“Show, Don’t Tell”– Is this a rule to always follow? Part 2

There are as I explained in the previous post benefits to showing and not telling– primarily it makes the writing more vivid for readers and they can immerse themselves in your writing. There are reasons that this writing mantra is still alive and well.

Now I am going to go out on a limb.

Rules are made to be broken. Especially writing rules.

However, in my opinion if you are going to break a time honored rule such as “show, don’t tell,” it needs to be well-considered and serve to communicate better what you are trying to communicate in your piece of writing than if you were to follow the rule. I am not going to be able to give you a concrete set of laws for when it is good to break the “show, don’t tell” rule. Since we are going all piratey, I will give you a few guidelines for consideration.

1. As a general rule in your fictional work you want to write the most words for the aspects of your piece that relay your theme or are of greater importance. You will want to show key relationships, plot action, etc. Sometimes in the writing there are aspects such as really inconsequential background or setting elements that can be told or even left out entirely. Fiction that reads quickly without stumbles is easier for readers to get into. If you pull out every dollar adjective from your thesaurus and describe every tidbit of the setting, it gets tedious and you will lose readers. In this instance sometimes it is better to just summarize and move on.

2. If you have been doing a good job of writing descriptively and you have a bomb to drop in your fiction, just telling it can work to dramatic effect. For instance when the old lady detective finally announces who the killer is she says it in one succinct sentence that lands like a stone dropped in a pool.

3. Consider what point of view you are using and who the point of view character is. Sometimes it is better to fully illustrate a relationship with dialogue or capture the feelings and reactions of your point of view character. Sometimes it might work better and flesh out your point of view character if you are selective about what they notice (“show” those things) and what they don’t notice (tell those things). Ask yourself while you are writing if your character would just “tell” about various things.

4. When you want to be intentionally vague, tell. But use this with caution because overuse of being vague is frustrating to readers after awhile. I always think of the television show Lost. In my opinion the writers on that show would toss in various elements and leave things mysterious and vague. After awhile I grew frustrated with the show because it kind of felt like a constant tease and I began to wonder if they really knew where they were taking the series. Being too vague too much creates this kind of feeling.

These are just a few times when telling might be the better way to go. You should never, never, never, ever make excuses for why you are just “telling” a part of your story, but if you have considered what you are doing and think that it will make the composition better than by all means “tell.”

Keep in mind that too much telling will pull readers out of the story and break the context. For instance, information dumps are great big instances of tell. I have critiqued many stories and novels by novice writers and when I point out that their info dump actually pulls away from the plot of their story, they will argue to justify the inclusion of the information dump. Often their arguments and excuses are to the effect of “it’s important that readers know this so they’ll understand the character,” “it’s part of the world building,” “the readers have to this history,” etc. None of these arguments is a good reason to have a paragraph or more of straight out telling information. It may be good information that will help the writer to write the story if they have it clarified in their mind, but in should not be included in the story so blatantly. If you find yourself thinking along these lines an alarm should sound in your head and you should hear Robbie the Robot’s metalic drone repeating over and over again “Danger Will Robinson.”

So should the rule “show, don’t tell” always be followed? I will let you decide because this is one rule that requires thought and intention to follow or not follow.