Show, Don't Tell - part IX by giraffmang
Okay, just to throw a little spanner in the works of the ‘show, don’t tell’ theme, remember that, sometimes, you need to tell rather than show.
I know this may fly in the face of the sage advice about not telling but it’s true. Back in the first instalment of this series I mentioned that an entire story or book which showed only would be unwieldy and unmanageable. Telling can be utilised in clever ways to alleviate this. One of the best ways of doing so is to use it to gloss over the things which don’t really matter too much, are functional, or lead to the things the reader (and characters) care about.
The Good Stuff.
A good rule of thumb is the old adage ‘enter late, leave early’. You want to start with the good stuff, which engages the reader from the off.
Janice entered the Frog & Toad, hung up her coat, ordered a G&T before sitting down. “Hello,” she said. “How’s it going?’
“Good, good. And you?” Colin replied.
The above section is all pretty functional, and not exactly gripping, which is why you’ll rarely see a story or chapter start with something so pedestrian.
Rather, it’s best to start a scene just as things get interesting. Drop in on the juicy bits.
“You’re dumping me!” Janice’s jaw clenched and her knuckles whitened on the tremoring G&T. They’d barely been at the corner table in the Frog & Toad five minutes before Colin dropped that bombshell.
In the above section, there’s the showing of Janice’s reaction followed by the telling of how they got to this point. That information wasn’t germane, so it’s been told. This allows you to start with a bang rather than a meander. There’s enough information for the reader to get the scene but they’re spared the mundanity of arriving there. It gives the writer the opportunity and space to show the fallout which is more dramatic and meaningful.
Narrative telling such as this is especially useful when characters are revealing things to one another that the reader already knows. [In the examples I used, most readers will be familiar with entering an establishment and ordering a drink, you don’t need the specific details. It’s something of a shared experience whether a coffee house, restaurant, or bar.]
Nothing is more tiresome than a story / novel repeating the same fact over and over.
Laying the groundwork.
Telling can also be instrumental in laying the groundwork for a story or scene before it starts in earnest. Telling is a big component for prologues. There’s a lot of argument over whether prologues are a good thing or not, but they can be useful, especially in speculative or science fiction where authors like to orient the reader about the world they’ll be experiencing before the tale proper kicks in.
One of the most well-known examples of this is in Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings.’ The prologue is entitled ‘Concerning Hobbits’ and is a pages-long essay detailing the history and culture of the heroes.
Hobbits are an unobtrusive but very ancient people, more numerous formerly than they are today; for they love peace and quiet and good tilled earth: a well-ordered and well-farmed countryside was their favourite haunt.
Tolkien’s prologue is a whole load of telling — framed as an extract from a history book published in Middle Earth. It offers a 'wide-angle' introduction to Tolkien's world without taking readers out of its reality.
Personally, I’m not a big fan of prologues and like to experience things as they unfold, perhaps through a bit of dialogue or well-introduced backstory, but they do have their purposes. The use of telling in a prologue is a valuable world-building tool.
When speed is of the essence.
Unnecessary tangents can affect the pacing of scene, or story. Too many detours from the main action or thrust of the tale can kill the storytelling momentum. The key with knowing when to show and when to tell can come down to only showing details which matter.
If a supporting character loses their keys, for example, unless it matters why / how he lost them, don’t spend a lot of wordage describing how he hunted for them. Instead consider these –
The less importance something has to the story you’re telling, the fewer words should be devoted to it – and this is where telling comes in handy.
Changes in time and pace.
Purists of showing can always find sensory ways of describing where and when a scene takes place; church clocks chiming the hour, The Financial Times tucked under an arm, and so on.
However, sometimes, these incidental details, while adding depth, hinder the pacing and momentum of the storytelling. It may be more advantageous to say, ‘It was 2pm in London and Henry was late for his appointment again.’
In conclusion, showing is a great way to approach your writing but if describing something in great sensory detail doesn’t progress the story or inform the reader about something they should know, don’t do it…
Just tell it!
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