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How do you show and not tell an action such as "installed a virus"? I am wondering if saying "installed a virus on his machine" is a description rather than an action. If so, is there a better way to show that the action happened?

According to Wikipedia's Show, Don't Tell article:

Show, don't tell is a technique used in various kinds of texts to allow the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author's exposition, summarization, and description.1 It avoids adjectives describing the author's analysis, but instead describes the scene in such a way that the reader can draw his or her own conclusions

I am wondering if this is a case where "tell, don't show" applies.

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  • For what purposes is the character installing the virus?
    – hszmv
    Aug 26 at 12:37
  • Why do you want / need to? Aug 26 at 13:34
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Installing a virus is showing

In my mind, describing an action is showing, not telling: you’re explicitly showing someone doing something, and we learn something about them from the act itself and/or how they’re doing it. For example:

Telling:

Alex was an evil git and didn’t see why anyone else should enjoy life. If he could do something to make someone’s life a misery, he did it, and in technology, he’d found some great ways to make people miserable.

Showing:

Bob left his desk and headed for the loos. Idiot didn’t even lock his computer. Alex scooted over, pushed in the USB stick and grinned as the virus uploaded.

In other words, you don't need to say Alex is an evil git, because the act of him putting a virus on someone's computer (and being happy about it) shows us he's unpleasant.

Personally I think both have their place – all depends on context within the story.

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I'm not entirely sure if you're asking how to Show, don't Tell, or when to do it, so I'll answer when to do it. (See the end of this answer for links on "Showing, not telling").

You don't have to Show everything. Part of the mastery of writing is to know when to show and when to tell.

Use scene intensity to determine when to show and when to tell

James Scott Bell suggests ranking your scenes for intensity on a 0–10 scale, in his "Revision and Self-Editing for Publication". Anything that falls below 5 should tend towards telling rather than showing and anything that falls above 5 should tend towards showing rather than telling.

(And anything that gets an intensity of 0 should be rewritten or cut...)

In essence, this means you'll spend fewer words on low-intensity scenes (telling is usually going to result in fewer words for doing the same thing) and more words on high-intensity scenes (since showing generally use more words).

Exactly what the reader wants. Lots of high-intensity scenes interspersed with vital low-intensity telling.

Use Scenes and Sequels

Dwight Swain in "Techniques of the Selling Writer" introduces Scenes and Sequels.

The Sequel will contain more telling, it's short and jam-packed with information such as backstory and flashbacks, deliberation on how to solve the problem of the previous disastrous scene, even small non-dramatic scenes called incidents and gatherings where things do indeed go as planned.

The main purpose of the Sequel is to propel the reader from one Scene (action you show, don't tell) to the other with as few words as we can get away with.

So telling is good for dull transportation or non-dramatic but vital passages. Stuff that maybe could be made dramatic but doing so doesn't contribute to the story actually being told.

Should you show or tell the virus installation?

In the case of the virus installation, I think it's a question of in whose perspective the text is written. If it's the hacker's perspective I'd say go with telling, likely they install a thousand viruses every day, and some even joke the ransomware gangs' customer support is better than any internet provider's because they can even teach grandmas how to buy and transfer bitcoins. For the hacker, it's likely another day at the "office." Low intensity.

If on the other hand, this is from the victim's perspective, then showing the actual effects of the virus is likely better, especially since it is likely to be emotional and dramatic to the character. It will be a high-intensity scene.

How to Show, not Tell on Writing.SE

If you want to know how to "Show, don't Tell" Writing.SE contains many examples:

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The Screen Flickered as the Operating System Became Corrupted. The Flash Drive Stopped Blinking:

This depends on your technique and story. Characters could say they plan to upload a virus. You can simply imply the virus is installed. A villain can say, "I've kept you talking so my virus could finish installing on your phone." If you want to, you can have a character doing things on a computer while contemplating the stolen data, implying a virus. If you want to be really hard on showing it happen, have a description of the screen as boxes pop up saying things like "VIRUS DOWNLOAD COMPLETE" or "SECURITY SOFTWARE 63% BYPASSED."

There are limits to what show-don't-tell can actually show without it being overly clunky, especially in science fiction/fantasy settings. There is a kind of borderline where descriptions include showing, or a character's thoughts are showing the actions, but read like telling. It can't be an absolute line, so you need to be flexible and creative. I frequently intersperse needed telling with showing other details. Internal dialog is great here. If you later decide it is too "tell" and not enough "show," you can always change it (especially if your beta readers don't like it).

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What are the Stakes?

If the character is installing the virus unopposed, I would absolutely just state that they uploaded a virus.

If the character is working over the internet, and is worried about the authorities tracing their location show their worry.

If the character has to infiltrate a secure compound and find an isolated computer to use, show their fear.

"Show, Don't Tell" is about Emotions and Reasons

You don't have to "Show" every single thing that happens in your story. That would be un-readable.

Instead, you should try to "Show" the internal action that happens in your character's mind - the stuff that reveals who your character is.

You don't say "He was angry" - because it doesn't tell you anything about the character. Instead you say "He gritted his teeth, eyes narrowing. He would kill her if he had to burn the world to do it." Because you just showed the reader a lot about who your character is at their core.

So in the case of installing the virus, what risks exist? How does the character feel about them? What actions do they take to mitigate the threat? What options did they reject? Why? Show the internal things that tell the reader about the character.

If there isn't anything to show about the character, there isn't a scene - just acknowledge that the virus got installed, and get back to the interesting stuff.

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