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21 November 2014 @ 08:20 am
Show vs. Tell  
Over on Facebook, a friend asked "is it always poor writing to tell and not show?" Here's my reply:

If you had an entire story that was nothing but "show" it would be overlong and tediously detailed. I interpret the maxim of "show, don't tell" as applying to the most important parts of the story: the characters' motivations and emotions, the key bits of worldbuilding, the pivotal moments of the plot. When the character is only driving across town? It's okay to just tell us that part.
joycemocha on November 21st, 2014 04:48 pm (UTC)
Unless, of course, the scene you create by showing the drive across town somehow advances the plot or character arc...in which case you should already have it in the story.
Kalimac: puzzlekalimac on November 21st, 2014 04:58 pm (UTC)
Doesn't "showing" consist of telling us the things that show us what you want to show?
David D. Levinedavidlevine on November 21st, 2014 05:05 pm (UTC)
Well, technically all writing is telling. We use the term "show" to describe a certain kind of telling that is rich with detail and immersive.
Carlcarl_allery on November 21st, 2014 08:42 pm (UTC)
Personally I tend to prefer a bit of 'tell' regarding what's going on inside a character's head. I'm all for strong narrative voice (if that's the right phrase) and I can get annoyed by writers trying to 'show' emotions in terms only of a character's physical symptoms or motivation purely in terms of actions, because they've taken 'show not tell' a bit too much to heart. Certainly you want a character's actions to back up the motivation or emotion you've ascribed to them, but I like a bit of both. :)
David D. Levinedavidlevine on November 21st, 2014 08:56 pm (UTC)
Yep! All writing advice is conditional and subjective.
et in Arcadia egobooapostle_of_eris on November 21st, 2014 10:58 pm (UTC)
Or, as I logged in here to say,
“It depends.”
houseboatonstyxhouseboatonstyx on November 21st, 2014 10:57 pm (UTC)
There's also something as short as 'telling' but as full of details as 'showing'. "He threw his glass of /vintage/ port at the Dean, packed his alligator bags, and skidded away in his yellow BMW." Kipling was good at this, and Neal Stephenson in The Baroque Cycle, which really ought to be a Steampunk title about biking.
David D. Levinedavidlevine on November 21st, 2014 11:12 pm (UTC)
This raises the question "what exactly do we mean when we say 'show' anyway?" In my opinion, it has to do with the uniqueness and emotional impact of the selected details rather than simple length. I would argue that the fragment "He threw his glass of vintage port at the dean" is showing, not telling, though it's even shorter; in this case, adding more details pushes the sentence as a whole somewhat in the direction of telling. (Do we really need to know that the BMW was yellow?)
houseboatonstyxhouseboatonstyx on November 22nd, 2014 12:19 am (UTC)
Well, I was using those adjectives to emphasize his character: rich, thoughtless. The BMW looked kind of blank and dull without an adjective of its own.

To me, "packed his bags and drove away" would be a bland telling, but the adjectives give visual glimpses for a richer experience without getting bogged down in other details.

Even "packed his bags and drove away" is too much detail for plain 'telling'. "He threw his glass of vintage port at the dean and left the college in 1939" would have done.

Edited at 2014-11-22 12:22 am (UTC)
David D. Levinedavidlevine on November 22nd, 2014 01:05 am (UTC)
You're making me question my intuition, which is good. Why do I feel that the second part of the sentence is telling-ish, despite the detail it contains?

I think we agree that "he threw his glass of vintage port at the dean" is definitely showing, but I feel that the alligator bags and yellow BMW don't add anything that we don't already know from the vintage port. Because those words just reiterate a fact we already know (he's rich), they have little impact on the reader, which makes them feel to me more like telling than showing. But that's definitely a judgement call.

Lots of factors can influence a judgement call like this. Just looking at the sentence in isolation, I'd either drop the alligator bags and yellow BMW or replace them with more unique details. But if you need to establish the alligator bags or the color of the BMW for some later plot point, they have to stay in. Also, if this is a novel rather than a short story there's more room for additional details.

There are no hard-and-fast rules in this game.
Tomvoidampersand on November 22nd, 2014 08:07 am (UTC)
It's a matter of convention. The modern fashion is to write descriptively, and let the reader fill in the motivations and emotions. But then I remember reading The Sagas of Icelanders and being struck by how strong the writing was.
Their companions corroborated everything they said about Thorjolf, and in the end, the king was furious with him.
It's telling, not showing, but boy does it tell a lot.
eub on November 22nd, 2014 08:17 am (UTC)
I like to assume the advice "show, don't tell" must have been meant to kick people from 100% "tell" over to a better combination of the two, but it sure is misleading advice. "Tell" is more effective, some places, and even for things that are of importance.

The writing textbook in my 9th grade English class gave examples of "show" and of "tell" being appropriate, with quotes from "'Repent, Harlequin'". I still remember it, because it's so cool to see education that is thoughtful and not just parroting received ideas (or at least is parroting ones I like).
paulshandy on November 23rd, 2014 07:10 am (UTC)
Sorry I don't remember the title, but a writer from Norway did attempt to entirely "show" resulting in Proustian lengths of details. His first couple of books were critically acclaimed (in Norway) but his subject matter pissed off so many of his friends and family that the rest of his books dribbled off into extensive details about nothing much at all.