Last night I shared a couple beers and an awesome burger (best burgers in town, can I get an Amen?) at a local watering hole in Mobile, Callaghan’s Irish Social Club, with a fellow emerging writer. Above the sound of a local music duo, we talked about the ol’ show vs. tell rule. My friend was so sick of hearing of this rule and thought it was about time it should be thrown out. I’m not there yet, but I do see where she’s coming from. Sometimes it is better to tell than show, no doubt. And new writers might have a hard time distinguishing when that time is.
The operative word there, though, is sometimes. I think most helpful articles about this do mention that there are times to tell, but point out that with new writers the big mistake is telling when they should show. I think this is true. Most often when you’re telling it doesn’t help your story so it is best to change it into a richer experience for the reader.
But when should you tell? I’m not sure I’m there yet as a writer and so am trying to eliminate instances of telling whenever I find them. However, I think one comfortable caveat is when you’re transitioning your character from one place to another. A simple statement that they got into the car or carriage is all that’s needed. If nothing happens along the way that helps further your plot, then there’s no need to convert that one sentence of showing to a blow-by-blow of everything that person saw and did. Does this sound obvious? Well, I read a published mystery a couple of years ago where the author had obviously had this rule pounded into their head because we were treated multiple times with scenes just like this (actually the character was walking to work). Because it was a murder mystery, I kept thinking that something was going to happen during those scenes, and nothing did! It was extremely annoying.
One of my favorite links to pass on to folks when critiquing is Shirley Jump’s article Show Not Tell: What the Heck is that Anyway? Her last two points at the bottom I think sum this up well:
- Don’t pad it too much. Don’t overwhelm the reader with description either. You’re not writing a travelogue, you’re writing a story. Add enough details to give them a picture, then move on to the meat of your story. If you have several paragraphs in a row of description, chances are you’ve gone overboard. Try to work the description in with the dialogue and action instead so you can maintain your pacing and reader interest.
- Don’t be afraid of telling sometimes, too. A mix of both showing and telling is a good idea. You don’t have to show every single thing in your book. Sometimes, a quick telling helps get through a slow part or provides a quick recap. The goal is to make the MAJORITY of your writing vivid and strong (i.e., showing) and keep the telling to a minimum.
That mystery book was padded with scenes that served no purpose plot or character-wise, IMO, and only served to create false suspense.
So what do you think? When is it okay to tell? Do you think this rule should die a horrible and miserable death?