Showing v Telling


#1

I’ve always felt that the writing advice “show don’t tell” is fine but overdone–that there are plenty of cases where a bit of smooth expository writing can not only be tolerable but is better writing than a contorted attempt to “show.”

So I really liked this article from Cecilia Tan:

Thought others here would be interested in it as well!


#2

I’m about to to go for a class today, but my lazy-side tells me to put some comments about this topic.

So… I’ll be back guys! In the meantime, here’s a Tales Foundry series on DS storytelling.


#3

For me, it depends on the situation.
I look at showing vs. telling as a “dodge left” or “dodge right” kind of deal.
How do you know which is correct?
(There are several correct answers.)


#4

The first writing advice I ever got was, thankfully, not “Show don’t tell”, but “There’s a time and place for everything” with scenes written both ways.

Showing has its benefits, since I get to decide how my character interprets a scene/character’s behavior. I’m less likely to have words put in my mouth, and more likely to get immersed and carried by emotion. But telling is pretty necessary in interactive fiction. If I’m playing a game, I have to acclimate to the setting, and quickly, because I’m going to be the one making decisions. I don’t have time to be shown everything before the first choice.

Early on, you might present me with the choice to don a banana hat. In a novel I can figure out social context easily, if a fashionable protag dons the banana and goes about talking to others. In IF, if I choose to wear the hat, is it because it’s a normal social behavior? Or weird as anything? Will saying no to the hat have serious consequences? Or just be a fashion statement? You could spend pages showing me the consequences, or you could summarize it with “The Klemmians wear banana hats for all negotiations; you’ll get a lot of points with them if you wear it. On the other hand, you’ll be wearing a banana hat.”

I know that if my character is trying to play nice, she’ll need to put on the hat, and probably take a%- 10 dignity


#5

Yeah, I agree here. Exposition is, frankly, a vital part of telling a story; you can’t tell a good story if nobody knows what’s going on or why. Of course, that doesn’t mean having twelve pages of exposition before the story starts is a good idea, but there are some things you can’t just show without making it completely forced.

This is writing, after all. In the end, everything is words, so it’s all “telling”. :stuck_out_tongue:


#6

Aye, Fantasy and Sci-Fi needs a certain amount of tell (the amount varies over how different the world is from ours and other fantasy worlds. Tolkien needed to establish his elves, the rest of us knows them by now).

That said most fantasy and sci-fi is not that afraid of showing and telling (And good on them, it is rubbish advice) - the problem I encounter much more is that works shows something different than they tell.

It is one of those thing that can retroactively destroy a story for me, because the shows pile up and make me unable to trust what the story tells, and the story doesn’t acknowlegde the dissonance.

Take for example Harry Potter. We are told that Mcgonagall is strict, but fair (at least compared to Snape), but what we are shown, already in book one is that that is blatantly untrue. Mcgonagall is just as bad, already in book one:

  • She breaks the rule and let Harry become a seeker because he is just that good.
  • She break said rule as a reward for Harry breaking a rule.
  • She gives out a punishment which is completely out of league with the crime committed. (200 points for what she thinks is a prank and being out of bed too late).
  • She gives the same punishment both to those who committed the crime and the person she thinks is the victim + plus the bystander who got dragged into this by accident ?
  • The punishment is then a detention where the kids are forced into an area which is dangerous, with only the protection of a man who everybody knows is incapable of judging danger levels to other people.

That is not strict but fair that is a hanging judge. On its own it is fine. Harry is not unbiased so he is going to tell us differently than he shows us, and I ignored it the first many books because I was immersed, but by book six the story reached a critical mass of the shows telling a different story than the tells and I realised that the books were never going to adress the dissonance - and in fact expected me to read the exposition uncritically.

I think fantasy and science fiction often falls into this trap, because in the attempt to make a protagonist which is relatable to the readers they end up with either protagonist with our sensibilities (which don’t fit in.) or a blank slate for the reader to project on.

I do think that the advice has arisen because a lot of old books tend to tell a lot. I think I have read something 1700/1800-stories which is 90 % tell and 10 % show. It is not necessarily bad, but there was a push back against it - and now ‘show, don’t tell’ has become one of those cheap advices which people repeated uncritically without even knowing how showing and telling works.


#7

I’d say that one area where “show don’t tell” tends to be good advice to bear in mind (and I say “tends” because there are likely exceptions) would be character traits :thinking: like stating that a character is kind, or brilliant, or even flaws, like saying a character has a bad temper… rather than depicting these. (Granted, a contrived situation for showing, like just throwing in someone who needs help for one moment so the character can demonstrate their kindness isn’t really a good way of showing this, either.) If I’m just being told these things, I might not agree :stuck_out_tongue:

Otherwise, one can just note things like “can I come up with a compelling way to show this information that won’t be distracting?” If so, may be a good idea. Conversely, “can I explain this information in a concise way that won’t be distracting either?” That also can be good. Explanations don’t always have to be all in one place, either… spacing them out in asides as needed, or interspersed with a more descriptive scene, can also be an effective technique.


#8

Very true. However this can also be an interesting way of setting up an unreliable narrator.

For example, if the narrator tells the reader “King Arthur was a wise and just ruler” but we consistently see Arthur acting in capricious and vindictive ways.

Although I guess that would fall down more on the side of showing than telling.


#9

Show vs. tell dissonance is one of the easiest way to make an unreliable protagonist - when it is done on purpose.

Another problem is that unlike movies books -tell leaves a stronger impression than shows, because exposition is often merely information needed and so readers tend to pass by it more uncritically. Just take Lolita. Everyone and their mother knows Lotia has an unreliable narrator, yet everyone movie I have seen still sexualise Lolita - Why? because the narrator tell us she is so. People are just not aware of how strong an impression a tell is in a book, because it is not so in a movie.

Even @TSSL advice is not good to take as a general advice. I know the spirit with which @TSSL gives it: It is much easier to make living breathing characters when we are not constantly told what to think about them (and it forces the writers to actually write those trait out - something a lot of writers fail to do which is bad writing)

But it is still not good advice, because sometimes it is better to tell the reader the important trait of that one-note, one-scene-character who is simply there to move the plot along, pausing to actually show the character acting out the trait might drag the pace out. (Not to mention some genre such as for example mystery gets a lot by telling us that x-character has y-trait and the plot-twist then is that nope, that was actually not true - or that was just a facade and if you had noticed what was shown about the character you might have been able to tell. It is such a stable of the genre that if you have a mystery where you are being told that Doctor Goody, Macgoodision is mostly definitly good, then you, as an experienced reader of the genre, expects him to be horrible)

The problem with common knowlegde writing advice is that writing is complex and context sensitive, so boiling it down to one liners don’t actually give advice because it doesn’t tell you anything about the craft. In this case why showing works and why telling works and why a lot time writers make the mistake of telling where they should show. (And the reverse, which is becoming more common).


#10

If the protagonist has lived in the world their entire life and knows all the unique traditions and laws, telling is a good way to inform the reader’s about the world so they can make decisions or understand the story. Telling is good for quickly getting through world building, but the paceing needs to be good so the story is not all introduction at one time.

Showing is good for describing characters or events that are somewhat complicated, subjective, or the main focus of the story. If you have a character that steals and kills and does bad things but only does so to make money to save his family, some people may disagree whether the character is mostly good or bad. A serial killer who kills serial killers is more complicated than to just describe in one sentence, and quickly telling might make that seem like normal behavior. Undercovering a secret organization or government conspiracy might be better shown.


#11

Michael Knost was the guest of honor at the Imaginarium writing convention I attended last weekend. I took his workshop on “showing versus telling” and he said that about 95% of writers misunderstand that phrase. I was definitely one of those 95%!

I used to think “telling” was really just relaying the story in a boring way to the readers. Like writing, “Eric went to the courthouse. He filed the lawsuit. Then he went home. Blah Blah Blah.”

But no, that is actually “showing” because someone watching me would actually see those things. It might not be great “showing,” but it’s still “showing.”

For any sports fans out there, Knost used an analogy that really explained the differences well. He used it throughout his entire workshop.

Imagine “showing” as the play-by-play announcer. They focus on what happens. They describe the action, sometimes in vivid detail. “Eric steps up to the mound. Eric kicks the dirt and adjusts himself. Then he steps out and takes a few swings. Etc Etc.”

He said the color announcer does all the “telling,” which is all the analysis, history, etc., that fans would NOT see/hear/feel while watching the game. “Eric is only batting .200 against this pitcher this year, but he’s been battling a thumbnail injury all season. The pitcher has a strong fastball and likes to keep his strongest stuff inside.”

Then he applied the analogy to a text. For example.

Eric went to the courthouse. (showing) Eric filed the lawsuit. (showing) The lawsuit would change the landscape of the local legal community for years to come, as it named dozens of attorneys and judges as co-conspirators in a massive fraud ring to devalue personal injury claims in the city. (telling) Eric made many powerful enemies by taking this step, but he didn’t care. He loved making enemies, the more powerful, the better. (telling)

So whenever you insert backstory, analysis, etc., you are telling. And it’s almost impossible to tell a story without telling, because authors frequently use telling to transition from scene to scene, skip over what would be boring parts of a narrative, etc. TV writers can use things like flashbacks, visuals, actors’ tone of voice, etc., to fill in the blanks, but with prose, many times it’s more effective to just insert some telling and then get on with the story (paraphrasing Knost here).


#12

Another thing (as partially said already) about telling/showing is that you can quickly stumble if you mess up the tone by picking the wrong words, so to speak, or putting the focus on the wrong thing.

EDIT: likewise, a subcategory of bad telling is railroading in the sense of false/fake choices.
If, as an author, you “need” the player to do something specific/want them to end up in a specific situation, please… don’t give them the choice to say ‘I don’t want to do this’ and then whine at them ‘but you must! no discussion’. Sit your butt down and write a logical way they’d end up in a specific situation starting from point B instead of A.


#13

Honestly, I never really felt that exposition fell under the “show, don’t tell” rule. I’ve personally always seen that relating more to character and world description. Like when some writers will always write about how “nice” and “kind” a character is, but never show them actually doing anything nice or kind. Or when a world gets described as “magical” but they never mention anything magical about the world.

I find this is particularly frustrating when it comes to characters, because often a character’s actions show them as having a completely different personality to the one described by the author.


#14

Rather than “show don’t tell” consider this: “Every sentence in fiction should either forward the plot or reveal character.” If it doesn’t do that, cut it.

Also, infodump away, but read your own work aloud to yourself. Yes, aloud. You’ll discover how unfluent your expository prose is, how full of extra “thats” and “thens.”


#15

I’d suggest a further way to think about these sorts of structures is on a larger scale, in terms of “scene” and “summary.” Often, when you’re narrowing in the narrative camera to focus on an event or a moment or an illustrative example, you’ll delve into scene, where you narrate and describe more closely as it happens. As more time is passing, or things happen “off camera,” or you’re just transitioning, you might delve into “summary,” generally more expository. But while, at face value, scene may lend itself to “showing,” and summary to “telling,” they’re both useful for both purposes. A scene may be describing in an immersive way, but to keep it going smoothly, you may include explanatory asides, and stick in relevant information to help give context for what’s going on, whether setting detail, things the characters should know, etc. And while summary may at core seem to be some condensed exposition to get through whatever was going on, it can also be livened up with a few “showing” details. Mixing and matching can be effective! I forget what it’s called, but there’s even an intermediate style, which basically uses snippets of scene to fill a wider span of time passing, sort of showing what generally happens, like a montage… summary by means of scene, basically.

Scene and summary are useful tools to keep in mind for pacing, anyway :slight_smile:

Agreed. When the author just informs me about a character attribute, without any evidence of it being demonstrated (assuming the character has enough screentime that one would expect it to be demonstrated), I’m just not going to believe them. Which is… fine, if I’m not supposed to believe the narration, but not so much if it’s unintentional.

I really feel that this depends on the style, though. Depending on pacing, and how minimalistic you want to be, this can be overly restrictive. Some sentences might set a mood or tone (which can also be useful for setting up a scene or an overall setting too), some might help immerse the reader, making a place or world feel more real, and some might just be fun. Granted, it’s definitely important to beware of overdoing it… there are few situations in which it is wise to spend two pages rhapsodizing over the patterns of moss on a rock. But a sprinkling of additional descriptive sentences, especially when introducing a new location, can help keep things from seeming too much like an empty stage. Plus there can be a lot of joy for a reader in experiencing the worldbuilding through sensory descriptions. At the same time, a whole lot of setting-establishment descriptions can be used to forward plots and reveal characters… certainly any time you’re depicting someone’s home, or any other personal space.

I would definitely agree that every sentence in fiction should have some purpose, though. I’d just like to broaden this into including a few other purposes.


#16

The most memorable advice I’ve heard on this topic compared showing/telling to a zoom lens on a camera. It’s more of a sliding scale than a hard difference, and you’ll change a lot during a scene or chapter. You’ll never finish and get boring fast if you try to tackle the entire plot with a microscope, but an arial helicopter-perspective will blur out your details and characters. What moments or details are important to the story? Where do you need to move quickly?

But I realize, practically, I’ve always had a hard time figuring out what was important – or really, what’s unimportant. I could describe a room for paragraphs and still not feel done (or if I can’t, I’m not done world building! I need to figure out the rest of the room!).

The trick I’ve figured out for myself is to think in terms of my narrator, or if I’ve got an omniscient narrator, the important characters in the scene. What is important to them? If my mc is remembering the moment later, or describing it to a friend, what details does she remember? Which days blur together, and which meal does she distinctly remember the taste of?

I’m inclined to agree, with the caveat that if I’m thinking in terms of what my narrator remembers, then descriptive sentences are revealing character. I’d almost remove the ‘forward the plot’ option – a plot is interesting in that it reveals and changes characters, imo.


#17

I’d just like to add that the construction of interactive fiction may (end up) having very different show/tell rules than ones applied to traditional, linear fiction.


#18

Ey. I’m back.
Life’s been pretty rough (especially when it’s raining and the air is super cold, plus all of your trousers still in the laundry), but enough rambling!
:snowflake:


I like that everyone have different views about this stuff, so what I’m going to say is probably just a sum of other’s opinion (or maybe not).

I’ll say, when deciding between showing/telling, choose the one that is the least immersion-breaking. The one that’s the most logical.

If you need a timeskip, or wanted to deliver some info quickly, or if you feel that showing won’t fit your current flow, go with telling (the one that I consider as infodump).

On the other side, if you need for the story to focus on something, or when this thing is important to the plot, or when you already set up your settings (all that 5 senses of human), go with showing (the one that moves the narration organically).

So… yeah. It depends on what do you want to focus at and what does the story needs.
No big deal, I guess ¯\_(ツ)_/¯


#19

Well the whole story could be this then: King Arthur the man was a vindictive and capricious brat, who fortunately for his subjects also wasn’t all that interested in ruling or commanding armies personally and left those aspects to highly capable advisers so he naturally went down in his history as a wise and just ruler, mainly because his stable rule was a golden age compared to the period that came after.
He’d hardly be the first ruler to not be remembered in idiosyncratic detail after a bit of history has passed and his reign moves into legend, or at least ancient history.

Incidentally such a tale would provide a fascinating contrast between the narrator who is reading from the legend or historybooks and the mc who gets to experience that world for themselves and that does provide a fascinating tension between show and tell.


#20

A story told by one of Arthur’s enemies, no doubt.
Merlin quickly sent several heroes on a quest to thwart this besmircher of the crown.
:smile: