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I write primarily science, which I readily admit can be very bland. On occasion I read fiction, but have found over the years that my tastes have changed considerably. Overly descriptive scenes leave me wanting less; I don't read many newer novels because they spend way too many pages describing things instead of developing and telling an intriguing plot with twists and turns.

If show was so great, wouldn't there be "storyshowers" instead of storytellers? Storytelling is a very old tradition and is the basis of screenwriting. I am less interested in wordsmithing than in spinning an interesting yarn.

So, why do so many veteran writers hammer beginners like me to "show, not tell"?

  • I will post the comment here i have also posted below. It helped me anyway: – Richard Stanzak Dec 30 '16 at 20:07
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    'Show' works best when describing "internal psychological states" Describe a couch using a thesaurus does little to advance a story. But, writing: "Jane felt the old, worn sofa; a faint impression lingered in its suede. Jane wept." Draws the reader into the character's psyche. Why is Jane weeping? Were they tears of happiness, guilt, remorse or even grief? In context, it leaves readers with an identifiable emotion that stirs the imagination making them desire to learn more. Evoke emotion and you hook a reader, describe detail and you may as well be a technical writer. Thank you Paul Chernoch – Richard Stanzak Dec 30 '16 at 20:13
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    Most answers seem to focus on telling / showing actions. I am under the impression the OP is referring to actual descriptions as in: "John was in a field" vs "John was in a wide field where bunches of wild flowers created a colourful if inequal pallette where yellow and white, speckled with the occasional red, drowned away the luxuriant Spring greenery.' I do enjoy well written descriptions, but I also know a whole lot of people who would rather have 'the field' and let them decide if there are flowers or not. – Sara Costa Jan 18 '17 at 17:30
  • You might be interested in watching this talk by Steven Pinker on linguistics, style and writing in the 21st century. youtube.com/watch?v=OV5J6BfToSw – Nick Bedford Sep 12 '17 at 0:29

11 Answers 11

15

Show vs tell is an overblown and misunderstood idea imported into fiction writing from screenwriting. It was originally coined to train novelists to write for the screen. (You can see how novel-like the storytelling was in many early movies. The screen had to struggle to find its own storytelling style, and "show, don't tell" was the watchword of that emerging style.)

Stories, as you say, are told. The novelist does not have any of the visual and auditory tools of the filmmaker. They only have words, and words are the tools of telling.

But it is entirely orthogonal to the issue of description. The amount of description in a story is determined by the importance of setting and of mood to the story being told. What you want is a story that is action oriented rather than, say, oriented to character or place. Many advocates of the "show don't tell" approach actually mean something very similar to this, as they advocate for a style that is almost all dialogue and action sequences.

EDIT: As to "why do so many veteran writers hammer beginners like me to 'Show, not tell.'?" -- Because most writers (not to mention editors and agents) are not trained in the tools of literary analysis, and generally they are not willing to put the work in to deeply analyse your stuff, so they reach for the great catch all: show don't tell. What should you take this to mean? 95% of the time it simply means that your writing is dull.

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    Until the edit, this doesn't really answer the question. And, do you have any reference for the statement that "show, don't tell" comes from screenwriting? That seems like a really poor justification for it becoming so very popular, particularly outside of screenwriting... :P – Standback Dec 29 '16 at 16:56
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    "95% of the time is simply means that your writing is dull." haha...yes, probably. I find this an absolutely fascinating question, by the way, and I find myself asking: did Homer tell or show? What about Dickens? Proust? Many people have in fact said that Dickens was cinematic even though cinema had not yet been invented. And yet instancing the invention of cinema possibly overlooks the fact that the stage has been with us for 1000s of years. I find that the trouble with "only showing" is that it does tend to imply that "all that analysis stuff" is a bit boring. – mike rodent Jan 1 '17 at 21:06
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    @mikerodent Indeed. Perhaps as a writing class exercise someone should ask people to rewrite the fable of the fox and the grapes to show rather than tell. That would be a laugh. – Mark Baker Jan 1 '17 at 21:18
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    Um, as a writer and an editor who's trained in the tools of literary analysis (at least, I have an English degree, which if that doesn't qualify then I don't know what does), and who is a strong advocate for SNT, I have to disagree with your assumption that people who say SNT are being lazy or advocating for a story that's "almost all dialogue and action sequences". Also, any position that assumes people who spend their lives working on, talking about, and getting paid to analyze books are incompetent at their jobs seems fundamentally flawed. – Jerenda Jan 4 '17 at 2:41
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    @MarkBaker That seems like an eminently reasonable thing to say, but that's not at all what I understood you to be saying from your answer. Your answer reads more as focused on mind-reading on the part of the person speaking, instead of the communication failure involved in relying on a single trite phrase. – Jerenda Jan 4 '17 at 4:10
46

"Show don't tell," as a three-word directive, is pithy and simplistic. But it's used because it's one of the fundamentals of writing well, and one of the things new writers understand least.

As Lauren says,"showing" doesn't entail endless description of minutiae, or attempting to convey a cinematic level of visual detail using text alone. What is means is that reading a book is something you experience - and an author doesn't provide an experience by telling readers what to think or feel. You do it by showing -- by creating things that will provoke readers to thoughts and feelings in response.

You could reformulate this as "demonstrate, don't dictate." Saying Bob is a funny guy does not make the reader laugh. Saying Alice had a mysterious smile does little to convey mystery. Saying Grizelda was a very sympathetic protagonist, and then something very exciting happened to her is a very poor story indeed.

There is a lot of nuance to "show, don't tell," and it's certainly a guideline that can be misunderstood or abused. (The idea that you should "show, don't tell" for everything is a common misinterpretation; knowing what to show and why is an important skill.) But, this question isn't asking for a full explanation of "show, don't tell," it's asking why it's such popular advice.

And the answer is, because it's one of the major things beginners get wrong.

The art of writing is so much more than getting words out on the page, or transcribing the outline of a plot. It's the difference between having scenes, characters, and plot twists, that you're just assuming the reader will be willing to wade through -- and creating scenes that are vivid, characters you want to spend time with, plot twists that have real emotional impact. Beginner writers make this mistake all the time - they write something because "that's what happens in the story," but they forget to craft the way in which the reader will receive and experience it. This is the fundamental error: to assume that because the author has written it, the reader will experience it, believe it, enjoy it, in the way the author intended.

So "show, don't tell," when used correctly, is shorthand for "you have described this thing as a fact; you have described this event as occurring; but you have not made it interesting, emotional, intriguing, or impactful, in a place where you should have."


Another reason it's so popular is because it's kind of a catch-all for an emotional effect that's missing. Explaining that something is missing is generally tricky - it's hard to explain what is missing, and why it is necessary. But more to the point, other criticisms, which deal with something included which is done poorly, are simply much more direct -- so they never become pithy sayings.

"Brenda is a really boring character" or "I don't believe anybody would act this way" or "I saw that plot twist a mile off" or "This has been done a million times by better writers than you" are all common critiques for beginners too, but they're never going to become snappy aphorisms.

But, when the problem is not "This is wrong", but rather "something's missing," then you get a refrain that's in common use.

The point I'm making here is: "show don't tell" is hardly the only tool in writing teachers' arsenal; it just stands out disproportionately, because it's a single solution/guideline for many, many unrelated issues.


Obviously, "show, don't tell" is sometimes used incorrectly. And the fact that it's such popular, well-known advice makes it, well, better-known, more often discussed, and more frequently misused. But there is a strong core to the principle, and good reason for its popularity.

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    The fact that you have to spend so much time qualifying it just illustrates that it is not really saying something appropriate to writing. Writers have got attached to its pithiness (we like pithy) and so with go to great unpity lengths to defend it, but in the end, if it takes this much explanation and justification, it is just bad advice. Or, to put it another way, it is bad writing: a choice of words that does not clearly express it meaning. It is a cuckoo in our nest that is starving our fledglings. Time to kick it to the ground. – Mark Baker Dec 29 '16 at 17:14
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    Oh, I disagree. Writing is full of quick, pithy names, referring to much more detailed phenomena. TV Tropes is an ever-growing taxonomy of them; before that, the Turkey City Lexicon was one of the best primers around on typical writing errors. Sure, you need to know the details of the issue or the guideline, not just its snappy title - but that's always the case. – Standback Dec 29 '16 at 17:28
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    If what I want to show is Bob's character, I write "Bob swore at me - the same three curse words in Hungarian, over and over and over." If what I want to show is sudden danger to my protagonist, then maybe "I'd never thought anything of how Bob always carries a hoe around -- but now, his grip on it tightened so hard I swear I could *hear* it." Maybe it's an obstacle: "Bob slammed the door in my face. It took me ten minutes fumbling with the key until I realized the bastard had changed the lock." – Standback Dec 29 '16 at 21:55
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    Please do not abuse code formatting (backticks, <pre> tags, four-space indentation) for emphasis or quotation. Bold, italics, quotation marks, and quote boxes all serve their purposes very well, and code formatting has a very different purpose: to indicate code or machine-data fragments. Particularly for alternate browsing technologies (e.g. screen readers for the blind), text that is code has to be handled differently from regular text—and you don’t know how that will be. In some cases, it may be very difficult, or impossible, to understand. Reading letter-by-letter is not unheard of. – KRyan Dec 30 '16 at 15:09
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    @MarkBaker "But because 'use pictures, not words' (its actual meaning) does not make sense for the page..." That is a disappointingly wooden interpretation of the phrase, especially on a site dedicated to writing. – jpmc26 Jan 1 '17 at 3:12
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You are confused about what's being shown. "Show, don't tell" means "show us that the hero is confused by describing the look on his face and how he stutters and drops things" rather than saying in narration "He was confused." It doesn't mean "don't describe the room he's in."

If you don't like a lot of scenery being described, there's nothing wrong with that preference. As Mark Baker correctly notes, there are stories focused on the place and those focused on the action. If you'd rather get into the action and not worry about a moody setting, that's just your cup of tea. Don't read books which have the background and location as a major plot point.

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    There is a pretty good example of telling instead of showing in this Questionable Content comic strip questionablecontent.net/view.php?comic=1790 (don't worry it's SFW) – Maurycy Dec 29 '16 at 17:31
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    Indeed, that's the way I'd interpret it too. If a character is sad, don't say they're sad. Rather, describe what the character is thinking so that the sadness is implied and (ideally) make the reader feel the sadness for knowing those thoughts, even though the word sadness doesn't even appear on the page. Take the reader with you through what the characters experience, instead of just telling your reader the end result of the characters' experiences. – Sigma Ori Jan 1 '17 at 19:38
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    @T.C. I presume part of the problem is also that what different people associate with words is often not the same. Like for some people 'X was depressed" will mean they had a bad mood at the moment, for others it'll be they have major depressive disorder. Maybe it means X is about to go drive a car through a mountain railing and kill themselves. All of which might be important for the story (or for enjoyable reading) but if the details are hidden behind writer's definition of the word then a lot of it is lost. – Maurycy Jan 3 '17 at 7:53
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In linguistics there is a powerful duality of syntax and semantics. Syntax is what you wrote (as in the literal words and characters written in black ink on the paper), while semantics covers what you meant by those words. It's well recognized that the world of semantics is far richer than the syntaxes we apply to capture them.

A writer must understand that different people have different meanings behind words. "Clever" may be seen a synonym for "witty," but people typically associate different meanings to those words. If you stick too close to what words mean to you when writing a story (staying too close to the syntax), you can write content which feels empty and dry to someone who associates different semantics with the same words.

So what's a writer to do? After all, their medium is little black splotchets on pieces of paper. "Show don't tell" seeks to capture the art of semantics in three short words. The art of writing is being able to reach out into a reader's mind and paint with their images, which are always more vibrant than the images you supply in black and white. "Show don't tell" encourages a writer to step beyond the syntax of language and to try to toy with the semantics behind the language. It is truly an art, but who hasn't appreciated the art which brings forth the tired worn face of the patriarch as he dons his battle armor one last time, or the innocent eyes of a girl falling into her first love. The beautiful artistry of those scenes is not captured in the syntax of my words, but in the ability of the writer to paint the scenes in our heads, using our own emotions to do so.

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    Emotional empathy is what I read with show. Do not describe things, but instead, show how events affect the characters and help further develop the story. This makes sense to me. – Richard Stanzak Dec 30 '16 at 21:20
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Overly descriptive scenes leave me wanting less; I don't read many newer novels because they spend way too many pages describing things instead of developing and telling an intriguing plot with twists and turns.

Overly descriptive scenes

Those overly descriptive scenes are the "tell" that the show don't tell phrase is talking about.

Show Don't Tell

bad / tell:

He felt sad that he had been rejected by the beautiful woman.

The author has told you how he felt. He has not allowed the character to act it out before you to expose the story to you.

better / show:

Stanley looked up at the beautiful red-head standing in front of him.

"Would...would...would you like to go out for a drink, Margaret?"

Margaret wrinkled her nose as if she smelled something bad. "Uh, you're just not my type, Stanley." She scurried over to the office printer and fumbled with its buttons.

Stanley let his shoulders fall and he slouched over as he scuffled back to his desk. He sat down in his chair and dropped his head to his desk and sniffed as a tear formed in his eye.

Use more exposition -- describing things as they happen in front of the reader

than you use narrative -- telling the reader what happened.

Really, what you want is more exposition -- more seeing it played out in front of you and less narrative -- less of the author telling you something.

5

It is fashionable to attack this dictum: http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/why-show-dont-tell-is-the-great-lie-of-writing-workshops

There is another equally frustrating catch phrase, "On-the-nose". I hear this one more when discussing dialogue, but it comes to mean the same thing: it describes prose that lacks subtlety, originality, and texture. It comes down to this: say one thing and mean another so you get to say two things at once, leading to economy of writing and a puzzle for the reader to solve.

It has to do with particularity. If she is pretty, how is she pretty unlike any other woman? If he is awkward, how does he display his awkwardness that sets him apart from all other awkward people that have ever lived? And having described this, are there hints of mood, of theme, or foreshadowing, or some other purpose being served? Can I make the reader feel like they are really there?

The utility of this rule is great. The first time it was explained to me, I intuitively understood something about what it meant and could begin to rectify my poor style, at least in small ways. Showing expertly requires the mastery of many techniques and the refinement of the critic's eye, but showing better is something even a novice can begin to do.

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    I LOVE that article: 'show' works best when describing "internal psychological states" Describe a couch using a thesaurus does little to advance a story. But, writing: "Jane felt the old, worn sofa; a faint impression lingered in its suede. Jane wept." Draws the reader into the character's psyche. Why is Jane weeping? Were they tears of happiness, guilt, remorse or even the grief? In context, it leaves readers with an identifiable emotion that stirs the imagination making them desire to learn more. Evoke emotion and you hook a reader, describe detail and you may as well be a technical writer. – Richard Stanzak Dec 30 '16 at 19:37
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You're getting confused on what the 'expert writers' mean. Showing is integral to storytelling. Otherwise, there may be no story. For example, instead of saying 'Joe went to the store and bought some things.', you can write, 'Joe clumsily gathered the week's provisions, feeling a pang at the loss of the smooth coins.' This shows that he was poor. This also makes his actions clear. See? The plot is moved forward in one sentence. This sage advice does NOT mean excessive description or use of modifiers, but instead consideration for the character's demeanor and important details. Who cares if Joe was wearing brown leather boots from Kansas? All we need is the relevant info.

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    well... those brown leather boots from Kansas can turn out to be important. Little Lisa will one day identify Joe as the guy who killed her family based on those boots. (Sorry, couldn't resist. I love focusing the reader's attention on apparently unimportant details that will later turn out to be important. Of course I also drop red-herrings here and there. Just not massively.) – Sara Costa Jan 18 '17 at 17:24
  • Haha, nice. LOVE IT!! – LaurenIpsum Feb 4 '17 at 0:01
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The reason writers are hung up on "show, don't tell" is that readers are also hung up on it. You have to keep readers' attention.

Human storytelling is as old as the species, and it derives its popularity from our wanting to get into others' heads. That means we need an opportunity to practise inferential skills that are crucial in real-world interactions. "He was sad" or "she was clever" doesn't let us do that, because in real life you know such things from body language and behaviour, not being told the answer.

This is why describing a person's feelings and personality is so different from describing a person, thing or place's appearance. Telling us such details does for us in the story what our eyes would do in real life. But our interest in empathising and sympathising with other people, including fictional ones, isn't contingent on knowing the colour of the wallpaper.

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The crux of the matter is that when people read something - especially fiction - they are constructing in their minds a small world in which the story takes place and they are, to some degree, placing themselves in that world.

When you interact with the real world, there's almost never a narrator explaining it to you (unless you're on a tour bus). You see things and actions and they elicit feelings and opinions from past experiences - in you.

A work of fiction needs to work the same way to engage the reader and tap into all their past experience by letting them "parse", analyse, and experience the data themselves and then feel whatever that brings up in them - as if they are there witnessing real events and responding to them.

Just telling them skips almost all of that. Then, they're just reading your opinion of what the story means. They're interfacing with your mind, not with the story itself.

Of course, sometimes things do need to be explained, so there will always be a place for "tell". It's just not usually the place where the action and feelings are.

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I take the "show don't tell" maxim to deal primarily with how my characters feel, or the content of their personality, and to mean "write about effects and manifestations, do not just state such things."

here is an obvious example: Does it help you, as a reader, if I write "Andy is hilariously funny," but I never have a scene where anybody laughs at anything Andy says?

I can write, "Stevie had a flawlessly photographic memory for baseball statistics; and this helped him place winning bets." This is bland and unbelievable; but it wouldn't be if I have scenes where Stevie is exercising this ability, expounding upon why he places the bets he does, perhaps to a new girlfriend or some other new acquaintance or friend.

I can write, "After she calmed down, Jenny felt regret for her outburst." A scene describing how exactly Jenny's regret manifests itself would be better writing.

Simply stating something about an internal mental state (or personality characteristic), or stating that something exists, rolls off readers, it can have little or no impact.

That is just part of the psychology of us humans reading a story; simple abstract claims do not get internalized nearly as well as what we feel "we saw for ourselves". "Alex truly hated Bill" is not as powerful as Alex doing something that can only be interpreted by the reader as Alex truly hating Bill. Thus if you can write a specific and concrete example of what Alex does because he truly hates Bill, it becomes redundant to also make the claim.

In the end every sentence we write is a claim; but the "claims" about actions or events that took place and dialogue that took place let the reader imagine they are seeing and hearing things. But the claims about feelings (hate, love, boredom, sexual excitement, greed, rage, etc) and abilities or skills (at fighting, puzzle solving, feats of recall or learning or arithmetic, etc) don't trigger imagination. It isn't enough to say "Sherlock possessed extraordinary powers of observation and deduction, and Watson was frequently astonished by them," and leave it at that. A writer needs to demonstrate Sherlock's ability with concrete examples, so the reader can feel as astonished as Watson.

Making claims about feelings, abilities, or personality traits is a shortcut: It is one sentence or word instead of a whole scene. Sherlock's throwaway demonstration of his abilities, when first meeting Watson, take pages to describe; and that may be part of the formula, too: It takes 2 seconds to read a sentence, and five minutes of imagined engagement to follow the demonstration, and I think it just takes several minutes and a scene for this kind of thing to feel real to the reader.

So although every rule has its exceptions, in general you should kill these claims about feelings / emotions, abilities and personality traits. Write a demonstration of them, instead. Part of the writing craft is figuring out how to incorporate such demonstrations into the narrative so they feel natural and unforced.

0

Pulling out another ancient topic. "Show don't tell" is the most basic of essentials. It covers almost every aspect writing disciplines. And from the comments on this thread it is one of the most misunderstood.

  • Quote facts. Do not draw conclusions for the reader. Letting the reader conclude from the information engages their brains and keeps them in the story.

Outside of fiction "telling" could get you sued. "On stage an angry Hillary Clinton attacked Donald Trump." - You know this because that's your conclusion from what you saw. - She turned bright red and lunged him. - What actually happened is that she had a seizure and collapsed, falling into him.

Thrillers and whodunnits rely on the reader drawing the wrong conclusions from a set of facts. In this genre it is a 'rule' that the narrator cannot lie - hence the technique is known as misdirection rather than lying.

e.g.

Berlin, Germany

The group of young girls stood in the rain, stripped, ready, in a huddle.

Cold blue eyes made a cursory inspection of each individual. "Behind the line," he grunted, motioning with one hand. His gun, in the other, pointed downwards. Droplets of rain fell from the muzzle onto the ochre-stained ground. "You will be eliminated. Step back, behind the line." He pushed one of the girls. "Schnell! Schnell!"

The girl edged back, shaking, fighting back tears. Her bare thighs blue with cold.

Carlene looked over to the frightened girl; for a brief moment pity for the other momentarily threatened to weaken her resolve. She turned away. Now was not the time to be pitying others. It was every girl for herself.

The man strode back to his position, swinging his pistol as he walked.

Carlene watched, eyes filled with hatred, fixed on the gun. Her thoughts travelled to her grandfather and brother at home in England, and how she missed them since she’d been taken from her school three weeks earlier. She’d been held with the others at that awful camp for the first two weeks until she was transferred here.

Another voice instilled silence, "Fertig."

Carlene didn’t understand. She trembled, watching as he raised and pointed the gun. In the silence, she closed her eyes for a long second. The long second lingered, she peeked, just in time to see his finger squeezing the trigger. The moment she heard the shot, her mind told her to run. All around she could hear screaming, shouting, and mayhem. When her throat began to burn and her lungs felt as if to explode, fear told her not to stop - just keep running, as fast as she could.

  • Your mind's telling you this is a scene from a Nazi concentration camp - the character is facing the firing squad.

The facts are: it's the start of an 800m race at the Word Junior Olympics.

Another view to take is 'legal'. "Billy shot Fred. Fred fell to the ground - dead." - Only a doctor can pronounce somebody dead. The most you can say is that Billy the shot Fred. Fred fell to the ground. Blood oozed from his mouth and his body was cold to the touch. When people start getting murdered and the reader realises these events take place on "Elm Street" the reader knows Freddie didn't die. But if you 'the author' pronounced him dead - you will have lied.

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