How do you show and not tell in your writing?


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Thread: How do you show and not tell in your writing?

  1. #1

    How do you show and not tell in your writing?

    I am having the hardest time showing and telling in my writing. Can someone rewrite the paragraph below and demonstrate how to write by showing not telling?


    Before I knew it, my college days were coming to an end and the reality of growing up really started to creep up. Sadly, for me, college came and went just like that. The world around me started to become more and more fast paced and I wasn’t ready to handle what was coming. Because of my irresponsibility and laziness, I had completely overlooked the importance of internships and getting the crucial work experience I needed in order to enter the workforce after graduation. Once I graduated, I had nothing to show but a piece of paper that cost me thousands of dollars. I was a B average student and when it was my time to enter the workforce, it was 2012 and during the height of the financial crisis. Jobs were scarce and this was even more true for recent college graduates who did not possess the years of experience that companies had come to expect. Months went by and I still had no luck in securing a job. The worst part of my job search was that it took months before I even got an interview. I applied to jobs after jobs and not once did I hear back from any of those companies. I started to lose faith in myself and in the American Dream.

  2. #2
    Wɾ¡ʇ¡∩9 bdcharles's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by darrenptran View Post
    I am having the hardest time showing and telling in my writing. Can someone rewrite the paragraph below and demonstrate how to write by showing not telling?


    Before I knew it, my college days were coming to an end and the reality of growing up really started to creep up. Sadly, for me, college came and went just like that. The world around me started to become more and more fast paced and I wasn’t ready to handle what was coming. Because of my irresponsibility and laziness, I had completely overlooked the importance of internships and getting the crucial work experience I needed in order to enter the workforce after graduation. Once I graduated, I had nothing to show but a piece of paper that cost me thousands of dollars. I was a B average student and when it was my time to enter the workforce, it was 2012 and during the height of the financial crisis. Jobs were scarce and this was even more true for recent college graduates who did not possess the years of experience that companies had come to expect. Months went by and I still had no luck in securing a job. The worst part of my job search was that it took months before I even got an interview. I applied to jobs after jobs and not once did I hear back from any of those companies. I started to lose faith in myself and in the American Dream.
    The way I think of telling and showing is by thinking of the difference, respectively, between reporting that something happened, and making it happen. So in the above, rather than setting out this event in the past, have it happen in "real time". Pick a character (whoever the I is here) and manouever them through their last days at college:

    It was the last day. After this, there was no more protective layer of academia. I threw open the door and already Amherst's main hall seemed smaller. I didn't want it to.

    "Coming out for a drink tonight?" Dom said from behind me. "This is it, man!"

    What was there to celebrate? Streams of students flowed past me. They didn't know, they couldn't see, that it would all end. I could use a drink, I guessed.

    "Sure," I said. "Ludicrously expensive ales at the Pointy Ferret?"
    So, I tried to actually create a world (poorly, I'm sure!), and a situation, and immerse myself in it, be in it. That's showing. To cover every detail in your initial writeup it would need to be longer, but hopefully this gives you some idea. You wouldn't want to show absolutely everything though. Telling is good for covering wider-scope events and time periods, and setting the scene for the key events to play out in. So if, in the above, the main events is not the narrator's last days at college, but some later thing, say a long-awaited job interview, then by all means tell like you've done here, and show for the "current" event. Might go something like this (green-tell, blue=show):


    Before I knew it, my college days were coming to an end and the reality of growing up really started to creep up. Sadly, for me, college came and went just like that. The world around me started to become more and more fast paced and I wasn’t ready to handle what was coming. Because of my irresponsibility and laziness, I had completely overlooked the importance of internships and getting the crucial work experience I needed in order to enter the workforce after graduation. Once I graduated, I had nothing to show but a piece of paper that cost me thousands of dollars. I was a B average student and when it was my time to enter the workforce, it was 2012 and during the height of the financial crisis. Jobs were scarce and this was even more true for recent college graduates who did not possess the years of experience that companies had come to expect. Months went by and I still had no luck in securing a job. The worst part of my job search was that it took months before I even got an interview. I applied to jobs after jobs and not once did I hear back from any of those companies. I started to lose faith in myself and in the American Dream.

    And that's where I was now. Edge of the Grand Canyon, all my life's expectations somewhere below, shattered along the edges of the Colorado. I rocked forward and tried not to think of the coming drop.

    Hope this makes sense. Let me know if not
    Last edited by bdcharles; February 13th, 2020 at 11:47 AM.


    Hidden Content Monthly Fiction Challenge


    Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror which we are barely able to endure, and are awed,
    because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
    - Rainer Maria Rilke, "Elegy I"

    *

    Is this fire, or is this mask?
    It's the Mantasy!
    - Anonymous

    *

    C'mon everybody, don't need this crap.
    - Wham!





  3. #3
    Thank you for your post! It's really helpful but do you think you can use the paragraph I provided and rewrite it where it would show and tell. I'm having the hardest time working the paragraph.

  4. #4
    Quote Originally Posted by darrenptran View Post
    Thank you for your post! It's really helpful but do you think you can use the paragraph I provided and rewrite it where it would show and tell. I'm having the hardest time working the paragraph.
    Is this homework or something? That is, why is THIS paragraph so important?

    As bdcharles says, there's a time and a place for telling. It's a quick way for a lot of information to be conveyed quickly and clearly. You could spend an entire NOVEL rewriting that paragraph as "show". And everyone who did it would rewrite in a totally different way.

    If this IS homework, do your own homework. If it's not, ask yourself what your story is about. If your story is about the events covered in this paragraph, then stretch them out, tell the story in your own way, and enjoy the experience. If your story is NOT about the events covered in this paragraph, leave it as is. It's a fair summary.

  5. #5
    Wɾ¡ʇ¡∩9 bdcharles's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by darrenptran View Post
    Thank you for your post! It's really helpful but do you think you can use the paragraph I provided and rewrite it where it would show and tell. I'm having the hardest time working the paragraph.
    It's not quite that straightforward. Try small bits first. Depending on what you want, you could make a whole book out of what's there, so where it would show and tell is up to you. If you actually want me to do it, I charge by the word


    Hidden Content Monthly Fiction Challenge


    Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror which we are barely able to endure, and are awed,
    because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
    - Rainer Maria Rilke, "Elegy I"

    *

    Is this fire, or is this mask?
    It's the Mantasy!
    - Anonymous

    *

    C'mon everybody, don't need this crap.
    - Wham!





  6. #6
    Wait to tell when it’s interesting.

  7. #7
    I would say that the difference between showing and telling would be like the difference between demonstrating and explaining. When we demonstrate we physically go through the motions. We play out the scenario in real time. When we explain, we stand there and talk and hope that the listener’s imagination can fill in the physical clues. Showing means there is no explaining. The author simply drops the reader into the action and the reader has to figure out what’s going on. It’s more immediate, more tactile. Telling keeps the reader outside the action as a detached observer.

  8. #8
    Quote Originally Posted by darrenptran View Post
    I am having the hardest time showing and telling in my writing. Can someone rewrite the paragraph below and demonstrate how to write by showing not telling?


    Before I knew it, my college days were coming to an end and the reality of growing up really started to creep up. Sadly, for me, college came and went just like that. The world around me started to become more and more fast paced and I wasn’t ready to handle what was coming. Because of my irresponsibility and laziness, I had completely overlooked the importance of internships and getting the crucial work experience I needed in order to enter the workforce after graduation. Once I graduated, I had nothing to show but a piece of paper that cost me thousands of dollars. I was a B average student and when it was my time to enter the workforce, it was 2012 and during the height of the financial crisis. Jobs were scarce and this was even more true for recent college graduates who did not possess the years of experience that companies had come to expect. Months went by and I still had no luck in securing a job. The worst part of my job search was that it took months before I even got an interview. I applied to jobs after jobs and not once did I hear back from any of those companies. I started to lose faith in myself and in the American Dream.

    Showing v telling is something more geared towards 3rd person POV.
    And this paragraph you posted really doesn't need any showing. You explain the situation very well. I don't see any areas of concern.
    Do you have another paragraph we could work with?

  9. #9
    IMO short bursts of telling are fine - and necessary. How you tell is a matter of execution.

    Last night I set aside a novel (and won't pick it back up) because the entire (~2000+ words) second chapter was a tell about the background of a particular character. It wasn't even interesting. It was (what I call) a core dump - just data puked out onto the page. I dislike Forwards and Preludes too.

    What I prefer as a reader, and what I try to accomplish as a writer, is to weave background and world information into the story - either via conversation or description. Again, IMO short burst of explanation is key.

    Several of my novels are dystopian - so to illustrate climate change I had two military guys on guard complaining about the heat, and say that their grandparents told them that it used to snow in Colorado. I used a conversation between a brother and sister about careers in their society were determined by aptitude tests given to children, and later I had a couple about to move in together discuss the compatibility and genetic tests necessary for them to become partners. I had a family discuss having to give up their home over dinner - their children were grown and about to move out, so the state would give the parents a smaller dwelling and their house would be provided to a younger family that needed the room.

    What I'm suggesting is that you weave the telling of your world and characters into interactions - IMO that makes it much more entertaining.

  10. #10
    All story telling is, by definition, "telling." I think this is what makes the concept of showing versus telling difficult.

    The simplest way I think of it is that anything past tense is telling. Anything currently happening is showing. It can be more complex than that, but I feel like this is a good basic start to sprucing up writing.

    For example:

    Susan was still thinking about it the next day. It really had been a romantic dinner. John had gone to the store and carefully selected the meal, brought it home, and prepared it. He had dimmed the lights and even scrounged some candles out of a drawer to set the mood with. It had definitely been a break in their routine, and Susan had to admit that she never expected John to be so adept in the kitchen.

    Versus...

    "Well, if you don't feel like going out, what do you want to do?" Susan asked.

    "I have an idea." John stood and headed for the door. He swiped his keys and helmet off the counter. "Wait here and I'll be right back." With a wry grin and a wink, he was out the door. Susan chuckled and settled back on the couch. She tried to imagine what that man was up to. She grabbed the remote and hoped that whatever it was, it wouldn't take him long. Her stomach was likely to get impatient soon.

    John raced out of the parking lot, nodding his head at Mrs. Aberdine as he sped by. She shook her head in disgust, annoyed by the racket of the motorcycle. He revved the engine just for her and then the apartment complex was behind him. John had an inkling of a plan, but it was all going to depend on the perfect steaks. There was only one store in town he could rely on, but it was half way across town. He'd have to be creative with following the speed limits if he didn't want to keep Susan waiting for an hour.

    (And so on...)


    Obviously I simplified the first a little and maybe started to draw out the second a little more than necessary... but you get the idea. Even if I add a lot more descriptive detail in the first scenario, it won't change the fact that it's something being described in the past. It's hard to be dynamic when describing something that has already happened, which is the trap of "telling." Events in the past lack immediacy and therefore excitement. Describing action as it's happening (showing) tends to be more engaging for the reader.

    Not all "telling" is bad, and not all events need to be described to the reader as something that is currently happening as they read it. But if I have a section of prose that is in the "telling" category and it feels like it might be too much or too boring, I'm basically going to run mentally through a 3-step process: 1. Is this section really necessary? 2. It is? Ok, does it need to be as detailed? 3. It does? Ok, then. Can I retell it in a more engaging way?

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