Show Don’t Tell But Don’t Show Too Much

August 3rd, 2007

This morning’s while-I-was-thinking-of-something-else revelation: reading is a collaborative experience. Writing is done in the expectation of this collaboration, which is one of the things that makes it difficult (aside from the invention, the research, the craft). Movies are prescriptive: they show you what they mean. The best movies, in my humble, leave a little bit to our imagination, don’t spell everything out, make you work. The best books do too, but even there, you are using the author’s words to create a movie in your head. It’s a collaboration. That means the writer has to be careful not to put up blocks to collaboration; the writer has to allow the reader some leeway for her own imagination.

I’ve been thinking about this because I’m mid-way through a really interesting book, but keep stumbling over the details. Many of the details are delightful, but sometimes there’s just too many of them. It’s not worldbuilding, or at least not otherworld-building; the book takes place in the present, in our world. But I’m told every garment every character is wearing, and their fabric composition; I’m told about every tic and shiver, to the point that I can’t tell which of these tics and shivers are meaningful in terms of character reaction and which are just there. If I were workshopping this book, I’d tell the author that he’s so caught up in the movie in his head that he’s not leaving space for me to make that movie my own.

ETA: I appear to have posted this before I was actually done composing. My bad.

28 Responses to “Show Don’t Tell But Don’t Show Too Much”

  1. Mike Kabongoon 03 Aug 2007 at 11:25 pm

    Good point, and well said. I tend to refer to this as “white space” when doing critiques of things that are um, over-endowed with detail.

  2. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 04 Aug 2007 at 12:48 am

    Something I keep trying to tell people (and sometimes have to remember to remind myself) is not just “Show, don’t Tell” but “Imply, don’t Show.”

    What’s Implied tends to be much stronger that what’s Shown, both because it leaves something to the reader’s imagination, and also because it allows readers with a richer imagination or experience than the author to stock the negative spaces with richer details. Meanwhile, those who don’t care about such things can skip over them none-the-wiser and without having to skip actual words on the page.

  3. R.on 04 Aug 2007 at 1:04 pm

    Yeah, there is such a thing as ‘too much information’. :)

    This more relaxed approach of simply “implying” actually makes writing some parts of my stories easier for me,… it allows me the luxury of not being a control freak, of not insisting that the reader perceive the story [or any element thereof] in only one way.

    Like any form of art, you can take away from a story only what you bring to it, and that’s what makes any work of fiction personally meaningful to the reader. And reading a story loaded down with too many details is like too much salt on my food — all I can taste is the salt.

  4. Brendan Podgeron 04 Aug 2007 at 5:22 pm

    This sort of writing is responsible for much of the bulkiness of many books these days. When the hero of a story escapes from town and heads for his hideout, I don’t want to know that he had to: cross 7 paddocks, shelter in the lee of a barn from a sudden flurry of snow , jump 5 ditches, fall in 2(getting wet socks in the process) and give alms to a poor man he met before he gets home. This takes about 10 pages to write and doesn’t move the story forward one little bit.

    More story, less description please(or at least a book under 500 pages).

  5. Madeleine Robinson 04 Aug 2007 at 11:10 pm

    Mumble-years ago, I did a tie-in-novel about Daredevil, the blind Marvel superhero who has super-sensitive senses (department of redundancy dept.). The challenge there, at least in the scenes written from DD’s POV, was to remember to render the scene in terms of smell, taste, touch and sound. Even now, when I have a character enter a room, I tend to think in that way–but only little bits. Too much and (I think) the reader gets overwhelmed and distracted from the action. Or at least this reader does.

  6. LauraJMixonon 05 Aug 2007 at 8:30 am

    Good post, Madeleine. Scott McCloud talks about this in UNDERSTANDING COMICS, too. What makes the story arts so powerful is what happens between the words or panels.

  7. Gyp Orienson 05 Aug 2007 at 4:32 pm

    That’s a good point. I find myself leaving out lots of details sometimes, and then I go back and am like, “I see it this way, so clearly, but I didn’t write it all down that way…” So I try to add in more description. But it’s just blocky and space-wasting, so I edit it out again.

  8. Constance Ashon 05 Aug 2007 at 6:08 pm

    When a character prepares for bed and every step, including the toothpaste and the brushing of the teef is included — especially the brushing! — I quit reading.

    Love, C.

  9. Madeleine Robinson 05 Aug 2007 at 8:37 pm

    Of course you know that now I’m tempted to write a story where the entire action takes place while the heroine prepares for bed, including lots of toothbrushing.

  10. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 06 Aug 2007 at 8:46 am

    My first story for White Wolf was a vampire story where I had the interesting experience of writing without the main character breathing–one of the significant tics with WW vampires, and something that plays merry hell both with regular human activity and description thereof. Of course the vampires can use their lungs if they want (and sort of have to to speak), but no gasps of surprise or sniffs or a dozen different things.

    Of course playing with that let me stress that the character was a vampire and spiced up a number of conversations, so it worked.

  11. Erin Underwoodon 06 Aug 2007 at 9:09 am

    Thanks for the post Madeleine! This has recently been a big topic for my writers group. I really enjoyed (and learned a lot) from your post and all of the responses. I especially loved Kevin’s response not to just focus on “Show, don’t Tell” but to put more emphasis on “Imply, don’t Show.”

    I think this writerly proverb to “show” everything can turn into an obsessive trap that many new writers fall into. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a story critted and been told to add more showing. “What did he do to prepare for bed? Where is the bathroom? Does he have any odd quirks? What’s his bathroom look like? Does he floss before he brushes?”

    Now, I understand that some of those details could be pertinent, but they bore me as a writer…. and they bore me even more as a reader. However, I have found myself slowly bending to the side of “over showing” and it’s so difficult to stop doing it. I would much rather write: Joe got ready for bed.

  12. Stacyon 06 Aug 2007 at 11:20 am

    I think this posting is terribly important for those who are beginners-in-workshops like myself. The unpublished often fall into the trap of over-description because it’s “good writing,” but then when you actually get it right and have just enough to evoke the scene and feel the characters, suddenly nobody in the workshop is talking about the quality of the writing, just how it felt to be “in” the scene. And getting it right like that seems to be one of the hundreds of things that you just have to develop by doing – I always compare it in my head to the amount of “feel” you have to have to be a good horseback rider, you have to develop “feel” of a scene.

  13. Laurieon 06 Aug 2007 at 4:18 pm

    Re: Kevin and implying vs. showing.

    I went to see The Bourne Ultimatum this weekend (fabulous, see it immediately!) and was struck by how easy it is to show and imply with just a few flashes of images. Without spoiling anything, just maybe 4 well-placed shots – two flashbacks, two current scenes – changed the way I viewed events from the previous 2 movies. And, really, it made this last movie one of the most satisfying trilogy ends I’ve ever seen or read. I left the theatre smiling, and I think every other woman did, too. The men may not even have noticed. I know my boyfriend didn’t.

    As I think about it now, it was neatly done and looked effortless, so why don’t we see more of this kind of thing? Film is a medium uniquely suited for such things, and yet almost every movie I see is painfully unsubtle. Is it simply that we assume audiences don’t want to work that hard – regardless of the medium?

  14. Constance Ashon 06 Aug 2007 at 7:15 pm

    Of course you know that now I’m tempted to write a story where the entire action takes place while the heroine prepares for bed, including lots of toothbrushing.

    Go Mad, Go! Show ALL the gold teef too!

    Love, C.

  15. Carol Bergon 07 Aug 2007 at 1:16 am

    Excellent post. One place it’s easy to overdo is in the physical description of characters, especially principal characters. Leaving a little “white space” around your hero or heroine gives the reader a chance to insert the physical characteristics that they attach to the particular internal life you’re illustrating – whether it is nobility, heroism, compassion, pride, arrogance, whatever. In general, my protagonists are the least completely described of all my characters.


  16. Madeleine Robinson 07 Aug 2007 at 1:23 am

    Since I tend to write in a fairly focused single-POV third person, it’s hard to give too much description of my main characters, unless I want to descend into that awful “she gazed into the mirror and adjusted her bonnet on her raven curls, which had been artfully arranged by her dresser not an hour before. The peony at the crown brought out the vivid blue of her large eyes, but the dimple at the corner of her mouth owed its charm to nothing but itself” kind of ick.

  17. Charleson 07 Aug 2007 at 8:44 am

    George Martin found a convenient way to describe an entire cast of characters near the beginning of A Game of Thrones, by having one of his POV characters describe each person as they entered the great hall for a feast. It has been a challenge for me as I’ve been concentrating lately on a focused POV third person narrative (with multiple POVs). I’ve gone back through some of my older writing and have been amazed at how much personal description I’ve put in that actually violates the viewpoint I’ve established.

    I think, besides extremely enjoying Martin’s series, his books have been eye-openers for how to present the narrative in such a focused way, and for how to color the descriptions and perceptions provided to the reader based upon which POV character is currently carrying the narrative.

  18. Debbie Whiteon 07 Aug 2007 at 10:00 am

    I wrote a very short story a few weeks ago and pretty much left out any descriptions that weren’t absolutely necessary. Much of the information was implied by actions and setting. I ran it past my readers, and most of them were totally comfortable with that level of implying. I let a few others read it (mostly younger people, but one lady ‘who never read fiction’ ), and they felt uncomfortable with it and asked me to describe things more. I asked them what things needed more description, then asked them what they thought the description was from what was given in the story. They answered everything correctly, and all ended by saying they guessed it didn’t need more description after all.

    I went back and asked my normal readers what they thought the descriptions were, and they also answered correctly. I nearly did a jig in happiness that I had effectively implied things, but I did end up going back and adding a smidgen more of description so that all my other readers would be more comfortable. This started me wondering, though. Are most young people these days not comfortable with trusting or using their imaginations? They’re used to being spoon-fed with movies and highly-graphic video games and such, so maybe they generally aren’t. Anyone have thoughts on this?

  19. Madeleine Robinson 07 Aug 2007 at 10:53 am

    I can only speak to the household young people I am familiar with. My older daughter can handle implication and suggestion with the best of them. My younger daughter (11) is definitely wary of things that aren’t spelled out for her. Some of that I think is age; she’s still working on the theory that reading=decoding, which (I think) breeds a certain literalness of approach. But she’s also, as a person, less tolerant of uncertainty than her sister. That’s a part of her character.

    I used to work with a guy who didn’t like fiction because it was “all lies.” One of the hardest things to remember as a writer is that not all readers receive information the way we do, or even the way we mean them to.

  20. Laurieon 07 Aug 2007 at 12:03 pm

    I’d argue that the video games help the imagination rather than hurt it. You’ve got hundreds of thousands of kids exploring alien planets, saving princesses, tearing up when their favorite Final Fantasy characters die. They’re choosing sides in World of WarCraft and running up millions of dollars at the box office to see their favorite comic book characters (and video game characters, X-Men video games sell like crazy) on the big screen. Even 5 years, video games weren’t so mainstream. Now that they are, you have countless kids absorbed in fantasy scenarios for hours every day. If nothing else, that’s got to open your mind a little, I’d say.

  21. Stacyon 07 Aug 2007 at 2:48 pm

    I think it’s possibly less a factor of imagination than experience. The more you read, the more practiced at filling-in-the-blanks you become. Also, genre-specific blanks, like “elf” or “FTL,” practically require prior experience to make sense. Description as training wheels, maybe?

  22. Beth S.on 07 Aug 2007 at 9:26 pm

    Maybe I’m in the minority here, but I like well-written description. Not to excess, mind, but I do love the artful use of detail and underpainting. And while I don’t need for the writer to color in every detail of a character’s appearance, I like them to at least be sketched in. I’m visual–paint me a picture.

  23. Constance Ashon 07 Aug 2007 at 9:52 pm

    George Eliot, who might well have written the greatest novel ever in the English language (A.S. Byatt spoke to that last Sunday in the U.K. Guardian Review of Books, who has been so honored as to have her Possession ‘twinned’ with Middlemarch by a publisher of ‘greats’P —

    Well, anyway, George Eliot considered she might be most proud of her ability to describe, to ‘usefully employ’ the pictuaresque, as she does so well at the beginning of Middlemarch.

    There are so many elements to consider. But most of all, it seems to me, is having a sense of the rhythm of how your tale is to run out.

    You know what that rhythm is, you know when to cut, drop, throw out, Because it is in the way, of how you are telling, and thus what you are telling.

    Or something.

    No. Wait.

    You don’t KNOW.

    You FEEL.

    The rhythm section gots the pocket.

    Love, C.

  24. Adamon 08 Aug 2007 at 3:04 am

    The rythym is gonna get you…

  25. M.T.on 22 Aug 2007 at 12:33 am

    Are most young people these days not comfortable with trusting or using their imaginations? They’re used to being spoon-fed with movies and highly-graphic video games and such, so maybe they generally aren’t. Anyone have thoughts on this?

    They could be.

    On video games: as you’ve mentioned, some of them have amazingly realistic graphics. I’d imagine that tends to put a hamper on the imagination sight-wise. And seeing as those video games also tend to come with voice acting and background noises, same goes for hearing-wise. That leaves three senses to play around with: touch, smell, taste. (Movies are similar in this regard.)

    A character could talk about how chilly a place is or how bad something smells. There could be a shot of pancakes on a stove or the inside of a barn. Both count on the person either having experienced those things or heard about it. It’s…just a different medium than words on a page, I guess. If they aren’t used to that medium, they probably just don’t pick up on the ‘cues’ as well.

  26. M.T.on 22 Aug 2007 at 12:43 am

    In general, my protagonists are the least completely described of all my characters.

    Even if they were completely described, I would imagine some readers would ignore some bits and insert their own interpretation, regardless. (…I sheepishly admit that I’ve done that myself.)

  27. Carol Bergon 23 Aug 2007 at 6:56 pm

    M.T.on 22 Aug 2007

    > In general, my protagonists are the least completely described of all my characters.

    Even if they were completely described, I would imagine some readers would ignore some bits and insert their own interpretation, regardless. (…I sheepishly admit that I’ve done that myself.)

    Yes, indeed. As have we all. Beauty is in the eye…and all that.


  28. Don Vaillancourton 09 Feb 2008 at 2:08 pm

    I know I’m a bit behind in this post, but loved reading it and the comments.

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