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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Showing versus Telling

"Telling" gets a really bad rap in the writing world. The strong, universal preference seems to be for lush, sensory-enhanced descriptions of every detail and emotion that happens to fall into the scope of a story. In writing courses, instructors always admonish, "Show, don't tell!" But for someone like me, who can appreciate brevity, telling has its uses. While I would not care to read a whole novel of bare telling, consider the following opportunities:

• Moving the story along: "Three days passed with no news."

• Shorthand for a minor character: "Melissa had lived next to Bob since they were children."

• Keeping under a word limit: Sometimes all you have room for is "He was handsome." Admittedly, as I mused in my last post, most editors want more words instead of fewer, but there will always be a time in a writer's life when words are at a premium.

• Summarizing the first book, if this is a subsequent book in the series. J. K. Rowling did this at the beginning of  Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, so technically you never had to read The Philosopher's Stone. Of course, most people did read it, and they were allowed to skip over the summary in the second book if they were so inclined. The telling did no damage to anyone in that case.

• Otherwise avoiding repetition: "He sat them down and told them what had happened, leaving nothing out."

Just as a single short sentence can be the strongest among long ones, a well-placed instance of telling, set like a diamond on a cushion of showing, can make the biggest impact. Used consciously and skillfully, a writer can consider telling one more tool in her kit.

So, for Pete's sake, move the story along, people!