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.