Monday, November 14, 2011

When Telling (Instead of Showing) is Acceptable

Show versus tell. In the writing industry we hear this all the time. But why is telling considered bad?

Because it packs less punch and ultimately doesn’t pull the reader in. For example, if someone told me the scrape on their knee really hurt, I wouldn’t necessarily believe them. I’d probably shrug it off without much thought because in general humans are complainers, and so whining carries no weight anymore. But if you show me your knee’s oozing laceration and your flinching reaction to dabbing it clean with a cloth, I know it hurts.

And suddenly I care.

Lisa Poff  
The standard “show” we think of are the tiny specifics that paint a scene for us. This is when we feel the heat from a fire on our faces and the bee’s sting; when we hear the rain pattering on the roof and cars zooming down the street; and when we see the sky growing gray with an approaching storm. We visualize the scene without being told, “It was a rainy afternoon” or “The fire was hot.”

But it goes beyond setting—we have to show our plot and characters. We don’t tell the reader our antagonist behaves like a coward; we show him fleeing the scene when trouble finds him. We don’t tell the reader that time is running out; we show our protagonist trapped underwater, desperately jerking the door handle before her car plummets to the bottom of the lake.

(Filter words are another type of small-scale showing. I’ve discussed the removal of “thought” before and so I won’t go into that again. But here’s the link.)

When Telling Is Acceptable?

There are, naturally, times when telling may be necessary. Here are a few:

  1. Transitions: When time has passed between a scene or chapter, it’s beneficial to debrief the reader on what happened in between and set the stage for the new scene. You can simply tell that essential information.

  1. Summarizing: Readers don’t always need a play-by-play of what the protagonist is doing. For example, it’s better to tell: “She got ready for the day” than “She took a shower, brushed her teeth, styled her hair…”

  1. Pacing: There may be times when giving a detailed description of a character’s expression/movement/feeling may slow the action or distract attention from the dialogue. In this case, telling what happened may be required to keep the pacing smooth. For example, saying, “She made a face” instead of “She grimaced, her lip sliding over her teeth and a crease forming between her brows”. You have to find a decent balance between telling and showing in these instances. Too much telling, and you’re a careless writer. Not enough, and you’re bogging down your scene.

  1. To highlight something ALREADY shown: Basically, your character comments on something you’ve by this time shown—you tell the reader through this character something they already know to be true. For example, when a heroine thinks about how much she misses her dead sister, this would be telling—and it only works if you’ve already shown the pain she feels with the absence of her loved one. In that instance, the readers will already be convinced the character really feels this way, and she’s simply confirming it. But beware: this is difficult to pull off because you have to ensure your character/plot is consistent with what’s being told.

Can you think of any more instances where telling might be necessary?