Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Show Vs. Tell Part 3: When Telling Isn't The Bad Guy

These past two weeks we've discussed the importance of showing instead of telling and how to do this through dialogue. As I've mentioned, there is power in "showing" techniques - however, there can also be power in telling, only if it's used in the right places and in the right way.

Yes, writers have been told over and over to only show. I used to consider telling as the bad guy before reading "Self-Editing For Fiction Writers". Telling is, in fact, necessary, in specific spots. Sometimes it can even add more of an effect to a scene. Here's an example this book gave on how telling can be useful:

"There are going to be times when telling will create more engagement than showing. In the Fritzgerald passage, for instance, the line 'A thrill passed over all of us' is clearly telling. And yes this line, coming so close on the rumor that Gatsby may have killed a man, gives a flavor of cheap gossip to the scene that heightens its effect."
Where, when and how should writers use telling/narrative summary?

  1. When there's lots of repetitive action. Chances are that things are going to sound similar if you include every detail of the repetitive action in your story. "Self-Editing For Fiction Writers" gave the example of a track star who participates in several races. Instead of showing each race as a scene, summarize these through telling - otherwise known as narrative summary.
  2. Where there's too much explanation. In a situation as this, it's best to R.U.E - resist urge to explain. Cut or summarize any over-explanation in your MS, especially if it can be conveyed through showing.
  3. Plot elements that aren't so important to cover every detail, such as driving somewhere or getting ready for an event. With situations such as these, you don't need to show every detail. By just telling your reader that they drove to the grocery store and arrive within ten minutes is enough, simply because it has nothing to do specifically with the plot-line. Unless, of course, there's important dialogue or action involved. Otherwise the author should stick to narrative summary.
  4. When there are long periods of time when nothing urgent takes place. Narrate what happens, but again, avoid showing during large chunks of time when it's unnecessary.
  5. When there needs to be a break between scene after scene so that it's not exhausting for the reader. Yes, showing is good. But it isn't good if you write your entire novel with scene after scene filled with action and showing, instead of slowing down to allow your reader to relax.

When writing or editing your novel, remember that telling isn't always going to be the bad guy. Showing and telling must work together, especially if you want your book to be intriguing and bring a certain impact to you reader. Just make sure that you know specifically when to tell and when to show.


Have you always considered telling as "the bad guy"?
When are some other times that telling can be put to good use?
Have you ever read a book that had too much showing and not enough telling (or vise-versa)?

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