5 Instances When You Need To Tell (And Not Show)


Telling is sometimes called using a summary mode. It is one of the few times you get to tell the reader what happens, but it should be used sparingly. If over-used, it can be boring as it distances the reader from the viewpoint character’s goals and actions. Try to keep telling to a few paragraphs, or in some (extremely) rare cases, a short chapter. Too much telling can lead to author intrusion.

When can you tell, and not show?

You can tell:

  1. To connect scenes and/or gloss over unnecessary conversations. Sometimes you need to make your readers comfortable with a brief transition that lets them know where they are in the story. The characters might have travelled to another city or moved to a different room. Or a short period of time might have passed. For example, ‘Jeremy waited until five minutes past eight the next morning before he marched into the Radisson Blu Hotel. He had spent the night obsessing about his future. Kirsten’s demands echoed in his head and he could barely think straight. He ignored his pounding headache and walked across to the check-in counter. He asked the concierge to call Room 303.’
  2. To report events and/or gloss over unimportant characters. You can tell us about the things that happened in your character’s lives that aren’t vitally important to show in the story. For example, if your story is set in a school environment, briefly tell us how the characters spent their Christmas holidays at home. Don’t introduce us to a series of characters who have nothing to do with the main story.
  3. To show that time is passing. Books can span days or decades. We don’t need to know what happens every moment. Use telling to reveal that time has passed, seasons have changed, or people have aged to get us to the next important part of the story.
  4. To focus on emotion when showing is impossible. Sometimes a character is so isolated or immobile that we need to get into his or her emotions with telling. Bear in mind, though, that this is an old-fashioned way of writing. Madame Bovary would not be published today. Move your character back into the action of the story as soon as you can.
  5. To add backstory. Sometimes a little bit of telling is necessary. When there is no other way of introducing the past, you can add it in, but remember to reveal these bits and pieces gradually. Keep this as brief as possible, and remember that you can never ever start a novel or a memoir with backstory.

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by Amanda Patterson

This article has 9 comments

  1. Yvonne Hertzberger

    With all the pressure to ‘show and not tell’ this is a refreshing and useful piece.

  2. Dianne

    I needed more examples.

  3. Matt

    Whilst I agree in principle, there are still many techniques that a skilled writer can utilize instead of employing narration to fill in the gaps. For example: In my latest story, a period of months passes by between Act One and Act Two. Besides the super, stating the date change, I have also advanced the clock on a few of the key characters.

    A young couple celebrates the anniversary of their once budding relationship; a new mother feeds her infant child; the repercussions of an habitual drunk parent are borne on her child; the seasonal change in the local flora… Very easy to master and a subtle way of progressing the story.

  4. Esteban R

    This is always comforting to remember. True, you should most of the time show and not tell, but sometimes telling works best for certain moments of the story, especially for character development.

  5. misty

    Hello, I would like to be a writer. But I did not get much education about writing when I was in school and all I could do was read books. But getting them was also not easy as we were poor. Anyways, time passed by and now I am 25 and in college! I have enough time on my hands to write but I lack education 🙁 and right now I am not even studying english literature or anything. Because they don’t teach it here.

    I am so inspired by your articles, as I read them, I understand what you are telling me. and I feel like I can do it, but still I am afraid haha.anyways just wanted to let you know you are awesome 🙂

  6. Writers Write

    Thank you, Misty.
    Don’t be afraid. Just keep on writing and you will eventually succeed.

  7. Misty

    But where do I start? How do I go about it? I am always day dreaming, I turn myself into the character in my daydreams and I follow through events. I know it may sound silly but I even change my hair, eye colour and everything. But what I daydream are just stories, they won’t stand out among the crowd. Am I just giving myself false hope here? I don’t know where to start and how to go about it. I am stuck, I am indecisive and I quit easily.

  8. James Ross

    Hey, Misty! Just take down as much as you can of your daydreams, fill them out. Add anything that might be missing. If they seem like full stories, read them out loud. If they sound good, get someone else to look at them, or listen. If people like them (or hate them, in a good way) you’ve got it. If not, try again!

  9. John

    you start by collecting your thoughts together, use a notebook to write down you idea for a story…then write!

    you ‘start’ by writing each day, write your story, DO NOT EDIT IN BETWEEN CHAPTERS, write your story to the END…..then go back and edit the dialogue, the scenery, or perhaps delete chapters that no longer fit the story any longer….you ‘start’ with Chapter 1…the first word then continue to the end…

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