Question of the Day #25: The Dreaded Show, Don't Tell Rule

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Jedi Knight Muse

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Question of the Day #25: The Dreaded Show, Don't Tell Rule
« on: January 08, 2018, 10:46:00 AM »
Context for this question: So I was in the Discord chat talking with @Sheepy-Pie and trying to work on my fight/escape scene for Storms of Magic, and I showed her a small part of what I had written and basically it led to a "show, don't tell" discussion because I was unintentionally doing some telling and not showing. So I decided that this should be our question of the day!

Question of the Day #25:
How do you feel about the dreaded "show, don't tell" rule? How do you deal with it in your own writing? Are there any times when it's okay to tell? How actively do you try to make sure you follow this rule in your writing?

As always, feel free to share the link to this question, as it's open to guest responses! Invite people to respond, and to join the forum!
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Jedi Knight Muse

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Re: Question of the Day #25: The Dreaded Show, Don't Tell Rule
« Reply #1 on: January 08, 2018, 10:59:09 AM »
So clearly I'm not very good at avoiding the "tell" part of the "show, don't tell" rule.  :'( (this is supposed to be, like, laughing tears, not sad tears. I need to get us more smileys). So to answer one of the questions, I apparently am not super active in making sure that I follow it. But I guess that's part of the editing process, is trying to look through what I've written and find the spots where I've "told" and try to see if they can be changed to showing instead.

I've never really had much thought on this rule, honestly. Usually I just...write and don't really think about that kind of thing. This is the first time I've gotten to the point of editing anything I've actually cared about, so this is the first time where I have to be aware of it.

And just to give an example of my worst "telling" line in the little bit of what I showed Sheepy in the chat, here it is:
Quote
Brax looked uncomfortable, Merek noticed.
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Elena

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Re: Question of the Day #25: The Dreaded Show, Don't Tell Rule
« Reply #2 on: January 08, 2018, 10:59:39 AM »
Now it is tricky. Sometimes, show, don't tell, means simply describing the actions. Sometimes, it means exactly the opposite - having the characters tell in dialogue certain aspects, ie showing them directly through their filter, instead of through the story POV character (if that aspect didn't belong to him).




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JayLee

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Re: Question of the Day #25: The Dreaded Show, Don't Tell Rule
« Reply #3 on: January 08, 2018, 11:24:46 AM »
I detest the "rule". But I'm against most "rules" because I got to the point a long time ago where I had to learn they're only guidelines. Thank you Pirates lf the Carribean for giving us the quote which pretty much sums up life. As a general rule of thumb, showing rather than telling is a good idea. It can sound prettier, give the reader a better image of what you're trying to portray, and help to flesh out your story. But sometimes... it's just too darn much. There is nothing wrong with telling the reader some things, and I personally think sometimes it should be done. It moves the story forward, it helps eliminate purple prose, and it cleans up the pacing. Sometimes, you just have to do it, and not be afraid of it. That's not to say it should be done well, but showing is equally hard to master.

For instance:

And just to give an example of my worst "telling" line in the little bit of what I showed Sheepy in the chat, here it is:
Quote
Brax looked uncomfortable, Merek noticed.

Here, it could of course be something like, "Merek watched Brax shift from foot to foot, squirming and pulling at his collar." That shows you who is seeing, and what he's seeing, and a very particular set of actions for the reader to note. But, now Brax doesn't have to be uncomfortable. He could be bored. He could be nervous. Heck, he could even be trying not to cry. And I just wasted a lot of words painting that image. I may have drawn more attention to details in that moment than I needed to, where a simple "Brax looked uncomfortable." Would have sufficed. It paints a very strong image, with no wiggle room. It's concise. And yes, it's telling.

But as I've said before.... we're storytellers Everything we do is literally telling the reader what we want them to see. We are choosing the words, and we are choosing the moments where brevity suits our purpose better than florid description. And that's what matters.

Also, I took out the "Merek noticed" because that's probably what flagged that sentence to begin with. Not so much that it's telling rather than showing, but because where it was in the sentence made it sound incredibly awkward :) It was probably info that could have been gotten with context.
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SecretRock

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Re: Question of the Day #25: The Dreaded Show, Don't Tell Rule
« Reply #4 on: January 08, 2018, 12:00:55 PM »
Like Jaylee says, it can be good and help the reader have a better image, but it can go too far. Some books that drivel on and on and on for so long about a suburb of houses that are all the same or a forest that's like every other in the story. It drags and, personally, I either skip it or put the book down. Sorry to those authors.

In my own work, I follow the rule in a certain way. I show what the reader would see and emotions, so most surroundings, fidgeting, signs of lying, etc. I tell when the character is "pointing out" to the reader. I write in some kind of third person (I can't remember the exact term) so when the character is noticing something I don't normally show. It just seems to be what works for me.

Re: Question of the Day #25: The Dreaded Show, Don't Tell Rule
« Reply #5 on: January 08, 2018, 01:49:31 PM »
I agree! Too much of the 'show, don't tell' rule can cause unnecessary wordiness and, on multiple occasions, I've seen narrative to feel like garrulously chunky exposition due to overuse. I think that balancing show and tell is key and is often situational.

For example, if you were writing an action or fight scene and wanted to, 'telling' the reader might help speed up the flow, whereas 'showing' might slow it down. Of course, which one you'd use is entirely dependant on what you're trying to achieve with the flow.

Or, as another example, 'showing' is a wonderful way to allow the reader to make their own inferences on characters but 'telling' might assist you even further, if you're attempting to use an unreliable narrator in a limited perspective.


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Manu

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Re: Question of the Day #25: The Dreaded Show, Don't Tell Rule
« Reply #6 on: January 08, 2018, 02:41:40 PM »
Showing can be a great way of establishing a character's personality - different characters will notice different things, so showing which things the POV character notices and what they pay attention to can give the reader information about them. I'm a big fan of showing instead of telling emotions in the POV character.
I agree that it can go too far, summarizing and telling is definitely fine when nothing happens that is relevant to the plot or character arc. If a character is doing monotonous stuff for hours and feels bored, it's not wise to show it all and make the reader feel bored, too ;)

I do try to show, especially when it comes to emotions or stuff the POV character observes. I don't put too much effort into getting it right in the first draft, though - if I don't know how to show something, I'll simply tell it instead and move on. It's something that can easily be fixed later.
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Sheepy-Pie

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Re: Question of the Day #25: The Dreaded Show, Don't Tell Rule
« Reply #7 on: January 08, 2018, 03:16:56 PM »
First draft I dump it all down and do a lot of telling, then I'll go back and sort things out later. It shouldn't be worried about first time round if you edit afterwards (which is 90% of writers I think)

I also think it depends on what you write in. So me writing in first will probably do different telling to someone writing in third. And then second is really weird and I feel has more telling in it.

I shall quote some feedback I have gotten from someone reliable (and awesome), it might help:

Quote
However...one caveat: THERE ARE DEFINITELY MOMENTS TO TELL!

Like. Something big happened, blah blah. First person main character.

Sometimes life boils down to a few choices. Choices with little chance or time for thought. Choices that will have consequences, ones that sure as heck are gonna hurt. In that moment, I made my bones and chose.

I (did the thing)

Just ^told us he did it. But...given the text before it, it's a powerful conclusion to a train of thought being told to us as well.

It's all very complicated but you figure it out as you go

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bdcharles

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Re: Question of the Day #25: The Dreaded Show, Don't Tell Rule
« Reply #8 on: January 10, 2018, 09:12:28 AM »
Question of the Day #25:
How do you feel about the dreaded "show, don't tell" rule? How do you deal with it in your own writing? Are there any times when it's okay to tell? How actively do you try to make sure you follow this rule in your writing?

Hmm. I think it is possible to overshow, as much as it is to overtell, where every little detail is given weighty amounts of text. Some things should be centre-staged more than others, and those, in my view benefit from showing, whereas things that frame the show and give it context can be "told". There is an art, I think, to telling effectively, while keeping tone etc. The opening paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities is quite tell-heavy, but it's stylishly done. The key seems to mix it all up a bit, so you're not doing one excessivley.

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MagicMagor

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Re: Question of the Day #25: The Dreaded Show, Don't Tell Rule
« Reply #9 on: January 11, 2018, 04:09:23 AM »
In writing there are no (hard) rules, only advices.

Following 'Show, don't tell' blindly is not the way to use this advice properly. It is a shortened advice to have a nice catch phrase. But the important parts are lost if all you look at is this catch phrase. The important parts in my opinion are:

1. Showing is stronger than telling. Showing creates a stronger response in the reader than simply telling.
2. Telling is usually shorter than showing. Telling requires less words, sometimes the difference can be enourmous.

With that information it becomes obvious that both have their place in a story. You use showing in important parts of the story or with important characters. And you use telling when you have to inform the reader about something happening, but which itself has no greater bearing on the plot ("They crossed the desert and reached the city six weeks later." Change in location and passed time are important information for the reader but the trip itself was uneventfull with no further bearing on the plot, so just telling about it is right.)

That 'rule' is so prominent because beginners usually tell too much and tell when they should show but showing when you should tell is equally bad. As always, the important part is understanding the reason behind the advice and then analyse how that applies to your specific case.

(I also want to say that i agree with Sheepy-Pies opinion about first drafts. During a first draft any kind of writing 'sin' is allowed (apart from not writing at all) as getting the story down is the important part of that step; not good writing)
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katfireblade

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Re: Question of the Day #25: The Dreaded Show, Don't Tell Rule
« Reply #10 on: January 12, 2018, 04:25:20 AM »
I ran across this from Chuck Wendig today in one of his blog posts about dangerous writing advice. I immediately thought of this thread. :)

Quote
All this goes toward the old chestnut of SHOW, DONíT TELL in fiction. But even that is an oft-misunderstood chestnut, innit?  SHOW DONíT TELL is half-nonsense because, spoiler warning, youíre always telling a story. Itís why itís called storytelling. Itís why your book isnít a fucking movie. You must use words to ó oh no ó tell it. SHOW DONíT TELL isnít a rule; itís a trick. Youíre trying to trick the reader into feeling like theyíre being shown a thing rather than told a thing. Which is fine and admirable to attempt.


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JayLee

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Re: Question of the Day #25: The Dreaded Show, Don't Tell Rule
« Reply #11 on: January 12, 2018, 11:14:51 AM »
SHOW DONíT TELL is half-nonsense because, spoiler warning, youíre always telling a story.
Haha. Sounds like a writer with my sorta brain. Knew I couldn't be the only one to have picked up on these sorts of semantics, but it's nice to see a quote about it :)
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katfireblade

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Re: Question of the Day #25: The Dreaded Show, Don't Tell Rule
« Reply #12 on: January 12, 2018, 05:56:30 PM »
SHOW DONíT TELL is half-nonsense because, spoiler warning, youíre always telling a story.
Haha. Sounds like a writer with my sorta brain. Knew I couldn't be the only one to have picked up on these sorts of semantics, but it's nice to see a quote about it :)

Yeah, Wendig is pretty awesome. I haven't gotten hold of his books yet, but I love his blog. Been reading it for years. :)

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Jedi Knight Muse

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Re: Question of the Day #25: The Dreaded Show, Don't Tell Rule
« Reply #13 on: January 12, 2018, 10:02:53 PM »
For instance:

And just to give an example of my worst "telling" line in the little bit of what I showed Sheepy in the chat, here it is:
Quote
Brax looked uncomfortable, Merek noticed.

Here, it could of course be something like, "Merek watched Brax shift from foot to foot, squirming and pulling at his collar." That shows you who is seeing, and what he's seeing, and a very particular set of actions for the reader to note. But, now Brax doesn't have to be uncomfortable. He could be bored. He could be nervous. Heck, he could even be trying not to cry. And I just wasted a lot of words painting that image. I may have drawn more attention to details in that moment than I needed to, where a simple "Brax looked uncomfortable." Would have sufficed. It paints a very strong image, with no wiggle room. It's concise. And yes, it's telling.

Yeah, I think in the case of that specific example, I was trying to write pretty quick? Or something? I dunno, I forget. But I ended up changing it to this:

Quote
They walked further down the hall, as much out of earshot of Arris as they could be. Brax shifted from one foot to the other, scratching at the stubble of his beard. Merek saw a trace of worry in his eyes when Brax looked up at him.

which I think works a bit better? The problem with this particular scene that it's from is that it's in Merek's point of view, so he's observing Brax's body language and facial expression, so I needed to try and keep it in Merek's viewpoint without making it also fall into Brax's viewpoint (which can be hard to do in this kind of a situation). I, at least, like this a lot better than what I had originally, though I think the "Brax shifted..." part still kind of falls into Brax's viewpoint, so it might need to be fixed up a bit more.

I also agree about it not mattering in first drafts. With Storms of Magic I didn't want to get hung up on what I was doing "correctly," although I still kept myself aware of certain things while writing it. I just wanted to get the actual writing out of the way because I knew I'd be fixing it through edits anyway.
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JayLee

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Re: Question of the Day #25: The Dreaded Show, Don't Tell Rule
« Reply #14 on: January 12, 2018, 11:18:43 PM »
which I think works a bit better?
I'd have to see it in context :) (says the horrible, horrible person who hasn't gotten around to betaing yet) But yeah. I was just using it as a general example, but more or less it comes down to making it better through edits. That's what edits are for. I'm looking at you all you people out there who publish your first draft and are convinced it's perfect!! The first draft is where all the thoughts are spewed out on the page. A lot of telling happens rather than the illusion (I love that!) of showing. Later drafts allow modification to how the story is told, and quite often in a better direction :)
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