14.14: When To Tell

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary Robinette, Dan, and Howard

“Show, don’t tell,” they tell us. Except sometimes showing is not always the best thing to do. Or even the right thing to do. Sometimes we should be telling. In this episode we’ll tell you about telling. (We’d show you about telling, but we still don’t have a video feed.)

Credits: This episode was recorded by Rob Kimbro, and mastered by Alex Jackson


Pick an important scene from your work. Cut it. Now have a character transition us across where that scene used to be.

The Hobbit: The Two Hour Fan Editby Fiona van Dahl (and MGM/New Line Cinema/Wingnut Films)

8 thoughts on “14.14: When To Tell”

  1. So happy to hear this podcast.

    I’d like to take this further and suggest that you can’t ever show when writing. It’s physically impossible. When we write, all we do is tell, tell, tell.

    The whole “show, don’t tell” stuff, as pointed out, came from the cinema. A visual art. It’s all about conveying information via visual means as opposed to using dialogue or narration. A great example of this is the vignette that starts the beginning of the movie UP. It’s pure visual storytelling. 100% show. 100% visually told. Not a word spoken or written.

    But writing is not a visual art. Writers can’t tell a story in writing the way that vignette did. Instead, what we’re doing is telling the story in a way that triggers the reader’s imagination. It’s a totally different cognitive pathway to the brain. It works on different principles. And that has real implications for what we do.

    I have a class I’ve taught at various conferences on this topic and illustrate this right off the bat. At the beginning, I ask the class to give me their full attention and then read the first few pages of ENDER’S GAME to them, the scene where Ender has his monitor removed. I then ask them to describe what they saw. They name all sorts of things they saw…many of which aren’t in the text. In fact, there are really only six or seven nouns in that scene.

    What’s going on?

    The text triggers the reader’s imagination, and the reader supplies all sorts of details, including some the author might not have even thought of.

    This is the reason why you have to consider the vocabulary of your target audience. If you use lots of words they don’t know, the imagination won’t be triggered. Compare this to movies. Someone might not know what a Millennium Falcon is. But with movies you simply show it. Boom. Hundreds of bits of data about what that thing is in an instant.

    It’s the reason why you can’t just deluge the reader data like listing out 55 physical characteristics of a person or thing. We have physical working memory limitations. Overload that tiny capacity, and all you do is make it harder for readers to imagine.

    There are lots of things that play into this. This means that when writing, we need to learn the tricks of telling that help readers imagine the story more clearly and vividly. And which methods of telling muddle the story in their minds.

    I think we’ll get farther as storytellers using the written word to toss the whole “showing” vs “telling” thing and simply talk about what WE can do. Talk about the actual tools of telling that are at our disposal: narrative summary, narrative detail, description, and exposition. And then delve into the techniques that make each more effective in helping the readers imagine things clearly and vividly.

    Another skill besides knowing how to tell a story so it’s easy for a reader to imagine is knowing what to guide readers into imagine in the first place so that it leads to the desired reader response.

    For example, telling someone to feel sad doesn’t make them feel sad. Telling them John was sad, doesn’t usually evoke a sympathetic response either. However, narrating (telling) the details of a sad story in a certain way can automatically engender that reader response.

    When we feed the reader certain details and events via the tools we have like narration and description, it automatically leads the reader to imagine the situation in their minds, and seeing that situation automatically leads to the desired emotional response.

    We can certainly learn a lot from visual storytellers about this second skill: knowing the types of situations that tend to trigger a certain type of response. And how the sequence in which we share those situations affects that response.

    But showing is something we’ll never do.

  2. My favorite example of “telling, not showing” that really works to begin a movie is the three-sentence prologue to Highlander (the original, not the unfortunate sequels):

    “From the dawn of time we came, moving silently down through the centuries. Living many secret lives, struggling to reach the time of the gathering, when the few who remain will battle to the last. No one has ever known we were among you … until now.”

    Fewer than 50 words, taking less than 30 seconds to speak, and we immediately know everything we need to know to start the story *in media res*.

    Of course, the movie goes back and fills things in with flashbacks as we need to know them, and the pace of revelation serves to deepen the mystery of the movie and the viewer’s engagement with the main characters, but we don’t have to spend 10 minutes getting up to speed on the worldbuilding. Instead, we can get right to the point.

  3. I dunno John Brown. I always thought show don’t tell was about verbs and not adjectives. Instead of telling the reader about a blue bird you show the reader a bird flying through the air. Instead of telling them about a yellow Ferrari you show them the Ferrari roaring around the bend. Showing is about giving people a moving image in their mind, where as telling is about a static image. Descriptive, but static.

  4. The core four, Brandon, Mary Robinette, Dan, and Howard, tackled the question of when you should tell instead of showing. The answers are intriguing, as they consider the roots of the standard advice to “show, don’t tell,” and lots of times when telling is the right tool to use. “Let me tell you a thing.” Read all about it in the transcript available in the archives.

  5. Beautiful podcast, sometimes it is hard to know if its the right moment to tell instead of showing. I guess after several reading you just know when it’s time for each!

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