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WHEN IS TELLING ALL RIGHT? Excerpt from A Strategic Path to Writing Mastery

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Showing presents evidence to the readers allowing them to live the experiences of the characters and draw their own conclusions.

Showing respects the reader’s intelligence to come to their own conclusions.

Showing evokes emotions in the reader.

Telling dictates conclusions without providing any evidence. The reader must listen to the authority of the writer and take their word for it.

Telling assumes that the reader is not smart enough and must be led by the hand step-by-step through the process of discovery. The telling author is literally like your annoying movie-goer friend who saw the movie already and jabs you in the ribs every few minutes and lets you know what’s happening next.

With telling, all you get is a news report of what’s happening.

When is Telling All Right?

When you want an unimportant fact to be known:

Let’s say your female starship captain (Janeway?) is set to go down to an alien planet to meet with its leader. She wants to inform the ship’s cook about the planetary leader she’s bringing back for a dinner and his special food preferences. It’s not necessary to play out a scene with the cook, so telling is all right here, but tell it with as much brevity as possible. Perhaps a single sentence: I dropped by to let Bernard know what the leader of the Denebians likes to eat. I’m sure our sophisticated chef will love sautéing cockroaches and slug worms. That’s it. It’s telling, it’s fast, and I threw in a little humor to make it more palatable.

When transitioning:

Sending a character from one place to another does not require presenting an entire scene. Simply put, ‘tell’ it and ‘tell’ it briefly. Like, The next day, Captain Janeway beamed down to the planet again. We don’t need to witness a process we’ve all seen a hundred times—unless something very unusual and interesting happens in the transporter room. In this case, it is routine. ‘Tell’ the routine and ‘tell’ it quickly.

Two hours later, the Denebian hovercraft arrived with Captain Janeway at the mining site. If nothing significant happened on the way, and there was no real substantive dialogue either, then ‘tell’ it. There’s no need to show two hours aboard a craft that is taking the principal characters from point A to point B.

When compressing time:

If a character is doing something repeatedly without success, there is no need to show it many times. Let’s say Midaz Welby (brother of Marcus) has been trying to see his no-good lawyer for over a month. You wouldn’t want to show every failing attempt Midaz made when he showed up at the law offices, so ‘tell’ it like this, After a month of being offered every reason ever concocted that Gavel Docket was never in his office, I conducted a little research on where he liked to hang out. That is brief and you can move on to ‘showing’ again.

When one character recounts something that the reader has already witnessed:

Let’s say Katina was accosted and roughed up by a bunch of tough kids from her high school as she was in my book, The Last Days of Camelot: The Legend of the Black Satin Knickers. When she meets with her boyfriend, she wants to tell him about it. It would bore the tears out of the reader because they already lived it through her. It’s okay to explain it like this: Katina related the whole scene with Ricky Mason and his gang. That’s it. The reader already witnessed it, so you ‘tell’ the reader she told her boyfriend. Short (maybe not so sweet) and it gets it out of the way so you can move on to ‘show’ the boyfriend’s reaction.

Opening sentence of a chapter to evoke questions (setting a hook):

‘Telling’ can be used as a hook by setting a question in the mind of the reader—a question they must keep reading to find the answer. Here are some examples:

My mother was eight years old when I turned fourteen. It even has a was in it making it passive—yet it sets a question in your mind. How is it possible to be six years older than your mother? In science fiction, anything is possible.

I was as nervous as a mouse that hears a cat through the wall—but the time had come. (From Getting Along Without Her)

My life nearly ended the day someone forced me to wear it in front of Miss Kornbaugh’s last period class. (From Eric Prinzul: Earth Princess)

Opening sentence of a chapter that restates the last scene:

When modern-day readers finish a chapter, they may not get back to the book for a week or more. It’s the sad truth about our super-busy lives. Sometimes they will stop at a scene break and do the same thing. At any rate, the author must have an opening line in a new scene or chapter that contextually clues the reader in on what happened just before they quit reading on their last visit to your book. Don’t make them go back and search for it.

In my book General Samantha Lee: A Tiger’s Heart the first chapter is about Samantha riding her horse hard, frustrated over her family owning slaves in 1862. She rides up to her plantation house and sees the overseer whipping a slave. She physically thrashes the man and the slaves thank her. Here is the opening paragraph of chapter two, the next chapter:

The Negroes broke up and left Mr. Jarvis to recover from the beating I had given him. Lucas and Annie walked toward the slave quarters. I reached the stables, led Katie inside, and then into her stall. I had removed the saddle and started brushing her when a noise caught my attention—a faint, muffled moaning.

The first sentence is pure “telling” and puts the last moments in the chapter before it in context so the reader will remember the events of the last chapter.

Here’s another example from the same book: In another chapter where Samantha has it out one-on-one with her father over abolitionist philosophy, it ends with him slapping her. Here is the opening paragraph of the following chapter:

My eyes opened to Esmeralda staring at me; and I remembered that I still lay sprawled on the parlor floor, my face burning with the sting of Papa’s hand.

It’s pure ‘telling,’ but the reader’s memory has been jogged, and we’re ready to move on.

Between scene beats: (See Beats: under SCENES.) Each beat stands alone as having a beginning, middle, and end. ‘Telling’ between scene beats insures that the flow of each beat will not be interrupted.

Setting a hook: At the end of a chapter or scene ‘telling’ the reader information that hints of action to come will set a hook and act as a page turner encouraging the reader to keep reading. Make it a single sentence, like this last sentence in the following example:

“You may climb aboard.” Raygun said.

“Do I have a choice?”

He aimed his blaster at me. “I suppose not.”

I climbed aboard thinking what would happen when I told Karmak what Raygun had done.

Something that will happen in the future is being ‘told’ to the reader, but it sets a hook and makes us turn the page to find out how Karmak will react to the news.

How Do You Know If You’re Telling?: When your narrative creates images in the heads of the readers, you are ‘showing.’ When it creates none, you are ‘telling.’

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Eugene Orlando is a board member, group leader, regional director, and lifetime member of the FWA. He is also an author of works of fiction and books on writing. Early in 2015, he became an editor for FWA’s “Editors Helping Writers” program and is a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association.

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8 Responses

  1. Carol Baldwin
    | Reply

    Great post. Will save for future reference. Thank you!

  2. Tilly Grey
    | Reply

    One of my favorite writers is Daniel Silva. He tells us a great deal about the history of the Middle East conflict in between suspense filled kidnappings,murders and art restoration. I love it because I learn something new in every book.

  3. Sandra Beattie-Stevens
    | Reply

    Hi Eugene, we met at an FWA meeting years ago. I am a Canadian snowbird in Clearwater. I remember you well. So nice to read your interesting post and know you are doing well. Sandra Beattie-Stevens.

    • Eugene Orlando
      | Reply

      I remember you, too, Sandra. Yeah, I signed up to help keep the blog going. How timely. I have a lot of material since I’m putting together my own book on writing. Hope to get it out this year.

  4. Ann Henry
    | Reply

    Thanks for the post. Good, well-illustrated information. However, in your comments on the telling sentence, “My mother was eight years old when I turned fourteen,” you mention that the sentence is written in the passive voice because it contains the word “was.” Actually, in this case, the sentence is written in the active voice, and the word “was” is simply the third-person past tense of the verb “to be.” An example of the passive voice using the verb “was” is illustrated in the sentence, “Jake was hit by me,” as opposed to the active voice “I hit Jake.” When the verb “was” is used alone as a simple verb, it is in the active voice. When it is used in conjunction with one or more other verbs, such as “was hit,” it is in the passive voice.

    • Alan
      | Reply

      Ann is sort of right.

      It’s true that all uses of “to be” forms do not automatically create passive voice. They are weak verbs and sentences that contain them can often be recast to be stronger, but “to be” forms are not automatically passive.

      And yes, “Jake was hit by me” is an example of passive voice. But linking “was” with the verb “hit” is not what made it passive. For example, “I was eating my dinner” is not passive voice.

      Passive construction occurs when you make the object of an action into the subject of a sentence or the “actor” is missing. “The dinner was eaten by James” or “Mistakes were made.” In the first example, the one doing the action, the subject (James) has become the object of the sentence. In the second example, the one doing the action is missing.

      I hit Jake. (The subject “I” is acting. The sentence is in active voice.)
      Jake was hit by me. (The subject, “me” is acted upon. The sentence is passive voice.)

      While we’re at it, can I also point out that the use of single quotation marks throughout this article is incorrect? Single quotation marks are only used for quotes within quotes or in headlines when you’re required to use AP Style.

    • Eugene Orlando
      | Reply

      Thanks for reminding me how complicated the English language can be. I’ll keep your advice in mind. It’s hard to keep it all in one’s head. That’s why I advise writers to always have good, reliable reference materials. Thanks again.

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