown. It is what you, the author, are saying is important to the story. That means you want the reader to experience it as if s/he were living the events. That means you want to act this part out in front of the reader.

However, the challenge you have here is that a lot of what Lana is going through is internalization and that is difficult to act out. However, it is possible.

Deep Imagination Required

To do so, first of all you must put yourself in the place of Lana. What if you were overwhelmed by something you were thinking? How might you move or act. Maybe something like the following:

Lana looked up from the sink of dishes she was washing. She stared at a bubble floating free of the sink and her mouth turned up in a slight smile. As suddenly as the bubble had floated up, it plummeted back to the faucet where it landed and burst. At the same moment Lana burst into silent tears.
She shook her head. "It's too much," she thought. "How much pain must I bear?"

She threw the dish rag she held into the sink and the water splashed out onto the top of her foot, soaking through her sock.

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    This line reflects (perhaps more eloquently than I) exactly the problem that I was facing: "However, the challenge you have here is that a lot of what Lana is going through is internalization and that is difficult to act out." Thanks for your help. – Dan Hanly Nov 13 '14 at 8:10
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Describe what she's seeing which makes her perceive Terrence's emotions.

Lana looked over at Terrence, who had deliberately put himself into John's shadow. Emotions flickered over Terrence's face like a cascade of sparks. He couldn't quite look at John, but kept stealing glances upward. He bit his lower lip and ducked his head, flinching as John swung his arm to punctuate some point. Terrence hunched his head, his mouth twitching, and worry lines rippled across his forehead. Lana realized he felt guilty for what he'd done.

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    It's a bit like taking the phrase, "Actions speak louder than words," and using that in describing to the reader how Lana realised the guilt Terrence felt. – Nick Bedford Nov 12 '14 at 21:25
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I might offer some more to this question in light of the existing answers. Lana needs to notice the actions which leads to her suspicion of guilt. Showing these actions to both her and the reader will accomplish the goal.

It's the actions that speak loud to her in her realisation. Also, your sentence is a bit long and feels like it has too many stops and starts. The paragraph has a few separable points of interest so here's my take:

John was puffing out his chest, all hot under the collar and not doing anything in particular to exonerate himself, when Lana noticed Terrence move into John's shadow. His face flushed with emotion and he became somewhat nervous, only stealing glances at John and not looking directly at him. She realised he must have felt guilty for what he had done.

I have an example from one of my own short stories which may help:

Jake turned turn off the ignition, the car engine stopped and he braced for an onslaught from his father, whom he didn’t dare to look back at.

How much of this action can you extrapolate into understanding of the actual story being written? The actions in this one sentence tell a lot. Jake had probably been driving his dad's car, likely without permission, and felt stupendously guilty about it.

As a social and emotional species, a lot of what we do says much of what we don't want to say.

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I don’t like to criticize and style is subjective, so I will delete this post if I get a few DVs… i am not yet sure of the SE etiquette.

I couldn’t understand your sentence at first, it took me several attempts to re-read it as well as the clarification of the answers to SEE what you were trying to describe. You may get some insights at What's the difference between purple prose and vividly descriptive writing?

”Whilst John was puffing his chest out,”

Not getting the image, you need to make us imagine the chest expending, bursting out of the seams, saying “puffing” is not enough

”getting all hot under the collar,”

You are telling us, you need to SHOW us the sweat driping, the damp collar, the redness of his cheeks..

“and not doing anything specific to exonerate himself, Lana witnessed Terrence,”

not visual and unclear, all mental

”stood in John's shadow, moving deeper and deeper”

SHOW us movement, SHOW us shadow and dept, make us yearn or fear the shadow, make it a living entity, give it character, bring life to it

” in to what she perceived as guilt, at least for his part, in the crime.”

Telling, not showing entirely mental

Above all use SHORT sentences mixed with some medium ones and only rarely long sentences to create rhythm, else you drown the reader in a sea of words

This whole excerpt doesn’t seem visual at all to me, it is very much telling and noting shows. If it is representative of your writings, you may want to train yourself to be more visual like by writing movie scripts for instance.

Sorry for the harsh critique, what works for one reader may not work for another.

QUESTION

To go back to the original question, I believe that showing is ALWAYS better than telling. Telling should be used only when there is not choice.

Here you do have ample choice, it is visual, even the guilt can be SHOWN, implied or indirectly situationaly made apparent rather than telling us.

  • This should be a comment on the question, I think. – Nick Bedford Nov 12 '14 at 21:27
  • This is a critique of the text in the question, but doesn't quite answer the question that was actually asked. That is: In this case, is telling more appropriate that showing? – Neil Fein Nov 13 '14 at 2:32
  • And by the way, concerning downvoting: Stack Exchange sites, including this one, encourage people to explain why they're downvoting when they do it. This gives the poster the opportunity to improve what they wrote. – Neil Fein Nov 13 '14 at 2:33
  • You have to remember, the majority of the sentence is an event that has already occurred in a previous chapter. I believe in this case, your first three points of critique are not in-line with the question at all. I asked for a discussion of technique but from you I got a full breakdown critique. The only 'new' information is about Terrence's reaction, and I believe the description of John puffing his chest out is enough of a call-back to the previous chapter. I don't need to describe this event again in detail; doing so would bore the reader. – Dan Hanly Nov 13 '14 at 8:06
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My approach would've been different, in that I would actually replay the parts of the event that "what's-her-name" was suspicious about, and have her speak, out loud (whether it's muttering to herself, or bursting out like a "ah-ha! I've got the other culprit!" scenario...). I always prefer showing, it's much more visual.

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