In defense of telling.

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.

Common mistakes:

  • 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.)

Useful telling:

  • 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.


37 Responses to In defense of telling.

  1. dirtywhitecandy September 20, 2010 at 7:56 am #

    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.

  2. Quinn September 20, 2010 at 8:15 am #

    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.

    • Laura September 20, 2010 at 10:51 am #

      Thanks Roz!

      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.

  3. Andrea September 20, 2010 at 11:00 am #

    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.

  4. Jonathon Arntson September 20, 2010 at 11:21 am #

    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.

    • Laura September 20, 2010 at 11:27 am #

      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.

  5. Kelly Polark September 20, 2010 at 12:21 pm #

    Agreed. And I have always loved that first paragraph of Harry Potter. It set the tone for the Dursley family so well.

  6. angela September 20, 2010 at 12:34 pm #

    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

    • Laura September 20, 2010 at 1:07 pm #

      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. 🙂

  7. Heather Kelly September 20, 2010 at 1:12 pm #

    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!

  8. Stina Lindenblatt September 20, 2010 at 1:27 pm #

    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!

    • Laura September 20, 2010 at 1:34 pm #

      Thanks Heather!

      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!

  9. Kris September 20, 2010 at 2:23 pm #

    Awesome post, Laura. Can’t wait to read more about backstory!

  10. Patti Nielson September 20, 2010 at 2:36 pm #

    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.

  11. Jennifer Shirk September 20, 2010 at 2:49 pm #

    I totally agree. Telling doesn’t always equal bad.

  12. T. Anne September 20, 2010 at 3:01 pm #

    Sometimes you just got to tell the story. 😉

  13. Karen Strong September 20, 2010 at 3:04 pm #

    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.

    • Laura September 20, 2010 at 3:09 pm #

      Thanks everyone! Learning the balance between telling and showing is definitely tricky and one I”m still learning!

  14. Susan R. Mills September 20, 2010 at 4:44 pm #

    I totally agree with you here. There are times when telling is preferable. We just have to do it right.

  15. Elana Johnson September 20, 2010 at 6:58 pm #

    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.

  16. Sherrie Petersen September 20, 2010 at 7:01 pm #

    Great post! “Show don’t tell” is drilled into every writer’s head, but there’s a time and place for everything.

    • Laura September 20, 2010 at 7:07 pm #

      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.

  17. Marcia September 20, 2010 at 7:22 pm #

    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.

  18. Nelsa September 20, 2010 at 8:17 pm #

    Yup, you got it Laura. It’s all in the execution and those 3 examples were perfect!

  19. erin September 20, 2010 at 9:07 pm #

    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!

  20. Christian Yorke September 20, 2010 at 9:17 pm #

    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.

  21. Julie Musil September 21, 2010 at 12:14 am #

    This is a great post, because I’m so freaked out about telling! Retweeting it now.

  22. Paul September 21, 2010 at 2:22 am #

    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.

  23. Creepy Query Girl September 21, 2010 at 12:44 pm #

    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!

  24. Susan R. Mills September 22, 2010 at 4:28 am #

    Hey, Laura,

    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!


  25. Corey September 22, 2010 at 1:39 pm #

    Awesome post! It really helps to see actual examples! Thanks 🙂

  26. Michelle Gregory September 22, 2010 at 1:55 pm #

    i hopped on over from Susan’s blog. nice examples.

  27. Lois Moss September 22, 2010 at 4:58 pm #

    This is a great rundown of how important it can be to tell sometimes.

  28. kat magendie September 22, 2010 at 6:01 pm #

    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.

  29. Adina West September 25, 2010 at 5:31 am #

    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.

  30. Holly Bowne September 29, 2010 at 1:32 am #

    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)

  31. Raven Corinn Carluk October 7, 2010 at 5:01 am #

    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

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