Last week I had a commenter ask me a question about show vs tell, and since this is one of those things that can be hard to get (because it can be hard to explain) I wanted to go into more detail in a full post. Particularly the angle of when it’s better to tell than show. Because sometimes, telling is better for the story than showing.
First, let’s start with my favorite type of show don’t tell example to provide some context on what show vs tell is:
Bob reached over to turn out the light.
Bob reached over and turned out the light.
You’ll see both written all the time, but “to turn” is telling, because it’s not describing an action, it’s describing the intent to act.
[Bob reached over] you can see this action [to turn out the light.] this is the reason why Bob reaches over. You can’t “see” a reason why.
If Bob is the point of view (POV), then the author is telling you his reasons for acting. If Bob isn’t the POV, then it’s a POV shift, because it’s relaying information the narrator doesn’t have. They can’t know why Bob reaches over. He could be reaching for a pack of cigarettes on the table under the light. Until Bob actually does something more than reach, you don’t know what he’s going to do. If it’s an omniscient narrator, it’s fine because they would know why Bob reached over and they’re letting you know. (See why this is so tricky?)
[Bob reached over] you can see this action and [turned out the light.] you can see this action.
Authors use “to verb” all the time. You’ll see it in popular, bestselling books as well as clunkers no one wants to read. Readers are used to the “to verb” so many don’t even see it. As tells go, it’s not all that bad, but it does make a wonderful example that makes this topic a little easier to understand.
Now, let’s take this a step further. When it is better to tell than to show?
If showing is going to bog the story down or bore the reader.
A great example here is the “catching up another character” scene. Something has happened to one character, and they reach a point where they have to tell someone information the reader has already seen dramatized.
Say Bob has just been out scouting and found a huge next of zombies acting very un-zombielike. Readers have seen the scene, and now Bob is back with the gals and has to tell them what he saw. Which would be better: telling a short summary or explaining the entire scene a reader just read? Explaining it is probably going to bore your reader, so a quick telling summary works great to keep the story moving.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Bob said, tossing back half his scotch. He told them about the nest, the freakish way the zombies moved, the almost organized way they worked together. His hands shook by the end of it.
“Wow,” Jane whispered.
He nodded. “Yeah. Wow.”
You tell (in an infodump), but it doesn’t stop the story and it allows you to relay information the reader already knows. And that’s the most important thing to keep in mind when deciding if you should tell or show. Does it help make the story better and keep the reader reading?
You already do a lot of telling in a novel, even if we don’t officially call it that. You describe the setting, what someone does, what they say. It is called storytelling for a reason. The trick is to weave your tells in with your shows so the reader never gets the sense that the author is butting in to explain something to them. Tone matters a great deal, as does voice. Stay in a character’s voice, and you can almost anything and make it work.
A flat descriptive paragraph with lots of details and no real context for it is usually boring. Even more so if it falls in the middle of something interesting going on. It stops the story and makes the reader do the literary equivalent of watching vacation slides. But take that same set of details and add judgment and attitude from the POV’s eyes. Now it’s interesting. It’s not just stuff.
The room was small and overstuffed with items from all over the world. Vases from France, statuettes from Italy, wooden shoes from Holland. A bold, green and red flowered wallpaper covered three of the walls, with the fourth wall a solid matching shade of green. On that wall sat a carved trellis with silk flowers entwined through it. Toy birds perched on the top like bright lights.Bored yet? This is just bad telling when you really think about it. The author is conveying details as if they were sitting outside the room with a pair of binoculars. But if we told it in a character’s voice…
Chuck gaped. Holy crap, a garage sale threw up in here. Old vases, cheesy statuettes, those dumb clog shoes with the flowers on them. Bad enough every surface had something awful on it, but did she really need that wallpaper? Maybe she didn’t know red and green flowers just screamed “I’m way too into Christmas and need professional help.” And what was with that trellis with the fake vines and cheap plastic birds?Same details, same "telling" what the room looks like, but now there’s a person there so the details don’t feel so “just telling you what it looks like.”
You certainly want to show as much as you can, but sometimes a little telling is needed. Don’t be afraid to tell when you have to, just make sure that when you do, you’re telling it in a way that serves the story and keeps the reader interested.
How do you feel about the occasional tell? Both in your writing and your reading. When does it become too much?