Sunday, February 22, 2015

When to “Tell”

The answer isn’t “never.” Whether to “show” or “tell” is situation-specific. Although definitions of “telling” are vague and varied, many novelists still fear this “writing crime.” Yet view “telling” as frustrating your readers, and you can differentiate “bad telling” from “good.” After all, “telling” makes up half the word for sharing a story.

Storytelling unites “showing” and “telling.” Readers want the juicy parts in scene—without commentary from the narrator. As Anton Chekhov put it, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” So in certain instances you really shouldn’t “tell”:

~ Judgments.
Rather than “telling” readers that the dog is “ugly,” describe the skinny, flea-covered mongrel that’s lost most of his hair. Let readers decide what’s “ugly.”

~ Belaboring what’s obvious or repeating what you already “showed.”
            Is the character panting? Don’t add that she’s also “breathing heavily.”

~ Summarizing the fun parts.
If we’ve waited for three hundred pages to see if they’ll go to bed, please don’t say, “She turned off the light, and they both had the time of their lives.” “Show” us their pleasure with a voyeuristic but tasteful peek inside the bedroom.

~ Oversimplifying emotions.
Avoid abstractions like “angry,” “sad,” or “ecstatic.” Use body language. Use metaphor. Reflect the complex, inconsistent, and fleeting nature of feelings.

But in other instances, readers want “good telling”:

* For worldbuilding.
Whether fantasy, sci fi, or bankrupt Detroit, describe the setting where the action occurs. Sometimes it takes too many words to imply a social structure, moral code, time period, or atmosphere. If so, just explain.

* For transition
Svelte, sophistication transitions are simply lovely. But every so often you need to be clear and causal. Because readers need to understand.

* For voice.
Terror of “telling” would eliminate sentences like this one:  “Her correspondence had been like the pumping of a heart into a severed artery, wild and incessant at first, then slowing down with a kind of muscular reluctance to a stream that became a trickle and finally ceased; the heart had stopped.” -- Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

Tip: Storytelling boils down to knowing when to “show” and “when” to “tell.”

How else can you deliver the whole story at the fastest pace with the most fun possible?

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