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Is it a form of "tell and not show" when characters talk to themselves? I wonder if it's a bad thing. I've always seen cartoon characters do that, and I thought it was pretty unrealistic because people don't think out loud like that. Is it a form of tell and not show, and just how bad is it? I don't think I see it in movies or novels, only in comic books. In what situation is it ok, or passable, but not recommended?

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  • Try looking at Shakespeare and his use of soliloquies. If reading his plays is too much, there are plenty of film adaptations. Mar 18, 2023 at 7:56
  • Every rule has exceptions. Many writings of Franz Kafka are full of inner monologues of protagonists, and some of them are even just single uninterrupted monologues! For example "Forschungen eines Hundes" (I don't know its English title, sorry). "The Castle" has a lot of the protagonist's inner monologues too. The interesting part is that the monologues show (don't tell!) the characters' inner mechanics: what are their world views, their misconceptions, fears, feelings, etc. It makes them interesting to read. Maybe not for 100% of potential readers, but for many of them.
    – Heopps
    Mar 22, 2023 at 12:35

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Yes, this is "telling", not "showing".

The terms come from stage plays, originally, which adapt almost perfectly to movies. The dictum "Show, don't Tell" means if there is any way for the audience to understand something visually, use that method. Do not just have some character say it.

In a book, don't just tell it in narrative.

The reason for that is that visual phenomena are far, far easier to remember than just being told something. Every time you, as the narrator or through one of your characters, just inform the audience of something, you have added to some verbal fact they have to remember.

So if Joshua is extraordinarily tall at 15, show Joshua being tall. He can reach things for his parents on the top shelf above the cabinets. Kids run to Joshua when they get a ball stuck in a tree, and Joshua can just stand on tiptoe and grab it. Joshua can dunk a basketball and barely leave the floor. Change a light bulb in the ceiling lamp without using a ladder. He has to duck under doorways so he doesn't hit his head. Joshua is tall.

Those images are memorable, saying "At 16 Joshua is six foot eleven, and still growing!" will just be forgotten if you don't show Joshua being tall. Tallness is both a blessing and curse for Joshua. He also towers over the girls he likes, he's clumsy and breaks things because he's growing so fast he can't get used to his body.

He's not that interested in a basketball career, and doesn't think he has the coordination or skills to do it, but everyone thinks he should be. For Joshua, his height has become his defining feature, and nothing else, nobody cares if he can write poetry, or is good at math.

His parents worry if he has some sort of mutation or a disease, a tumor or something making him a foot taller than either of them already. They are worried about Josh.

I presume Josh being extra tall is something necessary for the story, eventually. So if we make Josh freakishly (but not impossibly) tall, we need to show that in scenes at every opportunity.

The same thing goes for other traits. If somebody is extra dumb or extra smart, show them being that. If somebody is a chain smoker, make sure they always have a cigarette in their hand. If they are a drug addict, show them taking their drug of choice, and show them freaking out if they need a fix and can't get one.

If somebody is reckless, show it. Brave? Show it. Cowardly? Show it.

Invent the scenes, if you have to. It is better to spend 500 words showing a trait, than it is to spend 20 words telling us a trait exists.

Remember, people reading for entertainment do not mind reading. And the job of the writer is to assist their imagination. The root word of "imagination" is "image". Your job is to create imagery in their minds, not give them words to memorize.

So back to your question: A character talking to themselves, unless they are creating imagery, is just telling the audience things to memorize. The only thing they are showing is an odd trait of talking to themselves.

That trait can be useful in a story, especially if we learn it reveals threats or plans the character will carry out.

After Michael left, Ricky, alone and rubbing his bruised arm, consoled himself. "We'll show him, won't we? Oh, we'll make him sorry. We'll make him cry. Won't we? Can we do that? Oh yes sir, yes we can. We know what to do."

That's off the cuff, but hopefully it could be chilling. You can also do it for laughs. Other than that, a character talking to themselves in order to convey information to the audience is not generally a good idea.

If a plan is absolutely necessary to the story, then it is better to convey it in a conversation or briefing, and interactively. Dialogue can be action. People can ask questions, disagree with logic or strategy. Plans can go awry.

To me, some of the best scenes in "Better Call Saul" is when Mike, and occasionally Saul, are doing something for five or ten minutes without a single line of dialogue. Just doing. Like cleaning up a murder site, or creating a trap for somebody, or planning a heist. And it's fascinating.

Show, don't tell, even if Showing takes 50 times as many words. Readers don't mind reading, and film watchers don't mind watching.

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