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This question is inspired by a different one - How to communicate characters' inner states?. Although it may seem similar at first glance, I find the difference quite profound. My question regards character's thinking process - when they came up to certain conclusions.

Quite often in my stories, I include the situation when after a certain event main characters start thinking - and end up with some kind of change in their current behavior. I used to describe it quite literally. I tend to write down the hero's thoughts - both in the first and third person.

As I am analyzing my own writing, I started looking at this particular tendency. Somehow I feel that this way is not ideal. My impression is these paragraphs' are too dense.

They also seem to be deeply internal. Suddenly I move from describing external events to the inside of the character's head. Then with the same rapidity, I come back right to the world.

Here is an example from my recent story. Please notice that English is not my native language and this is just a translation. Apologies for its imperfectness.

Banners and loudspeakers landed on the ground, and furious people stuck to the front of the bus. Oliver studied their faces and saw no trace of self-control.

The bus continued to move forward. The floor of the vehicle rose slightly on the right side. A new message appeared on the dashboard: Accident! For a moment, Oliver's heart skipped. There was silence in the cabin. The soldiers stood unresponsive. The dynamics of the protesters have changed.

Terror, weakness appeared on their faces. They ran to the right-hand side of the bus. Thus, they cleared the space leading to the gate. Bald Tom took advantage of the opportunity to accelerate a bit. The entrance to the base opened automatically upon sensing an allied unit. They entered.

Oliver sat down. He was examining the curvature of the floor with his feet. His imagination kept coming up with images of a man getting entangled in a wheel. He thought it was his fault, only his. A person died because of him.

He had never been present at someone's death before. All he did was piloting ships. Delivering people and goods. He was overwhelmed with remorse of a caliber he had never imagined before.

However he had one clear thought as well. He will make it on time. He will get to do training. His dream, put aside for a moment, came back as graspable as never before. This relief only fuelled the guilt he already felt.

As a result, he felt a confusion of emotions and he did not know whether what happened was good or bad.

And another one:

Stefano sighed: 'I think it's time for me to take the lead.'

Oliver felt offended. If he gives up control now, the teacher will remember him as a failure. He couldn't agree to this. He knew he could handle planes very well, even in space. And he wished Stefano was aware of this fact. He even imagined Stefan's Instagram story, where he tells how Oliver impressed him.

-Not yet. I know how to reach Jupiter. I did it on the simulator.

I hope I made my concern clear. If not I'll be happy to clarify the problem. I have learned quite a lot from this community and I'm really interested in the opinions of more experienced writers.

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    Your examples are clunky, but it has less to do with how you are presenting the thought process and more to do with wording and grammar. Too many "thoughs" and "howevers" and "thus." You are flipping through verb tenses as well. There's nothing inherently wrong with changing tenses, but the things you've written have no need to flip tenses.
    – JRE
    Aug 24, 2021 at 9:09
  • Also: There aren't any (air)planes in space - no air.
    – JRE
    Aug 24, 2021 at 10:14
  • Changing BrE to AmE doesn't technically count as "correcting grammar", right? Sep 18, 2021 at 22:20

2 Answers 2

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First, "Show don't tell" is not a rule for the sentence-by-sentence analysis of a story. It doesn't mean that you are never allowed to state any facts at all but must communicate all of them in actions and dialog.

Compare:

John was arrogant.

This is flat-out telling. There is no proof, no backup, just a conclusion the reader is supposed to accept.

"John?" Sherry shook her head, the blonde curls expanding and contracting the way Joe loved to watch. "That arrogant jerk is never getting near this company in any way, shape or form."

Here we are being shown that at least one person considers John arrogant, and learning about other characters too. Now imagine that Joe asks why she thinks John is arrogant and she tells a story. Lots more showing.

Or imagine that the book takes us through multiple scenes with John in which he behaves arrogantly, plus some in which people tell him (or each other) that he's arrogant, and maybe some interior dialog where he doesn't think "I sure am arrogant" but instead thinks arrogant things about other people or about what has happened recently, that we got a "neutral" narration or other POV of.

In your examples, one "telling" is:

He thought it was his fault, only his. A person died because of him.

You can make this more of a showing by giving us more of his thoughts. You do have him visualizing the person being killed. But he could be thinking "that is my fault" or "how could I have stopped that?" or "I should have stopped that" or "Why did I come here, I should have know this is where it would lead" or many other thoughts that demonstrate Oliver thinks it's his fault someone died.

You also don't need to get it all over with in this scene. Later, Oliver can talk to someone, write in a diary or report, go to a commanding officer and offer to resign, can do all sorts of things that show us the guilt he is feeling over what happened.

Consider this:

He was overwhelmed with remorse of a calibre he had never imagined before.

That is just not how people think right in the middle of a protest-turned-deadly. Remorse comes much later. And certainly comparing your remorse to previous remorses does. In fact, it probably makes the most sense for Oliver to feel angry in the moment. How dare that idiot get himself killed, possibly derail the mission, try to distract Oliver from doing what has to be done ... these internal thoughts set the reader up for a later guilt and remorse, if it comes. Or, Oliver might feel ashamed, humiliated, and embarrassed that he couldn't achieve this simple task of getting a vehicle from one place to another without a major incident that is upsetting and tragic. Whatever thoughts you show us in Oliver's head need to lead the reader to conclude that he feels guilt or remorse or whatever.

Is he confused in the moment? Of course he is. But don't tell me that. Show me that by "playing" contradictory thoughts. By having him stand up suddenly and then sit down again. By having him start to say sentences aloud to the people with him and then cut himself off mid-word. By having him wring his hands or pull his earlobe or chew his lip or fiddle with a ring or necklace, a pen from the table, whatever. Especially if whatever he fiddles with is symbolic of the mission (a lapel pin showing him as a star whatever-he-is) or of his life outside the mission (a bracelet from his mother.) In this way his physical behaviour manifests the emotions you want us to conclude. Have him obsessively smooth or adjust some part of his uniform, adjust the same thing over and over. Describe his breathing, his voice, the way his hands move. As he gains control internally and his emotions settle down, make his physical behaviour settle down too.

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My answer isn't focused directly on your question, but it might help you sort out the show and tell problem in your stories. It appears that you have already embraced the sometimes controversial idea that the Show-Don’t-Tell rule is good advice unless you apply it absolutely, as if you should always show and never tell. I can't post all seven of my ways that prose and poetry can breathe with showing and telling. What I can do is post the first one and give you a link to my website where you can examine the other six... https://www.ebooks-by-bill.com/downloads/show-tell.html

#1 Body & Mind... we know more about the world with our bodies than with our minds because we are more directly connected to reality through sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. When you want readers to participate with their imagination, engage their senses with words aimed at their bodies.

Penny watched a rabbit hop under the snow-covered rosemary, ears down and alone.

Stories with nothing but imagery, however vivid and beautiful, can be boring and pointless unless you give readers a context for what you are showing them, and why. When you want readers to participate with their intellect, engage their understanding with words aimed at their brains.

Penny glanced at her cell phone. Five bars. Why hasn’t he called?

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