Four Situations When We Should Tell Rather than Show

When to Tell Rather than ShowBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Blasphemy! After my previous post where I gave four techniques to help you show rather than tell, how dare I suggest we should sometimes tell rather than show?! Won’t that lead to weak, flat writing.

I’m not recanting on what I wrote last week. When you come across one of the four ways that suggest you’re telling rather than showing, you should rewrite.

But times do exist when it’s better to tell than to show. In 2011, I had the privilege of being mentored by Randy Ingermanson (of Snowflake Method and Advanced Writing E-Zine fame) at a conference. One of the things I remember best is what he said about showing and telling—it’s all about balance.

In these four situations, telling is actually better than showing.

1) You’re Dealing with an Insignificant Fact

When he needs to decide whether to show or tell, award-winning science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer asks, “Will it be on the test?” In other words, when you take the time to show something, readers assume it’s important to the story. If you spend two paragraphs showing the snow and ice, later in the story you’d better have someone’s car slide off the road or someone near death from hypothermia. Otherwise, just tell the reader “It was snowing, and ice covered the roads.” 

2) During Transitions

Sometimes you just need to get a character from point A to point B without bringing the story to a grinding halt by describing it.

The next morning, Marilyn drove to Bob’s house.

We don’t need to see Marilyn drive to Bob’s house. We just need to know she did. We don’t need you to describe the sunrise or the morning traffic jam in detail to try to get around telling us she went in the morning.

Half an hour later, they arrived at the mountain summit.

If nothing eventful happened on the climb, if it wasn’t essential to the story for us to see them climbing, we don’t need the blow by blow.

Sometimes, narrative is the most efficient, best way to get the job done.

3) When Showing Would Bog Down Your Story or Confuse Your Reader

Sometimes the reader absolutely needs to know a fact that all the characters already know, and creating a scene to show that fact is going to slow down the story and feel forced.

For example, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, the first in the series about the colonization of Mars, depends on complex technological and biochemical ideas. Robinson can’t stop and create a scene every time he needs to give the reader a piece of information. The story would be unreasonably long and slow. He also can’t leave it out or the story wouldn’t make sense to readers.

Here’s an example with the telling element in red. Frank is pushing his arm into a special plastic.

[Frank] stopped breathing. He felt the pressure of his molars squeezing together. He poked the tent wall so hard that he pushed out the outermost membrane, which meant that some of his anger would be captured and stored as electricity in the town’s grid. Polyvinylidene diflouride was a special polymer in that respect—carbon atoms were linked to hyrdrogen and flourine atoms in such a way that the resulting substance was even more piezoelectric than quartz. Change one element of the three, however, and everything shifted; substitute chlorine for flourine, for instance, and you had saran wrap.

When you’re telling in a situation like this, make sure you do it in small bites and that you make it interesting.

(4) In Your Opening Sentence

This might sound crazy at first, but look at a lot of the strong first lines from bestselling and award-winning novels. You’ll see what could be considered telling. (Personally I prefer to call it compelling narrative.)

Rivka Meyers knew something was wrong when she bumped into a wall that wasn’t there. – from Transgression by Randy Ingermanson

When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. – from Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

He had the look of a man who was afraid that tonight would be his last on earth. – from The Forgotten by David Baldacci

Carla knew her parents were about to have a row. – from Winter of the World by Ken Follett

Telling isn’t always bad.

The trick with writing is that we have to learn the rules before we can break them, and when we break them, we have to be sure we’re breaking them because it makes the story better rather than because we want to be rebels, because we’re lazy, or because we think the rules don’t apply to us. The rules do apply to us, lazy writing is crappy writing, and there’s no value in being a rebel just for the sake of it.

What do you think? Am I right about the need to sometimes tell rather than show? Do you have a favorite author who manages to perfectly find the balance?

Image Credit: Via

I hope you’ll check out the newly released mini-books in my Busy Writer’s Guides series–Strong Female Characters and How to Write Faster–both currently available for 99 cents.

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