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Does anyone have any effective writing techniques or exercises that you use to help you focus more on showing the reader what you mean rather than just telling them about? I know I often find myself doing a lot more "telling" in my first drafts, and I'd like to start reducing my rewrites by doing better at "showing" the first time around.

I'll try to add an example from my current WIP later, but I'm not really looking for help in correcting it. What I would really like is some kind of exercise I can use as a form of practice to help keep me from "telling" in the first place. I tend to rush through the first draft and just write out the details, which usually results in a laundry list of steps or actions. I then go back in my second or third draft and improve on this by doing more "showing". Maybe it's too late for me to change my old habits, but I'd like to try.

  • Can you post a snippet as an example of something you're "telling"? I'm leaning towards suggesting dialogue, but I don't know if that will help your particular work. – Lauren Ipsum Jan 9 '15 at 10:56
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To me, the best exercise yet is Chuck Palahniuk's recommendation to avoid "thought verbs" for a couple of months.

He focuses on removing "thought verbs":

These include: Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.

And gives several examples:

...you can’t write: "Kenny wondered if Monica didn’t like him going out at night…"

Thinking is abstract. Knowing and believing are intangible. Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing. And loving and hating.

Instead, you’ll have to Un-pack that to something like: "The mornings after Kenny had stayed out, beyond the last bus, until he’d had to bum a ride or pay for a cab and got home to find Monica faking sleep, faking because she never slept that quiet, those mornings, she’d only put her own cup of coffee in the microwave. Never his."

Further down in the article he gives an exercise:

...pick through your writing and circle every “thought” verb. Then, find some way to eliminate it. Kill it by Un-packing it.

Then, pick through some published fiction and do the same thing. Be ruthless.

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    When you get a chance, would you mind paraphrasing or summarizing the content? I'd prefer to not send people to another site to get their answers. – Steven Drennon Jan 10 '15 at 1:22
  • The paraphrase is: "avoid thought verbs for a couple of months". The article only expands on this, giving examples and explanations. – user5645 Jan 10 '15 at 9:09
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    It's a good idea to do the same here. It is a great article, but websites have a tendency of dying or disappearing. This site might be around for years longer, and someone may come to it looking for an answer to this question. It's better if you make the same case, maybe in your own words here so that the ideas are preserved. It is a great article though. It would be worth your time editing your original answer. – Kirk Mar 5 '18 at 1:41
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One approach that I use is to write like a scientist. Rather than draw conclusions, scientists are trained to record their observations--for instance, a list of temperatures measured at 1-minute intervals during an experiment, rather than simply writing "Nuclear fusion was achieved!" So in fiction, you might say, "Small droplets of sweat appeared on Sumi's brow, and she propped the window open with a shoe." (showing) rather than, "The day was a sizzler." (telling)

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My exercise for this is forcing my imagination.

First we must define the difference between showing and telling in a useful way for writing.

Showing is writing that assists the reader's imagination so what they remember is a scene as if it were experienced. That is the job of the writer, to imagine the scene fully enough, what the character(s) see, hear, taste, smell and feel emotionally or physically. We do this because fully imagined scenes is why the reader is reading, that is the entertainment. Like a movie they want sight and sound, but also the other senses, and the emotional feelings thrown in.

Telling is relating facts, that do not evoke a scene, or at best evoke some generic scene that ls likely different in each reader. So it is inaccurate and vague, and you are being a poor imagination assistant. "A car", "a house", "a girl" will all trigger different images in each reader. In other words, they are too abstract and to evoke a scene we need concrete details.

As a rule of thumb, presume readers have a good memory for a scene they imagine, and a very poor memory for abstract facts they are told. "Bubbles the Clown was angry" is abstract. The words evoke no scene, so it becomes a fact about Bubbles we have to remember, and ... we don't. for a scene, we need to know what actions Bubbles took, his posture and behavior and perhaps internal thoughts and desired that prove he is angry. (Without his thought being, 'I am so angry.')

For all "Tellings", and particularly for emotions, you would like to show the consequences of what you are telling us, instead of the fact. Anger has consequences in how Bubbles behaves, his manner of speech (can including profanity where there normally is none), physically acting out violence he desires to commit (breaking something, punching the air).

I will get to your "exercise" in a moment, but I would relate this all to other similar problems in writing. The "wall of dialogue" problem is quite similar, a long conversation in which there is nothing but two characters having a conversation. The scene is under-imagined by the author. Putting aside other problems it may have, like a lack of conflict, the author is probably not being a good assistant to the reader's imagination.

This is also related to the problem of info-dumping about the world and setting and relationships. Most info-dumps are not at all presented as scenes to be imagined, they are a wall of facts the reader is supposed to remember throughout the story, and that memory is easily overflowed. If they do not evoke an imagined scene (which can be scenery of course), then the reader is bored, they are not building a picture in their head of anything.

The distinction about memory here is that in most scenes, the reader can remember a fair amount of detail for the duration of the scene in short term memory. It isn't important for them to hang onto those details for any longer. Info-dumps are generally about story structure and reasoning, and that requires long term memory: Memorization for the duration of the story, which may be weeks for some readers.

The exercise: Recentering. When I begin a scene, I close my eyes and imagine how it opens. I am a discovery writer, so I don't even necessarily know where it ends or how it goes. I just begin at the opening and try to choreograph the movements and emotions brought to the scene for the first minute or two. I try to imagine this in enough detail that I can find five "showings", things to assist the reader's in imagining this scene as it opens.

You can remember that character feelings have consequences in emotion and actions, and new information has consequences on character feelings or thinking which is the feedback loop of the story.

I write notes on the page [in brackets like this] about what I want to describe, e.g. [she sees and smells flowers]. I put these in the order I imagined them. As I write I retire them as each is accomplished, so the next is up, and I write to get to it. If I can't come up with something, I may leave the note as a placeholder while I continue the scene I imagined, so I don't get hung up on a good description of "flowers".

If the idea I had is too awkward or difficult, I pick a different sensory experience instead, or emotion to describe, but don't skip the showing of something. (I do not choose details so far ahead that I can't remember the scene segment I just imagined; it should be easy to pick a different thing to focus on.)

When I have retired (or skipped) my five showings; I stop and do it again. More imagination, more things to describe, more notes written to be retired.

I don't use [square brackets] anywhere in my fiction writing, so I can search for these "showing" notes to make sure I did them all. If you do use [], pick some characters you'd never use to flag show notes. Like @@ or {} or ||.

The point of this exercise is to train yourself to always stay focused on assisting the reader's imagination of what is going on and what is being felt and where they are in concrete language that leaves little to their own imagination. That is the point of you assisting them! You want them to imagine what is in your mind. (Obviously you have other things to weave in too, conflicts that produce plot developments and actions and decisions.)

This may be difficult if your habit is telling, it can be hard to break any habit. You can adapt this idea to your own style: vary how many notes you write, or how much writing you want them to span. A page or a few paragraphs. I vary them myself to control pacing of the scene and story; some allow the narrator more time for leisurely description than others.

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This is a dilemma that people are having a lot lately and I think it is mostly misled. For starters, as a writer, I physically cannot give you any information unless I tell you something. I only have my words, and words can only tell you things. What most critics mean when they say "show, don't tell" is really, "tell me different things" or, "tell it to me without interrupting the story."

This is something that I was taught: language that insinuates motion or change is a hallmark of showing. Any word that acts as an '=' sign is usually telling

For example rather than:

It was sundown.

You could write

The surrounding shadows stretched out slowly as the sun sunk back down over the horizon.

In the first sentence, it is just two words connected by an '=' sign: "It = sundown." Whatever was just happening was abruptly put on hold so you could fill the reader in.

In the second sentence, things are happening. The sun and shadows are moving. Yes, you are telling the reader some things: that the shadows are getting longer in length and the sun is going down, but the difference is that these details add to the action of the scene, as opposed to stopping everything to tell the reader "it was sundown." This shadowy, dusk scene can add tension or highlight the passage of time for the main character, etc. It adds to the action. It doesn't stop it altogether.

So a useful exercise could be just that: changing '=' signs to more active language, or seeing how many different ways in which you could say the same thing. You could, for just the "it was sundown" example, also write:

The sky turned all shades of turquoise, gold, and pink before settling back into the ultramarine shade of nighttime in Alaska.

Or,

A hush fell over the desert, and the air grew crisp while night washed over the frontier

among thousands of other things. Stretching your imagination in this way can help your style, your descriptive language, even your storytelling immensely. It is also fun.

It goes for characterization, too. Rather than tell everyone your antagonist is upset, make her throw things, make faces, do things that someone who is upset would do.

Hope this helps.

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Omitting should be an accessible approach, Steven.

"Show, don't tell is a technique often employed in various kinds of texts to enable the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author's exposition, summarization, and description.

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water."...

You really should read the rest on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Show%2C_don%27t_tell

When you know whatever it is that needs to be shown it's fairly simple, omit whatever is not essential to get the point across through the boldly marked mediums above.

You can also "cut" from a climactic scene before it ends or gets cheesy to the "epilogue" or ending of that particular chapter, eg. the handshake doesn't need to end with a strong, firm, long, (etc. adjective drowning the reader), it can simply end with a pause and reach.

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"Show" is an expanded version of "tell." If you expand your "telling" sufficiently, it will become "showing."

For instance, if I write, "The man fell on his behind," that's "telling." In only six words.

"Showing" is something like this: "The man's legs seemed to topple from under him. Soon, they were both in the air, which is to say that he had no more connection to the ground. Then he keeled backward and landed on his behind with a thud."

This passage required forty words, went step by step, and ended in the same place.

See the difference?

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Be more detailed.

What was the weather like for the scene? What is the nature of the relationship between the characters? What do they look like? Is there anything special about their actions?

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    Being more detailed does not seem helpful to me, because you can be detailed in both showing and telling, so just adding detail to the telling won't make it showing. E.g. describing what the weather is like is telling! Showing is if you let the reader "experience" the weather, not by describing it in detail, but by showing the effects of the weather on the characters that the reader identifies with. – user5645 Jan 9 '15 at 8:38

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