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weeveeship's avatar

Are there exceptions to "show not tell" in fiction writing?

Asked by weeveeship (4637points) October 10th, 2010

I am writing realistic fiction for fun (not for class). As much as possible, I give details to let the reader know what is happening. Some people told me to use more “showing” though.

An example:
My writing (this is stream of conscious):
Bob walked into the halls of Springfield High School again. Everything seemed the same as it was when Bob left for summer vacation. The ripped up poster in the hall was still there. Bryan is flexing his muscles and bragging about how he would beat up all the nerds again. Yes, this would be a fun year.

What some other person might write:
Bob sauntered into the bustling halls of Springfield High School, wearing a nasty scowl the shape of an upside-down U on his freckled face. The half-torn Springfield Football poster with all the faces of grinning football players clad in crimson was still displaying slightly slanted to the right on the yellow-plastered cafeteria wall in all its glory…

My fiction tend to have more philosophical, almost modernist (think Great Gatsby but not as great) feel. While I like the second example, it seems too detailed to me. It is certainly not my style. Also, I think that 1) it is a drag to write as I am always trying to find ways to describe the mundane colorfully, 2) it slows down my otherwise fast-paced action-packed story, 3) notice that I didn’t even get to Bryan in the second example.

So, I am wondering if it is ok to forgo “show not tell” if it is not my style or it does not fit the pace of the story I am writing. Or should I adhere to “show not tell” no matter what?

P.S. Please also keep in mind that I am time crunched and I write fiction on occasion to keep my mind off things and to relax.

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12 Answers

DominicX's avatar

The second example you posted sounds like an example of purple prose, which is overly showy “decorative” language that draws attention to itself.

I think the best option is to take the Buddhist approach and find a middle-ground between the two. If your story doesn’t call for overly descriptive language, then don’t use it. But keep in mind that stories can seem choppy and dry if there is too little description involved.

weeveeship's avatar

@DominicX Thanks for your answer. The second example is how I’ve been taught at school, which rewards using flowerly language. The first example is my natural style.

Of course, I will use more descriptive language for the right scenes (like if Bob fights Bryan or something) but I don’t like writing like the second example for almost all the scenes.

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

I know a lot of my classmates complain about type 2, but these are also the same kids who complain when people use words like “erroneous” and “myriad”, so perhaps they aren’t your target audience. Or any writers’ target audience…
Course, one of the reasons I loved J.K. Rowling’s books so much is how clearly she painted the picture.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

Since you’re writing for yourself, it doesn’t really matter what your product looks like. However, if you really want to improve yourself, then you will have to learn to show and not tell.

A writer must strive to always show the story unfolding as opposed to telling it. Here is the easiest way I know to describe the difference between those two things. Imagine I am writing to you about baking a chocolate cake. I could simply regurgitate the recipe for you and let you imagine all the events that go into the cake’s creation, or I could reveal to you what it means for me to get the bag of cake flour out of the cupboard that stands in the corner of the kitchen. It’s a rickety old thing made out of thin boards that my grandmother used to have on her homestead back in the dust bowl. I can then go step by step through the events that occur one at a time that are integral when mixing and lovingly making a luxurious confection culminating in the pungent aroma of cocoa seeping into every nook and cranny of the house. If I take the time to create a scene describing the mixing and measuring and pouring and baking and talking to somebody in the room, then I have shown you the story. If I simply read the recipe to you and expect you to imagine all delicious events that went along with making the cake, then I’ve only told the story to you. As a writer, I’ve got to get out of the characters’ heads and get into the action. I’ve got to show you the events instead of telling you about them.

In your examples above, both are really telling. Neither shows. The reason is because there is no action. Here’s my take on showing using one of your examples:
Bob lurched into the main hall of Springfield High. A half-torn football poster still clung desperately to one wall, and standing in front of it was freshman Joey. Bob lumbered down the hall, locked skinny Joey’s head under his arm, and razzed his hair until it burned.

BarnacleBill's avatar

I think the writing should reflect the age and maturity of the subject you are writing about. For example, your first paragraph seems fine, because the subject is a high school teenaged boy, and how you’re written is exactly how a high school boy would perceive the situation. He would neither saunter or lurch into the to school but walk in. He might walk slowly, leisurely, his steps may quicken as he approached where Lindsay Walton’s locker was last year, but he would definitely walk in. He would not be surprised to see the ripped-up poster in the hall, or that Bryan was flexing his muscles and bragging about beating up the nerds, as if summer vacation had never happened at all.

gorillapaws's avatar

Remembering the senses is an important aspect of “showing.” That doesn’t mean you need a constant rundown of all 5 senses in every scene, but including references to smell and touch which are often forgotten in writing can go very far towards really putting the reader in the scene.

As far as flowery language goes, I think it works best in a couple situations. When it’s juxtaposed with more spartan language, it can create a very interesting effect. Cormac McCarthy uses this technique to great effect in The Blood Meridian for example.

The other literary technique that seems to resonate with me is when an author can use language typically reserved for a certain context and use it in a very different way. I’m struggling to think of a better example, but something like:

he piloted the toothbrush across his gums

Takes a word like piloting which is typically used in context of navigating a nautical or aerial vehicle. The term implies a certain amount of care and precision which can tell us a lot about the kind of person who “pilots a toothbrush” in very few words. It “shows” us how it’s done while avoiding lengthy descriptions about how meticulous the guy is. This example, isn’t really the best, but hopefully you can catch my meaning.

If anyone knows the term for the latter technique, I’d be interested to know what it’s called.

choppersangel's avatar

Strikes me that the ‘middle road’ will serve, but perhaps a simpler approach also might help a bit. There is as much advice about writing as there are writers, if you are not currently interested in competing for an audience, then the first thing must by to actually enjoy what you write. Part of that is actually getting inside your character – if you can be brave about expressing what Bob or Bryan are really feeling, readers will find themselves better able to empathise – to feel along with the character.

Let go a bit and relax. Don’t think too much about school-learning, nor about the phrase ‘show not tell’, which frankly can become a fundamentalist rod to beat yourself with. Keep an eye on grammar, punctuation and the pace of your sentences – simplest thing is to read them back to yourself aloud. You’ll soon find a way of describing the thoughts and feelings of your characters. They have lives of their own and thoughts of their own, be brave, get them into interesting scrapes, then back out again. Above all, (repeating myself, but it’s important!)

muppetish's avatar

Don’t force your writing. I took a creative writing course and many of the students tried to pack as much sensory details into their story and, unfortunately, it came out to be a right mess. It didn’t matter they were “showing” (Meaghan sprinted up to Brian out of breath, chest heaving. She tossed a strand of glistening, crimson hair away from her brilliant gray eyes before conversing) or “telling” (Meagan ran up to Brian, tired and out of breath. She brushed her red hair out of her eyes before speaking.) Maybe I’m nit-picky about this, but it sounds entirely unnatural the majority of the time. And even when it does, I’m not the biggest fan. It’s what turns me off from Steinbeck and Flaubert. I have had long debates about this with friends.

It’s not a bad idea to try new styles to add to your repertoire, but getting the story down in the first place is always the most important part. If you want to change “Sophia felt sad” into “Sophia’s bottom lip trembled and her eyes watered. She swallowed, hoping to suppress the lump in her throat, but could not stifle the onslaught of tears” later on, that’s absolutely fine (the depiction of emotions in characters is one of the few things I usually apply “show don’t tell” to.)

Just don’t get caught up in either and get writing :)

I also don’t feel as though the first example was a “stream of consciousness” per se, but it has far more potential to become an interesting story (though, as @hawaii_jake pointed out, it lacks action and you seem to have a similar bad habit of mine – changing tense in the same paragraph.) The second one is certainly not my cup of tea. I would have closed that book and returned it to the library shelf. No bueno.

mattbrowne's avatar

“Tell books” are harder to read than “show books”, especially for readers who have never learned how to read and enjoy real literature or look for a YouTube-like experience when they read novels.

“Show books” make sense when the book is about a gripping story and entertainment.

“Tell books” make sense when people really appreciate the art of writing. Fans of “tell books” usually also appreciate poetry.

Jeruba's avatar

Yes, absolutely. We don’t need long moments of her sitting there filing her nails and saying nothing. We don’t need the texture of the toilet paper in the men’s room. We want you to be judicious and selective. We want to trust you to tell us what we need to know in order to experience the story and leave out all the rest.

Show scenes that need to be dramatized. Tell things that can be summarized. Don’t give us his freckled face when we are seeing from his POV; he’s not looking at his face. What you elaborate on and what you skim over depends on what you’re trying to do.

Description doesn’t have to be flowery. It can be crisp and evocative. But there has to be a reason for it, a reason that contributes to the story. For example, if Bob has a running feud with one of the football players in the poster, and just the sight of his face arouses Bob’s ire, and he tears the poster the rest of the way down as he passes, that’s a reason. If the cheery yellow of the cafeteria mocks his dark mood, that’s a reason. If the environment sets a mood, that’s a reason. But if there’s no need for us to picture it, skip it.

At the same time, if you just say “She almost fell over the side of the cliff, but he grabbed her hand and saved her,” that is highly unsatisfactory. We want to see the slip and the stumble, feel the moment of horror, sense the desperate grab, feel the connection, feel the weight slipping away, feel the grasp tightening, sense the heart-pounding urgency, and live through each suspenseful second of the fateful lurch and swing that will or won’t save her life and might precipitate both of them over the edge to their deaths. Show, show, show. This is the payoff we came along with you for.

zophu's avatar

I like it when the narriator does nothing but “show,” and characters go deep into “tell.” Well, I also like it when those characters become narriators. I just don’t want to feel like the author is talking to me.

hirenetprogrammer's avatar

yes my advise with matt

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