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Then, as if sensing my presence, the girl turned around. She looked young. Probably sixteen or seventeen. She had long black hair, crimson red lips, and a skin so pale it made me wonder whether she had blood at all. But what struck me the most were her eyes. Even though there was nothing unusual in them, they made her face look lifeless, completely devoid of expression. It felt strange. Like staring at an empty canvas.

In the last part I'm telling the reader the girl's eyes make her face look lifeless. I didn't actually describe them (e.g. they were black, white, etc.) But, I don't know, I think I'm also showing the reader how her face looks by stating what it's lacking?

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5 Answers 5

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Rules are there to be broken, and here you break this rule masterfully.

Yes, that is "telly", but being surrounded by entirely "showy" parts, assuring the reader that you were diligent with the descriptions, you suddenly discard the looks and throw the impression instead; it's jarring - as it should be. It draws the reader's focus, marks the information as especially important, contrasting it with the generic description surrounding it, making that part stand out by just making it sink through telling that to us directly, overshadowing the importance of normal appearance.

Leave as is. Yes, you broke the rule, and you did right.

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"Show don't tell" isn't really a rule in the sense that "don't murder the lead character halfway through the story" is a rule. It's a guideline that is especially useful to new authors. In fact, all storytelling is, well, telling, hence the name, and at any time you're going to be doing a variety of showing and telling to get your point across while keeping the pacing solid and moving the story forward.

As to this particular description... well, descriptions are generally speaking "telly" in nature. I'm not sure there's a lot of ways to get around that, except to intersperse description in amongst a scene and that may or may no work for what you want to accomplish.

Two points I do want to add about this kind of thing:

  • If it's your first draft, just put something there and move on. Always assume you will need to rewrite what you put down because, well, you will. I mean, unless that blocks you, then pretend that your first draft will be a magical gift. In any case, in my experience anyway it's better to make a stab at something and then move on then to spend a lot of time on the first draft getting a passage right. For all you know the passage won't even be in the final cut.

  • Regarding description in general and first-person in particular, I think the trick here is not so much to worry about showing vs. telling but to always bear in mind that you're looking at things through your protagonist's eyes. The neat thing about first-person and limited-third descriptions is that you often tell just as much information about your narrator as you do the described object. In this case, it's a bit on the neutral side but I can already glean a bit of anti-pale people prejudice (I mean, sometimes pale folks just don't have enough sunlight! They aren't all zombies). He's also the kind of person who says words like "crimson" instead of "red", which may or may not mean something later on.

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I don't have enough insight to add a separate answer, but I would like to add on to the second point. The fact that you are using the main character's point of view means that you can also use their opinion as a summary for an enumeration. Instead of stating all these features about her, you could just say she looks almost vampiric or something along those lines. You're usually quite fond of symbolism and I think you can apply it here with the character description. –  Seanny123 Nov 11 '13 at 1:26

The two problems that I see with this passage are:

  1. “Even though there was nothing unusual in them” — You don’t need to explicitly tell the reader that something is not unusual. (One of my least favorite tics in YA fiction is the main character describing herself as neither beautiful nor ugly.)

  2. “It felt strange” — “Strange” is such a vague word that it really adds nothing to the description here. Maybe you could call this a “show don’t tell” rule violation, but I think that rule is overrated to begin with.

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I don't like "Even though there was nothing unusual in them,...". The fact that the narrator can't describe them -- except by their effect on his perception of her face -- makes them quite unusual. My attempt at a rewrite:

But what struck me the most were her eyes. I can remember nothing about them, whether blue or brown, large or small. I only remember they made her face look lifeless, completely devoid of expression. I was staring at an empty canvas.

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Suggest minor edits: As if sensing my presence, the girl turned around. She looked young. Probably sixteen or seventeen. Her long black hair, crimson red lips, and skin so pale made me wonder whether she had any blood at all. What struck me most were her eyes. There was nothing unusual in them, but they made her face look lifeless, completely devoid of expression. It felt strange. Like staring at an empty canvas.

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This is potentially helpful, but it doesn't directly answer the question. Would you like it turned into a comment, or would you like to expand on this in a way that directs the showing/telling part of the question? –  Neil Fein Oct 13 at 15:26

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