Monday, March 14, 2011

Monday's Writing Tip: Sometimes It's Okay to Tell and Not Show


Writers have been hearing about the importance of 'showing' for so long that they've begun to forget the value of 'telling'--of exposition, of summary, of omniscient narration." Robert Masello, Robert's Rules of Writing, Rule 12. Tell, Don't Show

This rule sounds contrary to anything most writers have ever read or been taught.  It's of course important to show everything worth showing, such as dramatic interaction and heated dialogue.  But it is acceptable to tell a few things, too.

Utilize the power of description about surroundings, what's going on inside a character's head, or in the world of your story itself. Masello points out the opening of Dickens A Tale of Two Cities, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."  So if Dickens can do it...

Also, things that don't need to be seen don't need to be shown.  Who wants to read about a heroine getting ready for work? We know she'll shower, style her hair, put on makeup, get dressed, make coffee and eat breakfast. 

Only show these things if something important happens to affect the story. Perhaps she slips in the shower and breaks her leg, or spills hot coffee and scalds herself, etc., etc.

Masello mentions something that Elmore Leonard, a master of pacing, once said.  He keeps his books moving briskly along leaving out all the parts readers don't want to read.

Anything in your current WIP that can be told and not shown? Happy writing, and thanks for visiting with me today!

17 comments:

KatieO said...

Thanks for this reminder! Sometimes I get bogged down in the myriad detail of logistics - how did the character get from A to B, or what kind of latte did they decide to order when they stopped at Starbucks... sometimes we as readers just don't need to know ;-)

Happy writing to you too!

Old Kitty said...

As I am (or was until last week!!) in full editing mode - I am having to slash and burn swathes of writing that I love but know just kills the action dead. Painful thing to do but necessary!! Thanks for the reminder! Take care
x

Lorelei said...

This is a great post, and a good reminder that sometimes we have to "show" and sometimes we have to "tell". A lot of the rules are broken in novels, it's the "how& when" that gets confusing.

And speaking of WIP, I'd better get back to mine!

Mary Vaughn said...

Aren't the kids so smart when they "Show and Tell"?

Christina Lucas said...

Great point! Especially about only telling what is necessary...everything should move the plot along somehow.

The Happy Whisk said...

Tell a good story. Show a good story. I don't care which, as long as it's a good story.

Austin James said...

I agree with you! Sometimes people get obsessed with the showing not telling thing... and their story suffers for it.

Melissa said...

I do a bit of telling when it comes to time jumps and the uneccesary bits that don't matter to the story but should be mentioned in passing.

Elaine AM Smith said...

This is a great post. I think it is impossible to write only showing what is happening - sometimes the reader needs a little clarity ;)

Jules said...

Wonderful post with sound advice. I always loved show and tell :)
Jules @ Trying To Get Over The Rainbow

Colene Murphy said...

SO true!! It gets to be this obsession where "show don't tell!" bounces around in your head, but that makes the art of telling even harder to accomplish when it's necessary!

Abby Minard said...

What a good thing to remember. Sometimes it helps the story better if you just say that a character gets from point A to point B, rather than showing all the mundane details of it.

WritingNut said...

Great advice! I usually do a bit of both, but I'm currently in the middle of edits, and I'm trying to hold back on the telling, and do more showing :)

Raquel Byrnes said...

Very good points and well written.

Myne Whitman said...

Very true, you just have to know when to use one or the other. I use Tell to narrate backstories most times.

Debbie said...

Excellent advice - as always!

William Kendall said...

Great points, Maria!

At the moment, I'm finding a balance between showing riots and unrest on the one hand, and indirectly referencing them by telling.