Show Versus Tell Part 2: Tell
You might need to Tell more, Show less.
What?!?!?! Is that even possible? Yes. It’s also necessary. Why? We’ll get to that in a little bit.
The good news is, you probably already do a lot of telling in your rough drafts. But if you’ve been diligently seeking and replacing all versions of Tell with Show, you might have gone a little overboard suffusing your story with details (a common pitfall of revision).
The result is a WIP bogged down by too much Show. Check that phrase: bogged down. Brings to mind an image of someone slogging through a bog, each step a struggle to pull against gravity, against the suck of thick muck and gnarled weeds.
Give the reader a rest with some Tell bits.
How, though? To understand it best, let’s take a look at why we should use Tell in favor of Show, and where this is appropriate in the story.
The journey was long and difficult.
How do you know?
Because we had to leave the horses in the last village and continue on foot. Sharp stones from shattered boulders littered the cliff-side path. For a month we marched, burdened by food packs that we cursed while the rain-gorged ground threatened to crumble from beneath our feet and send us sliding to the blade-edge peaks of frozen water below.
Cool. Now why should we convert such a description into Tell?
If the character uses this path more than once, the next time we visit it could be summarized by Tell. Same goes for if most of the terrain is like this. We don’t need to know how long and difficult the journey was every single time.
Let’s look at another instance:
Jason was a serial cheater.
How do you know?
Because when he was dating my friend Carla, he was cheating on her with Claire. Then when he was with Claire, he cheated on her with Brenda. Then when he was with Brenda, he cheated on her with Bill.
How important was that list of names? How important is Jason in the story? The more you show about a character, the more important he seems. In fact, we could parse out that description to last half the story. Is half the story about Jason? Or is he simply coming in to reveal something important? If he has a bit part, give him a “bit” description.
Boil it down to exactly what the reader needs in order to understand his revelation in the correct light. If Jason is a serial cheater, then he might be a practiced liar. Which means I should hold what he has to say in my head, but prepare myself for the moment it might be proven false. And what a delightful surprise it would be if he’s actually telling the truth! (There’s your sophistication right there.)
So, second instance of Telling instead of Showing: The reader needs to Know something, rather than Feel it. You are presenting information that, for the purpose of your story, must be understood exactly the way you present it, with no room for alternate interpretations.
Let’s do one more.
Countess Vanessa’s house was immense.
How do you know?
Because each time I visited, I had to go through the atrium, which was so large a cottage could fit inside. Then I went through the front hall, which was so long, an entire barn could fit within. And then I had to go through the ballroom, which was so big and tall we could fit a football game within, including a few thousand spectators. Then I had to go through …
For the love of all that’s holy, if I had to read paragraph after paragraph of this, I would insist you paid me by the hour because it would be work. How much of this information do I need to retain?
I ask because of the implication that each scene is important. Otherwise, why would you include it?
When you get to a Showing scene, ask yourself: is this scene necessary.
Of course it is.
But ask yourself: Does this scene do more than one thing?
Introduce another meaning to an established Theme?
In other words, Does this scene do something different than the other scenes before it?
If the answer is still a resounding Yes, then keep it as is.
If it’s a meek yes, then trust your instinct. You put the scene in for a reason. It’s probably because something happens in a location or situation we’ve been in before and you need to move us to that location. Just Tell it!
We returned to Countess Vanessa’s immense house.
When you’re segueing from one Show instance to another Show instance, Telling imparts valuable information necessary to understand the next scene in the right light. But it also gives the reader’s mind a necessary break. A Tell instance allows for passive absorption of information.
Yes, I said Passive. It’s the slight lull between interactive Show scenes in which a reader can digest what happened just before, and get ready for what’s about to occur.
A Telling instance can also be a chance for you to reveal your narrator’s thought process: “I was angry, but I grinned and laughed my way through the party.” If your character must appear jovial, how would you Show the anger?
Without a Telling summary or a Telling narrative, a story’s pace of Show after Show can feel overwhelming.
Here’s the checklist for when Tell might be the better option:
1. To impart (solid, necessary, unarguable) information.
2. Summarize repeated movement or habits.
3. Control story’s pace.
Caveat! The Tell is only as important as what surrounds it. There’s no formula or ratio like for every three Shows you must include one Tell. It’s more a part of Pacing, controlling the heartbeat of your book. More often than not, a Beta reader will tell you about Pacing issues. Check that chapter or scene and see where your narrator can tell more, and you could show less.
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