Although ‘telling’ has a terrible reputation in the writing world, it’s really not as bad as most aspiring writers think.
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.
Sometimes it’s OK to tell.
Telling is a perfectly valid technique for certain tasks, so you shouldn’t be afraid to use this tool when you need to.
If showing is going to detract from events unfolding in the scene, or draw too much attention to what’s not important, it might be better to tell. It’s also better to tell if showing is going to bog down the story or bore the reader, such as relaying every punch or kick thrown in a lengthy fight.
Here are some times when telling frequently works better than showing.
Telling to catch characters up
A great example of an acceptable tell is the “catching up another character” scene.
Something has happened to one character, and they reach a point where they have to inform other characters about a scene the reader has already seen dramatized.
Say your protagonist, Bob, has just been out scouting and found a huge nest of zombies acting very un-zombielike. Readers have read the scene, and now Bob is back with his group and needs to let them know what he saw.
Which would be better: telling a short summary, or showing Bob relaying the scene readers just read? Dramatizing it is going to bore your reader, so a quick telling summary works better to keep the story moving.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Bob said, tossing back half his Scotch. He told them about the nest down by the river, the freakish way the zombies had moved, and the almost-organized way they’d worked together. His hands were shaking by the end.
“Wow,” Jane whispered.
He nodded. “Yeah. Wow.”
This doesn’t stop the story to relay information readers already know.
Telling for dramatic impact
Sometimes it’s also better to tell when you want to add narrative distance for dramatic effect, such as pulling away from the point-of-view character to convey that “dum dum dum!” sense of impending doom. This happens most often with the words wondered, hoped and prayed.
- She watched him ride away and hoped he’d never come back.
- He wondered if Lila had seen Chuck that night.
- They prayed it was the last time.
Pulling back from the point-of-view character in such cases actually increases the tension instead of lessening it. It’s common to find such tells used as hooks at the end of scenes or chapters.
Telling to convey necessary information
Let’s be honest—it’s impossible to show everything in a novel, and no one wants to read all those details anyway. But sometimes readers need to know certain information and there’s no easy way to convey it. Info dumps and backstory are the only way to slip that information into the book.
When you must dump, add the information as seamlessly as possible so it doesn’t jump out of the story and draw attention to itself. You want readers to enjoy the lecture and feel as though they learned something important, instead of being handed a brochure about the book.
There’s already a lot of telling in a novel, even if it’s not officially called that. You describe the setting, what someone does, what they say. It’s called storytelling for a reason.
The trick is to weave your tells in with your shows so readers never get the sense that the author is butting in to explain something to them.
Don’t be afraid to tell when you have to. Just make sure that when you do, you’re telling in a way that serves the story and keeps the reader interested.
Are there times when you prefer to tell versus show?