When it’s okay to tell instead of show in writing.
Writers hear show don’t tell until it reaches a point where they are unsure what to do. But there are times when it’s a good idea. When is it okay?
5 Instances When You Need To Tell (And Not Show)
- To connect scenesand/or gloss over unnecessary conversations.
Sometimes you need to make your readers comfortable with a brief transition that lets them know where they are in the story. The characters might have traveled to another city or moved to a different room. Or a short period of time might have passed.
Example: ‘Jeremy waited until five minutes past eight the next morning before he marched into The Michelangelo Towers. He had spent the night obsessing about his future. Kirsten’s demands echoed in his head and he could barely think straight. He walked to the check-in counter and asked the concierge to call Room 303.’
- To report events and/or gloss over unimportant characters.
You can tell us about the things that happened in your character’s lives that aren’t vitally important to show in the story.
For example, if your story is set in a school environment, briefly tell us how the characters spent their Christmas holidays at home. Don’t introduce us to a series of characters who have nothing to do with the main story.
- To show that time is passing.
Books can span days or decades. We don’t need to know what happens every moment. Use telling to reveal that time has passed, seasons have changed, or people have aged to get us to the next important part of the story.
- To focus on emotion when showing is impossible.
Sometimes a character is so isolated or immobile that we need to get into his or her emotions with telling. Bear in mind, though, that this is an old-fashioned way of writing. Madame Bovary would not be published today. Move your character back into the action of the story as soon as you can.
- To add backstory.
Sometimes a little bit of telling is necessary. When there is no other way of introducing the past, you can add it in, but remember to reveal these bits and pieces gradually. Keep this as brief as possible, and remember that you should not start a novel or a memoir with backstory.
During a writer’s workshop we had to write a 1500 word story. I don’t remember what it was supposed to be about, but I wrote mine as a type of offshoot of my book, The Hunter: Will You Be Next? It’s titled The Hunter Becomes the Hunted. For most of the book the only characters were Jori, the protagonist, and her dog Rocky. Needless to say, there wasn’t any conversation, except the one way when she spoke to Rocky. I decided to create vivid imagery that used other senses, the ones often overlooked. My story didn’t go over well and received a lot of criticism that spurred debates. I explained why I wrote it that way, but I didn’t succeed in changing anyone’s mind, and I believe it’s the fault of the people who create the rules about what is or isn’t acceptable in writing. I give them all a raspberry.
Excerpts from The Hunter Becomes the Hunted:
Jori traipsed through the mountain forest, her breath visible in the cold, crisp air. As she inhaled, she relished the smell of the Timber Pines. Rocky, her obedient, Siberian Husky, paced at her side. When he turned and looked to the right, Jori followed his gaze. One of the many caribous stood only 20 yards away, staring at her with uneasiness. Its resplendent presence with its crown of antlers, and thick, silvery coat was one of the wonders of natural beauty that Jori enjoyed.
The crunching sound made by the snow as she strode through it seemed like thunder to her ears. She pulled up her balaclava to fend off the cold air that burned her cheeks. But she forgot about that when she entered an area full of blue spruce and had to duck to keep from running into the low-lying branches. Jori looked at the ground and used her arms to clear them. Even with the sharp fragrance of the trees, Jori once again smelled the sweet, pungent odor that could only be blood. Considering how oppressive the smell was, there had to be a lot of it. And it was right in front of her.
Then she saw the body. She jumped backward, only to lose her balance and fall. There was something slippery under her right hand, and without a doubt, she did not like that feeling. Move your hand. Don’t look. Just move it. Now! Jori jerked her arm upwards and rolled away. Damn you, Jori. She told herself it couldn’t be any worse than anything else she had ever seen and forced herself to look. The slippery thing was a pile of human skin.
Jori felt something wet on her face. It was snowing. But it wouldn’t be a deterrent. Her horror turned to rage, which turned into ice-cold, steely-jawed resolve. She had one plan now. She scouted looking for the killer’s tracks since the ground had been so disturbed. There! She picked up his trail and proceeding cautiously, Jori and Rocky pursued the killer. When the snow obliterated the trail, Rocky picked up the scent, and they continued. With heightened senses, she could hear Rocky’s ragged breathing, tell what direction the wind was blowing from and when it shifted, identify vegetation by odor as she trudged through it, and even though visibility was poor, she knew they were northeast from the scene of the murder.
I hope this helps you with your writing and that you learned that sometimes it’s okay to break the rules.
Happy writing. If you have any questions use the feedback form or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org