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Show, don’t tell!
You see this rule a lot in regards to writing fiction, screenplays, and even journalism. Basically, it means that a writer shouldn’t simply describe things on a page, they should reveal information through character, feelings, and actions.
Telling would be: The city was very big and impressive. She was overjoyed to be there.
Showing would be: As her eyes adjusted to the daylight and her gaze moved across the expanse of towers, temples, and dazzling gardens, her breath caught in her throat. She smiled until tears fell from her eyes.
The rule should really be "Usually show, but know when to tell."
For most of this article, we’re talking about how to ‘show’, but we’ll also discuss why and how you will sometimes want to ‘tell’.
These are huge chunks of a story whose whole purpose is to explain the setting, history, rules, or details of the story’s world. New authors often have a tendency to include info dumps, especially at the beginning of a novel. They’re a big problem in stories with imaginary worlds, like science fiction and secondary-world fantasy.
If your book opens with a fifteen-page chapter all about a complicated desert kingdom with magic pyramids, a caste system, trade routes, and four million years of history, but neglects to really introduce characters or conflicts, then yeah, that’s an info dump.
Ask yourself if the information is really vital to the plot or just something you find fun. If it’s the latter, prepare to cut, cut, cut. Save those tasty details for the sequel. Focus on the story at hand and not getting lost in the wider world. But if it is imperative that the reader knows that information, then you have to find a better way to deliver it than in a massive dump.
Don’t worry! There are ways to write large amounts of complex information without hitting the brakes on exciting storytelling. The trick is to stop telling your readers about all the awesome stuff you’ve created and start showing them that awesomeness.
The most basic technique to make sure you’re showing and not just telling sounds obvious when you first hear it: make things happen! Make every scene an experience for the reader. When you need to explain the layout of a location, for example, instead of simply saying it looks like this and sounds like that, have your characters interact with that environment.
Consider a chase scene in a crowded city. It’ll have lots of fast-paced action, sure, but it can also lay out a description of the city right within the action itself.
At the very least, give your description some motion. Instead of just saying, “the towers were tall and covered in gold,” say “the rising sun sent rays bouncing off the golden towers so that they glittered and glowed. Their shadows stretched across the landscape, seeming to go on forever.”
Since most genre fiction these days is written in first person or third person limited, a good way to avoid info dumps is to make sure you have a strong, captivating POV character. Design your main character so that it’s logical they would notice the world-building you want to include. Make them observant. Make them curious. Make them passionate about specific things. Whatever the POV character notices and cares about, the reader notices and cares about.
When you’re dealing with a specific piece of information the reader needs to know, think hard about how the POV character feels about it. If it makes them angry, excited, or scared, those are all things you can use. Wrap your information in emotion and the reader won’t realize they’re being given information at all.
Tricks of the trade
There are some tried and tested ways to get information across to the reader without drawing attention to itself.
One of the biggies is using an ‘outsider’ for your main character. If you want to write about a magical city, you’ll make it more difficult for yourself if your main character has lived there all their life and takes the wonders of the city for granted. They won’t notice the golden towers, because to them the golden towers have always been there and are no big deal. If instead, you transport a character from 21st century Earth into the city, suddenly everything is amazing and new and exciting. Do they drink Dorellian spacewine in the city feasts? Well, you’ll have a hard time finding a way to convey its taste if your main character is a local, but when the outsider sips it, they can exclaim, “Wow! This tastes like a strawberry had a baby with a campfire.”
Another trick is to give your main character a career, hobby, or passion for specific things. If your story has a lot of information about magical plants, include a magical botanist in your cast, someone who can point out things to the other characters and explain details to them when the need arises.
Sometimes, though, you want to write from the perspective of someone who does take their world for granted, but still include lots of world-building. This can be tricky but is doable. It might require a little ‘telling’. That’s okay. It might require you to put a lot of world-building info into tiny packages. Maybe your characters use metaphors, insults, and jokes which convey something about the world. Maybe their routines and rituals revolve around those aspects that make their world special. Maybe something changes in their life that makes them observe and reevaluate their surroundings.
Oh, and trying to disguise an info dump by putting it in dialogue is not a way to avoid telling, by the way. Having characters say obviously tell-y things to each other—“As you know, Master Wonkadonk, this city is a thousand years old and boy oh boy do we treat our servants badly here!”—comes across as stilted and heavy-handed.