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A quick question for writers. 
17th-Jan-2012 03:34 pm
Becc_j Art
I often hear "don't tell, show" when it comes to story writing.

Can someone provide an example of what "telling" looks like compared to "showing". Um.. I don't mean story links. Just maybe a sentence or two. I think I know, but I'm not entirely sure.

Or maybe a link to a workshop on this?

Many thanks.
17th-Jan-2012 07:40 am (UTC)
If I remember correctly, spnroundtable had a workshop on this before!

A quick answer is that telling spells everything out and showing leaves the reader to determine what's going on. For example, "Jared thought Jensen seemed very paranoid on their date." versus "Throughout their date, Jensen kept fidgeting and looking over his shoulder." There's also "Jared is very loud, rambunctious, immature..." for telling, whereas showing would show to the reader HOW he's very loud and such.

Argh, it's late and so my brain isn't working properly, but I hope that helps!
17th-Jan-2012 09:03 am (UTC)
Ah yes. I'm sure roundtable must have covered this. I'll have a little hunt through the tags. :)

And thank you. That makes perfect sense.

17th-Jan-2012 07:58 am (UTC)
SPN actually has good examples of this, I think.

In season four, they had a real problem with too much telling(people say 'show, don't tell', but the truth is you need some telling -- all show is just as tedious). Like, remember how every episode ended with a super awkward scene on the side of the road, where it was really unclear why they'd pulled over at all, and then Dean would look into the camera and just tell the audience about his feelings?

That's a great example of bad telling.

Compare that to 'Bloodlust' in season two. Even back when it was first airing and we had no idea what John had said to Dean, it was REALLY obvious that the whole ep was about Dean worrying about having to possibly kill Sam. The whole episode had that as subtext, while never directly stating it. It showed us all the characters emotional states and all the metaphors going on, without ever needing someone to look into the camera and say 'I'm sad because my dad told me I might have to kill my little brother.'

Typically, 'telling' has a very inorganic feel. It's where the audience feels like the author is just talking to them, informing them of what they need to know. Any time there's exposition dialogue, where one character is telling another character something they already know, because the audience needs to be instructed(ie, a scene where one computer tech says to another 'Well, as you know, if you connect the ____ to the ____, it'll cause blah blah blah', where you're just like "...okay, people don't talk like that. If he 'knows', why did you just tell him? That dialogue was clearly there to inform *me*, not the characters.") that's 'telling.'

Showing is more organic. It has a more natural feel to it. The audience is informed of things without ever having it spoken to them. Describing someone sobbing is 'showing.' Saying 'He was sad.' is 'telling.'

Now, telling isn't always bad. You can have a good 'telling' scene by setting one character up as an expert and another as a novice. In Star Wars, having Ben Kenobi explain the force to another Jedi would have seemed weird and unnatural -- after all, why would two Jedis explain the force to each other? But having him explain it to Luke, who has no idea what it is, informs both Luke and the audience in a way that feels normal.

So telling isn't always bad. It just needs to be used sparingly and in the right circumstances.
17th-Jan-2012 09:12 am (UTC)
Yay.. thank you for so much for your examples.

Exposition in the show always intrigues me. As the audience we do need to know a certain amount of information - usually done by one brother explaining something to the other but there are times (especially when the baddie spends a scene explaining why he's done what he's done) that it can be annoying.

Bloodlust is a great example. I have to say I hadn't thought about it like that before.

Thanks again.
17th-Jan-2012 08:31 am (UTC)
I took a writing fiction course about two semesters ago. I wish I could say it improved my writing, but sadly I haven't written much since.

However, the biggest thing I took from it was the "show, don't tell" rule. It's a lot easier said than done, but it makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Telling your reader how a character feels is too easy and boring. You want them to have a chance to feel what the character is feeling as much as possible, so you describe it.

I guess an example would be something like this:

bad:Dean looked down at at his brother lying on the dirty mattress and he felt his heart breaking with sadness.

good:Dean looked down at his brother lying on the dirty mattress, and suddenly his knees weren't strong enough to hold him. He fell back into the rickety old chair and dropped his head into his hands.

They might not be the best examples, but basically telling your readers that Dean's heart is breaking and he's sad isn't enough. You want your characters to show how their feeling through their actions because then your reader's going to feel more emotion as well. I like to picture it as a scene in my head, and then I describe what I'm seeing. Like for the example I used, I tried to reply AHBL part2, and I just wrote down what I thought would show someone Dean's pain without directly saying he's hurt because his brother died.

I hope that was a little bit helpful!
17th-Jan-2012 09:15 am (UTC)
Thank you hun. It is very helpful. Reading the responses here make me realise that I will never be a writer (not that I have any desire to be one). I'm sure I'd "tell" far too much.

This is helpful because I have to teach writing (to very young writers) and it's good to know about these things. Young writers certainly do a lot of telling.

Thank you and I hope we see you writing again soon. :DD

17th-Jan-2012 08:52 am (UTC)
I used to have a post with examples up of some of the more common ways writers fall into this trap, but here's my personal pet peeve: writers who use adverbs or verbs (in place of or in addition to 'said') to redundantly tell the reader what the dialogue clearly signals. The dialogue shows; the adverb tells.

Some examples:

"I wouldn't go in there," Dean cautioned.

"Oh, wow, a 16th century manuscript -- I wonder what magic was used to bind it?" Sam said curiously.

"I could take it for you, if you want," she offered.

"Hand it over!" Sam demanded.

And so forth.

Other examples of telling instead of showing:

- Long chunks of exposition that explain everything, where the writer could instead translate it into dialogue and action. Dialogue and action are showing; exposition is telling.

- Saying things like "Sam was anxious" instead of using body language and cues to describe it, ie, "Sam's knee bounced incessantly, shaking the floorboards, as he waited for Bobby's call."

Edited at 2012-01-17 08:54 am (UTC)
17th-Jan-2012 09:27 am (UTC)
Well. Thankfully I am not a writer because I am SURE I would write those all the time. I can see exactly what you mean and I am now worried that I have given instructions to my 6th graders to try and use other words instead of "said". So... is it best to just stick to "said" and only use adverbs if the intention of what is being said isn't clear?

Thank you so much for those examples. It has got me thinking and I'll no doubt be on the look out for those.

17th-Jan-2012 05:00 pm (UTC)
jumping in with a link here :)

The excess use of adverbs is usually associated with pretty new writers who haven't learned better ways to express themselves yet (also, Stephenie Meyer), and the same goes for those kind of 'telling' dialogue tags.

One example could be: "Hey man, I'll get that for you," Dean offered. We know he offered, that's what that line was, him offering :P

As opposed to:

"Dean. How nice to see you."

"Alistair. Glad you could make it," he said, genuinely.

Now, I dunno about you, but if Alistair walks into a scene? I expect Dean to want to kill him. Without any indication otherwise, I'd take that line as sarcasm until I see that 'genuinely'. That tells me that something is wrong in Whoville, and Sam needs to come in and save the day :P Of course, that adverb could be avoided by a description of Dean clapping Alistair on the shoulder, offering him a fresh body to torture, whatever, but I honestly might still take that as sarcasm or a trap unless we already know Dean's a little off in the head. In that case, that he said it 'genuinely' takes care of any lingering confusion up front.

this is an article I read a while ago (which, actually, curbed the number of adverbs in my own writing significantly) that basically says, don't get rid of adverbs, just tone it down. a lot. http://io9.com/5437610/seriously-whats-so-bad-about-adverbs

as for 6th graders... I remember those worksheets! And I remember how silly they sounded when you read a page full of adverbs aloud :P My personal opinion is that at that age they're still learning about dialogue tags, and they have to know the options out there before they can decide whether or not to use them.
18th-Jan-2012 01:55 pm (UTC)
This is awesome.

I can see how writers are presented with so many choices when deciding what to write. I have to presume most writers write instinctively and then probably go back and edit. /no idea.

Hee... and yes. Getting young writers to think about words other than "said". I love that they have to learn it all and then make choices. Though I'll always have that info in my brain now so I'll be talking to them about not stating the obvious. (Though at 11 just getting them to write anything is an achievement).

Thanks again. This is very helpful.

17th-Jan-2012 12:56 pm (UTC)
I think it's along the lines of:


Mark was one of the funniest people in the room. He always knew the best jokes.


"...and that's how it works." Mark said. The whole room was in stitches. Mark smiled at all these people he had finally managed to make laugh.
17th-Jan-2012 01:14 pm (UTC)
Thank you. That's a good example. Though I'm sure if I read the first sentence I'd accept it and not recognise it as telling. It's great to see how it would work better.

17th-Jan-2012 01:03 pm (UTC)
In short: telling is outright stating what a character feels (Sam's been supposed to be back from X an hour ago, and Dean's worried.) and showing is describing it (Sam was supposed to be back an hour ago. Dean can't stop pacing through the room, runs a hand over his face repeatedly and glances at his phone every other minute.) Or if you take settings: don't say "this place is creepy" but describe WHY it is, what it looks like, how it makes the character feel.

I've been SO SURE I had a link to a workshop or two, but I can't find them right now. /o\

Edited at 2012-01-17 01:18 pm (UTC)
18th-Jan-2012 11:30 am (UTC)
Thank you sweetie. The more I see these examples the more I know I'd be hopeless at writing. ;)

I had another look at roundtable be I thought there might be something there but I couldn't find anything on this specifically. Lots of other good stuff though. :)

17th-Jan-2012 02:29 pm (UTC)
Let me add an example here.

Telling: Sam grabbed his wrist, it hurt so much he wanted to puke.

Showing: Sam hissed, grabbed his wrist and doubled over, biting back the acrid taste stinging his throat and rising to his mouth.
18th-Jan-2012 01:57 pm (UTC)
Hey hun!

Thanks so much.

And um... now I need to read more about Sam's wrist. :D

Also...er... Strays?! Talk to me! Is this this part of my fav 'verse or something new?
21st-Jan-2012 01:02 am (UTC)
LOL...more about Sam's wrist...hehehee

Not part of your verse, but I think you read it way back when it was titled Children of Men...check your email.
21st-Jan-2012 04:16 am (UTC)
Oh yes. I read Children of Men. :D
17th-Jan-2012 04:15 pm (UTC)
Another example to add to the post, because one can never have enough. *g*

Sam walked into the kitchen. The room was messy and stank.


Fallen debris and broken furniture littered the kitchen floor. Sam navigated a split beam, raising a dusty hand to his nose as the cloying, sweet-rot stench of decay became stronger.
18th-Jan-2012 02:00 pm (UTC)
Oh I LOVE this example. And I agree... one cannot have too many. \o/

Thanks sweetie. <33
(Deleted comment)
18th-Jan-2012 02:08 pm (UTC)
Yes! yay writing! I've learned so many things! \o/

And I agree. I hate too much description. Sometimes I'd rather just know what the author wants to say without too much flowery language. So yeah, I can see how a balance is really important.

I love.. 'describing the scene' rather than 'talking about the scene'. :) It's something I can pass on to my student for sure.

Thank so much.
18th-Jan-2012 12:58 am (UTC)
I think others have already answered your question but I'll toss in an additional example.


Dean was exhausted. He got up and...


Dean looked at Sam and said, "I'm tired."


Dean rubbed his stinging, red rimmed eyes.


An entire scene showing him falling asleep mid conversation - show's how exhausted he is without stating it.

As intrepidy mentions, a story should be a mix of both. You don't need long detailed scenes "showing" something that is a small point or an aside. I guess the trick is in knowing when to do one or the other?

Edited at 2012-01-18 01:00 am (UTC)
18th-Jan-2012 02:12 pm (UTC)
Yeah... I agree that long detailed "showing" scenes can be too much sometimes. Personally I like short descriptions over long ones.

I have to say I'm glad I don't have to work out these tricks. I'm sure I would fail miserably.

Thanks bb! <33
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