When is it okay to tell, but not show?

Show, don’t tell.

This single tip has become a staple of writing advice. I repeat it endlessly to my students, trying to encourage them to reach for deeper descriptions. I tell it to myself, to help flesh out pivotal scenes.

But, like most pieces of writing advice, it’s best taken with a grain of salt (see Joshua Henkin at Writer’s Digest on why this is the “Great Lie of Writer’s workshops“). And its use is dependent on the situation. Most of the time, I think it’s good advice.

Sometimes, however, it becomes too much of a good thing. A few months ago I read a book (the book shall remain nameless to protect the author) where the author seemed to feel that every moment of the heroine’s life needed to be described. It didn’t. In many places, a brief sentence or two conveying the passage of time would have been more effective. Victor Hugo’s classic digression into the Battle of Waterloo in Les Miserables is another case, I think, of too much showing when telling would do.

So, what are some cases where it’s acceptable to tell, but not show?

Here are some I’ve come up with–I’d love to hear your lists in the comments:

1. To inform a reader about a change in time or place where that movement is not central to plot or characterization (as in the examples described above).

2. In cases where the writer’s prose may not be as effective as the reader’s imagination.

For instance, if I’m writing about a funny character who cracks jokes all the time, I don’t need to *tell* all the jokes the character might tell. In fact, being too explicit about what makes this character funny might actually backfire.

Another example of this comes from speeches and other significant rhetorical performances. Sometimes, you may need to show bits of the dialogue for these speeches. But unless your rhetorical skills are up to writing, say, a St. Crispin’s day speech, you might be better off conveying the gist of the speech, rather than shooting for (and failing to reach) a high rhetorical style.

3. When too much detail bogs down the action of the story.

What other instances are acceptable to “tell” rather than “show”?

3 thoughts on “When is it okay to tell, but not show?

  1. I love that scene in Henry V. I even have the song from the background on my writing playlist and listen to it often.

    I get so tired of descriptions of hair. I really can't stand it. The fact that I teach slightly romanticized high school students might contribute partly, but I now make it a habit to skip over descriptions of tresses or locks or any of the like. Just tell me if she is bald or not and move on.

    I often prefer to be told about the travel of a character unless it is essential to the story – I don't need to see them signaling and turning and describing every person in a car they see.

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  2. Yes, tricky with backstory. And this can also be so tricky when writing in first person present tense – trying to avoid those little play-by-plays of every little detail.
    And trying to show every bit of emotion with actions can sometimes lead to repetitive things – I've read books with lots of lip-biting, lots of hand-squeezing, and I myself may or may not be guilty of lots of eyebrow-raising. 🙂

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