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When To Tell Instead of Show

Sometimes it’s better to tell instead of show. Yes, yes, I know. Everyone has heard of, “Show, don’t tell.”

I think I’ll get into this subject more in future posts, but let’s just say that a lot of convoluted, cliche stuff happens when a writer desperately tries to avoid telling (like hammering hearts and foot-tapping gestures, instead of just saying, “She was nervous,” or “He hated when she was late,” or whatever). For now, though, I want to give you a fantastic introduction to why (and when) telling can work.

I never pretended to know everything about writing, but I’ve never posted in-depth thoughts from a reader, either. Today’s the day. A few months ago, a reader sent in a very thought-provoking, well-written essay on just this very issue. Here are some of Melissa Koosmann’s thoughts on Good Telling, as she sees it after reading some HARRY POTTER and the thoughts of Scholastic editor Cheryl Klein. This is brilliant stuff. I could’ve talked about it, but she just did it much better.

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I’ve been looking for, and finding, Good Telling in books for some time, but I couldn’t find a pattern in it until a week or two ago, when I stumbled on a transcript of Cheryl Klein’s speech “A Few Things Writers Can Learn from Harry Potter.” In this speech, Klein discusses J.K. Rowling’s use of showing and telling–including the Good Telling I’m so curious about.

Good Telling, according to Klein, often appears in topic sentences–like the ones we all learned how to write in fifth grade. Klein makes a great example of a topic sentence from a descriptive paragraph and claims that there’s a pattern of that sort of sentence throughout the book. I’ve been going through a copy of HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE, and she’s right.

There’s a Good Telling sentence at the beginning of most descriptive paragraphs. Consider this one in chapter two, when Harry is thrilled he gets to go to the zoo: “Harry had the best morning he’d had in a long time.” Kind of bland, eh? But it’s followed by a neat couple of sentences that show Harry keeping out of Dudley’s punching range and eating a dessert Dudley doesn’t want. This does a double job of showing: it makes Harry’s life seem pretty dismal, and it makes him seem like a nice kid. Without the Good Telling topic sentence, those neat details wouldn’t pack as much punch. As Klein puts it, “Sometimes readers need the plain straightforward direction of telling to elucidate the point of all that showing.”

So far so good–but that’s description, and I’m most interested in how Good Telling works in action and dialogue. So I stepped back and looked at the telling that happens in those areas, and I found that Klein’s topic sentence observation applies there, too. It’s just that the Good Telling sentence directs the reader through a whole beat of text–a bunch of paragraphs rather than a single one. When a Good Telling sentence shows up, it usually marks a change: either a physical jump in time or space, or a subtle shift in mood or focus. Check out these Good Telling sentences from Harry’s trip to the zoo, still in chapter 2 of PHILOSOPHER’S STONE:

1. “But today, nothing was going to go wrong.” Something immediately goes wrong. Harry makes the mistake of saying he dreamed about a flying motorcycle, and Uncle Vernon gets mad.
2. “But he [Harry] wished he hadn’t said anything.” The narrative shifts to internal thoughts as Harry reflects that his aunt and uncle hate him talking about things acting in ways they shouldn’t. This segment is part showing and part telling, but it ends with a Good Telling sentence, too. More on that later.
3. “Harry felt, afterward, that he should have known it was all too good to last.” Gulp! There’s a small place shift to the reptile house as well as a big mood shift because the reader is prepared for something truly terrible to happen. Not long later, Harry makes the glass on the snake cage vanish.

After I started to see this pattern, I could detect it more often in places where a lot of dialogue and action were happening, where the Good Telling sentences weren’t so eye-catching. And guess what? There’s a web of Good Telling working its way through the whole novel, supporting the narrative shifts that carry the reader from one emotional beat to the next. Rowling dispenses with these sentences at times when crisp, clear action and dialogue can carry the story forward on their own, but it’s rare for her to go more than a couple of pages without an instance of Good Telling.

I like the way Klein calls these types of sentences “topic sentences,” but it’s normally only in the descriptive paragraphs that they actually state a topic. Otherwise they act as invitations to the reader. It’s as if J.K. Rowling is saying, “Hey, over here! Harry’s stepping into a new room now, so why don’t you come on in with him?” or “Hi again! I just wanted to let you know Harry’s disappointment is about to shift to full-fledged anger” or “Watch out! New character stepping in!” Obviously the actual writing is far more subtle than that, but the Good Telling is instrumental in carrying readers along with the flow of change in the story.

Good Telling doesn’t always show up at the beginning of a beat. Rowling varies it on occasion, usually by beginning with a few flashy lines of dialogue–followed by a straightforward Good Telling sentence. Good Telling also leads out of an emotional beat of the text almost as often as it leads in. After showing a whole string of actions, along with punchy details that illuminate how Harry feels about them, she often makes use of a pause in pacing to state that Harry does indeed feel the way we think he’s feeling. Klein calls this “a confirmation for the reader, directing the emotional takeaway from whatever happened.”

Once you’re looking for it, this lead-in, lead-out pattern of Good Telling pops up in many books. And thinking about it makes writing easier. It doesn’t make for a very pretty writing rule, though: Show and Good Tell, don’t Bad Tell.

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Can you find any examples of Good Telling? Talk about them in the comments. I’ve been wanting to mine my theatre/actor training and how it relates to writing for a while, and Melissa’s discussion of beats, above, is just one more reason for me to put on my thinking cap. I’m so happy that Melissa took the time to share her thoughts with me, and now I can share them with you.

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  1. Karen Cioffi’s avatar

    Wonderful and thorough article, Melissa. It’s such a difficult topic, and one that writers struggle to achieve all the time–just the right balance, especially when a number of publishers, especially children’s are hooked on the ‘as little telling as possible,’ good or bad.

    Mary, thanks for sharing Melissa’s insight.

  2. Edna’s avatar

    I enjoyed this blog post immensely. Thanks, Mary and Melissa! Someone asked for thoughts on picture books, so as an author/illustrator, I’d like to address the topic. IMHO, the adage “show, don’t tell” is mistakenly adopted as common wisdom for PB’s, sending newbie PB writers down a path littered with extraneous adjectives and flat story arcs.

    A compelling story with enticing page turns and growing, climactic tension and satisfying resolution within 32 pages, at under 800 words, IS a tall order. But it can be accomplished with ‘good telling’ because much of the ‘showing’ is done through the illustrations themselves.

    In the iconic PB, ‘Where The Wild Things Are,’ a healthy dose of telling is interspersed with Sendak’s mesmerizing illustrations. From pages 15 to 19, one sentence carries Max (and the reader) from one place to another: ‘That very night in Max’s room a forest grew and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around.’ The reader is transported to a lush, magical setting described primarily through pigment.

    Lastly, rhythm and pacing or ‘beat’ is a significant ingredient in PB’s. The story should sound good to our ears. With ‘good telling,’ these same words also propel the story forward.

  3. dirtywhitecandy’s avatar

    Terrific post. Jane Austen does ‘good telling’ and summarising the whole time in Pride and Prejudice. It’s still vivid and absorbing. I’m tweeting this

  4. Franziska Green’s avatar

    Thanks, Edna. What you say backs up what Kellie said about PBs too. Makes me happy too, as I kept the ‘telling’ part in my PB (the one another critiquer told me I had to get rid of).

  5. Nicholas Rose’s avatar

    This was a very helpful post. From the sound of things, “telling” is good when it directs the reader, simplifies things, varies the sentence structure a bit, or simply “sounds right.” It’s nice to hear that it’s okay sometimes to plainly tell the reader what’s going on, rather than always strain to show every single moment of the story.

  6. Adventures in Children's Publishing’s avatar

    This was a thought-provoking post. I spent several days stewing about your points and some of the things Michael Bourret wrote on telling versus showing in his recent manuscript submissions, and couldn’t resist putting it all together tonight in a blog post. Hope you don’t mind if I included a number of your examples.

    http://childrenspublishing.blogspot.com/2010/06/deciding-when-to-show-and-when-to-tell.html

    Thanks so much,

    Martina

  7. taft’s avatar

    Really good stuff, thanks!

  8. Maria’s avatar

    I think “show not tell” is just writer-jargon for “You didn’t get it right.”
    I’ve read the Harry Potter series once. I didn’t notice an annoying amount of telling, because the interesting parts were shown, with plenty of vivid detail.

    It’s easy in writing to get caught up in “showing” everything. I think that’s contributed to the backlash against “-ly.” Writers have been repeatedly told “show, not tell,” so they feel they can’t simply say, “she said.”

    Not every minute detail needs to be shown to the reader. In between showing and telling there’s also another concept, of “conveying.” What is the purpose of all the showing? If it doesn’t convey some emotion or meaning to the story, then it’s fluff. If it does, then it doesn’t matter if you show or tell. If a “telling” statement sets a tone, or supports the pace of the action, then it works.

    I have never been able to work with the concept of show not tell. I think about scenes, actions, visuals, vivid details and word choice.

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