Wednesday, October 04, 2023

3 Places Told Prose Likes to Hide

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Told prose can steal the oompf from your story and make readers want to skim.

As a science fiction and fantasy writer, I was guilty of a lot of telling in my early work. I’d infodump, I’d write pages of backstory, I’d explain how rules worked and which gods did what to whom. It was a total mess.

But as my writing improved, I discovered how helpful showing could be. It let me put all those wonderful details I’d created into the scene without having to explain them. It let me suggest the backstories and create layered, nuanced characters. It let me background the description and not write boring paragraph after paragraph on what something looked like.

The trick to show, don’t tell, is finding the tells so you can fix them.

Sounds simple, right? But for a lot of writers, it’s hard to do, because they aren't sure what telling means, what it looks like, or how to find told prose in their work. Does this sentence sound like telling? Is this scene explaining too much? Do I need to show more here or tell? Who knows!

But I’ve got your back. Here are three places you’ll commonly find told prose.

1. Telling at the Sentence Level

A lot of telling happens at the sentence level, which makes it easy to catch and edit during revisions. You’ll find most of it just by searching for common red flag words, such as because, since, or when.

Keep in mind “tell” is subjective. A sentence can tell and still read and work fine, because it does exactly what you want it to do. It’s up to you to decide if the sentence would be stronger with or without the telling. Such tells include:

Telling That Explains

These tells explain the reasons why characters feel or act as they do. They also sneak in when you fear the text isn’t clear enough and you have to explain information so readers “get it.” For example:
  • Marcus felt a surge of anger at the unfair treatment.
  • Shanna knew her news had shocked everyone in the room.
  • Taylor was disappointed since it was obvious the class hadn’t even tried to pass the test.
We don’t see the anger, or see the shocked expressions, or know what the disappointment felt like. The sentences just explain how the character feels and why.

(Here's more with What You Need to Know About Show, Don't Tell)  

Telling That Summarizes

These tells take a shortcut by summarizing instead of dramatizing. They often read as though someone is watching the scene unfold from the sidelines, giving a general overview of the action. For example:
  • After she got home, she discarded her work clothes and began preparing for the attack.
  • He decided it was better if he left the hospital before anyone realized he had gone.
  • I debated how often I’d have to play courier if Kim took the job, and if it was worth it.
All three of these examples gloss over what could be very interesting moments in a scene. They could be dramatized and fleshed out to show how the characters feel, what they specifically do, what’s going through their minds as they do it. All the things that pull readers into the scene and make them want to know what will happen next. The telling steals any sense of immediacy and importance from the situation.

(Here's more with Send up the (Red) Flag: Telling Words That Often Spell Trouble in Our Writing)  

Telling That Conveys Information

Many tells exist only to convey information the characters would never think or need to share, such as world-building details or character backstories. They often sound too self-aware, or read as if the author was jumping into the story with a mini-lecture. For example:
  • Jake knew he had a tendency to overthink every situation, but he couldn't help himself.
  • My childhood was steeped in mysticism and the supernatural, being raised by a family deeply connected to ancient rituals and traditions.
  • Emma possessed an innate ability to communicate with animals, a talent she'd carefully concealed to avoid being labeled as strange or eccentric.
Instead of telling readers Jake overthinks, show him doing it. Show the effects being raised by spooky parents would cause. Show Emma talking to animals and how she hides it. Seeing the characters living their lives with these backstories or traits will make them feel more real to readers.

(Here’s more with 7 Words That Often Tell, Not Show)

2. Telling at the Paragraph Level

If the told prose explains or summarizes a situation, it can make an entire page feel flat. You’ll find these tells most often when you pull away from the point-of-view character and start describing what’s going on from afar.

Paragraph-level telling often reads like a summary of the scene from your outline. It might even read like first-draft notes where you planned to do more, but never got around to it.

Infodump Telling

An infodump often drops in the reasons why something is important in the overall world or setting of the story. Infodumps focus almost exclusively on information relating to the world. This is information readers “need” to understand the story. For example:
  • Terra Prime was a world of extremes, with towering mountain ranges, vast oceans, and sprawling deserts. Its unique geography influenced the genetic manipulation of its human colonists in order to survive. Those destined for the mountains were given strong limbs and acute senses, excelling in rock climbing and survival at high altitudes. Those sent to the depths of the oceans were given gills and streamlined bodies, enabling them to navigate the depths with ease. The desert inhabitants were developed to conserve water efficiently and withstand the scorching temperatures.
  • NeoArc’s government held an iron grip on its citizens, imposing strict curfews and surveillance. The ruling elite, known as the Directorate, enforced their control through fear and propaganda. The masses were divided into classes, each with their assigned roles and limited opportunities for advancement. The impoverished, residing in the lower levels of the city, faced constant struggle, while the privileged elite enjoyed opulent lifestyles above. The city's only hope lay in the underground resistance, a group of rebels dedicated to overthrowing the oppressive regime.
  • Lamont had heard the town of Willow Creek was known for its ghostly sightings and eerie occurrences. Legend had it that a witch cursed the land centuries ago, and her restless spirit haunted the forest. Over the years, the townsfolk had learned to coexist with the supernatural, organizing annual ceremonies to appease the spirits and maintain peace. The ghostly encounters often followed a pattern, with sightings peaking during the full moon and waning as the new moon approached.
All of these infodumps contain amazing details that would bring these worlds and characters to life if readers saw them dramatized, and learned about them by watching the characters interact with these worlds.

(Here’s more with 6 Places Infodumps Like to Hide in Your Novel)

Backstory Telling

These tells explain the history of a character, place, or item and why it’s important. They sometimes use flashbacks and long internal monologues to reveal the often-unnecessary history. Backstory tells focus exclusively on the histories of the characters, explaining why characters are the way they are. For example:
  • Sarah had always been a gifted empath, able to sense and absorb the emotions of those around her. From a young age, she struggled to control this ability, overwhelmed by the constant flood of feelings. The emotions of others would wash over her like a tidal wave, leaving her drained and disoriented. She soon discovered that with concentration, she could channel this energy, using it to heal, calm, or strengthen others.
  • Growing up in the quaint town of Willow Creek, I had always felt a deep connection to the woods that bordered our home. My father, a skilled herbalist, had passed down generations of wisdom, teaching me the secrets of plants and healing. My mother, an artist, encouraged my creative pursuits, filling our home with colors and inspiration. It was a childhood imbued with the harmony of nature and the nurturing of imagination, shaping my passion for art and herbal remedies.
  • Miguel’s introduction to the world of competitive athletics began at his grandfather's knee. He had been an Olympic champion, and his accolades still echoed through the halls of their family home. As a child, Miguel was regaled with stories of his triumphs and dedication to the sport. Those tales ignited a passion within him, and from that day forward, he was determined to follow in his footsteps.
Let readers see Sarah being an empath and how she sometimes still gets overwhelmed by too much emotion. Show the way someone from Willow Creek who loves art and herbal remedies uses that in their day-to-day life, and how that will help them solve the novel’s conflicts. Put Miguel in situations where his determination and drive to succeed like his grandfather are obvious, and scattered those accolades about the house when Miguel goes home to visit his family.

These are great character summaries for your files, but they tell readers all about the characters and why they are the way they are. However, in some books they can work just fine, which is why they’re so hard to spot. In an omniscient narrator or far narrative distance, these types of summaries might flow and not stand out as told. But the tighter the narrative distance, the more told they’ll feel. Use your judgement on these.

(Here’s more with Reveal a Character's Past Without Falling Into Backstory)

3. Telling at the Scene Level

It would be nice if telling only happened in small bits and pieces, but it’s also possible to tell an entire scene. (Yikes!) These are some of the sneakier types of tells, because writers rarely think to look for told prose at this level.

The most common scene-level tells are flashbacks. They use an entire scene to dump history or explain backstory. Flashbacks are particularly tricky because they’re often shown, but they’re still telling readers information.

What’s annoying about these tells is that technically, they’re not traditional tells. They just summarize or explain events that the author feels are necessary to understanding the current scene or character—and quite often they’re not needed at all.

Since these scenes look like solid, functioning scenes, authors don’t realize their readers are skimming through those told scenes and looking for scenes when something finally happens.

(Here’s more with Cover Me, I'm Going Back: Tips on Writing Flashbacks)

What Are You Trying to Tell Your Readers?

Before you revise your told prose, take a step back and consider: What are you trying to tell your readers? Is this a quick-hit bit of information that doesn’t need a lot of explanation? Then maybe that tell works fine. Is it a critical aspect of the character’s personality and backstory? Then you’re probably better off showing it. Is your narrative distance tight or far? Telling might be more acceptable to your readers and that style.

Once you pinpoint what’s important and what readers need, you’ll be able to choose how to best convey that information. Look for ways to:
  • Suggest motives through what a character does, says, or thinks
  • Show world-building rules through interacting with the world and how that affects the character’s actions
  • Show character backstory by choosing details and actions that show the thoughts and behavior of someone who lived through that history
Show, don’t tell is a troublesome beast, but it’s a tool like any other. If you think about how you want to use it and what you’re trying to say, you’ll have a much better sense of how to get that information across to your readers.

Are you guilty of more telling than showing?

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. Excellent breakdown -- with that special Janice thoroughness and clarity that makes this a keeper.

    1. Thanks Ken! I do my best :) Usually (grin)