Nathan Bransford, Author


Monday, September 21, 2009

Showing vs. Telling

Not sure if you saw my Tweet from Saturday, but FYI, rice harvest is going well. Just thought you should know.

Now then.

It's one of the oldest writing "rules" in the book, and probably dates back to the time they were carving stories on stone tablets: Show don't tell. Show don't tell. Show don't tell. You hear this all the time. Show don't tell.

But what in the heck does that actually mean? And how can you tell when you're telling when you should be showing?

My interpretation is this. With the understanding that "if it works it works," and there are always exceptions, in general: universal emotions should not be "told." Instead, we should be shown how the character is reacting to their feelings.

I'm of the opinion that we read books in order to get to know our fellow humans better. We are empathetic animals and are able to put ourselves in the shoes of characters, and thus, we have a pretty keen idea how we'd be feeling in any given situation the characters find themselves in. And emotions are universal: we all feel sad, angry, happy, emotional, etc. etc. But how we react to those emotions are completely and infinitely different. That's what we find interesting.

Being told that a character is "angry" is not very interesting - we're reading the book, we know his dog just got kicked, of course he's angry! It's redundant to be told that the character is "angry."

More interesting is how the character reacts to seeing his dog kicked. Does he hold it in and tap his foot slowly? Does he explode? Does he clench his fists?

Even if it's a first person narrative and the character knows he's "angry," it's more interesting for the character to describe how he's feeling or what he's thinking rather than saying, "I was so angry!"

This also applies to:

- Descriptions - It's not interesting to merely hear that someone is "pretty" - what characteristics make them pretty?
- Characterizing relationships - Not interesting to only hear that two people are "close". How are they close? What do they do together?
- Insert your own here.

Basically, whenever describing something, especially something universal: specificity wins.






119 comments:

PurpleClover said...

Thanks for the post. I struggled with this a while back with my PB's and just when I thought I had it down I started on adult fiction. The advice follows you! But it is good advice.

I've read books where I felt like it was a bunch of gobbledygook because there were no descriptions (older books mind you). We were told exactly what the character was thinking. It can be boring.

Very good advice and a great reminder! I'll never be done editing my novel! haha.

Jenn

Ink said...

Huzzah.

Robert McGuire said...

If only this and other "rules" were characterized as "guidelines" instead. Writers would tie themselves in knots less.

Like you say, there are exceptions. No point in belaboring them, but coincidentally, I was just reading an interesting discussion of this in Wayne Booth's "The Rhetoric of Fiction" where he explores why this rule has become so commonplace (as of 1960 when he wrote the book) when so many exceptions abound. The question for him is how does a work have the effect that it has -- be it vivid or weak -- regardless of how it follows this rule. Highly recommended book.

dan radke said...

Why just today I harvested a field of rice on Farmville, a Facebook application. So I really get ya on the whole rice farming thing.

Hard work!

Steve Axelrod said...

Good, useful post. But even more essential is showing scenes rather then summarizing them (with the usual exceptions). Possibly the worst sentence ever:

"He was one of the great wits of Europe and he held the entire table spell-bound for hours."

Sounds nice; gives us nothing. This man's 'wit' is a judgment for us to make, not the writer ... after WE hear the anecdotes and witticisms that all those other figments of the author's imagination loved so much.

Margaret Yang said...

This can be carried over to exposition. Instead of paragraphs of neutral (boring) description, you can make it more interesting by showing the description through the POV character's eyes. A place is just a place. How a character sees a place is something interesting to read.

Anonymous said...

I've come to know this topic as telling is often bland writing, simple statements where showing is use of contrasts, comparisons, metaphors. Telling is just the nail. Showing is the hammer that slams the nail home and "shows" by way of expression what is being felt, what reaction is sparked by encounter and emotion.
Telling is sttating and sometimes that's really all the present situation calls for; a simple statement may go a lot further than a wordy comparison but at most times, writing is taking that extra step to expand the idea or drawing the reader into a thought with careful prose.
So much depends on the emotion in particular, the pace the writer wants to keep and whether or not he wants the reader to move on with a flow or make them pause to think.
Show is, without a doubt 9/10 times, but the occasional tell keeps the story moving forward.

Jerry B. Flory

Ken Hannahs said...

This is totally something I try to do. Another important part of showing would be staying in the correct POV. It's verrrry easy to say a dog is sad, but if the POV does not belong to the dog, we can only say that what the dog did to show that he was, indeed, sad.

Anyways, this is my first post on your blog... love it. Spectacular insight into the creatiion of the novel. I started my own novel (and subsequent blog) because of your upbeat encouragement to author wannabees.

You can expect my query letter in about a year's time. :)

Tracey S. Rosenberg said...

Absolutely.

I was thinking about this today when I was out for a walk. I could tell you for hours that I had a really good boss at my last temp job, who was treated his staff well and never abused his power, or I could mention that on the day there was free ice cream, even though he was the person checking every three minutes to see whether the free ice cream had arrived, he still made sure that all the staff members ended up ahead of him in line.

Now I want ice cream...favorite ice cream flavors? I'm going with cookies and cream.

Andrew the author said...

Good post. I read it and it made me happy. Then I considered it thoughtfully.

I know I've been guilty of combining the showing and the telling. I've definitely had to edit out redudant phrases like, "He clenched his fists in anger," which is redundant.

susiej said...

Nice pics of combine but I was thinking you were talking about freerice.com- great site.

Build vocabulary for all that showing while feeding the world.

Bane of Anubis said...

What about telling how angry the character is (e.g., Jimmy was so pissed he wanted to slit 'dog-kicker's' throat. -- it's telling, but it's showing a bit of the character, too, IMO -- something that you probably wouldn't expose via dialog, and hopefully not through action :)? I guess it comes down to that whole balancing act (how much to tell and how much to let percolate through the cracks), and, as stated, it's that specificity that defines the character more than anything.

Cory Clubb said...

Thanks for this Nathan. I thought I understood it, but then again it's always nice to hear the golden rule again in simple words.
-CC

Nathan Bransford said...

BofA-

I still think that's that telling too much. It's clear that the guy is pissed, so saying he's so pissed he'd do X feels redundant.

Bane of Anubis said...

Nathan, I see what you're saying, but my point was more about telling a thought that might be outside the bell curve (e.g., showing that the kid's a potential sociopath).

Ray Rhamey said...

Here's how I summarize show v. tell in my book/blog:

"telling" is dispensing information

"showing" is evoking experience

Susan Quinn said...

I believe in all things in moderation - including the showing and the telling. Most people err too far on the telling side, so I can see why SHOW not TELL is the mantra.

However, too much, or perhaps the wrong kind, of SHOW and the story can seem blank - as if the reader has to fill in too much, and the writer is no longer evoking the feelings they want the reader to have.

I think this is especially a danger in children's fiction, where children may not be able to interpret all those situational or body signals (although never underestimate those little guys and what they know!).

What do you think, Nathan? Especially now that you've written Jacob Wonderbar. Do you feel there is a different balance for kidlit vs. adult?

Nathan Bransford said...

Susan-

Interesting question. I think to some extent it's universal, and kids, particularly by the time they reach 8-12 are extremely perceptive about emotions, even if adult behavior can be somewhat mystifying. So I don't know that there should necessarily be more telling in children's literature, even if context is very important.

Marilyn Peake said...

Saw your photo of the rice harvest on Twitter. Awesome!

I found the topic of your blog today very timely and exciting. I’m doing the final edit of my novel right now (well, technically, I’m taking a few minutes break right now, but will get right back to it). After scrapping a couple of endings that just didn’t work, I realized it was because I had lapsed into "telling". Most of the time when I get stuck in writing a story, or the whole thing seems to fall completely flat, it turns out that I’m "telling" and I need to create more sensory details to "show".

A short story that gave me fits while writing it was REPO GIRL AND THE FORTUNE FAERIE because I kept lapsing into "telling". When I finally started "showing", I had a short story that eventually got published. I opened the story with the following paragraph:
---------
A brilliant half-moon cut through clouds like a scythe, retreating into blackness. Next to it, a rocky planet pulled scraps of celestial light into its skin; then shimmered like an isolated diamond in the cold night sky. Brittle leaves, nothing more than scraping sounds and grayish ghostly shapes, skittered down the street within the midnight gloom.
---------
And, in the following excerpt, I tried to show the antisocial characteristics of Donella Bard, an evil faerie working as a repo girl in the human world, and the fear of an old woman having her house repossessed while caring for her grandchildren:
---------
Moments later, Donella entered the room with Abigail, the young girl looking dazed, clutching her pink teddy bear tightly against her chest. Again, the repo girl sang with the voice of jingling bells, and Adam sat up, rubbing his eyes. After the boy stuffed a few things into a duffel bag, Donella allowed Mrs. Hamilton to get dressed and pack her own small suitcase.

Leading everyone downstairs, Donella sighed as the old woman insisted her grandchildren dress in layers and wear hats, gloves and scarves. When they were finally bundled up against the cold night air, the cloaked figure led the evicted troupe outside and passed them off to another member of the repo team. "Show them where the homeless sleep, Mannie."

"Yes, ma’am. You want me to take ’em to the shelter?"

"Give them a choice, let them exercise their free will." As Donella laughed and threw back her head, bits of light glittered in her diamond earrings. "Show them the homeless shelter, and show them the most popular sidewalks where the bums camp out. Let them choose."

Mrs. Hamilton’s eyes grew wide as saucers, drawing in the last rays of moonlight before the illuminated slice dipped behind darkened clouds.

patty said...

I don't know -- I like being told that a character is handsome, beautiful, ugly, etc. In fact, if an author skimps on physical descriptions of people and places, I'll throw the book down. There's no point in reading the story if I can't see it in my head.

An attractive person can have blond hair and blue eyes. So can an ugly person. Describing someone's physical characteristics isn't enough; the narrator needs to make a judgment. The first line of "Gone With the Wind" is "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful," and that was an important point for the narrator to make. If all Margaret Mitchell had done was "shown" how men reacted to Scarlett, the reader would come away with the impression that Scarlett was a stunning beauty. And she wasn't. And that was one reason she drove the female characters crazy -- she wasn't all the pretty, but her charm made men believe she was.

I also like being told how a character is feeling. An example I often see is "Telling is saying 'X was angry,' showing is saying 'X slammed the door.'" But how many people actually slam doors when they're mad? Except for children and drama queens, not many. Anger is something people usually show through their expression and tone of voice. And that's not something a reader can see. It's something the reader needs to be told. The narrator acts as the reader's eyes.

I think that "show don't tell" has made for books that lack clarity. Readers don't make nearly as many intuitive leaps as some people seem to believe. One reason Harry Potter was so popular was because J.K. Rowling's narrative style was so vivid. We knew exactly what the characters looked like, what Hogwarts looked like. We knew that the killing curse was a jet of green light, and the disarming curse a jet of red. It was so easy to see in the head.

Also, telling helps with pacing. Showing takes a lot more room than telling. Telling is very useful for scenes that need to be there but don't need that much emphasis.

I'm not a big fan of "show, don't tell." I prefer "show and tell." Show what needs to be shown, tell what needs to be told.

Nathan Bransford said...

Patty-

That may have been the first part, but this is the whole paragraph: "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends. Above them, her thick black brows slanted upward, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia-white skin . . ."

I'm not saying that a value judgment can't or shouldn't be made, just that it helps to be specific rather than general, which I think is the point of the "rule."

Marsha Sigman said...

My heart skipped a beat as I saw that Nathan had finally posted on Monday morning.

My fingers shook as I clicked on his name. Eyes darting back and forth, I drank in the latest shot of information he so generously poured his followers.

I sighed as I sat back in my chair. My day was complete.

Thermocline said...

I'm with Susan that you can take Showing too far and not leave any mystery into a character's motivation. If it's not necessary to ensure the reader understands why the MC fidgets with her right thumbnail every time she hears a train whistle then leave it out. You're giving your readers an opportunity to bring their own explanations along for the ride. That's way more fun than being spoon fed all the details.

Fawn Neun said...

I think Farmville is ruining my marriage. :/

Ulysses said...

Thanks. I tried to say the same thing here after reading too many as-yet-unpublished short stories.

I'm always amazed at how many people don't get this. But then, I can no longer remember how long it took me to really understand it.

Susan Quinn said...

Nathan -

I think you hit it . . . "context is very important". I'm amazed how much my kids will get what I'm trying to say in a chapter, even though I don't come right out and tell them in the story. As long as I evoke a situation they can relate to (put it in a context they can understand, even if it's on another planet), they can interpret the SHOW pretty well.

Laura Martone said...

I'm with Patty - somewhere between "showing" and "telling" is a good place to be, IMO.

And one other point... the concept of "show, don't tell" is truly the BANE of my existence - hardest concept for me to master. Period. (Sorry, BofA.)

ryan field said...

These are some great examples of showing and telling. Simple and easy to grasp.

This is important for writers to understand. And it doesn't get much better than this post.

Marilyn Peake said...

patty,

One of the best novels I've ever read that combines telling and showing is HISTORY: A NOVEL by Elsa Morante. Morante’s descriptions are so vivid, I had to look very closely to notice that she also includes very short statements of judgement about how bad the situations she’s describing were.

Heidi Willis said...

Great timing on this post!

I just got revision notes back from my editor and her favorite thing about the chapter we are working on is a paragraph where the main character is trying to decide which monopoly piece to pick. There is a reason she doesn't want each one.

I didn't set out to make a point about the personality of the character in that scene, but apparently it shows more about the character than I could even have tried to spell out.

I knew my character really well by this point. I wrote from inside her head, so I stopped trying to explain things about her and just tried to tell her story.

It's great when that kind of writing begins to come organically.

Tabitha said...

Exactly!

Show = Action
It's not *that* a character does/feels something, it's *how* he does/feels it.

People express emotions in unique ways, so we writers need to know how our characters experess their emotions. Then we need to show the reader those mannerisms. It makes our characters unique and real. As a result, it brings the reader closer to them.

Great post!

Scott said...

Telling is to alleging, as showing is to "proving". Sort of.

patty said...

Nathan,

I agree with you that specific is better than general. Calling a character pretty, without saying anything more about her appearance, doesn't do much for the reader, because the reader doesn't know what the narrator finds pretty.

On the other hand, saying Scarlett has black hair, green eyes, a pointed chin, and a square jaw doesn't mean all that much without the value judgment, the "arresting," to let us know that while she might not be conventionally beautiful, she is attractive.

That's the problem I have with "show, don't tell." It scares writers away from words like "arresting" -- from value judgments. As a reader, I like those. Especially if the story is first person or close third person -- the value judgments tell you a lot about the narrator, including whether the narrator is reliable.

Marilyn Peake --

Thanks! I'll have to check that out.

Ink said...

Patty,

Interesting discussion.

Yes, slamming a door is not necessarily effective, but that's not because it's showing, but because it's a cliche - it's bad showing. Showing alone won't do it... you have to do it well. Same goes for telling... most of the time it's boring, unless you do it well. Both have their place (though it's safer to weight things toward the former).

And those vivid details in Rowling are vivid, usually, because they are shown rather than told. But whether you're showing or telling I think, as Nathan said, the devil (that vivid little bugger) is always in the details.

In the end it's about evoking something with words... and details allow depth. The problem with telling is that it's too often used as a shortcut. "John is angry." Well, yes, but that's rather a Coles Notes version of all that is really happening. Details, on the other hand, push the reader beyond the obvious... they offer specifics about a character, a place, an event. And, oddly enough, the more specific something is, the more particular and different, the more people will universally people will connect with it, or so I've found.

My best,
Bryan

Anonymous said...

Jose glanced at his watch. "5 more minutes,Boris. Good dog." He patted his golden retriever on the head. He wished he could give his elderly dog a longer walk, but the meeting at work would be patricularly urgent today.

Jose gave an irritated sigh as he felt his cellular vibrate again. Opening the phone, his eyes widened as he read the text message: "JOSE: MEETING OFF, CLIENT PULLED OUT. SO SORRY."

Damn. Did they know? is that why they'd backed--

Just then Boris emitted a high pitched YELP. Jose turned to see a middle-aged man in a suit and tie kick his dog a second time with a brown leather loafer.

"This mutt is blocking the crosswalk!" the man said, who then started to cross the street but had to stop as a bus began a sharp right turn.

Jose saw the look of anguished surprise on Boris face as the dog went down. Saw the bus turning...registered the complete absence of expression on the face of the man who had probably just broken his long-time companion's ribs.

Later, Jose would blame his actions on getting news of the botched account moments before the canine assault. But to everyone who knew him--even to himself, Jose would decide in retrospect, what he did next would test him in ways he could never imagine.


[good balance of show and tell or no?]

Kristen howe said...

Thanks Nathan. I struggle with this all the time, like with those pesky red flag no-no words. This helps.

Mira said...

Good god, I think I'm in love with Scarlett O'Hara. Gorgeous description.

Almost as gorgeous as that picture of the rice harvesting. I never knew how rice was harvested. And now I do.

I learn so much on this blog.

Speaking of which, seriously, this is a really helpful post. Since I write mostly in first person voice, it can be very easy to forget this, and fall into one lines, like "I felt angry." But that does not engage the reader. This is good to remember.

Helen said...

THE CHILDREN'S BOOK by A.S. Byatt breaks the show don't tell rule more than anything I've read in ages. Lots of 'she was pretty' and informative stuff on the arts-and-crafts movement and paris exhibition etc.

It somehow seems to fit in the context of turn-of-the-20th-century England. I think it's because lit tended towards being more telling when grand old victoria was filling the British throne, dictating to the colonised masses. Perhaps the show don't tell dictat only applies in certain contemporary contexts?

word verification: Patetor. Latinate expression for father who prefers to remain on his sofa, watching gardening programmes.

scott g.f.bailey said...

Junot Diaz' "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" is almost entirely telling. There are few dramatized scenes; it's pretty much a long monologue that, while looking inside the characters' heads, still relies on lots of "she was disappointed" and "he never forgave them." Pulitzer Prize, though.

Mira said...

Oh, re. the show vs. tell with the Scarlett O'Hara description - it's sort of...um, mixing up a few things.

My sense of what Nathan is saying is related to emotions: show, don't tell emotions.

It's almost impossible to describe something - like someone's appearance - without doing some telling. But that's different than an emotional experience.

The point is that showing emotions engages the reader's empathy and they start to live the story vicariously through the protagonist - which is the whole point. Telling keeps the reader at a distance.

So: 'John felt angry' is an intellectual idea. The reader thinks.

But: 'John's fist clenched and sweat popped out on his brow' is a viceral experience. The reader feels.

AM said...

I’ve always been a fan of 99.5% showing with a pinch of telling.

Marilyn - Thanks for sharing the excerpt. Nice.

Nathan Bransford said...

scott-

That's true. So much of OSCAR WAO is in the voice. Books like that put the quotation marks around "rules."

scott g.f.bailey said...

Nathan: "Wao" is a big, sprawling mess of a novel that breaks all sorts of "rules," but it's a great book. I love it despite its flaws. Which is not to be taken as an object lesson by other writers. Without Diaz' unique voice, it wouldn't be a great book.

Kristi said...

An agent at a conference I attended this past weekend discussed "telling AS showing" which was interesting and not anything I could relate here in a comprehensible manner - that's why he's the agent I guess.

Great post. :)

Travener said...

Don't tell me what you mean, Nathan. Show me!

:>

www.thebiglitowski.blogspot.com

jjdebenedictis said...

Oh! Oh! Serendipity like whoa!

I'm currently doing a series of blog posts on the nuts-and-bolts of how to show instead of tell.

The first one is here.

The second one is here.

I hope at least some of you will pop by! :)

Anonymous said...

Funny how reading this thread makes it seem as though everyone understands the adage; but when critting online I'd say fully half of the authors don't actually get it.

TKA said...

Not all those rice harvesters are in the bounteous fields. I'm sure you remember following them down hwy 20 - a worthy exercise in learning to relax and go with the flow (of slow traffic):)

Ink said...

Anon,

It's always easier to see than do...

Vacuum Queen said...

Hey...my son's writing assignment (6th grade) last week was to write 2-3 sentences that rewrite each boring sentence "using descriptive voice." His sentences were:

1. He was a slow runner.
2. The flowers looked pretty.
3. I like cookies.
4. She didn't like being tall.
5. The stadium got really loud.

I think...could be a good exercise to your bloggers as well. ?

Anita Saxena said...

We must be on the same wave length because I mentioned "Show don't tell" on my blog today.

I struggle with showing things the same way.... too many clenched jaws and fists, wide eyes, and sighs.

I try to mix it up, but it can be difficult. I think its cool when writers use unique ways of showing.

For example, one of my favorites:
J.K. Rowling- "Hermione stares daggers at Ron."

patty said...

Ink --

Thanks. :)

The problem with just showing when it comes to emotions is that people show their emotions differently. Take anger. Some people really do slam doors. Some people burst into tears. Some people are self-contained and don't betray their emotions through an action -- not even through a subtle gesture. Some people yell. Some people are quiet. Some people bite their lip. Some people hit things (or other people).

Now, to make it more difficult -- some people slam doors, but not because they're angry. Maybe they're like my brothers, and just like the sound.

Some people burst into tears -- but not because they're angry. They're sad, they're happy, they're confused, they're frustrated. Or maybe their contacts are irritating their eyes.

Some people yell, but not because they're angry. Some people are quiet, but not because they're angry. Some people bite their lip, but not because they're angry.

Heck, even hitting someone isn't necessarily a sign of anger. In sports, if you slug your teammate, it's most likely because he's just done something really awesome, like score a touchdown.

And who knows, just by looking at them, what self-contained people are feeling? They resist demonstration of any sort.

So if you have a drama queen as a protagonist, sure, it's easy to show what she's feeling by what she does. Otherwise, you'll need a healthy mix of telling and showing.

Some people say you should be able to tell from the context of the scene, but you can't. Not always. Not until you really, really know a character, and you just don't know a character that well in the first 20 pages of a book without some telling. (Margaret Mitchell tells us Scarlett is charming before we see Scarlett say a word.) When you're just being introduced to a character, you don't know that the very sound of Oklahoma's fight song will send him into a livid rage. So the first time he hears it, the narrator is going to have to explain his reaction to the reader.

To me, the danger of telling isn't redundancy. At least, not usually. The real danger of telling is being unable to back up what you've told. Margaret Mitchell gets away with telling us that Scarlett is charming, because for the next thousand pages of the book, we see Scarlett's ability to charm. But it would've been much harder to understand Scarlett in that opening scene with the Tarleton twins if we weren't first told, by the narrator, that Scarlett is a charming young woman.

Dan said...

So you want the Kings to show you how they're going to turn around the franchise, not just tell you how they plan on doing it, eh? ;)

Amber Argyle-Smith said...

I actually struggle with the opposite problem. I'm terrified of telling. I've struggled so hard to curtail every line of telling from my writing, that knowing when it's okay to use it evades me.

For example, transitions between scenes or the rapid exchange of information that telling does.

So Nathan, how do you know when it's okay to tell? When is it actually better?

Ink said...

Patty,

Interesting again.

And I'd agree, for the most part, though I think there are a lot more tricks up the writer's sleeve than the physical actions of characters to convey emotion. Dialogue and actions are the most overt, but there's mood, setting, diction, sentence structure, composition... Cormac McCarthy, for example, often has very spare dialogue, and rarely goes inside the heads of his characters. And he's often spare with physical details, too... and yet his characters are often clear and vivid. The emotion is saturated in the text itself, in the choice of words, the atmosphere, the structure of a clipped or rambling sentence.

I do think redundancy is a problem, at times, with telling... but I also agree with your idea about backing up claims. I've read stories like that, and always thought of it as the Hype Problem, where characters fail to live up to their own hype, fail to live up to their own description within the novel. A tell (even a good one) usually has to be backed up by a good show.

Hey, doesn anyone else but me feel like going back to kindegarten? I just picked up a smoking Bumblebee Transformer for show and tell...

patty said...

Mira,

Nathan specifically applied what he was saying to descriptions. Direct quote: "It's not interesting to hear that someone is 'pretty' - what characteristics make them pretty?"

As a reader, I disagree. Yes, I want to know that Scarlett O'Hara has black hair, green eyes, and magnolia-white skin. I also want to know what the narrator thinks of her appearance -- "arresting," not "beautiful." Because only that gives me a complete picture of Scarlett in my mind -- the telling AND the showing. I now see, in my mind's eye, a pale, black-haired young lady who is attractive, not beautiful. It's easy for me to picture her.

It's not easy for me to picture someone the narrator says is "pretty" when there are no details provided. But it's not easy for me to picture a pale, black-haired young lady, either, if I'm not given some kind of value judgment about her features. Do they look well together, or don't they? Because there are plenty of pale, black-haired young ladies out there who aren't attractive.

As you say, it's impossible to describe things without some telling. And I like description. Authors can certainly go overboard with it (see: Victor Hugo, and his 50+ pages about the Parisian sewer system during the climax of Les Miserables), but these days, I see a lot more of the opposite problem. Authors won't describe places or people. And I hate that, because it makes it hard to imagine the story.

People are visual creatures. We like to see things. (There's a reason television is so popular.) If an author can't make me see their story, I just can't get into it. No matter how elegant the prose or how clever the plot.

Nathan Bransford said...

I see what Patty is saying. I think the problem in my post was that I meant it's not interesting to *only* hear that someone is "pretty" and leave it at that. I didn't mean that we shouldn't hear whether they're pretty or not entirely. I'm going to adjust the post slightly to make this clearer. But I think we're all pretty much in agreement.

Elaine 'still writing' Smith said...

Hey Bane
Late to the ball, but ...

menace is more menacing when you're wondering why Jimmy is fingering his knife - does he plan to take dog abuse to the next level or is he a darker form of Dark Avenger?
Knowing, in that instant, would be ... less.

This element of writing was my steep learning curve, this year.

Anonymous said...

I find that I want to tell in the prologue and then when the novel begins, I want to show.
I am still learning.(I am always learning.)
So what do you think?

Jen P said...

@ Laura 12.59 - ..."the concept of "show, don't tell" is truly the BANE of my existence - hardest concept for me to master."

Laura, being aware is half the battle won. You are winning. But I agree with you. I think this is actually much harder than many people realise. Everyone KNOWS what it is, but to really do it well and subtley, is hard work.

I find it helps to listen, and I do mean listen carefully, to the dialogue in TV soaps. They tend to information dump and tell, so as to get much more back info into short time span. Totally spoilt a recent episode of O.C. California for myself listening too hard. It was quite painful. But if I don't pay too much attention, it works.

I think that's sometimes the trick with writing it. One can get so hung up on the writing "how-to's" and what to avoid, that we can forget just to write a darn good story.

patty said...

Ink,

I agree that there are lots of ways to convey what a character is feeling -- and that's why I hate writing "rules." (Something I think all book lovers -- agents, editors, writers, and readers -- agree on.) I hate "show, don't tell" most of all, because I think it's caused writers to go light on the description, and I like vivid description.

Also, I think "show, don't tell" obscures two important considerations. First: pacing. Showing takes a lot longer than telling. If I need the readers to know that John has a broken ankle, but the details of how he broke his ankle don't matter to the overall story, I don't need to include a scene about how John broke his ankle. A sentence or two should suffice.

Second: rhythm. Language has a rhythm, just like music. Sometimes an adverb, like "quietly," just sounds better than three sentences about a character's tone of voice and mannerisms. There are few things more annoying to me, as a reader, than to have an intense dialogue broken up by sentences about how this character or that character is shifting his legs and wiping his brow. Just say "nervously." I know what you mean. Trust me.

If, on the other hand, what a character is doing is important -- if there's a reason I need to know that he's shifting his legs, other than that he's nervous -- then show it. And that, I think, is the appropriate line between showing and telling. The more important something is, the more important showing becomes. It's really a matter of emphasis.

Nathan --

Yes, I misinterpreted what you wrote there. Sorry. :)But it's nice that you've taken the time to clarify what you mean when you say "show, don't tell." Half the problem with rules is that it's not always clear what they mean.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes you tell, sometimes you show. Don't waste space showing things about one-off characters or backstory events. Unfolding plot events should generally be shown. "Attractive, but not a supermodel" might sufficient for some characters, while a full anatomical rundown may be warranted for others. Depends. There are no rules, but you should be aware when you are in either "tell" or "show" mode.

Nathan Bransford said...

I think anon makes a good point about throwaway characters - if you describe them in too much detail and make them overly memorable the reader is going to wonder why they never come back.

Marilyn Peake said...

I think the rule that showing is important means that only telling is the real problem. If you write something like: "Mary was angry, but she was also beautiful. John was mesmerized by the young woman’s beauty, but mystified by her anger. As he pondered the situation, the doorbell rang." the reader is soon yawning and putting the book down. This sample has no mood, no description, nothing but the telling of facts. It’s boring. The best writing includes lots of tools: descriptive language, symbols, archetypes, alliteration, etc. that allow a story to work its way into the hearts and minds of readers and make it easy for them to willingly suspend their disbelief in the writer's fictional world.

I’m currently reading THE HISTORIAN by Elizabeth Kostova. I’m enthralled by Kostova’s tremendous skill at balancing the telling of huge amounts of factual information with the most exquisite description.

Anne Rainey said...

This is my first time here. :) Wonderful post! I've read so many different articles on this same topic, but I'm forever hoping to read more and (hopefully) learn a thing or two! :)

Melissa Pearl said...

Awesome post today and everyone's comments have been really helpful. This is an area I struggle with, but you've explained it well. Perfect timing too as I'm just sitting down to do some more editing.
Thanks Nathan :)

Maryann Miller said...

Great tips here. You could guest at The Blood Red Pencil blog. :-)

Once had a writing instructor tell the class to avoid writing "I feel" or "he felt". Every time we use the word "felt" we are telling and not showing.

Marilyn Peake said...

patty said:
"People are visual creatures. We like to see things. (There's a reason television is so popular.) If an author can't make me see their story, I just can't get into it. No matter how elegant the prose or how clever the plot."

I agree with you. With so many modern visual entertainment forms (high def TV, cable TV, movies, YouTube films, etc.), we’re more prone than ever to want visual descriptions in our books. The visual aspects of settings in books are as important as the use of stormy clouds and thunderstorms in horror movies. The setting – including weather, buildings, local customs, etc. – can be used as additional ways to make the reader feel what’s going on within the characters. I love to write fiction set in places that have mystical elements within the culture, e.g. Mexico of the Mayans, ancient Egypt, Heian Period Japan. The geographical setting and culture can be used to reflect what’s going on inside the characters.

Francy said...

I love this blog/I finally have community. To color is to show/a detail which pinpoints the idea/a kind of etherial essence of the character. As last week we filled our inboxes filled with e-maqils about 4o'clock anon, I kept feeling that my 3:45pm comment spawned the debacle. Wow am I good.

M.D.Hobson said...

Thanks so much for clarifing that up for me. It totally makes sence now!
So I was reading through my book (and im a huge movie fan) and I notice that especially in the fight scenes I show alot!
I'm a little worried that I show too much and that it is too much like watching a movie, only you are reading about it. So I'm worried that the scene could either get lost in translation or the reader would get bored.

e_journeys said...

I thought Jeff Gerke had a great take on the show vs. tell debate here, including his section, "When Exposition Works."

One of my favorite books on the writing craft is Naomi Epel's The Observation Deck. I love this quote from her section, "Get Specific": "Don’t tell us the man got angry; show him punching a hole through the motel wall or biting through his lower lip. Don’t tell us the war was brutal, do as Richard Price suggests: show us the burnt socks of children lying by the side of the road."

Marilyn, I read History: A Novel years ago and it blew me away. Usually I love to look out the window at takeoff when I'm flying, but I was reading the Morante on the plane and was so engrossed in the story that I didn't even realize the plane was moving. Missed takeoff entirely.

Marilyn Peake said...

AM -

Thank you!

Cheryl Barker said...

This is one of the best explanations I've heard of this. Will be copying and pasting this post to save. Thanks!

Marilyn Peake said...

Speaking of old-fashioned books vs. modern visual entertainment, here’s the hilarious book trailer for SENSE AND SENSIBILITY AND SEA MONSTERS: on YouTube.

J.J. Bennett said...

I think we tell, instead of show when we're being lazy. I feel like that's a big part of it for myself.

Ink said...

Patty,

That's interesting, because I've been known *cough cough* to like description myself, but I usually find that the "tell" is the worst offender in regards to its lack. The tell is quicker, as you say, and often skimps on the description, avoiding the immersion of the sentences, the experiential details that form good description. I find telling is often a shortcut. It's easier than trying to show something, to get inside an experience.

And yes, there's times you don't want a whole scene for something. You don't want a whole scene showing how someone was injured if the how is irrelevant... except I think in the end it often comes back not to the fact that they showed this, but that they didn't show it well. I find a lot of writers will do just what you said... write a whole scene to convey one piece of information, and this sort of showing is usually overkill. It gives too much importance to something that isn't particularly relevant. But the problem, I think, is not the showing, it's the poor use of it. If you show the injury as a sidenote in a scene that accomplishes five other important things... suddenly the scene is alive, it's human and full of vivid experience. You have a complex human reality rather than a stage-set bit of dramatic pedagogy.

So I guess I just think, for both showing and telling, you have to be careful not to discount the whole technique when it is merely the mediocre application of the technique that's the culprit. I think it often comes down to a matter of subtlety. "John was angry" is not subtle. Neither is "John punched the wall." Too much of either to explicate the emotional reality of characters is going to be tiresome. But if you can provide the almost ephemeral and passing details, the little things that we absorb off the page just as we absorb them in real life (almost unconsciously), then we might have an evocative and complex reality.

Okay, have to go watch Princess Bride now.

Steph Damore said...

Marilyn - thanks for sharing bits of your story; I love the description. Especially the last part of this sentence "drawing in the last rays of moonlight before the illuminated slice dipped behind darkened clouds."

Brilliant!

Re: showing vs. telling - I think learning to show comes from experience. The more we write, the better we get at showing. And telling and keeping the pace the quick takes the most skill of all.

Dawn said...

Thanks for this. I've never heard it explained better.

Orange Slushie said...

i think there's a little more to this issue than the points nathan covered. one of them is trusting the reader. it pays to show and not tell because readers like to be able to deduce things from the text without being told explicitly. the reader deduces that the dog-owner is angry from his physical reaction; telling him or her explicitly is, in essence, patronising. in turn, allowing the reader to make these deductions allows them to engage more with the characters. it's distancing to have a character's psychological/emotional life spelled out all the time. on the other hand, one of the joys of the written word (as opposed to film, for example) is that it has room for precisely that. all things in moderation.

Anonymous said...

The "show don't tell" mantra is an overgeneralization used for Creative Writing 101 initiates. The reality is that 'showing' is a technique, and 'telling' is a technique, and to create a successful novel you're going to need to utilize both of these (and many others) effectively.

One reason many novelists have trouble with the various "short forms" involved in marketing a novel--the hook, the the blurb, the dreaded synopsis--is that they've focused so much on 'showing' during the actual novel(and a novel is dominated by the 'show', not the 'tell', though there will be some measure of 'telling' in there, too), that they've never mastered the art of telling. A good synopsis simply tells you what the story is about, without too much flare.

So there is an art to telling as well as showing. To end up with your book on the shelves, you've got to learn to balance them both.

~The Anonymizer

J. M. Sabel said...

I just read your blog, and as I'm judging a bunch of contest entries, it was a timely blog. I just got in, so I haven't weeded through all the comments. I hope I'm not repeating something. I have run across a lot of she smiled. I've been commenting in the entries, "There are a million ways to say someone smiled rather than just telling us she smiled. Be creative. The same goes for she blushed." Well, I'm a bit more tactful. LOL!

JM

Marilyn Peake said...

Steph Damore -

Thanks so much!!

Marilyn Peake said...

Has anyone here read HOUSE OF LEAVES by Mark Z. Danielewski, or any other experimental novels of that sort where the pages themselves are arranged to create visceral responses in the reader? Danielewski was a film student who decided to write a book with visual cues, and decided that he would never allow the book to be made into a movie because he wanted the book alone to accomplish the visual experience. I read it, and loved this novel – one of my absolutely favorite books!

Jen C said...

I'm with those who think there's a place for telling and a place for showing. A story that is 100% showing could get mighty long and mighty confusing.

I also think it depends on the type of book you're writing - for example, I think the ratio of show to tell would be different in a thriller than it would be in a fictional memoir type story.

Anonymous said...

A friend of mine deals with couples facing diseases like cancer and dementia. She says she can tell so much more about a married couple by their body language than from what they say.

One husband let his wife, who was battling terminal cancer, go alone into a session. He said he'd wait out in the hall because "he had work to do on his laptop".

My friend said as this couple left the building the husband walked way ahead of his wife and didn't hold the door for her. It told my friend so much than anything he could have said about their relationship.

Show don't tell is action and not words.

Other Lisa said...

To me, a lot of this issue is bound up with POV. You need to "show" what your POV character experiences. "Telling" in that sense can be okay as well, because the way your MC "tells" also shows you who he/she is. Thus the unreliable narrator, who is filtering events according to his/her perceptions of them.

I tend to favor pretty close POV, so your mileage may vary here. It's interesting to look at how far away we've gotten from the omniscient narration that was pretty standard not so long ago.

wendy said...

The POV thing is always interesting in that the telling and showing in any story is through the filter of the narrator/MC's POV. I like to begin stories with an omniscient POV and then draw closer to the MC during the first chaper.It's interesting to show the shory world and MC from this all-seeing, unbiased view and then become privy to the thoughts of the person the reader has been following.

Anonymous said...

I think showing and telling together is usually a bad idea. It's usually redundant.

To be informed that a female character is "pretty" and that she has "blue eyes" is yawn-producing.

Which brings up another point: the quality of the showing.

FYI, showing doesn't have to be long-winded; it can be concentrated by use of figurative language, metaphor or simile, for example. Besides, it's not the quantity of detail but the quality. One killer detail is all you need sometimes.

Marilyn Peake said...

Other Lisa said:
"It's interesting to look at how far away we've gotten from the omniscient narration that was pretty standard not so long ago."

I started thinking about the same thing last night, as a result of the discussion here. I came up with a couple of theories about why fiction evolved from omniscient narration to highly visual description.

One reason might be that, because computers make it so much easier for everyone to write and publish books today, we have more competition and more excellent books than ever before. In the past, limited numbers of people with access to printing presses might have resulted in people capable of writing even better books never having written them. Also, with the difficulty inherent in making changes to a manuscript prior to computers, books of the past were probably not edited for actual content as well as they might have been. Despite badly written books that get published today, I think that, overall, literature is published with a much higher standard than ever before.

Another reason might be that older books emerged out of a tradition of oral storytelling in which the storyteller provided the visual entertainment: facial expressions and so on. Maybe, when people read, they pictured an imaginary storyteller. Today, we’re so used to movies and television, we want to forget the storyteller and step directly into the scenes we’re reading about.

Christine H said...

The first writing course I took in college, the teacher kept hammering "show don't tell" but didn't explain it very well. He was a good writer, and has since become very successful, but wasn't that great of a teacher.

Anyways, I took this mantra to mean that you can't tell plot elements, and had to show the person crossing the room, opening the door, walking outside, etc. So of course I got poor marks on my assignments.

As a result, I hated the class, hated writing, and gave up out of frustration for more than a decade. I still have a hard time getting over my fear of "telling" anything at all.

Christine H said...

Personally, I really enjoy the third person omniscient point of view. Perhaps because in movies and television you rely so heavily on visual effects and can't really get inside the characters' heads.

To me, 3rd omniscient is "real" literature. I get such pleasure out of knowing how all the characters respond differently to a situation, even though they don't say so out loud. It's what makes reading a book different from any other form of storytelling.

But that's just me.

Christine H said...

Nathan, I've been thinking a lot about your poll last week, regarding when people write.

I was wondering if you would consider doing another poll, regarding other responsibilities we have.

I was thinking of something like this:
- Work full time (non-writing)
- Work part time (non-writing)
- Full time parent/caregiver
- Full-time writer (earning most of your income from writing)
- Part-time writer (part of your income from writing)/part-time other job
- Part time writer (no other job)
- Part time writer/part-time parent or caregiver
- On sabbatical to write full-time
- Other

Christine H said...

I should probably add one more category - full-time parent/caregiver who also earns some income from writing

patty said...

Anonymous,

Obviously, I don't think calling a character "pretty" and "blue-eyed" is yawn-inducing, and (outside of poetry) I hate most figurative language. There is nothing worse to me than a forced simile, and most similes are forced.

Simple, lucid, straightforward. That's the kind of writing I like.

And that just goes to show why writing "rules" are absurd. People like different things. If you don't like "pretty" and "blue-eyed," you probably didn't care much for Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling described most of her characters, even the minor ones, in loving detail. And she's a billionaire. Which means a heck of a lot of people like the way she writes.

Christine H,

I love 3rd person omniscient, too. I also like 3rd person close. I'm not a huge fan of first person.

I hate present tense.

But I love, love, love The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, both written in first person, present tense.

Which just goes to show -- there are many, many good ways to write, and we can love something that we think we'll hate, and that's why writing rules are so stupid. They encourage conformity in an area that, by its very nature, is vibrantly chaotic.

Sandra said...

Thank you for this excellent post, Nathan. This is the best explanation and examples I have seen on show don't tell.

I'm new to writing with hopes of becoming published and have had trouble with this issue. I think it is something that, to a certain extent, needs to be relegated to that first rewrite. For me it got to where I was feeling bound to a chair, unable to move or write because I was so worried about telling.

Be aware of it, but don't let it cripple your initial efforts; then let your editor point out the scenes that need work.

To add my two cents to the comments of others - I also enjoy omniscient POV and find it is my default POV when first coming up with a story.

Sandra

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the post. I still have the trouble with show, don't tell, especially because editors sometimes go all over the place. For example, at a resent conference an editor said that it was not enough to say that a character slumped his shoulders. When I asked more what I should do, they went into walking aways sad. I'm a little confused. Is slumping your shoulders right?
Thank you.

Mira said...

Anon 8:36 - good examples.

Daniel said...

The thing you have to understand about the "rules" of strong writing as that adherence to them is probably necessary, but insufficient to guarantee that your work will be readable and ultimately publishable.

"Show, Don't Tell" is a lesson in how to make a brick, and your objective in writing a story is to build a skyscraper.

For example, here is an example of "telling" something:

The attractive woman walked across the lobby.

This contains very little information. You don't know much about the woman, or about what is going to happen. There's nothing that frames this as an important event. If this is a background detail, you may want to describe it this way, but it's a fairly bland way to introduce a character

Now here is the same event with a lot of "showing":

The sound of Jimmy Choos clicking against imported Italian marble echoed through the cavernous space as the twenty-six year-old woman crossed the lobby. Her hair was shoulder-length and medium auburn, cut fashionably, and it accented the amber flecks in her emerald-green eyes, which were the first feature most people noticed about her, unless they were more drawn to her ample C-cup breasts or her tan, shapely legs.

There are a lot of details here, but they're not quality details. The color of her hair and her eyes don't tell me much about her, nor do the anatomical descriptions. The showing here is aimless and pointless and ultimately ineffective.

People's eyes probably need to be described for some kinds of romance, and their bodies probably need to be described in erotic stuff, but generally, showing on its own is only a rudimentary first step before you figure out what you're going to show, which is what makes it a story. This kind of description is bad because it doesn't advance the narrative. I think this isn't significantly better than the first example, which had brevity going for it.

Here's something I think is more effective:

Beads of cold sweat rose on the back of his neck as she approached, and the sharp noise of her heels against the marble floor of the lobby seemed to him like the ticking of some terrible clock. He smiled at her and stammered a greeting, and she purred an acknowledgement. Her mouth was red and sensuous, with just a little bit of cruelty in the corners of it, and he thought, when ruined men trace back their lives to figure out where it all got away from them, they probably end up at a moment like this, with a woman like her.

Now, here, the condition of her being attractive has been converted into plot; somebody being attracted to her. Rather than describing her entirely, we've seized on a couple of key details, her mouth and the sound of her high heels against the floor. A single evocative detail contributes a lot to the reader's visualization and advances the character.

Think about a boxer's broken nose; the bridge is crooked and one side of it is flattened, and when you've got that nose, the reader will extrapolate the face it fits into.

Think about prominent gums, and lips peeling back off of them when a character smiles. Think about receding chins. Think about a stain on a shirt collar, a stubbly spot the character missed when he shaved. Think about damp handshakes and dirt under fingernails.

Have a perspective character notice these details and use them to frame the relationships. Think about how this stuff fits into the conflict in the scene and the narrative.

Mastery of the tools is the first step, but you're not really there until you employ those tools for some overarching purpose.

patty said...

Daniel --

To be honest, I liked the first example best. I really couldn't care less if someone's high heels are clicking against the floor, and I've certainly never thought clicking heels sounded like a "terrible ticking clock". To me, that kind of detail sounds forced and melodramatic. I'd throw down a book that included it in a second. I like a fast pace, and figurative language like that slows down a scene way too much for me.

You obviously like something different. So we're different. And there's room in the market for different types of storytelling. Not everyone writes the same way; not everyone likes the same style. There is no one kind of good writing.

Christine H said...

One of the more common mistakes, I think, is to try to show EVERYTHING. You don't have to do that.

Show the IMPORTANT things.

You can describe a place or person in a few well-chosen words.
If you spend three paragraphs on something, that better be absolutely crucial to the story. If not, you're wasting the reader's time. Just get on with it. Save the in-depth descriptions for what really counts.

Just my humble opinion.

Anonymous said...

Daniel – That was a great example of show and tell where the author shows just enough details to create a visual scene in the readers mind, but then shapes their interpretation of what they are seeing by telling them something.

A quick show and tell:

John looked up at a Henrietta and smiled, glad that she’d come. When his eyes met hers, pink blotches spread across her narrow face. She pushed her thin, brown hair behind her ears with trembling fingers, and as he knew she would, she dropped her eyes to study the splintered floor beneath her feet. His smile widened, and he reached for her hand.

His friends shuffled and coughed behind him, but he ignored them. He knew they thought Henrietta was plain, and for reasons he would never understand, they didn’t see what he saw when he looked at her.

-- Now, in this example, I don't have to waste valuable word count showing what each of John's friends see when they look at Henrietta, and for that matter, what John actually sees when he looks at her.

BTW, Patty, style is adaptive to both the genre and the scene based on what the writer is trying to convey artistically with minimal words. By explaining the sound that his character's shoes made on the marble floor as she approached, Daniel is giving the reader a sense of both the physical space in the scene and the protagonist’s increasing anxiety as she approaches. In a single sentence, the scene moves forward in the readers’ minds.

If she is only a passing distraction to the other characters in the scene, then the first sentence would be sufficient, but if the author needs to use her approach to convey something important, the first sentence would be flat writing.

patty said...

Christine H,

I completely agree.

Anonymous,

Let me make this plain. I am saying that I, a reader, would not continue to read a book that included Daniel's third example in it. I might continue reading after the first, depending on what followed it.

You disagree. That's fine.

Somehow, the publishing industry needs to keep us both happy if it wants us to keep buying books.

The way that is done is not by publishing books written only in one type of style, but by publishing different books that appeal to different people.

That's why we have genres. That's why we have some books written in past tense, and some books written in present. That's why some are told in first person, and some are told in third. That's why some books have a very fast pace (my kind of book), and some have a slow, steady pace.

The problem isn't that you prefer Daniel's kind of writing. It's that not everybody does, nor should they have to.

In the late Roman Republic, Cicero and Caesar were considered the greatest writers and orators. Cicero had a flowery, complex style. Caesar had a simple, lucid style. They both had their admirers, and who was better generally depended on who was being asked.

I prefer "she smiled" to "the corners of her lips turned up like [insert simile here]." I prefer "she blushed" to "her cheeks reddened like a June rose." I prefer "she was slight and pretty, with black hair and green eyes" to a paragraph telling me how she smelled, and how she walked, and what kind of shoes she was wearing, without saying how she actually LOOKED.

Had I been Roman, I would have preferred Caesar to Cicero.

I like stories with a lot of dialogue and a lot of action, enough description for me to be able to imagine what's going on, and enough exposition so I understand who's doing what and why.

That doesn't make me right, and you wrong. That doesn't make me wrong, and you right. We like different things. That's all. The world has room for different tastes.

Anonymous said...

Nathan,
I wonder if you would ever think of adding an editing hat to your many talents?

I don't know if that would be must too much or a conflict of interest, but you are obviously invested in helping writers improve their skill.

I would love to see you groom and prune writers, perhaps hold a workshop here and there anyway.

I'd bet that any new writer with a good story but a few missing links that you worked with seriously, would be capable of exceptional output.

Nathan Bransford said...

Thanks, anon. I actually wear that hat almost every day. Almost all agents these days help their clients editorially in advance of submissions, and even afterward, so I'm very regularly working on editorial notes and reading my clients' work. I appreciate your confidence.

Marilyn Peake said...

Daniel,

Wow, love your third example! It tells me almost as much about the character who's the narrator as it does about the woman he's describing. Not everyone would be as helplessly attracted to her as he is. When you write, "...seemed to him like the ticking of some terrible clock." it’s clear that that this is his personal reaction to a situation over which he has very little self-control, with time ticking away toward the exact moment when he gets involved with someone who’s trouble. If other people are in the lobby, there are probably many who would stay away from a woman like that. Nice writing!

Bane of Anubis said...

If a woman ever purrs an acknowledgment to me, I might just tickle her under the chin and give her a treat.

Daniel said...

Patty-

Obviously, you don't want a simile like that on every page. You don't want more than a handful of those in a book.

I totally agree that, e.g. "She blushed like a June rose" is much worse than "She blushed." Strong verbs stand on their own and rarely need further elaboration.

I don't like an omniscient narrator describing somebody as "pretty," though. Who thinks she's pretty? I want to attribute that assessment to another character.

BofA-

Fair point.

Seidel said...

Thanks, Nathan. Echoing PurpleClover and others, it's good concise advice regarding showing vs. telling. I'll add it to my 'Writing Rules', 20 pages of insight I've collected that I think help me write and edit. Cheers

Anonymous said...

Patty said “The problem isn't that you prefer Daniel's kind of writing. It's that not everybody does, nor should they have to.”

Let me make this plain too. I don’t think we are talking about the same thing. The topic had nothing to do with me prefering Daniel's kind of writing.

You seem to be defending yourself as though others here have disparaged you personally and your preferences.

As far as I understand, the discussion is not about style preferences – it’s specifically about showing vs. telling.

For example, let’s say that you and I are given ten facts to include in a paper. The exercise might be to tell our readers the facts. When we are done, though we will have both told the same facts, our overall writing styles would be distinctly different.

Daniel’s examples were on mark regarding the topic. He portrayed how writers may mix showing vs. telling to reveal and convey more than what is actually being said in a scene. In his examples, Daniel used three different writing styles and different mixes of show vs. tell for a similar scene. In doing so, he changed how the reader would view the female character and for that matter, how the reader viewed the male looking at the female. His examples gave the reader varying degrees of insight into the characters. If, as a reader, you need another sentence that spells out the color of her hair and eyes, all right, but nothing he’s said here precludes including those physical details.

If you don't like how the examples are portrayed or the writing styles, okay, but is it on topic? As a rhetorical question, how would you write a scene to convey an anxious protagonist's first meeting with a dangerous, fashionable woman, who uses her beauty to manipulate and ruin men?

If you were to write an example, then you will certainly have demonstrated your preferred style of writing, but will you have revealed as much about the characters’ true characters and their relevance to the story as Daniel accomplished to do in so few words? Maybe you would have. And if you chose to use dialog, that’d be great. Depending on its execution, dialog may also either show or tell or both, which I believe was the original point.

To be even plainer, when you say that you would put down a book because you didn’t like ONE phrase in the book, you weaken your argument about tolerance for different writing styles – if that is what you are trying to do – and it comes off as defensive and rude when you direct such comments toward another poster’s examples.

Daniel, for the record, since Patty made it a point in this dialog, I would not have been putting down your book. Thanks for sharing.

Livia said...

Ooh, one of my favorite examples of showing good details is from Hoot. I like how just one event shows you so much.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post, Nathan. I'm usually a lurker on your site, but couldn't help commenting on the old 'show don't tell' rule.

I agree with a previous comment thhat both showing and telling are writing techniques that are equally valid. Personally, I need a good balance of show and tell in a story, but if there has to be a choice between the two (not that there should be, mind you), I'm firmly on the 'tell' side of things. Showing ends up telling me too much ironically. I know, some will say that that means the 'show' hasn't been done well, but that's pretty subjective, isn't it? I like the use of description (the 'telling' kind) so that I can paint a scene in my mind without having to read about someone slamming a door or jumping up and down in joy. Too much action for me, especially when not everyone expresses what they feel in a 'showy' way. You can say a person is pretty and blue eyed btw without being redundant because I've seen some ugly looking blue eyed people before:) Blue isn't always pretty, so here the 'tell' has added a layer to the story. And it gets annoying to me if I have to keep learning every little bitty thing about a character from another character.

What really makes me disturbed though is something that's been raised already: there's room for all kinds of writing techniques in the world. I like having an array of styles to read, different ways to picture a story. It's like looking at a watercolour or oil painting; very different, but equally needed to explore the spectrum of creativity that painters (and writers) have to offer.

Anyway, I hope the so-called writing rules that are whacking writers on the head nowadays will not result in generic literature, or worse, dogmatic literature, where one style is deemed 'better' than the other despite the fact that writers and readers are all very different.

Whitearrow

Daniel said...

Anon-

I think Patty takes issue with the simile. I put it in there to tie the woman's approach to the man's anxiety, and the sound of the heels against the marble floor works to establish the setting.

My larger point was about the decisions an author has to make.

For example, developing that same scene, I could describe the building lobby in a lot of detail. I could talk about the revolving glass doors, and the security guard, staring imperiously at passersby from from his perch behind a high desk. I could talk about the twenty-foot high ceilings and about the soft, organic light.

I could describe the corporate art installation in one corner. It's composed of sharp, angular steel beams intersecting undulating shapes made of molded plastic. The company paid an extravagant sum for this thing five years ago, when everybody was flush with boom cash; now the colors in the plastic seem to be fading and the piece is covered with a thin layer of dust.

But none of these things relate to the action that is taking place; these details are entirely extraneous to the plot. The objective is to illustrate this space as economically as possible, not by telling instead of showing, but by efficient use of carefully-selected details to create a visual or tactile impression in the reader's mind, without interrupting the momentum of the plot. If you do it right, they'll see the thing without you ever having to describe it.

Contemporary narratives, I think, need to move forward with energy and purpose, and this is especially true for debut authors who will be allowed no indulgence from the various gatekeepers who have to approve new work before it gets published.

Anonymous said...

Daniel,

What struck me about your last post was that I was taken in by your descriptions of the building lobby; if you had included it in the original piece, it would have set me up with a living background for what came next. Of course, that's just my (one reader's) preference.

As for the ending of your post: 'Contemporary narratives, I think, need to move forward with energy and purpose, and this is especially true for debut authors who will be allowed no indulgence from the various gatekeepers who have to approve new work before it gets published.'.....hmmmm what can I say to that:

(a) When I write, I write for my story and my vision of it. It may tell the story terribly to some, or it may be brilliant, depending on who you ask.

(b) What conveys energy and purpose depends on what each individual's perception is equipped with to see that energy and purpose, and can be achieved with either show or tell.

(c) If I start telling my stories based on what the publishing industry wants me to say (and I don't think it's quite so rigid, based on the types of books that have been coming out these past few years), I wouldn't be a storyteller anymore, I would be someone else's version of a storyteller. (Note: this does not mean a writer shouldn't listen to their editor)

(d) Writers have historically been revolutionaries in style, if not plot, even if that means going against the grain of 'rules' of the day. Many classics/bestsellers today have been surprises to those who predicted what 'contemporary' literature should be about in any given generation.

(e) I don't think the use of a writing style is about asking for indulgence from anyone. It's about what works for the writer when he creates his story. If the writer is any kind of storyteller worth his salt, the person he's telling the story to is gonna get it, regardless of the style used. A pity if that has been lost in the whirlwind of trying to achieve the magic formula that all readers will like (which, btw, doesn't exist, unless you're counting Harry Potter, a story with a huge amount of 'tell').

And why change the way I write because of what others see instead of what I see? I see 'tell' as a gorgeous form of expression for any writer who uses it. And as a reader, I read 'tell' very vividly, while scenes in 'show' often fall flat for me.

Ultimately, I think it's just a case of preferences, for both writer and reader,and bringing in thoughts of gatekeepers who allow no indulgence is too restrictive a way to approach a creative art, whether or not those gatekeepers do exist.

Whitearrow

Anonymous said...

Daniel,

Daniel said, "The objective is to illustrate - - as economically as possible, not by telling instead of showing, but by efficient use of carefully-selected details to create a visual or tactile impression in the reader's mind, without interrupting the momentum of the plot. If you do it right, they'll see the thing without you ever having to describe it."

I couldn't agree more.

Many prominent authors have stressed the importance of carefully measuring what we – tell - our readers. The consensus has been that when authors paint a scene or character in minute detail, they diminish the collaborative process of creating an individualized world with their readers. In other words, although we lay the foundation of our imaginary worlds, when we release it to the readers, it becomes theirs. Every one of them will individualize that world for themselves.

If a 100 readers were provided the same detailed physical attributes of a character (including the specks of hazel in her grey eyes), and they were asked to create a composite of the character that they imagined, I have no doubt that all of the composites would be distinctly different. Why? Because the readers didn’t physically see the same person. They see different characters, who have the same attributes, in their imaginary eye.

I’ve recently distributed my novel to my (well-read) focus group. After they finished reading the novel, I asked them to complete a rather detailed survey about the plot, pacing, voice… and characters.

In the novel, there is this one particularly over-the-top character. Though I gave the readers very few descriptive details about the character (e.g. He let his thin-rimmed glasses slip to the tip of his nose), I never described his physical appearance.

In the survey, I asked the readers to describe several of the characters’ as they imagined them. And for this particular character, they provided very detailed but very different descriptions – even the race of the character varied – but not a single reader said that any of the characters in the novel were under described.

When I asked them to prioritize their favorite characters, I was surprised that this same character was the favorite character for many of the readers. He was also the character that they most related to. Why? I think it was because he was their character. The reader created the physical image that best suited their ideal for the character’s personality.

What an enlightening experience this was for me!

Anonymous said...

Interesting post!

In my personal experience, the key component in Showing vs. Telling is Behavior, Behavior, Behavior:

This works for both novels, movies, and television -- it's okay to tell the reader that someone is: stubborn, kind, generous, rude, witty, rash... but then you must SHOW it. Actual examples of that behavior should be present in the text. The reader should not have to 'take your word for it'. They won't truly internalize the characterization, and build the personality in their mind, unless they actually get to "see" it happening.

The same with character relationships. Good father & son relationships, bad mother & daughter, close friendships, unrequited love -- the reader needs to be presented with specific examples, moments between them that support how the author has classified the relationship.

Think of it like a high school or university essay -- you've presented your thesis, now PROVE IT. Supporting details are required!

This is sometimes called "earning" a character label/moment/plot twist when people critique television. The writer has to build up the character to earn the classification of kind, irresistible to men, brave, etc. or to prove to the reader/viewer that Person X deserves to be rewarded or punished.

Amber Hamilton said...

A professional critique (from Diane Bailey) came in yesterday with the same theme. Great advice for me. Now, I'm off to write it right...

Chrystal said...

Wow! This post received a lot of feed-back. So what else can I write, which hasn't already been written here?
Other than, Nathan as long as you keep posting I'll keep reading & perhaps learning something from what is written.

Anonymous said...

My moment of enlightenment!
I have been reading my way through all of Nathan's advice blogs. As I was reading this article and I began to understand showing versus telling everything else began to fall into place. I reached the tipping point of knowledge, but I still need to learn a lot. I see now that my first attempts at writing are trash. I am guilty of of telling too much and showing too little, and many other errors, but this allows me to understand many other things Nathan has been saying.

Thank you Nathan!

Anonymous said...

If I want to see something, I will watch a movie, watch the news, or go outside and see it.

If I want to learn something about other people and what they think under a variety of circumstances, I will read a novel.

A novel polluted with attempts to compete against movies make me want to gag.


Just tell me your story and tell me what the characters are thinking about in the story,

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