When is a Good Time to Tell?

Photo credit: World Bank Photo Collection
So I’m sure you’ve all heard about the evils of telling rather than showing. When I critique, it’s the number one thing I mention, because it’s so important to get it right, and so difficult to nail down.

However, something that writers don’t talk about quite as often—and really should—is when you should tell instead of show. Because as evil as telling sometimes is, it’s important to know when you don’t need to show everything.

Some good times to tell instead of show include:
  • When showing the passage of time. Sometimes books take place over the course of several weeks, or months, or even years—and in those scenarios the readers don’t usually need to know what happens every single day. This can also be used to speed through a couple hours, or even a couple minutes to get to the meat of the story. 

  • When skipping over unimportant/uneventful moments of your characters’ lives. No one has a life so interesting that every moment of every day needs to be detailed. There’s a reason publishing professionals often say they don’t want to read about your characters brushing their teeth. Even J.K. Rowling summarized much of Harry’s summers with the Dursleys. 

  • When conveying backstory or history. Of course there are times when history or backstory is better conveyed through showing, but that’s a case-by-case basis. In most situations, you’ll want to gradually reveal bits of history and backstory, and oftentimes that’ll be done through bits and pieces of telling. 

Some times you definitely shouldn’t tell:
  • When writing emotion. This is so huge to me. Whenever I see in my own writing or someone else’s a named emotion (ergo: He was sad, She looked excited), I immediately mark it with a big fat red SHOW DON’T TELL. When it comes to emotion, showing is nearly always more effective than telling, regardless of the POV or whose emotion you’re describing. (This is yet another reason The Emotion Thesaurus is my best friend). 

  • When writing sensory descriptions. If you’re writing sensory descriptions, you’re already well on your way to showing wonderful details, but it’s still possible to fall into the telling trap. Sensory descriptions are there to help the reader picture what’s going on, so “He smelled garbage in the air” isn’t as powerful as “The night reeked of rotting bananas and spoiled milk.” 

  • In your opening. This one isn’t set in stone by any means, and I’m sure there are exceptions where it could work, but whenever I look at openings, something that nearly always grabs me is effective showing, whereas something that nearly always makes me close the book is telling right off the bat. The opening is supposed to suck the reader into the story and make them forget they’re reading—if you start your book with summary (which is, in essence, what telling is), you immediately distance your reader, something very dangerous in your opening. 

Those aren’t comprehensive lists by any means, so I want to hear from you: what other situations can you think of in which you should or definitely shouldn’t tell? 

Twitter-sized bites:
They say, "show don't tell," but when SHOULD you tell? (Click to tweet
Writers often say, "show don't tell," but here are a couple instances where telling may be preferable. (Click to tweet)


Jen Donohue said...

Telling for a time skip is something I encounter frequently (and just dealt with in my own work).

The Emotion Thesaurus is a great resource, thanks for reminding me!

Ava Jae said...

I'm relatively sure time skips are the most common use of telling. And you're welcome! I can't say enough good things about The Emotion Thesaurus. :)

Jason Burns said...

”Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.”-Mark Twain

Iona said...

At a writing course they taught me that your opening should start in medias res ... and to explain that, they said "start with a a fact". But that would be considered telling, no? I mean, for a beginner writer, it's easy to make the mistake of telling a fact. It's much harder to show a fact.

Ava Jae said...

Sounds about right. :)

Ava Jae said...

I'm...not sure I totally understand the "start with a fact" idea. I've heard of starting in medias res (something I like to do with my openings), but I can't say I've ever heard that you should start with a fact...hmm.

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