Show, Don’t Tell – Part Three

tellmemoreIn previous posts on “Show, Don’t Tell,” I explained how to bring scenes to life with the “showing” method. Here is post #1, and here is post #2.

Yet, if you show every detail, your story will become tedious and tiresome.

Don’t show everything. Sometimes telling is the better option, especially when summarizing events that are not critical to your story. Consider simply telling when you have:

  1. Transitions between important scenes.
  2. Dialogue that retells events that have already been shown.
  3. Backstory elements that set a scene.

Telling in Transition:

Quite often you will write a series of important scenes, but the events that occur between the scenes are not crucial. Still, you might want readers to know what occurred. These in-between events are perfect for “telling.”

Here is an example:

At the Zodiac, people embraced, some danced, others just knelt and wept. The fires of liberation were spreading.

During the next hour or so, the liberated slaves gathered their few belongings, collected food from the homes of the dead dragons, and distributed it freely to everyone. Arxad, Magnar, Fellina, and Xenith carried the most seriously wounded to the healing waters while the healthy soldiers walked to the river leading to the demolished barrier wall and washed there.

After making sure the wounded had been cared for, Adrian walked toward the barrier river, following a chorus of splashing sounds. When he arrived, he found several soldiers bathing, including Ollie.

“Hey, Adrian!” Ollie tossed a square fragment of soap. “Word has it you’re engaged to Marcelle!”

Notice that the first two paragraphs summarized events, while the third transitioned to real time. Then the fourth paragraph settles into real-time showing mode.

Dialogue that Retells Events:

Sometimes you will have instances in which some characters were away from the action, and the character who was involved with the action needs to inform the others. If that character proceeds to explain, and you provide every word of the explanation, readers will find it tedious, because they already know what happened. This is another perfect time for a “telling” summary.

Here is an example:

Adrian grasped his father’s wrist. “It would take a long time to explain what they’re all about, so I’d better focus on the most important issues.”

“Very well. Let’s hear them.”

“We have a problem at home. A man named Cal Broder has taken over as governor of Mesolantrum. Arxad thinks he is a male Starlighter who has the power to usurp the king’s throne.”

After Adrian provided a few more details, his father described how Frederick escaped from his prison of ice as well as how they battled both white and dark dragons all the way from the forest to the village.

When they finished exchanging stories, Adrian exhaled. “Sorry I missed the action.”

This sequence begins in real time and introduces the explanation with a short start in order to let the reader know which events the character is about to explain. Then the text summarizes the rest of the explanation, which avoids boring the readers. And again, the final paragraph transitions back to real-time showing.

Telling Backstory Elements that Set up a Scene:

Sometimes you will have to inform readers of back story information, especially when you’re writing a sequel and the events occurred in an earlier book. A “telling” sequence can serve as a reminder so readers can refresh their memories about crucial facts that will come into play in the scene. In order to avoid information dumping, make such telling sequences short and infrequent. Readers don’t want a full retelling, just a memory prompt.

Here is an example (note that this is from a character’s POV who is not mentioned. He is looking on and observing):

Shellinda and Wallace knelt at the opposite side of the grave, both with tears tracking down their dirty faces and grass staining their trousers. Their rolled-up sleeves revealed grime covering their arms as well, interrupted in spots by a rash—the telltale sign of the fatal disease plaguing nearly all of Starlight. They couldn’t stay here to mourn. The only possible cure lay to the north where Cassabrie had flown with Regina’s spirit in tow. Dwelling within Exodus, this world’s guiding “star,” Cassabrie had floated away less than an hour earlier, guiding the buoyant, glowing sphere with her powerful mind. The only sensible step was to follow.

A summary like this should come across as a series of reasons and motivations for the actions the characters are about to take. This way, the information feels less like narrator intrusion and more like a character’s thinking process. As you might expect, the next paragraph resumes the story’s real-time showing mode.

A final word about showing:

Don’t show details that aren’t important. Some writers think that showing means to describe everything–the color of the carpet, the height of the tree, or the pattern of the ants crawling on the sidewalk. If those details aren’t important to the story or a character’s inward journey, then it is probably best to leave them out. In other words, if the character wouldn’t take notice of the details, then don’t show them to the readers.

Also, there is no need to show details that everyone will already assume. For example, if you set a scene in a library, you don’t have to write that it contains books, shelves, and a librarian’s desk. Readers will paint in these details on their own. You should, however, mention details that are unusual or that will come into play as the scene unfolds, such as a shield hanging on the wall that a character will grab to protect himself from flying debris with an explosion erupts.

Show details that are important to the story and/or the character, even the library’s books and shelves if they are unusual in some way or create a significant impression on the character. Any details that are mundane and insignificant can be left out.

Readers can also imagine visuals that are commonly recognized. For example, if you read “She have him a skeptical glance,” can you picture the facial changes? Most people don’t need written details explaining what a skeptical glance looks like, and describing the bend of an eyebrow and the thinning of the lips might slow the story too much. Also, a reader might misinterpret the “shown” expression. So, you can “tell” when the visual is likely to come into a reader’s mind without showing.

The reason we show is not primarily to paint a visual picture; it is to set the reader intimately within the scene so that a character’s actions, thoughts, and emotions make sense. Readers want to go on a journey with a character, so showing the story through the character’s eyes is crucial. Report what is important to the character, which is usually considerably less than what is actually within the character’s visual senses.

“Show, don’t tell” is a great guideline, but maybe a better guideline would be, “Show what’s important to the character; tell when necessary.”

Can you think of other times when telling is better than showing? If you have any questions or comments, please post them.



Categories: Writing Tips

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8 replies

  1. You mentioned not to tell there were shelves or books in a library. You didn’t mention anything of the sort when you edited the prologue I sent you. The character who just recently became the librarian is still overwhelmed at the sheer number of the books, and at how expansive the library is. Given that, at the time, it would still be relatively new to him, it makes sense for him to stop and marvel for a moment, yes? And if not, the fact that a book important to the plot is wedged between the tightly packed shelves, would that trump the rule and allow telling?

  2. Great tips, as always! I found the list at the end to be especially helpful. 🙂

  3. Awesome advice. I’ve read quite few different posts on this topic, and I have a question. How often should one show instead of tell? For example, with emotions. In the MC is observing someone, should they always notice the others person’s facial expressions and body language, or simply surmise that they are angry/scared/happy etc? For example:
    [Sarah’s fists curled into tight balls, and the veins on her neck bulged, as if ready to pop. Her face had changed from it’s usual pale hue to the color of a ripe tomato.
    Bob took a step back, holding his arms in front of him a placating gesture. “Calm down, Sarah.” he said.]

    As opposed to: [Sarah was furious, that much was obvious. Bob took a step back. “Calm down, Sarah.” he said.] I understand that it is usually preferable to show instead of tell, depending on circumstance, but when does it become overused to describe a characters actions for emotions? A post I read once mentioned that such descriptions of a characters emotions may become just as trite or cliche as stating the emotion.

    And when it comes to the MC experiencing an emotion, should their emotion always be shown, or is it okay to sometimes just say “Bob felt furious.” Do I always need to dedicate a few sentences to how Bob acts when he is angry, or simply explain that he is angry?

  4. As you might guess, it’s up to you as the writer. When you want to keep the POV as intimate as possible, you need to show what the POV character is processing in real time. In such cases, you should show the expressions and body language.

    Yet, if you are not striving for real-time intimacy at a given moment and wish to accelerate the tempo, you might want to breeze by the details. You risk losing some intimacy, because telling usually summarizes and interprets for the reader. But you also avoid the risk of tedium. You have to decide what is more important for your scene.

    Your decision should be based on “feel” for the story, and that comes from experience. In contemplative and emotive scenes, I opt for intimate showing at all times. If the action is fast and furious, telling often works better, because detailed showing slows the pace.

    Writing “Bob felt furious” would be rare for me. If his emotions are important enough to tell readers about, then showing his fury is often better. Readers usually connect better when emotions are shown.

    The question is, “Is this emotion important? Do I want my readers to connect with it?” If yes, then show it. If no, then tell it and move on.

  5. That really helps, thank you!


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