EDITING KNOWHOW When telling is better than showing

Statue of small wizard reading aloud from a book

In the first of her series on editing, Xena Knox looks at some of the benefits of telling over showing.

Show don’t tell, they said. Who said? Everyone! Everyone? Well, perhaps not everyone ... Because sometimes as a writer it’s better to tell. Telling can work alongside or in place of showing. Here are examples of when and why it's good to be a tattletale. 

Telling is great for first drafts and plotting. Telling will help you reach the hallowed ground of writing The End. At this stage, don’t waste time refining a scene showing the first kiss between your MC (main character) and love interest in the first draft. Instead, write They finally kiss, head butt and he gets a bleeding nose. It’s a disaster. She loves it. and move on. Then, redraft it later with showing, as it’s a pivotal, highly emotional scene. 

Telling can help you redraft. There are times when telling is necessary to condense your work. For example if you need to cut your word count (editors aren't likely to buy a 100k word MG), or speed up dragging, boring sections (beta readers will flag these). 

Graphic of a mouth speaking into an ear
Sometimes it's good to be direct. Credit: Maxpixel

Telling will allow you to time travel if you need to move the story forward in time, hours, days, a year … And it will help with that all important pace variation: you might want to vary pace, ebbing and flowing from short-to-the-point telling sentences to longer detailed showing paragraphs. 

Telling can help you focus your story. Contrast helps the reader focus on what's important. By showing important events in the story and, in turn, telling the less important details, the spotlight is cast appropriately. Important characters' (not just your MC's) emotions can also be shown, while those of minor characters can be told. That way the reader is clear on who to pay attention to. 

Telling can help clarity of meaning. A clear, telling statement can bring all your readers up to speed, even the unobservant ones who haven't noticed your brilliantly subtle clues thus far. And your bright, detective readers will enjoy the positive affirmation that they're on the right track. 

Telling allows for directional shift. To take the story in an unexpected direction, you can use telling as a device to pivot the path of events and, in turn, the reader's focus. Yes, someone dying in a car accident, your MC discovering their best friend has kissed their boyfriend (apparently I'm kissing obsessed today) or they've failed their exams … are all HUGELY pivotal events. So you'd presume they must be shown. But not if the focus of the story is on how the characters go on to deal with the fall-out. In this case you might tell the reader what happened and focus on showing life after the pivotal moment. 

Telling can show unreliability in a narrator. This can be helpful if you have an unreliable narrator, writing in 1st person. Have your protagonist tell the reader how things are and allow the surrounding characters and their interactions to show/reveal that the narrator may not be telling the truth. 

Telling because you have to. Sometimes the dreaded background exposition must be told – keep it to a simple line or two from the narrator. Don't shoehorn it into dialogue. Hopefully these few examples have opened your mind to the dark side of telling. Yes, showing adds vibrancy, emotion and reader investment to your writing, but for something to shine bright you need contrasting shadows. 

In short, telling along with showing creates depth and texture. This is equal-opportunities writing, where telling is just as important as showing. 

Header photo: Pixabay


Zena McFadzean aka Xena Knox is a self-deprecating Scot living in Crystal Palace, South London. She loves writing gritty, humorous YA novels and is represented by Jo Williamson at Antony Harwood Ltd. Twitter & Instagram: @XenaKnox

Helen Liston is Knowhow Editor. If there's something you'd like to know how to do, send your suggestions to knowhow@britishscbwi.org.

1 comment:

  1. An enjoyable and informative read. I am writing a story with an unreliable narrator so you've helped me crystallise some ideas! Thanks you!


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