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?
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?
Photos from http://slowwriteturn.blogspot.com/2011/02/show-dont-tell.html, http://www.zazzle.com/show_dont_tell_sticker-217558938852844858
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 herTumblr. She's also on Facebook and Twitter. She is represented by Karen Solem.