The Art of Story: When Telling Trumps Showing

Show, Don’t Tell. This is something we say quite a bit at WHW. As most of you know, our thesaurus collections are packed with inspiring ways to help you ‘show’ so you can craft compelling fiction that readers feel they can almost see, hear, taste, smell and touch.

informationBut while showing is key to writing a great story, telling has its place too, and so it’s important to know how to do both well. Becca has written a great 2 part post on Showing vs. Telling HERE and HERE, so I won’t reinvent the wheel. If you like, check them out!

So, back to TELLING. When is it okay to Tell instead of Show?

High Action or Fast Pace

When there’s a lot going on in a scene, like your hero is running pell-mell through the woods to evade an axe-wielding maniac, or you’re neck deep in a scene where a frantic flight attendant is trying to land a plane during a terrorist takeover, then pace is king. Slowing down to describe the soft melody of crickets and scent of pine needles won’t fit with scene A any more than play by play description of a passenger helping by giving CPR to a pilot fits with scene B.

This is not to say high action scenes are all tell, no show, because they aren’t! Only that word economy is important, and doing more with less is key. We maintain the intensity by choosing what is important enough to show, and what can be told.

Fight scenes are an excellent example of this. Describing every blow, dodge, twist, kick and stab in micro movements will cause readers to skim. Instead, we want to only show details that give the fight scope and intensity, and tell the bits that need to be conveyed quickly for readers to keep up and “see” what’s happening. Let’s say there’s a brawl going on between fueding brothers in the kitchen. If our hero Josh grabs a chair and smashes it over Tim’s head, readers really don’t need to know that it is a cheap wooden chair with one wobbly leg, or that Josh was actually aiming for Tim’s left shoulder, but because his brother shifted mid swing, it cracked him on the head instead. These details slow the scene down. Instead show us one swift image that paints the action unfolding: Josh hooking the chair with his boot to drag it close, and then swinging it at Tim’s head. BAM.

Time, Location or POV Leaps

Stories, by nature, often jump around, chopping out the boring stuff between critical scenes. If our main character Betsy went to sleep at the end of one scene and nothing important happens to further the story until she leaves for summer camp the next afternoon, we don’t need details of her waking up, eating breakfast, and the rest of her usual routine until the bus finally shows up at her door. Use narration to summarize the time between going to sleep (all full of nerves over a week at summer camp!) and pick up again when her butt hits the unyielding plastic bus seat the next day.

A single line of transitional telling can help readers skip the boring stuff and anchor them immediately into a new scene. The same goes for shifting the POV (after a scene or chapter break,) or if the story leaves one location for another. If it has no bearing on the plot, readers don’t need to read about a character getting in their car, starting it up, fighting rush hour traffic and nearly getting rear ended before they meet someone at the library. If a bit of telling summary like, Jenny drove to the library to meet Amy helps tie those location shifts together better than showing can, do it.

Revisiting a Static Setting

If your story involves the character returning to the same setting repeatedly, you do not need to freshly describe the location each time. Consider a main character who runs a pharmacy checkout. If nothing has changed since the last time she worked a shift, don’t gob up the page with redundant setting description. Instead, focus on the action. (The only time this doesn’t apply is if the setting has changed significantly from the reader’s last visit. If for example, a car has driven through the pharmacy storefront creating a tsunami of pill bottles, condom boxes and maxi pads, then this is something that must be shown.)

High Emotion that Endures

Any scene that is packed with emotion can be a descriptive minefield. Too much showing can cause melodrama to rear its head, but too little and the moment can flat line. Whenever emotional tension goes on for an extended period of time, make it a jagged climb. This means showing readers a range of emotions, not just one, and to mix showing and with tiny (TINY!) bits of telling to give the moment scope and allow readers a chance to catch their breath. If an extended emotional scene is all show, show, show, you run the risk of confusing or overwhelming readers.

Details that Do Not Further the Story

When it comes to description, a scene should have color, but too much and the story canvas becomes a runny technicolor mess. Identify which details matter, and which do not. If something furthers the plot, provides needed characterization or helps the reader feel more deeply part of the scene, then show it as needed. But if a detail is more instructional or better served by telling, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of narrative to explain it so we can then focus on what is really happening.

What other situations can you think of where Telling might be better than showing? Let us know in the comments!

 

Image: Geralt @ Pixabay

About ANGELA ACKERMAN

Angela is an international speaker and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also enjoys dreaming up new tools and resources for One Stop For Writers, a library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Description, Show Don't Tell, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to The Art of Story: When Telling Trumps Showing

  1. Pingback: Social Media Monday show vs. tell | Eclectic Bard Books

  2. Kim Headlee says:

    These are excellent reminders about finding and maintaining the proper balance while creating descriptive passages in a narrative, but IMO it misses the point about what “showing” and “telling” really are. Consider the following example:

    “Who is there?” she stammered nervously.

    versus

    “Wh-who is t-there?” She gripped the door’s handle with whitening knuckles as she inched up toward the peephole.

    The first “tells” the reader that the speaker is nervous, and stammering, but not much more. The second shows the stammer in dialogue, and reveals just how nervous (and yet brave, and perhaps short of stature) she is.

    Food for thought. 🙂

  3. Lisa Turner says:

    Thank you! It’s so easy to get caught up trying to show (and for me, it can be really hard!), that I’ve often felt it’s not quite right. I think you’ve pointed out why some of my scenes aren’t sitting well with me – there’s so much showing going on that my readers would be dribbling as they fall asleep.

    • One of the hardest things to figure out is what is the most important things to show. I find it is helpful to try and plant myself into my POV character and think about their current emotion state: what would they notice and why? What stands out to them? And then in narrative, think about what will build a specific mood that heightens the POV character’s emotions? What information does the reader need to “feel part of the scene” and of that, what needs to be shown through sensory detail to make the world come alive, and what can simply be told to keep things moving?

      The good news is, the more we write and practice, the better we get at finding the right balance! Good luck!

  4. Julie Musil says:

    Good reminders! It is definitely sometimes tough to know when to slow it down and when to tell instead of show. Thanks.

  5. Thank you for showing when it’s okay to tell. 🙂

  6. When to show and when to tell – we need know how to do both.

    Wonderful post.

  7. Jenny says:

    Funny, but I was just having this same conversation with an author I beta read for recently. Finding that delicate balance can be so difficult but so important. Thanks for putting together this informative piece. You ladies are amazing. Thanks for all you do.

  8. :Donna Marie says:

    Nothing else is coming to mind. Seems like you covered it! 😀 Thank you!

  9. Great info, details should add not bore!!

  10. Carleen M. Tjader says:

    Thanks much for more info on this tricky balance!

  11. Kai Strand says:

    Pacing is everything. Even a quiet story can’t drag or it will lose the reader’s interest. I’ve read action/adventures that didn’t give the reader time to breathe and like you said, the experience was overwhelming. Great advice. Thanks!

    • Yes, that time to breathe is important. Novels that move at a breakneck speed all the way through shortchange readers and keep them from really getting to know the characters on a deeper level…if they can even make it through to the end.

  12. This really speaks to me:

    “Only that word economy is important, and doing more with less is key. We maintain the intensity by choosing what is important enough to show, and what can be told.”

    Thanks. I will share this gem with my writers’ guild.

    • Thanks so much Maureen. 🙂 The show & tell part of writing is something we really have to practice before finding the right balance. I think this is where reading authors we admire can be very instructive. Those with strong showing & telling skills can illustrate this balance, and we directly experience the impact of being drawn into scenes and pulled deeper into the story like a leaf directed by the wind. Happy writing!

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