When and where you should tell, don’t show
“Show, don’t tell” is probably the most commonly given advice in writing, but there are places where telling is the right choice.
Why Use Telling?
Telling is a quick, efficient way to relate lots of information to a reader in a short amount of time. It works for writing transitions or other places where you need to move the timeline ahead, or where showing mundane details would bore readers.
But before we dip into the usefulness of this technique, a quick reminder of why telling can be dangerous:
Telling stops your plot’s momentum
Every sentence spent telling your readers about something is time not spent moving the plot along. Imagine meeting someone for the first time over coffee and the entire conversation is her talking about people you have never met and her deepest darkest life experiences? You’d probably think she needs some serious counseling.
Telling creates distance
When readers don’t experience important parts of the character’s story with the character, they feel like they are hearing the story second-hand. Readers want to live the character’s life.
Telling can be boring
Nothing is happening to your character. And no one likes a lecture.
When and where to use telling
First decide if the reader really needs to know the information
Unnecessary information falls into two main categories: backstory and research.
Backstory is a critical piece of building your character, but not all of it is important to the reader, or it isn’t important at the time.
Many editors advise “sprinkling in” these bits of information. I don’t. Sprinkling in random bits of unrelated information just confuses the reader. Like throwing a pack of skittles into your tiramisu. If it isn’t relevant, leave it out. Here’s an example of sprinkled in backstory. See if you can find the telling that works and the telling that doesn’t.
He smiled at me showing his perfect white teeth and handed me the helmet. I took it reluctantly.
“What’s the matter?” he said.
I can’t ride a bike. I haven’t been on one since I was seven. The bike was a gift from my grandmother. She saved for an entire year to get it for me that Christmas.
You can see the exact point where the telling crosses over into information the reader doesn’t need to know. The author may think she is laying the foundation for something significant about the bike later, but the grandmother line is too much. The reader has no connection to the grandmother, and therefore, doesn’t really care.
Yes, you should do research for your novel. No, you should not dump all your new found knowledge on your unsuspecting reader. If you can’t use the character’s natural vocabulary and cultural norms to leave enough context clues for your reader to understand what is happening, then you may need to drop in a brief explanation.
I peered through the gap in the tent wall uncertain if I should enter. The general sat cross legged on the rug. His prayer beads making tiny clicks as his lips silently moved. The smell the offerings ticked my nose.
But the statue on the altar was Liandra. Why would he be praying to the Goddess of Peace on the eve of battle?
In this example there is no reasonable way to show the reader who the Goddess is. A single sentence of explanation saves the reader pages of showing.
When to use telling
When you come across telling in your manuscript decide if the information is worth keeping or if it should be cut entirely. To keep details off the chopping block, they should meet two conditions:
1. Readers must want to know the information
This can be subjective, but the following questions can help increase reader interest.
Ask: Does the reader have a strong connection to the character?
This is why info dumping at the beginning of a story never works. Readers aren’t connected to the character, and they don’t have the opportunity to make a connection because the character isn’t doing anything but sitting at a table thinking big thinks. So no page 1 sob stories.
Ask: Does the information affect the character in a meaningful way?
In other words, is it relevant to their current conflict? If a character has an arrow sticking out of his chest, that affects the character in a meaningful way. Knowing that the arrow is made of ash wood and eagle feathers really does not.
2. The reader cannot understand what is happening without it
Either the reader must need to know the information for the plot to continue (set-up), or the reader needs to know the information because she would not understand the significance of a current event in the scene (backstory).
Once you have established the information is interesting and relevant we need to decide if telling is the right choice.
Ask: Will showing slow down the pacing?
Showing always takes longer, so if you are trying to tighten a scene, you may need to consider condensing some description.
Ask: Will showing create problems with the narrative focus?
Narrative focus is the story’s ability to stay on topic. Showing every detail (especially if the detail is backstory) will cause your POV character to wander into tangents. Too much of this will make your character seem scattered. (Not to mention drive your reader insane)
Ask: Do I need to quickly establish setting or jump forward in the timeline?
Telling is a well-established technique accomplishing these goals (but more about transitions later)
Some techniques for good telling
1. Back Story (Sneaky telling)
Unless you are willing to resort to a flashback, (which may or may not work) you may have to cheat and sneak it in.
Have your characters argue.
This will move the focus away from the telling and toward the tension between the characters. Something is still happening in the scene, and you get to throw information bombs at your reader.
“Do you have any idea what you are walking into?” That sounded a lot smarter in his head.
She rolled her eyes. “What? It’s a house. One that I’ve been invited to, I might add. And what are you doing here?”
That was a great question. One he wasn’t sure how to explain. “Look, I know what’s in that house, and it’s a little out of a Ghostbuster’s league.”
“Ghostbuster?” She poked a finger into his chest. “Listen, I don’t care what you think of me, but I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’m perfectly capable of handling myself, and how would you even know why I was here?”
Her head tilted to the side. It wouldn’t take her long to figure it out. “And don’t lie to me, that was you in the shop. Were you spying on me?”
The shop was a little occult bookstore that she ran. Mostly useless trinkets and New Age nonsense, but a few things had surprised him.
“Look, this has nothing to do with you. I’m asking you to walk away,” he said.
She clicked her tongue. “Why should I do anything for you? You left. I don’t owe you anything. Not now, not ever.”
Through the argument we learn that she’s a paranormal investigator, the pair had a previous relationship, and he left her, all without resorting to an info dump.
Another strategy is to drop a one line bombshell. In the following example the author spent an entire chapter showing how much the MC hates “outlanders,” then she closes the chapter with a bombshell.
A shimmery glow that only I could see surrounded the woman. It was blazing red, meaning she was a fire elemental, an Outlander traveler from the realm of Muspelheim.
I skirted around her like the flames I saw could actually burn me. Judging by the frown she gave me, she thought I was a weirdo. I didn’t really care. I just needed to get out of there before I choked on my own hypocrisy.
I feared and distrusted Outlanders. I also was one.
Showing every detail of a setting will drown your readers in description. There is nothing wrong with a few quick sentences at the beginning of a scene to ground your reader in the setting. This will allow the action to start right away without making your readers feel like the character are floating in space.
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.-Kafka
In this sentence we learn several critical pieces of information:
Gregor Samsa just woke up.
He’s in his bed.
He is a giant roach.
He was not a giant roach yesterday.
He does not know why.
I challenge you to rewrite this as showing. I doubt you could do it in less than three pages without confusing the reader and without boring them. Showing is not always the right choice.
While important experiences should be shown to the reader, there are times where you will need to skip meaningless moments in a character’s life. An uneventful car ride is a good example, or all those small actions that don’t impact the story. We know the character has to get dressed in the morning, but we don’t need to see the details. Use a transition.
Fifteen minutes later I was standing outside the principal’s office ready to meet my fate.
This transition lets the reader know how much time has passed and where the character is. Having the character read the time on the clock and then describe the door and the name on the door plate and the secretary typing away at her desk, and blah… would not provide any more meaning to the experience. The short snappy sentence has more impact.
There are plenty of writing advice columns claiming showing is always better than telling, but telling has a place in your story. By learning when to use telling you can strip useless details from your story and put the reader’s experience, not adherence to “rules” as your story’s goal.
Have an experience where telling was better than showing? Let me know in the comments!
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