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Some examples of effective "telling" (1 Viewer)

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luckyscars

WF Veterans
Every few weeks or months the old 'show don't tell' debate comes up.

Every few weeks or months, that discussion ends the exact same way, more or less: Both are effective, it depends how they are used, etc.

So, rather than revive the old girl, I thought it better just to take that to it's logical next step: What are some effective examples of a writer 'telling' instead of 'showing'?

(If moved to do so, feel free to expand on why...)

Here are three I could think off to begin with:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way,—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

- Charles Dickens, Tale Of Two Cities

"On a very hot day in August of 1994, my wife told me she was going down to the Derry Rite Aid to pick up a refill on her sinus medicine prescription -- this is stuff you can buy over the counter these days, I believe. I'd finished my writing for the day and offered to pick it up for her. She said thanks, but she wanted to get a piece of fish at the supermarket next door anyway; two birds with one stone and all of that. She blew a kiss at me off the palm of her hand and went out. The next time I saw her, she was on TV. That's how you identify the dead here in Derry -- no walking down a subterranean corridor with green tiles on the walls and long fluorescent bars overhead, no naked body rolling out of a chilly drawer on casters; you just go into an office marked PRIVATE and look at a TV screen and say yep or nope."

- Stephen King, Bag Of Bones

And perhaps my favorite example of 'telling'...

"Jesus wept."

- KJV Bible, John 11:35
 

EmmaSohan

WF Veterans
In a way, everything is a tell. But I think I get the spirit of this. How does Green communicate that his character is nervous?
As it got closer to ten, I grew more and more nervous: nervous to see Augustus; nervous to meet Peter Van Houten; nervous that my outfit was not a good outfit; nervous that we wouldn't find the right house since all the houses in Amsterdam looked pretty similar; nervous that we would get lost and never make it back to the Filosoof; nervous nervous nervous.
The Fault in Our Stars)
 

Llyralen

Senior Member
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby:
[FONT=&quot]Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.
[/FONT]
[FONT=&quot]
From a different part:


And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.[/FONT]

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter--tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning----
[FONT=&quot]So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.


[/FONT]
 

bdcharles

Wɾ¡ʇ¡∩9
Staff member
Media Manager
Every few weeks or months the old 'show don't tell' debate comes up.

Every few weeks or months, that discussion ends the exact same way, more or less: Both are effective, it depends how they are used, etc.

So, rather than revive the old girl, I thought it better just to take that to it's logical next step: What are some effective examples of a writer 'telling' instead of 'showing'?




“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way,—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

- Charles Dickens, Tale Of Two Cities


This is one I always quote too; tell-heavy, and there's more than a coupla copula bugs. And yet it works because it's done stylishly and voicily. Why does it work? First, I think is the use of a ton of narrative and rhetorical devices, mostly centred around repetition and contrasts, which means you can get away with quite weak text as long as it's presented strongly. There's light humour in there too. And it just has personality. You can imagine a certain type of person narrating it, which I suspect is what Dickens wanted.
 

bdcharles

Wɾ¡ʇ¡∩9
Staff member
Media Manager
In a way, everything is a tell.

The way I try and think of it is: I can either report that character X is nervous, or I can literally make character X nervous. If I am not making the character nervous, then to my mind I'm telling.
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
The way I try and think of it is: I can either report that character X is nervous, or I can literally make character X nervous. If I am not making the character nervous, then to my mind I'm telling.

I agree, but as a corollary, sometimes you have a major focus and a minor focus. If you're in the middle of important action which the whole scene is about, I'm OK with just saying someone is nervous, rather than breaking into the action I'm focused on. Then it could become a distraction.

It's ridiculous how many times I take a break from writing to come here, and stumble across a comment discussing EXACTLY what I'm in the middle of writing. My last scene had three guys who are nervous. I did have them shuffle and glance at each other, but I used the word nervous twice (nervous shuffling). So I did a 'little showing', but I didn't interrupt the major action I was driving at to make a bigger show of it.
 

EmmaSohan

WF Veterans
The way I try and think of it is: I can either report that character X is nervous, or I can literally make character X nervous. If I am not making the character nervous, then to my mind I'm telling.

The sentences you use to "show" nervousness will also tell something. That's all I meant.

But I took the OP as talking about showing versus telling emotions.
 

luckyscars

WF Veterans
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby:

I'm glad you mentioned Gatsby. It's rife with some highly polished tell. One of my problems with the book was always I got a strong sense it was very aware of it's own gravitas: The voice is not natural whatsoever, in the sense I cannot imagine any human, certainly not the human in question, particularly not of its period, narrating a story with some of those phrasings.

A bit like:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.
All solid tell, all good writing too, but possessed of the same problem that most (modern, it must be said) critics level at 'telling' rather than 'showing' -- this isn't how people talk. With this heavy literary filter between what happens and the description of it, we don't get a strong sense of how this character would actually talk. Does anybody think a career sailor is likely to use phrases like 'regulating the circulation'?

This is one I always quote too; tell-heavy, and there's more than a coupla copula bugs. And yet it works because it's done stylishly and voicily. Why does it work? First, I think is the use of a ton of narrative and rhetorical devices, mostly centred around repetition and contrasts, which means you can get away with quite weak text as long as it's presented strongly. There's light humour in there too. And it just has personality. You can imagine a certain type of person narrating it, which I suspect is what Dickens wanted.

Agree totally. I always thought it was very Oscar Wilde-esque. Unlike the Moby Dick example, I think the Tale Of Two Cities example actually does evoke a narrator. I see them as sort of a dandyish young man telling a story at a dinner party "Go on Ernest, tell them!" -- "Oh fine, fine I will! Listen friends...it was the best of times AND it was the worst of times..."
 

Llyralen

Senior Member
@luckyscars. There is a book called Copper Crown by Lane von Herzen and the difference between the inner voice of the MC and the dialogue that comes out of her is very very different. Her inner dialogue is rich and very poetic and has wisdom and kindness and her dialogue is very short and hardly shows any of what is going on inside of her. I found that it made my throat hurt reading it. She was holding in so much pain and mercy— well and poetry— that others seemed to sense but couldn’t obviously see. I found that to be very interesting. Very tension-building in its own way.
It sounds like you’re looking for voice in these “tells”? Yes?
 

Tettsuo

WF Veterans
This is one I always quote too; tell-heavy, and there's more than a coupla copula bugs. And yet it works because it's done stylishly and voicily. Why does it work? First, I think is the use of a ton of narrative and rhetorical devices, mostly centred around repetition and contrasts, which means you can get away with quite weak text as long as it's presented strongly. There's light humour in there too. And it just has personality. You can imagine a certain type of person narrating it, which I suspect is what Dickens wanted.
So you're saying it's strong text, right?
 

bdcharles

Wɾ¡ʇ¡∩9
Staff member
Media Manager
I agree, but as a corollary, sometimes you have a major focus and a minor focus. If you're in the middle of important action which the whole scene is about, I'm OK with just saying someone is nervous, rather than breaking into the action I'm focused on. Then it could become a distraction.

It's ridiculous how many times I take a break from writing to come here, and stumble across a comment discussing EXACTLY what I'm in the middle of writing. My last scene had three guys who are nervous. I did have them shuffle and glance at each other, but I used the word nervous twice (nervous shuffling). So I did a 'little showing', but I didn't interrupt the major action I was driving at to make a bigger show of it.

Yes that’s a very good point. Centre stage the thing that needs centre staging.
 

Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
I'm not sure I fully understand how to differentiate between 'showing' and 'telling'. Sure, I get the basics:

Tell:

He felt sad that his wife died.

Show:

He curled up in a fetal position trying to fathom what just happened.

But with your quote, I don't see it so clearly.

"On a very hot day in August of 1994, my wife told me she was going down to the Derry Rite Aid to pick up a refill on her sinus medicine prescription -- this is stuff you can buy over the counter these days, I believe. I'd finished my writing for the day and offered to pick it up for her. She said thanks, but she wanted to get a piece of fish at the supermarket next door anyway; two birds with one stone and all of that. She blew a kiss at me off the palm of her hand and went out. The next time I saw her, she was on TV. That's how you identify the dead here in Derry -- no walking down a subterranean corridor with green tiles on the walls and long fluorescent bars overhead, no naked body rolling out of a chilly drawer on casters; you just go into an office marked PRIVATE and look at a TV screen and say yep or nope."

Isn't this a form of showing? I mean he's not actually telling the reader what just happened. He's painting a picture. The reader still has to figure it out.

 

luckyscars

WF Veterans
Isn't this a form of showing? I mean he's not actually telling the reader what just happened. He's painting a picture. The reader still has to figure it out.

I mean, if you take certain parts in isolation then sure.

I consider the main difference between showing and telling to be about the degree of interpretation involved. In a scene that is 'told', there is very little ambiguity regarding the information. The writer interprets the scene and tells the reader how they ought think of the scene.

This may incorporate some aspects of 'showing', as you point out, but it's still telling because the meaning is presented through the writer's chosen interpretation and there is no ability to form a different interpretation without going against the clear vision of the writer.

In the King example, there is no real doubt as to the meaning he is conveying, is there?

The next time I saw her, she was on TV. That's how you identify the dead here in Derry -- no walking down a subterranean corridor with green tiles on the walls and long fluorescent bars overhead, no naked body rolling out of a chilly drawer on casters; you just go into an office marked PRIVATE and look at a TV screen and say yep or nope. <- what makes this TELLING not SHOWING is that King is saying what you do. He is literally telling us how we identify dead bodies and that this is how he identified his wife.

If I was going to rewrite that using exclusively show, I might do it something like this:

Behind the office door marked 'private' , she was staring through the TV screen. Staring with those wide and unblinking eyes while long, fluorescent lights above glinted and sparked in the subterranean corridor, illuminating the green tiles on the walls. Staring helplessly as though drowned. In that long, strange moment, I remember how I thought of the things I had seen, watched on TV. I remember seeing chilly drawers on casters, with the same bloodless and stiff flesh I was seeing now on her, rolling out. This was different.


In the latter case, the wife is just as dead as in the first one, and the rest of the image is essentially unchanged in detail but there's an important sense that the second example isn't nearly as forthcoming as the first and therefore it's a little more visceral, a little 'closer'.
 

Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
I mean, if you take certain parts in isolation then sure.

I consider the main difference between showing and telling to be about the degree of interpretation involved. In a scene that is 'told', there is very little ambiguity regarding the information. The writer interprets the scene and tells the reader how they ought think of the scene.

This may incorporate some aspects of 'showing', as you point out, but it's still telling because the meaning is presented through the writer's chosen interpretation and there is no ability to form a different interpretation without going against the clear vision of the writer.

In the King example, there is no real doubt as to the meaning he is conveying, is there?

The next time I saw her, she was on TV. That's how you identify the dead here in Derry -- no walking down a subterranean corridor with green tiles on the walls and long fluorescent bars overhead, no naked body rolling out of a chilly drawer on casters; you just go into an office marked PRIVATE and look at a TV screen and say yep or nope. <- what makes this TELLING not SHOWING is that King is saying what you do. He is literally telling us how we identify dead bodies and that this is how he identified his wife.

If I was going to rewrite that using exclusively show, I might do it something like this:

Behind the office door marked 'private' , she was staring through the TV screen. Staring with those wide and unblinking eyes while long, fluorescent lights above glinted and sparked in the subterranean corridor, illuminating the green tiles on the walls. Staring helplessly as though drowned. In that long, strange moment, I remember how I thought of the things I had seen, watched on TV. I remember seeing chilly drawers on casters, with the same bloodless and stiff flesh I was seeing now on her, rolling out. This was different.
[/I][/B]In the latter case, the wife is just as dead as in the first one, and the rest of the image is essentially unchanged in detail but there's an important sense that the second example isn't nearly as forthcoming as the first and therefore it's a little more visceral, a little 'closer'.

I see where you are going with this. And yes it is more visceral, but it's not as clear for me. This is how I read it. if she is 'staring through' it's too ambiguous for me. Because staring is a verb, it suggests an action, something she is doing. Perhaps if it was written as a noun, 'her face donned a vacant stare.' But even then I could probably still figure it out, but there are two important indicator words that are missing. 'dead' and 'body'. To me those are the triggering words that make it clear to me what's happening. Otherwise she could be injured and unconscious. Although the bloodless and stiff flesh could be a give away. But I just have to think about it too hard. What does bloodless mean? What does stiff mean?

Behind the office door marked 'PRIVATE - IDENTIFICATION' , her stare did not see through the TV screen. The vacant stare was wide with unblinking eyes while long, fluorescent lights above glinted and sparked in the subterranean corridor, illuminating the green tiles on the walls. A helplessly stare as though drowned. In that long, strange moment, I remember how I thought of the things I had seen, watched on TV. I remember seeing chilly drawers on casters, with the same bloodless and stiff flesh I was seeing now on her body, rolling out. This was different.

I think the risk with showing, is, does the reader see what we what we are depicting? It's one thing I find when I critique others works. I often have to read a purple sentence a number of times, but still don't get it. I have to ask myself, are they not skilled enough, am I not the target market, or am I just too obtuse? And also I think a reader can get tired if there is not enough telling periodically to move the story along. So I'm all for "show and tell". In the right balance. My favorite way to use tell is to lead up to dialogue, which is all show. (I think)

Lucy and Peter were each provided a key after they checked in at the front desk. “Ms. Shoenberg is waiting for you in the penthouse. We can put your bags in your rooms for you if you wish to head straight up.” It was already just after eleven p.m. New York time. Having freshened up on the plane, Lucy thought it best not to waste time going to the rooms, so she looked at Peter and said, “I’m ok, you?”

“Sure, I freshened up on the plane.” Of course he did. Mr. Perfect.
 
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luckyscars

WF Veterans
I see where you are going with this. And yes it is more visceral, but it's not as clear for me. This is how I read it. if she is 'staring through' it's too ambiguous for me. Because staring is a verb, it suggests an action, something she is doing. Perhaps if it was written as a noun, 'her face donned a vacant stare.' But even then I could probably still figure it out, but there are two important indicator words that are missing. 'dead' and 'body'. To me those are the triggering words that make it clear to me what's happening. Otherwise she could be injured and unconscious. Although the bloodless and stiff flesh could be a give away. But I just have to think about it too hard. What does bloodless mean? What does stiff mean?

I think the risk with showing, is, does the reader see what we what we are depicting? It's one thing I find when I critique others works. I often have to read a purple sentence a number of times, but still don't get it. I have to ask myself, are they not skilled enough, am I not the target market, or am I just too obtuse? And also I think a reader can get tired if there is not enough telling periodically to move the story along. So I'm all for "show and tell". In the right balance. My favorite way to use tell is to lead up to dialogue, which is all show. (I think)

If 'showing' is done properly then, almost by definition, yes the reader has to see what we are depicting.

My example wasn't very good, clearly, but it wasn't necessarily an example of showing done well.

The idea is simply that the meaning of the image is up to the reader's interpretation, that the writing ONLY 'shows' what is there it doesn't 'tell' what what's there means.

A good way to tell the difference is to look for evaluative language. Words like 'sad', 'worst', 'greatest', 'best' tend to be part of the language of 'tell' because they are prescribing the meaning ("it was the best of times, it was the worst of times"). Scenes that are shown are primarily about illustration, scenes that are told are primarily about interpretation.
 

EternalGreen

Senior Member
Fall of the House of Usher, Poe:

(telling is in red, showing in black):


"I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium—the bitter lapse into every-day life—the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime. What was it—I paused to think—what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down—but with a shudder even more thrilling than before—upon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows."


 

Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
If 'showing' is done properly then, almost by definition, yes the reader has to see what we are depicting.

My example wasn't very good, clearly, but it wasn't necessarily an example of showing done well.

The idea is simply that the meaning of the image is up to the reader's interpretation, that the writing ONLY 'shows' what is there it doesn't 'tell' what what's there means.

A good way to tell the difference is to look for evaluative language. Words like 'sad', 'worst', 'greatest', 'best' tend to be part of the language of 'tell' because they are prescribing the meaning ("it was the best of times, it was the worst of times"). Scenes that are shown are primarily about illustration, scenes that are told are primarily about interpretation.

Right, and anytime you are telling how someone is feeling you are telling as opposed to the great many character reactions that can show it. I bought 1000 Character Reactions from Head to Toe by Valerie Howard. It's only 89 pages and has empty notes pages inserted, so maybe about 46 pages total. It breaks it out by body part, i.e. forehead, temples, eyes, eyelashes, mouth, chin, chest, etc. I was surprised it did not have a large variety of options and only a few I had not heard. I guess the idea is to add your own on the note pages. One of the note-worthy ones is, "Opening a beer bottle with teeth to appear tough."
SuR45bhO6xGQHQpx47tz09ugaAVdM2FE6l8T2_BuES1RVkjnq-sy-HeV8_QFob_e9caUZz0D7l6BrLVvyhZUt0tvSmNtW0hwgg__Gxykcchf4bGbR0sI3DI6BPyenZx4yG9o1zKg


But this thread is about telling and I also bought an emotion dictionary, although I haven't used that one yet because it got packed up when we moved, and I can't find it now. But I just reviewed my draft for telling emotions or evaluative language, and I can't find much of it in my writing. In this 20K piece, I see that I very seldom tell emotions. I found no 'greatest'; one 'worst', she imagined the worst; only one 'saddened' and I found five 'best', in like, her 'best' friend, or she thought it was 'best'.

I'm not sure what all this means to my writing. But I'm going to keep plugging along as I have been, just telling it like I hear it in my head, and try to be more conscious of all the lessons I'm learning here.

 
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