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Crafting Fabulous Fiction:
Tell, Don't Show

by Victoria Grossack

Return to Crafting Fabulous Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

August 15, 2013

You may be wondering if you have read the title of this article correctly. Usually writers are advised to show, not to tell, so you may think I got it backwards. But occasionally authors should tell instead of show.

The Difference Between Showing and Telling

For those who are not familiar with the "show, don't tell" maxim, or who occasionally have difficulty with it, here is an explanation:

Telling means writing in a way that explains, for the reader, exactly what is going on. The author's voice dominates, even intrudes, instead of allowing the characters to act for themselves in the reader's imagination. The reader is told what to think and to feel, instead of being allowed to draw her own conclusions herself.

Showing is usually recommended because it is more engaging for the reader. If you show properly, you will put the reader right there with the action, the thoughts and feelings of your characters. This is obviously a very desirable goal.

Here's an example:

Telling: Jake angrily and insultingly told the waiter to bring him a cup of hot coffee.

Showing: Jake slammed his fist on the counter. "Hey, jerk! Where's my coffee!"

The second instance has far more life to it, and is why showing is generally preferred to telling.

When to Tell Instead of Show

You may still be wondering if I miswrote the title of this article, because I am still extolling the advantages of showing over telling. So, when is it appropriate to tell? Below I make some suggestions. Remember that they are only suggestions, not commands; you should adjust them to suit your own writing, and either speed up or slow down the pace.

In Conversation. When people speak, they say many more things than would interest the reader. A lot of conversation is simply boring. Here is an example:

"Hello, Mary."
"Hello, Bill."
"How are you?"
"Fine. It's cold out there."
"Let me take your coat."

This is dull stuff, probably not worth the space the paragraphs take up on the page. Instead you could write:

After Bill let Mary into the house and took her coat, they settled in the living room with a couple of mugs of hot chocolate.

Note that this recommendation may not always hold true. Imagine that Bill and Mary are colleagues and Mary is coming over to work on a project. There is, essentially, no emotional significance to the entrance of Mary into Bill's house and so you might as well tell it as show it. However, imagine that you are near the end of the book, which is about the relationship between Bill and Mary. Mary, Bill's erstwhile fiancée, broke off the engagement a year ago and never explained why. Now she is coming over to explain and there is the possibility of a rapprochement. In this case you would want to show the actual conversation above, for two possible reasons. The first reason is to prolong the moment, because this moment is important, either pivotal to the story or because it is even part of the climax. The second reason is because this bit of conversation is actually not dull; Mary's comment on the weather can be seen as a comment on the cold bleakness of her life without Bill, while Bill's offer to take her coat is a prelude to offering her warmth, shelter and forgiveness. In fact, you might want to enrich this section by showing even more. Here is a possibility, shown from Bill's point of view:

Bill, puzzled, switched on the porch light. In the lamp's glow he saw swirling snowflakes and a familiar figure. His heart pounding, he opened the door. "Hello, Mary," he said.

"Hello, Bill," she said, wiping her boots on the mat and stepping inside.

There were a million different things he could say to her, expressing anger, jealousy, relief, love, desire. He selected the most innocuous: "How are you?"

"Fine. It's cold out there."

"Let me take your coat," he said, as she unbuttoned her jacket. As he hung it in the closet, he wondered what she was doing here. Did she want to come back? Or was she finally returning his ring?

In this case, the passage is worth showing instead of telling because it is interlaced with emotional moments that are significant to the story.

Travel And Transitions. Between the exciting scenes of your story there are the rather dull bits: when characters journey from point A to point B, when time passes, when scenes change. These transitions may be sections where you should choose to tell instead of show. After all, is there really a reason to go through every detail of your characters putting on their coats, opening the door, walking down the icy path and backing the car out of the driveway simply to pick up a package at the post office? Don't get me wrong; perhaps there is. You may be writing a mystery and during a seemingly innocent and innocuous drive to the post office your character sees something that will turn out to be of significance to the murder that occurs the next day. But if there isn't -- if you are merely writing what comes next, instead of editing the story on behalf of the reader -- the chances are that you are suffering from one or more of the following problems:

  • It has not occurred to you that you will bore your readers and that you don't need to show these bits.

  • You don't know how to write a transition such as: Sheila drove to the post office to pick up the package. After she brought it home...

  • You are stalling in your storytelling because you don't know what is supposed to happen next. In this case you may choose to write on and hope that inspiration strikes (and delete the dull passage later). A better alternative is to take a writing time-out and figure out where your story has to go next. A third alternative is to skip to the next exciting bit that you do know about, write it and create the transition later.

Using narrative summary to guide the reader through the slower parts of your story is when telling rather than showing is most useful. You may still want to mix in bits of showing with your telling to make sure your flow does not slow down too much. In my novel Jocasta, I have a transition chapter in which I cover a period of twenty years. For the most part I used the technique of telling, as I summarized marriages and deaths and other important events among my characters. Still, I kept the pace brisk and readers engaged in the story by showing a few gripping scenes -- including one where a character's eyes were put out.

Unimportant Characters. Why spend unnecessary time on insignificant characters? Some may be so negligible that they won't even get names: the servant brought the drinks; the hotel maids cleaned the room, the policeman blew the whistle, and so on. Tell what your readers need to know in order to remain properly oriented, and then move on.

Early Drafts. Sometimes your creativity flags, and although you know you should be showing Jake's anger rather than telling about it, you don't feel inspired to write it just then. Instead, you're keen on writing the next bit, when Lisa confronts Jake about his frequent tantrums. Rather than slowing down to think about what does not interest you at the moment, tell that bit, write the next scene, and then come back and revise later. I do this all the time and it saves a lot of effort while taking advantage of writing the scenes that inspire me when they inspire me. In my opinion this is not being lazy but efficient.

But if you do this, don't neglect to go back and revise. You need to keep a sharp lookout for where you are telling instead of showing and rewrite so that your scenes come to life. As you improve and as your story develops you will get a better sense of the pace which you need to best tell it.

Telling With A Voice. So far most of the reasons for telling instead of showing have been to skip over dull and boring bits. Still, there are times when telling can be magical, when it elevates the writing to a new and unusual level. If you tell your story in the first person, or when a character within your story recounts an event, you have the opportunity to develop an original voice.

Some of the world's most memorable books have been written in the first person, with voices unique and wonderful: Jane Eyre, Moby Dick, Rebecca and Huckleberry Finn. A recent example is Mark Haddon's novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which relates an engaging story from the point of view of an adolescent boy with autism. At one point Christopher Swindon recounts Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles, but because everything is filtered through his unique perspective -- and because many readers are familiar with Baskervilles anyway -- nothing is lost; in fact, much is gained by young Christopher's telling.

In general, you want to show instead of to tell, but telling still has its place. After all, often the goal is to tell a good story: how wrong can the occasional telling mode be?

Column Index

Copyright © 2013 Victoria Grossack
A version of this article appeared in Fiction Fix.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Victoria Grossack studied Creative Writing and English Literature at Dartmouth College, and has published stories and articles in such publications as Contingencies, Women's World and I Love Cats. She is the author of Crafting Fabulous Fiction, a step-by-step guide to developing and polishing novels and short stories that includes many of her beloved columns. With Alice Underwood, she co-authors the Tapestry of Bronze series (including Jocasta, Mother-Wife of Oedipus; The Children of Tantalus; and Antigone & Creon), based on Greek myths and set in the late Bronze Age. Her independent novels include The Highbury Murders, in which she does her best to channel the spirits and styles of Jane Austen and Agatha Christie, and Academic Assassination (A Zofia Martin Mystery). Victoria is married with kids, and (though American) spends much of her time in Europe. Her hobbies include gardening, hiking, bird-watching and tutoring mathematics. Visit her website at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com, or contact her at tapestry (at) tapestryofbronze (dot) com.

Want to learn more about crafting fabulous fiction? Get one-on-one guidance with Victoria Grossack's personal writing class; find out more at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com/VictoriasWritingClasses.html.


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