3 Ways to Tell When You Can't Show

Back in June, I wrote an article called 3 Ways to Show, Not Tell and one of the questions I received was, “Is there a time when it’s appropriate to tell?” And my answer is, Yes! Of course there is a time when telling over showing is appropriate.

For instance, transitions are a good place to include a bit of narrative, especially if there’s a time jump and you need to orient your readers, or if there’s a change of location.

Another instance might be if you have a lot of action or dialogue. Adding in a bit of narrative will slow the action down and give your readers a chance to breathe.

There may also be times when you need to relay information to the reader, but the information doesn’t require a full scene. In this case, you could use it to provide the necessary information in fewer words. The key is to find the right balance.

telling and showing

Below are 3 techniques to help you tell when you just can’t show.

1 |  Have your character share information through telling. Just be sure to do it in a way that sounds natural and authentic to your character’s voice. For instance, if you want to put your reader into your character’s favorite cafe, have your character tell someone about its atmosphere, how it smells, sounds, feels to sit on the plush cushions with a hot cup of coffee. Use the five senses to put your reader right there, sitting next to your character.

2 |  Use third person narrative. As stated above, transitions, change of time or location are great places to include a bit of narrative, orienting your reader to the new environment. Sometimes you need to give the reader a bit of background information or important context for upcoming events. Just remember to keep it brief and get back to the story as soon as possible.

3 |  Be sporadic. Try not to include pages and pages of narrative giving the reader information. Instead, pepper it throughout your scenes. This also helps to give readers a chance to breathe during long periods of action or dialogue.

Remember, these are all writing guidelines, not rules. Nothing is set in stone. Try different techniques and approaches to see what works best for your story. And don’t forget to have fun with it!

I would love to read some examples of places where you’ve had to tell instead of show! Feel free to share in the comments below.