Welcome to part six of my “Show, Don’t Tell” series, and for this post, I will explain what good telling is.
Yep, that’s right. This post is all about when it is better to tell than show. To start off, I’m going to show you an example of good telling. This is from Michael Buckley’s “NERDS” series.
Alexander Brand was a secret agent. He had saved the world on more than a dozen occasions. He had stopped three invasions of the United States by foreign powers. He had helped depose six dictators and four corrupt presidents. He had a bevy of skills that served him well, including: defusing land mines, driving tanks, parachuting into hostile territories, infiltrating terrorist compounds, wearing disguises, engaging in underwater hand-to-hand combat, and breaking codes. Plus, he looked awesome in a tuxedo. At one time, Brand was the United States’ most valuable spy. But that was before the accident.
–Michael Buckley, NERDS: National Espionage, Rescue, and Defense Society, prologue.
This example is full of telling, but it works! This is good telling. But what makes good telling good?
Let’s get started!
It Has Voice- aka It’s Not Boring!
Good telling is not boring. While showing is more engaging, good telling will keep the reader interested in the story. Good telling is full of voice.
Michael Buckley has a strong voice. That’s why his telling is interesting and engaging. If you’re in a situation where you have to tell, pack it full with voice. Give it personality!
It Keeps The Story In The Present
Sometimes, you need to tell because you can’t show. Showing requires more words than telling, and honestly, Buckley can’t show Brand saving the world. That would be a whole other book! He has to tell if he wants to get into the plot of the NERDS book.
Your book is about what is happening to the characters now, not prior. Any time you need to address something that happens prior to the events of your book, you no longer focus on the current conflict. You interrupt the story. Back stories and histories are your book’s past, and these you can tell, but be careful of info dumping.
Some writers use flashbacks and other ways to show the past. That is acceptable, though it can be tricky. I prefer to avoid flashbacks, but if you feel your story needs it, make sure it is clear that the scene is a flashback and make sure the flashback relates to the conflict.
It Keeps The Story Going
Your book will have some very exciting scenes, but between every exciting scene is a boring scene. What are these boring scenes? They’re usually transitioning scenes when the characters are traveling, time is passing and skipping, or places are changing.
Every scene in your book should have a conflict or pushing the story forward. Readers don’t like reading scenes that have no conflict and nothing going on. And honestly, do you want to write scenes when your characters are just walking, driving, sitting in class and doing nothing, changing into uniform, and so on?
Summarize and tell the scenes that have no conflict. Show your exciting scenes.
It Gets Past Insignificant Characters and Conversations
You will have characters, places, and things that have little significance in your novel. You will have characters called “the waitress”, “the neighbor”, “the kid”, “the man”, “the woman”, “the mailman”, or whatever. They will only have a few lines and play almost no role to the story. These characters need no development, so it’s better to tell these characters. Your main and supporting characters are the ones you show.
The same is true for insignificant conversation. I have said before that dialogue is a great tool to show, but if your dialogue is like this:
“How are you?”
“I’m good. And you?”
That’s just conversation. There’s nothing exciting about it, and it doesn’t push the plot and story forward. For conversation, just tell it.
It Limits Description
In my post about showing and description, I said it was sometimes acceptable to tell description. I believe description should stay short and to the point, and telling can get to the point. You can read more about this here.
Show, Don’t Tell Series:
Part 2- Show, Don’t Tell: Characterization and Personality
Part 3- Show, Don’t Tell: Emotions, Moods, and Reactions
Part 4- Show, Don’t Tell: Setting, Physical Traits, and Descriptions
Part 5- Show, Don’t Tell: Dialogue
Part 6- Show, Don’t Tell: Good Telling
Part 7- Show, Don’t Tell: Tell, Then Show