Thursday, May 17, 2012

Just Tell Me, Already!

I'm about to break a rule. I'm about to give you advice that goes against everything you've ever heard. And no, it has nothing to do with cute shoes.

Here it is: sometimes it's better to "tell" than "show."

This past week, I've been reading the newest Karen Kingsbury book. If you haven't heard of Karen Kingsbury, then you probably aren't living in North America. She writes romantic suspense and romance, and let's just say she's a very successful Christian writer. And do you know what word I found in this book?


No. Joke. I can almost hear you gasp as you read this. How many times have you been told to never directly tell your readers about your character's feelings? To instead show the character gasping for air, leaping with joy, or choking back a sob? But you know what? This line really worked for me. And it's not just because it was written by Karen Kingsbury (although I will admit, that did make me feel more confident about writing this blog!). I've found the same thing to be true with other authors, like one of my all-time favorites, Robin Jones Gunn.

Let me tell you a little personal story. A while back, I got it in my head that I had to completely rid my writing of telling. I'd heard showing presented the strongest story, and that was that. So do you know what I did? I showed everything. And do you know what I was told by some of the people who read that manuscript? That my characters were difficult to connect with on an emotional level. I'm convinced the problem was, I was so focused on showing every little detail that those readers never knew what my characters were really feeling. And let's face it: a story where readers don't yearn for the characters is not a very good story.

Lest you think I'm suggesting you do a 180 and suddenly start telling your reader everything, don't worry--I'm not suggesting that either. I'm simply saying that sometimes telling does work best, so long as it's used sparingly and properly.

You still don't believe me. I can tell. It's going to take a while to let go of all that hatred you've built up toward "telling." I might as well be suggesting you start writing in dialect or passive voice, right? Well, let me give you a few examples of where it might work best to use telling:

1) To skip through time or distance. Your heroine is taking a trip to Europe. If you show us all the steps she takes from the time she steps into airport security until the time she greets Rome, that is going to be borrrring. We have a hard enough time staying awake through airport security in real life. Sometimes it's better to give us a sentence or two of summary or telling, sparing us the details.

2) To help pacing. This point goes hand-in-hand with the last one, but too much showing can drastically affect your pacing. Speed through the scenes (or scene changes) that don't need that much emphasis by telling us what happens instead of showing every little thing. That way, when you get back to showing, we'll know we're supposed to pay attention.

3) To build emotion or have a "wowsers" moment. Ever read a book with chapter breaks that hooked you so well you just had to keep reading? Many times, books will achieve this effect by combining a description of emotion (often in a telling way) with a "showing" list of things. So imagine a chapter that ended this way:

Strands of hair stuck to her too-sticky lip gloss. She turned away from him, overwhelmed by the smell of her own perfume. The boning of her bridesmaid's dress jabbed her ribs, and in that moment, she knew.

She would never be the same.

Notice the way that last part is technically telling, but it ramps up the showing, taking it to the next level rather than diminishing it. You never want to use telling to cover up poor writing. You only want to use it when you already have the structural elements of the "showing" in place, to add another layer to those showing elements. When used well, brief snipbits of telling can give us a beautiful window into the character's world.

Telling is definitely a practiced art. You have to do a lot of showing before you earn the right to tell for a little while. But remember that the "show, don't tell" rule is really more of a guideline.

Have you been taught to "show, don't tell," and have you ever wanted to break that rule? Can you think of any examples from books that break this rule well? What are some other roles of "telling" we can add to the list?

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Ashley Clark writes romantic comedy with southern grace. She's dreamed of being a writer ever since the thumbprint-cookie-days of library story hour. Ashley has an M.A. in English and enjoys teaching literature courses at her local university. She's an active member of ACFW and runs their newcomer's loop. When she's not writing, Ashley's usually busy rescuing stray animals and finding charming new towns. You can find Ashley on her personal blog and herTumblrShe's also on Facebook and Twitter. She is represented by Karen Solem.


Andrea Mack said...

This is a great post! I almost caught myself writing "felt" yesterday, as I was revising my novel to increase the emotional connection to the reader. I agree that telling is sometimes important too!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

YES!! Totally agree - I'm glad you raised this issue. You're so right!!

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Oh yes!!!! You are so right. I've read books where there was a description of everything the character did. It was so unnecessary...and I was bored. Great post!

Jeanne T said...

Great post, Ashley. It is good to know when to show and when to tell. I've learned a lot about when to show, and when not to tell. So, hmmmmm, when to tell....I've heard you should tell when things that everyone already knows (for example, tying a shoe), but show when conveying emotion. :) Looking forward to reading others' thoughts today. Thanks for a great post, Ashley!

Ashley Clark said...

Andrea, thanks for your comment! And you're right--it's probably still a good idea to keep the word "felt" under wraps as much as possible, but the occasional direct reference to emotion can really pop for the reader. Thanks for stopping by today!

Ashley Clark said...

Thanks for your feedback, Karen! :)

Ashley Clark said...

Sherrinda, I feel the same way about books that describe every little thing. It's like you want to say, "We get it already. Give us a reason to feel something already!" :)

Ashley Clark said...

Jeanne, GREAT points! I would agree with that! The reader will get bored if we have too much telling in our common descriptions, but they also need something really solid to anchor their response to in a more emotional moment. Telling us a character misses their beloved, for instance, has little if any impact, but watching a necklace from that same beloved slip through the character's fingers and accidentally fall into a river is another moment entirely. The guideline I try to use is that telling in these kinds of emotional scenes is something I allow myself to earn... first I have to give enough "showing" first that it builds a solid enough foundation for a line or two of telling. Thanks for stopping by!

Susan Anne Mason said...

I agree with you, Ashley. No rule should ever be all black or all white. It's finding the balance that's the hard part. But it's okay to occasionally tell - sometimes you have to use the word 'felt'! LOL.

Great post!


Joanne Sher said...

Have to admit, Ashley, that the first (silly) thought that went through my mind when you said she used the word "felt" was that she was writing about flannelgraph, or something crafty. Must be in one of those moods :)
GREAT post.

Lindsay Harrel said...

Bahaha, the quote from Pirates of the Caribbean popped into my head: "They're more like guidelines, really."

OK, so this is something I've been struggling with a lot...probably because I was a journalist first and that's all tell, tell, tell when you're reporting. You aren't going to waste time trying to give the reader a sense of the situation; you tell them the facts. (I'm talking more reporting than, say, magazine writing, where you do use the senses more and "show" more than "tell.")

Someone told me there are specific words you should look for in your manuscript that indicate telling. What are they? Anyone? (I know "felt", but what else?)

Gabrielle Meyer said...

Lindsay, two telling words that come to me are "knew" and "smelled" but I know there are a lot more.

Ashley, great post! I've read three craft books now (all by James Scott Bell) and a ton of blog posts about the "show" don't "tell" rule and I've found that my writing is more clipped. I have to find a happy medium. One thing that struck me when you were talking about Karen Kingsbury is that now that I know a lot of the "rules" of writing, it's harder to read someone's work because I see all the rules, the formulas the does and the don'ts and they are glaringly obvious to me! I can help me and hinder me sometimes.

Thanks for the great post!

Julia M. Reffner said...

Great post. I think sometimes we fuss and fidget when writers like Kingsbury get away with it, but the truth is she knows how to write a story that we can't put down. So with the really good writers, like Kingsbury, we might notice but we don't care. Or at least I don't.

Angie Dicken said...

Too be honest, the more successful an author is, the more I see "telling" throughout their novel. I don't know if once you've proven yourself, telling really isn't all that bad if you have a readership. Hmmm...I will say I put down a few books because of the broken rule of show vs. tell...but picked them back up again and tried to read them as a reader and not an aspiring writer! It's great to have some concrete points of when telling might actually be preferred. Thanks, Ashley!

Angie Dicken said...


she "thought", "looked", "wondered"...are words I can think of.


Ashley Clark said...

Thanks, Sue! And yes, it can be so intimidating it actually use the word "felt," can't it? Thanks for sharing your thoughts today.

Ha, Joanne! That's too funny. I'm interested in crafts myself, so I can understand! :)

Lindsay, I feel your pain because I was so used to academic writing that I had (and sometimes still have) trouble remembering I'm allowed to write "pretty" words and phrases in novels. Ha! "Felt" is definitely the most common word associated with "telling," but really, telling can disguise itself in all sorts of ways. The biggest thing I try to do to look out for it is to always ask myself if there is a more concrete way of describing a situation. So in other words, you want to try to avoid listing direct emotions for the most part, and if you have to list them, try to include some kind of showing alongside the feeling. So for instance, you could say, "She choked back her hesitation" rather than just saying "she felt unsure." That doesn't really answer your question, but hopefully it helps some.

Ashley Clark said...

Gabrielle, thanks for your insightful thoughts! I agree with what you mentioned... I do the same thing whenever I'm reading! But something else I realize when I read wonderful, rule-breaking books is that ultimately story is what matters. Some things, like grammar, are non-negotiable, but sometimes I know I can get so caught up in the "rules" that my writing voice suffers. So thanks for mentioning that! And you're right--it's so hard to find that middle of the road approach, but so important to do.

Ashley Clark said...

Julia, I so agree! This discussion reminds me of E.E. Cummings' poetry (which I LOVE). To me, Cummings is such a poetic master because his breaking of the rules is strategic, not lazy. He had to have first mastered the grammatical rules before breaking them; otherwise, his poetry wouldn't be as effective. So I think we can take a lesson from that. On the one hand, we don't want to be too married to the rules that we can never break them, but on the other hand, if we DO break the rules, it should be for the supremacy of the story and not just because it feels easier. Plus Karen Kingsbury is so interesting, she can do whatever she wants! :)

But sometimes I wonder if one of the reasons people like her are so successful is because they are so committed to the larger story and making the characters really evocative.

Ashley Clark said...

Thanks, Angie, and thanks for that helpful list!

I think there's a big difference between people who break the rules just because they can, and authors who break the rules because that's better for the story. I think the latter shows a great deal of skill and attention to the craft, but with the former, I find myself putting those books down too! Ha! :)

Nichole L. Reber said...

Agreed indeed that sometimes a little narrative works wonders. While I mostly pen memoir and therefore use many of the tropes used in fiction, I'd like to begin using some of those used in personal essays. Of course that requires narrative. I sit and look at all that narrative, thinking it's not moving, then, upon reading it, I realize it does actually move.
it might not be about the show vs tell argument that's been drilled into our brains since we were kids, perhaps for some of us writers it's about confidence. For instance, I wonder, who the hell am I to tell such things? Then again, they wouldn't be reading if I didn't already have that ethos thing going, right?

BTW, no, I've never heard of Karen Kingsbury, and no I do not live in the US. Nor do I read romance.

There were some "smell" verbs mentioned in the comments. That's s sticky one, eh? I'd say that because we use the olfactory sense too rarely in narrative trying it is a great start.


Casey said...

Loved the post, just like I thought I would. ;-)

Really good points, Ash. You have concepts here that make a great deal of difference when the right amount of telling is needed. Like a chapter hook. Even a WAS every once in a while can be a good thing. ;) We can't tell a good story without a bit of telling, just like a good plate of food wouldn't be good without a pinch of salt. :)

Pepper said...

Great post, Ash.
Sometimes it feels so hard to juggle the two - showing vs telling.
I went to look for an example, but ended up having to finish reading the book without focusing on showing vs telling at all.
Obviously the sign of a good book :-)

Ashley Clark said...

Nichole, thanks for sharing your well-developed perspective. I agree that confidence is so key. Another arena I think confidence particularly matters with is voice. It can be such a "make or break" thing.

Casey, if you know my love for salt, you would know how much I appreciate that analogy. :)

Pepper, that's too funny! That's happened to me many a time, especially with Robin Jones Gunn. Definitely the mark of a good book, the kinds of books we should probably be studying in the first place!