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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
This imo is the thing that distinguishes fiction lovers from everyone else.
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.
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.
Varied descriptions are what makes a character. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Again, I take "tell" to be about characters telling the reader important details by unnecessarily saying them in dialog to other characters.
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.
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.
You can tell things. You just have to tell the right thing.
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.
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.
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.
Better article about "Show, Don't Tell" on TV Tropes.
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.
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.
> 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.
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".)
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.
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.
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.
"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."
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.
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.
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...
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.
I'd go so far as to say, any time a movie resorts to backstory-monologues or text, the director has failed.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Who even decides what the "point" of a media is beside the people creating stuff in the media?
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.
To the Moon and Dear Esther won awards and high praise from critics and players alike, despite lacklustre interactivity.
It enhanced the story and immersed me.
Thanks for the great example.
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.
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.
There's no single point to the medium. It's a powerful medium exactly because it's so flexible.
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.
I think most great movies are (perhaps surprisingly) very watchable without sound. That might have been a better way to phrase my original comment.
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
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."
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.
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".
"You can't just have your characters announce how they feel! That makes me feel angry!"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is far more disturbing than the main premise. I can also relate.