Yup. I’m sticking up for the poor unwanted fellows this week.
Three aspects of writing get absolutely ridiculed, shamed, and drilled into a writer’s head not to do. Telling. Backstory. And description. (Poor guys.)
But without these three – your novel will flop. You just have to do it well.
Yes, beginner writers tell too much when they think they are showing. They have not learned to dig deeper and flesh out a scene with dialogue, body language, internal thoughts, and the five senses. But eventually they learn. Except there’s a problem.
They get so prejudiced against “telling” that they never learn to do it correctly and when it is useful. And they might not even recognize stellar telling in novels they read.
- Telling in dialogue when the info is something the characters both know.
- Telling in internal thoughts to make sure the reader “got” it.
- Telling the weather or any kind of world building instead of weaving it into the story.
- Telling how characters feel – “He was/felt sad.”
- Author intrusion or inserting facts about people or places outside of the pov. (Unless the pov is omniscient.)
- Telling to show the passage of time.
- Telling to transition between scenes.
- Telling to keep scenes or aspects of scenes in proportion to how important they are to a plot. (If you full out show a scene – it better be important to the plot.)
- Telling when you’ve got a unique premise and a great voice.
- Telling as a topic sentence of a paragraph.
Telling does not equal bad writing.
Three authors that use stellar telling and in the opening too:
Holes by Louis Sachar
There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. There once was a very large lake here, the largest lake in Texas. That was over a hundred years ago. Now it is just a dry, flat wasteland.
I’d Tell You I Love You But Then I’d Have To Kill You by Ally Carter
I suppose a lot of teenagers feel invisible sometimes, like they just disappear. Well, that’s me – Cammie the Chameleon. But I’m luckier than most because, at my school, that’s considered cool.
I go to a school for spies.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.
So there you have it, readers. Three fantastic books that opened with great telling. One presented a mystery. One had a fun, terrific premise. One was dripping with voice.
Any other examples? Other instances when telling is useful? Or common mistakes?
Wednesday, I’ll defend backstory.
Important point, Laura. As you say, ‘telling’ gets drilled out of authors – and even editors now have a knee-jerk reaction when they see it. But sometimes you have to use it because it’s not worth the reader’s while to immerse in the second-by-second version of a scene. Telling can also give you a strong authorial voice – which as you show in your examples, can work very well.
It just goes to show that for every writing ‘rule’ there is an anti-rule. Or maybe there are no rules, but effects.
Great post – I’m tweeting this.
I couldn’t agree more. Writing rules are always so absolute and concrete, but people forget that there are exceptions and you can include any of these things that you’re not supposed to. You just have to do it well.
Quinn – And it’s more than just a few exceptions. Out of all the middle grade books I’ve read. Atleast 50% start with a page or so, sometimes a chapter, of telling before getting into the action. But it was all done well.
Great points, Laura! There is a time and place for telling, and you’ve outlined some great examples of when to use it. It’s a tool for writers to use, just like showing.
Excellent article, Laura! I have made all of the mistakes you list above and I still make most of them everyday. In order to break a rule, we need to known the rules and know them well. Most writers are never told why to avoid telling, they’re just told to avoid it at all costs. You have done a great job of telling us when it’s okay to do, and most importantly, WHY.
Andrea – Yes, it is a much needed tool. And one I’m going out of my way to learn, since there isn’t much out there on how to do it right. I’m starting to notice it in books though.
Jonathon – I used to make those mistakes too! I think the avoid telling ruling started because beginning writers would abuse it, so the law was laid. Great telling is just a skill that comes later.
Agreed. And I have always loved that first paragraph of Harry Potter. It set the tone for the Dursley family so well.
Horay for this post! There is a place for telling, and it’s just knowing when and where to use it! Thanks for laying it all out!
Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse
Kelly – I love the first chapter of Harry Potter, which is all very direct telling. But it’s done so well. And J.K. Rowling continues to tell through out her novel at the appropriate times.
Angela – Now it’s just a matter of doing it at the right time in the right way. 🙂
Laura–excellent post. I too love the first chapter of Harry Potter–what stylish telling. And there is a reason why it’s called storytelling. I think that the common denominator is being able to tell within great voice.
I love how you pick things apart for us, and give words to things which we might think of intuitively or understand on some sub-words level. It’s great to give these lessons a voice!
I’m always getting into trouble for telling. But what doesn’t seem important to me is important to someone else. They want to dwell on the part for a little longer. They want to be shown it. And in the end, they’re right!
Stina – And that’s where we get into trouble – not knowing if something is important enough to show, or thinking it is but it really isn’t!
Awesome post, Laura. Can’t wait to read more about backstory!
Sometimes you have to tell, that’s what makes the story move. If you showed everything everyone would shut your book after one chapter. Great post.
I totally agree. Telling doesn’t always equal bad.
Sometimes you just got to tell the story. 😉
Loved your examples of good telling, Laura.
Yep, telling does get a bad rap. Although a pet peeve of mine is telling in dialogue – ugh!
Can’t wait for you to defend backstory. That’s another one who gets no respect. Ha.
Thanks everyone! Learning the balance between telling and showing is definitely tricky and one I”m still learning!
I totally agree with you here. There are times when telling is preferable. We just have to do it right.
Excellent post! I absolutely agree that there is a time and place for telling. Otherwise, readers would be exhausted reading your book. Can’t wait for the backstory one — I’m HUGE into backstory and my book is riddled with it.
Great post! “Show don’t tell” is drilled into every writer’s head, but there’s a time and place for everything.
Susan – And there lies the key – doing it right.
Elana – Thanks. I absolutely backstory in my own stories and stories I read – when it’s done right. 🙂
Sherrie – And that’s why I’m defending these topics b/c as a beginner these “rules” were very misleading.
Another time to tell and not show: When one character has to explain to another something that readers already know. You don’t want the readers to sit through the showing twice. So you say something like, “Charlie told Pete what had happened in the cave” and move on.
Count me in as another who was totally hooked by the beginning of HP.
Yup, you got it Laura. It’s all in the execution and those 3 examples were perfect!
Hi Laura- This is good. I love the part where you said it’s bad to tell parts of the story that all of the characters know… I hate that!
Interesting post. I am currently reading Salems Lot. 90 pages in and 80% has involved ‘telling’. There are multiple characters and huge sections of backstory. It is a 700 page novel and the plot is evolving slowly. Every one of the ‘mistakes’ you list are well represented and it has been a question of sticking with the book because I suspect it will be worth it. Of course Stephen King has sold more books than most with good reason. I think this shows rules can be broken, but that said I think your post makes a lot of sense. All writers need to understand the ‘rules’ so they can decide when, and how far, to break them in the context of their own stories.
This is a great post, because I’m so freaked out about telling! Retweeting it now.
Great post, Laura!! Love your list of when to tell. During revisions I make lots of decisions about what to show and what to tell.
Tell me about it! (don’t mind the pun- if that even is a pun. lol) J.K. Rowling is my hero. Because she uses telling, backstory (in her later books) and my JK loves herself some adverbs in a big way. But all her books completely sweep me away. Great post!
I just stopped by to let you know that I linked to you for my post tomorrow. This was a great explanation of how “telling” can be a good thing. Hope you don’t mind. And, I can’t wait for your defense of back story!
Awesome post! It really helps to see actual examples! Thanks 🙂
i hopped on over from Susan’s blog. nice examples.
This is a great rundown of how important it can be to tell sometimes.
Convince your reader and you can do just about anything! I say that a lot, but it’s because it’s true 🙂 good post -over here from Susan’s place.
I enjoyed the clarity you bring to this. I think I’d discovered the ‘exceptions’ working on instinct alone, but it’s nice to see it set out so clearly.
I must admit when prepping my first MS for submission earlier this year I did go through and remove pretty much every single bit of ‘telling’ from the first three chapters. And it did make a positive difference to the flow. But in my case there is almost no narratorial voice at all in the novel, as everything is told in third person limited point of view. Horses for courses!
It is undeniable that ‘telling’ is very out of fashion in editorial circles at the moment. But equally undeniable that there are times when it’s essential to move things forward, and control pace.
Thanks for your insight.
Thanks so much for sharing your viewpoint on this. As a newbie just finishing up my first draft, I found it particularly helpful. (I also really liked the fact that I’d actually read &/or knew about every book you used in your examples! :o)
All my novels are in first person, and quite a few of my short stories are too. In first person, I really find that telling gets the point across better. Sure, my character will pace, and clench her fists, and feel her blood pressure rise, but sometimes she’ll just think, “This guy was really ticking me off”. Then I can move past the description, and focus on the rest of the scene.
There are a lot of “rules” for writing, without real explanations of why, or how to use it properly, or how to get better. I’ve noticed some critiquers will simply say “show, don’t tell”, without illustrating the point. Makes it hard to figure out what you’ve done wrong.
Raven Corinn Carluk – author