How to Write Fiction: When To Tell Instead of Show

Many writers wonder how to write fiction well. There are all sorts of messages floating around. And I’m here to tell you something scandalous about the biggest of them all: Sometimes it’s better to tell instead of show. Yes, yes, I know. Everyone has heard of, “Show, don’t tell.”

show don't tell, writing, how to write fiction, writing fiction characters, how to write good fiction, how to write a good novel
Showing you why telling is sometimes better than showing.

The Truth About “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, clichΓ© 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.

***

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.

Writing Good Telling Topic Sentences

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 to write fiction and 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.

Telling in Action and Dialogue

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?

How to Write Fiction Telling in Transitional Moments

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.

Telling to Get on the Same Page as the Reader

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.

***

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. 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.

Do you struggle with writing fiction characters who are complex and compelling? Still struggle with telling and showing? Hire me as your manuscript editor for book editing services.

63 Replies to “How to Write Fiction: When To Tell Instead of Show”

  1. Good telling, IMO, is much harder than good showing. Kind of have to take that old essay adage (tell em, tell em what you told em, tell em again) and figure out whether to remove two or three tell ems (and usually insert one show em) and which tell em (succinctly executed, of course) emphasize your show em most effectively.

  2. Melissa and Mary, I have always wondered about, “Show, don’t tell.”
    Its something I have read in several blogs. This post does help clear things up. I will go through Potter this time keeping an eye open for telling sentences.

  3. Thank you for this insight. It might help to relax the tension whenever I feel the need to tell something. I’m headed down to my home library now to pick Harry Potter off my shelf. πŸ™‚

  4. A good essay, this.

    I think switching between showing and telling is a useful tool for handling pace. there are times when the reader just needs to know something quickly and clearly so that we can get on with the story.

  5. I love this essay!! It makes me want to go reread all the books…that could cost me my weekend.

    But seriously, the way Melissa broke her use of telling sentences is awesome. It makes sense. Sometimes I struggle at the keyboard, trying to figure out how to move quickly and smoothly into my next setting/emotion/conflict, so it’s great to see examples like this. I also read most of Cheryl Klein’s article–really great stuff.

    Bravo, Mary, Melissa, and Cheryl πŸ™‚

  6. Thanks, Mary. So much fun to see my name in lights! (I’ve decided that a lighted computer screen counts as lights for the day.)

    Most of Beverly Cleary’s work is relatively old, but she’s a genius, so I figure we can still learn from her. I’ve noticed lately that she often sandwiches her telling in between specific showing sentences. In the first paragraph of RAMONA AND HER FATHER, I’d label the sentences Show, Good Tell, Good Tell, Show:

    “Ye-e-ep!” sang Ramona Quimby one warm September afternoon, as she knelt on a chair at the kitchen table to make out her Christmas list. She had enjoyed a good day in second grade, and she looked forward to working on her list. For Ramona a Christmas list was a list of presents she hoped to receive, not presents she planned to give. “Ye-e-ep!” she sang again.

    So there you go. It’s the opposite of the pattern I found in HARRY POTTER.

  7. Thanks, Mary! So much fun to see my name in lights! (For today I’m considering a lighted computer screen to be lights.)

    I’m a bit obsessive about the showing and telling thing, so I could put up a lot more examples from books, but I’ll hold myself to just one. Beverly Cleary often follows a pattern opposite to the one I found in HARRY POTTER. She hides her Good Telling in the middle of her paragraphs. The first paragraph of RAMONA AND HER FATHER goes Show, Good Tell, Good Tell, Show, like this:

    “Ye-e-ep!” sang Ramona Quimby one warm September afternoon, as she knelt on a chair at the kitchen table to make out her Christmas list. She had enjoyed a good day in second grade, and she looked forward to working on her list. For Ramona a Christmas list was a list of presents she hoped to receive, not presents she planned to give. “Ye-e-ep!” she sang again.

    It’s like a Good Telling sandwich on Show-grain bread. Mmmm.

  8. Love, love, love this post. I have had gut feelings that sometimes telling is right, but I never had a logical explanation as to why. Now I can go back and check!

    Will go off now to hunt for examples in the books I’m carrying with me.

    Thanks, Melissa and Mary!

  9. I like the “walking from room to room” metaphor. I aim for dramatic writing, but I have to remind myself to use a good telling sentence from time to time to manage the flow of traffic.

  10. Melissa,

    My all time hero is Beverly Cleary, and so what I am about to say feels sacriligious. But as I read your example, I couldn’t help but feel that the Ramona passage sounds too adult and thereby intrusive. In contrast, JK Rowling’s “telling” is soothing and I feel transported. Maybe it’s the British lilt.

    …okay, now I’m going to just sit here and wait for the lightning bolt to strike : )

  11. Toni,

    I agree with you. In Melissa’s Beverly Cleary example I also found the telling to also be intrusive.

    This is why this topic is a dangerous. Very few authors, including published ones, suffer from using too little “good telling.” Most of them have way too much lazy telling.

    So I’m a bit concerned that a lot of novice writers are going to feel greater freedom to also be lazy and start using a lot of passive or intrusive writing thinking they are using “good telling.” At the very least, what constitutes “good telling” is going to be, in many cases, quite subjective.

  12. Awesome post! Was actually reflecting on the fact that the rule “show, don’t tell” actually leads to a lot of the “shudder running through him” stuff which is actually….still telling. “He was afraid” = telling. “A shudder ran through him” = still telling but being evasive. πŸ™‚

  13. — Toni

    Bongo, being chivalrous, will now allow the lightning bolt to be directed at him. Thus Bongo will aim his criticisms higher than Beverly Cleary and at J. K. Rowling herself. There is a saying in Bongo’s country, why grab the cow by the bell, when you can grab the bull by the balls.

    In “Harry Potter” there are so many examples of bad telling. Just search all the times Rowling uses “was” and “were” over and over again. Though a wonderful world builder, she might not be the best person to study in terms of craft.

    Look at the third “Potter” book where the last couple of chapters, the deus ex machina aside, are also a clear example of a big-name writer using a ton of bad telling.

  14. Rules, rules, rules. We all seek them so that, in the end, we can break them. But you know all about that, don’t you, Bongo ? wink-wink

  15. Which brings me to the next burning question…Why are all adverbs illegal now? Seems to me a very occasional, properly placed, -ly should be allowed without a slap on the wrist.

  16. I think, as writers, we can’t just memorizie the rules. We have to learn how to mindfully apply, bend, and break the rules as needed.

    Also, how to translate the rules — e.g. How do rules for novelists translate to writing picture books?

  17. Yay! I love this post. I can’t wait to look through my MS and check for good telling (I’m pretty sure I have at least one instance . . . LOL).

  18. Toni and J.R.–I take your point. I was working from a British version of the Beverly Cleary book, which might be part of the reason you’re feeling the language is a bit off. But if any of us want to imitate the actual patterns of showing and telling in published books, we should probably look to newer writers. (Meanwhile, we can still learn from Beverly Cleary’s awesome, awesome, awesome ability to understand and contrast kid thinking vs. adult thinking.)

    Bongo–I don’t think anybody is beyond reproach. Even rock star billionaire writers who write awesome seven-book series that still keep me fascinated on the fifth or sixth reading. I agree that there are instances of Bad Telling in some of J.K. Rowling’s books. Lightning bolts may strike now where they will.

  19. Yeah, Carolyn, agreed – the rules are often tough to navigate. Not to harp on Rowling’s style, but she uses -ly adverbs almost as often as Bongo comments on Mary’s posts (almost). But for us new writers, two -ly adverbs on the first page will get you rejected faster than writing “Adolf Hitler” in your by-line. But what can you do, that’s how it works nowadays.

  20. I agree with Seth, there has to be a balance between the “RULES” and what’s good. And aspiring authors have to lean on the conservative side usually.

    But, before I attempted to study craft, Rowling’s book was the most enchanting, amazing, well written thing in my life. As I study craft, every time I reread her books they are still just as awesomely wonderful, as long as I can silence that nagging inner editor I’ve developed. Rowling uses adverbs all the time. She tells instead of shows. And I have to admit I LOVE it.

    I think Shari M has a valid point, one Mary’s made before–and that’s to learn the rules and then bend them. If every writer became ridiculously dogmatic about telling and other writer sins (adverbs), books would probably suffer.

    Sometimes it’s nice just to tell the reader about a quick transition instead of using multiple paragraphs to describe it with vivid sensory details.

  21. Thank you for this analysis. It’s brilliant!

    When I give my stuff to my readers one of the most common comments I get is, “You just showed me that! Why are you telling it, too?” It’s so frustrating because I haven’t developed the chops yet to catch my mistake. I have both the Ramona book and the Harry Potter. I’m taking a class in show-and-tell right after work. πŸ™‚

  22. Bongo will assume “allergies” is code for untamable lust.

    Bongo could also use a little encouragement from Mary, too. Hint: Bongo does not mind being called “My Stallion.”

    Finally, Bongo is warming to this Melissa person. Would requesting a semi-nude photo be considered crass?

  23. Fantastic reference to leading descriptions with topic sentences that mark change. So glad I read this article. Wonderful to learn about you. When reading Harry Potter, I pause periodically and wonder how does she do it. How did she do that, just then. And I never have figured it out. I will go though them again with your theories in mind.

  24. I like the way James Scott Bell approaches showing and telling in his book, Revision and Self-Editing. He says that by creating an intensity scale, it can help you decide when to tell and when to show. The more intensity in character emotions and feelings, the more you go toward the show side. Less intensity goes toward the telling side.

  25. Beth — James Scott Bell’s intensity scale makes a lot of sense to me too.

    KellieD — Thanks for offering up a theory that applies to picture books. I’m hoping for a little clarification, if you don’t mind:

    Do you mean you are allowed more telling in picture books because you need to move things along quickly (due to the low word count)?

    Or do you mean that a higher percentage of the telling needs to be “good” since there is so little wiggle room in picture books (again, due to the low word count)?

    Anyone else have a picture book show-vs.-tell theory?

  26. I really enjoyed this post, and it came at a very opportune time for me. I’m in my second novel course at ICL, and got my last assignment back this afternoon. My instructor was very direct in showing me places in my manuscript where my dialogue was either repetitive or just kind of…there, and she felt that exposition would work much better. As writers, I think we all have some difficulty in determining how much “telling” (exposition/description/narration) we should have, as opposed to “showing” through action and dialogue. We keep getting hung up on the adage we’re all taught…show don’t tell…and many times leave out the kind of telling we really should have.

    Thanks, Mary!

  27. Bongo – I agree about the Harry Potter books. The first one is tight from great editing, but I think there was such a rush to get the others to market after the success of the first that editing slipped some.

    As for finding an example to contribute – It’s not as easy as I thought it would be! I’m still looking for something that makes me go, “ah-ha! That’s obviously Good Telling!” Maybe tomorrow.

  28. Shari M. – I think I need to revisit my initial comment. Good Telling (as it is being described here) probably increases the word count of PBs. I’ve been looking through my current stack of PBs to find Good Telling examples. Here’s what I have for examples to share. . .

    Polly Dunbar’s DOODLE BITES. Opening lines go something like this: “Doodle woke up feeling bitey. After she chomped her breakfast, she chewed the mail.” I think this examples stands as an example of Good Telling in PBs — topic sentence followed by showing through action.

    Now I’m looking at Helen Lester’s HOOWAY FOR WODNEY WAT, page 8: “All of this teasing day in and day out made Wodney the shyest rodent in his elementary school. His squeak could barely be heard in class. He gnawed lunch alone. And while the other rodents scurried and scooted about at recess, Wodney hid inside his jacket.” Another example of topic sentence followed by showing.

    So, this is my (revised) theory: I think PB writers can get away with telling more than novelists due to word count constraints and pacing. But I still think the rule of telling only when necessary applies. You can find examples of Good Telling in PBs. As I look through books, telling helps with word count, but Good Telling doesn’t necessarily serve that purpose. I think the Good Telling approach as discussed here helps with emphasis.

  29. I’ve always felt that the ‘show don’t tell’ piece of advice is a bit of a falsehood, to be honest. Or rather, it’s a false distinction. There’s really only good narrative (or bad narrative); good narrative shows AND tells at the same time. It can’t not do both. Even a line like ‘Harry had the best morning he’d had in a long time’ – it’s not just telling, it shows you his mood, because we all know from our own experience what a ‘best morning’ feels like, so it’s the most economical way to convey that feeling directly – even if our morning isn’t quite like Harry’s.

  30. Great post. I love finding great telling. I find great telling often at the beginning of a story.

    In Ally Carter’s I’d Tell You I love You but Then I’d Have to Kill You – the whole first page and more is telling. But the story premise is unique and the voice is so great that it doesn’t matter. I knew I’d love the book from the whole telling first paragraph!

  31. Cynthia Voigt (Dicey’s Song, “The Kingdom” series, Newberry award winner) is a master. She combines it all seamlessly, so I never even notice if she’s “telling” me something.

  32. PS I should add that I would usually go and look in my (my daughter’s!) large library of PBs but we’re away from home. I’m sure there must be lots of examples of PBs where the telling is good… is there anyone willing to do some more research, like KellieD? (Thanks, KellieD!) I’d love to know about this.

  33. Siski. . . there’s less of everything b/c we have the illustrations. Ha!

    But in choosing our words, we clearly have to decide the value of telling v. showing depending on our story and how fast we need to get where we are going. And how fun we want to make it. For example, I have a manuscript that I’m working on about a girl exploring a cubicle maze in an office. I could say “I walked through the maze of desks looking for my dad’s boss” or I could say “Up and down. Up and down. Up and down” and let the illustrations do the rest.

    I’m going to stick with my revised theory of Good Telling in PBs used for emphasis when needed — when an illustration can’t adequately convey a point and there’s a need to tie together a few actions or dialogue.

    I’m sure Mary will set me straight if I’m blathering about something that is completely off-base. . . she’s got the MFA, not me!

  34. Thanks, Kellie. It made me wonder because some time ago someone who critiqued my work (not from my crit group) once quite viciously attacked the one instance of telling I had in a PB. I’m still not sure whether it should’ve been there or not… maybe I’ll PM you over at Verla’s and you can tell me what you think!

  35. Siski: I get that at times, too. I think it is a matter of style and preference of a critter. There is always a way to show rather than tell, but the question is: does it make sense for the rhythm (different than rhyme!) of your particular story? PM away. . .

  36. 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.

  37. 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.

  38. 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).

  39. 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.

  40. 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

  41. 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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