The Many and Varied Ways of “Telling”

I submitted the first ten pages of a fantasy novel to Jeff Gerke, of Marcher Lord Press, for critique at the Oregon Christian Writers Conference.

Much to my delight, it came back showing I had mastered the point of view weaknesses he had highlighted when critiquing the manuscript in the past.

Much to my surprise and chagrin, this time he highlighted problems with “telling”, this in spite of the fact I have been publishing this last decade and writing for even longer! Show, don’t tell. It is probably the most famous piece of fiction writing advice, and I still had not mastered it!

So what kinds of telling does a writer need to look out for? Here’s a list. Not all of these were my particular weakness, but believe me, I own enough of them to want to keep the list by my side as I do revisions.

~Backstory. Let your story start where it starts. Only include background information in little bits where it is absolutely necessary. The less you sneak in, the better.

~Exposition. Pure explanation. Don’t explain, let your reader figure things out.

~Explanation of Character Motives. Show your characters in action, speaking, thinking etc. Let readers infer the reason for it.

~Telling in Quotation Marks. This kind of telling involves placing information your reader needs to know in a conversation between characters who already know it. You need a character who, like the reader, does not know the information in order to include it in the conversation in a realistic way. Otherwise, find another way to inform your reader.

~Sneaky Telling. When you sneaky tell, you slip just a word or phrase of telling into an otherwise “showing” sentence. Don’t do it.

Last, my personal favorite:

~Showing + Telling. A friend in my critique group has periodically pointed out my tendency to do this. This is where you show something in the text and, “just to be safe”, include an explanation of the very thing you already showed. (This can also be done in reverse—Telling + Showing. It’s still a no-no.)

I learned that I, as a writer, need to trust my readers to pick up on the clues provided in the text rather than whacking them over the head with the information. And, of course, I need to be sure to provide those clues.

So, how can you tell if you are telling, rather than showing? if what you put on the page cannot be perceived by one of our senses, heard aloud, or in a character’s head, that’s a red flag for telling.

My goal this year? Develop my awareness of both showing and telling, and master the art of showing without telling.


2 thoughts on “The Many and Varied Ways of “Telling”

  1. Great post! I understand what you mean by, “showing + telling” I do that too sometimes… It’s a difficult habit to break, I fear the readers won’t be able to picture or feel what I’m trying to tell them. But like you said, we have to trust our readers.
    Best of luck with your writing :)


    1. Yes. Jeff Gerke said what it comes down to is do you trust your reader to be an intelligent person who can figure things out for him or her self. Then he hammered the point home by saying telling is an insult to your reader’s intelligence. Yikes!


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