Tell Me, Don’t Show Me


Here is a conversation I hope I never see in your work, ever.

“Hi Belinda.”

“Hey Marcie. What’s up?”

“Nothing much.” Marcie sighs into the phone. “Making dinner. Hubby’s coming home soon and he gets grumpy if I don’t have it ready.”

“Oh man,” Belinda murmurs. “What’re you making? Spaghetti? Gotta love spaghetti.”

Snore, snore, snore, right? How many of you have heard a conversation like this while walking around a store? A conversation about nothing that annoys everyone else who has to hear it? Don’t force it on your readers or they’ll throw your book against the wall.

As important as showing is, telling is equally important when used at the right time

Let’s define some terms, first. Exposition is when the author stops to describe something to us, say, a house. We need to know what this house looks like because the main character is about to sneak inside, but it doesn’t forward the plot at all. Narration is when the description forwards the plot along, often by describing emotions or thoughts, or when transitioning from one scene/location to another.

As you can see, there isn’t a big difference here, so I’m going to collapse both terms into simple ‘narrative.’

Now, narrative is imperative for prose fiction: it’s what defines prose from poetry (among other things, of course). But how do we know when to show and when to tell?

Use narration to set the scene.

Do this quickly. You don’t want to disrupt your reader too long, which is what you’re doing whenever you rely on narration. This is the most traditional way to use narration, because it works. A simple paragraph describing the scene does more than a page of dialogue talking about the trees, the sky, the buildings, and the characters’ moods. Let’s see an example:

It was night, not that Belinda could tell the difference with the blindfold on. Her hands pulsed with a dull ache thanks to the rough rope knotted around her wrists. She had lost feeling in her legs hours ago. Her cheeks were sticky with tears, and the old sock in her mouth choked her.

There it is again. Heavy footfalls shuffling up the wooden staircase toward her.

This narration tells us everything we need to know. What time of day it is, that Belinda is panicked, tied up, has no idea where she is, and dreads the sound of heavy footsteps coming toward her.

Use narration when you need to cover a block of time or a boring conversation.

We don’t need to know every detail, just tell us the information we need to know to keep up. This includes generic introductions between characters, or when a couple of days go by in your plot timeline that don’t have any real action or events to maintain interest. Never do extended flashback scenes if you can help it. Going back to my opening example:

A week went by before Belinda called Marcie. The phone rang four times before Marcie picked up, and there was a definite hesitation in her voice. Belinda ground her teeth as they wasted time talking about how Marcie was making dinner for her husband. Forget your husband, Belinda wanted to scream, and get out while you still can.

I could have written this narration two ways: Marcie upset about her husband’s demands, or the way I wrote it with Belinda not understanding how her friend can stand her husband’s demands. Or a third way, with the husband coming home and wanting to know why Marcie’s gabbing on the phone instead of making dinner.

Use narration when you’re switching locations, moods, characters…

This is the smoothest way of letting your reader know that something is shifting. For example, you can end a chapter with your character saying, “I bet Frank’s sneaking his way into the girl’s locker room again.” And then start the next chapter with a teacher dragging Frank by his ear out of the girl’s locker room. You gave a hint about where Frank will be the next time we read about him, and not only is he there, he’s making us laugh that he got caught. Silly Frank.

Use narration when you’re giving your reader information that your characters don’t have.

This is used all the time in romance, as well as political thrillers, mysteries, suspense… We as readers know that when the bad guy promises not to do it again that he’s lying, but the hero believes him for some reason. We know that when the romantic hero says he doesn’t care about the heroine that he does, it’s just that he probably doesn’t realize it yet. Foreshadowing is a great example of this as well.

The Point

The only time you shouldn’t use narration is when it is better to use action and dialogue. The only time you shouldn’t use action and dialogue is when it is better to use narration. Sounds like a vicious cycle, doesn’t it? Here are things to keep in mind when deciding to show or tell:

  1. Always and only tell your reader what they need to know for the plot and characters to make sense.
  2. Don’t distract the reader with your writing mechanics. Too much narration, description, or dialogue will throw your reader off, so try to maintain a healthy balance.
  3. Don’t summarize important conversations, only the ones that don’t cover anything new.
  4. Always reveal something new. Never rehash what you told your reader earlier, they’ve seen it already.
  5. Don’t let the narrative run away from you. If it goes longer than a paragraph or two, take a step back. Does your reader really need all that information? Or can you see them thinking, “Come on, already!”

Comment with your thoughts on ‘telling’ to enter the free Worderella critique contest. Do you have trouble integrating narration into your action without slowing the plot too much? Does telling come easy to you, but showing is hard? Or vice versa?

Books to Buy: Strunk & White’s Elements of Style (free online version)

Links to reference: Why nouns and verbs are your friends, Active vs passive verbs, Using modifiers objectively

This five part series is my participation in Lynn Viehl’s Left Behind & Loving It (LB&LI) convention. I’ll tackle a different facet of editing each day:

  1. Monday: Put that shitty first draft away
  2. Tuesday: Be brutally honest
  3. Wednesday: Show me, don’t tell me
  4. Thursday: Tell me, don’t show me
  5. Friday: Focus on those nitty gritty details

Read more for details about winning a free Worderella critique at the end of this week!

14 thoughts on “Tell Me, Don’t Show Me

  1. You nailed this one, Belinda. 😀

    The only thing that I could think to add is that narration can also be preferable in a longer-than-usual form if someone else is telling a story about something that happened while the POV character was absent.

    Like

  2. Margay – It definitely is a tricky balance. I hope my examples and tips help!

    Eliza – Good point. It seems to me that narration should be used when a lot of information is required, rather than showing everything that happened, to keep the story going. And if a lot happened, then you're required to write a longer narration. The biggest concern I have with that, however, is that long narration can get a bit boring these days. Unless, of course, you're Neil Gaiman, Steven Lawhead, or someone brilliant like that.

    And then again, there are exceptions to the rule. Moral of the story: If there's justification behind your decision, do it.

    Like

  3. It is such a tricky balance between show, don’t tell and tell, don’t show. Thanks for the tips!

    Like

  4. You nailed this one, Belinda. 😀

    The only thing that I could think to add is that narration can also be preferable in a longer-than-usual form if someone else is telling a story about something that happened while the POV character was absent.

    Like

  5. Margay – It definitely is a tricky balance. I hope my examples and tips help!

    Eliza – Good point. It seems to me that narration should be used when a lot of information is required, rather than showing everything that happened, to keep the story going. And if a lot happened, then you’re required to write a longer narration. The biggest concern I have with that, however, is that long narration can get a bit boring these days. Unless, of course, you’re Neil Gaiman, Steven Lawhead, or someone brilliant like that.

    And then again, there are exceptions to the rule. Moral of the story: If there’s justification behind your decision, do it.

    Like

  6. This is one of the most useful blogs on my blogroll. I don't know if you're an English professor or not, but you know what you're talking about and you make it accessible to the reader.

    I have a particular problem transitioning in and out of scenes. I guess because it's become shorthand almost to just separate it with spaces, or ******* So we get lazy and forget how to transition and that we can do it without creating a mini-chapter inside the chapter. Definitely something to keep in mind. Though I do use ********* on the rare occasion where I switch POV inside one chapter.

    also… Silly Frank, girls locker rooms are for girls! 😛

    Like

  7. This is one of the most useful blogs on my blogroll. I don’t know if you’re an English professor or not, but you know what you’re talking about and you make it accessible to the reader.

    I have a particular problem transitioning in and out of scenes. I guess because it’s become shorthand almost to just separate it with spaces, or ******* So we get lazy and forget how to transition and that we can do it without creating a mini-chapter inside the chapter. Definitely something to keep in mind. Though I do use ********* on the rare occasion where I switch POV inside one chapter.

    also… Silly Frank, girls locker rooms are for girls! 😛

    Like

  8. Zoe – Thank you! I’m not an English professor, though I do live a couple blocks away from one, haha. No, I’ve just read a lot about writing, and finished an English minor this past year. Like you, I found a lot of it inaccessible, so I started this blog two years ago to spread the knowledge.

    If you’re looking for a good writing book, I sincerely suggest you read Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King. It’s to the point and really accessible, and my favorite writing book out there. It’s like the new Strunk & White, but geared toward fiction.

    That said, I had the same trouble with my first book. I didn’t know how to transition between scenes. So I didn’t. Even in my new book, each chapter is a sort of self-contained scene. Every once in a while I have multiple scenes in a single chapter, but not often.

    Maybe we should do another workshop series on transitions…

    Like

  9. Zoe – Thank you! I’m not an English professor, though I do live a couple blocks away from one, haha. No, I’ve just read a lot about writing, and finished an English minor this past year. Like you, I found a lot of it inaccessible, so I started this blog two years ago to spread the knowledge.

    If you’re looking for a good writing book, I sincerely suggest you read Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King. It’s to the point and really accessible, and my favorite writing book out there. It’s like the new Strunk & White, but geared toward fiction.

    That said, I had the same trouble with my first book. I didn’t know how to transition between scenes. So I didn’t. Even in my new book, each chapter is a sort of self-contained scene. Every once in a while I have multiple scenes in a single chapter, but not often.

    Maybe we should do another workshop series on transitions…

    Like

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