RSS Feed Print
Is telling rather than showing ever acceptable?
Rachel Russell
Posted: Friday, March 9, 2012 10:08 AM
Joined: 4/29/2011
Posts: 27

I'm hitting this issue in a present chapter I'm writing. My main character has just been exiled to a distant outpost. When I say distant, I mean distant. It's going to take about two months of travel to actually reach it. Only two important events really occur between her exile and reaching the outpost, and I intend to "show" those. 

However, I feel like a bit of the lead-up to the actual story (showing) is a bunch of telling, because I'm having to summarize that so many weeks have passed, people are tired, the scenery was this or that, etc., before jumping into the action of that particular scene for the chapter.

What are your thoughts? Is there an acceptable balance of showing and telling that can be found when you need to convey that a length of time has passed before starting the scene?
Carl E Reed
Posted: Friday, March 9, 2012 11:04 AM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

Your instincts are exactly right in this instance, Rachel!

Check this out: http://www.coffeehouseforwriters.com/fictionfix/0505Grossack.html
Travel and Transitions

Between the exciting scenes of your story there are the rather dull bits: when characters journey from point A to point B, when time passes, when scenes change. These transitions may be sections where you should choose to tell instead of show. After all, is there really a reason to go through every detail of your characters putting on their coats, opening the door, walking down the icy path and backing the car out of the driveway simply to pick up a package at the post office? Don’t get me wrong; perhaps there is. You may be writing a mystery and during a seemingly innocent and innocuous drive to the post office your character sees something that will turn out to be of significance to the murder which occurs the next day. But, if there isn’t – if you are merely writing what comes next, instead of editing the story on behalf of the reader -- if you find yourself spending too much time on this dull stuff, the chances are that you are suffering from one or more of the following problems:

—It has not occurred to you that you will bore your readers and that you don’t need to show these bits.

—You don’t know how to write a transition such as: Sheila drove to the post office to pick up the package. After she brought it home...

—You are stalling in your storytelling because you don’t know what is supposed to happen next. In this case you may choose to write on and hope that inspiration strikes (and delete the dull passage later). A better alternative is to take a writing time-out and figure out where your story has to go next. A third alternative is to skip to the next exciting bit which you know about, write it and create the transition later.

Using narrative summary to guide the reader through the slower parts of your story is when telling rather than showing is most useful. You may still want to mix in bits of showing with your telling to make sure your flow does not slow down too much. In my novel Iokaste, I had a transition chapter in which I had to cover a period of twenty years. For the most part I used the technique of telling, as I summarized marriages and deaths and other important events among my characters. Still, I kept the pace brisk and readers engaged in the story by showing a few gripping scenes – including one where a character’s eyes were put out.

And I would add: no less an authority than Charles Dickens opened A Tale of Two Cities with an extended “tell, don’t show” passage:  “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . .”

And isn't the epistolary novel or short story (a narrative built from diary entries, letters, e-mails, etc.) by definition all tell and no show?

Yes, there is definitely a time and place for "tell, don't show." 

PS. Good luck on your novel! 

Posted: Friday, March 9, 2012 11:40 AM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 245

I think it's a tricky balance to strike, but a necessary one.  I had a friend read the first few chapters of a manuscript I subbed to a small press that got rejected.  She told me I was showing too much and that it would be okay to tell a little more in the chapters.

Usually what I do, especially in the current manuscript, is that first sentence of the next scene or chapter, when time has passed (they spend a lot of time in the saddle), I put in "Two weeks later" or "eight days later" and move into the present action.  I think it works and it's a good cue to the reader, imo, that the characters have had some down time but now something's about to go down.
Atthys Gage
Posted: Friday, March 9, 2012 12:07 PM
Joined: 6/7/2011
Posts: 467

William Burroughs (who I would not suggest as a model for anyone, but he did have his moments) simply elided all transitional scenes.  I'm paraphrasing but he said, essentially:  If one of my characters shows up somewhere, I leave it to the readers to assume he got there by the usual means.  

As Carl says, showing can be very boring.  I come down pretty hard on telling in my reviews, but sometimes you need it.  Obviously, subtlety is to be admired.  Nothing turns a reader (or a critic) off faster than a big, blazing info dump.   If you can sneak the necessary info in sidewise, all the better.  

That said, have you tried simply deleting the backstory?  It's surprising sometimes, how much you can get away with.  Readers will tag along with a fair amount of uncertainty if the writing is compelling.  And, once you get them into the story, it'll be easier to tell just how much backfilling you need to do.  

Best of luck.  
GD Deckard
Posted: Friday, March 9, 2012 9:52 PM

The only valid criticism I've heard of "telling" is that it is boring. But not always so. The following passage is telling in three interesting ways.

"Imprisoned in reiterative seasons, vacillating between hope and disappointment, they were kept from being the vigorous doers that their nature and their culture instructed them to be. Their waiting blurred the calendar. The days rolled across from canyon wall to canyon wall, the seasons crept northward until at summer solstice the sun set directly behind what they called Midsummer Mountain, and hung there a little while, and started creeping southward again toward the canyon mouth that gulped December sunsets. Summer or winter or in between, the sky out over the valley was filled with light for a long time after their gulch lay in shadow."

First, it is telling, not showing.
Second, it is by Wallace Stegner, from his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, "Angel Of Repose."
Third, The publisher is Penquin.

Never let the rule, "show -don't-tell," get in the way of your writing Just avoid boring people

Jay Greenstein
Posted: Friday, March 9, 2012 10:53 PM
Exposition is the thread with which you stitch scenes together, and add background detail.

The problem with authorial intrusion is that since it's of necessity author centric it's dispassionate. But the summation you're talking about is a report, and reports are, by nature dispassionate.

The question of showing and telling arises because telling is in the author's voice and is a POV break. After all, the author can't be on the scene with the characters, so every time you speak the scene clock stops and the reader is transported to your home rather than being on the scene where the action is taking place.

The thing to ask yourself is if the information you're giving is necessary in order to begin reading the next scene with context, or if it can be fed in, as needed, as part of the conversation or action.

Stephen CWP
Posted: Sunday, March 11, 2012 9:03 AM
Joined: 11/18/2011
Posts: 2

Never include anything that does not have a place of importance in the story and progress it. How much you can tell or show also depends a lot on what sort of story it is you are writing.
Alexander Hollins
Posted: Tuesday, March 13, 2012 6:44 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 416

Can you make a scene with some auxillary characters?

Or hell, have her watch some news broadcasts.

Lew Yedwab
Posted: Tuesday, October 1, 2013 6:11 PM
Joined: 10/1/2013
Posts: 3

Dang; sorry to see that this discussion has been idle for so long. This issue in my own writing is one of my leading sleep-stealers. 

And for the record: Of course it's acceptable! 

Lucy Silag
Posted: Wednesday, October 2, 2013 3:51 PM
Joined: 6/7/2013
Posts: 1359

Hi, Lew! Just sent you a message with some links to get you started using the site, but it looks like you are already off and running!


I like the idea of figuring out a way for the characters to do some telling, the way I think that Alexander is suggesting. Having them talk about a news report=excellent.  This reminds me of disaster movies--they do this brilliantly--they show the news report as a way to sum up the global catastrophe so that the audience knows that what's happening is a REALLY BIG DEAL, and then they take it back to the characters so that we don't lose that intimacy that is necessary for relating to and engaging with the story.


When I was at Doubleday I worked on a book by Myla Goldberg called WICKETT'S REMEDY that was a collage of all kinds of historical "documents" interspersed with a close third POV. The story was about the flu epidemic of 1918, and I really liked the book (even though it got mixed reviews in the end). I thought it was cool how she was able to "show" the flu epidemic with her main characters who were suffering from it directly, and "tell" the scope of the problem via newspaper articles and found docs.



Ian Nathaniel Cohen
Posted: Tuesday, October 15, 2013 1:56 AM

As a reader, I don't usually make a big deal out of it when I encounter telling and not showing, depending on the execution, although there have been instances where the telling was rage-inducingly bad.  When I was reading The Mists of Avalon, I remember all the build-up to this huge, epic battle the Britons were about to have with the Saxons at Badon Hill, the battle to end the Saxon menace in a decisive victory once and for all.  Marion Zimmer Bradley had been building up to it so much, I couldn't wait to read that scene...and then, just as the army sets out, it cuts away to Morgaine for a few pages, and then she meets an old friend who tells her what an awesome battle it was...that we never got to see.  I was disappointed and livid that after all that build up, we didn't get to see the actual battle!  (Fortunately, Bernard Cornwell's Warlord Trilogy depicted that same battle and more than made up for its absence in Mists of Avalon.)


In my own writing, however, I'll occasionally resort to telling and not showing if I want to create ambiguity about whether something actually happened the way a character said it did.  I  have a couple of scenes in The Brotherhood of the Black Flag where a pirate turned pirate hunter is telling the protagonist about his origins and some of his exploits.  If I were to write these adventures in flashback format, they'd be fun and exciting to read.  However, I instead have the pirate tell of his adventures and show them off-screen for a very important reason - I don't want to reveal whether he's actually telling the truth about any of this.  When the readers are finished, I want them to wonder whether any of these exploits happened (at least the way he said they did) or not, especially his backstory.  A flashback would by necessity be from the pirate's POV, or a member of his crew, and we would be getting insights into their motivations, states of mind, and whatnot that I deliberately want to hide from the reader. I break up the monotony by working these stories into conversations, with the protagonist asking questions or other characters interjecting, to keep the text from becoming about one guy yammering on and on.



--edited by Ian Nathaniel Cohen on 10/15/2013, 2:10 AM--

Jay Greenstein
Posted: Tuesday, October 15, 2013 8:02 PM

One of the things most people forget (or haven't yet learned) is that the term showing does not, in publisher parlance, mean describing things visually. It means making the reader experience the events themselves, thus "showing them" what it's like to the protagonist through direct experience.


Since our goal is to involve and entertain the reader, not inform them that events have taken place, the more you can show the better. Ideally, when someone takes a swing at the protagonist the reader ducks.


But we cannot show a time when nothing of interest is happening, so unless the time period is meaningful as an experience, we rubber-band time and give a summation, to ready the reader for the next live section, or skip that time entirely, and make it apparent, through context, what happened during the missing time.

Mckenzie M
Posted: Friday, October 18, 2013 11:37 AM
I actually prefer to telling in many instances. Telling has a way of creating mood. In my novel, Winter Haven, there is much telling, because the landscape is as much of a character as the humans. I wanted to have the moodiness of the landscape reflected in the character's feelings of isolation and lonliness, so describing the landscape, and the coldness and nature, was part of the mood I created.
Showing works best for adventure stories. Literary stories emphasises telling. A perfect balance between the two is ideal.
Nevena Georgieva
Posted: Thursday, November 21, 2013 2:36 PM
Joined: 2/9/2012
Posts: 438

Telling is sometimes necessary - absolutely! It's a question of prioritizing the events in your novel. Is a scene, a sequence of actions, or a chunk of dialogue vital to your story? Is it going to show us the character "in action", help us get to know him or her better? 


You need to condense big parts of your story or else the reader will get bored, tune out. You can use "telling" to transition between important scenes and indicate that time has elapsed, and different events have transpired between those scenes.


Also, the article Carl posted is awesome. (In fact, I'm going to use it on the Book Country Twitter Muahahah!)



BC coordinator



--edited by Nevena Georgieva on 11/21/2013, 2:37 PM--

Carl E. Reed
Posted: Thursday, November 21, 2013 4:14 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

@Nevena: Good for you! Glad you found that article useful. Write on!

Jump to different Forum...