Why and how to ‘tell’
So, we see why showing is awesome, but there are reasons why an author will sometimes want to ‘tell’ instead.
If you look back at my first example of show vs. tell (the one about the big city), you’ll notice that showing requires a lot more words than telling. This is almost always the case. Sometimes, for the sake of wrangling in your word count, you need to simply tell certain information.
When it comes to pacing, it can be good to skip over boring stuff with a brief tell. Just keep the prose tight and don’t linger too long in ‘telling mode.’
Sometimes your story will require one character to tell another character information that the reader already knows. This might be a time to simply say: She told Hayato about the alien invasion. He could hardly believe it.
There’s a line in Stephanie Meyer’s “New Moon” which has gained a certain amount of...notoriety in online writing forums, and for good reason. *Ehem.* Here it is:
Aro started to laugh. “Ha ha ha,” he giggled.
Let’s break this down. The author has ‘told’ us that the character is laughing. She has then ‘shown’ us that character laughing. Then she has ‘told’ us, once again, that the character is laughing.
Don’t treat your readers like fools.
If you’re going to ‘tell’ them a piece of information, fine. If you’re going to ‘show’ them, fine. But all too often, authors will drop info or an info dump into a story, then try and reinforce it by laying it all out once more in the action. There’s no need to do both.
The Zoogtrots are coming!
A creepy race of violent aliens has invaded...your story. You’ll have to include a bunch of information in order to describe them. But how? Let’s start with a standard ‘tell’ description:
The Zoogtrots were terrifying to behold. Each alien was approximately ten feet tall. Their heads were shaped like pickaxes with a glowing blue eye on each end. On their chests, they had three mouths filled with silver teeth. They didn’t have arms. They moved on a set of five heavy tentacles that slithered along the ground and ended in huge, razor-sharp claws. When the Zoogtrots screamed, it sounded like tree trunks bending in a hurricane.
Does the reader get a lot of information this way? Sure. Can they picture the aliens? Probably. Is the writing interesting and exciting and does it convey a sense of terror and urgency? No, it really doesn’t. That’s because we’re just being told what they’re like. There’s no experience, no action, no emotion.
Now let’s describe the same aliens in a ‘showing’ scene:
Jack and Sandy slowed to a jog as they approached the crash site. The spacecraft had gouged a ditch in the field, leaving in its wake a half-mile line of charred earth and ruined soybeans. Smoke poured from the wreckage.
“Do you hear that?” asked Sandy, seizing her brother’s arm. “It sounds like there’s still something alive in there. An astronaut maybe?”
Jack stepped closer to the mangled craft. “I don’t think so. This don’t look like anything NASA ever made. It looks…”
A panel on the side of the craft burst open. Jack shoved Sandy backward as three tentacles shot from the opening and swung wildly in all directions. Claws at the end of the tentacles tore at the ground, stabbed at the air, and scraped against the charred metal.
“Oh my god, Jack, what is that?”
A shape pulled itself free from the craft and rolled onto the ground, dripping black ooze and moaning an inhuman scream. Five tentacles wriggled and struggled to pull its monstrous body upright. Two blue eyes glowed from tips of a pickaxe-shaped head. It brought to Jack’s mind the image of a hammerhead shark, of a nightmare, of the end of the world.
“Sandy, run,” Jack whispered. The eyes swiveled to fix on the girl. “Run!”
Even as his sister turned, a tentacle seized around her leg. She hit the ground and was dragged backward. Jack reached out but her fingers slid through his.
The creature lifted Sandy off the ground. She dangled, arms flailing and eyes wide. Jack looked around desperately for a weapon, any weapon. The alien stretched itself up to its full height, twice the size of Jack, twice the size of anything he might have a chance of fighting by hand. On its barrel chest, a mouth peeled open. Silver teeth flashed. Then a second mouth gaped beside the first. Then a third. The three mouths drooled as the tentacle brought its prey closer.
“No!” Jack sobbed. “Nooooo!”
See the difference?
We’re getting the same information about the alien without simply being told what it looks like. The information is revealed to the reader at the same time as the characters. We get to experience how they feel about the reveal.
But hold up. We said that sometimes you really do want to tell. How would that work for this example?
Okay then. Let’s say that this time, you’re writing a short story about human soldiers preparing to battle a whole array of alien species. You need to keep your word count low and get into the fast-paced action as soon as possible. How can you write a ‘tell’ description that suits your needs and is still fun to read?
Captain Cavendish exhaled cigar smoke and turned to address his troops.
“Soldiers of Earth! I hope you emptied your bladders back at base, because what you’re about to see will scare the living piss outta you, make no mistake. You’re about to face down Zoogtrots: ten-foot monsters with heads like a damn pickaxe, not one but three mouths bristling with silver teeth, and five tentacles that end in claws the size of swords. Then there are the Vlaakos: big purple space eels that zigzag through the air and want nothing better than to fly right into your open, screaming mouths and feast on your bodies from the inside out. Lastly, the Claxus: a hive mind xenoinsent colony consisting of a hundred-thousand little beetles, each with pincers that can snip-snap off your fingers or nose or ears, mid-flight. Oh. And they fart poisonous gas that’ll kill you in three seconds flat, so yeah. Any questions? Then lock and load, ladies and gents, and let’s kick some alien ass.”
Laid out in this manner, the reader quickly gets a ton of information in an entertaining passage, and now the action can begin right away. The prose doesn’t need to take time in the middle of the fight to describe the alien enemies.
Remember, you don’t always need to show every feeling, every reaction, every bit of action. It’s about striking a balance and making sure your writing is always pushing the story forward. If that means occasionally telling, go for it, but your default mode should be to show information instead of just dumping it all on the reader at once.
For more excellent information on showing vs. telling you may be interested in checking out F*ck the Details: Fewer Words. Sharper Stories. by Joel Quinn, author with Sterling & Stone.