To show; or perhaps to tell?

Welcome back to another blog hop, with #OpenBook. Here’s this week’s prompt.

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Does ‘show don’t tell’ ever run up against your personal prohibitions?

I think that there’s room in the narrative for both. The trick is not to do too much of either. Personally, I’m a big fan of showing and telling at the same time, wherever you can.


Basically, if I have information to impart, whether it’s description or back-story, I like to get one of my characters to tell you all about it, rather than regurgitate a few pages of a narrator’s omnipotent prose in its own chapter.

Huge information dumps do bad things to my enthusiasm when it comes to reading more of the book. They sort of remind me of school and being forced to read textbooks, which gave me no enjoyment at all. And if they have that effect on me, imagine what pages of facts will have (in the midst of what is supposed to be a novel) on your average reader.

It’s supposed to be something you read for pleasure. Any information you impart should add to that experience, give the reader just enough to let their minds wander. That way, they will build their own version of the stories world in their heads.

The trouble is, you need to get the information across somehow. And make it stick as well as ensuring that the reader enjoys the process.

There are various ways you can get around this problem.

You can drip-feed it here and there, as it’s required. This is a valid world-building technique, it also makes plotting easier as you only need to invent or justify something when the plot needs it. Even then you don’t need it all, as I’ve said before, hints allow readers to use their own imagination to fill in the blanks.

You can have a conversation between characters, either in a quiet moment or in the midst of some action. This is my favourite way of imparting backstory and is very true to what might happen in a real-life situation. A good sidekick is useful at this point, as a place to unload or share conversation.

See my post about sidekicks in world-building HERE

You could have an internal dialogue in your characters head, caused by an event in his present, that makes him remember his past.  

There might be some confession that our character needs to make, to clear his conscience, ingratiate himself with a new ally or simply to get out of trouble.

All of these devices allow you to show by telling.

As you can see the possibilities are limitless, there is no need to restrict your showing (or telling) to one method. Mix it up and readers will love you for it.

Until next week.

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9 Responses

  1. phil huston

    Tony Hillerman discovered while writing one of his earlier works that the lead character seemed to spend a lot of ‘splainin’ in head time. Tony said that he was so tired of it he backed up and had the cop arrest somebody just so the character had someone in the car to talk to.
    I once had Dan Alatorre the world famous internet editor and international best- selling author with no books on any shelf I’ve ever seen, tell me to show don’t tell about a scene wherein a woman gets beaten by her drunk husband. I ran part of their argument and her last line, wrote something like “which netted her unconscious on the bathroom floor with a broken jaw and two fewer teeth.” Which I thought was plenty to prove the man was an *****. No way am I going to do a blow by blow of a female getting a beating. One line of damages tells the tale, move on.
    In the steampunk of yours that I read, I liked the fact that there was enough to see it without pages of descriptions of techie gunk.

    • Richard Dee

      Alfred Hitchcock had it right, create an atmosphere and suggest an event, leave the details up to the reader. They can make of it what they will.

    • Richard Dee

      I think it’s a far better way to hold a readers attention. And a far more realistic way of getting the information across.

  2. P.J. MacLayne

    I’m a fan of drip-feeding. If an author spends the first chapter giving me nothing but description, I probably won’t make it to Chapter Two.

    • Richard Dee

      It helps in world-building too, you don’t need to create everything in your world to get started on your story.

      • Lela Markham

        An occasional thought by the main character – here and there — is definitely preferable to the info dump. Readers struggle to get over those.

  3. Daryl Devore

    Best advice – “mix it up and readers will love you for it”

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