Showing and Telling Part 2: When It’s Okay to Tell

In part one, I discussed the first point of frustration with the advice to show, don’t tell: believing you’re showing when you’re not. The next point of frustration with this all-too-common advice is no story can be complete without some telling.

You can’t always show, and, in fact, sometimes telling is preferable.

Now that you have identified your told prose in the first blog of this series, you need to decide whether that told prose should be changed into showing or whether it is fine to leave it.

You can keep telling prose when you want to increase the narrative distance, decrease emphasis, convey necessary information, and avoid repetition.

 

To increase the narrative distance

Narrative distance is how far the reader feels from the POV character. You can learn more about narrative distance and when you may want to increase it in this blog.

Telling, by nature, creates a more distant feel, so if you want to increase the narrative distance, telling is a way to do that.

However, be intentional. Tell because you want to increase the distance; don’t just say you’re creating distance because you happened to tell.

 

Add contrast

You may opt to increase the distance if the scene is a quieter moment and you want to contrast it with a fast-paced scene full of tension.

 

Up the mystery and suspense

Or you may opt to increase the narrative distance to up the mystery and suspense. This works well at the end of chapters. At the end of chapters or scenes, you can insert a little telling to leave the reader wondering what the character is really thinking or what will happen next.

Example 1: She stayed at her position, alert and ready, in case her commander changed his mind.  (This tells us her motivation and what she is doing. There is no showing here. However, by telling this little bit, there is a sense of mystery in the air. What will happen?)

Example 2: He hoped they would survive; he wanted them to survive.

 

Use the omniscient narrator

If you’re using an omniscient narrator, you’re naturally going to have more telling since omniscient is the furthest narrative distance.

But you want to make sure that in your telling, you have a clear narrator voice that is interesting; otherwise, you may lose narrators who’d rather be immersed in the story. This is why omniscient narrator is the trickiest POV to do well.


To decrease the emphasis

When you show, you inevitably use more words than when you tell. More words isn’t bad; less words isn’t bad.

But naturally when you use a lot of words, a reader will pay more attention, believing this plot point or character observation is important. But what if it isn’t?

If it isn’t important or if you don’t want the reader to know yet that it is important, less words are better. And telling will give you less words.


To convey necessary information

Character recounting events

Sometimes a character recounts an earlier event (already shown in a scene) to another character who wasn’t there.

In this case, it wouldn’t make any sense to dramatize the scene again. Just explain in the narration that the character told the other about this scene.

 

Backstory/info dumps

The first blog in this series discussed the issue with backstory and info dumps; however, when kept short and done well, they are sometimes necessary.

If you can weave the backstory into a narrative scene, do so. If it would seem forced or would require you to start the book too far back in the story, then use those telling info dumps and backstories. The idea here is to keep them short and integrate them seamlessly, so it doesn’t pause the narrative to interject a bit of telling (much like a news anchor or commercial interrupts your TV show).

To learn how to effectively use info dumps, check out my “How to Fix Info Dumping” blog.

 

Reporting

Some information is important for the reader to know, but it isn’t important enough to dramatize into a scene.

No one wants to read an overly detailed, drawn-out scene just to learn some necessary but less-important information. Just report this information and don’t stress showing it.

  • Tell the location (you can also show this, but it’s not always necessary)
  • Tell the appearance of a character (you can also show this, but can tell if showing is distracting and forced)
  • Connect scenes together/note transitions between scenes
  • Indicate passing of time

 


To avoid repetition

Perhaps an earlier showing scene revealed the character’s motivations. If the next actions and thoughts of the character reveal that same motivation, it is okay to just tell that action.

Not every moment needs to be expanded with showing.

If the showing isn’t going to reveal anything new and, instead, is just fulfilling the need to “show instead of tell” because that’s what you think you always have to do, then just tell.


Conclusion

Told prose isn’t bad. We need told prose. The idea is to be intentional about it and to ensure it is effective telling.

To quote Janice Hardy, “We tell as writers all the time and most of it goes right past readers and doesn’t bother anyone. The problems appear when the telling shoves readers aside and makes them feel as though they’re watching from a distance and not experiencing the story along with the characters.”

So this means even when you intentionally use telling, you still want to make sure it is in the voice of the narrator, not you as the author butting in to explain things.

 

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