First, if you missed How to Show, go check it out. For those who read it, you may recall my promise there to address the age-old question:
In writing a novel, when is it appropriate to ‘tell’?
Because it is appropriate at times—even necessary. Telling most simply means a concise statement, and really, that can be a good thing much of the time. “Tell” statements provide necessary information without dramatization or leaving things open to interpretation.
It’s about finding a balance and writing with purpose. It’s also about identifying what the focus is for each scene and using the most effective tools and methods to bring out that focus in order to guide the reader through a more enriching experience.
The question to ask one’s self is, Do I want my reader to experience this scene? Or, is the scene less critical or perhaps meant for an entirely different purpose?
A Few Reasons to Tell Rather than Show
- To soften the emphasis—Typically, it takes more words to show than tell. This in and of itself isn’t the problem—it isn’t a bad thing to need more words to show when showing is what’s needed. However, not every scene shares the same relevance or importance. Therefore, some scenes need to be shortened and softened. They may be necessary for context, back story, transitions between more impactful scenes, etc., but may not require the reader to experience it.
- To transition a character from Point A to Point B—If scene A takes place at, say, a school where a young child is bullied by bigger kids, and scene B occurs in the principal’s office following the incident, the walk between may or may not be so important. In the case that it isn’t very important—if nothing happens during that walk to drive the story forward—then the reader isn’t going to care about it and telling is what’s needed. Thus, “When they reached the principal’s office” is more than sufficient in this case. Anything more might be overkill.
- To remind readers what has already happened in the story—The first time a significant event occurs in a story typically calls for show over tell. However, there’s not usually a need for the reader to experience that event over and over again, yet it may be necessary to reference it. In that case, telling is more appropriate than showing to keep the story moving.
- To convey an experience that goes without saying—Sometimes imagery doesn’t have to be overcomplicated. Sometimes the reader will know exactly what the author means without having to use many details. For instance, “the grass was soft.” Most folks know what that feels like and don’t need a drawn-out explanation of what it means for grass to be soft.
There are many, many more reasons to tell versus show, but what it boils down to is context. Often, the times to show and the times to tell will depend on the nature of the story and scenes and will a come down to a case by case assessment to determine which methodology to employ. In other words, there’s a whole lot more to this whole show vs. tell debate than most writers consider. There’s a lot of focus on show because most tend to steer toward over-telling rather than over-showing, but like anything else there are things to consider on both sides.
- Does this scene require heavy imagery and active details?
- Or, is the point of this scene to add context, fill gaps of information, etc. that calls for simpler, more concise language?
- Am I showing everything, yet revealing nothing?
- Or, am I holding back necessary imagery that would allow a reader to empathize with my character?
- Does the writing feel too heavy?
- Or, does the writing feel too thin?
- Does the writing have balance?
The goal is to train ourselves to consistently weigh the importance of these elements in every scene we write, while at the same time maintaining a handle on how these scenes fit with the overall story. Not a simple feat, but no one ever said writing a novel was easy.
Again, don’t forget to check out Part One—Show vs. Tell: How to Show.