When is it okay to TELL?

“Show, Don’t Tell.” Like Robin said yesterday, it’s such old advice it's probably found in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Yet I still need to hear it all the time. In my mad rush to spit a story out, I often forget that the story is the journey, that it’s how we get to the end that matters, not the fact of being there. In that rush, I am guilty of telling. Lots of telling. And that’s fine, really, because it’s only a first draft. But once it’s down, I get to sit with a highlighter and a red pen to figure out which parts are telling.

And the page ends up looking something like this:

But some telling is okay. Probably not as much as I tend to do, but some. In Revision and Self-Editing for Publication, James Scott Bell writes that, “A novel that tried to show every single thing would end up one thousand pages, most of it boring,” and that a good rule to follow is, “the more intense the moment, the more showing you do” (p. 148). You could spend six pages showing your character emptying her locker at the end of the school year: 

She slid her fingers around the dull spirals of her chemistry notebook, easing it from its space between her English binder and her algebra textbook. A crumpled note came out next to it—something James had stuffed there earlier in the year. She placed both of them in her backpack, wrinkling her nose at the scent of her uneaten tuna roll. Next came her English binder, which felt solid and comforting in her hand, heavy with the beauty of English literature…

If that’s all she’s doing, it’s probably not worth showing, and you could just write, “Anya emptied her locker before meeting James by the band room.” However, maybe James is there at her locker. Maybe he gives her a little smooch every time she turns to put something in her backpack. Maybe his uber-attentiveness is freaking her out, making her think it’s finally time to break up so she can have a summer without him following her every move. Maybe she’s afraid of his reaction to this decision. In this case, a lot of showing would be a good thing, because it would be filled with tension.

If the action is something that needs to be in the story, but it doesn’t really impact Anya or her emotions, like emptying her locker before meeting James, I think then it’s okay to just tell it. Get us past the boring locker-emptying, and back into the emotional story and plot points. When she meets James, is she going to break up with him? Or block his kisses with her newly-emancipated chemistry notebook? That’s the stuff I want to read.


As with many things, I like to apply an "all things in moderation" attitude. Too much showing will draw moments out, becoming a bit too detailed and slowing down momentum that would be better served with more intense, rapid-fire use of language.

Good point! There are times when it's best to just summarize and move on to 'the good bits'.

Thanks for this post--good point about when to show, and when to tell!

Great post and one I needed right now! I also find that there is such a thing as "good" telling when you're doing interior monologue. I don't mean the "I am happy" kind of telling, but sharp observations about another character, situation or setting in the main character's voice can be enlightening and important to helping us get inside their head.

Yes, so much depends on what we're trying to accomplish with the scene. For me, the problem is when I write in a certain way by default, forgetting that different kinds of language and prose might better fit different parts of the story.

Who said that, about fiction being about life with the boring bits taken out? Let's never SHOW the boring bits, and TELL them only when absolutely necessary.

Thanks, Carol. I'm still working on it myself. :)

Ooh, good point, Talia. This sounds like a great topic to discuss when the Original Muses tackle "Show, Don't Tell," because I'd love to explore it more. (Hint, hint.)

Good point. All that showing would be just as boring as all the telling. And we're supposed to skip the boring bits, right? Congrats on the new gig, Beth!

I'm nodding back in a cool-kid kind of way. But I still look like a nerd.

Thanks, Vicki! Yes, down with the boring bits!

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