Friday, November 30, 2012

Let Me Show You a Barn

Hope everyone's ready for another guest post!  Today we have the inimitable The Descendant (T.D. if you prefer), one of the most prolific authors in the fandom, and author of three different stories which have been reviewed here (including one of my personal favorite fanfics, A Cup of Joe).  Go on down below the break to read what he has to say about that great bugaboo of amateur authors everywhere: show vs. tell.


Hurricane Sandy came through here a few weeks ago. Well, to speak in an absolutely accurate technical sense, it was Super Storm Sandy by that point… but it is not my meaning today to discuss meteorological terms.

I came through the storm essentially unscathed, and I was very fortunate. Many people here in the northeast know of some favored spot along the Atlantic or its myriad harbors, bays, and inlets that have simply been washed away.

More importantly, there are thousands who are still without heat, light, and even the most basic comforts. There are members of this fandom, including some of my fellow authors, who are still struggling in the aftermath of the storm.

I was very lucky. The storm did not approach the ferocity in my area that they had expected it to. Instead, driving wind and rain were my company all of that long evening and night, and I only lost power for a few hours.

My garbage cans made a run for it, and they have not yet returned. I find myself still wondering where they could have gone. Wherever they have strayed in their travels, I hope my garbage cans are safe, warm, and happy, and that they will have wonderful tales of their adventures to tell me upon their return.

As I went looking for my prodigal waste receptacles, I walked down my hill and observed the beautiful chaos that sat around the horse farms and stables near my home. A chorus of chainsaws arose from backyards, and I stepped across piles of branches shorn of their leaves by the winds.

As I passed through a thicket of large pine trees I looked upon something that I had known, in some way, would be there. Still, the ruin that played out before me stabbed at some soft recollections in my mind.

The barn had already been ancient when I was a child, an artifact of the agricultural world that my valley had once been. It was a fading, aging temple to a dead religion of tractors, dairy co-operatives, and sunburnt self-reliance. Even as the paint had fallen away over the years the tall white boards still held their place, and the deep green of the roof tiles had kept their vigil as my valley had slowly become a sprawl of suburbanization. The cornfields it had once lorded over had became tract housing and horse farms for the wealthy.

I stepped out of the pines to discover that it had finally fallen, that the winds and rain had finally driven it to the ground.

I looked upon the ruins, and then stepped forward across the great earthen ramp that lead to where the doors had once stood. The steel wheels that opened them, each as large as my hand, now lay there, bent and useless.

I could only sigh as I picked my way across the pile. Soon I stood amid the shorn, tattered remains of the siding, listening to the roof as it settled imperceptibly among the boards.

The great, vast framing timbers of the barn had not been spared. One set lay collapsed before me, lying there like a toppled monument of a forgotten empire. Another set stood to my left, still lifting uselessly into the air with outstretched joists, looking more like a crucifix set among a battlefield than a structural element of a barn.

More sighs escaped me as I crept forward, trying to picture where the beams had been that had connected those timbers. A much younger T.D. had once climbed an ancient ladder that had rested across them, leaning against the steps as my hands were held before me, cupped like a beggar searching for alms.

I walked the length of the beam like that as light fell through the spaces between the boards. My eyes were set ahead of me, and my sneakers made whispering sounds across the beams as dust fell from them.

That younger T.D. fought his way across the beams as cars went up the road behind him, their sound filling the barn, and he blinked in the light as he gulped for breath as each small step found its place on the beam.

With that I had settled the fledgling back into its nest, the mother sparrow looking on as her head bobbed. Around me the old barn had creaked and settled, expanding and contracting in the heat of the thick summer day.

The memories of days like that fell through me as I left the ruins of the barn behind, picking my way cautiously across the collapsed boards and batten as imposing nails reached out for me with rusty teeth.

Goodbye, good and faithful servant.

So, you may ask, what does any of this have to do with Ponies? What does it have to do with fan-fiction? What, T.D., does it have to do with writing? “Why,” you may ask as you drum your fingers across your desk, “did T.D. just spend all of that time telling me about the barn?”

Well, the truth of the matter is, I didn’t tell you about the barn.

I showed you the barn.

How different would this recollection have been if I’d not taken the time to let you know the sentiments and realizations that hit me when I saw the barn?

“The hurricane came through. This old barn that I used to play in came down. That’s pretty sad. I saved a fledgling in there when I was a kid. I bet it will all be turned into pre-fabricated houses soon. Also, Spike is best pony.”


No heart, no soul, no real reason to have read it.

Better authors than myself in this fandom, and in the “real world”, have repeated this point often enough that it should be gospel for all fan-fiction writers. But, I repeat it here again… because it bears repeating.

“Show”, do not “tell”.

Mark Twain said, “Do not say ‘the old woman screamed’. Instead, bring her on, and let her scream!” While I certainly agree with that most quoted of American writers, I do need to point out that we who write fan-fiction do have the immense advantage of having established characters to work with.

We all wish to explore what it would be like for the characters to explore new settings and have new experiences. The key though is not to let our desire to present the idea overwhelm our real purpose for the work, which of course is to entertain, challenge, and intrigue our readers.

If the author only just moves from idea to idea, then the readers feel “talked at” rather than engaged. This is not what we, as authors, should be setting before those who take the time and make the effort to read our works. Simply having an idea is fine, but we as authors should be trying for that much more.

Instead, as we write, we should be asking ourselves questions. Have I developed my setting? Have I shown who and what is present? Have I given evidence as to what my characters are feeling, what they are thinking, and what they are facing in this moment? Learning to imply rather than inform is a lesson that I would advise every and all authors to pursue, and in the end it is what really matters about writing… it empowers and moves the readers, and it makes them want to know the reach and depth of the story.

That is the great power that writing has over any other medium. That is the single advantage that writers have above and beyond any other creative outlet in this fandom, any fandom, and in the real world. A good author empowers the reader… the author gives the reader the ability to sense, perceive, and grow their own scenes in their mind. Reading is an expansive pursuit, one that is limited only by the willingness of the reader to use their imagination.

The proficient author shows them that world. The good author lets them hear the woman scream, lets them hear the groaning of the collapsed boards, and lets them feel the tiny bird in their hands.

“Show”, do not “tell”.

All last week large yellow earthmovers made their way slowly back and forth across the scene, tossing black puffs of diesel fumes into the air. As they noisily clawed at the earth they removed the remains of the barn, wiping away the physical presence of a piece of my childhood.

Only a few pieces of aluminum remain, and the bent spire of the lightning rod and weather vane remain stacked against the old blue farmhouse. In all they have the appearance of a metallic tombstone, one that marks the end of the life of the structure.

Still, the barn continues on. It goes on because of the stories I can tell. The century and more that it stood there, sheltering cows from deep winters, guarding the bounty within from hot summers, remain with me now as stories. That, more than the deep brown patch of turned soil that marks where it stood, gives it something of immortality.

Thank you for letting me show it to you.

And, please, let me know if you see my garbage cans. I miss them terribly.

Stay Awesome,
The Descendant


Many thanks, T.D(.)!  Although it's endlessly discussed, many authors (especially new ones) struggle mightily with the idea of what exactly constitutes "showing," and what exactly is the difference between it and telling.  And why it's important, for that matter.  This is as good an explanation as I've read.

There's one thing I do want to emphasize though, because it seems to be a regrettably common misconception: the difference between showing and telling is not one of length.  Perhaps because showing often does require more words, some seem to think that that is the difference between the two, and slather a bunch of flowery descriptors onto their story (often without concern for meaning or value) in an attempt to improve it.  Consider these examples:

"She was filled with unfathomable anguish when she learned that her father was dead.  The sorrow so overwhelmed her that she couldn't hold her head up.  She felt tears on her cheeks, a watery testament to her grief, as she silently reflected on his final days."

"The orderly didn't speak; he just shook his head.  She didn't scream, didn't ask any questions, didn't protest.  She simply laid her head down and cried."

Example 1 is more than twice as long as example 2, yet 1 is telling, 2 is showing.  Good reading/writing/reviewing, all!


  1. "As I went looking for my prodigal waste receptacles,"

    I was not aware trash cans were able to spend money, let alone spend it carelessly.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Prodigal has two meanings.

      One is "profligate," which I think is what you're referring to. It means to spend wildly.

      However, "prodigal," as in the biblical story of the Prodigal Son, refers to something that left us, hopefully one day to return when it realizes its error.

    3. In the biblical story of the Prodigal Son, the said son asked for his inheritance early, and then spent it all wildly. That is where the term prodigal for that story comes from.

  2. This is perhaps the best illustration of show vs. tell I have ever seen (to wit: you showed us how to show!) Also, between this and your last blog post on fimfiction, I am now convinced that your writing style is simply the way you talk and/or think about the world, thus making you the most cultured motherfucker on the planet, as if I had any reason to think otherwise.

    Or perhaps you hail from a reality slightly removed from and/or superimposed over our own, where everything is naturally prosaic and filled with wonder. Perhaps you are a shadow walker, and every step you take is not through our air but through this dazzlingly whimsical universe, with eyes that see and remember in order to bring tales of long-gone barns to we, the dull and drab.

    It certainly doesn't seem to take you any effort to be amazing, is what I'm saying. :B Thank you for a great blog post!

    1. And I forgot to add that I've found garbage cans to be the most ungrateful of lodgers. They left you because they wanted to, Descdendant. Don't give them another thought; they don't deserve it.

  3. Hmm... not sure this won't come off as grouchy (Me? Really?), so I'll just dive in.

    It's a train of thought that started a a few days ago when Sessalisk kindly stepped in to help me with some editing. It was a wonderful exercise in further analysing show vs. tell, but what stood out was her examples of how she might do it instead. I seem to recall recoiling in a manner akin to a vampire in the light of day (or just me and the first light of morning) at the flowery nature of the prose. Didn't seem like a big deal at the time: I like one thing, she likes something else... nothing wrong with that.

    Midweek I then formulated a commentary on some parts of Descendant's The Youth in the Garden, but it reminded me of some things I remember from actually reading it at the weekend. Namely, that the first two chapters felt rather stiff and exhausting to read. I made comments about this at the time, to the extent of not being sure if it was sheer disinterest in the setting (civil war), but upon reading the above article, I have to pause to reconsider that.

    As soon as T.D. started the description of the barn, I knew what he was doing because, for me, it suddenly got incredibly dull. It wasn't quite the reaction to Sess's example, but still fairly strong. I just don't care, which led me to cross reference the response with some other thoughts I can remember.

    Mystic's Dancing on Silver Strings is a good example. As much as I loved the concept, I was quite vocal about how the nebulous presentation of ideas, facts and opinions left me thoroughly disconnected from the story--that very real feeling of simply not 'getting' it. Without a baseline from which to consider and compare the verbal sparring of Discard and Celestia, it was like watching a game without knowing the rules, and finding it hard to care about the result. That feeling is very much how I experienced the description of the barn above. Without some relevance to the perspective, it just feels like rambling where a simple description would be more effective.

    1. Thus, here I am taking what is obviously an excellent example of 'showing', and thinking that I'd rather most of it was just 'told'. How weird is that? What it really does, on a personal level, is make me wonder exactly how much the style itself is coloured by my personal experience, not as a reader, but as a subject of life. I have never held back from being very clear and open about having a lot of emotional issues to sort out as I recover from lifelong depression, and one of the topics that has come up often is the quality of memories. It's tricky to compare with other people, but over time I have gotten used to the fact that I experience my memories as dull and dispassionate, were my experience is that most other people don't. Is it possible that my malformed brain is either incapable of processing such text in an enjoyable, or perhaps personally relevant way? Could it be that I need to already be on an emotional 'high' to get something from it? Perhaps I need that extra perspective because I can't conceive of the emotional expression being valid for it's own sake.

      Assuming that there is even a lick of truth in my pondering, it raises similar questions about how a reader interprets any given work. Beyond simply a preference for a genre or style in our fiction, must one consider how an individual processes such emotional discharge before we can commence discourse on the proper application of showing. I would never, for example, advocate not showing, but there seems to be just as much depth in what constitutes effective showing verses the simple fact of showing at all. Is that the point where it has to go hand in hand with the principals of good storytelling? It reminds me of so many stories that were excellently written, yet left me with a resounding 'so what' when I reached the end. Since other people have obviously enjoyed those same stories, it seems logical to turn the spotlight around and ask what it says about me, instead.

      That answer may still be a long way off, but I think the question itself bears interesting fruit, if not direct answers.


    2. Glad to see I'm not the only one who had issues with this post (though you should probably be concerned, Inquisitor, as I long ago discovered my brain's faulty). The whole time I was reading it, I got the impression T.D. was actively trying to stretch his descriptions, as though more was necessarily better. It reminded me of a story I wrote in high school wherein I tried to pair each noun with at least one adjective (I'd been reading Twilight at the time). This isn't to say that The Descendent is a poor writer, of course. Tangled Up in Blues is one of my favorite fics. I'm just much more fond of Chris' leaner example

      Unrelated to the post: there was a thing on TV about some woman winning the Powerball. She said "Is these the right numbers?" Is. Ugh! But then they mentioned that her daughter wanted a pony and Shepard Smith asked "Who wouldn't?" That's when I noticed the name of the show: Studio B. Coincidence? Yes, but an interesting one

    3. More is better when the context calls for more. The big problem with purple prose is not that it's superfluous by definition, but that it's unnecessarily superfluous. TD's post doesn't really suffer that problem because by describing the barn like he is, it's very clear that he is successful in achieving a very specific purpose. He's telling a story that I can de-construct and gather all kinds of lessons about growing up, the way time passes us by and how things always change and we can't stop it, all by telling us about a barn.

      The barn is the focus of the entire piece, and everything rests upon how the barn is portrayed. Therefore, to sell it short is selling the premise short. Not to mention he's proving a point (and darn well, in my opinion).

      It's all about context.

    4. Isn't "unnecessarily superfluous" a bit redundant? As the focus, the barn certainly does justify having a greater amount of space dedicated to it. However, a certain amount of restraint and culling is still required. Consider the first sentence of T.D.'s twelfth paragraph. The greatness of the timbers is already suggested by their vastness. We can safely delete one adjective without even having to alter the second.

      And what about the second paragraph after that one? The description of his sneakers would be much more powerful if they whispered instead of making whispering sounds. These changes are minor, but have the cumulative effect of producing a leaner and stronger text. Not only are the altered sentences more palatable, but I'm left with a greater tolerance for elements of seemingly lesser import. Should they later yield greater information, either through reflection or advancement, I would feel extremely rewarded as a reader.

      One final, unrelated thought (I feel like there was going to be more, but completely lost my train of thought): the younger T.D. was referred to from two different perspectives. The Descendent should've stuck with third-person for both passages

    5. Oh, don't get me wrong, there are always ways fics can make small changes to improve (and we should never stop striving for those improvements!), but it's the general brush strokes that I am saying are important to consider.

      Also, that was probably more directed at Scott. Criticise my story! Bah! ;)

    6. It's nothing I wasn't willing to say at the time :P

      (In unrelated news, I appear to be having a double negatives day. I care not.)

    7. So glad I'm not alone on that. I saved this article for over a month until I actually had time to read it, because the subject is one I really want to learn more about...

      and then I found the example so damn boring that I struggled mightily to avoid skim reading to find where it ended (and ultimately failed, I just couldn't take it anymore).

      So for me, sadly this example didn't work at all. I'd never want to read anything written like that because I have no reason whatsoever to care about the farm, and without that reason the entire thing becomes overly verbose fluff.

  4. Yet another good example for me to come back to should this topic confuse me.

    Which means I'll be back here repeatedly.

    I THINK I'm starting to get the hang of "Show VS. Tell" but just like with algebra, I'm still waiting for that moment when it just suddenly "clicks".


  5. Completely forgot to ask before, but where did that bird come from? I feel like it was first mentioned when the younger T.D. was cupping his hands, but the way the changing perspective was handled left me seriously confused the first time I read it. I dunno, maybe it's just me and I've made myself look like an idiot for admitting that

  6. "Show, don't tell," is wrong. It's good advice for novice writers. But it's wrong when taken to the extremes that it is taken by the EqD staff. It has been taken to such extremes by them that it is harming ponyfiction; we would be better off if that section were removed from the Omnibus.

    How do I know it's wrong? Because, after seeing many good stories inappropriately rejected by EqD on the basis of "show, don't tell," I grabbed a handful of famous books by great authors from my shelf and went through them, looking for examples of "telling", particularly ones where we're told how characters feel. And they're on almost every page of every book I looked at. Some authors, like Shakespeare, prefer telling to showing (because he's especially good at it).

    You want to communicate to the reader, economically and vividly. Telling is economical, while showing is vivid. Simple, concrete ideas can be shown; complex or abstract ones are often better told. The great authors use a lot of telling because they frequently handle complex, abstract ideas.

    Which to use depends largely on the complexity of the idea to communicate, the density of other ideas nearby, and the pacing for that part of the story. The barn example was beautiful, and it's the right approach if the story at this point can sustain such a long, leisurely exposition. But in some cases it would be wrong.

    If "show, don't tell" were always good advice, there would be no place in this world for novels. Every possible story could be told better in a movie.

    When something is especially important, you show AND tell. Your story's theme, for instance. If you have a chance to state it, state it. Movies sometimes have a character state the theme of the movie in a mocking or deprecating way near the beginning, and then by the end of the movie, they've learned to believe the same thing that they mocked at the beginning. For example, the main character in the Fisher King, who says "Well, forgive me!" in a mocking way near the beginning of a movie that is about him trying to attain forgiveness. See, for example, GhostOfHeraclitus' story "A Canterlot Carol." GoH used a plot involving the Zebra ambassador specifically so Dotted Line could /tell/ the ambassador the theme of the story in the middle of the story, before /showing/ it in the story's conclusion.

    Jack Bickham instead says, "Avoid inadvertent summary." See for an argument why this is a better way of expressing this advice.

    1. Out of curiosity, can you point to some of those rejected stories? It is a point I see brought often, but I don't see many examples.

      Anyway, I think the issue is less about show, don't tell, and instead that people tend to tell things that should have been shown, but much less of the inverse. Things like "Twilight was sad, so Spike consoled her" are much more common than trying to use pure analogy to illustrate a simple point.

      More important, it is much harder to fail on the show side than in the tell side. A story with too much tell becomes boring or too straightforward, and that is always bad, but with too much show the worst thing you get overly long or vague, and there is a point to be made for stories like that. The thing is, erring on the side of too much showing tends to give better results.

    2. I'd rather not, because I don't want to criticize specific EqD editors. Some would rather have you say "Twilight's face turned red" (which is unlikely) than say she was embarrassed, or would have you describe an emotion using ambiguous body language ("he tapped his hoof") without naming it specifically ("he tapped his hoof nervously"). Sometimes being specific is important. Sometimes there are one or two instances where some minor detail could be shown instead of told, and they'll make a blanket accusation against the entire story.

      Yes, telling is easier, so more people err on the side of telling too much. But it shouldn't be taken as a rule.