Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Telling, Not Showing

I begin this post with a bit of bragging: last night I finished revisions for my agent. I so rule. But because I do all my writing and revising longhand, I now have to type up all my changes, which will be several hellish hours of my life I'll never get back. There are worse fates, I'm sure. But I digress from the digression with which I began.

While I was revising, I noticed there are at least a couple of cases in which the old rule of Show, Don't Tell does not apply. I found myself actually deleting passages where I had dramatized the action (showing) and replacing them with summary (telling). So this is sort of a "rules? schmules?" post. Sort of.

The action of my novel comes in three strands, which unravel and intertwine as the book progresses. That's a fancy way of saying that I have a couple of major subplots as well as the main plot, and they more or less all tie together at the end. I also have a first-person narrator, who is involved in all three plots. What this means is that either:

a) my narrator has to be present for every scene in order to know what's going on (and relate it to the reader), or

b) someone has to tell my narrator whenever anything important happens off-screen.

The first option could result in some highly improbable situations, as my protagonist doesn't have access to everything everyone does. The second option could result in lots and lots of conversations like this:

"So, Feng says Amleth is dangerous."
"Yeah, he thinks he's going to attack Horvendil soon. They had a bitter argument last night, while you were talking to Corambis."
"What did they fight about?"
"Amleth claims Horvendil is a fraud. Feng told him he's wrong, but Amleth swears to find the truth."
"That's bad."
"Yep. Say, what did you and Corambis talk about?"
"Well, let me tell you..."

And stuff. As it happens, I found that I did have a lot of that sort of conversation in my book, where A and B have a scene and then A and C discuss that scene out of earshot of B. It made me dizzy in a couple of places, and was entirely unneccesary. What I did instead was, as I say, cut the repetitious dialogue and replaced it with summary:

I met with Fernando and told him of my conversation with Corambis. We agreed that something would have to be done about Horvendil soon.

This is much briefer, far less ridiculous to read, and also gives you a chance to interpret the earlier scenes for the reader if you're into that sort of editorializing from a narrator.

The point of all this, aside from demonstrating how unfocused I am when I've not had any coffee, is that where you find this sort of repetition in your narrative, especially if you find dialogue that repeats previous dialogue or discusses previous action, it might be a good time to tell rather than show. Yes, you have to make sure the right characters all know the requisite facts to move the plot along, but if your reader already knows those facts, don't repeat them all over again.

So my rule is: Show, don't tell, unless you have to.


  1. The series I am currently reading is good. Really good. The overall plot is EPIC. But the repetition is rampant and driving me nuts. As a reader, I implore you writers to listen to Scott, because he is wise and spiffy and stuff!

  2. Congrats on finishing your revisions! And good luck typing everything up. I hate that, too, but revising longhand is somehow easier.

    Also, I like your new photo!

  3. You DO rule, Scott :D!

    Thank you for this. I think a lot of good writers can fall into the trap of overwriting scenes because some friend told them they *have* to show everything. Even if the characters are just walking from point A to point B...

    There's definitely a time for telling, but you have to use it lightly like a spice :).

    Great post!

  4. I so agree, to the you rule part, and the part about sometimes you gotta tell not show. Good egs.

  5. Ah, excellent excellent. Monarch has three POVs, so repetition happens. It might be new for the character, but old news for the reader. I definitely tell in these situations, and gloss over information that does not have to be shown.

    Show don't tell is a pretty good rule of thumb - except when it isn't.

    Rules Schmules, as you say. Use what you need when it works and where you need it.

  6. great advice. But really I see nothing wrong with telling. If we didn't tell a lot of the story our books would be unreadably long. Showing, to me, is for emphasis for certain bits of scenes.

  7. I think it applies to all the rules of writing. There are always exceptions to be made. As long as we keep in mind that our main concern is the story itself, and what works for that particular story, rules take care of themselves.

  8. Ah, good points. Especially the part about not having to re-show what the reader already knows.

    And congrats on getting the edits done! Woot!

  9. I try to stay away from absolutes. "Always show, never tell" leaves very little flexibility for your storytelling.

    Write it so that it is readable. If that involves some telling, so be it.

  10. Lois: Certainly we have to summarize narratives all the time, but I do think that showing--dramatizing scenese--is a far more powerful device. I don't think of it as emphasis so much as the basic way of storytelling. I tend to write in scenes, with most of my telling being transitional passages or summary for the reasons I gave in this post.

  11. Great point. There are (as you so nicely illustrate) moments when you might need to take a good look at things, see how you are "telling" the story and if it's appropriate. Good job on finishing up your revisions.

  12. Congratulations, Scott! It must feel nice to get another draft under your belt. I just started working on a new draft after meeting with an old teacher who read my book

    I actually don't even call what you are describing as telling. To me, it's just a different degree of showing. With less details. Telling, for me, is the stuff that can't be captured on film, like a person's thoughts. But, even with that definition is can fall under the schmules umbrella.

  13. Davin, I've felt the same way before - that what other people describe as telling isn't what I've thought of as telling. It shifts around, though, depending on what part of a scene or character I'm trying to convey.

    You're working on a new draft? Ohhhh, we must talk. :)

  14. Davin: I agree that there's no real hard-and-fast line between showing and telling. Like the old saw goes, "I know it when I see it." Internal monologue is certainly telling. Proust wrote 900,000 words, mostly telling rather than showing. It's a tool on our writerly workbench.

    And like Rick says, sometimes you have to tell, because the first job is to be readable.

  15. Just remembered I also did a post here on show don't tell: http://literarylab.blogspot.com/2009/02/show-dont-tell-part-i-or-cormac.html . It's even got two parts! Woohoo!

  16. In my most recent edit phase, I've cut out a ton of repetitive stuff. Who knew it existed?? Geesh! I also took out a bunch of stuff that just wasn't necessary . . . I guess it's all part of the process. There are some things the reader needs to know, and there are some things a reader doesn't need to know.

    He walked over to the table and sat down next to Jared, and across from Wes.

    He walked over to the table and sat down in the chair.

    First sentence - yes, the information is necessary so the reader has an idea of who is sitting where, so that when Jared tosses a chip at Wes, it makes sense that Wes easily caught the chip.

    The second sentence - not so much, unless your English 111 teacher is harping on you about the total completion of actions. I pretty much know a character is going to sit down in a chair. I don't need the extra words. Now, if the sentence read . . .

    He walked over to the table and sat down . . . on the floor.

    Well, those extra words are necessary because it's not something most people would do.

    Now, some might argue with me about the elimination of 'in the chair'. For me, it's just pretty much a given and way weigh down a sentence with unnecessary words.

    Ooops, sorry for the long comment. I just think that we, as writers, need to pay attention to every single word we write. If the words aren't truly necessary, if the 'understanding' is there, then the words aren't truly necessary.


    p.s. congrats on the editing.

  17. Ok, Scott, I concede. The way you put is really more the way I think of it. Thanks for stating it better than I did. I was meaning that we emphasize scenes and elements of the story by showing rather than telling.

  18. Absolutely agree. It's all in how it's told, not shown, right?

  19. Awesome example of when to use telling. Very useful. I am writing an one narrator novel and I have had to use "telling" in similar situations.

  20. I could show you how right your are, but I think I'll just tell you.

    You are right.


  21. Its a balance that is necessary between showing and telling.

    I feel your pain too though. I also write my stuff out longhand. Typing takes forever, mainly because WoW is just so damn tempting.


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