So there’s tons of blog posts and articles and other information out there on how to “show not tell”, which is one of the main pieces of advice new writers hear and themselves spout. I’m not going to talk about how to do that- I want to talk for a moment about when to show, not tell.
Yes. Sometimes, you want to tell.
Why? Great question, because it informs When and that helps you use this tool appropriately. When you show what’s going on, you decrease distance, increase your reader’s buy-in, and thereby increase tension, all through immersion. When you tell, you increase distance and lose tension. So you need to be aware of that corresponding decrease in tension when you have a section of telling- you’ll have to work to regain that tension afterward. Also, keep in mind a book that is constantly super deep and super showy and super tense and involved can be wearying for some readers. Backing off gives a moment of rest to then let them be drawn back into your net recharged and ready to re-engage.
I put it simply. Show when the moment is important and you need your reader engaged in your character’s struggle. This is going to be most moments. You can tell when you’re just moving the story along from point to point in time or space. This will be the vast minority of times.
So for instance, this is a passage from Windward:
“They gathered, the bonded riding on their dragons, winding single file down the rocky slope. The light mist retreated from them, leaving behind droplets to adorn hair and scales as the morning sun burned the last of it away with gentle heat. Claws scraped on the rocky soil, and the sweeping rasp of scaled tails as they made their way down the path filled the heavy air like a funeral song. The rocks rose, bald domes jutting up from forested crowns around which the slight breeze toyed with the scent of fresh soil, damp mosses, and sawdust.”
Do you smell it? Do you see it? Do you feel it? I sure hope so, or I failed as a writer. This is a heavy moment in the story, a moment for showing.
She and Aturadin had even taken to sleeping outside her room to protect her from further visits from Laetiran, though other bonded whispered at the unusual arrangements. And still the girl remained prickly, while the days went by and Palon couldn’t find the time to fly—not without leaving the girl unguarded. Dragonfire blast through her if she didn’t try everything to reach the girl.
Now here, the fact that they’re spending their nights sleeping outside the room is important, but actually showing it would be boring, since nothing happens. But the fact that it’s happening is the important part. The same goes for Palon’s increasing frustration- but here we start to slip back toward showing, until the last line is thoroughly in Palon’s head again, giving the reader her thoughts on the situation: Dragonfire blast through her.
Other great times to tell are if you have a traveling moment, where you’re just getting characters from A to B. “The road to Arbah had been long and dusty, and he had been certain the sun would roast them long before they saw the city gates.” We’re not showing the journey because the journey doesn’t matter. The fact it happened does, because we need to bring the reader along with us. Same with jumping forward in time. If nothing happens for 3 weeks or even 3 days, please don’t show the reader! I’ve read passages like that and it’s just plain boring. If your character is bored and you’re showing that boredom, your reader will be bored.
The times when you tell should be short and sweet. You want to keep as much of your character’s voice as you possibly can in the telling, too. Then switch back to showing the moment you can, and immediately immerse the reader back in the sights, sounds, feels, and emotions of the goings on around your character.