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A "Show" vs. "Tell" thread (1 Viewer)

Jimmy Co

Senior Member
Words are the paint and texture we use to illustrate our worlds. This thread is for your pleasing passages - not for critique - but instead, to share the love of writing. Let's keep the passages reasonably short.
I'll start off. This is from a novel I wrote several years ago titled Desperation, it's a dream sequence.

The world was on fire; turbulent orange and yellow clouds boiled high above as vermilion flames rose from the earth to consume the sky. A large animal screamed in agony as it ran through a maze of exploding pine trees, leaving behind a trail of dark smoke and the pungent smell of burning fur. The creature’s panicked shrieks could not dispel its torment; we can never escape ourselves.

Was that a horse or a bison? He was uncertain if he knew the difference. Where was he? What was going on? Scorching winds tore at his body as he stood on a mountain ledge overlooking a vast open plain. He knew this place; he was on Cheyenne Mountain looking down on what should have been Pike City. His former home was gone though, in its place he saw only flames consuming desecrated rubble.

A young boy with slick black hair sat on a lower ledge; the child slowly turned and looked back at him. Dark fathomless eyes stared from a cracked face that was the color and texture of parchment blanched with age. “You did this,” Dagon muttered. “You are the destroyer of worlds.” The boy’s face split apart when he grinned and exuded a black oily substance that ran down his cheeks like tears.
I agree with something I once read. Writer's should SHOW their reader's and not TELL them. These are great examples. Great work.
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
I agree with something I once read. Writer's should SHOW their reader's and not TELL them. These are great examples. Great work.
NOTE: This is a useful subject that comes up from time to time, but a discussion of it doesn't belong in this thread. Once I submit this, Jimmy, I'll move your comment and this reply into a new thread all its own in case others want to add to the discussion. Then that can happen without inserting it into IR's very different sort of thread.

This is one of the least understood "writing rules". Bear in mind that a writer is 100% "telling a story". Inside that, there are some techniques for making the information we pass along more lively or colorful, and that is often referred to as "showing". But at anyone's best, they're still telling most of the time, and showing part of the time. I read a blog which listed reasons for "always showing". One reason was "You want your book to be 500K words long." LOL

There are best-selling authors quoted as saying the entire subject is so much nonsense. It's not, but it is sometimes hard to grasp. They probably say that because they have such an innate feel that they never have to think in those terms. They simply write interesting stuff.

One of the famous examples I've read in a few places is "telling" that a man is tall, rather than "showing" he had to "duck to walk through a doorway". In my passage above, I have the character, Alberta. For the cast in my murder mystery, I plucked 20 archetypes out of a list of 100. One of them was "the battle-axe", and I picked that role for the family/company attorney. At no place in the book will I "tell" the reader she's a battle-axe. But earlier in the scene she's bossing the company general manager around in a no-nonsense manner, then there was the sentence above. She'll always be "large and in charge" in action and dialogue ... and by "large", I mean noticeably dominating any scene she's in.

The "show vs. tell" subject also touches on pacing, which was recently discussed in another thread. You could "tell" the reader that someone woke up hungover, or you could "show" by writing various symptoms of a hangover without explicitly mentioning it. The decision, and it IS a decision, comes from how you want to pace the scene. If the hangover isn't all that important to the plot and you want to get on with what happens next, mention the hangover and be done. If you want a slow-paced scene, write activity a person with a hangover would go through after waking up. These slow scenes can help define the character, connect with the reader, and include amusing or alarming asides.

On the other hand, a "show scene" might just as easily be action packed and frantic. You could "tell" that your MC climbed a cliff and was worried about it, or you could describe the climb in detail, emphasizing its dangers as the MC slips and regrasps, etc. Again, what is your goal for pacing that scene?
 
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TL Murphy

Met3 Member
Staff member
Chief Mentor
One way to understand show vs tell is to consider that anything that explains is telling. Explain as little as possible. Let the reader figure things out through dialogue, setting, action and context. Showing is revealing. Telling is explaining.

Having said that, it is not telling if you have to explain some technical detail in order for your narrative to proceed. If your story relies on some scientific theory or political nuance, then technical clarification is not telling, it's context. Telling is when you explain the story's thread rather than simply writing what happens.
 
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Jimmy Co

Senior Member
NOTE: This is a useful subject that comes up from time to time, but a discussion of it doesn't belong in this thread. Once I submit this, Jimmy, I'll move your comment and this reply into a new thread all its own in case others want to add to the discussion. Then that can happen without inserting it into IR's very different sort of thread.

This is one of the least understood "writing rules". Bear in mind that a writer is 100% "telling a story". Inside that, there are some techniques for making the information we pass along more lively or colorful, and that is often referred to as "showing". But at anyone's best, they're still telling most of the time, and showing part of the time. I read a blog which listed reasons for "always showing". One reason was "You want your book to be 500K words long." LOL

There are best-selling authors quoted as saying the entire subject is so much nonsense. It's not, but it is sometimes hard to grasp. They probably say that because they have such an innate feel that they never have to think in those terms. They simply write interesting stuff.

One of the famous examples I've read in a few places is "telling" that a man is tall, rather than "showing" he had to "duck to walk through a doorway". In my passage above, I have the character, Alberta. For the cast in my murder mystery, I plucked 20 archetypes out of a list of 100. One of them was "the battle-axe", and I picked that role for the family/company attorney. At no place in the book will I "tell" the reader she's a battle-axe. But earlier in the scene she's bossing the company general manager around in a no-nonsense manner, then there was the sentence above. She'll always be "large and in charge" in action and dialogue ... and by "large", I mean noticeably dominating any scene she's in.

The "show vs. tell" subject also touches on pacing, which was recently discussed in another thread. You could "tell" the reader that someone woke up hungover, or you could "show" by writing various symptoms of a hangover without explicitly mentioning it. The decision, and it IS a decision, comes from how you want to pace the scene. If the hangover isn't all that important to the plot and you want to get on with what happens next, mention the hangover and be done. If you want a slow-paced scene, write activity a person with a hangover would go through after waking up. These slow scenes can help define the character, connect with the reader, and include amusing or alarming asides.

On the other hand, a "show scene" might just as easily be action packed and frantic. You could "tell" that your MC climbed a cliff and was worried about it, or you could describe the climb in detail, emphasizing its dangers as the MC slips and regrasps, etc. Again, what is your goal for pacing that scene?
"Your reply makes sense," he said raising his eyebrows and shaking his head. Thank you.
 

ironpony

Senior Member
But there are times when stories are criticized for showing too much rather than allowing the reader to figure things out, so one shouldn't show all the time therefore, should they?
 

Jimmy Co

Senior Member
I believe that good writing is a combination of show and tell. Author's should give their readers the benefit of the doubt and allow them to figure things out. I say, let the story flow. I hate being told what to do. But, when I am asked to participate and join in, I become part of the story. Showing, allows your readers to participate in the story.
 

Tettsuo

WF Veterans
Terrible advice. It's easier to simply say show don't tell, instead of having a discussion about pacing, what you as the writer wants to place emphasis on, what you want the reader to "see", etc. Show don't tell is short hand way to avoid a deeper discussion imo.
 

Terry D

Retired Supervisor
The difference between telling and showing is the difference between looking at a picture of a slice of pizza and eating one.
 
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