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Showing vs. Telling – When It’s Okay to Tell

We’ve all heard the rule: “Show Don’t Tell.” Sometimes newer writers get confused about this rule. They’ll read a novel and see an instance of telling. The new writer thinks, “But this author was telling. Why can she get away with it?”

The answer is twofold.

1. There are no hard and fast rules of writing.

You can do whatever you want so long as it works. What do I mean by “works”? I mean that whatever you’re doing is effective for the reader.

It’s common for new writers to break rules because it suits them. But it doesn’t work for the reader. Experienced writers know how to break rules for effect. Their rule-breaking benefits the story and the reader.

So that’s the first thing.

2. Telling can be effective.

First of all, let’s be clear. More often than not, telling is NOT your best tool, especially when in the hands of developing writers. However, sometimes it works (for the reader), and that’s when it’s okay to use it. When you see an example of telling in a story, ask yourself two things: does this work and if so, why?

For an example, let’s look at The Hunger Games. We don’t have to look far to find an instance of telling. There’s one on the very first page. When talking about the cat, Katniss says, “He hates me.”

Telling.

If I were looking at a manuscript, and the only thing the author said about this character’s relationship about the cat was, “He hates me,” I’d likely scribble in the margin, “Show don’t tell.”

But in this case it works. Why?

Sometimes new writers will answer something along the lines of, “Because the author is famous and she can do what she wants.” It can feel that way sometimes, and there are definitely cases of famous writers who get lazy with their writing because the books will sell regardless, but that’s not the case here.

Let me give you the entire paragraph so you can evaluate things. Ask yourself, why does this instance of telling work?

Sitting at Prim’s knees, guarding her, is the world’s ugliest cat. Mashed-in nose, half of one ear missing, eyes the color of rotting squash. Prim named him Buttercup, insisting that his muddy yellow coat matched the bright flower. He hates me. Or at least distrusts me. Even though it was years ago, I think he still remembers how I tried to drown him in a bucket when Prim brought him home. Scrawny kitten, belly swollen with worms, crawling with fleas. The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed. But Prim begged so hard, cried even, I had to let him stay. It turned out okay. My mother got rid of the vermin and he’s a born mouser. Even catches the occasional rat. Sometimes, when I clean a kill, I feed Buttercup the entrails. He has stopped hissing at me.

Entrails. No hissing. This is the closest we will ever come to love.

You probably noticed that this instance of telling is surrounded by lots of showing. She doesn’t just say, “He hates me.” She gives us all kinds of details that illustrate the nature of their relationship, from “eyes the color of rotting squash” to hissing and entrails.

This paragraph does what all great storytelling does: it immerses us in the world and in the character’s mind and heart. We don’t just want to read about something. We want to experience something. We want to feel like we are there. We want to feel what the character feels.

That is why showing is so frequently used. It’s a fantastic way to immerse the reader in a story and in a character.

So, is the above instance of telling acceptable merely because it’s surrounded by showing? Is that how the author can “get away with it?” Like dirt you don’t notice because it’s been swept under the rug?

No. Telling often does more than just convey the bald facts. (In this case, “He hates me.”) In fact, telling rarely even does that. We do NOT know the cat hates her because she says so. We know, we believe, the cat hates her because she’s illustrated it with all her lovely “showing” details.

So why bother to tell us the cat hates her at all?

Because inserting “He hates me” gives us some character voice. It reveals that she is self-reflective, which is highly desirable in a protagonist. Sometimes we want to understand what a character is thinking and we want to hear their voice. Saying “He hates me” does that. It wasn’t the only way to give us a sense of the character’s voice and thoughts, but it was an effective way.

So telling, at it’s best, is multi-layered. We learn something not just about the cat, but about Katniss. The author wasn’t being lazy. Telling, in this case, was effective for the reader.

Let’s look at another example, this one from the beginning of The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

This book is a series of letters. This, by itself, is an advanced structure that is hard to pull off. Wallflower is a great book to study if you’re interested in writing a story in the form of letters.

In the first letter, the protagonist, “Charlie,” is addressing an unnamed person. He’s writing to this person anonymously. We’re given the impression that this letter serves as a safe place for him to share his thoughts. Charlie describes losing a friend to suicide, and the fallout that followed: how he, his family, and the school responded. We’re introduced to his family and learn his Aunt Helen, “my favorite person in the whole world,” lived with them during the last few years of her life.

The first letter concludes with this: “The reason I wrote this letter is because I start high school tomorrow and I am really afraid of going.”

Now, he is afraid of going. We believe that. But, like the cat hating Katniss, we learn more than the bald facts. More than his mere fear of going to high school. We sense there is far more going on inside this kid. More than he’s saying. More than he even knows himself. Which, of course, is the point of the whole novel.

This telling does more than tell.

There are many reasons why telling can be just as effective as showing. This is by no means an exhaustive list of when telling can work and what you (and your reader) might get out of telling instead of showing. Next time you come across telling in a story, ask yourself “Does it work?” and if so, “Why does it work?”

You will gain a better understanding of showing and telling and when to use each tool.

If you have other examples of effective use of telling, please share in the comments. :)

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