By September C. Fawkes
Most of us are familiar with the “Show, don’t Tell” rule. In short, it’s more effective to dramatize the story than to simply tell what happened. Nonetheless, almost every story needs at least some telling. It can help keep the pacing tight, relay background information, and enhance tone, among other things. Here’s more on when breaking the rule can work. So how do we tell well? Here are six cheats to help you.
1. Appeal to the Senses
Good showing appeals to the senses. Basically, we have to appeal to the senses to really show a story. There is no reason moments of telling can’t appeal to the senses in a similar way. Appealing to sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch can strengthen your telling just as it does with showing. It’s just that with telling, it’s usually brief, or relayed “in passing.” This example appeals to senses despite it being a telling summary:
We drove through Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, stopping to cool the engine in towns where people moved with arthritic slowness and spoke in thick strangled tongues . . . At night we slept in boggy rooms where headlight beams crawled up and down the walls and mosquitoes sang in our ears, incessant as the tires whining on the highway outside. – This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff
2. Use Concrete Metaphors and Similes
Some telling doesn’t lend itself to the senses very easily, because of the subject matter that needs to be told. In cases like that, you can try tying in a concrete comparison to suggest a sense. This example tells about a telepathic and emotional connection using comparisons:
At night awake in bed, he’d remember her presence. How their minds had been connected, ethereal like spider webs. How just her being there brought a sense of comfort, like a childhood blanket he hadn’t realized he’d still had.
3. Sprinkle in Details
Just as you use detail to make your showing great, you can and often should include detail in passages of telling. Mention a red leather jacket here or a specific cologne there. Of course, you won’t be including as much detail as you would with showing, but detail makes telling more realistic. One key to making this work is to pick the right details, as opposed to generic ones.
Their mom had always stressed the importance of eating dinner as a family, of stir fry nights and cloth napkins on laps, of hands held in prayer and laughter pealing off travertine, and even of the occasional green bean food fight.
4. Elevate Your Writing Style
You can also make telling stronger by making it more literary. Elevate the prose with smart word choices and by paying attention to rhythm and sound. Again, you can bring in similes and metaphors, or better yet, extended metaphors. Basically, you are finding a way to make what you are telling particularly pleasing and poetic.
From Crossed by Ally Condie:
In the night, it feels like we’re running fast over the back of some kind of enormous animal, sprinting over its spines and through patches of tall, thin, gold grass that now glimmers like silver fur in the moonlight.
The air is desert cold, a sharp, thin cold that tricks you into thinking you aren’t thirsty, because breathing is like drinking in ice.
5. Bump up the Tone and Voice
Unfortunately, the poetic approach won’t work with everything—it likely won’t work in a comedic passage or an angry one. Instead, bump up the tone. Pull in the narrative voice or let the character’s voice bleed into the narrative at the deepest level. Channel the emotion of the narrator or character and write your telling in ways that reinforce that. For help, check out my previous post on WHW.
From The Book Thief by Markus Zusak:
Earlier, kids had been playing hopscotch there, on the street that looked like oil-stained pages. When I arrived, I could still hear the echoes. The feet tapping the road. The children-voices laughing, and the smiles like salt, but decaying fast.
This time everything was too late. The sirens. The cuckoo shrieks on the radio. All too late.
Is that what glued them down like that?
Of course not.
Let’s not be stupid.
It probably had more to do with the hurled bombs, thrown down by humans hiding in the clouds.
6. Create Tension, Even if Only on a Small Scale
Good tension will keep a reader invested, even through telling. See if you can include tension when telling. It can be tension that lasts only for a sentence, or, better yet, promises of conflict yet to come.
From Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone:
The Dursleys had everything they ever wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it.
They didn’t think they could bear it if anyone found out about the Potters.
Here’s a great resource for knowing when to tell.
Click here for additional Checklists and Cheat Sheets…including one with great examples of telling and showing.
September C. Fawkes
Resident Writing Coach
September C. Fawkes has worked as an assistant to a New York Times bestselling author and writing instructor, and now does freelance editing at FawkesEditing.com. She has published poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction articles, and her award-winning writing tips have appeared in classrooms, conferences, and on Grammar Girl. Grab this AMAZING guide on Crafting Powerful Protagonists at her website and find her on