LESSON The Art of Showing Versus Telling

Discussion in 'REFINING WRITING' started by fatalrendezvous, Jan 13, 2016.

  1. This is something that I see a lot of writers struggle with, myself included.

    "Show. Don't Tell."

    This is a common phrase in the writing industry. We hear it all the time. But, I'm not sure we really, truly understand it. With good reason - it's hard! It's one of the most difficult concepts for writers and storytellers to grasp. When we do understand it though, it becomes an incredibly powerful tool. Being able to apply showing, not telling in our writing elevates us. Being able to know when to show and when to tell demonstrates mastery. Because, in fact, there ARE some situations where it IS better to tell than to show!

    What is the difference between showing and telling?

    It's easier to explain telling first, and then to explain showing.

    Telling is exactly what it sounds like. When we tell, we are being matter-of-fact and concise. Telling is great for condensing long periods of storytelling into quick segments. You might use this to provide context, or to briefly remind a reader of something that happened previously. You could use telling to gloss over unimportant or boring portions of a story just so that the reader knows what happened without needing to re-hash the exact details or specifics to them. In some cases, we even use telling to disguise elements of a story that we don't want the readers to know happened just yet.

    In this sense, telling does have its uses - so it's not always true that we need to show and not tell.

    BUT! If you're in the middle of describing a story, which as roleplayers we most often are, telling rather than showing is usually bad! Why?

    Because as writers, it's our job to evoke, not to explain; to demonstrate, not to inform.

    This is where showing comes in.

    Showing is the subtle art of being specific enough to help a reader form their own conclusions about something, rather than requiring us to force it upon them in a heavy-handed manner. It involves imagery, appealing to the senses - taste, touch, sight, smell, sound. It can involve using metaphor or simile. It involves being specific and descriptive. Showing can practically turn a story into music, because when you illustrate scenes that are vivid, they stick. They flow. Nobody wants to read an instruction manual. We want to read art!

    Showing is descriptive, it's demonstrative. It paints a picture for the reader, allowing the readers to draw their own conclusions.

    What do you mean letting the readers draw their own conclusions?

    Let me phrase it this way:

    Let's say, hypothetically, that I were to tell you today that I am a highly trained and highly qualified professional assassin working for the government, and that I use my irresistible charm and quick wit to lure and subdue my targets. I might tell you that this is how I earned the moniker "Fatal Rendezvous." You might believe me, orrr... you might not.

    If Fatal were a character in a story, that type of description might be the kind you see written in her bio. But it expressly tells the reader about Fatal, rather than showing the reader why those things are true. Granted, it tells it decently well - it's better than simply saying "Fatal is a really good assassin," but it still requires the reader to suspend disbelief. Just like you probably wouldn't believe me if I told you I was an assassin, don't expect your readers to take things at face value. Show them why those things are true instead.

    But how can we show? Think about the specifics, the qualities that make her clearly such a badass. Show the reader, through her actions and how she presents herself, how awesome and how deadly she is. Use descriptors and setting-appropriate words to paint an image demonstrating her swiftness, her accuracy, her professionalism and possibly her sharp manner of dress. To show her charm you want to paint a picture of her attire, the sensuality of her movements, the attractiveness of her bodily features, her body language, etc.

    You can still put the stuff in her bio, but if you don't show the reader how awesome the character is, the characters lose their luster and the narrative quickly falls flat.

    Similarly, say you are on a dating website and are analyzing a person's profile. You can see a picture of them, sure, but everything else on the profile is simply stuff they are telling you. How do you know if that person is respectful, friendly, has a good sense of humor, is great with kids, and loves dogs? You can't KNOW because they've only told you. In order for you to believe it, they have to show you.

    This applies for all aspects of your creative (and professional) writing. When you want to really draw your reader's attention to something, show how it happened, don't just tell the reader that it happened.

    But how do I show rather than tell?

    This is where it gets hard, and unfortunately where I cannot provide direct help. It is one of the hardest parts of writing to show rather than to tell, because writing in and of itself is a medium designed for telling. I would go as far as to say that the pursuit of showing and telling is lifelong; even history's greatest writers could have improved it.

    The best advice I can give you is this: re-read your posts, but read them analytically and critically. Go through and look for areas where you are telling, and where you are showing.

    If you are telling rather than showing:
    Ask yourself whether you should be showing. Is it important? Is it an interaction that you want to highlight? Is it a chance for you to showcase the environment or to flesh out the reader's understanding of the world? and determine how you can show. Normally this is as simple as elaborating, but can also involve a lot of other literary techniques like simile, metaphor, hyperbole, and personification. If you need help with those, there are a few other guides here that can help you, and there is a wealth of information available on the internet!

    If you are showing rather than telling:
    Ask yourself if the scene is necessary for showing. WHY are you showing? How important is it? Is it significant enough for you to devote your time (and your reader's time) to something that could probably be described in a few words? If it IS that important, how can you show better? What other types of descriptions can you use? What additional information can you include?


    Don't be afraid to be critical of your own work! This is one of the best ways for you to grow as a writer. If you can assess your own work critically, find flaws within it, and take steps to fix those flaws, you are already on track.

    Look to other writers who you feel do a good job (professional or otherwise - maybe they're on Iwaku!) and analyze their work as well. Pick apart posts that you really love. What makes them great? What makes them not great? What could they have improved?

    Being able to turn the medium of writing into an art form is, like I've said, a lifelong journey. But it's never too soon to start.
    #1 fatalrendezvous, Jan 13, 2016
    Last edited: Sep 1, 2015
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  2. I need more guidance in this, I have been told I do both and sometimes write flat and other people say I need to give less descriptions, others say I need more. I think I have a style but I would like guidance how to build on it.
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  3. I think a lot of the problem here is also with our need to justify why the character is taking a specific action. When people write bios, particularly complex ones especially, I think we have a tendency to feel written in a corner, afraid that others will feel like some of actions a character takes might feel out of character if that character isn't following the framework made in a bio at *all* times.

    Showing is a much better and organic way of developing a character. However telling allows one to explain details and motivations for an action across maybe one instance of that particular action. Showing takes multiple repetitions and slowly reveals over the course of time the intricacies and nuances of a character's motivation.

    And to be fair, given the fail rate of RPs. Not a lot of people get the chance to actually do that with characters.

    But this may also be part of why RPs fail. To much space wasted on telling and handing the character to the reader on a silver platter instead of letting readers develop interests in the character and letting them find out over time.
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  4. Firstly, I would like to commend @fatalrendezvous for this clear, concise, and thought provoking lesson that cracks the door to a super deep and complex art within the school of writing.

    So, ya..

    Well done Fatal *clap clap*

    Secondly, I would like to expand upon this idea even further. I am not going to ask permission either #dwigurllll.

    So here we go:

    As explained by Fatal, showing is the art of explaining a character, society, or world through the actions of whichever of the former you are describing. Alternatively, telling is the art of describing the former by plainly presenting the facts to the reader.

    Showing, on the majority, offers a better read by forcing the reader to think for themselves and come to conclusions based on the events they are shown. This simultaneously forces the reader to invest in story through both curiosity (are the readers conclusions correct?) and commitment(the reader has spent time and energy to learn about your world, therefor, they are invested in it).

    Telling, on the majority, lacks those elements and will often leave the reader dissatisfied.

    Now, this is all and good but how does this apply to Role Playing? As many veterans are aware, writing and role playing are not one in the same. Yes, we need to write to participate in this rp medium and while skill with literature helps 'one liner' rps that don't require cs's and that allow random jump-in's function just as well as 'Adept' rps that have high writing and cs standards. One might go as far as to say that 'one liner' rps do even better in this medium then the aforementioned 'Adept' rp's.

    It isn't even a 'might' or 'maybe'. I can say with absolute confidence that, in the majority, One-Liner/Jump-in Rp's will have longer life spans and more committed members then Adept rps. Aside from the usual 'laziness' excuse that many adept rpers use (I personally disagree with this 'laziness is the reason' idea). We can directly relate this to the 'No Show and Mo Tell Phenomenon' (as I have now dubbed it).

    Note** I am, and will continue to, speak in generalities. I do not believe that all adept rp's will fail. I have personally experienced several adept rp's that have succeeded and outlived many a one liner rp. I am speaking from a majority standpoint based on my own personal opinion that has been formed based on a lifetime of participating in this medium of rp. #don'thatethethoerist

    Ahem* back to it. The No Show and Mo Tell Phenomenon isn't really a phenomenon, we 'Adept' rper's have created a system that unintentionally cripples our chances of rp success. The main offender in this whole system would be the character sheet.

    Why is that?

    Because, the character Sheet is, by definition, nothing but a Tell. It completely illegitimizes a players right to building their character in a constructive and enjoyable way.

    It has often been said, by many accomplished Writers, that character's write themselves. Entire book endings have been changed simply because a single character in a WIP novel decided to do his own thang without the author's permission. This abstract and ridiculous sounding idea is proof of 'show' in action. When you force your players to publicize the secret intricacies of their characters in a 'tell' and not a 'show' fashion, you simultaneously suck the fun out of writing for those characters. For everyone. The writer is afraid to experiment because their character is now defined and fully developed before the character has even had time to participate in the rp. The readers take little joy from reading post's about those characters because they already have a pretty good idea of what they will do, and if the character goes against that idea, the readers have a 100% justified reason to call out the writer for inaccurate representation of their character. This then increases the distress and slowly kills off interest until everyone leaves the rp.

    I have seen this countless times, and have fallen victim to it myself countless more times.

    So what do we do? While cs's do cause the illegitimization of the individual player and their freedom to participate and unveil their character in a 'Show' rather than 'Tell' manner, they are still extremely important in this medium, especially at advanced levels within it. For they offer clear definitions that are easily citable and helpful to both the GM and the players. (Who is Jimmy again? Oh, this 5 paragraph document tells me everything I need to know. Helpful.) Honestly the solution is rather simple however.

    Take Cs's out of the public view. A character's cs should be a private document that is only seen by the creator of the character and the GM of the rp. Simultaneously, a GM should never include a player character for himself/herself in an rp they are Gming(This is an entirely separate discussion topic however, and I will not be covering the specifics behind it in this post.). How does this prevent loss of interest?

    Well, it releases the writer from the shackles of a public cs. The writer is free to develop his/her player as he/she pleases. It also prevents other players from becoming bored with the other characters in an rp. Each character will evolve at a unique pace set by it's owner and creator. Interest will always self replenishing, because new things will always be uncovering and the players will be forced to have their characters adapt and respond to information as it is given to them.

    However, there is an argument against this, but I am going to throw that out the window as well. Watch.

    What if my character is a spymaster? or someone of fame? If I do not have a cs to communicate this through, how will I communicate it? How will I know if my character has any knowledge of the other characters in the rp? how will the other players know if their characters have any knowledge of my own character?

    The safest way to avoid this problem is to avoid characters that bring this problem to the table. Assume that your character and all other characters know nothing of each other and you will very easily overcome this issue. Also, if you are unsure about something that has been 'shown' to you, a quick pm to the owner of the character will easily rectify that misunderstanding or lack there of.

    If you absolutely NEED to play a spy master, someone famous, or some kind of character that will bring up this issue then take responsibility. A role playing group is a team, a good team can only exist in a system with good communication. Post in the OOC and inform your fellow players that your character is famous and let them in on what your character is famous for. Only you can know how much information is enough to clear up confusion without causing lack of interest do to too much 'telling'.

    So in short, the OOC should be for Telling while the IC should be for Showing, but you should never Show what you have already Told and vise versa. It is up to you however, to properly balance what you Tell and what you Show.

    Mind you, this is not an easy task. It is called High level RP'ing for a reason. You will only develop this skill through practice. However this skill is yours to develop. Never should a GM force you to Tell or Show. That goes against the player's right to write and will only plant seeds disinterest while stunting a players growth as a writer and rper.

    In conclusion:

    Gm's; Never force you player to show or tell, rely on them to efficiently balance what they show and what they tell. If they are struggling with this however, offer your assistance. It is your job to guide and develop you players and you can't do that if you don't offer help.

    Players; Practice you Show and Tell's. Only you know the perfect balance for your character. Every character has a unique balance because every character is unique. Also, respect your fellow player's and their right to do this same thing. Never describe the reactions of other character's. Let them react individually. Finally, do not forget to communicate, you are never at fault simply if you are unsure about what you are being shown. Only your fellow players know what is going on in their character's mind. If you ask them to clarify, they should be more then willing, just as they would expect you too be.

    Everyone; A Role playing group is a team, only through communication and the proper balance of Showing and Telling will it thrive and prosper. If you truly want your rp to prosper, then you will have to work hard at all of these things. Only you can make success in your rp's.
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  5. Feel free to clarify what you think your issues are in a pm, I would love to offer you advice.
  6. I must object to your word choice here. One-liner RPs may last longer, they may have a higher number of posts, but they do not "do better" than adept RPs.

    That's like saying that- because you can eat more if you go out in your backyard and shovel dirt down your throat compared to staying in the kitchen and spending three hours cooking a luxurious but small meal- that eating dirt results in you being "better fed."

    How, exactly, do you think that GMs are currently doing this and need this advice in order to stop? How would that even look, for a GM to force a player to show or to tell instead of letting them write with whatever balance they choose? I've never seen a GM say 'whoa whoa whoa, that backstory was too evocative, give me the police report-style simple fact-stating overview.'
  7. By Do better my intention was to mean 'be more successful'. Not only that, but it seems to me that you are trying to say that one liner rp's are less valuable then adept rp's. Which is presumptuous and closed minded. One Liner Rp's are enjoyed by one type of role player while adept rps are enjoyed by another. Both can have depth and both are of equal value. At the end of the day, I was speaking generally and out of my own experience, as I stated in my post.
    You have taken this statement out of context. I am primarily using the extensiveness of Character sheets to describe this. In many adept rp's extensive and fleshed out public character sheets are a requirement and the character sheet medium is, in essence, a telling medium. By requiring players to post these sheets publicly and in such depth gm's are unintentionally forcing their players to showcase the majority of character development in a telling medium. ?I then, in my post, went on to say that maybe the reason one liner and jump in rps, on the average, see a longer life span, and more dedicated players is because of this.

    Again this is a hypothesis formed by my own experiences in my 5 year long roleplaying career. I am not stating this as a fact, I am only saying 'huh, maybe this is why more in depth rps tend to die off.' You can disagree with that, and that is fine. Just keep in mind that if you wish to have an intelligent and constructive discussion about this I would request that you not just take snips of my statements and make them seem declarative in an out of context state :).

    I hope I answered your questions, if not I'd love to continue this conversation in pm.
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  8. Yeah gee, quoting what you said, how dishonest of me. That was not out of context, it was literally what you said immediately after "In conclusion." You don't "went on to say" anything after your conclusion so saying that I'm taking you out of context is dishonest at best.

    You haven't, and seem unwilling, to answer my question. Just because a complex character sheet is a requirement is never in any way a GM forcing a player to stick to one side of the show vs. tell divide. A player can very well include a lengthy background that shows who their character is and how they got that way and what they're like now, without ever laying out in explicit detail facts about their character.

    You seem to be blaming the medium for the shortcomings of some of those who operate within it.

    Okay, so after a private message exchange with an unnamed member who I won't directly quote, we got down to the heart of the issue. At its core, the problem was a desire to get to know a character organically throughout the development of the RP and not all at once up front in the form of a character sheet.

    And as I replied, that's an completely reasonable stance and a good discussion to be having, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the matter of Show vs. Tell, and that by dragging it into this it merely muddies the waters on this topic.

    Character sheets can be done using Show, or using Tell, and I've never seen it specified which- it is always up to the player. Character sheets themselves having nothing to do with that divide and should not be called into question based on this paradigm.
    #8 Insomnant, Mar 6, 2017
    Last edited: Jul 2, 2016
  9. Gorgeous guide, Fatal - I've always had a struggle in this area when it comes to RP, cause I like to be REALLY REALLY clear about what I'm writing. It's all a balance, certainly, because TOO much description can be a little difficult to trudge through, as well. I appreciate that you've managed to find a way to put that balance into words :)
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  10. Nice read. And reading your example of 'irresistible charm', 'quick wit', and 'very clever' are characteristics I often despise. People often use this, but their characters doesn't reflect the attitudes they show. Like, it is not really charming if a character goes to hit on another on first meeting and without any chitchat, that is cheating. The only possibility one could charm that way is if magic is involved.

    Usually I avoid these characteristics and instead do something like 'avid reader' and 'observant' instead. As if my character is really witty? That is up to the reader and RP partner to decides.
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  11. Exactly. There is a certain element of knowledge involved, too - I hate to say this, but a person who doesn't have an ounce of charisma in their bones isn't going to write a very charismatic character very well, simply because they can't create the genuine sense of interest and engagement.

    I have no problem with someone using characteristics or descriptions like that, as long as they can back them up in writing.
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  12. I usually don't have much of a problem showing and not telling in roleplay, save for my reliance on metaphors to help detail how something looks if I can't think up of the wording to actually explain something. I never knew some people had such a negative thought on character sheets, though and that's telling and not showing. I guess I just focus so hard on there being a framework with which to base your showing, and to make sure that the players can actually plot together without stepping on each other's toes or something along those lines.

    I don't know, it seems like no matter what conclusion I reach the answer's always wrong.
  13. I feel those who have a history in combat roleplay have a tendency to tell too often. There is power in being able let go of your rigid view of the world. Readers will come to different conclusions to you about the placement of items and characters in the environment, basing these things on what they have seen or have experience in.

    We sometimes tell things in order to make them more specific. We also tell things because showing takes more time and words to get out the same concept. If you write things in a way that allows the reader to decide the geometery of a scene, you may just save yourself a lot of effort and showing can be become as fast a telling. A lot of the time it will be easier than telling, since you only need to provide half the cues!​
  14. So here is an interesting conundrum. Does this mean we can't have a clever or charming character if we in real life are neither charming nor clever? Also at what point does giving descriptive detail become defining the story for other people or obnoxiously slow?