Monday, April 21, 2014

When is it okay to tell rather than show in my story?

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

A week ago I posted on how to show your story rather than tell it. The trick we learnedcourtesy of Jeff Gerkeis to ask ourselves, "Could the camera see this? Could the microphone pick this up?" And if not, we should ask how to make it visible or audible.

This trick keeps us from writing phrases like, "Piper felt angry." Though a sentence like, "Piper smiled," isn't telling because it's something the audience can see.

After reading last Monday's post, you might have been tempted to rip from your novel every phrase that can't be put on a stage. But let's consider this sentence:
If he didn’t know it already, Jeremiah Crane is about to learn that I’m not the type of girl to be pushed around.
This is the first line of my manuscript. You can make a case that it's telling. After all, you can't see or hear that on a stage, can you?

But this falls in the quirky category of internal monologue. We're tuned in to Piper's thoughts as she prepares to engage in a battle to defend her friend. And if we had a microphone in her head, we would be able to hear this. When you're checking your internal monologue to see if you've crossed over to telling, that's a good test to run. Because it would be telling if I instead used one of these:

I'm angry with Jeremiah Crane and intend to teach him I'm not the type of girl to be pushed around.
When Jeremiah takes the seat my friend is about to sit in, I decide to teach him I'm not the type of girl to be pushed around.

These cross a subtle line into telling because they are sentences that seek to explain to the reader what is happening and which emotion the character is feeling.

And that's what telling primarily isexplaining something to the reader rather than letting them interpret details for themselves.

So when can you explain something to your reader?

You have to make sure it's a question your reader has been asking.

A common issue among new fantasy writers is to open with a prologue that details the history of their country. But on page one, your reader is not asking about the history of the country. They don't care yet because you haven't given them a reason to.

And almost all new writers (and some not-so-new writers) struggle with dumping too much character backstory into the first few chapters. We do this because we desperately want our readers to understand everything. We don't want them to be confused, so we pause the story to explain.

Let's look at something on page one in my manuscript. This is still Jeremiah and my main character, Piper.

Jeremiah glances at my hand. “I see you haven’t changed.”
I push my bruised hand into my pocket.
Jeremiah’s gaze flicks beyond me. “I believe your friend has found another place to wait. If talking to me offends you so, perhaps you should join her.”

Now what if I had instead written:

He glances at my hand. “I see you haven’t changed.”
I push my bruised hand into my pocket. Sister Alice had beaten me with the ruler again when my sewing stitches weren't even.Jeremiah’s gaze flicks beyond me. “I believe your friend has found another place to wait. If talking to me offends you so, perhaps you should join her.”

The first example is more intriguing. Why is Piper's had bruised? What kind of girl is this? But in the second example, I raise the question in one sentence and answer it in the next. That won't build intrigue and keep readers turning pages.

How do you know if the reader is asking the question? You should be dropping in teasers, same as you would as you're pacing a big reveal in your story. For something like Piper's hand, which isn't a big part of the story, I'll maybe make one more mention of it before we find out what happened. Even then, I'm going to do my best to tell as much as I can in dialogue rather than outright pausing the story.

For something bigger, you may require a flashback or a brief here's-what-happened summary. You can get away with doing this only once or twice during a novel, so make sure you pick wisely, that you've placed your hints well, and that you don't dawdle your way through the explanation.

Here's another fine time to tell rather than show - in the first draft.

My first drafts are full of telling. It didn't take me long to pull a few examples out of my manuscript. (These are pulled from different sections and are unrelated to each other.)

I lean back in my seat, deflated
I laugh and feel strangely embarrassed as I touched my bobbed hair. 
“Piper, I’m going to give up baseball.”
Give up baseball? Walter has been obsessed with baseball his entire life. And he’s so good. “How can you even think that? Did training not go well?”

Those are all moments that I crossed into explaining to my readers rather than letting them interpret. When I do my micro-edit (my second round of edits) I'll be looking for ways to convert this telling to showing.

Are there any questions I can help answer about this?


  1. Thanks, Stephanie. I'm probably telling more than showing, but I'm still in the firat draft. Later... :)
    Quick, unrelated question: how long does it usually take you to write your first draft, Stephanie? Do you manage to write almot every day? Thanks again

    1. Keeping in mind that I write bare bones first drafts, they usually take me about 8-12 weeks if I'm able to get consistent writing time. I rarely write on weekends, but usually 5 days a week.

  2. Do you have a tip for how to discover telling in a story (and I don't mean the '-ly-rule', but how you for example see that your last example is telling)? Or is this telling because it's just too much like 'info-dumping'? How would you replace it?

    1. That last one is telling because it can't be seen on a stage or picked up with a microphone. I'm just coming right out and telling you that Walter has always loved baseball. When it comes time to edit, I'll probably move it into dialogue. "How can you quit? You've been obsessed with baseball as long I've known you. And you're so good!" Something like that.

  3. Internal monologue is something I'm really bad at, because I learned the 'show don't tell' rule almost before I started writing. This post was really helpful to me! Thanks, Stephanie.

    ~Sarah Faulkner

  4. Thank you so much for this post! I have gotten so much better at showing because of posts like this! I do have a question though......what if your character can read people expressions? What goes into telling and what isn't? Robin and I are really struggling with this.

    1. Yes, I agree. I have a character who can look into your eyes and feel your emotions. Where is the line between telling and showing when it comes to something like that?

    2. What a great question! If they can read an expression or feel an emotion like that, it's not telling. It's just part of your character's thought life.

    3. Okay! Thank you so much! But when I am saying "when I looked at him, I felt his grief like it was my own," or "I was swept over with gratitude," (because she FEELS people's emotions) should I give subtle hints to help support the emotion she's feeling that they're feeling? If that makes sense... lol. Like, "His brow crinkled and when I caught his eye I was filled with concern." I just don't want to slip into telling... it's a hard power for my character to have and not tell...

    4. I have trouble with my character being a nurse. She notices that the man in the front seat of the train is hunched over and his breathing labored. OK? What if my reader wonders why in the hairy did the author say that? Why does she notice that? That's weird! Any suggestions?

    5. Ohio Gal, the "hunched over and breathing labored," part should be perfectly fine! You're not telling anything- you're showing me that he is probably sick, or winded, or wounded. My curiosity is aroused and I wonder why he is acting like that and what might have happened to him. For all I know some assassins might have sneaked on the train and stabbed him in the back, or something. This phrase arouses a lot of questions. The good kind too. ;)

    6. Eliza's response is perfect. I completely agree.

    7. To answer your question, Eliza ... that's really tricky. I'm sure it'll take some wordsmithing, but I would try to avoid the "feel" word. Instead I would lean more toward phrases like "His anger burned in my heart" or "Frustration swelled." Only in your unique voice :)

  5. Great post! I have a very hard time with knowing when to show and when to tell. Of course I always lean towards telling. ;P

  6. When do you know you have too much internal monologue?

    1. I'm not Stephanie or Jill, and I think 'too much' is a rather subjective term, but for me the lightbulb goes off when my main character has been thinking so long I forget she has a sword in her hand. ;)

    2. Lol - Miri, that's perfect. Yeah, it's a balance. I did a post on it that might be helpful:


  7. Great post! I'm very glad to be back on Go Teen Writers. (I gave up writing advice for Lent.)

    Oh, show and tell. My over-telling began when I forgot to bring my toy to show in kindergarten -Kidding!- and has continued into my writing life...

    Mostly I have problems with the usual "she felt" in addition explaining every single emotion/ why it occurred in the protagonist, but I also have some weirder ones. Like when my MC's dragon's mind/emotions/senses meld with hers, and body language becomes extremely confusing. Do I tell the reader what the emotion is, or make them guess about the significance of itchy scales? I'm hoping this is one of those times where it's okay to tell.

    Can there be more telling in a story if it fits the voice of the protagonist? I've noticed some narrators come right out and say how they feel about the situation, and others beat around the bush.

    1. What a creative thing to give up! I'm both impressed and pleased that you're back :)

      Those are great, difficult questions, Miri. Some telling sprinkled in there won't kill your story, certainly. I would at least try brainstorming ways to write those moments without it, but ultimately you might decide that telling works better for it.

      And I would say a hesitant yes that some protagonists might have more of a telling voice. Hesitant because I wouldn't advise leaning on that when a critique partner says there's too much telling. Does that make sense?

  8. Thank you for this post Stephanie. I cant seem to get enough on this topic, as I struggle a lot with it (Here I was about to write "I feel like I struggle a lot with it", arggh)

    1. Don't feel (lol) bad about that, Arlette. I had to read, read, and read again articles on passive versus active voice before it finally clicked. You'll get there. And you may even be further along than you think!