“Show, don’t tell” is often repeated advice. This advice can frustrate writers because they believe they are showing when, in fact, they are telling and because no story can be complete without some telling.
This tutorial will focus on the first point of frustration: believing you are showing when you’re not.
Take, for example, this sentence: Craig curled his lip, picked up his gun, and pointed it at her to show he meant business.
Can you spot why this sentence is considered a telling sentence?
The author is butting into the scene to tell why Craig did what he did.
A good rule of thumb is if you can act out what your character is doing, you’re showing; if you can’t, you’re telling. You can’t act out “show he meant business.”
So let’s dive in and learn how you can find your told prose. Finding it is the first step.
Tell character’s emotions
This is a big one. There is a whole book on how to show, don’t tell a character’s emotions (The Emotion Thesaurus). Your readers will never feel for your characters if you tell them they are feeling sad, angry, happy, etc. We feel emotions by experiencing them, not by hearing the name of an emotion.
Look out for sentences that list an emotion.
Help your readers to feel the emotion by describing it in a way that they feel it and can relate to.
Tell character’s thoughts
When you use words like “wondered,” “realized, “hoped,” etc., you are telling what the character is thinking.
In that example showing sentence, I used what is called free indirect speech to show her thoughts—where her thoughts are in third person and past tense. You could make it direct internal thoughts: I should have paid better attention in class, she thought. Or put the thought in italics and get rid of the thought tag. But I like using free indirect speech when direct thoughts rendered in first person present aren’t needed.
Tell character’s motivations
Like the example sentence in the beginning, authors often fear that readers won’t “get it,” so they tell the reader why the character did what they did. The character’s motivations should be clear from the scene. No need to butt in and tell the reader why.
You would be annoyed if you were watching a movie and the actor stopped to explain why he yelled at his teacher.
So, too, readers get annoyed when authors feel the need to explain motivations.
Often authors use the words “to” or “because” when telling motivations, so look out for those words.
Yanking the earbuds out of her ear and internally thinking they weren’t doing any good anyway shows she is sick of listening to them and wants them to stop arguing.
Tell what a character sees, hears, smells, or feels
When you use sense words like “heard,” “saw,” “felt,” “smelled,” you are always telling
This is when you tell over entire paragraphs or a scene, essentially summarizing a situation.
Sometimes an entire scene is told. This can occur in info dumps, flashbacks, and character backstory that make up an entire scene. But it can also be done if the scene is entirely comprised of narrative summary. This is not always a bad thing. Not every scene needs to be dramatized. Sometimes you need a scene that is all narrative summary. But it is important to know when to dramatize a scene and when narrative summary is OK. I will write a different blog on this at a future point.
For purposes of this blog, I want to focus on info dumps, flashbacks, and character backstory, either in an entire scene or just occurring over a paragraph or two.
Info dumps occur when you tell information related to the story world. Yes, you do need to tell the reader some information that they need to know. The key here is when you tell it and how much you tell. The information should be relevant to the scene—information the reader *has* to know at that moment—and should sound like it is coming from the point of view character and not the author butting in to explain information.
This example comes from Janice Hardy’s book Understanding Show, Don’t Tell and Really Getting it (I highly recommend this book).
In the shown example, the author gives information the reader needs to know at that moment (it is a risk to traverse the dark streets because something happens that results in a “soul death”) but doesn’t give information the reader doesn’t need to know at that moment (the dark wizard’s guild opened that portal to who-knew-where and the streets of Klanduk were crawling with demons who devoured the souls of all they encountered).
The told information in the shown example is through the eyes of the character. It sounds like the character is using the information about the world to make a decision rather than the author butting in to tell the reader information about the world. So even though the sentence “he faced certain capture and death if he stayed, but to risk the dark streets alone . . .” is told information of sorts, it sounds natural for the character to think that in this moment.
The advantage of the shown one is the readers want to know what is on the streets, so they are encouraged to read on. With the told one, they already know what is about to happen so the suspense is gone.
I have a whole blog on finding and fixing info dumps since they drive me nuts as a reader. Use the information in that blog to further your understanding.
Backstory occurs when you stop the forward momentum of the story to tell about a character’s history or why something is important.
First off, this information isn’t necessary to know at this very moment. Trevin is currently investigating a current murder, so why does the reader need to know his whole backstory in the middle of questioning a witness? Second, the reader will be annoyed that in the middle of a scene with action (dialogue questioning a witness), the author buts in and puts a halt to the forward action.
If the reader needs to know this information, then put it where it matters and only in short snippets.
Not every point of his backstory has to be shown; it is OK to tell some of it, but only in the moment when it matters and only a little bit at a time so it isn’t a long block of telling.
Also, not every backstory point even needs to be revealed to the reader, whether shown or told. It is great to develop backstories for your characters to guide you into knowing how they would react or behave in a given situation, but if your reader doesn’t need to know that side character, Alisha, used to work at the Blouse Barn and her employer treated her like garbage, then no need to put that in at all—even showing it.
If the backstory does need to be revealed, again, only reveal it at the moment it matters and try to do so with showing, but if it needs to be told, then tell a sentence or two and move on.
Often authors mistakenly believe that a flashback is their solution to show, don’t tell. If they want the reader to know a character’s backstory, but they want to show it, then they will do so in a flashback scene.
Since it’s a scene, not summary, it is shown, right? Not necessarily. If you are stopping the forward action of the story to give a flashback scene, it can feel like telling. It feels like the author butting in to give the reader information.
Instead of writing a flashback, show how a past event is affecting the character now.
My blog on info dumping also addresses flashbacks and gives an example of a brief flashback done well. You can use flashbacks when they are brief and integrated into the current scene.
Telling is not always bad. You can’t show and dramatize every plot point, thought, and emotion. However, more than likely, you are telling more than you should, which prevents the reader from being fully emerged in your story.
Hopefully, you can now spot your told prose. Identifying your told prose is the first step, then you need to decide if it is fine as is or if it needs to be shown. The next blog in the showing and telling series will discuss times when it is OK to tell so you can determine when to leave the prose alone and when to change it to show.
Katie Chambers, owner of Beacon Point, is a nonfiction and fiction substantive (developmental) editor and copy editor for independent authors, content writer and editor for business professionals, online teacher, and tutor.
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