Writing Excuses 14.14: When To Tell
Key Points: Show, don’t tell? That’s the adage, but really you should show most of the time, but know when to tell. Reader engagement needs sensory details, so show. But if you don’t need deep investment, tell! In TV, flashbacks or voiceovers often are telling. Opening monologues. Think title cards. Watch for show, then tell or vice-versa, and pick one. Showing takes more words, time, and investment than telling, so think about what you want to emphasize. Telling can be a kind of transition, summarizing and passing time. What is the purpose of this scene? Extraneous, cut or tell. Work on transitions between telling and showing. When you shift to telling, it may feel like a POV error. Write it, then figure out how to make it smooth. Consider signposts and emphasis. Use the transition to get the reader off-balance, then hit them with a punchline. Use telling, like “she filled him in,” to avoid repeating. Focus on important parts of a scene, and use telling to get right to that moment. Telling can de-emphasize, and help control pacing. Telling is fast, low emphasis, while showing is usually slower and more emphatic.
[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 14.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, When To Tell.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Marie Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] And let me tell you.
[Brandon] Let me tell you a thing.
[Brandon] So this is kind of a different podcast. We normally talk about showing and not telling. It’s an age old adage in writing and screenwriting that you want to show things to the audience, you don’t want to tell them about the things. But the more I become a professional writer and the longer I write, the more I realize that adage is like not true.
[Brandon] Like the adage is mostly true. The adage really should be show most of the time, but know when to tell.
[Mary Robinette] One of the things that’s interesting about it is that it’s actually an adage that comes from television and stage, where they were trying to get people to move away from a narrator or title cards. It’s like… Because what would happen a lot of times in silent film is that people would put a bunch of title cards up rather than having the action convey the story. So where it carried over into fiction is that you do want… If you want the reader to feel kind of a closer engagement to the moment, you do want to try to put more sensory details in and things like that. There’s a lot of places where the reader doesn’t need to be deeply invested in the sensory details of what’s going on in the moment. So there you switch to that telling…
[Howard] I feel like the salient point here is, like a great many ironclad writing rules, it’s not only not ironclad, it’s…
[Brandon] It’s full of holes.
[Howard] It’s really squishy. This episode, we’re going to talk about the squishy side of it. We’re going to talk about the telling as opposed to the showing.
[Dan] In TV, you can see this a lot. If you’re watching TV and the episode suddenly starts leaning very heavily on flashback or voiceover to get its point across, that’s kind of a sign that they’re telling rather than showing. So what I’ve started to think is, well, this is absolutely a time when voiceover would be appropriate. Therefore, I know, OK, I can tell now.
[Brandon] It’s really not a hard and fast rule, even in some of the cases… Like some of the most egregious tells are when you see a movie open with an opening monologue by a character. This is usually a sign that something has gone wrong in production, and they need to cover a bunch of information very quickly, so they add an opening monologue. But I felt like the Lord of the Rings don’t have the exact sort of opening monologue you’re not supposed to have to info dump on the readers, and it was absolutely essential, covered the right amount of time and information to bring us up to speed. Those tended to do work really well.
[Dan Dan] Well, part of the reason in that case is that it felt like it was ephemera, like we talked about before. Here is a poem or legend from within the world of the story, and we’re going to kick you off with that.
[Howard] One of the places where I super often tell as opposed to showing is the earliest… In a book, the earliest of the little orange narrator boxes on establishing shot panels. Where instead of saying, or of writing, “Breath Weapon it is…” “The mercenary flagship warship Breath Weapon under command of so-and-so…” That is a title card as if from a silent movie, and then we duck straight into the action because I do not want to waste art cycles on having those characters reintroduce you to the set. That’s telling the setting is…
[Mary Robinette] I think one of the… the title card is a thing that I was starting to think about as a good metric for figuring out when you should be showing versus telling because… Like we’ve seen the film where it says Paris, and there’s a shot of the Eiffel Tower. Like, “Thanks. Gosh. I didn’t know we were in Paris. What are the clues?”
[Mary Robinette] So if you’ve got… if the telling is redundant and you’re immediately going to start showing us something, that’s maybe a place that you don’t need to tell, or maybe you can skip that showing and move straight on to another meaty thing.
[Brandon] I’ve said this before on the podcast, but one thing I’ve noticed a lot in my students and in my own writing when I’m doing revisions is that I’ll often do the show, then tell, or the tell, then show. Where you don’t trust the audience as much as you should.
[Mary Robinette] Yes, she said, nodding.
[Brandon] Yeah. Exactly.
[Brandon] That’s a very succinct way of putting it. One thing to keep in mind is that showing almost always takes more words than telling. This is why sometimes you don’t want to show. Mary hinted at it earlier, sometimes you don’t need all the sensory information, you don’t need a moment-by-moment, and you want to lapse into summary. How do we know when to make that choice?
[Mary Robinette] I use it a lot… And again, this is my theater background showing. I tend to use it when I want to do… Like travel scenes. I need to demonstrate that my characters are hitting a lot of different places, or if I have a detective that is doing a lot of detective work, but I don’t actually want to make the reader sit through all of it because most detective work is really, really dull. Then I’ll tell you about… I visited a little old lady and visited the man in the straw hat, and now I find myself at… And then go back into the scene. So a lot of times I will use it… I will use telling as kind of a transition.
[Brandon] I’ve noticed one person I think uses their telling really effectively is JK Rowling. One of the reasons that telling is so important in the Harry Potter books is she has set up a format where the book takes the school year. You need to feel like a school year is passing through the course of this book, so you can’t do what most of us do in a similar sort of type of narrative, which is really if you look at it, it’s happening across a couple days or a couple weeks. We do that so we don’t have to do very much telling. We don’t have to make large swaths of time pass. It makes a book feel more immediate. But I love the format of the Harry Potter books, because that form really reinforces the type of story you’re doing. We’re at school, time is going to pass. So you’ll see her going in and out of narrative to pass large chunks of time where not much important is happening but the characters are growing and learning things.
[Dan] Well, that’s one of the things that I do when I write is pay attention to the purpose of the scene. Like, does this scene have a goal beyond simply showing what happens after the last scene ends? If I’m only writing it because I’m describing them walking or eating or something, then I know it’s extraneous and I can cut it out.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week, which is not actually a book.
[Dan] Yes. Speaking of long scenes of walking. So, the Hobbit movies, I think even the people who love them recognize that they are riddled with errors… Or not errors, but problems, let’s call it that. So what I want to recommend to you right now are some of the fan edits. In particular, one that’s called the 2 Hour Fan Edit by a woman named Fiona van Doll. We’ll make sure to put the link for that into the liner notes on the website. But you can look it up, the 2 Hour Fan Edit. She has taken all nine something hours of the extended edition Hobbit movies and condensed them to about two hours and four minutes.
[Dan] It is incredible what she’s been able to do by cutting out the unnecessary stuff and just getting right to the point. When necessary, there’s just not a lot of tell so much as just trimming the fat and getting right down to the bones of this is what we need in order for the story to work.
[Brandon] So along those lines, I find that for telling and showing, one of the key skills to learn is transitions. Moving between them. Any tips for listeners about how they might transition between these kind of narrative blocks and these more in-scene blocks?
[Howard] The first skill to recognize is that if you are strictly writing third person limited, the first time you sit down to write that block, you may be asking yourself, “Wait. Whose point of view is this? Am I… Do I have a POV error here?” It’s possible that the first step is to let go and allow yourself to write it as a POV error, and then to write the bit that is not POV error, and then ask yourself, “Where’s the scene? How does this break and why does it break?” It may be which pronouns you’re using, it may be the voice that is used in describing the things. But for me, in order to get over that hurdle, the first thing I have to do is write both pieces so that I can see them.
[Brandon] I do that a lot too. I often find that I manage to get all that information into the narrative, and then go back and look at those first few paragraphs that are very, very much over-the-top tell, and trim them down really, really sparsely.
[Mary Robinette] I find that I’ll do that kind of thing sometimes, but the other thing that I find for the transitions is to really think about signposting. Specifically, what it is that I am trying to… Going back to what Dan said about thinking about the purpose of the scene, what am I trying to emphasize in this? Am I trying to emphasize that it’s something that took a long time? Am I trying to emphasize that it’s… They’ve covered a lot of ground? Am I trying to emphasize that they’ve talked to a lot of people? Am I trying to emphasize weariness? But what is the one thing that I want readers to know in this telling and then I will signpost that going in. So if I’m trying to emphasize that it took a long time, then I would actually just kind of say, “And then I began the incredibly lengthy process…” Or just, “She began the incredibly lengthy process.” Then, “And the process involved five baked potatoes, a French horn, and Julia Child. At thre end of that incredible five hours, I found myself holding a bottle of reduced corn syrup and…”
[Mary Robinette] I have no idea what this scene is. I don’t know what’s happening.
[Dan] I was so excited to see where that was going.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah, well. I’m a little tired.
[Howard] The French horn was a jello mold.
[Mary Robinette] It was a jello mold.
[Howard] Well, no, I love what you’re describing there, then we laughed at it. The… Those of us who write humor have a distinct advantage because that transition is sometimes weird, and juxtaposing things as a way to exploit the weirdness, to set the reader off balance so that you can deliver a punchline is my bread and narrative butter. There’s a… The strips that I will be inking while we are at sea on the… We’re recording this just prior to WXR 2018. Are strips in which Kevin is being decanted from the cloning tank. For six panels, the narrator is talking about how this is a rebirth. This is a sacred moment. This is something where it takes hours. You spend time draining things and body cavities are emptied and the nanobots are allowed to clean up after themselves and… Unless somebody’s in a hurry. Then we have Kevin dropping out of the tank and blowing things out of holes. It is Kevin talking and yelling. I’ve spent six panels describing to people what the resurrection process in my universe is supposed to look like, because I never want to actually take all the time to draw all that stuff over that huge length of whatever. I just want to go straight to the joke.
[Brandon] That’s… Thinking about that, I’ve been trying to pinpoint other reasons that I tell. I think the not repeating myself is another one of those. Like, you have a lot of people getting resurrected in your stories. If you went through that process every time, we would get really bored. You see this very frequently with the, “And she filled him in on the events of the recent days.” That’s a really handy method of telling.
[Dan] I find myself increasingly disinterested, for example, in fight scenes. Because the purpose of most fight scenes is “And then they punched each other and this guy won.” You know? I don’t necessarily need to watch all ten minutes of the punching, just to get to the one important narrative part of the scene. So that’s something else that I’ve started thinking about when I’m writing a scene, is is there an important character moment? Is there a decision or a mystery or something we have to see, or am I just putting this in there because it’s cool?
[Brandon] Wow. Yeah. Thinking about that, another big reason to tell is to de-emphasize, also. Because, as I mentioned earlier, showing takes more time, it therefore invests the reader in what you are showing. It is… That is often a really good thing to do when you’re writing. You want more reader investment. But, once in a while, you’ve got something that you’ll find, even in your draft, that you’ve spent a lot of time on that’s not important, that the readers, your beta readers, are over-emphasizing. They’re looking at it and saying, “This must be important, he spent three paragraphs on it.” Where you realize, “Oh, I was just showing off that I can show.” When that needed to be one line so that they wouldn’t emphasize it so much.
[Mary Robinette] I find that… Because of that, I often use telling as a form of controlling my pacing. That if I wanna… If I want to get to the next thing, if I find that I am taking too long on something, something’s dragging, that I’ll shift to telling it just to get through it a little faster.
[Brandon] Well, we are out of time. I’m going to give you some homework today, which is, I want you to pick a scene in something you’re working on. Make this a fairly important scene. I want you to cut it out. I want you to skip it. Now, you may not actually leave it skipped. This is okay. This is just an exercise. Because what we want you to do, we want you to practice your transition out of something being skipped. We want you to cut out this scene. Have a character, when you come back in, kind of transition into not narrative, and then make sure you bring all the characters up to speed on what’s been skipped, and the reader up to speed, in a way that is not boring…
[Brandon] And does not cause you to hit a big speed bump. This is hard, but this is why we assign you practice things to do. Give this a try and hopefully you’ll be able to apply that skill to future scenes you’re writing in your stories. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.