Every writer has been given this writing advice: Show, don’t tell. And following this golden rule will definitely help make your writing more vivid and engaging. When you “show” rather than simply “tell,” readers feel like they’re experiencing the imagery and emotions right alongside your characters, rather than slogging through a summary of the events. But at Writer’s Relief, we know that—sometimes—you can break the golden rule of “show, don’t tell” (gasp!). Here are the times when you should “tell, not show.”
5 Instances When You Should Tell, Not Show In Your Writing
“Telling” in writing is often equated with “summarizing,” but in certain instances it can be used for informing instead! While you always want to be sure your project isn’t skimping on evocative, emotional writing (“showing”), occasionally you do need to use bare-bones, informative writing (“telling”) for a specific, brief purpose!
- To keep up the story’s pace. It’s okay not to show your readers everything—after all, you don’t want your short story or book to become impossibly long and unmarketable! You’ll find that some events are necessary to your characters’ lives, but are not meaningful to the plot of the story. In those cases, there’s usually no need to go into elaborate “showing” detail just for the sake of it. For example, if your character takes a quick business trip that doesn’t affect the main storyline, or has an uneventful holiday break at home when the main plot of your novel takes place at their boarding school, it’s okay to give readers a quick summary of these “non-event” events.
- To gloss over minimally important details. Sometimes the destination is more interesting than the journey—so there’s no need to detail the trip for readers! The same can be true of the morning commute, traveling to a friend’s house or out to eat, or even just moving from one room to the next. This can also apply to the passage of time—if your story stretches over a lengthy time span, every single minute may not be relevant to the plot. It’s okay to give readers a quick “three weeks later…” rather than delving into the details of those three weeks, especially if they’re not crucial.
- To avoid repeating information. While repetition can be a useful rhetorical device, there’s a time and a place for it—and those times and places tend to come around pretty sparingly when you need to keep up the pace of your novel or short story! A quick, “telling” summary can be a useful tool for avoiding unnecessary repetition. For example: Your main character overhears a critical, life-altering conversation, and rushes to tell their best friend about it. Readers will be more interested in characters’ reactions and how their plans change as a result of this new information, rather than reading through Character A repeating the entire conversation word for word to Character B.
- To reveal relevant backstory. Backstory can be a tricky element to handle in your writing, as readers like to discover expositional information organically. This is especially true for your story’s opening: While it’s tempting to get the exposition out of the way right at the beginning, readers often get bored and impatient with paragraph after paragraph of background information, and prefer to get right into the story’s action. Occasionally, though, quick, easy “telling” is the best way to convey background knowledge your reader needs about a character or situation. Just make sure to keep this brief, and stagger the reveal of background information throughout your story, rather than “telling” it to readers all at once.
- To help the reader. Every once in a while, readers may need a helping hand. If they don’t understand a key piece of information or a mind-boggling plot twist, they won’t grasp or enjoy the unfolding plot that follows. So occasionally, it pays to explain what’s just happened in simple, “telling” language to make sure your reader is on board.
Show And Tell—It’s A Balance!
While “show, don’t tell” is a key element of successful writing, good storytelling does occasionally require a speedy, simple “telling” moment. Ultimately, “show, don’t tell” doesn’t mean “always show, never tell.” By carefully striking the right balance, you’ll create a story your readers will truly enjoy!
Question: What’s your favorite “telling” line from a famous book?