Monday, April 23, 2012

A to Z Challenge: Telling

Depending on your style of writing, telling can kill the reader's experience. After all, if the reader is trying to immerse him/herself in the world of a book, having the writer tell them how or why something happened can be singularly annoying.

To my mind, there are two ways to tell in writing. Both are bad for my style, although I know that having an omniscient narration changes things. Point is, if you don't, these two are definitely priority things to fix.

The first way to tell is in the way you describe things and actions. In a story, the reader needs to experience everything through the point of view character. So suddenly having a generic sort of sentence telling them something doesn't work.

What will fit better? (Assuming that the character isn't a boring sort of person.)

The plate had a blue pattern on it.


The plate's rich blue pattern told the age old story of star-crossed lovers fleeing together in search of a chance together.

Yeah yeah, I know that neither is Shakespeare, but I think you get the point.

The other tell would be in narrative. Don't tell everything. Account for everything, yes, but not in such a way that reveals everything immediately. Because if you do that, you lose a lot of tension. And as you know, tension is one thing you don't want to lose.

So if something important is happening, make sure that you make the event noticeable, but it's usually quite important that the reader can't figure out what will happen because of that event. Predictability is not your friend.

When editing both types of tells, the secret is in wrapping the information in a lovely veil of words that will either decorate or disguise what you're trying to say. But for heaven's sake, don't be obscure.

Look Out for These:

1) Phrases like: he saw, he thought, she felt, it tasted. Anything that puts a distance between the character's and reader's experiences of the same thing. Also: something was (insert description) or he/she/it had (insert description).

2) Having a character over-narrate, revealing the importance of something before its time.

3) Back-story that's dumped in huge chunks that aren't naturally flowing from the story.

Got any tips for cutting telling out of narration?


  1. Very good! The "don't tell, show" method works in so many areas of life! Loving these helpful snippets!

  2. I find reading out loud helps to point out those bits of prose that don't belong.

  3. Good tips. I like to dribble backstory in here and there as the story progresses and in a place that makes sense.

  4. Great post. I agree the first telling is bad, but I'm on the fence about the second telling. For my writing style, the second telling doesn't work, but I've been at conferences where best sellers recommend giving the info as soon as possible, because the reader needs to know.

  5. Hey Misha,
    Some very useful and interesting perspectives you have noted. I think the reader should feel that the narrator is ambiguous enough to let them ascertain what may be transpiring. Of course, in my writing style, or lack thereof, anything goes...
    Take care Misha and happy writing.
    In kindness, Gary

  6. Love this post! Telling is one of those things that tend to creep in all too easily when us writer's aren't paying enough attention to the details. :)

  7. #3 - back story - will put me off a book faster than anything. I try and keep the show not tell maxim in mind when editing and slash a lot of flowery prose which looks really pleasing on paper but doesn't necessarily add to the story. My tip (of course!)- use flash fiction as an exercise! A restricted word count forces you to try and make every word/scene/character count. :-)

  8. Showing is always more interesting to read, but sometimes though, to move a story along, I think it's OK to tell. GReat post.

  9. Awesome tips! I like showing through action.

  10. Action is the way to go. I wish my stories knew that! Thanks for the info.

  11. Great post! I work so hard at this in my own writing, it is positively annoying to read books that do a lot of telling when they could be showing.

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    In the Care of the Great Physician

  12. I've mostly read older books my whole life, so I prefer telling to showing in many cases. I think a lot of modern-day writers have forgotten that sometimes, it's more effective or to the point, esp. early on in a book, to just directly tell the reader establishing information instead of making him or her guess or have to wade through five or more chapters to know something vital to understanding a character or the storyline.

    I'm working more on showing emotional reactions, body language, and such (I didn't do enough of that in the old days), but I'd much rather just directly be told a character is scared, aroused, nervous, etc. in a few words instead of having to guess in 20 or 30 words. It can be more telling to say, for example, that someone said something nervously, or that it's cold, or that someone's excited, and then leave it up to the reader to paint the picture in his or her mind. Having everything spelt out for me takes away some of the fun of reading and bringing my own interpretation to the material.

  13. These are great tips, Misha! Thanks for sharing. Have a great week!!

  14. "Telling" can pull readers out of a story. I'd much rather be shown. :)

  15. I still have to go through and remind myself not to tell so much. Showing is hard to do consistently, but it makes the story so much better.

  16. I still have to find the fine line between telling too much and telling too little. These tips will be a great help as I search for that balance. :)

  17. Good post, Misha. I had such struggles with the concept of POV. I always appreciate a well-written post that shares ideas, tips, and techniques. Thanks :-)

  18. I liked the way you expressed for the phrases and over narrate. Keep up the good work


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