Breaking the 1st Rule of Writing

Posted: July 9, 2013 by cherylmahoney in Cheryl's Words
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Karen recently wrote a great post on the perennial rule of writing, “Show don’t tell.”  Check it out for excellent examples on what that even means, and how to incorporate it in your writing.  I thought I’d take the opposite tack though…and talk about when you really ought to tell.

“Show don’t tell” is a good rule most of the time–but not always.  One of the tricks of storytelling is to know when to judiciously use telling instead.  It’s a mistake to assume that the rule means we should always include lush detail and description for everything our characters do.  That can easily land you in “walking the dog” territory, a phrase used to describe writing that gives minute detail on actions that aren’t important.

The classic example is trying to show a character’s morning routine.  “The alarm clock went off at precisely six am.  John immediately stretched and got out of bed.  He put his feet into the slippers lined up by the bedside table and walked into the bathroom.  His razor was already sitting by the sink, in precise parallel to his toothbrush and tube of toothpaste.”

At this point, readers may want to sleep themselves!  Often, this kind of writing can be cut entirely–if the action is at John’s office, just begin there.  But maybe that overly detailed morning routine is trying to do something–to show that John is very precise and organized.  This could probably be shown somewhere else–or you could do it in a small piece of telling: “After waking up at six and following the same routine as he had for the last five years, John arrived at the office promptly at 7:30.”  Maybe as the story goes on, John’s morning routine will start changing in an important way.  Establishing it in one quick piece of telling sets the stage for what comes later, without needing to invest long lengths of time in showing it.

Telling is also effective for jumping between two points in the story, usually across a time lapse, when nothing very important happened in between.  You may need the reader to know something about what happened in that time, but it’s not vital enough to devote great detail to it.  To borrow an example from The Princess Bride, in the “unabridged version,” there’s a long, long stretch between Buttercup’s engagement to Prince Humperdink and her kidnapping.  In the abridged version, this is shortened to something like, “With one thing and another, three years passed.”  There’s the time jump.  If desired, much more could have been conveyed with just a few more phrases.  For example, “With political negotiations for Prince Humperdink and princess lessons for Buttercup, three years passed.”  Now we know all we need to about the intervening time, without wading through scenes of Humperdink negotiating or Buttercup learning etiquette.

Telling is also helpful at times when you deliberately want to withhold detail, not because it’s unimportant but because it is.  In the case of a mystery, telling can help to keep the reader guessing.  “Jane picked up a package on the way to work, and only noticed when she arrived that she had the wrong one.”  Perhaps Jane accidentally intercepted a package between spies, and the next three chapters will involve trying to trace the package’s intended recipient.  If we saw Jane at the post office, with precise detail on other customers and everyone she interacts with, it could give too much away too quickly.

I also rather like using telling for understatement and comedic effect.  “After the thunderstorm, the two flat tires, the absurdly long detour and especially the flock of unfriendly sheep, Jack became convinced the road trip was cursed.”  I admit I might be tempted to show some of those mishaps, but if the story is really about what happens once Jack winds up stranded in a small town, quickly dispensing with how he got there could be the best way to go.  And I’m not sure I can make unfriendly sheep any funnier than what readers would imagine on their own…

Like just about every rule of writing, “Show don’t tell” is true but not absolute.  There’s just one rule that seems to apply every single time, and that’s from George Orwell: “Break every rule rather than write something barbarous.”

Show–but if doing so will mean something unnecessary, long-winded or barbarous–then tell.

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Comments
  1. Good post, Cheryl! There are indeed some times when telling works better than showing, and you’ve given several great examples.

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