Three Places Where You Should Tell Instead of Show

3 places where you should tell instad of showAmid 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.


  1. 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.

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

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

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

  5. 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.

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

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

  7. 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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