Three Places Where You Should Tell Instead of Show

Amid all the demands for authors to show, instead of tell, it can be easy to forget telling is still a vital part of any story. There are moments when summarizing is a decidedly better choice than dramatizing.

The Reverse of the Medal, the brilliant eleventh installment in Patrick O’Brian’s esteemed Aubrey/Maturin series, offers several examples of how to telling can be used to keep stories moving quickly.

3 Places You Should Tell, Instead of Show

O’Brian’s books brim with lengthy descriptions of naval etiquette and period customs, but thanks to his knack for understanding exactly when such information grows tedious, he never tries readers’ patience. In Reverse of the Medal he chooses to tell, instead of show, to great advantage in three noticeably different types of scenes.

1. Summarizing Information Readers Already Know

Reverse of the Medal Patrick O'BrianScene #1 in O’Brian’s book neatly summarizes information to which readers are already privy. The relaying of these facts from one character to another is vital to the story, but O’Brian knew his readers had no need of hearing it twice—so he summarized.

2. Avoiding Tedious Information

Scene #2 spares readers the potentially tedious and non-vital scene of a ship auction by skipping directly to what’s important: the outcome of the sale.

3. Skipping “Filler” Events

Scene #3 excludes unnecessary and often boring “filler” material by summarizing  the characters’ journeying from one location to another.

By choosing to tell, instead of show, at certain crucial junctures of his plot, O’Brian was able to skim unimportant scenes and keep the readers focused on the important and interesting information. In so doing, he neatly sidestepped any tedium that might have caused his book to be set aside at any number of potential danger points. The result is win-win for both writer and reader!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! When was the last time you utilized telling to speed a story? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Thank you for the post. I do get hazed over with the constant pounding of show, show, show. It’s good to get an idea on where to tell.
    Thanks.

  2. “Showing” gets harped on because it’s so important in bringing a story to life – and because far too many writers just don’t quite understand how it works. But the attention on showing definitely doesn’t negate telling as an irreplaceably important factor in any story.

  3. Great post! It’s hammered into your head to SHOW. But you’re right, there are times where it’s totally appropriate to tell.

  4. The two most important facts about showing and telling:

    1. It’s vital to understand what showing entails and how to use it effectively to bring a story to life.

    2. It’s also important to realize that “show, don’t tell” shouldn’t scare us off from *all* telling.

  5. If I’m writing a fast-paced scene, I’ll use tell rather than show because the pace can’t have distractions and telling gets to the point quickly.

  6. You can still show things effectively in a fast-paced scene (and, in fact, I strongly recommend it). The trick is to use shorter sentences and punchier words and to highlight only the details that really matter.

  7. I’m writing a Young YA in first person and have found spots where telling is so much easier for this character in regards to some information. It allows me to use showing during the parts we want to spend more time in. Whether I’ve done a good job or have balance is another issue. I will have to figure that out as soon as my crit partner gets her hands on it. Thanks for the constantly useful information.

  8. In the end, the objective eyes of a knowledgeable beta reader or editor are usually the greatest help in deciding what kind of a balance we were able to strike.

  9. Ah, great points here. I think some writers thinks they NEVER should Tell, and feel they have to describe everything. Sounds like another instance of a “rule” being one where it’s good to know how to break it, and you CAN break it–if you know how.

  10. The rules are like bumper lanes in bowling – they’re only fixed in place until you become a good enough bowler that you can avoid the gutters without being forced to do so.

  11. I recently read a book in which the author described a character going out the door of his home, to his car, open the car door, retrieve an object from the back seat, shut the car door and back inside his home—the exact movements in detail. I think that was a good place to just say “He got the XXX out of his car” or something as succinct as that. 🙂

  12. When we describe actions in minute details, we’re indicating that the reader needs to pay attention because this information is important. When we emphasize details that *aren’t* important (such as getting the object from the car), we’re sending readers a false message – one they’ll end up resenting.

  13. I agree, the rules are there to give us an idea of where we are going, but they are still important to adhere to. Throwing a gutter once or twice is okay in a game, but the writer still needs to remember that they can’t just throw the ball to the side and hope for the best. Following the rules most of the time leads to good writing.

  14. The idea is *never* to throw the ball in the gutter. Once we’ve achieved a mastery of the game we can hurl curves that will still end in perfect strikes. On the other hand, without a mastery of the game, our attempts at complicated curve balls will inevitably end up in the gutter unless we have the rules in place as bumpers to keep us safe while we’re learning.

  15. This post comes at a good time for me, as we’ve been having this very debate in a writing class I’m in. The instructor was explaining the importance of occasionally telling, but a couple of the students pushed back, insisting a writer should ALWAYS tell. Seems to me any time someone says a writer should ALWAYS do something, that’s a sign that some writer would benefit by doing the opposite.

  16. I typed too fast, meant above that some students said writers should always SHOW. I guess I should always proofread comments before hitting “post”!

  17. I couldn’t agree more. “Always” and “never” are danger words for a writer. Whenever somebody tells you to do either, run far and fast!

  18. Very useful advice

  19. Glad it was helpful!

  20. Intuitively, I knew this, but I’d never organized my thoughts on it. Me, who creates spreadsheets to organize my story. Nice post.

  21. Intuitively, I knew this, but I’d never organized my thoughts on it. Me, who creates spreadsheets to organize my story. Nice post.

  22. Intuitively, I knew this, but I’d never organized my thoughts on it. Me, who creates spreadsheets to organize my story. Nice post.

  23. Actually, I did some telling today in my Supernatural fantasy. It was a gloss-over while one character gave an explanation to another character about what, exactly, she was. She’s not a trope, like a vampire or a werewolf, that the listening character would have any prior concept of, but the reader already knew all of the basic information, so I just mentioned that she told him and tuned back in as soon as the listening character had a question I hadn’t answered in text yet.

    I actually picked that up from Tad Williams in his series that starts with “The Dragonbone Chair”. He does a great job of glossing over the places where MCs “explain their journey so far” to other characters. Considering he already writes over 150,000 words per novel, it’s probably a good thing he does it so well. 🙂

  24. @Jacqui: I’m a super-organizer myself – but it never fails to amaze me how much I can miss in spite of myself!

    @L. Scribe: Yep, that’s important variation on “Scene #1.” Readers very rarely need to hear *any* information twice.

  25. So true. It’s easy to get obsessed with showing, but sometimes you just have to tell to speed things along, and especially if the reader already knows what happened to the character.

  26. Readers want to be shown the important stuff. But, in contrast, the unimportant stuff tends to leave them yawning in boredom.

  27. I regularly check out your blog and thought I should mention that your combination of video with transcription is fabulous 🙂

  28. Glad you approve! I’m not a video person myself, so I know firsthand how much others appreciate textual versions.

  29. Sometimes getting from point A to point B involves repetitive actives. If we see it once we don’t need to see it every time it happens. That when I summarize by telling in order to get to the good parts.

    Lee
    Tossing It Out and the Blogging From A to Z April Challenge 2011

  30. Exactly. Repetitive actions are like repetitive information – readers don’t need every detail of either.

  31. I had a scene that was just not working. A guy arguing with the heroine about her continuing with her course of action. Then I realized he’s a minor character. The page-long argument became .. “The chief wasted the next ten minutes trying to get her to change her mind. He obviously hadn’t read her employee profile or he would have kept his mouth shut.”

    Sometimes less is good.

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