"Show, Don't Tell" What does this mean?

Okay, right now I’m invovled in writing what will probably end up being a Novella(because it’s already too big to be a short story and I’m not even 1/4 of the way finished with it). One of those rules of writing I always hear is “Show, don’t tell”.

The problem is, I’m not really sure what this mean. If I were writing a movie script, I’d know exactly what this meant, because everything in a movie has to be shown.

But in prose, the tools exist to let the reader see inside at least one character’s head as well as what’s happening outside it. At the moment, I’m working on a 3rd person limited perspective, where the thoughts and feeling of a single character(which changes as the story goes along, but not in concurrent characters) are available to the reader. Obviously, the thoughts of the characters around said character are a mystery to that character, which implies a bit of showing, but am I perhaps missing something here?

It is telling too much have a summery of things that happened over a long period of time in only a couple paragraphs, things that are important to the plot, or a flashblack of important events rather then showing them in real time?

There’s a scene in To Kill a Mockingbird where Scout’s brother points out old Mr. Radley and says “That there is the meanest man in town!” That’s telling. Showing would be later on, when the old man tries to shoot the boy for sneaking around the property. Telling is describing a character’s personality, showing is letting the character’s actions speak for themselves.

“Show, don’t tell,” is a warning against florid exposition in dialogue (or worse, monologue) on order to give details about plot points, characterization or clunky foreshadowing. Its often forced, fake and can kill a story dead in its tracks in the mind of a savvy reader.

An occasional peek into the mental emotional reactions/ musings of a given character can be interesting and illuminating – but this, as with any writing technique, can be overdone if used too often, or employed with the wrong secondary or tertiary character(s).

Writing long descriptive florishes can be more easily tolerated in some types of fiction writing depending on your audience and genre. Descriptive settings descriptions, for example, often expected for period fiction, romance novels, noir crime stories, science fiction/fantasy, speculative histories and travelogues than for, say, contemporary fiction, legal and medical thrillers, police procedurals and celebrity biographies and the like. This kind of description might prove fascinating to readers who want to learn more about a given occupation but other readers will be merciless if you get details wrong.

My advice: watch those adverbs and adjectives and get an objective reader to critique certain passages. If economy in writing is a serious consideration, rely on Strunk and White.

Telling: Joe was really depressed that his girlfriend left him. That night he went to his favorite bar and drank a lot.

Showing: “Gimme something hard,” said Joe to the bartender. He didn’t bother to inspect the contents of his glass, he just downed it in one swift gulp.

Joe’s face contorted briefly before he slammed the glass back down and said, “Another.” His mouth curled a bit less, and then, “Another.”

“Jesus, Joe, what’s eating you?” said the bartender. “You just got here and already you’ve had an hour or two’s worth of Jack Daniels.” He poured another glass, but a little more slowly and with an eye on Joe.

“How are things with you 'n, uh, what’s her name again Mike?”

“Luisa. We’re good, we went to see some jazz band over at Yoshi’s the other night.” Mike slid the glass across the counter to Joe. “Can’t remember the name, but they weren’t bad. But you didn’t come in here to talk about my new girlfriend. What’s up with you and Sammie?”

“Nothin’s up with us. Absolutely nothin’. Not anymore.” And with that, Joe downed yet another glass.

Very good, sturm, but you left out the part about the bar’s broken-down jukebox, struggling to play its quarter-drawn tunes but producing only the sad cracked notes of times gone by.

sturmhauke’s nicely illustrated the difference, although it’s important to remember not to go overboard. When I took a creative writing class in college, I was sometimes tempted to pencil “Tell, don’t show!” into the margins of stories I was peer-editing.

Perhaps the rule should be thought of as “Show, don’t tell…if the information is really important.” If our story is about Joe, or even Mike the bartender, we should probably be shown the scene in the bar. But if the story is actually about a father’s grief over the tragic death of his daughter after she was struck by a drunk driver (Joe), it’s probably not necessary to get into it. Note that I say “probably”; things could go either way depending on the particular needs of the story.

In general though, over-telling results in a story that’s not even a story. This is often a problem with inexperienced writers. I’ve seen plenty of prime examples from middle and high school students.

“I’m a vampire. I was born in the middle ages. When I was 21, I met an old man who drank my blood and turned me into a vampire. Now I have to drink blood every night to stay alive. But it’s not so bad, because I’ve lived for centuries. If I weren’t a vampire, I’d have died a long time ago. I wish my old boyfriend could have been a vampire too, so he’d be alive now like me. I have a new boyfriend now, and I think I’ll make him a vampire too…”

Whoa, I think I just wrote bad Anne Rice fanfic.

Bad student fiction is one thing—but bad student vampire fiction?! My heart goes out to you. :eek:

you got your answer. I’ll just add that in my LIMITED experience in writing, it seems like a generality directed at students who have a tendency to “tell, not show”.

Knowing when to “tell, not show” and “show, not tell” are just parts of a skilled writer’s repertoire.

That’s it. There’s often a tendency of young writers to write a description instead of dramatizing a story. While there are times when you need to describe, the writing is usually a lot better if you create a scene that dramatizes what you want to say.

Another bit of good advice is to find a novel or novella that you think works well, and then go through it line by line to see what is there outside of the dialog - and inside it as well.

There are many correspondences between movie scripts and prose works. In both, the dialog has to carry and convey the characterization. The stage directions, camerawork, and the costumes, backgrounds, and settings of the various designers are not that much different from simple description on the part of the narrator or through the protagonist’s eyes.

People need some guidance to tell them where, when, and what. They will go along with a good deal of it, told in any number of different ways. The only real don’t is “don’t hold back the storytelling for so long that the audience gets restless.” That works just as well for prose as for movies.

My favorite example of “Show, Don’t Tell” comes from my favorite episode of Futurama.

Fry has the Devil Robot’s hands and he’s playing an opera, and the Devil Robot jumps on the stage, announces that the opera is awful and “all the characters announce their emotions! That makes me angry!” Of course, the Devil Robot didn’t need to announce that it made him angry because he was shouting and waving his arms around and interrupting the whole show.

Wow, an example of “show, don’t tell” that shows and then tells! Please tell me you did this deliberately! (Or show me, whatever…)

“George W. Bush is a clueless idiot.”
REPORTER: What are you doing the rest of the day?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Uh, Karen Hughes is comin’ over, we’re workin’ on some things. And uh, she’ll be over here, we’re workin’ on these things … These matters… I’m workin’ on some initiatives. We’re uh… you’ll see. There’ll be some decisions I’m gonna make while I’m here and we’ll be announcing them as time goes on. (looking around)

Okay, I think I understand. I was worried that my writing was doing more telling then showing, but now it looks like it isn’t nearly as bad as I thought intially.

I knew the rule about selective description, such as you don’t have to describe “Bob” tieing his shoes or every moment of what happens during the day, but focus on the important things.

And at least I can say I don’t think I’ve ever done anything as bad as that vampire story. If I were to do that, I’m sure I could handle it a bit more tacfully then that.

Telling: Bob had a strange fascination with squirrels.

Showing: After tearing his apartment apart for over a half-hour, Bob finally found his favorite bikini hiding in the freezer, wear he’d left it. He threw it, a half-empty jar of Jiff, some Crisco, and a hobby knife into a plastic grocery bag and headed into the back yard.

This is a bone of contention in the critique group I’m in. One woman is very hot on show not tell, but goes a bit overboard, so that her character, when angry, has heartburn, clenches his fist, turns red, and in many respects overacts like a silent movie character. That stops the story dead for me.

Am I right in thinking that dialog is a way of showing? Think of intense meetings you might have been in. Almost all the emotion is expressed in terms of speech - anyone “showing” emotion by pounding on the table or the like would be considered unprofessional.

Lamia I feel for you, since I had to read a mediocre vampire novel in my group, a major sin of which was that the vampire’s abilities shifted with the needs of the plot.

Metacom, that’s just sick.
And you forgot the duct tape.

Wonders if there’s a law that states “The longer any particulary thread, no matter what the subject, goes on, the chances that somebody will bring up George W. Bush in a derogatory manner increases to one”

And if there isn’t, shouldn’t there be?

I’m not sure what you mean. Showing and then telling was the joke. The Devil Robot announcing “That makes me angry!” was the punchline, because it was obvious he was angry, and of course, people don’t shout “that makes me angry!” when they’re upset, which is why the adage is important to remember.

Actually, it’s Milton who has the strange facination with squirrls… and Arson.

Milton Waddams: [talking on the phone] And I said, I don’t care if they lay me off either, because I told, I told Bill that if they move my desk one more time, then, then I’m, I’m quitting, I’m going to quit. And, and I told Don too, because they’ve moved my desk four times already this year, and I used to be over by the window, and I could see the squirrels, and they were married, but then, they switched from the Swingline to the Boston stapler, but I kept my Swingline stapler because it didn’t bind up as much, and I kept the staples for the Swingline stapler and it’s not okay because if they take my stapler then I’ll set the building on fire.