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Show, Don't Tell

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Unless, of course, you are Lampshading it for laughs.

"A little less conversation, a little more action, please..."

This is a writing or directorial choice that involves the use of demonstrative techniques, rather than blatant or thinly-veiled narration, to establish narrative elements.

For example, say Alice is a badass:

  • To show that Alice is a badass, she would spend the entire book doing indisputably badass things. More pertinently, the book would go into detail: for instance, the work could begin with a Batman Cold Open where she takes on six mooks without breaking a sweat. In these circumstances, we don't have to be told she's badass; we can see it for ourselves.
  • To tell that she is a badass, the narrator, Alice herself and/or other characters around her would merely state that fact. For instance, they might report on previous incidents that have happened in the past and/or "offscreen" while the other characters were busy. Or maybe there'll be no support for the statement whatsoever, but that's unlikely ("Hey, did you hear about the badass things Alice did the other day?" "No, I didn't." "Well, they sure were badass!" *crickets*).

If you're using a story structure or Point of View that doesn't include a narrator (such as limited third-person, in which you only see into the head of one character), showing is usually a better idea, if only because having a narrator suddenly show up just to tell this stuff would break the reader's Willing Suspension of Disbelief. It's even more important in a visual medium, since people don't tend to say precisely what they're thinking or how they feel about it for a hypothetical audience's benefit; watching two characters discuss the details of something they both already know rather than making economical use of a flashback to when one or both didn't know is extremely poor storytelling.

This also relates to sentence-by-sentence writing decisions that have more to do with an author's language and word choice than anything else. In general, something happens in every sentence written. Is the author merely stating those events, or describing them? "Alice was angry and upset over Bob's death" is the telling version of "As her husband slumped to the floor, with blood gushing from his throat, Alice's heart raced and she choked back tears." One of these two sentences has slightly more dramatic power, and it's for reasons of impact that showing is generally advocated over telling.

Now this is sometimes quoted as an absolute gospel truth, which is not true. We have an entire line of tropes including Anthropic Principle, Hand Wave and Acceptable Breaks from Reality that admits certain things are impossible to avoid when trying to make a coherent story, but it's important to know where. Many writers consider treating it like an iron-clad rule makes the writing stagnate, leading new writers to believe they have writer's block or feel they have filled the page with too much meaningless quirks, when they just need to get the idea out as plainly as possible and then revise later. One of the best scenes from Jaws was a monologue about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis as Quint's haunted recanting of events dominates the scene.

It should also be noted that action is not the same as showing, and dialog is not the same as telling. Conversations between friends, recurring topics of interest and sharing issues that matter to a character aren't the same thing as an Info Dump. Sometimes, a character narrating to themselves does a lot to show the perspective they're coming from. Conversely, action may just be time-wasting filler; nothing may actually be accomplished in an Action Prologue other than setting up a Cliché Storm that follows. In the ultimate defiance of "Show, Don't Tell", what a character says is an action.

An extension of the concept in interactive media like Video Games is "play, don't show." Rather than the player being told that the Dragon Lord killed your ninja clan and dishonored you by defeating you in a duel or being shown a movie sequence, the player is allowed to act out the journey to the Doomed Hometown and fight a Hopeless Boss Fight against the far more powerful foe prior to the game proper. Gameplay and Story Integration and Interface Screw explore more of this idea.

It's important to note that Tropes Are Tools - there are reasons why an author may prefer to tell but not show. See Unreliable Narrator and "Rashomon"-Style in which the viewer may find something different than what the narration is telling them. This technique is usually to highlight the Unreliable Narrator's particular agenda and their character.


General Telling:

  • All There in the Manual: When plot-crucial information is never actually shown, much less explained within the work itself and is instead relegated to supplementary materials (e.g., tie-in novellas, creator interviews, etc.)
  • As You Know: As you know, this is an example on a trope list. So the only reason we could possibly have to explain that to you is for the benefit of the viewer.
  • Info Dump: Infodumping (that is, information + dumping) is a type of Exposition that is particularly sesquipedalian. Although it can be done in a way that is unintrusive or entertaining, most infodumps are obvious, intrusive, patronizing, and sometimes downright boring. Specifically, if the premise of your story is laughably ridiculous, an infodump will call attention to the fact; this infodump, for instance. The word 'infodump' is often used as a pejorative.
  • Just a Face and a Caption: Images for tropes should show how the trope is used, rather than just having the caption tell how the trope is used in the image.
  • That Makes Me Feel Angry: It makes me sad when writers resort to just having their characters say what they feel in so many words.
  • Exposition: Dialog informs other characters, and also the audience, of key information.
  • Explaining Your Power to the Enemy: When a character's power is spelled out by that character rather than made clear through visual representation.
  • In a World…: Trailers traditionally used an announcer to explain the concept of the film, often using the Stock Phrase "in a world..." to begin describing the setting. Since at least The New '10s, almost all trailers have completely dispensed with the announcer and instead use a montage of scenes and dialogue from the film to show the viewer what the film is about rather than simply explain it.
  • Narrator: A character who relates the story to the audience, sometimes functioning as a Framing Device.

Redundant Telling:

Telling that contradicts shown behavior or evidence:

Showing instead of playing:

  • Cutscene Power to the Max: Your character is significantly more able when you're not playing as them.
  • Cutscene Incompetence: Your character is significantly less able when you're not playing as them.
  • Gameplay and Story Segregation: The game mechanics don't work the same way the storyline does, or the story doesn't match the way the player is allowed to behave. This often comes across as the game simply ignoring whatever the player is doing to tell a fixed, immutable storyline.

Playing instead of showing:

Acceptable Telling:

Showing that slows the narrative:

  • Description Porn: Description that goes into so much detail that the reader will soon shout "Get on with the story already!"
    • Continuity Porn: An abundance of references to previous installments, which risks a Continuity Lockout or, at least, takes up room that could be used for new storylines.
    • Costume Porn: Costumes that are detailed far beyond what is needed to characterize the wearer can distract readers from what they're actually doing.
    • Design Student's Orgasm: Animation that is so detailed that the viewer will forget what the story is about again.
    • Scenery Porn: Extreme amount of detail put into designing scenery that the audience will either ignore or get annoyed at the real action blocking.
  • Padding: In its worst form, Padding is mainly superfluous fluff that is only shown rather than told in order to lengthen the runtime of the story.
  • Purple Prose: Pretentious, extravagant wordplay - or sometimes this is what happens when a work is nothing but show, and the story just becomes so slow and tedious.
    • Mills and Boon Prose: Overly elaborate descriptions of sensual encounters that enrapture readers away from the real action.

Alternative Title(s): Showing Versus Telling, Showing Vs Telling