Telling is a quick, efficient way to relate lots of information to a reader in a short amount of time. It works for writing transitions or other places where you need to move the timeline ahead, or where showing mundane details would bore readers. Despite its usefulness, “show don’t tell” is probably the most commonly given advice in writing. So why is it so hated?
Telling stops your story cold.
Every sentence spent telling your readers about something is time not spent moving the plot along. Imagine meeting someone for the first time over coffee and the entire conversation is her talking about people you have never met and her deepest darkest life experiences? You’d probably think she needs some serious counseling, but so many of the manuscripts I see begin this way.
Telling creates distance from your characters.
When readers don’t experience important parts of the character’s story with the character, they feel like they are hearing the story second-hand. Readers want to live the character’s life. This includes important events. Telling prevents the reader from discovering important information with your character.
Telling is boring to read.
Nothing is happening to your character. And no one likes a lecture.
Does the reader even need to know?
Before you spend your time trying to rewrite all your telling into showing, you must first decide if the reader even needs to know the information. Unnecessary information falls into two main categories: backstory and research.
Backstory is a critical piece of building your character, but not all of it is important to the reader, or it isn’t important at the time. Are you trying to slip in unrelated information where it isn’t needed?
He smiled at me showing his perfect white teeth and handed me the helmet. I took it reluctantly.
“What’s the matter?” he said.
I can’t ride a bike. I haven’t been on one since I was seven. The bike was a gift from my grandmother. She saved for an entire year to get it for me that Christmas.
You can see the exact point where the telling crosses over into information the reader doesn’t need to know. The author may think she is laying the foundation for something significant about the bike later, but the grandmother line is too much. The reader has no connection and, therefore, doesn’t really care.
Yes, you should do research for your novel. No, you should not dump all your new found knowledge on your unsuspecting reader.
Rather than spell things out, let the characters naturally use vocabulary and cultural norms specific to their world and leave enough context clues for your reader to understand what is happening.
“You are risking our position, our future, our lives for this girl. What happened during your huakaʻi? You were supposed to return a grown woman, but you’re obviously still a child.”
Allani throws another bunch of nama into the bucket, punishing the food for my stupidity. I reach toward the pile to help her, but she snatches it away.
Here we have two unfamiliar terms, but there is enough information in the context for readers to understand what is happening.
How do I know if I should turn telling into showing?
When you come across telling in your manuscript decide if the information is worth keeping or if it should be cut entirely. To keep details off the chopping block, they should meet two conditions:
1. Readers must want to know the information
This can be subjective, but the following questions can help increase reader interest.
Ask- Does the reader have a strong connection to the character?
This is why info dumping at the beginning of a story never works. Readers aren’t connected to the character, and they don’t have the opportunity to make a connection because the character isn’t doing anything but sitting at a table thinking big thinks. So no page 1 sob stories.
Ask: Does the information affect the character in a meaningful way?
In other words, is it relevant to their current conflict? If a character has an arrow sticking out of his chest, that affects the character in a meaningful way. Knowing that the arrow is made of ash wood and eagle feathers really does not.
2. The reader cannot understand what is happening in the book without it.
Either the reader must need to know the information for the plot to continue (set-up), or the reader needs to know the information because she would not understand the significance of a current event in the scene (backstory).
Once you have established the information is interesting and relevant we need to change the telling into showing.
Changing telling into showing
Identify the information the reader needs.
When did the character learn this information? (backstory, description, or transition)
Unless you are willing to resort to a flashback, (which may or may not work) you may have to cheat and sneak it in. (Which means you are still resorting to telling, but you will be doing it a more interesting way) A few suggestions.
- Have your characters argue. This will move the focus away from the telling and toward the tension between the characters. Something is still happening in the scene, and you get to throw information bombs at your reader.
“Do you have any idea what you are walking into?” That sounded a lot smarter in his head.
She rolled her eyes. “What? It’s a house. One that I’ve been invited to, I might add. And what are you doing here?”
That was a great question. One he wasn’t sure how to explain. “Look, I know what’s in that house, and it’s a little out of a Ghostbuster’s league.”
“Ghostbuster?” She poked a finger into his chest. “Listen, I don’t care what you think of me, but I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’m perfectly capable of handling myself, and how would you even know why I was here?”
Her head tilted to the side. It wouldn’t take her long to figure it out. “And don’t lie to me, that was you in the shop. Were you spying on me?”
The shop was a little occult bookstore that she ran. Mostly useless trinkets and New Age nonsense, but a few things had surprised him.
“Look, this has nothing to do with you. I’m asking you to walk away,” he said.
She clicked her tongue. “Why should I do anything for you? You left. I don’t owe you anything. Not now, not ever.”
Through the argument we learn that she’s a paranormal investigator, the pair had a previous relationship, and he left her, all without resorting to an info dump.
- The second interesting telling strategy is to use subtext in your dialogue and context clues to help your reader puzzle out the information (see example above.)
- The final strategy is to drop a one line bombshell. In the following example the author spent an entire chapter showing how much the MC hates “outlanders,” then she closes the chapter with a bombshell. While it still counts as telling, it works here.
A shimmery glow that only I could see surrounded the woman.. It was blazing red, meaning she was a fire elemental, an Outlander traveler from the realm of Muspelheim.
I skirted around her like the flames I saw could actually burn me. Judging by the frown she gave me, she thought I was a weirdo. I didn’t really care. I just needed to get out of there before I choked on my own hypocrisy.
I feared and distrusted Outlanders. I also was one.
Rather than have your characters sit and describe what everything looks like, have them interact with the setting. Usually, this is enough to ground your characters in their world. The reader doesn’t need to know what the hairbrush looks like, but that the character used it to brush her hair exactly 100 times and that she nudged it until it was straight on the nightstand before clicking the light off and on and off again. By showing how the character interacts with the setting, you keep reader’s attention focused on the main action.
If you’ve summarized information and forced the reader to skip something the character experienced off camera, you’ve created a transition. While there are times where this is appropriate, important experiences should be shown to the reader. When you find these, expand them into a scene. Letting your reader discover the information with your character will creating a meaningful shared experience.
The simplest advice to change showing into telling is to treat your novel like a movie. If the reader can’t see it on the screen, (in novels the other senses count too) then you are telling.
Make sure you don’t fall into the telling trap. By changing showing into telling, you create a more engaging, living story that readers will never want to put down. Don’t let telling kill your story. Transform those passages and give readers the story they want.