Tell, Don’t Show (That’s Right, You Heard Me)
Updated: Jun 15, 2020
By Giancarlo Riccobon
Okay, maybe a more accurate title would be, “Show, Don’t Tell, Except for When You Need To Tell.” But that’s not as catchy.
I know what you’re thinking. Telling language is only for amateurs and omniscient narrators, right? Well, I’m here to debunk the whole “never, ever use telling language” rule. If you think that’s blasphemous, you can hit the back button on your browser and pretend this blog post doesn’t exist. If you’re intrigued, then keep reading.
Showing is often the best way to go, but that doesn’t mean telling is all bad all the time. Sure, telling language is always bad if that’s the only thing you know how to do. But when used to accentuate great showing language, telling can make you look like a real pro. Telling language can be a powerful tool in the hands of a writer who has already mastered showing.
Too Much of a Good Thing
There is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Yes, even showing.
Let’s say your protagonist is preparing for his first date, and he has already struggled for an hour with his necktie, combed his rat’s nest into a bird’s nest, and silently hoped his girlfriend wouldn’t ask him about his Tragic Backstory. You have already shown everything story-important that needs to happen before his date. You are about to write, “Then he hurried to The Inquisitor’s Spanish Grill before they gave away his table,” but then you stop yourself. You think, That doesn’t sound fancy enough. It’s too plain. A REAL writer would add some kind of flourish that takes people’s breath away. So you expand on it. You want your words to transport the readers there, so you describe the dopplering of passing cars, the steam rising up from the hood, the faint whiff of cinnamon in the air, and you feel quite pleased with yourself.
Finally, you show it to your writer friend, who says, “Why didn’t you just say he hurried to the restaurant?”
Thank you, writer friend.
Of course, it’s not a simple either/or choice. Heck, you could spend more time on the car ride, if you think it helps the story. Maybe being stuck in traffic cranks your hero’s anxiety up to an eleven. Maybe at the crosswalk he sees a couple lugging a double stroller, and that triggers a sudden fear of committing to a serious relationship. But if all the interesting stuff is happening at the restaurant, then there’s no shame in just time skipping over the car ride with a dash of telling language.
Usually you want to avoid telling since it’s likely to just bore readers, but sometimes telling language is the only thing keeping your readers from nodding off and using your book as a pillow.
What Telling Language Can Do
Believe it or not, telling language is actually good for something. For starters, it’s a great way to skip over unimportant stuff. A story’s job, after all, is not to hold a mirror up to real life. Instead, a story gives you the “good parts version” of life and omits anything that’s not relevant.
If your protagonist, who has finally arrived at his date, says, “They chatted about the weather that the city had been experiencing lately,” then you are not only skipping over unnecessary dialogue but also revealing that the dialogue is not important enough to your protagonist for him to mention it and that perhaps he is too distracted to pay attention to their conversation.
Sometimes, the very telling can tell you something about a character. For example, if your protagonist describes his date as “Pretty, but not as pretty as he remembered her,” that tells you more about him than it does her. In fact, it might even tell you more than a detailed description of his girlfriend’s calloused hands and choppy hair, which might not mean anything to readers without being filtered through the protagonist’s eyes.
Using telling language can actually be a boon if you use it to show off a character’s voice. If you need to have a character tell it to readers, then why not have them tell it in a way only they can? Case in point: “He was feeling jittery. Yes, jittery, that was it. Though, maybe a more accurate word was friggin terrified. She was leaning in close to him now. What if she wanted to kiss, long and slow, right there in front of everybody?”
In some cases, you can use telling language to highlight the gap between what is said and what is actually happening. This allows you to create ironic distance or draw attention to an unreliable narrator. Returning to the first date scene… “When they finally left the claustrophobic restaurant—freedom, at last!—he didn’t hold open the door for her, and she didn’t ask him when she’d see him again. On the ride home, he decided his first date had been a success.” Obviously, the date was not a success, considering both parties seem to never want to see each other again. But the protagonist calls it a success. This not only reveals that he’s not a reliable narrator but also gives readers a good laugh if they read between the lines.
Telling Language in Action
Before you get too carried away, let’s clear this up. No, this is not an excuse to use telling language all the time. Sure, an apple might be a healthy snack, but it’s hardly a balanced diet if you eat only apples for every meal, every day.
Showing and telling language need to work together, like a magician and his assistant. Everybody’s eyes should be on the magician’s assistant performing her levitating act (because showing language loves the spotlight), so they don’t notice the magician’s sleight of hand as he operates the wires (telling language is sneaky that way).
So now I’m going to demonstrate showing and telling (the dynamic duo) in action. Let’s take a look at the short story, “Smudge,” by Nora Paul. It’s from Polyphony Lit, Issue 14, and you really ought to read the whole thing, because it’s amazing. Here’s an excerpt talking about the speaker’s dad.
“When he lost his job in the spring, the gifts became more sporadic… For my birthday there were scarves and red velvet cranberries, and one day that fall, a shattered cell phone he’d found. As I answered the door he pretended to be talking on it.”
The excerpt above uses a lot of telling language. A lot. For example, the author uses more passive verbs like “were” and “became.” The narrator also directly explains something that ordinarily an author would trust readers to infer, the fact that the speaker’s dad is only pretending to talk on the phone. The story fast-forwards through a sweeping period of time, hardly ever zooming in to focus on a specific moment.
Yet all of these choices heighten the effect of the story. After all, this part of the story is meant to be a blur of events, the prose equivalent of a montage, so the broad time skips make sense. Likewise, the author chooses to explicitly say, “he pretended to be talking on it” to show that the narrator saw right through him and also to convey the speaker’s pity and disappointment that their dad is trying to hide it. And of course, the detached tone of this entire excerpt is fitting. The narrator’s dad is slowly drifting away from them, growing distant until the speaker barely recognizes him, so telling language is the perfect way to go.
However, that’s not to say this story doesn’t use showing language. In fact, the very next line says: “He wore ten layers to my house in the winter because he walked everywhere; over coffee he peeled off his coat and sweaters like fingering apart newspaper pages. He warmed his hands on the radiator, and I could almost see steam rise.”
That’s some pretty impressive imagery right there! Without a doubt, this moment is so memorable because of the telling language around it. The surrounding lines are so hazy and distant that this “close-up shot” of the speaker’s dad stands out. It grabs our attention by the lapels and says, “Look!” and it stays in our mind long after we’re done reading.
I hope that now some of you have overcome your allergy to telling. Maybe you’ll even use a touch of telling in your own writing—not too much, but just enough to shake things up. When played right, telling can omit unnecessary details, develop characters, or add double meaning. You can save the showing language for the parts that are most important. Crazy as it sounds, telling your story to readers can sometimes engage them even more than showing it to them. That’s the power of telling language—it makes your showing language even stronger.
Giancarlo Riccobon is a First Reader at Polyphony Lit and a blogger at Voices.