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Show Don't Tell -- overdone, overrated, and problematic?

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Writers are endlessly hectored with the Chekhovian maxim to load up their stories with vivid visual elements and gestural cues that are supposed to be "universal", automatically invoking in a reader's mind what is being seen or a character thinking/feeling. A few quick points:

1) From another character's POV: "<Character> furrowed her brow for some reason. She blushed and sat back, clenching her fists, gritting her teeth..."

Yes, the author actually put in "for some reason", perfectly stating my reaction. A reader might be left wondering what this daisy-chain of visual cliches is meant to convey; that they might later be associated (through dialogue or action) with internal states seems irrelevant, because the reader has already popped out of the narrative.

2) Who ever said that visuals are universal? Gestures, expressions, and reactions are in fact not universal across cultures. Assuming as much could create misunderstanding or offense, requiring a story to be retooled for different markets.

3) Not that there are all that many "readers" blind from birth, but with the advent of audiobooks, listening to the above passage conveys zero meaning, a storytelling failure. Considering the world's 40-odd million profoundly blind "readers", and another 240+ million with low vision, might not overreliance on visual elements and cliches prove problematic, even discriminatory?

4) Even readers with pale complexions might be at a loss understanding what the author is implying by the character's blush; these days, darker-complected readers might end up abruptly changing their understanding of or even sympathy with a character.
#1 - December 01, 2018, 12:17 PM
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There are no rules, merely guidelines. Telling has a place, actually a few places. It's a great way to move forward in time and in action without wasting words. It can show the emotional state of the narrator, for example a narrator in shock may only tell because emotion is stunted and they aren't noticing details in that state. (Although some people in shock become hyper focused on details). There are other purposeful ways to use telling.

I believe in using the number of words a scene or action deserves, depending on how important it is to the story. Telling uses fewer words in general. I believe there's an older thread on this. I don't have time to look this evening, but will try to come back to it.
#2 - December 01, 2018, 08:36 PM
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#3 - December 02, 2018, 12:24 PM
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Here's one older thread about it: https://www.scbwi.org/boards/index.php?topic=69186.msg839907#msg839907
Yeah, I was actually addressing the intensive use of Show Don't Tell visual tropes & cliches that many suppose will always evoke a specific meaning or emotional response in the reader's mind. I think it hasn't been demonstrated that they have any such meaning outside the arguably narrow context in which they are written.

The reason this is even an issue is that such "guidelines" have teeth when agents or editors harshly judge or simply pass on works based on some imaginary rulebook (or personal tastes), citing e.g. "wrong" tag verb selection ("use only said") and "high" adverb frequency ("every adverb is a mortal sin"); see the recent thread in the MG subforum:

https://www.scbwi.org/boards/index.php?topic=87537.0

I'm just suggesting that Show Don't Tell is another such "guideline".
#4 - December 02, 2018, 05:57 PM
« Last Edit: December 02, 2018, 06:12 PM by A. S. Templeton »
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You're correct about cultural context being very important in gestures. Looking someone in the eye is a good example. In some cultures, it would be seen as aggressive and horrible behavior for someone of a lower status to do to someone above them (teacher, employer, elder.) In the US, it's expected behavior. We teach it to English language learners for this reason. So what the gesture shows to one person isn't what it would show to another. Here, it's best to think about how each character in the work views the gesture. It might be interesting to write something where these misunderstandings occur. But you really have to know it well to do so. It all goes to the inclusivity issue as you state above.
#5 - December 02, 2018, 06:22 PM
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I don't think Show Don't Tell is overrated or overdone. Anything I've ever read without the right balance of showing vs telling (and both ARE necessary) comes across as amateur and boring. You do make a good point about being careful with clich├ęs and thinking about whether or not the visuals are culturally appropriate. (They should be culturally appropriate to the character not the reader!)

I don't think editors look for excuses to reject books. They either like it or not. & there's tons of wonderful work to choose from so if it doesn't really connect or stand out then it will be overlooked just because there is so much stiff competition.  There is also a great deal of luck/name-branding involved which is why some unpublished works are better (IMO) than some published works (also personal preferences).
#6 - December 03, 2018, 05:43 AM
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My issue with the term, such as in finding the right balance, would almost beg the question: for what balance must be found? Different authors are going to find different cut scenes and situation more important to show or not.

One of the ways I know the difference between Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradburry, is how they use showing and not telling.
#7 - January 17, 2019, 12:49 PM
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...it's best to think about how each character in the work views the gesture...
Yes, with much opportunity for character growth when comical and/or dramatic misunderstandings inevitably occur.

But that's not what I mean. Ultimately is the reader who must interpret show-don't-tell shorthand aimed solely at them, and it is the reader for whom the story is written.
#8 - January 17, 2019, 01:23 PM
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Yes, with much opportunity for character growth when comical and/or dramatic misunderstandings inevitably occur.

But that's not what I mean. Ultimately is the reader who must interpret show-don't-tell shorthand aimed solely at them, and it is the reader for whom the story is written.

I think that's a lot of the reason I find the term so often unhelpful: the only way it seems useful to use the concept would be finding your ideal reader. Which in itself, is ... a term kind of abused to the point of meaninglessness.
#9 - January 17, 2019, 01:56 PM
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Ultimately is the reader who must interpret show-don't-tell shorthand aimed solely at them

I'm not sure about this. TRhe reader is given context by the characters based on how they react in the situation. Of course a gesture might occur within a vacuum in a story, where there is no one but the reader and POV character (narrator) to interpret it (and the narrator may dispassionately simply mention the gesture existed---which could be telling in and of itself). But some cues are almost always provided, even if just narrator reaction. It's all about how if fits into the rest of the story. If it doesn't move the story forward, then maybe it's excess verbiage, but that's another issue altogether. The thing is the reader is interpreting it within the context of the story as well as within the context of their own experience of the world.
#10 - January 17, 2019, 07:28 PM
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