On Writing: Tell, Don’t Show

In Description, Monica Wood commented: Don’t enslave yourself to showing. “Show don’t tell” is a guideline, not a rule. Sometimes telling is more effective and thrilling as long as the prose is interesting and engaging.”

As a reader, one of my pet hates is when one character is talking to another, and they retell the entire story up to that point, so as a writer, when I get to a place where one character has to tell another what the reader already knows, I write something like, “and Sam told Sally about the woman who tried to kill him and how he ran off instead of trying to find out who it was.” Avoiding repetition is one reason telling is so much better than showing at times. Makes the story move faster. Might not be immortal prose, but it moves the story along.

The worst offenders of the tell, don’t show suggestion are lawyer books. They spend the first half of the book laying out the story, then the second half repeating that story in a courtroom setting. If a reader can skip a whole slew of chapters and not miss a moment of the story, the writer has not done his or her job. If the writer wants to do the courtroom scene, then make sure what is shown is new. Otherwise, simply tell what went on in a few short sentence and get to the good stuff.

Another time telling is better than showing is if a scene has no conflict, no surprises, no twists. If a character sets out to do something and accomplishes it without any problems, then showing is a waste. Just tell it. Don’t build up to  . . . nothing.

A way to know if it’s better to show or to tell is to decide what you want to accomplish with a scene. If the immediacy of a scene is important, show it. If the reactions of a character who was not involved in the scene are most important, then it’s possible to have one character tell the other what happened and then show the character’s emotion.

When writing More Deaths Than One, I worried that I was cheating readers by doing the big disclosure  at the end via letter (in other words, telling), but the importance of the scene lay not in finding out the truth of who Bob was but in the different ways Bob and Kerry reacted to the truth. It was about them and their relationship more than the deeds themselves. It was also about the emotion of the person writing the letter and how that emotion bound all of them together. So basically, the letter was all about telling rather than showing the disclosure, and showing rather than telling the emotion it evoked.

When do you tell instead of show? (I mean you personally, not writers in general.) How do you make it effective and thrilling?

2 Responses to “On Writing: Tell, Don’t Show”

  1. Helen Ginger Says:

    In the book I’m working on, I open with a telling. Over the course of the book, you find out why that opening tell was so important.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Helen, I’m beginning to think that “show don’t tell” is mainly for neophyte writers. Anyone who knows how to write realizes that you do whatever the story demands.


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