The standard rule is this: “show, don’t tell.” Instead of telling your reader that Jane is “sad,” show the reader by describing Jane’s demeanor, her tears, etc. You’re supposed to allow the reader to experience Jane’s sadness with her.

Show Don't Tell: How to “Tell” When You Can’t “Show”

But in a 80,000 word manuscript, chances are you’ll do at least some telling. The temptation to “tell” usually arises when you need to share background information, summarize events, or provide context for what’s happening.

4 Ways to Tell, Not Show

I think there’s a way to break the “show, don’t tell” rule (occasionally!) without taking away from the reader experience. Here are four techniques you can try:

1. Do it in the third person

Originally my manuscript alternated between the points of view of two characters, each speaking in the first person. As a result, my characters would sometimes randomly start explaining the history of a place or providing the context for a decision he or she made.

My editor labeled these sections as “too expositiony” and said that real people don’t talk that way. Knowing that it was important to me to include the information, she suggested writing a few chapters in the third person.

It worked! In addition to enabling me to provide important context and background to the reader, the occasional third-person chapters provided a welcome change of pace. I enjoyed writing them, and I enjoy keeping the reader on his or her toes.

2. Or, do it in the character’s voice

If you’re sticking to a first-person point of view, and are dying to “tell” something, at least do it in your character’s voice/from your character’s perspective.

For example, one character may describe a town with nostalgia, focusing on smells or specific places that trigger childhood memories. Meanwhile, another character, who is more of an outsider, may describe the same town by telling the reader what he’s “heard” about the place or focus more on what she’s seeing right in front of her.

Just make sure to do it in a way that is authentic to the character.

3. Keep it brief

Set the scene in a paragraph. Provide background in a sentence, or even a clause. Or, if you plan to dedicate a chapter to “telling,” keep that chapter to a page or two.

Remember, “telling” should be the exception, not the rule.

4. Have fun with it!

Just because you’re explaining something to the reader doesn’t mean you have to be boring. Hint at a mystery. Share something with the reader the characters don’t know. Tell a story.

Show, Don’t Tell . . . But Sometimes, Tell

You’ll find that a lot of writing “rules” are more like helpful guidelines. Don’t be afraid to play around with them and discover what works for your story. When will you choose to tell rather than show?

Do you always adhere to “show, don’t tell,” or are you ever tempted to “tell” instead of “show”? Let us know in the comments.

PRACTICE

Take fifteen minutes to provide background or context for something you’re writing. Use one (or more!) of these four techniques to communicate the information effectively.

When you’re done, share your writing in the comments section, and be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers!

Monica M. Clark
Monica M. Clark

Monica is a lawyer trying to knock out her first novel. She lives in D.C. but is still a New Yorker. You can follow her on her blog or on Twitter (@monicamclark).