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Show, Don't Tell


Fire emblem is great
I'm confused.

I mean, we all know that Show, Don't Tell is one of the most important rules in creative writing, but then when you try to explain it, it's really difficult. You never get told what "show, don't tell" really means – you're just given examples of writing that's just telling, and then writing that's showing. And when this advice is given, it often neglects that showing all the time is a bad idea because it gets repetitive and, used in excess, can force the reader to think probably harder than you want them to.

And to make it worse, Showing can boil down to seem like Telling. Instead of just giving the reader a sentence saying how things are, you turn that sentence into many sentences, each of which describe the scenario and, taken together, imply the meaning of the original sentence. But now, you have a lot more sentences, and you can apply Show, Don't Tell to those too. So it continues, and the thing to say that comes most quickly to mind is that Show Don't Tell applies only to whatever the main idea is that you're trying to get across, and not to whatever you have to do to show the idea you're trying to get across, but that just feels wrong to me.

Furthermore, when people give examples of "show, don't tell" they always seem to deal with emotions, and they proceed to say not to just state that the subject has that emotion but rather to illustrate it by bringing in a thousand other details and implying the emotion instead. But emotions don't come up that often in a lot of types of writing - actions do, and I don't really see examples of how to change "He punched her" into something more showy ("There was a sharp crack as his fist connected with her face" could work there, but that's more assisted telling).

And, switching subjects a little bit, another obscure thing that isn't talked about often is how to apply Show, Don't Tell to first-person narration. In that case, you don't have the luxury of being the narrator – rather, your character is the one making the observations, and some ways of Showing Rather Than Telling go somewhat against the character's personality. Thoughts in particular, both in a first- and third-person point-of-view, are hard to convey in showing rather than telling.

So I guess I have a few questions in making this thread: Where does Show, Don't Tell stop? How can Show, Don't Tell be applied to thoughts and actions? How can Show, Don't Tell be best implemented in a first- or second-person point-of-view without breaking character or suspension of disbelief? And, when shouldn't you apply Show, Don't Tell?

How should "Show, Don't Tell" be applied to the following sentences?

"It didn't make any sense to him."
(The only way I see to expand this and show it in greater detail is to pick the statement apart (that is, the antecedent of "it") and outline each individual aspect's absurdity. But at some point that gets long and exhausting, and at any rate, you're likely to be doing it the sentence afterward anyway.)

"Without making a sound, he turned the handle and carefully eased the door open."
(Seems like assisted telling to me. Well, depending on the context, this would be a decent example of either showing fear or stealth in "he"'s antecedent rather than telling. But how do you describe the action itself in a more engaging way?

"'That's it,' he cried as he punched her in the face."
(Also, dialogue. Using alternatives to "said" only helps with variety and implications about the mood of the selection. In fact, it seems like dialogue is part of the showing, not part of the telling. How do you apply Show, Don't Tell to dialogue in general?)

I'll present the first paragraph of my current story, and ask how I can apply Show, Don't Tell to it to make it more engaging.
"Less than a minute after third block ends, I’ve already noticed a phone being stolen. The act isn’t at all covert or anything, but poor Cassie Daniels is absentmindedly texting someone while she walks to her last class of the day, and then Alton Jameson runs up and grabs the phone out of her hands. No one else in the hall seems to notice or care, except for the people who he pushes out of the way, and even they only shoot him a nasty look. Alton quickly absconds from his victim, stolen cell phone in hand. Towards me, which will make my job easier, I guess."


Strange days ahead
This is something I struggle a lot with too.

But the "show, don't tell" rule has become a bit misused at this point. Personally, I think the most important time it comes into play is in regards to your character's personalities. I really hate it when authors use biased narration to tell me about a character's traits, especially in regards to showing how evil their villain is. I've found Cornelia Funke is particularly terrible for this, as she always spends half the story telling you how evil and feared her villain is, but then never actually shows him doing anything impressive or evil.

I have a few articles centered around this discussion that I found helpful, so I figured I'd link to them here and here. Not sure if you'll find them useful, but they bring up some good points!


Still loves Joltik, though!
Staff member
I think you're taking this way too seriously. "Show, don't tell" isn't about insisting that you change every single sentence into something "showier", much less that you do so recursively.

Showing is mostly about making things more vivid by naturally leading the reader to the conclusion you want instead of just stating the conclusion and expecting them to take your word for it. But why on earth would you want to "naturally lead the reader" to the conclusion that X punched Y, instead of just telling them that? Well, I guess there are maybe sometimes times you would want that, but in the vast majority of cases - especially action scenes - you don't. You just want to say they punched them and get to the next thing that happened. And that's okay. You don't have to show everything. In fact, you can't show everything, because yes, that would lead to the recursion problem you mentioned - showing a thing is done by telling the reader other things.

Showing is for when you want to show something because that would be more effective, not a blanket principle to use to rewrite every sentence in your story. Things you want to show tend to be less tangible things like emotions and character traits; simple physical facts of what's happening are likely to be better off told. But there are plenty of exceptions, and all in all it needs to be evaluated based on the situation at hand.

Negrek has made a couple of great posts on this on Serebii.
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busy dizzy lazy
Staff member
Ah, dang. Butterfree went and linked some of the rants I posted about this in the past, so now I can't go off on another huge rant here. (At least I don't have to go digging up that wonderfull pterry quote again.) Suffice it to say I have Feelings on this topic.

Anyway, "show, don't tell" is a surprisingly tricky piece of advice to work with, and it's definitely not helped by the large number of people who don't have a clue what it means but try to advise people about it anyway. If anybody ever tells you that you shouldn't say your character's hair is black, you have to sneak it in by e.g. saying they're brushing their ebony bangs out of their eyes, or you can't just say "the box is on the table," you have to show the box is on the table by saying "the rectangular mahogany object was peacefully at rest upon the blessedly smooth plane of the table," I would recommend you back away slowly. "Show, don't tell" isn't about trying to sneak information in edgewise or using fifteen additional words to say the same goddamn thing.

Like Butterfree said, showing is about implication. Any words that you put on the page are going to be "telling"--that's the information you're giving the readers. Sometimes, though, you want those words to imply more than just what they say: you want readers to be able to take these details they've presented and draw a particular conclusion from them. That's showing. It's not about what you put on the page, it's about what you don't put on the page. If you're a visual artist, it might help you to think of it like the written word's equivalent of negative space: sometimes, what you don't say is just as important as what you do. If you put white space in the right places, you can make people see a tree/a bear/whatever.

I also highly recommend this short piece by Chuck Palahniuk. He never actually talks about "show, don't tell" in so many words, but that's exactly what he's writing about, and he explains the concept brilliantly with wonderful examples.

Soooo, that all said, what you're usually pushing yourself to do when you're trying to "show" is thinking about what conclusions you want people to draw from a scene, then what elements of the scene would lead them to that conclusion. "Hmm, in this scene, Jamal is mad. How would we be able to tell that Jamal is mad?"

A lot of this is trying to force yourself to move away from the general and more towards the specific. Statements like, "I was really mad" or "it was a creepy old house" are super generic. Think about how many different ways there are to be angry! For some characters, maybe they just get really quiet and super cold. Others may go off on a screaming rant, or punch a wall, or just turn around and leave, or not even say anything and just quietly let their rage fester for a long time before exploding. If you have your characters act or react rather than just "feeling" something, you'll be able to reveal a lot about their character at the same time you get at their mental state, and including concrete details makes your prose more vibrant and immediate. This is really just restating what that Palahniuk essay (which you have by this point totally clicked on and read, of course) said, but it really gets to the heart of the matter and why showing is so often considered a "good thing." It's about moving information off the page, true. But it's also making sure that what you leave in your prose is as concrete and specific as possible.

Let's get into your post and the examples you gave. First, the punching thing. Like Butterfree said, you generally don't have to worry about "showing" action. If the point is the action itself, then you usually want to state it explicitly. What would you gain by leaving the punch implied? Sometimes, a whole lot. Imagine a kid who shows up to school with bruises or a black eye and refuses to talk about where he got them. We never see the beating, but we can sure as heck feel it, and the realization comes with a lovely sick, creeping feeling--you're leaving the actual event to the reader's imagination, and readers can imagine some wonderfully awful things if you let them have a little wiggle room. But if it's a fight scene where people are just going at each other? It's a fight scene! The action is the point! You want it front and center.

For what it's worth, I think either "He punched her" or your example with the cracking fist, etc. can work. The latter's more "showing," yes, the punch is implied. Either would be appropriate for an action scene, depending on what you want to emphasize. With "He punched her," the emphasis is on the action itself, what the character is doing. The longer version is about the effect the punch is having on another character. Which one you use depends on what you want to direct the reader's attention towards, what you want them to notice. At a very basic level, consider the difference in how heroes in trashy fantasy novels are described in a battle scene versus how villains are described in the same kind of battle. With the hero, there's a lot of emphasis on all the cool stuff she's doing: yeah, she totally just cut down five orcs with one swing of her sword! She rushed into the fray and fought her way through a press of enemies to rescue her friends trapped at the center. That kind of thing. Whereas with the villain, there'll probably be a lot of emphasis on how she's mercilessly cutting down women and children, using dirty or particularly brutal tactics just to be a jerk, how there's much lamentation and pleading for her not to kill them, babies getting trampled into the mud, etc. etc. With the hero, there's usually more focus on what she's doing, whereas there's often more emphasis on what's done to the villain's victims. (And if you could turn your hero into a villain just by focusing more on the effect they're having on their enemies... you probably should reexamine just how heroic you think they really are.)

"It didn't make any sense to him."
I rarely use this kind of sentence. I write them a lot, but I try to get rid of most by the final draft. This is definitely your "show, don't tell" kind of sentence, but usually I just delete them rather than trying to replace them with something. If something doesn't make sense to a character, they're usually going to ask for clarification, or get flustered, or maybe sneak off to try and figure it out on their own later. The character ought to be responding in some way that indicates they've got no clue what's up (although the payoff may only come later, when they do something they would have known not to if they'd understood), so why worst words on saying as much?

"Without making a sound, he turned the handle and carefully eased the door open."
Looks fine to me. Not sure what you mean by "assisted telling"; if you defined that in your OP, I missed it. Can't really think of a way to make this "more engaging" without introducing some element of silliness that would distract from the essential message of the sentence, which is that the character is being very cautious and perhaps stealthy as they enter the room. They're apprehensive and/or uncertain about what lies on the other side of the door. All good. What more would you want to say here?

"'That's it,' he cried as he punched her in the face."
Again, looks good to me. Show, don't tell as applied to dialogue is the same as anywhere else: sometimes what isn't said is the most important thing. When does a certain character stay silent where they would ordinarily speak up? Do they evade a question, talk around a subject, or otherwise say something other than what they mean (or bury the meaning in an incorrect tone or vocabulary so people hear a different message than the one they're actually espousing).

You seem hung up on word choice as it applies to show, don't tell. Word choice has almost nothing to do with the concept. You definitely don't need to use "fancier" words in order to show something, and fancier words are not inherently more "engaging" than more common ones.

"Less than a minute after third block ends, I’ve already noticed a phone being stolen. The act isn’t at all covert or anything, but poor Cassie Daniels is absentmindedly texting someone while she walks to her last class of the day, and then Alton Jameson runs up and grabs the phone out of her hands. No one else in the hall seems to notice or care, except for the people who he pushes out of the way, and even they only shoot him a nasty look. Alton quickly absconds from his victim, stolen cell phone in hand. Towards me, which will make my job easier, I guess."
This is exactly the kind of "thesis statement" paragraph Pahlaniuk is talking about in his essay. Try rewriting with his advice in mind. :)

Generally speaking there's not a lot you should be showing here. It's mostly fine.

As for when you should show rather than tell... ah, that's the rub, isn't it? If it were easy to answer a question like that, we'd all be Shakespeare. Being a writer is hard, it's hard and no one understands, etc. etc.

Seriously, though, like most things in writing, you have to consider what your intent is at any given point of the story. Generally speaking, what goes on the page should be what actually happens in the story: the actions of characters, how they interact with the environment and other people around them. The interpretation of those events you often want to leave up to the reader. Again, specific rather than generic. If you want a creepy haunted house, include the details that would make your character(s) think it's creepy rather than simply calling it that (specific, not general! What's scary to one character will not be to another!). If you want the plot to move along by having something happen, that thing should probably just happen. If it's something you want the reader to realize ("Wow, Janelle was sure devastated by her father dying back there"), then you probably want to think about how you can present things so that the readers can do the realizing without needing to be told.

Also, don't overthink it. Write what you write, then go back and look for places where you think you could tighten things up. If you're feeling shaky about your execution of something, try asking someone you respect for their opinion of it. But "show, don't tell" is down a lot to personal style, and to a large extent it's something you're going to have to come into on your own. Don't be afraid to think about it, or to strive to improve at it, but don't obsess over it, either.

Hope that helps! I could go on about this for literally tens of thousands of words, God help me.