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I learned early on (as most writers have) "show, don't tell," which I agree with for the most part. However, I've found many situations in writing when I'd start to write a statement in tell, catch myself, and then try to rewrite it with show. Something not a lot of people talk about is that there seems to be a trade-off with showing. Are there tradeoffs? If so, what are they and how do I avoid them?

tl;dr

Let me give you an example. Consider the following sentence (in tell format):

ex 1: He heard a cough behind him.

"Ew!" the writer says, "That's bad style! I should show, not tell!" The writer changes it.

ex 2: Someone coughed behind him.

Or, alternatively (to avoid "behind him" referring to the cough):

ex 2b: From behind him someone coughed.

I've noticed a slight variation on the two examples. ex 1 implies immediacy: The character hasn't expected anyone to be there, and suddenly--cough!

But in ex 2, the immediacy is dampened so that it's almost as if the character was aware someone was behind him and was not as surprised by the cough. Also--let's face it--they sound more awkward. In addition (delving into human psychology), when the fight-or-flight response is activated, our brains aren't trying to analyze what coughed ("someone"), so (IMHO) adding "someone" makes the f/f response seem less believable. I thought of a third example that may remedy this situation:

ex 3: He didn't even flinch when someone unexpectedly coughed behind him.

In ex 3 (at least from my perspective) while this does amp up the immediacy this also makes it less clear if someone actually did cough just then or if, generally, the character doesn't flinch when someone coughs.

I realize I'm nitpicking these simple sentences, but I've always been annoyed when authors make a case for "show, don't tell" and then ignore these difficult cases.

Question

Is there a pace trade-off or some other trade-off that comes with showing? Perhaps some other writers are willing to share examples of a sentence (or passage) they struggled to (and were able to) convert to show?

closed as unclear what you're asking by Standback Mar 9 '16 at 12:33

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  • In my experience with the show don't tell rule, it doesn't apply to every little line. You are writing a narrative, after all. I believe it applies to scenes, not individual lines. Try to show the scenes, chapters, plot, etc. Don't worry so much about the individual lines themselves. Just make sure they collectively show what you want them to. – Thomas Myron Mar 8 '16 at 18:44
  • Related: writers.stackexchange.com/a/762/1046 , writers.stackexchange.com/questions/54/when-is-it-okay-to-tell . Possibly this question is a duplicate; thoughts? – Standback Mar 9 '16 at 12:27
  • This seems like a question about line-level focus and immediacy. That's a valuable topic, but I'm not seeing what is has to do with show/tell tradeoffs. I'm going to put this question on-hold, temporarily, so we can workshop it, edit it into something clearer (Writers.SE folks - suggested edits would be welcome here; it'll be a while before I can get around to it myself). i41, I'm sorry for the delay/disruption this causes, but the idea is to get you answers that best address your question :) – Standback Mar 9 '16 at 12:32
  • @Standback I think it's a duplicate of the second question you linked. i41 has, I think, misunderstood what "show, don't tell" really means (obviously you have to tell sometimes), and the examples in the question suggest that this is really about when, not how. i41, what do you think? – Monica Cellio Mar 9 '16 at 14:14
  • 1
    Have opened a question about this on meta: Question about showing vs telling - how can we clarify? – Neil Fein Mar 9 '16 at 17:22
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As a reader, your first sentence is the best. It's short, without ambiguity and express the surprise you want to show.

About the "Show, don't tell", I'm not sure it's relevant here. Even in ex 2, we can said you tell than someone cough behind your character. This advice is more when description is your main objective.

You could use ex 3 if you want to speak about how fast after your character goes here (wherever it could be) and been surprise. Otherwise, like you said, it's not very clear.

In fact, in this kind of situation, it's more a question of POV or what it's important to show. Don't use long sentence where the rhythm of the action is fast. Your readers would be more captivated for what happens after that.

9

Show don’t tell is not about the way you structure a description of some action. It is about allowing the reader to reach their own conclusions.

For example, if you want your reader to understand that a particular character is an evil person, you can tell them:

He was an evil, evil man.

… or you can show them:

He plunged the knife into her neck. Blood sprayed across his face and into his mouth, warm and metallic. Her body slumped against his. He wanted to feel something. Excitement, maybe — even remorse. But like a hundred times before, he felt nothing.

… and let the reader come to their own conclusion that he is an evil person.

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What you're describing isn't really a case of show vs. tell, it's active vs. passive voice.

Generally, passive voice is describing someone's reaction to something as opposed to the simply describing the thing itself and leaving the reaction to the reader's imagination. For example:

"A cough came from behind"

as opposed to:

"He heard a cough behind him"

I agree that ex. 3 is ambiguous and doesn't really describe the action as per what is happening now. Ex. 2 / 2b implies a someone, which is less intriguing and mysterious (also implies a safe situation).

Really, you always want to show the action itself where possible, because it builds that all-important sense of reader interest at what may come next and is more immediate.

  • Ah, okay.. so I suppose writing about someone's perception isn't necessarily breaking the show/tell rule, though a lot of times it can. A rule of thumb I've read is to pay attention to "thought" verbs. And from what I gather from comments it really all comes down to the way you're using the verb (So ex1 doesn't break the rule). In addition, I suppose maybe I took one concept of show/tell (a bit out of context) and ran with it. From now on in reading & writing I'll pay better attention to the rule's usage. Thanks! – i41 Mar 8 '16 at 18:36
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I agree with Andy, but beyond just passive voice (rampant in amateur writers) I see an issue of style. Some sentences read smoother than others, this is absolutely true. So if your question is merely about style, you just have to read a million books and reread your own book a million times until your words flow like syrup on a stripper's thigh.

If your question is really about show vs. tell, the only trade-offs there always has 'tell' on the losing end. If you want to maintain pacing, then pace it appropriately. Pacing and showing are mutually exclusive.

If you don't want to divulge certain information, don't. Information and showing are also mutually exclusive.

If it's awkward, rewrite it. If it's too wordy, use less words. All of the issues of show vs tell are writer issues, style issues, but none mitigate the value of the show.

The only time you should tell your reader anything is when there is no emotion or plot involved. When what you're saying is objective and a vehicle to move the story along.

"They walked across the tarmac."

No problem. You can tell that, especially if the plane or the characters or whatever else is what's important.

But not if the tarmac is made of meat. That requires a show, not a tell, because a meat tarmac is out of the ordinary and should generate a reaction from the reader. You want your readers to feel the discomfort of their feet squishing on meat, rather than the familiarity and assurety of rough concrete. If you merely tell them it's uncomfortable, it has no impact.

Books do not merely tell a story. They evoke them, in ways that not even movies can attain. Movies can impact you through visuals and sounds. You can see a character react and know what they're feeling. You can hear the low, stomach-churning pitch of Sauron's spell razing the amassed soldiers. The music swells, the skies darken, and the wave of magic crashes into the front lines, countless bodies like blackened matchsticks, violently tossed asunder or carried along in its horrific wake.

A book is internal. You can know the minds of the characters far more than you can with any other medium, and you would be remiss to lose that opportunity to invoke the readers' emotions to your aims. The best books, like the best movies, will make you cry, rage, yearn, laugh, worry, whatever.

But you can't tell your reader to cry. You gotta weave magic for that.

  • +1 for the "flow like syrup on a stripper's thigh" simile, good one. – Abs Mar 9 '16 at 21:25
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Example 1 puts us in the POV of the listener: I heard a cough. There's also the very tiny implication that it's not a person, but perhaps an animal, a monster, or maybe a mechanical sound which appears to be a cough but later turns out to be a silenced bullet or something. But that depends on your story.

Example 2 does not at all to me imply "he knew someone was behind him" or "he was safe," but again, that's dependent on your story. If he's in a crowded bar, a cough may not be a big deal; if he's alone in his flat, someone else coughing is a problem.

Example 3 has the least immediacy to me because you've piled so many words between the person and the cough, plus you've used "flinch" (which means a jump at a sudden action) with "unexpectedly," making the adverb redundant. But if you're using it as part of an ongoing description, it still might work: He stared fixedly at Moriarty's cold black eyes. The red lights crawling over John's face didn't distract him. He didn't even flinch when someone coughed behind him. That context isn't "sudden," but it's piling on the tension.

Yes, there are pacing trade-offs. There are also style and content trade-offs. Do you want your audience to wonder what is coughing? Go with 1. Is the cough one of several events going on? Go with 3. If a cough is just a cough, then 2 is fine.

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