Rules of Writing: Show, Don’t Tell, (Except When You Tell)

Share

We talk a lot here at MagicalWords.Net about the rules of writing, when to adhere to the rules like iron filings to an electromagnet, and when to break those rules, when to do something different. Last week, I was deeply into my WIP. Which is still untitled, by the way, and is making me feel all itchy. Every other Jane Yellowrock novel had title within the first 25 pages. Skinwalker and Mercy Blade were named before I started writing, the names *being* the plot of the books. This should not bother me. After all, I stink at title choosing, but it bothers me a lot.

Okay, back on track. When NOT to show?

1. Transitions.
2. When the character observes something (some action) or hears something (dialogue between other characters, for instance) but is not directly involved in the action.
3. To speed through stuff you need the reader to know, but is boring stuff, so you want to give it very quickly.

One big problem with telling is, if you, the writer, move from showing to telling, it often ends up reading like a POV shift, and if you are writing first person point of view, or limited third POV, that could knock a reader out of the character’s POV and also out of the story. Confusion is not good!

Demonstration is always the best policy for me, so here are two paragraphs from the untitled WIP, the two paras that made me start thinking about rule-breaking, and below that, the same two paras broken down.

WIP:

I exited the SUV away from the cameras and melted into the trees. It was eight a.m. when I found the sheriff standing in the shade, shielded by heavy foliage from the view of the cameras. He stood with three other men and a woman at a makeshift portable table, a series of aerial maps in front of them, a laptop open to the side. Sheriff Grizzard had been in power for several years, surviving into his second term, and was already running for a third. He was a hale-fellow-well-met politician, a savvy, back-slapper, elected official. He didn’t like me much and didn’t care who knew it.

I stood, half hidden behind a tree, listening to his murmured conversation. From it, I gathered that the search area had been divided into grids early on, and that the campsite had been discovered just after dawn. The injured had been hauled up the mountain in rescue baskets and medevac-ed out. The dead were still in place. Crime scene investigators were working up the site, which was widely scattered. The dogs were getting ready to start tracking the things that had attacked the campers. Things. Not people.

A lot happens in this small segment, and my character learns a great deal in a short amount of time. If I had spread out the info and let the main character, Jane, discover each of these things it would have taken a great deal of reader-time and a great deal of word count. Nothing she, learns is important, however, and no matter how she discovered the info, no matter how I presented the info to the reader, it was not going to create tension or increase suspense. It is important info for the scene that follows—which does create tension—but is not vital to the plot.

WIP Broken Down:

I exited the SUV away from the cameras and melted into the trees. (Action)
It was eight a.m. when I found the sheriff (starts the telling sequence. Note that this simple phrase works to give the reader two visual clues that something is about to change [It was eight a.m. {giving the time, when I haven’t been doing that} when I found {the second visual clue is a second different stylistic change from showing. It sets up the reader for the telling portion}]. I do this before I start telling)

standing in the shade, shielded by heavy foliage from the view of the cameras. He stood with three other men and a woman at a makeshift portable table, a series of aerial maps in front of them, a laptop open to the side. (All this is info I am telling, but the next sentence is different yet again! Now I do something I seldom do, which is to break up the passage and the info and give a bit of backstory. It works here in place of description.) 

Sheriff Grizzard had been in power for several years, surviving into his second term, and was already running for a third. He was a hale-fellow-well-met politician, a savvy, back-slapper, elected official. (I told this section just for the following line. I am setting up conflict. In place of description, which I could have used, I give Jane’s impressions of him, and hint at conflict in their past and in their future. Then I give the next line that is both showing and telling. Because it’s back in the main character’s POV, it works like showing. It reminds the reader that the story is Jane’s, and her impression are making the scene work.) He didn’t like me much and didn’t care who knew it.

I stood, half hidden behind a tree, (action) listening to his murmured conversation.(Action, and a set up for telling what she hears.)

From it, I gathered (this is the visual clue to the reader that she is again telling) that the search area had been divided into grids early on, and that the campsite had been discovered just after dawn. The injured had been hauled up the mountain in rescue baskets and medevac-ed out. The dead were still in place. Crime scene investigators were working up the site, which was widely scattered. The dogs were getting ready to start tracking the things that attacked the campers.

(Now am ready to give the second punch line, the second reason for this passage. It also works to bring the reader instantly back into Jane’s POV, which is what I need to happen.) Things. Not people.

If there a rule for breaking rules, it’s these:

1. Keep it short and sweet.
2. Give the reader visual clues entering into the change of writing style, (often, but necessarily a stylistic change) and clues when the rule-breaking is over (character reactions or another writing style change).
3. Don’t do it a lot. If a writer changes style often, or tells often, it will let the reader drop away from the story, which is not the way to keep him from carrying your book, open before him to meals, the potty, and the tub.

Faith
FaithHunter.Net
GwenHunter.Com

Share

18 comments to Rules of Writing: Show, Don’t Tell, (Except When You Tell)

  • This comes at a perfect time for me, Faith, since I’m at a point in the WIP when I’m trying to get across a lot of necessary but not necessarily scintillating information without slowing down my narrative. I love it when you break down text this way. Very helpful. Thanks.

  • I think I’ll be looking for things like this on the next pass of revisions. This would explain those times when you’re reading and come across a piece that just doesn’t read right, but you can’t figure out why.

  • David, I really agonized over this passage when I was writing it. I probably spent two hours on just this. And I’ll probably rewrite it several more times before I’m done with the book. There was so much info I needed to convey — such as the fact that there were aerial maps, search grids, dogs, what she might expect to see at the crime scene, the sheriff dosen’t like her, what kind of man he is, the time of day. And a lot more. So much stuff! There was no way to get it all across except to tell it. Bleagh…
    Glad it was helpful!

  • Daniel, unless the writing transition and visual clues are right, dropping into and out of the telling section, it sticks out like a third thumb. It’s *hard work* to make it come out right!

  • You nicely illustrate one of your core points tacitly here, Faith, I think. One of the way telling can be as interesting as showing is when it’s mediated by character (esp. a first person narrator), as yours is here. The throw-away information gives us stuff we need to know, but if handled as well as you do, it also conveys the mindset of character, what they think of that information. As you know from my WILL books, I love this device. I use humor, though other writers (Chandler, for instance) might use toughness. the reader responds to the tone while storing away the crucial (but dull) info the tone conveys. Nice.

  • Nothing worth doing is ever easy. 😉 But it’s definitely an accomplishment when you finally get it right.

  • I literally just finished the last round of revisions on my novel and thought I’d take an MW break before printing it out for the wife (beta-prime) to read. After this wonderful post, I’m going to go back one more time just to check on a few scenes where I needed to do the same.

  • AJ, I saw this device used a LOT in AoW, and very deftly too. On page 79 (in the hardback) is a para that begins, “On each day of our passage…” It is a perfect set up and visual clue to the reader that info needs to be delivered by the author.

    After the info is given, it leads nicely, with a clear transitional phrase, back to action in the para that begins, “One day we had to ride together…” It covers a lot of info, describes a time passage, and jumps back into the story.

  • Daniel, thanks!

    Stuart, if you have an Act Of Will handy, the scene on page 79 was a great example. Longer than I wanted to use here, but really excellent.

  • Thanks for this advice. I have read (or tried to read) some books that took the show don’t tell to such an extreme it exhausted me to read more than 10 pages. Telling is like passive voice, it has it’s place in writing, just not a big place.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you so much for this post! I’m terrible at transitions, especially time transitions, because I have such a hard time pulling out of the immediate sense of things. Sometimes I’ll read a passage in a good book that does a beautiful, smooth time transition, and it just looks like magic. But now I can look for the visual cues used to move between showing and telling to figure out how it was done, and the examples you’ve given here will be a big help in trying to figure out how to handle my own. Also, thank you for the reminder that even when info needs to be told, not shown, it should still be tied back to the character – how they got the info, what they think about it, etc. Thank you so much. I have been STUCK in one spot on my WIP for a while now, and I know this will help me a lot.

  • Faith> So useful! I really appreicate the way you take your own prose and break it down and explain what you did in each part. I really appreciate the character acts followed by reaction to action/reception of knowledge. This is helpful to me as I’m gearing up to write the big climactic scenes with the BBU (who’s about to get a lot bigger, badder, but not uglier) and I have transitions to get people where they need to be and convey setting bits that are important but not interesting (Conference Hotel layouts Fun stuff!)

    As an aside, I’m struggling with the action part of the action scenes, too. So if any one is in need of a post topic, I’d love to hear about writing action. There are posts about it previously, too, that’s I’m going to look at, as well.

  • Perryw, you are so right. Some writers (and even some editors, who should know better) forget that telling has its place in writing. Just like adverbs and adjectives, word forms that get a lot bad publicity, telling is an important part of writing.

    Hepseba, there are always clues in those seemingly seamless transitions. I’m glad the post will help!

    Pea Emily, don’t let the climactic scenes scare you. You can do this! And remember my favorite method: For action scenes, get 2 poster boards and several colored markers, one board for the battle map to act as a visual time/place keeper, and one board to do a bubble (grape, cluster) outline on, to keep track of characters, motivations, alliances, deaths, etc. Go for it!

  • Faith> thanks for the vote of confidence! I’m going to write it Friday. Going to let stuff bang around in my head until then. And I’ll give the two board thing a try! 🙂

  • I let things bang around in my head too. Sorta like squirrels on crack. (grins) While the squirrel-ideas slam into each other, I clean house and cook. Creative procrastination is the only reason I can find *anything!*

  • Pea,
    I’m usually pretty good at the action scenes. Lemme know if I can help. I’m on the beta list. You can find me on yahoo IM too. I’m that darianpsykes guy.

  • Young_Writer

    I need to find some of those squirrels… 🙂 I hate it when I’m writing a scene that I haven’t planned ouit very well. Then it’s harder to “see” it, and therefor I struggle to get it on paper. I actually love action scenes, my creativity kind of flows there.
    Daniel, if I can finally figure out how the beta-reader Yahoo system works- not the best with technology- I’ll look for you!

  • […] Show, Don’t Tell, (Except when you Tell) – Believe it or not there are times in story where “telling” is appropriate. […]