Wednesday, April 24, 2013

By Order of the Inquisition: Show vs. Tell vs. Engagement

Hrm... Background Pony is long.  Very long.  And unlike with Fallout: Equestria, I don't have a two-week vacation over which I can devote hours upon hours to reading.  

Luckily, Inquisitor M has stepped up to the plate!  You may have seen him contribute guest columns before, and now he's got his own take on one of the most misunderstood, most discussed, and most debated subjects in ponyfiction: show vs. tell.  Click down below the break for his perspective.

Oh, and a word of advice: even if you're sick to death of talking about show vs. tell, you should give this a gander; I think Mr. M's come up with a unique take on the subject, no small feat given how frequently it's talked about.

Show versus tell can hardly be discussed too much, but I think it’s important to bring something new to the table when possible, even if it’s only a perspective. So, for my part, I would like to focus on telling to see if examining that which is usually held up as anathema can offer us just such a perspective.

If I were to have something that passes as a special talent, it would be pattern recognition and complicated systems analysis. That’s pretty much why I harp on about philosophy at all, because it’s all about discovering the root of things, usually phrased as ‘the truth’. When there are exceptions to a rule, it often means the rule isn’t quite right. So it is, then, that I think of the ways in which telling can be perfectly fine, sometimes (if rarely) even optimal, and wonder what a better way of explaining the rule as we know it would be.

To cut to the chase: engagement. That’s what we’re talking about, and show versus tell is how we interact with that goal when we write prose. You show something happening and allow the reader to fill in the blanks, which helps the reader to be engaged. But does it mean that telling is fundamentally not engaging? No. No it does not. It only means that it isn’t engaging by nature, but when we do it right, telling can be just as engaging, possibly more so. Knowing how to do it, however, is trickier stuff.

So how can telling be engaging? Put simply, absolutely any time that it leads to an answer greater than the sum of its parts. Anytime the reader has to use the statement provided and work out how it relates to the story, and what implications it might hold, the reader is theoretically engaged. Done correctly, just one or two words can do more of the emotional heavy lifting than three paragraphs of powerful dialogue and description. So, telling can be a good thing, right?

Well, no, actually. And no, I’m not contradicting myself, either, because context matters. The same cluster of words could be telling in one context, and showing in another. This is because the common meaning of ‘showing’ is that you use visual cues to prompt a reader into making an assumption, which then achieves engagement. In this context, telling is bad because it leaves nothing for the reader to do. But what is it then, if telling actually causes the reader to do some mental or emotional gymnastics? Is it still telling? It may be that we have a clear distinction between the per-sentence implementation of saying a character is sad versus demonstrating that the character is sad, but I think that oversimplification loses some important nuance. For lack of a better term, I’m going to say that telling for effect is simply showing on the larger scale of plot.

As an example of this, I’m going to fall back on the rather polarising letter-format story. The vast majority of the prose in such letters is entirely telling (though not necessarily in the traditional sense). When done well, however, the telling is in fact showing us the larger plot across multiple letters/journals. It’s clearly showing, not telling, when you think about the way it builds a framework for the reader to fill in. When done poorly, it can be far worse than traditional narrative, but when done well it can be immensely compelling through tone (Yours Truly), voice (Letters From a Senior to a Junior Changeling), and mystery (Act of Will) [While I won't comment on my story's inclusion, the other two are both absolutely worth reading, if you're unfamiliar with either.  -Chris].

If we roll with this interpretation, then we can pretty much say that telling is never really acceptable. We only have showing on three levels, by sentence, by plot, and by story. If it’s truly telling, then it isn’t engaging the reader, and it’s probably not the right way to present that particular detail. Thus, rather than the oversimplification that is show versus tell, perhaps the mantra of ‘how does this engage the reader’ might better serve to deepen the understanding of novice and journeyman alike.

For completeness, I’ll add that occasionally telling is simply efficient, skimming lesser details to hasten towards other forms of engagement. Mystic has a particularly good blog post on this usage; go check it out if you haven’t before.

You’ll note that I mentioned three levels, yet have only talked about two...

To be continued

-Scott ‘Inquisitor’ Mence


Dun dun DUN!  Tune in Friday for the thrilling conclusion!


  1. I, on the other hand, have no problem commenting on your story's inclusion. It's an excellent example the letter format and a wonderful read even ignoring that. I'm pretty sure everyone here's already read it, of course, so I'm just preaching to the choir. If by some chance someone hasn't though, then they absolutely should do so at their soonest convenience

    There's Act of Will again. I keep seeing that one and almost adding it to my queue before realizing I've already read it. The problem is I can't seem to connect the title and picture with the premise

    1. The title and image will make sense to anyone familiar with Machine of Death. Anyone unfamiliar will still be able to enjoy the story. :)

      Pardon me while I go run in naked circles of joy for a few moments. :V

    2. I assumed it was a sign of inevitability, somewhere between being marked for death and being victim to an ill-timed falling piano. Can't say I gave the image more than a passing thought, though.

      But you're welcome, PP.

    3. Sorry, I guess a worded that poorly. They make sense. It's just that I see the title and kinda glance at the picture, mostly just noticing the color scheme, and for whatever reason that makes me think it's about ninja ponies. It's probably that bloody "X" in the center. Makes me think of katanas

    4. Well, now I know what to write next. :V

    5. You write the ninjas, I'll write the samurai.

    6. The cover also made me think of a dark comedy about murder amongst high-class Englishmen. Maybe you could combine the ideas in some way

      At the very least, I'm fully expecting you two to collaborate on that ninja idea, and I'll be very sad if nothing comes of it. You wouldn't like me when I'm sad

  2. Yes, there are times that telling is fine. To avoid getting an overblown feeling to your story. To give a little flavor comment that's not particularly important (telling that the character we only see for an instant being arrested "looked nervous" isn't hurting anything because it passes too quickly to have any empathy for him). Instances that aren't particularly important to the plot or when emotions aren't running high. Basically, when it's enough to have that emotion as a nugget of information, but you don't need the reader to feel it with the character.

    There are three types of story where you can't help but tell, at least some: first person narrator (you can show other characters' emotions, but it gets awkward to do much showing for the protagonist, since he knows what his emotions are; it's just more natural for him to say so than to go in depth about his own body language, except in places where brevity or detachment can make it opportune to say "trembling" instead of "scared," for example) and the closely related letter and journal formats. There's also a certain childlike feel to telling, so it can work for a child focus character, even when the narrator is objective, or for something that's supposed to sound like a children's story.

    I could go on at length about why most letter- and journal-format stories are completely unconvincing at pulling off their chosen method of delivery (and maybe I will sometime, Chris!), and oddly enough, showing is often not the best choice for them and must be managed carefully when it is used.

    There's also a difference in what people consider telling. Take "he was nervous" versus "he gave a nervous smile." To me, one is telly and the other is not, but some would say they're both telly. There's a fine line.

    1. Well, I for one would live to hear your thoughts on journal-format stories, but I'm glad you brought up that last point.

      I suppose it's the very fact that some lines can be telling to one person and not to another that had me cogitating other perspectives in the first place. The one conversation that springs to mind was over the line 'Celestia’s smile twisted into a dark grin'. I as defending it as borderline but efficient, but trying to explain exactly why was a fantastic effort in examining my own reasons for thinking so.

      The upshot was to focus more on what isn't telling than what is showing. In that particular case, dark is not an emotion. At worst it's a wide implication of possible emotions, and at best it's only an impression you get from the action, not a forced description of the emotion behind it. What it absolutely did not do was tell the reader what Celestia was thinking of feeling, so it stayed.

      So for the moment, I'd say 'he gave a nervous smile' was fairly neutral, with context playing the major role in how fitting it might be.

      Beyond that, it's still a work in progress.

  3. My old nemesis, the cliffhanger, returns to torment me once more.

  4. Thoughts on first-person telling...

    "I'm a greedy guy." (Telling: Narrator is greedy.)

    "I'm not a greedy guy-- it's just that I think that passing up any opportunity to make a few bucks is somehow wasteful." (Showing through telling: Narrator is self-deceptive, an unreliable narrator, and greedy, even though he feels being greedy is an undesirable quality.)

    Am I on the right track here?

  5. I think InquisitorM has some good points, but he's twisting the definitions of "showing" and "telling" past the point of usability, to where they're words in a technical vocabulary that don't mean anything like the English words.

    "Show, don't tell" can't be rescued. If you keep the words sufficiently close to their English meaning to avoid being misleading, it's wrong. Open any great work of literature and count the tells. They're everywhere.

    1. It's really the concept that's important. We could find new words that work better, or even make it clear that we're using them in a different way - like how one philosopher (sorry, I forget his name) made a distinction between "porn" and what he called "porn*". So long as it's understood that we're using the words in a way different from their definitions for historical reasons, I see no problem using "show, don't tell" as a convenient shorthand among those already familiar with the concept