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In a story I am working on, there are many doors that require a fingerprint, a passcode, and a key card to open. Writers say 'Show instead of telling.' As such, instead of writing something like:

John authenticates on the panel next to the door and it opens.

I write:

As John approaches the grey, steel door, a robotic voice emerges from a speaker in an aluminum panel on the wall next to the door, featuring a fingerprint scanner, keypad with glowing green buttons, and keycard reader:

'Enter fingerprint.'

John presses his finger into the glass surface, and the same robotic voice announces:

'Right fingerprint. Enter code.'

There is a sequence of beeps as he types each digit of the code into the keypad.

'Right code. Enter keycard.'

After he quickly inserts and removes his plastic keycard from the keycard slot, the robotic voice responds:

'Right keycard. Right person. Access approved.'

I think I did a reasonably good job at showing this scene rather than telling. However, for every single door in the story that operates in this manner, I do not want to just repeat the above or variations thereof over and over. That would get old to both the writer and the reader.

What techniques can I use to both avoid 'telling' (writing a simple declaration of fact and move on) while also not repeating the same scene every time?

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    "Show, don't tell" doesn't mean "show all the stages of a repetitive action every time the person does it"! Commented Mar 18 at 9:42
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    Many people misunderstand the advice to "show, don't tell". It doesn't mean that you should "show" everything in excessive detail. Think of a movie: The scenes that we are shown are relatively short compared to the time that passes between them and that is just summarized briefly or inferred. Similarly, in a written work, just "show" those parts of your narrative to the reader that are important and that he is interested in, but "tell" the boring parts that we need to know to help us orientate ("A few months later...", "We took the subway to...").
    – Ben
    Commented Mar 18 at 9:58
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    Another way to imagine "show, don't tell"...rather than saying something like "Bob was a mean person", he would be unnecessarily belittling a subordinate in the next event he popped up in. The reader understands exactly what kind of person Bob is by his actions in the story...they've been "shown" his character, rather than "told" it.
    – Beska
    Commented Mar 18 at 15:29
  • @Beska Saying "Bob is a mean person" and showing how Bob belittles a subordinate don't mean the same thing. If Bob "is a mean person", then he is generally mean in most situations. If Bob belittles a subordinate, that may be an exception to Bob's generally kind manner. What's more, that "mean" behavior may have been caused by the subordinate (e.g. the subordinate may have tortured Bob's dog to death). That is, showing has the potential for an unintended interpretation by the reader or an unreliable narrator.
    – Ben
    Commented Mar 18 at 21:17
  • @Ben It's designed to be a simple example to explain the theory. I feel that jumping off into tangents about potential unreliable narration would dilute the point...but YMMV.
    – Beska
    Commented Mar 18 at 21:22

5 Answers 5

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I highly recommend to your attention this little gem hidden in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:

      Those who are regular followers of the doings of Arthur Dent may have received an impression of his character and habits which, while it includes the truth and, of course, nothing but the truth, falls somewhat short, in its composition, of the whole truth in all its glorious aspects.
      And the reasons for this are obvious. Editing, selection, the need to balance that which is interesting with that which is relevant and cut out all the tedious happenstance.
      Like this for instance. "Arthur Dent went to bed. He went up the stairs, all fifteen of them, opened the door, went into his room, took off his shoes and socks and then all the rest of his clothes one by one and left them in a neatly crumpled heap on the floor. He put on his pyjamas, the blue ones with the stripe. He washed his face and hands, cleaned his teeth, went to the lavatory, realized that he had once again got this all in the wrong order, had to wash his hands again and went to bed. He read for fifteen minutes, spending the first ten minutes of that trying to work out where in the book he had got to the previous night, then he turned out the light and within a minute or so more was asleep.
      "It was dark. He lay on his left side for a good hour.
      "After that he moved restlessly in his sleep for a moment and then turned over to sleep on his right side. Another hour after this his eyes flickered briefly and he slightly scratched his nose, though there was still a good twenty minutes to go before he turned back on to his left side. And so he whiled the night away, sleeping.
      "At four he got up and went to the lavatory again. He opened the door to the lavatory..." and so on.
      It's guff. It doesn't advance the action. It makes for nice fat books such as the American market thrives on, but it doesn't actually get you anywhere. You don't, in short, want to know.

"Show, don't tell" is advice for the meaningful moments of the story, not for excessive and repetitive boring detail. A detailed scene might have a place if it's new to the hero too; for establishing to the reader how it works in the setting, you might want something like

John scanned his thumb, typed a six-digit code on the pad and finally ran his keycard through the slot. The door opened.

 - but for a routine moment of opening a door when we already know how, please go with something like...

John unlocked the door.

or

John passed through the door.

or even just

As soon as John entered the room, he noticed (...)

Nobody needs to be told in this much detail over and over and over and over again.

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    "He washed his face and hands, cleaned his teeth, went to the lavatory, realized that he had once again got this all in the wrong order, had to wash his hands again" << every. single. day
    – Stef
    Commented Mar 18 at 18:12
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    @Stef Considering what you do next every time you wash your hands, it's hardly a surprise that Douglas Adams of all writers would keep track.
    – Divizna
    Commented Mar 18 at 22:28
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You misunderstand "Show, Don't Tell."

This advice began in writing stage plays, but it applies equally well in writing fiction.

The example was, do not have somebody tell the audience that Jack smokes like a freight train. Just write it into the play that Jack always has a lit cigarette in his hand, or his mouth, and is always lighting the next cigarette from the previous cigarette, a chain smoker.

The audience will see that.

In Fiction, when you "tell" the reader something, like "Andrew is very tall," you are giving them something to memorize. Presumably you need to make Andrew tall in order to fit some plot point.

But it is better if you craft scenes that show Andrew is tall. He has to duck his head when walking into a room so he doesn't hit it. He accidentally hits his head on the ceiling fan.

If I have a character named Marie, and she is supposed to be beautiful, I will never just tell you that. I will show you. When Marie walks into room, eyes (particularly male eyes, but women too) follow her. Strangers ask Marie if she's considered acting. Or modeling. Guys hit on her. Let the reader build their own private version of what Marie looks like, instead of giving them a laundry list of features you find attractive.

Show, Don't tell, does not mean getting into every detail, and the passage you wrote is not good.

John approached the grey steel door, a motion sensor began the security protocol. His fingerprint, numeric code and keycard. It was an irritating waste of time, a simple modern iris detection would have been infinitely more secure.

Entering the facility, he found the office he was looking for, occupied by a 30-something woman, in civvies, but to his eyes clearly a soldier.

"I'm looking for Roger, is he not in today?"

"Roger is away, I am assigned here. Who are you?"

Oh, great. "John Wright, Lazarus Project. Roger is supposed to have data for me."

"Ah. I have that for you."

She turned to sit at a laptop, and began typing without looking up. "I'm Lindsey, by the way."

Readers remember scenes, your words create imaginary visual scenes.

But "telling" readers stuff just creates a memory burden for them, facts they have to remember. Building a sensory experience in their imagination (sight, sound, smell, texture, feelings and emotions) is far more memorable.

"Show Don't Tell" means do not give readers a list of things to memorize in order for the story to make sense.

You want your scenes to be memorable, and you convey what they need to know by embedding it into scenes. Don't tell us Ricky is funny, have Ricky do funny things. Don't tell us Sam is smart, have Sam do really smart things. Don't tell us Marcia is a beautiful woman, show us men and women reacting to Marcia as a beautiful woman. Don't tell us Anthony is very strong, show us Anthony being very strong. Don't tell us Bruce is a marksman, show us Bruce being a marksman.

The story is a show. Show us what we need to know.

That is all that Show Don't Tell means.

And when things do not really matter much to the plot, like getting into a secure facility you are authorized to be in, those things can be told: As I did above. Instead of the boring detail of the security protocol, we show instead John's reaction to the ritual, he finds it dumb and old fashioned.

This is the essence and meaning of Show Don't Tell.

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When character does something that is outside the readers frame of knowledge, it’s a good idea to do what you’ve done — sharing the details and actions from the characters’s perspective.

If the character experiences difficulties performing the actions, then share them messing up and getting frustrated.

Hang some terms around the action, even it is a mundane as ‘open the door.’ Maybe things like keyed the door, thumbed the code, and so on.

Once you’ve shared the details, you can use the short hand notations — thumbed the code — when the action isn’t adding anything to the story. You also don’t need to always specify they unlocked the door, all the time. If all doors are always locked, then establish that fact and how the character unlocks the door, then assume the reader imagines those details.

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Isn't "show don't tell" an advice that is mostly for movies as that is THE feature of this medium? Like as much as I like the opening sequence of Star Wars with the text crawl, if it would went on like this you'd essentially make a book where someone else decided your reading pace or turned the pages for you or some kind of audio book, what you wouldn't do is make full use of the features of the medium that you're given in that case a movie, which can throw you into the narrative with just a few picture in a way letters on dead tree just can't.

So if you are the readers eyes in the fictional/real world of your creation you do have to tell them what they see. Though it's again up to you to chose the perspective, like do they see everything and are supposed to make up the relevant things, do you control their vision by your focus, how clear or fuzzy does your protagonist sees the world, is it just an iteration of stuff or are things connected, do you tell them the impression that the character gets from that or do you let them figure it out themselves.

Like maybe your character is annoyed by the repetition and curses about it doing it over and over revealing his emotions towards it, maybe you let the reader just figure that out for themselves by making it long and boring, maybe your protagonist is in a hurry and you stretch that sequence to it's full unabridged glory to up the tension because you know something is coming but the plot just sticks in that moment. Though if it actually happens a lot just mention it once and then find a synonym like "he unlocks the door" or any other synonym that you make up for the whole process. Or if it's not even that relevant (though in that case it might be of minor significance as time passes), you don't mention it at all (at least directly) but just something like "... and after what felt like an eternity he finally reached [place/person] ...".

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    The oft-quoted advice by Čechov (Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass) is older that the invention of cinematography. So - no, it isn't primarily meant for movies.
    – Divizna
    Commented Mar 18 at 16:16
  • Cinematography is actually pretty old and if not that take it's older cousin theater/drama. Though yeah showing the emotions and inner monologue of a person and their perspective is something that written story telling might actually be more capable of than acted and filmed story telling because the fantasy of the reader is often more capable than the best actor.
    – haxor789
    Commented Mar 18 at 20:30
  • 1895 may be actually pretty old but I still think that 1886 is a little older.
    – Divizna
    Commented Mar 18 at 21:33
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Remember your point of view

Repeating these actions is not something that John would think about as much as you have depicted here. Indeed, even if you put in all the detail for the reader, it's wise to give John a reason to think about it. New security system, perhaps.

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