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November 12, 2007

Comments

Lee

Hurrah! (And Francine Prose has quite a good bit about this in her Reading Like A Writer.)

Jim Murdoch

Personally I get tired with too much description, even well-written descriptions. I only need a pencil sketch to let me know where we are; the gist of a description and I'm off. that's what's MY imagination's for.

I think the whole show-not-tell mentality disparages our audience. They are a whole part of the equation. They like to work things out for themselves.

Good article.

Edan

Sometimes, I think the bigger problem is the writer who tells what they have already shown. I see this a lot from my beginner students, who have decent dialogue and action that shows how a character is feeling/reacting, and then some terrible dialogue tag like, "he said, trying to calm her down."

Max

I think your essay would be more effective if you showed up more examples, instead of just telling us about them.

Tommi

Wow. Maybe what we need today is more badly written stuff.
-tgs-

Marco

Marge: "Homer, it's easy just to sit there and criticize."

Homer: "Fun, too."

Dylan K.

Okay, so you "show, don't tell". Now, the next question is "show what"? You have to tell some things, as the fingernail example above shows well. A good writer should know which images are the most meaningful, and use them in the best way. Telling and showing go together like words and punctuation.

Andy Lee

I never thought "show" meant "describe" in the torn-vinyl-couch sense. I would call that telling, not showing. I interpret "show, don't tell" to mean that merely describing is not storytelling. We need to "dramatize," as you say in your second paragraph.

I agree that the tired old phrase should be questioned, and that the show/tell distinction quickly gets blurry. After all, any declarative sentence "tells" in some sense.

Drake

"the real reason people choose to show rather than tell is that it's so much easier to write "The big brown torn vinyl couch" than it is to describe internal emotional states without resorting to canned and sentimental language."

This is a false dichotomy, isn't it? One isn't forced to choose between *showing* the state of an apartment's interior decorating, on the one hand, and *describing* "internal emotional states," on the other. For one can also *show* internal emotional states. Or so the argument would go.

PaulJ

The advice to "show, don't tell" is to allow readers to think for themselves, to make up their own minds about what's happening in a story rather than having it thrust down their throats.

Your example "She was nervous" is telling the reader that this is the intended interpretation of events. Saying "She bit her fingernail" allows the reader to engage in the story and make an independent interpretation. Maybe she wasn't nervous, but had simply snagged her nail and didn't have a nail-file to hand (the rest of the story might give some hints as to whether this is the case).

This is basic fiction craft. Take 'telling' to its logical extreme and you might as well write that stuff happened and everyone lived happily ever after, or not.

A lot depends on the POV. Your viewpoint character might have good reason to believe that 'she was nervous,' but how is the reader to know, unless you 'show' us what your viewpoint character sees? (If you simply 'tell' us that your viewpoint character "saw that she was nervous," how are we to know whether your viewpoint character is making an accurate interpretation?

Ester Verwoest

Who ever introduced the rule show, don't tell? I cann't find that information. Maybe one of you knows? I am investigating the pro's and conta's of show, don't tell. Thank you for answering. Ester

kk

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Renata

Great website!

Christopher Posner

Have you considered the possiblity that "telling" can be done through the mouths of characters in the story- preferably interspersed with dialogue?

Karen

No one probably cares what I think, but I think that the 'show, don't tell' mantra is an editor's lazy way of saying, "I don't want to work with you to make this into commericial fiction."

Dwayne

Finally, someone who is talking some real sense when it comes to this crazy rule "Show Don't Tell."

Also, it should be noted that when the "TELLING" is done right, there's a level of sophistication that comes across in the prose.

So, here, here for TELLING.

Thank you for posting this, Mark!

Joanne L.

I completely agree! This misguided dictum is right up there with never using anything but "said" for dialogue tags, and the even stupider "rule" that dialogue tags should always have the name or pronoun first and the verb second.

Invariably, when some writing guru posts two examples, one telling and one showing, the showing one makes my eyes glaze with unnecessary description. Furthermore, if you're inside a character's head and she is analyzing her feelings or thoughts, it makes more sense for to ask herself, "Why am I so nervous?" as opposed to "Why am I biting my fingernail?"

I call myself a storyteller, not a storyshower, for a reason.

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TEV DEFINED


  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."

SECOND LOOK

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    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
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    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."