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"Show, don't tell."

Discussion in 'Writer's Lounge' started by Jackie, August 1, 2018.

  1. Jackie

    Jackie Member

    "Show, don't tell," is among the first bits of advice that any writer is going to hear. It's typically treated as an absolute, even though writing "rules" are typically anything but.

    Do you think that writers tend to emphasize this rule a little too much? Do you think there are exceptions to this rule?

    This was Chekov's advice about how to show vs. tell. However, would "The moon was shining," be better if the broken glass never came into play? (I have no idea what the context of this advice is. I'm unable to locate it.) Otherwise, it seems like it would be breaking the Checkov's Gun concept:

    I read a book recently that tried to turn everything into a detailed, sensory experience. While it was nicely done at times, it also made things seem more important than they might be. It just came off as pretty writing whose primary purpose was to be pretty. It also slowed down the pacing pretty significantly.

    Is show vs tell, like most things, all about finding a balance between the two or is it really advised for us to always choose show over tell?
  2. PageTurner

    PageTurner Member

    There are so many writing "rules" out there that contradict with one another.

    I don't know the context of Chekov's first quote either, but I would think that he wouldn't have mentioned the "broken glass" unless it was specific to the work he was commenting on. I think it's just about making sure to pack as much into each sentence as you can without going overboard. It's a fine line to walk, that's for sure.

    I think that showing is great, but telling is okay if the showing is adding in unnecessary details that don't really add to the moment. I think in the case of settings, it's more important to stick to your character's voice and stay true to how they would observe their surroundings.

    I think showing is more important when it comes to emotions, personally.
  3. Reader

    Reader Vile Critic

    It is strange you should mention this, as I have just reviewed a book that practiced the opposite. When a new character was introduced, there were three pages of "If he was ever asked X, he would answer Y. When asked about his hat he would tell them Z..." before he ever actually spoke a line. I did not finish the book. In this situation, the author needs to have someone ask the question and receive the answer in the course of the story, otherwise it adds very little to the book.

    Another example was a book that mentioned that a certain main character would tell people more and more outlandish stories about why he wore a corsage, because people always asked. In the course of the entire book, no one did and he did not tell any. I suspect something like that is left from an earlier draft, especially as the corsage played no part in the plot. It is something that an editor should catch, if only to have someone comment on the lack of comments at the end.
  4. Gemini

    Gemini Member

    That sounds awful, @Reader. That's way too much exposition. 2-3 pages for every character introduction? If you want to "tell" that much, then it should be peppered throughout the book.

    I think the problem of telling instead of showing is the most evident in third-person omniscient. Although I've seen way too much exposition in first-person narratives as well.
  5. Kindler

    Kindler Active Member

    By Chekov's own rule, the broken glass should be relevant to what is in the scene. Maybe the character is by a broken window or holding a shattered glass. It's something to add a little bit of context to the scene.

    I think what he is trying to avoid is exposition, because in real life, how many times do you have to listen to exposition from other people (family members excepted...)
  6. Gemini

    Gemini Member

    My two best friends always give way too many details when they tell me stories. I handle that about the same way I handle it in books; I hear the words but I don't remember or really comprehend them, just gloss right over and wait for something meaningful. I think that's what Chekov was saying too, especially when you throw in a dramatic element like a gun. You're just waiting for it to be used.
  7. Zelda

    Zelda Member

    I looked around for the context of the first quote and it looks like it was a letter he wrote to his brother. The quote in context:

    He has an unpublished short story, "Hydrophobia", where he apparently used that description. I don't know if the broken bottle ever came into play. Given that there's a werewolf in it that was killed, I'm imagining it did.
  8. PageTurner

    PageTurner Member

    @Zelda, having the context helps somewhat. I don't know why I'm dying to know if the broken glass comes into play or not, but I am. Either way, I think the letter shows that he's just trying to teach about sensory writing. Broken glass could merely be something that adds to the setting. I don't think it has quite the same implications as a gun, although maybe in a story about fighting a werewolf it would.
  9. Zelda

    Zelda Member

    I totally understand your curiosity, @PageTurner. I considered buying the book just for that but talked myself out of it. I really don't need any more distractions than I already have. I agree, I think that either way the two bits of advice aren't actually contradictory. Even something like a gun doesn't have to be shot to add something to the story. It could be showing that the character is a gun collector or at least has an interest. That way, when he finds himself in the military, it makes sense for him to already know how to shoot a gun...or something like that.
  10. Jackie

    Jackie Member

    Good job finding the short story the quote came from, @Zelda. I was able to find the short story online here. Spoiler: The broken glass isn't used to kill the wolf. However, they are mentioned later on in the story, there's just not much significance. This was just about sensory writing. I agree, it's not quite the same implication as a gun. I don't think the broken glass would not have stuck out to me in the original context if it was my first time reading it.

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