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Here is the environment of my short story: the adaptation of film noir into literature. The characters in the story are David Lynch's Rabbits and I can't find how to introduce them. In the David Lynch series, the fact that they are rabbits is not said to the spectator, they are just shown. We don't care if they are rabbits, it's just an unusal odd detail used to shake off the spectator. It would be too obvious if I just describe their face, their ears, etc.

So I'd like to ask: When writing a short story, how to «show» an irrelevant detail, as in movies, without expressively «tell»?

  • I'd add that I'm not a usual English speaker, so don't hesitate to tell me if I'm not clear enough. – qleguennec May 5 '15 at 19:33
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It is not irrelevant that the characters are rabbits.

You would simply state that clearly.

Think about a movie featuring a female lead. It is usually not said in the movie what gender that person has, because (in most cases) this is apparent, yet in a novel you would certainly not hesitate to clearly indicate that the protagonist is female, either by name (if that name is gender specific) or pronouns or, if necessary, by stating the fact. Age and gender of a character are of prime importance to the readers, and keeping them ambiguous is always done intentionally and to a purpose.

David Lynch does not leave any doubt about wether or not his characters are rabbits, and so you shouldn't either. Since we have no pronouns or names that indicate rabbitness, you must, in my opinion, use the word "rabbit".

Hildred's example may work, because the sheer quantitiy of hints (bunny, ears, paws, hind foot) points in the right direction, but since "bunny" is not exclusively used to allude to rabbits, nor are rabbits the only animals with ears, paws and hind feet, I'm not sure if I wouldn't rather have thought of another animal (or thought this strangly bad writing) a long way into the novel, before the true nature of the characters would finally have dawned on me.

But, as hildred also noted, the clear indication need not be in text. It could be in the cover illustration, the blurb ("A tale of two rabbits ...") or the title ("The Maltese Rabbit").


You must not confuse showing things to the viewer in a movie with "showing (not telling)" in written fiction. If something is clearly seen on a movie screen, that corresponds to "telling" in fiction: the movie shows a car parked in front of a house; the novel "tells" us that a car is parked in front of a house.

"Showing" in a novel is done in the same way as in a movie: by implying facts through the actions of the characters. You "show" that a person is in love by letting them blush when they encounter their crush, both in a novel and in a movie.

In fact, movies cannot easily "tell" us certain things. You would need a voice over narration to tell us that a character is in love. Since voice over narration is unpopular in certain movie genres, "showing" is necessary in those movies.

This technique has invaded certain genres of fiction writing with the use of other cinematic techniques.

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I was aroused from my alcoholic slumber by a knock at the door. As my vision cleared I looked across my desk at the door to my office. Silhouetted there was one hot bunny. Her ears hung all the way down to her paws. I might be in love. I gave my ear a quick scratch with my hind foot And invited her in, "Yo, Toots, whatcha need found?"

Seriously a cover illustration is handy.

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  • Conveying information through a cover illustration is tricky. The cover is more a marketing tool than a part of the story. Readers don't normally expect a cover to convey information relevant to the plot. Different editions of a book often change the cover. Every now and then I come across a book where the cover is 100% marketing, like the cover picture is a sexy, barely-dressed woman, and the story turns out to have no female characters. All that said, I suppose it would be pretty cleaver to have a crucial clue to understanding the story in the cover picture. Like write a mystery novel ... – Jay May 6 '15 at 13:21
  • ... where, say, a crucial clue is that the victim had two daughters and not just the one that everyone knows, and then on the cover we see a room with a photograph hanging on the wall picturing a man with two young ladies. But wow, how would you make clear that this is a picture of the victim and not some other character in the story, etc? And even if you did it well, I think many readers would consider that "out of bounds" for a fair mystery. – Jay May 6 '15 at 13:24
  • Were we to take your mystery Idea and try to make it work, the picture in a room would be too small to be seen on the cover, so lets get rid of the room. Instead the cover is a closeup of a picture frame with enough background showing to leave room for title and author. The picture that is in the frame is a family picture, husband, wife, two little girls. the glass is broken and the husband's head is missing because there is a bullet hole in the picture. It might work. I still would be hesitant to use it as the sole indicator of a crucial clue. On the other hand Indicating that the . . . – hildred May 6 '15 at 14:36
  • . . . characters are all rabbits, which is hinted at in the text and not crucial to the plot? Much easier for a cover to handle. – hildred May 6 '15 at 14:36
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In a written text, by definition the only mode of communication is words. Whether you are "showing" or "telling", you are using words. If you want to convey the idea that a character is a rabbit, I don't see any reason to go through some round-about, indirect means of implying this. Just say, "Then a rabbit walked into the room." (Or hopped in, I suppose.)

The idea of "don't tell, show" is that it is often more effective to convey information through action scenes rather than long narrations. To take a simple example, instead of writing, "Bob was very mad at Sally," describe how he turned red and yelled. But the "don't tell, show" advice doesn't mean that you can't directly say that it was Sally that he was yelling at and have to make the reader figure this out through some roundabout clues.

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