23

I am asking this question because I think we need a precise definition of what Show Don't Tell means if we are to decide if it is good advice or bad, or if it is a valid suggestion for certain passages but not a general rule for a whole book.

Orson Scott Card was a particular critic of Show Don't Tell

OSC Replies: You said: "I made it a point throughout the novel to not tell motivations, but try to show them."

And you did this because ... of those morons who told you "show don't tell"?

Because motivation is unshowable. It must be told. (In fact, most things must be told.) The advice "show don't tell" is applicable in only a few situations -- most times, most things, you tell-don't-show. I get so impatient with this idiotic advice that has been plaguing writers for generations.

But in this discussion it is suggested that reporting of motivations is allowed in Show Don't Tell, which provokes the question: what is in and what is out in Show Don't Tell. Because if it is good advice or bad, we can't expect people to follow it if it is not well defined.

  • @what Interesting (I disagree about John loves Joan being meaningless) but not specifically an answer to this questions, which is about developing a precise definition of show don't tell. I'd say your answer is more along the lines of be concrete, not abstract, which I think is good advice (and probably what people should say 98% of the time instead of show don't tell), but not the same thing. – Mark Baker Aug 17 '16 at 11:55
  • I wrote one up on this recently here at Writers SO with detailed example: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/19334/… See what you think. thx – raddevus Aug 19 '16 at 14:41
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    It's the difference between Bella said "I love you, Edward", Edward replied "I love you too, Bella", and Edward took Bella's hand. She closed her eyes and squeezed it tenderly – GordonM Aug 29 '17 at 12:20

12 Answers 12

17

Thought verbs

Chuck Palahniuk, an accomplished master of showing, suggested an exercise to learn not to tell. The exercise is to not use "thought verbs". Instead of telling the reader what a character thinks or feels, you have to show them how they behave. Palahniuk calls this "un-packing" the emotion or thought.

Using this exercise and Palahniuks examples, we can understand what the difference between "showing" and "telling" is.

Incapacitating the reader

When you use thought verbs to "tell" how a character feels or what they think, you tell the reader what to think.

You interpret the world for them.

When you avoid thought verbs and "show" the reader the raw version of the world,

you allow them to think for themselves

– and to come to a different conclusion than you.

Let's look at an example.

John loves Joan.

This tells the reader how to interpret John's behavior. While

Every day John bought Joan a flower and walked to the other side of town to lay it on her door step - then quickly ran away so she wouldn't see him.

shows the reader what John does. And the reader might disagree with you. The reader might think that what you show is not love, but, for example, obsession, and that John is stalking Joan.


Hubris vs mastery

A writer who tells claims to understand the world. When I write "John loves Joan", I do not in fact tell you that John loves Joan, but that I know what love is and that I know John's mind better than he does himself.

But different people have different ideas of love. And most people don't know how they feel. They feel sexually attracted to someone, or they care for the wellbeing of someone, or they are afraid of loosing someone's care and attention. Showing means that you do not fob off the reader with an abbreviation of the story but give them the wealth of sensory input that being in the story would entail. Which requires good observational skills and a mastery of language.


Show/tell vs point of view

Showing and telling have to be distinguished from first and third person narration. "I love Joan" is telling in first person, "Every day I put flowers in front of Joan's door" is showing in first person.

Show/tell vs stream of consciousness

Showing and telling must also be distinguished from interiority and exteriority. The examples above take an outside view of events, and just as you can tell or show what goes on from outside, you can tell or show thought processes.

Telling interiority looks exactly like telling exteriority:

John loves Joan.

Showing interiority can of course not completely avoid thought verbs, because we lack the words (and probably the self-reflective power) to describe the details of our thought processes, but it can "un-pack" the abbreviations and abstain from interpreting more than necessary:

Laying the flowers on Joan's door step, he strained to listen for any sounds from within. Every creaking or bump sent a jolt of terrified lust through his tense body. John both hoped and feared that Joan would catch him, and he was both glad and disappointed as he walked away from her house.

These examples aren't well written, but I hope you can still understand the idea I'm trying to convey.


Related questions:

  • I absolutely loved the last example. Reminds me of 'being in love' as a teenager! – storbror Jan 15 '18 at 9:25
9

Russian novelist Anton Chekhov once said, “Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

This is essentially the difference between show and tell.

Not that there isn't a time and a place to use one or the other. For example, a fast paced scene (say a chase scene through a corridor) would be all tell ("he ran towards the lift and repeatedly slammed his hand on the button, willing it to arrive quickly", not "he vaulted between the long, cream coloured walls, like a gazelle attempting to escape a pride of lions)

6

I think the difference between show and tell is really the difference between implicit and explicit. We can describe actions that represent something else within a piece of writing, or we can state it outright.

Compare:

Frank was unhappy with his mundane job, so much so that he wished he could leave to go on an adventure.

with

Frank stared wistfully out of his office window. He felt like he spent more time there now than he did at his desk.

Two sentences, one explicitly stating Frank's displeasure at his job, and the other implying it. The difference with the latter is that we currently know what Frank is doing, and where he is, without needing to include an additional sentence.

The reason that showing is chosen to take precedence over telling is because showing is more entertaining. I could write a page stating in detail who Frank is and how he feels, or I could write a page on how Frank moves about his office and interacts with others, which would allow the reader to come to all of the same conclusions, but also picture Frank physically undertaking all of those actions, which is then a story rather than a character bio.

On the other hand, showing is not always an option, such as stating why characters choose to do what they do. It is also sometimes much easier to say that someone is angry rather than describing them stomping around a room and slamming doors, or writing that their breathing became heavier and their nostrils flared and their face turned red.

So I think overall that it is a balance between including actions that entertain the reader, and excluding descriptions that serve only to portray something that could have been said much easier with a couple of words.

Therefore I would rephrase the popular "show, don't tell" as "show when you can, tell when you can't", because, ironically, the phrase "show, don't tell" is a perfect example of telling, and not showing.

5

Most books are a combination of show and tell. The quick and dirty definition is this: showing is what you see in a movie, actions happen and you see them. Telling is narration, explaining it in short.

Saying someone is angry is not unacceptable. Showing that that they are is harder, takes more time and sometimes doesn't serve the story better.

I think writing is a bit of a combo platter. Books, as a medium, have an advantage over most movies, in that they can "tell" rather than show. Although some movies, like The Shawshank Redemption (which was, after all adapted from a book), include narration that tells.

Here's a bit of writing from what I am doing, which includes telling:

The wood for the door had come from a fleet of fishing boats, well past their prime. Generations ago, some entrepreneurial soul managed to make money on the half-wrecked fleet, cutting wood for doors before the hull gained curve, and fashioning the rest into furniture of all types--mainly rocking chairs. Not every door with a colored stripe had been reclaimed from a ship. In more manicured parts of the Isle, where wealthy retired shipmen ended up, in charming little villages, surrounded by garrisons fully stocked with private security, there too, were doors with stripes, only because the owners thought a proper door in the isles had to have the stripe. But here, amid the rough warehouses, the door with the red stripe remembered the sea. Or it would have, if sections of wood had any method of remembering things.

In this case, I've used the history, the telling of it, to give the reader a taste of the culture in the Isles. You can use telling to show something.

Motivations are interior, so I absolutely understand having to tell those rather than show them.

Telling can weaken a story if it is used too much. I use dialogue, which shows, to give readers an idea of who the characters are, but I also sprinkle in telling, to ground it out in motivation. Couldn't do a block quote for this one. Everything that's "telling" is bolded.

Tribelia sat outside the cave, by a small fire, trying to count the number of bandits in the camp. One of the men walked towards her, two bowls in hand. “Here’s the usual stew. Not exactly palace fare, but--it’s good anyway,” Jinn said with a half-smile as he handed her the bowl.

Tribelia took it, warily, remembering that Jinn was the one who’d searched her for coin. She looked distrustfully at the brown goop. She hadn’t eaten since arriving at the camp.

“Do you think it’s poison?” he asked, his smile widening. “Poison is expensive, my lady. You’re not so hard to kill that we’d need to do that.”

She relaxed after he said that, studying him as she took large bites of the stew. She saw a man whose face, at first, appeared youthful, boyish, even, but there were crinkles at his eyes, sandy curls laced with grey. He took her scrutiny well, not seeming to care.

“We didn’t get introduced before,” she said “I’m Tribelia.”

“I’m called Jinn. Pleasure to meet you, my lady.”

“It’s nice that somebody in this camp has manners.”

Jinn didn’t say that manners don’t cost anything. Instead he said, because it was true too, “I aim to please, my lady.”

“So,” she said conspiratorially “What’s it like, being a bandit?”

“It’s like camping, only with more knives,” he answered.

“That’s clever, but it isn’t an answer,” she said, cocking her head.

“No, but it is, my lady. You’re asking--‘What’s your life like? Summarize it now.’ And I did.”

“I was hoping for something longer than a sentence, of course,” she said.

“You should stay and find out, my lady. Be a bandit for a turn of the moon.”

“I wouldn’t want to do that until I knew what it was like, besides, I didn’t enjoy getting stripped of all of my coin,” she said with dignity.

“Not all of it. You still have some sewn into the the leather of your riding boots,” he said blandly. When she looked appropriately disquieted, he said, “Don’t worry, my lady, your secret’s safe with me. But, tell me--what’s the life of a palace princess like?”

Now I could go to the trouble of intricately describing "Appropriately disquieted" by describing the character's face, but this communicates exactly what I need. Showing that would get in the way. I don't have to show it, nor do I have to show "distrust", or the physical motion of Tribelia relaxing. You'll notice that adverbs tell, a lot, and there are many, many lists of tips and tricks advising you to cut all the adverbs and use action to show instead. I think that you should not overuse them, but in the interest of pacing, sometimes, you have to tell and you've got to use an adverb.

Too much "showing" lengthens writing unessarily or it ends up turning into a movie script rather than a book, with dry descriptions of a scene and pure dialogue.

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    This is nice! If you wanted to push it, you could probably change about half those bolded expressions to descriptions of action, facial expression, or voice, but most of this flows just fine for me. – Lauren Ipsum Aug 16 '16 at 18:29
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    I could, and it wouldn't be difficult, but it would mean that I would have to use multiple words instead of just one or two. I could have her stomach growl to indicate she's hungry or say "Her mouth watered at the smell of the stew." It's all a choice. As long as the writer is aware those choices exist, and the choices serve the story and the pacing. Pure show or pure tell generally doesn't do that, at least I have never seen it done in book form. Glad you like! – Erin Thursby Aug 16 '16 at 18:44
5

To me it is more like "Choose what to show and what to tell."

Both techniques serve their purpose, the balance between the two is a matter of taste.

I agree with Erin: it is perfectly acceptable to tell that someone was angry--or the word would not exist in the language at all--just as it might be beneficial to show that person flinging a coffee mug at the kitchen wall. The choice is your and yours only.

For as long as you take care to always avoid alliterations and a preposition is not what you end your sentence with...

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    I think the final sentence of this answer overlooks what is probably the most valuable writing advice I've heard. Namely, that you must never deal in absolutes. :-) – a CVn Aug 27 '17 at 10:50
5

To me, the phrase Show don't Tell can have only one clear meaning, and it comes down to what it means to show. Show means to describe what the reader would see for themselves if they were present in the scene. This means that you can describe action and you can report dialog. You can also describe the scenery, though not its history or its significance. You cannot describe thoughts or motivations, because those cannot be seen, and what cannot be seen cannot be shown. All you can show is the things people do or say as a result of their thoughts or motivations: the things the reader could see for themselves if they were a fly on the wall.

If "show" is allowed to encompass things that cannot be seen, then where is the limit to it? What then is not showing? What would then count as telling?

This definition does not make "show don't tell" bad advice or good advice, but it does make it a technique that is rarely seen in successful published fiction, either today or in the past.

  • This is not true: "You cannot describe thoughts or motivations, because those cannot be seen, and what cannot be seen cannot be shown." To show (rather than tell) that a character is, for example, disgusted by wealthy folk, we can write that character exiting the rotting front door of her impoverished home, getting on the bus, and then looking out the window to see a luxury car owner complaining, shouting about a smudge on his car from a valet. She scoffs, puts in her earbuds--and we know exactly what her thoughts are. – Fellow Writer Aug 18 '16 at 21:22
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    @FellowWriter, no we don't. We may assume what they are, but that really means that they are the same as our thoughts. Not all people think the same. Often what is most interesting about a character is how they react in unexpected ways to an event. Also, this requires the character to act out their feelings, and no everyone does this. Some people hold their feelings in, and this is a vital part of their character. Unless all you characters are emotionally immature extroverts, you can't have them act out every feeling and motivation and still draw them as realistic characters. – Mark Baker Aug 18 '16 at 21:28
  • #1 @mbakeranalecta, who said, “@FellowWriter, no we don't.” - Strange. How, then, do you interpret the thoughts of the impoverished woman on the bus based on her reaction to the petty complaint by the man over a smudge on his luxury car? If you’re a mature adult, then there’s only one way you’ll interpret that scene. No need to reply as you did, “no we don’t.” – Fellow Writer Aug 18 '16 at 23:15
  • #2 @mbakeranalecta, who said, “We may assume what they are, but that really means that they are the same as our thoughts.” - Absolutely, that’s by design! Writers must leverage universal themes and symbols to access the emotions of our readers. You have a problem with this? – Fellow Writer Aug 18 '16 at 23:15
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    I will remind you that I was simply disproving your proclamation that it is not possible to show thought or motivation. You, sir, should reconsider your position on that belief. Western Lit is loaded with examples of it. Good luck to you. – Fellow Writer Aug 19 '16 at 2:07
4

Firstly, 'show don't tell' is not a 'rule' to be adamantly adhered to. It is a style of exposition that engages the reader. If you 'tell' the reader information they have nothing to do but listen - they'll get bored and switch off. By showing the reader activity their brain is constantly engaged in making calculations and drawing conclusions.

"Bob was tired." - this is telling.

"Bob's eyelids grew heavy." - this is showing. The reader is required to calculate the reason for Bob's predicament. We'll assume he's tired but there's also the possibility that his wife put arsenic in the pie.

On the face of it "Show don't tell" can only apply to scenes. As complex or extended internal thoughts cannot be shown, strictly adhering to the style would forbid them.

"Show don't tell" does not simply apply to character actions. Films and plays cannot tell, only show. Any exposition that requires a voice-over or an on-screen superimposition would be telling. Taken to the extreme: "1 month later, 3 months later" is telling.

To show: Opening line of CHAPTER FOUR. "The new month has barely begun yet Christmas lights decorate the windows of the flat opposite Jackie’s."

Opening line of CHAPTER FIVE. "The trees are bare now. The mid-morning sun barely makes it above the horizon in the cloudless winter sky."

Opening line of CHAPTER SIX. "After the dawn chorus, an urban fox takes the shortcut home through the shrubs between the flats, causing the leaves to rustle. The pigeons take flight. A grey squirrel scurries up a fence and leaps onto the garage roofs. The trees are in bloom."

"Show don't tell" is an instruction given to new writers. Following the advice cures many symptoms of unrelated problems. New writers want to tell their stories when really they should not be in it. They just get in the way.

Although you're bursting to tell your reader that Bella's pregnant - resist! Better to let Bella call her mother and tell her. That way the reader hears it straight from the horse's mouth.

ETA

Once you fully master the concept of 'Show don't tell' the scope of your writing will improve no end. e.g. There is an unwritten rule (particularly relevant to thrillers) - "the narrator cannot lie".

If you TELL the reader information - that information is taken as FACT. If you SHOW the reader information and conclusion derived from that information is the reader's responsibility.

e.g. If I tell the reader that Jason is laying in the dirt, his body's cold, and blood is trickling from his mouth. I have relayed a set of observed FACTS. The reader will likely conclude that Jason's dead (but that not what I said). I am at liberty to bring him back to murder everybody at the end of story.

  • But if Bella is a dog, who obviously can't herself tell us that she's pregnant, then have her owner write an e-mail, or post on social media, or call a friend, or update her web site, or whatever; and then you the writer show the owner's exuberance -- or disappointment, or even indifference, as the story may go -- at the fact that there's a litter of puppies coming. – a CVn Aug 27 '17 at 10:58
3

To show vs. tell is to show a character's physical reaction to everything (relevant) that she sees, hears, smells, touches, and tastes. Conversely, telling is the author speaking on behalf of the character, usually by using the words for specific emotions or thoughts rather than the words for the physical manifestation of those emotions or thoughts.

Too often (and I see it in this thread), the notion of Scene vs. Summary is confused with Showing vs. Telling. Whether Summarizing an event from a character's past, for example, or writing an action Scene in the moment, both may be done using either techniques of Showing or Telling.

2

A teacher once told me, "Show don't tell, except when telling is better."

I notice, in my own reading, that I generally want to skip over the telling parts of a story--the long beautiful lyrical descriptions, the internal musings, etc--so I can get to the scenes where stuff is happening. So, when the author is telling-not-showing I've skipped that information.

I usually write about broody dopes who think about stuff too much, and as I externalize the characters' thoughts in revision the story improves. Even if the externalization is as simple as a dialogue (frequently interrupted by physical actions and interruptions to keep things going).

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    I actually do the reverse. I first write the show parts and then get into the head of the character. The limit to this is I only have one character who's thoughts the audience is exposed too. The end result helps me to refine the scene to either reflect the characters thoughts or reflect the lack of the character in the scene. – hszmv Aug 28 '17 at 15:44
2

I agree you must tell some things; but I think you can embed those tellings in a "showing":


Anna shifted the sword on her back for the tenth time since morning, the strap refused to rest in that long worn dent at the end of her collar bone, and kept slipping toward her neck. Her luck, she'd reach for the sword and miss the god damn handle. Marcus said something behind her, and she missed it. She stopped short. "What?"

He caught up. "I said, why are you walking so fast?"

"I hate this goddam sword!"


Personally I think it is stronger if I tell you what is going through her mind, both indirectly (the sword "refuses" to behave) and directly (she wants the sword handle in a precise spot she can reach blindly. I do tell what she is thinking, without saying "she thought." I just report the thought as silent mental dialogue.

I think of the "Show Don't Tell" admonition as avoiding impersonalization and generalization. These distance the reader from the characters.

"Jim felt patriotic" is poor because "Patriotic feelings" are not precise enough for the reader to turn those feelings into ramifications or predictions about Jim's behavior. Is he about to give his life for his country, or tie on his red-white-and-blue Uncle Sam apron and pour some charcoal in the grill?

Is it the Fourth of July and some astounding Fireworks? Or is it the Fourth of July and Jim is remembering his fifteen year old self attending the military funeral of his warrior father?

Of course I do have to tell you what Jim is thinking, just like I'd have to tell you what he does, but then I am telling you something precise and specific.

The same goes for "Jim felt sick", "Jim felt angry", "Jim loved Marcia". Would you write "On their first date, Marcia said something that made Jim fall in love with her" and leave it at that? So enough said, now Jim loves Marcia?

Of course not; it is far too ludicrously non-specific and the reader cannot imagine anything from it. So that would be an extreme case; but the same idea applies with less force to generalizations like "sick" or "frustrated".

I'd agree with Orson Scott Card that in the end everything is "tell". I have to tell you Jim threw the coffee cup at Rachel, missed her head by an inch, and broke the glass on the microwave door.

For me at least, Show Don't Tell means to be more specific and concrete in description, and that tends to take many more words and involve more action and specific emotions. Feeling "irritated", for Anna and her sword, influences her behavior and mental imagery in a specific and concrete way in the moment of this story. So much so that I don't have to tell you she is "irritated".

The same will be true for other generalizations one might be tempted to use; if they apply they should mean something in the moment, and perhaps in the future: Anna being forced to use an unfamiliar sword can have ramifications later, either positive or negative. (e.g. Marcus and Anna are ambushed, Anna dispatches four attackers before Marcus can engage one: then says, "I still hate this sword.")

1

My writing instructor once told me that the difference between showing and telling is much more subtle than verbal telling only.

In essence; 'Showing' focuses on direct actions, and narrating those, while 'Telling' is about the narration of consequences of actions. It changes, among other things, immediacy for the reader or spectator. Showing draws them closer to the relevant events in your story, while Telling removes them from it by a layer of abstraction.

1

Ironically the aphorism "Show don't tell" neither shows nor tells. Hence new writers are confused about its meaning and are prone to transposing the verbs.

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