Now, before some of you start yelling at me for getting it backwards, that it is show, don’t tell, let me explain where I’m coming from. And yes, I meant it as the title says.
As writers there are few “rules” more powerful than show, don’t tell. From the first moment we crack open a writing book, we are taught, informed, cajoled, ridiculed, and even bullied to SHOW what is going on in our books. Never tell. Telling bad. For such an offense a good smack on the nose and an hour in the corner is often prescribed.
I say that’s not always the case. And many times writing can suffer if someone worships at the house of Show, Don’t Tell too deeply.
There are always going to be times where telling is preferred to showing. One of which is when the action doesn’t need to be shown. TV is easier to see for examples- so I’m going to use one from White Collar. Our hero Neil and his sidekick are driving along when the sidekick sees someone he needs to chase. We see Neil and sidekick running a red light in pursuit. Then the scene changes to the FBI buddy answering a phone, and going down to find the cops have caught sidekick after running five red lights. And we’re told he did that.
Now, did we need to see all five lights being run? No, there was one, with witty banter, and it was enough. The same could be said for writing, we don’t always need to see what happened, especially if there are multiple viewpoints, or it makes for a stronger story to end the scene- then cut to a new scene where the character wraps up the repetitive action. The telling actually makes the scene stronger.
Another time telling is better than showing is when it’s an action the average reader has done before. I’ve been a judge in various writing contests for a few years, and I often see this in the “younger” manuscripts. A step by step paragraph of the character getting to, unlocking, getting in to, and starting their car. Including shifting gears. Sometimes these chunks last more than one paragraph. Those authors may be proud they are showing us what happened, but it’s boring, wordy, and slows your pace. A simple, “She went to her car and drove to the store.” Gets it across. Unless there is something new and unique about the action, you don’t need to show it to us. TELL us.
I view the telling times as a point where the author is saying, “Ok, this isn’t crucial, but it is what happened. I’m telling you so you know, but what I really want you to focus on is THIS!” (This being the good stuff that is new, exciting, and moves the character arc and plot forward.)
We all need to be aware of times in our writing where we don’t need to show, where telling might work faster and cleaner to get the job done.