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‘Show, Don’t Tell’ Almost Ruined Me as a Writer (lithub.com)
90 points by samclemens 13 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 112 comments





My understanding of 'show, don't tell' is that instead of just telling the reader;

he was nervous

you show it through the prose like this;

He hesitated. Wringing his hands together, shifting from foot to foot. "I... I don't think you're right. Maybe not about that."

You shouldn't be keeping the stuff you're not telling secret. It's not about not letting the reader know things, it's about not being fucking boring about it.


I agree with that you should show when you can.

But at the same time a lot of the time people in real life don't show nearly all of what is going on with them.

In that case "tell" either gets contrived - you end up with convoluted attempts at externalizing thoughts in way that bears no relation to how the character would act in real life, or you ignore the story. The former often leads to lots of monologues or contrived props to make the character show you things in ways that makes no sense. In the right setting that can work, but often it is just jarring to e.g. have a character talk out loud to themselves or otherwise act out things they'd be more likely to just have thought about.

This seems to be why she is bringing up abuse, for example. An abuse victim writing about their experience can certainly "show" the abuse, but how do they show how it made them feel and what it made them think about, when they've often worked hard to keep a mask and not show the world how they were affected?

It's good advice to show, not tell, on the basis that most people who haven't written much tell way too much and show too little. The problem is that it is then sometimes overdone. It doesn't always makes sense to show instead of telling. Either because showing becomes contrived, or for example because showing commands attention, and sometimes you want to tell to avoid drawing attention away from the main thrust of a scene or a work to some detail necessary to understand what is going on, but not important enough to show.


Show doesn't necessarily mean show right? The subject might not wring their hands and shuffle from foot to foot. Instead they might feel their pulse start to race, or feeling sweaty palmed or whatever. It's about describing a thing and allowing the reader to understand why without always explicitly telling them everything.

As an actor, we'd call that kind of thing "indicating", which is more telling than showing. Rather than actually feeling something, you put on the indicators of that feeling: "There is water leaking out of my eyes, therefore you know I'm sad". Which misses the whole rest of the performance. It's better than saying "I am sad", but not by much.

What you really have to do, in both writing and acting, is more subtle and difficult. It has to become an organic part of the narrative/performance Any example you give is always going to sound like indicating, since it is extracted from that overall flow. If you've crossed out "he was nervous" and wrote instead "his pulse raced", you haven't improved it by much, if anything. But if you're fully visualizing the scene, from whatever POV you've been using so far, you can seek out the next detail and write that as the next sentence.

The essence of "show don't tell" is to be active rather than passive. Talking about feelings, or even indicating feelings, is less active than saying how they act on those feelings. The more specific their actions, the more the reader will internalize the feelings as they live it with the character, even -- or perhaps especially -- when being told from a viewpoint that wouldn't give them access to internals like pulse rate. Movies are exciting without getting any of that information directly.


Yes, but that is not going to tell you what they think or even how they feel with any kind of fidelity.

If someone is a true literary master they may come closer to bridging that gap, but you always leave a lot of ambiguity on the table that way. Sometimes that ambiguity is fine, and allows the reader to add their own interpretations and the outcome may well be better for it, but if you have specific things you want to convey, it can be incredibly hard to convey even very simple things without telling.

I got incredibly cynical of that after going through literary analysis at school and seeing just how contrived a lot of the attempts at analysis were. Even when trying to analyse works line by line the outcomes are often extremely dubious (or directly contradicted by the author); I don't think even most world renowned authors are capable of unambiguously putting through particularly complex messages without telling. Often it's hard enough to get the message through when it is incredibly explicit.


You are correct.

I agree with the last bit about how writing advice can be overdone. The slavish adherence to the hero's journey, aka the monomyth, is painful sometimes. When you start recognizing 'the rejection of the call' when the main character has no reason to reject the call to action, it kills any kind of enjoyment.

In the end it's a matter of communicating what you want to the intended audience. 'show don't tell' is a tool to do it. but you're right, not everything is a nail you need to hit with that hammer.


Yeah, I think there’s a certain amount of tail wagging the dog with use of structures like the hero’s journey. Campbell’s work was observational, not proscriptive. Using it as a template is missing the point.

Certain story structures are more engaging than others. Hero's journey is one of the most engaging well known story structures. Also, many elements of the hero's journey are "optimal" from a psychophysical standpoint.

I’m not saying the hero’s journey is bad or something, just that it gets misunderstood and falls into flat paint by numbers.

As Campbell set it out, it’s less a singular structure than a catalog of common scenes and archetypes in heroic myths, not all of which might appear in any given story. It’s the overall arc of “hero enters magical world of story -> overcomes trial -> returns with power to grant boons” that’s constant.

In Campbell’s observation, these stories have a cultural function - they’re usually about resolving psychological tensions and navigating liminal spaces. Just using it as an outline to fill in the blanks without understanding why and how those scenes function is going to fall flat every time.


"Show, don't tell" strikes me as a video proscription more than a writing one, even if it has worked its way into writing since. It's fine for it to be more complicated in a writing medium. You probably don't want "just tell", but "show and tell" can work fine there. Dune is definitely a "show and tell" book and it works great.

Maybe it's different for movies. I thought show don't tell was at a higher level than "he was nervous". It's more you can tell "James Bond is a super spy, he's super fit, and he's super suave" or you can show him early on doing things that demostrate he's fit, he's suave, and he's a spy and so no need to tell.

I'm no longer a Star Wars fan and these are not good movies IMO but this video essay on The Force Awakens vs Rouge One is a good example of show vs tell

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gsIQa7sH5_Y


I actually prefer "he was nervous". It gets to the point and keeps the story going. There are a lot of books that are unreadable to me because they refuse to get to the point and want me to dig up the point through layers of prose.

I guess I like books that have a point, rather than just spend some time surfing on prose. Both are probably valid experiences, but I have a clear preferences.

I tend to prefer older SF writers like Clarke and Asimov, which were pretty good at getting to the point. With modern writers I tend to prefer their older books from before they learned to bury the point under layers of prose.


They're not trying to get to the point, they want to "paint a picture." Fiction authors are creating escape and entertainment just the same as movie and TV writers. So getting to the point is the opposite of what they want to do.

This imo is the thing that distinguishes fiction lovers from everyone else.


I tend to love the plot more than the painted picture. Also, I'm a slow reader, and digging through that kind of prose slows me down a lot, because I keep digging for a point that it's probably trying to get across to me.

This may also be why I prefer writers like Asimov and Clarke: they usually do have an actual idea they're trying to get across, rather than just fill some time with prose.


A conspicuous hatch in the ground isn't that interesting, but when you cover it with leaves and twigs and give it a weathered look, it suddenly becomes the most interesting thing in the world.

I think 'show, don't tell' is a mostly meant for inexperienced story tellers since it's an easy trap to fall into that can kill the story. There's a bunch of other rules like not mixing tenses or sticking to a single perspective that when they're broken by a writer that has some serious writing chops make for some really great stories.

I think that in this example, I prefer the "tell" version.

The whole "Wringing his hands together, shifting from foot to foot" just to tell "nervous" makes for a boring reading. It is dawning what is important in too many details.

I can instantly imagine nervous person and change how I perceive rest of communication and move on with story. The whole foot shifting is too indirect and I will likely ignore the nervousness when interpreting the rest of story.


If all people in the book are only described as “nervous” when they are nervous, “angry” when they are angry etc., that would make a boring book.

Varied descriptions are what makes a character. There’s a huge difference between “shuffling feet” and “clenching jaws”, for example.


> There’s a huge difference between “shuffling feet” and “clenching jaws”, for example.

What is the difference between the two?

It may boil down for why you read, but this is really not what makes character interesting to me.


It makes character behavior and the character themselves believable.

An otherwise stoic character who shows little to no emotion is nervously shuffling feet? This either breaks the character (and immersion) or speaks volumes about what’s coming next. Of course, this could be described as “uncharacteristically nervous”, but if we don’t even know what is characteristic of a character, such a description will not work.

Language is a set of tools, and good writers wield all of them.


Not to me, really.

It could be just described as "nervous" which is not at all in contradiction with stoicism. Internal state and what people show is not the same. The uncharacteristically is not present in descriptive version either, no reason to add it here.

Whether the character is shuffling feets or have different tells is just a detail - effectively just synonym of nervous. Anyway, real world people don't do that, you usually notice different voice, speed of talking and subtle differences. It is a bit offtopic maybe, but shuffling feets is a bit distracting exmple because people nowdays don't do it.

Just telling that emotio where it fits is one of tools that can be used.


But actually, "he was nervous" is much more economical than the alternative, and works for me. Perhaps "he was nervous, and it showed". Showing can make things vivid, but telling lets me use my imagination even more.

I've taken "show, don't tell" to mean "don't have a character explain things for the reader", which is easier to agree with.


Telling is lazy and ruins the immersion, so it should be avoided where practical. That being said, rules are meant to be broken, and one of the marks of a good reader is knowing when to break them.

For the "nervous" example, I think it's far better to make the prose make the reader feel how nervous the character is. It may be more verbose, but it'll leave a bigger impact on the reader if you do it properly.

I really like Cormac McCarthy, and he does a fantastic job of using prose to create a feeling in the reader. When there's an intense action scene, words become simpler, sentences sometimes become longer (I've seen sentences span nearly half a page), and the prose moves along faster. When there's reflection/boredom, the opposite happens, with more complex words and sentence structure and generally slower moving prose. He's a master of using prose to convey emotion.

When I read something like this:

> He was nervous. Not the waiting in line to get your picture taken kind of nervous, but the first day at a new school in a new city kind of nervous. He'd been on dozens of dates, why was this one tying his stomach in knots?

I just think the writer was too lazy to paint a picture of the scene and instead expects me to do that for myself. I would much prefer something like this:

> He glances at his watch. 5 minutes to. He motions for another round. Sir, your table is ready. Thanks ma'am. Right this way. He checks the clock by the front door. 3 minutes. Plenty of time. He starts for his napkin, thinks better of it, then adjusts the vase. 2 minutes. He takes a sip, rolling it around with his tongue, and checks his watch. Still two minutes...

Or something like that. I much prefer to experience a story than read about it.


I strongly strongly prefer the first version, the one you called lazy.

The other is dawning the story in too many details that don't matter except for telling me he is nervous. It is the sort of stuff you skip over or stop reading entirely. It also kills joy of story, because the story is hidden behind too many irrelevant details.

------

On that matter, I think that "it is lazy" argument does not make sense and on itself is lazy. I care about how it reads and feels. I honestly don't care whether author worked hard. As far as I am concerned, author could write an hour a day sunbathing the rest if I like the result.

Authors don't have to do things the hardest way possible for me. If it was easy to write I am ok with it assuming it is easy to read.


To me, the two versions here don't seem like 'showing' vs 'telling,' but interior monologue vs exterior view.

I prefer the first example, and read it as a window into the character's thoughts. It's very much showing to me, but done through character voice and thought.


I agree with 'watwut and strongly prefer the first version. One additional insight: the first version lets me actually imagine the feeling. "Not the waiting in line to get your picture taken kind of nervous, but the first day at a new school in a new city kind of nervous" is something I can relate to. Checking time and shuffling vases? That's not how I usually experience nervousness, and it also gives me less information about what kind of nervousness the protagonist is experiencing.

Right, there's that as well. Because we experience nervousness differently, you might as well tell the reader that the character is nervous.

Again, I take "tell" to be about characters telling the reader important details by unnecessarily saying them in dialog to other characters.


Too much description gets tiresome, sorry.

I often think of Borges, how incredibly economical he was with words, yet still able to paint a vivid picture. I want prose to be as economical with words as possible. The reader's (my!) time is valuable, so the author should not take too much of it. Boring the reader, risks losing the reader.


Many great writers tell and don't show, if that is what the situation calls for. Read a couple of pages of Tolstoy and you will notice.

What is the reason this mantra became so engrained, most notably in creative writing courses? I think the reason is that it is very hard if not impossible to teach people how to write beautifully, but it is relatively easy to teach them how to write acceptably. The main trick is to teach them to avoid common pitfalls and mistakes. Among this is the basic stuff like: don't switch perspective or time midsentence, be wary of adverbs and adjectives, etc. It also includes the tricky stuff that can easily go sideways. A fledgling writer had better stay away from sex scenes, to mention an obvious one.

"Show, don't tell" fits this category as well. The idea is that "telling" done badly is a sure way to bore the reader out of her skull. And it often is. It invites lazy characterization. "Amy was nervous," does not sound very exciting.

The problem however is that "showing" can get quite boring as well. There is, for instance, this whole hackish vocabulary of observations that signal emotional states, which has become a drop-in replacement for telling. Instead of nervous, Amy is now fidgetting, her heart is pounding and her palms are sweating. These are the worst examples of course. Better writers go out of their way to avoid cliches like this, but they are still beholden to the idea that Amy shall not be described as nervous. That can become problematic if working around it ruins the pacing of a text or diverts the attention from what the writer is getting at. Tolstoy often feels so wonderfully to the point because he dispenses with the obvious stuff by just telling it.

Showing and telling are tools. Like in many other endeavours, you should use the best tool for the job.


Chekhov (possibly apocryphal): "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass."

You can tell things. You just have to tell the right thing.


I'd assume the "broken glass" is actually relevant to the story, so this way "show, don't tell" is actually the way to compress information.

I think part of the reason this advice gets overemphasized is introductory screenwriting books. Show, show, show gets drilled into you. For obvious reasons it’s more true there than in prose, but still gets people into trouble for similar reasons to the ones you list.

I agree with other commenters that the author’s interpretation of “Show, Don’t Tell” seems off, and/or contrived. In any case, maybe the piece is meant to be meta, like Alanis Morrisette’s “Ironic”, because it seems the author went out of their way to not show any actual examples of how “Show, don’t tell” resulted in inferior writing.

I've only skimmed the article. However I can't help myself but thing about the recently posted article: https://barryhawkins.com/blog/posts/the-myth-of-commoditized...

Blog posts complaining about a "concept reduced to a few words" that did not help them would make more sense if the author first explained how they approached "the thing", what they expected to get out of it and what were they ready to sacrifice.


I think of "Show, don't tell." as a mnemonic name, comparable to the mnemonic names for instructions in assembler language.

Obviously LDA loads the accumulator, but does it also clear the carry bit? You cannot divine from the name. You have to be familiar the details of the instruction from the manual.

Similarly, can you ever "tell"? You go to the "Show, don't tell." chapter in the "learn to write novels" book, and re-read the section "Sometimes you have to tell.".

You cannot work it out from the three word phrase. It is not just that it is too short. The internal structure is merely mnemonic. "show" doesn't mean "show". "tell" doesn't mean "tell". They are just reminders of the more subtle concepts explained in the chapter.


> “For some of our students, “Don’t tell” repeats the abuse they will have endured along with its highest commandment: secrecy.”

This is way too extreme. Surely people who have experienced abuse shouldn’t be treated like they are too frayed to understand the difference between a literary tactic and oppression of their suffering? Surely it’s not healthy to cast trauma victims and survivors in this kind of way? They can think for themselves like everyone else.


It's all about me, Me, ME!

Better article about "Show, Don't Tell" on TV Tropes.[1]

[1] https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ShowDontTell


This is written so incoherently that no one should be taking writing advice from this person, whatever that advice is.

In her defense, she does claim to be ruined as a writer.

This was the one and only thought that came to mind when I made an attempt to read the article.

I do wonder if it's just a question of attention span. Does the author ramble or am I just incapable of following along on a long form article? Would I have read this article before the internet? I truly don't know, but I do know that there is literally a nearly infinite amount of material to read (relative to my time remaining in life to read it) and I can't waste time on writing such as this.


Wow. It is only semi-structured, but incoherent? Surely not. For one, I got the point of the writer, and got it well. I could feel how she feels. Sure it doesn't follow some rigid way of "how things should be written*, but I trust a monologue that looks written as if by a human, with the rhythm of a human, than any polished, structured piece.

Agree. Indeed it reads like a parody of (self-obsessed & pretentious) bad writing.

Agreed.

I think the problem is likely that neither this teacher nor any students really understand what "show, don't tell" means, and tend to overuse it when they think they do.

That's just a guess, though. This article is a pretentious mess.


I got halfway through, and baffled by how badly written it was, figured the author was writing ironically.

This is what happens when pretentious literati feverishly search for something novel to expound on. There is no magic spell with which to entrance your readers. Pick a method, practice, and develop your own style. If you’re really, really lucky, your style will coincide with the shopping lists of our various editors, and publishers, and you might make a living. Write on!

Well yeah "show don't tell" is terrible memoir advice, but memoir isn't fiction, and memoirs about abuse, your own thoughts, or crying a lot are terminally boring (but important). "Show don't tell" is how to write entertaining fiction, which is not to say that you can't write dry non-fiction about weighty subjects. That said, this:

> When I was taking a sculpture class in college, I sewed a

> kind of wall hanging about secrets I had to keep. I wrote

> things on pieces of paper and tucked them into bumps and

> layers in the fabric. I sewed pockets shut.

is showing.

This is not to discourage those authors whose favorite subject is themselves and their feelings. As an avid reader of fiction, however, if you really must write about your inner feelings, I would suggest making it magical realism or using plot devices where your inner thoughts influence real events, and not subjecting the reader to two hundred pages of your thoughts. Make it a therapy session or a deposition if you must. Or gimmicks. _Trainspotting_ is boring life stuff and the dude going on about how life sucks without heroin, but it's written in a Scottish accent, so it's interesting. (And to be clear it also has plenty of showing. A lot of the scenes of the family life of his friends, etc are pretty indicative of their social environment without going "we were all poor and disenfranchised".)


>> Or gimmicks. _Trainspotting_ is boring life stuff and the dude going on about how life sucks without heroin, but it's written in a Scottish accent, so it's interesting.

If all you got from Trainspotting is that it's 'boring life stuff' save for being written in multiple patios, you probably shouldn't be giving advice to fledgling authors.


The author of the original article is lamenting that "show don't tell" is making people reluctant to write about the personal traumas of their life, and instead have to write "action-packed" scenes. There are like three action-packed scenes in Trainspotting and they're all well within the lived experience of the average first worlder. It's "boring life stuff" in the sense of being about on the other extreme from a Michael Bay movie. Sometimes people don't talk in precise terms about art they consume.

I was using it as an example of a novel about life that has nothing action-y happening and where many scenes don't directly advance the plot, but remains both a page turner and not particularly preachy.


Seems like you're reading the word action in a narrow blockbuster hollywood sense, which isn't the context that it's used within the article.

I've been enjoying Stefan Zweig lately. I suppose Zweig figured he could show, not tell by writing scene where the first person narrator meets someone in the lobby of an expensive hotel, who then relates the bulk of the story. In short, Zweig shows someone telling a story ;)

Zweig's style to me is almost like a friend retelling a movie or long novel, but to a very high level of detail and with excellent recall for relevant descriptions and quotes, when needed. Sometimes he sets this up through brief shell of a traveling narrator meeting the subject of the story (who then provides the main narration), sometimes he dispenses with this and just relates the story.

This technique is used here and there - now that I think of it, "interview with a vampire" works this way. This sort of writing can be very effective. At times, I have to wonder if it isn't a way to break through writer's block or free yourself from the difficulty of writing fiction - you, as a writer, place yourself in the position of a stranger meeting an interesting person, and then you imagine the story being narrated to you. You could keep the shell, or discard it and just keep the inner story as first person narrative.


"Write what you know" -- while not exactly bad advice -- is also better when not taken too rigidly. "Write what you believe" is better, I think.

This is true for most rules of thumb. "Show, don't tell" is great advice for beginning creative writers since most people struggle with that aspect of writing. But as you gain experience you learn how to break the rules gracefully.

I always considered as something that applies to filmmakers more than writers. Sure you could through natural storytelling demonstrate that a hobbit hole is comfortable place to live Or you could use your greatest strength as a writer and just tell me

"Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort."


I think this demonstrates the opposite of what you want. Saying "a hobbit hole is comfortable" would be telling. It's not explaining or showing what makes it comfortable, or why it is comfortable - it's one abstraction up and just declares it comfortable. For what we know at that point in the story, a hobbit likes worms and oozy smells and finds that comfortable.

But instead he evokes those images, and gets you to imagine something different; something probably closer to our idea of comfort, because the reader now has seen that hobbits ideas of what isn't comfortable is at least somewhat aligned with ours even though the live in a hole.

I'd consider this a fantastic example of how to show without having to be boring and prescriptive about just describing what you might see, but how you can also show through creating emotional response and through exclusion.

That said, good writers will know when to break the rule and tell. Tolkien certainly does tell a lot even if I don't agree that is an example of him telling. A lot more than many, if anything. But of course he gets away with that because he was a fantastic writer. The advice to show is beginner advice more than anything.


I think "Show, Don't Tell" is excellent advice and not just in writing: it's even more valuable for filmmakers. You should be able to watch a movie with no sound and follow the plot.

Of course there aren't actual rules and the best writers break the not-actual-rules all the time. But a lot of really bad writing does seem to involve telling rather than showing. And isn't the goal of writing classes the elimination of really bad writing?

I'm very skeptical of the idea that someone can be taught to be a (good) novelist. I don't think that someone can lend you their model; I think you have to develop your own. Cormac McCarthy explained his use of punctuation with "There’s no reason to blot the page up with weird little marks. I mean, if you write properly you shouldn’t have to punctuate." I find that quote hysterically funny. I don't have a strong opinion about whether he's right. Rather, I think the whole point is that he has a strong sense of what good writing is and it's his.


> You should be able to watch a movie with no sound and follow the plot.

As universal advice, I don't think this is true. This is essentially saying "sound in this movie is merely window dressing, it plays no essential role", and while this can be true of some good movies, it can't be true of all good movies. Surely sound plays a vital role in at least some movies, a role which is essential to understanding the movie...


There aren't any hard and fast rules for how to make a good movie (or how to write a good novel).

But, in my opinion, movies are fundamentally visual and everything else is a layer on top. Maybe not "window dressing," but not too far from that. There are certainly movies where the music/sound/dialogue left a lasting impression on me, but I think movies live and die by their visuals. To put it another way, you can have a visually compelling movie that is competely silent but I don't think the reverse is true.


Surely the visuals are important. But not as an end in themselves. The story in a movie should be propelled by visuals (instead of mostly dialog or, gad, title cards).

I'd go so far as to say, any time a movie resorts to backstory-monologues or text, the director has failed.


> The story in a movie should be propelled by visuals (instead of mostly dialog or, gad, title cards)

Obviously both radio plays (no visual-- too bad we don't have more of these lately, and we're stuck with audiobooks as a mediocre facsimile) and silent films (no sound) can work extraordinarily well.

Good film uses both to its maximal advantage.

> I'd go so far as to say, any time a movie resorts to backstory-monologues or text, the director has failed.

I disagree. You can find lots of bad examples of this, but you can also find masterful tricks of unreliable narration (Memento); you can find simple context-setting for a foreign environment (Star Wars); you have stories that leap through time that would be impractical to show all of the events and require some text or narration so the viewer knows what's up.

Basically all of the rules of thumb really mean "this is often misused" and are not prescriptive.


Star Wars being a prime example. That was a stunt, to remind us of the old, bad movies that used to do that.

The viewer could figure out backstory with a few well-placed references in dialog, or from clues as the story advances. In fact, Star Wars gave us those clues anyway, so the title scrolling into the distance wasn't even useful that way.

When a director uses bad movie tropes for their own sake, that's one thing. But using them instead of directing a good narrative, that's lazy and a squandered opportunity to show us a better movie.

And yes, the radio show example is good. They needed to do lots of dialog, because that was the medium; they had one hand (both hands?) tied behind their back.

But in a movie, shutting down the visuals for a static backstory dialog is almost always a mistake. Because you can be doing so much more than that!


> That was a stunt, to remind us of the old, bad movies that used to do that.

Not bad, simply low-brow, which is not the same.

And what about Memento? It simply doesn't work without dialogue, and it's a wonderful movie.


> You should be able to watch a movie with no sound and follow the plot.

I disagree that this is true, and more I disagree that it reflects “show don't tell”, which isn't about visual-over-audio but demonstration-over-exposition.


> You should be able to watch a movie with no sound and follow the plot.

There are many famous and great movies for which this isn't true. 12 Angry Men, Glengarry Glen Ross, Her, to name a few off the top of my head.


McCarthy is my favourite author, but I find that I have to approach his work (and the dialogue) in one of two ways. It might be a personality thing, but I find myself choosing between reading casually, letting it flow over me, having understanding enough of what's happening to enjoy the book. Or I can read and re-read sentences to make sure I comprehend the detail, every word, etc.

With his conversations, I can read through at speed with a decent but imperfect feel of who has said what. But I find myself wanting to get it exactly right and re-read counting the odd and even lines of dialogue to make sure I know who has said exactly what.

It's rarely critical because the conversation in many cases is such a minute* part of the story (Spanish sequences in the Border Trilogy, for example). Maybe he's counting that as sufficiently well written, but maybe he's not the sort to want to read it exactly right. Like I said, could be a personality/spectrum thing.

*I'm talking about the quick incidental conversations more than the extensive speeches, such as from Judge Holden, where the speaker is almost easily discernible and the content is certainly a key part of the experience.


> You should be able to watch a movie with no sound and follow the plot

Why?


Because visual storytelling is the whole point of the medium.

Yes, there should be a symphony of sound and visual working together. But the whole point of the medium of Motion Pictures is to tell stories through... motion pictures.


That is just begging the question. Why can't sound and dialog be an integrated and necessary part of the storytelling? What about musicals? Disneys Fantasia? The voice overs in Goodfellas? The dialogue in Pulp Fiction?

Who even decides what the "point" of a media is beside the people creating stuff in the media?


What do motion pictures offer that no other medium offers? The answer is moving images.

What I'm saying is that a medium should play to the strengths of the unique thing that it offers over other mediums.

What do video games uniquely offer? Interactivity. Therfore, the video game medium should focus on offering interactivity that would be impossible to get in any other medium.


> What do video games uniquely offer? Interactivity. Therfore, the video game medium should focus on offering interactivity that would be impossible to get in any other medium.

To the Moon[1] and Dear Esther[2] won awards and high praise from critics and players alike, despite lacklustre interactivity.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/To_The_Moon

[2]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dear_Esther


I adored Dear Esther. The interactivity was amazing.

It enhanced the story and immersed me.

Thanks for the great example.


> I adored Dear Esther. The interactivity was amazing.

Anecdotal report of what you thought doesn’t advance the conversation. I can just say it was a boring game for me (it was) and we’re back to square one.

I feel that if you call Dear Esther’s interactivity “amazing”, you either haven’t played enough games to be able to expound judgement, or have a definition of “interactivity” different from most players. Some quotes from the Wikipedia page, based on multiple published sources:

> The gameplay in Dear Esther is minimal, with the only task being (…)

> Despite questioning whether it truly constitutes a video game (…)

> (…) critics were divided by the suitability of the video game medium for conveying the story of Dear Esther.

> (…) stating that the game "would be better as a short film" (…)

> The limited interactivity between the player and the narrative (…)

The consensus is that it’s a good work of art, with a good story, visuals, and sound design, but that there isn’t much to interact with.


>Anecdotal report of what you thought doesn’t advance the conversation.

I don't know what this means. If it is an insult, I am too stupid to understand it.

>I feel that if you call Dear Esther’s interactivity “amazing”, you either haven’t played enough games to be able to expound judgement, or have a definition of “interactivity” different from most players.

You could not experience the game without interacting with it. It's in first person. You move the story along as you discover new story elements. You experience emotions and perspectives first-hand.

>The consensus is that it’s a good work of art, with a good story, visuals, and sound design, but that there isn’t much to interact with.

Dear Esther would not work in any other medium. It would be extremely boring without the interactivity.

So if we're circling back to the original comment that spawned this discussion: Interactivity is what makes the medium of video games unique. Dear Esther focuses on interactivity by making the entire story unravel as you choose to explore it yourself... interactively.

Your point would stand if Dear Esther put you on rails and you barely pushed any buttons (like a Hideo Kojima cutscene). But that's not how the game is designed.


What do motion pictures with a synchronized soundtrack offer that no other medium offers? The answer is not just “moving images”.

Sure, the whole can/should be greater than the sum of the parts. Why not?

Modern cinema is not just visual storytelling. It also has sound, which is just as vital.

Even most silent films, including those considered among the best, had inter-titles, and it'd be a lot harder to follow the plot without them. The important exceptions are almost all niche art films. They also used scoring to set mood and convey emotion.

It was, before movies have sound. Since the end of the age of silent movies, movies have become able to tell very different kinds of stories. Some are entirely visual, some are entirely about dialogue, some are about music, or sound, or whatever. And most are about a mixture of those.

There's no single point to the medium. It's a powerful medium exactly because it's so flexible.


You're on an airplane and you don't really want to watch a movie but you can't stop looking at someone else's screen.

In my experience, movie plots are usually so shallow that sound doesn't really add to the plot.

You need to watch better movies.

Although I agree that visuals are the most important part of the movie, I don't think that there is any necessity to try to eliminate the importance of sound.

However, I think movies are indeed the best piece where "show, don't tell" works. There are some easy examples, like instead of writing the place and time on screen, introduce a short scene with some memorable monument, a newspaper, a dialogue causally mentioning the place. Make the scene time obvious.

Rather than reflecting some internal dialogue explaining the protagonist's mood, use music and facial expressions.


> Although I agree that visuals are the most important part of the movie, I don't think that there is any necessity to try to eliminate the importance of sound.

I think most great movies are (perhaps surprisingly) very watchable without sound. That might have been a better way to phrase my original comment.


Can't imagine Woody Allen, Tarantino or Billy Wilder with no sound/dialog.

[flagged]


You can do very much with very little when you force yourself to be constrained. Of course that doesn't mean everything works without dialogue, but many things are different in ways that may sometimes be better.

Watch City Lights, by Chaplin, for example. One of the last great silent movies. You can argue it could have been funnier with more dialogue (it has some in the form of intertitles). Maybe it would. But it wouldn't have been made that way with more dialogue. Many of the scenes are structured the way they are because dialogue isn't there as an easy out of situations, and forced Chaplin to think long and hard about how to show instead of having characters tell. I'm sure the same story can be done well with talking characters, but it's not a given at all it'd have been better, because the script would almost certainly have been very different.

The most famous example from City Lights is probably the scene where Chaplin gets mistaken for a rich man by a blind girl selling flowers, which is a major setup for the rest of the movie.

Chaplin struggled with it for ages, because he felt he needed to actually give a reason to explain why she'd think he was rich.

The solution is beautifully simple: Chaplin steps through a car to avoid a police officer, and slams the door, both signalling his presence to the girl and signalling initial wealth (the movie was filmed in 1928/9). We (and he) learns that she is blind by seeing her not realize he's picked up the flower (there's one line of text there), he pays her, and as he has just handed her effectively the last money he has, the owner of the car enters and the car drives off, leaving the girl to think Chaplin did not wait for his change, giving her further reason to assume his wealth (there's another intertitle with one line there).

It took weeks of filming over several periods to get it right; both because Chaplin struggled with finding the right mechanism, as well as because he insisted on showing her blindness realistically (and so he rejected a whole slew of actresses he didn't believe could realistically portray being blind). With dialogue it'd be so easy to cop out and use some dialogue to cause the confusion.

As it stands City Light is frequently considered one of the best movies of all time.

The scene in question is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hCPGFTp0vmo


That scene is emotionally moving in a way that isn't done today. Thank you for posting that link and your explanation.

Think bigger! One of the best episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was almost entirely silent, and yet still featured the cleverness the show is known for. Some of the most evocative scenes in recent movies are largely dialog-free, such as several scenes in Roma, or Gravity. It isn't just Cuaron, either, remember Castaway?

Imagine a movie that can be watched with no sound but still tells the whole story. Now imagine the same movie can be listened to without seeing the screen, and again, tells the whole story.

The point of "show, don't tell," is to keep lazy or beginning writers from relying too heavily on assumptions about their readers. It doesn't mean "make things explode and don't worry about the plot making sense."


Dialogue has its place, in certain films. Those films would be what they are without it. But even in those films, there are usually parts that are without dialogue and those parts would arguably be worse were they filled with dialogue instead.

Many of the most emotional and powerful parts of great movies are shown, not told. Also, I'd argue that it's usually worse and more shallow movies where every little bit is explained and spelled out for the viewer (often in dialogue or narrative exposition), and very little is left if anything is left for them to figure out, make sense of, or decide on their own.


Petty gibes aside, Michael Bay is a good example of what I'm talking about. You can listen to his movies without watching and understand, more or less, what's going on because the characters explain everything they're doing. His movies would be better if he only showed explosions and opted out of dialogue explaining what the explosion meaans to the plot.

How dare you insinuate... Of course I picked Michael Bay on purpose for exactly this reason. His characters frequently devolve into expository prose that’s quite superfluous.. to adults. Kids on the other hand really appreciate the characters telling them what they’re about to do. He’s just catering to the audience. What’s annoying for us is essential for them to follow the plot.

“Show don't tell” doesn't mean avoid dialogue, though it does imply (in filmmaking) avoiding gap filling by omniscient voice-over narration. It also means minimizing exposition in favor of demonstration, but much dialogue in film is demonstration, not exposition.

> In the real world, watching our action would be akin to constant dissociation. Instead, we feel things, we say things to ourselves, and eventually we come upon subject matter and then to the scenes.

I think that's why writing "I felt scared" is usually fine. But 'show, don't tell' is more about avoiding things like "she felt scared".


I'm always reminded of Futurama.

"You can't just have your characters announce how they feel! That makes me feel angry!"


> In fiction, internal narration—the telling

Internal narration, done well, is showing—demonstration of the character and their relationship to and the effects they experience from the context and events—not telling. External narration is telling.


Recently bought "Self-editing for fiction writers" as it was recommended as a good book about not only editing but also writing itself.

The first chapter is named "Show and tell".

Here the authors also state the "show, don't tell" rule. They also show the difference between the two and give the advice to alternate both styles and in which context which style would be appropriate.

So yea "Show, don't tell" isn't a law you must strictly follow, but a rule, a guideline. As all rules it can be broken. At some point you should ask yourself "But when?" And this is how the rule invites to do further research on the "Show and Tell" styles.


It’s in IKEA assembly instructions that this maxim shows itself in its most harmful form.

IKEA catches so much shit for their instructions, but everything about their assembly process is way better than other cheap crappy flatpack furniture (say, the stuff at Target) including the instructions.

Not sure why this meme exists that IKEA furniture is difficult to assemble. I'm no genius when it comes to handiwork for sure, but I never had issues with IKEA stuff.

I recently assembled my first piece of non-IKEA furniture.

I think the misconception might stem from the fact that

* IKEA instructions for even very simple things like shelves are often up to 20 pages long. A lot of steps are very simple, but there are lots of them.

* IKEA furniture parts often have many markings on them to make them unique. This is necessary for reuse across products, but also identifiability for above-mentioned instructions.

The shelf I recently assembled had none of these "problems". In fact, it only had 2 types of structural metal bars that were identical except for length, and boards to go on top of those bars.

The instructions were 2 pages of text. Full paragraphs worth of text. It included sentences like "Connect the vertical corner pieces such that the second-to-last lower peg of the top piece connects to the topmost peg of the lower piece".

That one sentence takes around 10 seconds to parse, 30 seconds to visualize and then 1-2 minutes to lay out with the physical pieces in front of you.

I would estimate around 80% of that time is waste, compared to just printing those instructions using one IKEA-style diagram.


Also, text may skip some things that the visualization will have to show explicitly.

If I'm unsure which screw they really mean here, which orientation I should have that piece in etc., I can just look really closely at the drawing and identify exactly what they mean. See the different layers of depth and how they cover each other to see the exact order of things. See the the exact drill holes or other marks to disambiguate things.

Maybe it's just that some people think more in words others more in images and prefer instructions of the corresponding type.


The same IKEA instructions are used around the world where English is not the primary language, so it could be argued that benefits IKEA but not users, and that IKES should translate their instructions into dozens of languages. I think your example supports the idea that IKEA is making the right call here. I've always been impressed with how clear each step is, both for me and for people who don't speak English. Or Swedish, really.

Works very well for Lego instructions though. I think the main difference is that people don't buy IEKA for the enjoyment and challenge of assembling it.

I think the best demonstration of how fantastic Lego instructions are is to buy a set from one of their competitors. Nearly any of their competitors. I really drives home that is actually hard to get right.

And I do think IKEA are close to Lego in this.

It's everything from ensuring you illustrate dimensions of different parts in a predictable way; choices of angles, and accounting for the fact people are awful at mentally adjusting for movements in 3d, so if you don't make it easy to align the drawings with "reality" things instantly get harder. Getting shading right. Not making the steps jump too quickly.


> And I do think IKEA are close to Lego in this.

Ugh. Assembling some (most?) non-IKEA flat pack furniture is so terrible. They often try to use the same pictures without word format, but without doing the drafting to back it up.

The one IKEA experience I had that was truly awful was a two-box set that had multiple manufacturers; we ended up with box 1 from one and box 2 from the other, but both had pretty much the same content. Getting all of the first box back into the box after having built that was very demotivating. I now know to double check that all of the numbers match, not just the big number when getting a two box set.


Never had any problems assembling ~200 IKEA packs.

It's not those three words that almost ruined you. That much is clear.

The telling behaviour is falling out of our culture. The dispassionate army Sargent basically relaying information without care or cause for it's impact is telling. The kid made to get through class by doing an oral presentation and focuses on rapidly getting through the content that needs to be said without caring about it's delivery is telling. Telling is the most basic form of communicating. Most of the information we used to "tell" each other is done over computers now, there's no need to boringly recite football scores or updates on the weather. The communication we do in real life is more focused now.

I don't know in what places a formal and functionary 'telling' mode still is common. Asking a person who 'tells' to show more encourages them to see the words as if they describe a visual. Show the reader the details in a way that the mind's eye could reconstruct it. It's not the end all or be all of writing, for sure. If you're going to use 'show, don't tell' to silence yourself, then yeah that's not going to work.


1/2 of the way in and the premise in the title still hasn't been explained. Not going to stick around for the next 1/2.

Agreed. I didn't finish the article. I was hoping the author would tell me what "show, don't tell" means, why it is said, and maybe even an example. I have a guess of what it means, but as this is the first time I have encountered the phrase I'd like a concrete definition or description.

I am always trying to improve my writing and most of the books I have read on the topic of writing well have a common theme: write clearly and simply. For someone who appears to think of themselves as a writer, I did not find this writing very clear and had to re-read many sentences. I also didn't know what "mimesis" meant, and although it sounds fancy I don't think it added anything. I guess I am not the intended audience of this article.


They do get to it up front: the thesis is "show and tell" is better than "show don't tell". It's clear enough if you're the sort of person who reads lithub and has been exposed to "show don't tell" a lot. It's just another way of saying "actions are louder than words", even in a purely written medium. The idea is that sometimes you do need to tell rather than show, or do both, and there's no reason to throw that tool out of your toolbox.

I believe she's missing the point: pretty much all writers start by telling and need to be cajoled into showing. It's a bit like the advice to "never use passive voice": there are times to use passive voice, but every time you want to, think, "Who is doing this, and why am I not saying that?" If you have a good answer to that, then continue to use the passive. If not, your writing will usually be more interesting as active rather than passive. But since most writers will speak passively by instinct, phrasing a rule as absolute -- before learning how to break it -- is good pedagogy much of the time.

You can read the article and see if maybe the second half provides a good refutation to my take on it -- but otherwise I'd say you got as far as you need to in it.


The way I was taught to write, with a hostile reader glaring at me, implied that nobody would care what I had to say anyway.

This is far more disturbing than the main premise. I can also relate.


I was given this advice but could never follow it, I would take the reader by the shoulders and shout into their face.



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