Friday, 13 July 2012

When You Need To Tell Not Show

It must be the one writing command that everybody knows - Show, don't tell.  And it's true that showing, not telling, is usually the right response.  However, not always.  Sometimes you're better off telling rather than showing.  An example is when time passes in the story with nothing much happening.

The next two weeks passed without Amelia hearing from Godfrey.  She was at the point of forgetting him when the phone rang. 
"Hi, it's Godfrey," etc.  

The reader needs to know that two weeks have passed without Amelia hearing from Godfrey.  If we showed this, it would take quite a few pages to cover Amelia's two weeks.  Telling is more economical.

After the first kiss, all thoughts of going back were abandoned. They decided to eat at the pub, and spent the evening talking about everything and anything: pets they'd had when children, their favourite things to eat, their families - his mad mother, her dodgy brother - favourite films, bands, books. Everything Godfrey said Amelia thought was incredibly interesting, and by the time they were walking home hand in hand she was half way to being in love.

In this example, exactly what they talked about is irrelevant. What the reader needs to know is that they had an enjoyable evening talking about inconsequential stuff, that Amelia finds Godfrey fascinating and that she's half way to being in love with him. 

Similarly, it's OK to describe the room, for example, we don't have to 'show' that there's a table in there.  If the character makes a ham sandwich, then tell the reader they make a ham sandwich - you don't have to show them getting out the bread, butter and ham, then buttering the bread etc.  

Concentrate on showing the stuff that's important to the story - usually action - and tell the less important stuff.   


Shauna said...

I remember a piece of advice I was given years ago - if you write about someone putting on their coat, walking down the path, looking at the flowers, going through their bag looking for their car keys, finding the car keys and putting them in the door, then that car better blow up.

By going through something in such detail the reader expects it to be important - so it had better be important or we're letting them down.

I've always remembered the example, just hope I do it justice.

womagwriter said...

I like that example, Shauna!

Emotions are the thing I think it best to always show, never tell. Let the reader work out for themselves that your character is bored/upset/angry/distracted/joyful.

Writer Pat Newcombe said...

I agree with you. It's not always right to show not tell! It's getting the combination right that's important. Too much tell can make a reader feel breathless and become boring...

Suzanne Furness said...

Pleased to find your blog today and so glad you enjoy the south west, St. Ives is indeed beautiful. I agree that sometimes you just have to tell because the story demands it, maybe this is particularly true when writing for a younger audience like I do.

Sarah Duncan said...

I like the example too, Shauna. Spot on.

Womagwriter, yes, it's kiss of death usually to write "she felt happy", show her feeling happy. I do a global edit sometimes for 'she felt'...

Pat, it's getting the balance right, isn't it. Too much of anything can be a bad thing! (She says, having eaten rather too well over the weekend and don't the scales show it!)

Suzanne, hi and welcome to my blog! I think younger children accept more 'telling' in the writing. And telling is quicker than showing.